Thursday, December 28, 2006

Way of of the Wild Heart: Chapter 1 - Misdirection

Eldredge kicks off chapter one with an anecdote. He tells us of the time he had to do some plumbing work, fixing his sprinklers. He fails. I certainly can't judge him here; I don't know anything about sprinklers myself. The interesting thing about this story is his reaction to his failure, and then his after-the-fact analysis of that reaction.

When he realized he couldn't fix the valve, he became angry. From his description, it's clear this is a bitter, resentful anger. He watches an instructional video and says he is feeling "about ten years old. [Watching] A cartoon for a man who is really a little boy." (p. 3) He discovers that he doesn't have a particular skill, and this indicates a certain immaturity. I give him credit for basically realizing that this isn't entirely rational, but he doesn't really work with that realization enough.

He offers three sources for his anger. First, he says he is angry because there is no one there to help him; he is always forced to figure these things out on his own. He also claims to be angry with God, "because why does it have to be so hard?" (3) Finally, he says he is angry with himself because he needs help.

These three reasons are really collapsable into a single cause. He has this external image of himself as an all-American male, the kind of guy that writes maps for the masculine journey. He comes across an instance in which he cannot fulfill this role. All three of the above reasons spring from his basic inability to be the person he wants to be. Becoming angry at other men, God, even himself are all just expressions of a deepseated alienation and resentment. His anger is a misdirection.

He goes on to speak of "Unfinished men," those men that have not completed their "masculine journey." For this journey, we need "initiation. And, we need a Guide." (4) This journey involves multiple stages. These stages do not belong to specific ages, through they concentrate in particular periods. There are elements of each stage in every other. In other words, they are just like Hegelian moments. Georg Hegel insisted that all of reality was a rational process, advancing towards the goal of the absolute; all elements in the process were particular moments, but each moment existed in all the others.

Anyways, the stages are Boyhood, Cowboy, Warrior, Lover, King, Sage. I won't bother describing them because they all seem pretty self-explanatory. An unfinished man is usually stuck in Boyhood or Cowboy mode.

So, Eldredge has issues with resentment and alienation. His chosen method of dealing with these problems is a standard one - create for yourself a code of behaviour and a priviledged community that will respect that code and by extension yourself. The community he creates here is a masculine one. Every community needs to exclude someone, and if by definition you are including all men, than you also must exclude all women. Hence his claim that this journey is a specifically masculine one.

Exclusion, per se, isn't necassarily bad. Like I said, all communities have to do it. The problem is that Eldredge is assigning qualities to men, thereby denying them to women. Eldredge's man is active and aggressive; this leaves women the role of passivity. I know the Eldreges wrote a book for women as well. Eldredges, plural; the wife didn't do it herself.

So chapter one is a good start. He finds his anger and directs it against others and an alienated part of himself. His cure for his anger is to create a code of behaviour and a community of men that he believes will allow him to take up the role he so wishes. I don't think this cure is bad; in a formal sense it's as good as anything else. The problem is that he misdiagnoses himself. He's trying to cure the wrong thing; the symptoms rather than the root.

It will be interesting to see where he goes from here.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Way of the Wild Heart Commentary Intro

I was in Upper Room bookstore picking up a Christmas gift when I saw a new book by John Eldredge, the esteemed author of Wild at Heart. I always found that book vexing in its simple mindedness and rigid view of gender roles (and by extension, human life in general). If there was ever a book that exemplified the Nietzsche quote at the top of this blog, this was it. Wild at Heart is clearly a psychological biography of Eldredge, a portrait of himself dealing with his own unfulfilled desires, resentments and confusions. He dealt with these three things by projecting them onto all males in general; alas, his projection doesn't seem to have excised but only amplied them.

The new book is entitled The Way of the Wild Heart, and it's obviously a sequel to the first book. So what did I do? I used my grandma's christmas check to buy it.

Whatever else I think of Eldredge, I have some sympathy with the form of his project, if not the content. Wild at Heart was basically a book of therapeutic ethics disguised as a lame self help rag. He touches on themes and concerns that I'm very much interested in. He deals with religion, final causes, gender roles, external images and subjectivity. In different terms, of course. Because of these things, I thought it might be a useful exercise to read this book, than record my reactions, chapter by chapter.

So stay tuned for chapter one.

Free Will Debate

I really was serious when I said the hiatus was over!

Some time ago, I said I was going to start writing about ethics. I even wrote what amounted to a preface, here. This post should be seen as part 2 of that preface.

Part and parcel of any discussion of ethics is the free will / determination debate. Are we simply incredibly complicated robots, or do we have freedom? In my readings this semester I've come across a handful of answers to that question. There's Spinoza, who believes our only freedom is the ability to assent to what is. There's Kant, who says that while all reality is chained to cause and effect, our choices can be thought of as atemporal and therefore outside that chain.

My own approach is to begin with a very practical reality. The answer to this question of free will has no practical value. This may seem counterintuitive; is it not a popular belief that "free will" is necassary for any sort of responsibility, and therefore morality? No morality, no law, no society: chaos would reign.

Here's the problem with that belief. A belief in determinism is no more a guide to behaviour than a belief in free will. Consider the legal system. If criminals begin making the philosophical claim that they have no free will (as opposed to psychiatric claims of insanity) and therefore cannot be held responsible for their crimes, judges can throw the claim right back at them. A judge is just as bound to toss them in jail.

A belief in determination doesn't remove the consequences from our actions; all it can do is facilitate a series of excuses for one's behaviour. However, the need for these excuses, and the creation and deploment of them, must both come from different places in a person's mind. The need for excuses for one's behaviour is a question of psychological insecurity; the creation of the excuses is a matter of philosophy. In order to deploy the excuses, one must already be willing to admit insecurity and weakness. That admition, however, would itself require a certain overcoming of that weakness and insecurity. Attempting to use the idea of determination as an excuse or justification for behaviour is a self-defeating and forced position; it can only be used coldly and cynically, and is therefore not legally or ethically important.

The free will debate, then, is an abstract, academic matter. However, a discussion of it remains bound to the discussion of ethics; in order that our behaviour not be arbitrary or futile, we need a knowledge of what we are capable and incapable of. We require a critique of will.

Cutting to the chase, I think the answer to the debate lies in its very undecidability.

Whenever someone claims a certain form of knowledge is limited, there are two possible meanings for this. First, it could simply refer to a lack of information. We lack the required quantity of data to form a conclusion. Only more research and thought is required. Perhaps the quantity of information required is so great that it is practically impossible to attain; it is still, in principle, a possibility for knowing. The second way knowledge can be limited is in quality. There may be information or beings that we are simply unequipped to explore or analyze. I would argue that there is an aspect of humans that is inadmissable to analysis or full knowing.

When I say it cannot be analyzed, I mean it is something we cannot directly access. It is not something that can be pointed to and described; it can only be posited as an explanatory device.

When people argue over free will, they are either claiming a certain creative spontaneity for humans, or for a rigid determination. I would argue this is an impossible question; it cannot be answered. When we ask what this spontaneity may be; a particular aspect of human nature is named. Spirit, reason, will, whatever. This aspect is then explained to be somehow independant of all immanant causes; nothing has shaped this one aspect. Family life, no matter how fine or horrible, has molded this aspect. Absolutely no combination of socio-economic-historical factors has affected this aspect, because if this aspect was capable of being affected, than it would be one more link in the cause and effect chain and therefore determined.

This aspect - will, spirit, reason - therefore only has a one way relationship with everything else. All else that might reside in a human subject and its environment can only be affected by this aspect; they themselves can only be altered; they can do no altering themselves.

The determination folks believe every last aspect of reality rests within a cause and effect structure. Nothing happens without an immediate cause; every human action has a cause, which itself has a caused, all the way down to the bottom turtle. The aspect the free willers believe in is itself determinted by something else. There is a two way relationship between the spirit/will/reason and the environment - they affect each other.

Now, why do I think this debate is unresolvable? Because neither position can truly support itself. Free will can never be proven, because it is a simple matter to posit that one is determined to believe in free will. However, determination cannot be proven either. The moment one posits a free will/spirit, an aspect of the self that stands unaffected by the environment, no philosophy of determination can track down and kill this aspect. If there is such a free aspect, it would be impossible to conclude exactly which environmental factors might affect this aspect. Every determination posited - ie, bad family life, can only explain a single piece of behaviour. Those who believe in free will can simply relocate the will to a position unaffected by the posited determination; this process can go on indefinately.

The claims of free will and determination cancel each other out. They negate each other. In negating each other, they create an unknowable aspect of human nature. A nothingness. Our knowledge of ourselves is essentially finite, and no quantity of information or observation can ever change that.

This nothingness itself is, in practice, identical to the posited free will. Because we can never know if or how anything determines it, it appears to us to be a responsible, spontaneous, creative, force. What it is on its own account is unknowable; all we can deal with is the appearance and the appearance is undetermined.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Year That Was, Vol. 2

I'm going to go ahead and insist that my little blogging sabbatical is over. How can I not take advantage of this fancy new template?

It's the end of the year, and that means its time for a best-of. This list isn't confined to the best art and media produced in 2006; it's more about the things I encountered for the first time in 2006.


Once Were Warriors

A New Zealand film that a Kiwi friend introduced me to. It's the story of a Maori family disintergrating into chaos. Top flight acting and story, though there's a pivotal plot point that struck me as melodramatic. Nonetheless, this is one of the best movies I've ever seen... maybe top twenty quality.

A Bittersweet Life

A Korean gangster/revenge flick. It's pretty straightforward: one man insults another man, and the sheer quantity of testostone flowing through their veins makes apology impossible. It's not some slapdash action flick, though; the cinematopgraphy and acting (mostly) are top flight. The violence is keen too.

Ichi the Killer

If you think Han Solo or The Punisher are "anti-heros," you need to be introduced to this movie. Just... don't watch it with your mother.

Takashi Miike puts love into his violence. That's all there really is to say about this.

Fiction Books:

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Murakami is a Japanese author I came across this past year; I've read 3 of his books, and they are all fantastic. I'm choosing Wind-Up over Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore because, well, Wind-Up was my first. This novel has some of the most truly gorgeous and affective writing I've ever come across; sensuous and dreamlike. Hiding behind the story of a rather passive man looking for his cat is an epic, sprawling battle for the soul of the Japanese people. I can't recommend Murakami enough, though if you wanted to dip your toes into something shorter begin with Norwegian Wood.

In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami

A lot of the reviews I've seen around the net are pretty cool on this book; my own memories are strong and pleasant. I admit this might have something to do with the circumstances under which I read the book: on the flight home from Korea. The cabin was dark, and everyone around me was sleeping. I was in my own dimly lit little world while reading about a young Japanese man leading, and being led by, the vaguely mystical Frank through the back alleys of Tokyo. I remember it as a hazy nightmare. These two Murakamis aren't related to one another, by the way.

Wizard and Glass: The Dark Tower IV by Stephen King

I'm slowly working my through King's Dark Tower series, enjoying every step of it. This has so far been my favourite installment of the five I've read. This book is essentially a booklength flashback, a prequel of sorts. The characters in this novel - long dead by the time of the larger storyline - are more interesting than the primary characters of the serious. There's a paradox here; the strength of this book is therefore the weakness of the rest. I hope books VI and VII have a lot more Cuthbert and Alain in them.

Non-Fiction Books:

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger

This isn't the book of answers. It doesn't tell you if God exists or if eating babies is bad or who you should vote for. Heidegger's modest project just tells you how you can ask those questions in the first place.

Ethics by Benedictus de Spinoza

Written in 1677, it offers us a pretty good understanding of why Spinoza was kicked out of the Jewish community and labelled an atheist by... well, pretty much everyone.

It would be easy to see this as a stone-cold calculating book, but there's always an explosive Jewish mysticism just lurking beneath the surface. Forget the Kaballah, make this mandatory reading. For everyone; especially Intelligent Design fans. Spinoza pretty much curb stomps standard religious beliefs like final causes and anthropomorphic gods.


Talking Honky Tonk Blues by Buck 65

It's a mix of country, hip-hop, folk-rock and electronica. Yeah. And it all works to make my favourite album of the year. If you have an interest in any of those genres... Buck 65 can't be reccomended enough. Everyone should be this creative.

By the way, he's giving away the tracks from his new EP on his website. Go listen to all five, and tell if that this man is not going to single handedly save country and hip-hop from themselves.

Anger Do Not Enter by Beef Terminal

Why yes, I've picked up a taste for ambient beats. This is pretty much perfect night walking or reading music. It's about as relaxing as anything I've come across.

The Dusty Foot Philosopher by K'naan

This is definately runner up for my favourite album of the year. An unstoppable tour de force of world beat hip-hip.

So that's the year that was. An extraordinary year for music, books and movies all around; I'm very impressed with 2006 all around.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Theology: Speech and Writing

Back, with nary a comment on the long hiatus!

Ok, so I don't think that theological study and religious activities share a common basis. I think they are two different human activities that come together with the glue of culture.

It's probably a pretty common belief that religion is theology put into action. The corallary is that theology is the theoretical underpinning of religion. If it isn't that, what is it?

Let's try asking this question: what would theological study in an atheistic reality hold in common with theological study in a theistic world?

The answer: speech and writing. Theological study is about developing propositions about God; if God does not exist, the activity of developing propositions still exists. Propositions take the form of speech and writing. Also known as symbolic representation.

In both atheistic and theistic worlds, theological study is about symbolically representing God and beliefs about God.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Religion and Theology as Mutual Exteriority

Why yes, I'll be writing essays with titles like that this fall! I have to start warming up my lingo spewer.

Over the past year, on and off, lurking in the background of my mind, has been a line of thought that I only now feel ready to properly express. It seems to me that my problems in these threads on Jamie's and Joel's blogs can be be used to point to a fairly startling idea: religion and theology are not united, at least not in the way people think they are. There is a body of human activity - from magic spells to mass - that is geared to answering particular human needs. This body of human activity ("religion") exists independently of (and possibly prior to) the intellectual study of God ("theology").

I am not arguing that religion and theology never meet, or that religion does not make rational statements about the world. I am arguing that the one does not require the other. When they meet, it is because the individual in which they meet finds it useful for them to do so.

As I said, this has been developing in my head for about a year now, so some history on my thought and reading is in order. For the sake of comparison, it should be noted that I wrote a post on this topic almost a year ago. I hadn't thought of the religion/theology split past a single line in the final paragraph.

I've dabbled a bit in what might be called "academic" theology over the past year; Paul Tillich, Augustine, NT Wright, Meister Eckhart. The most striking thing I have noticed: while these men have left their fingerprints are on much of modern Christian belief, that's all there is - fingerprints. The men - and women! - who have written the theological masterpieces are but vaguely recognized names for the vast majority of Christians. Augustine's towering books are ignored in favor of "Jesus loves me, this I know." I don't juxtapose the two to disparage either, but to point out that the simple creed has no need of Augustine's serious study.

Theology, as an intellectual study, requires human intellectual capacity. All theologians have to engage in literary and philological analysis, historical research, anthropology and philosophy. These are not pursuits that everyone is capable of. The best works of theology are simply beyond the reach of many people; it's tough shit. Pick up Thomas Aquinas, if you don't believe me.

Religious activities, on the other hand, require no intellectual capacity. I don't mean that to sound condescending; religious activities just don't require one to reflect on the symbolic or ontological significance of Euchrist. Religious activities are effective (for reaching whatever goal you think they are reaching for; the specifics do not matter for this discussion) whether or not you have a sophisticated intellectual understanding of them.

This is not to claim that lay people are totally thoughtless. That would be embarrassingly arrogant and obviously wrong. Everyone engages in thought that organizes the world according to their imago. Religious people form and express statements that justify and clarify the religious aspects of their imago. Professional theologians do the same, of course.

It is for this reason that religion and theology are seen as a unity; all religious believes are theologians after a fashion. However, the sophistication of the theology one uses to clarify or justify their religious activities is secondary to the activity itself. This thought comes from my dabbling in philosophical anthropology, namely Ernst Cassirer and George Bataille. Both place religious activities in the realm of human activities. For Cassirer, religion is a "symbolic form" that humans use to organize the world in particular ways. For Bataille, religion is part and parcel of the human desire for ecstasy - a longing to stand outside one's self, a kind of mystical experience. Both Cassirer and Bataille consider "religion" as something distinct from particular belief systems or theologies. I did, by the way, write the post "A Theory of Religion" almost immediately after reading Bataille and Cassirer.

So, one can speak in tongues without an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues surrounding the tongues "debate." One can engage in the three religious activities I outlined here: ecstasy (called "subsumation of the individual" in that post, but I've changed it because of the wordiness), totemism and the concept of symbolic cause and effect with any theological backing, or sometimes no backing at all. Religious activities all have a unity that no exclusivist, sophisticated theology can overcome. For example, most religious promise that one can affect physical reality through symbolic acts. A shaman cuts a chicken's throat, and expects a good hunt. A group of Christians hold hands and prays for traveling mercies. The two activities come from the same place in human nature - conflicting theologies notwithstanding.

But does it stop there? Are theologians simply engaging in an activity that is functionally identitical to a much more casual line of thought? I would say no.

Theological thought views God as an object of study, not veneration. This is not to claim an impersonal disinterest, or that a theologian cannot attempt to honor God with his actions. However, just as religious activities do not require theological thought in order to function, theological thought does not require religious significance in order to be engaged in. Theological thought can be approached as an academic subject, the same as literature and philosophy. If a particular theologian insists that their theological work is an act of religious veneration, they are not making a theological claim; their insistence rests in their philosophy.

To cap this post off, here's an metaphor. Think of religion and theology as two travelers. They both begin in the same place - human nature - but they are most definitely two separate people. They leave the city by two different gates, out of sight of each other. Then suddenly, one sneaks up on the other so carefully and gradually and they walk parallel lines for so long that they think they have been together since the beginning. Religion never notices that theology is a bit arrogant and aloof, while theology never notices that religion is simply ignoring him except when he needs help.

And now for my patented blink-and-you'll-miss-it conclusion. My professors hated this.

"I'll draw out implications of this idea in future posts."


Sunday, June 25, 2006


Before I continue with morality, theology and religion, there's one more issue that needs to be hashed out. What, exactly, is the point of thinking about all this? How does it contribute to anyone's life? Why not just get on with the business of living? Be more practical, man! More grounded! It's against statements like these - and the seeming omniscience of science - that philosophers have been scrambling to justify their own existence for a century or two now, and this is my two cents.

It's a pretty common theme to hear that philosophy is the search for truth. Truth with a big, dignified looking "T." I tend to think this just isn't true. Ultimately, “true” statements are not necessary to achieve the self-reflecting world we want most. Philosophy is fundamentally about creation, not exploration. For the most primaeval human purposes, all that matters is that you believe what you believe. And for the sake of the reading impaired, yet another qualification: this does not mean that all statements are equally true.

This, incidentally, is what I consider philosophy to be: sustained reflective thought. The two terms are synonymous. Everyone does it from time to time. Philosophy is not science; science is calculative thought. Reflective thought is abstract, interested and passionate; calculative thought is concrete, disinterested and cold. This being said, the two are not opposites; reflective thought is both chronologically and existentially prior to calculative thought. Every scientific formula is preceded by the (however unarticulated) reflective idea that forming the formula is somehow important. Calculative thought always rests inside a context of reflective thought.

Why say "sustained"? Reflective thought is common in human life, very common; everyone on some level or another engages in some kind of philosophy. Not everyone is interested enough to make it a hobby or a career, however. It's just a matter of quantity. For thought to be philosophical, it has to be a practice.

So, what place does philosophy hold in human life? For one, it gives philosophers something to do. But of course, it shares this in common with every other human occupation. Being a plumber and being a philosopher have the same basic grounding in human life.

Philosophy as creation - e.g. creating previously unseen links between ideas, or creating new ideas, or creating works that influence others - is one of its vital functions. It shares this with art and literature, however.

Philosophy - which is at least partly reflection upon one's self - can open up a dialogue with one's imago. It shares this with psychology, though. Still not a uniquely philosophical activity.

Actually, as a human activity, I don't think philosophy is fundamentally unique. It shares all of its traits with the rest of the humanities.

(On a side note, this is basically why I flippantly choose History over English for my major, and it is why I feel comfortable switching focuses for my MA.)

None of this still doesn't really answer the question; between the apparent non-importance of "Truth" and the epistemological juggernaut of science, why bother with sustained reflective thought?

It's important to remember that philosophy mixes these traits in a way that the other humanities do not. The building blocks of the discipline are the same, but the structure is different. Philosophy is the conscious attempt to create and reveal new ideas about life; it brings together the aims of psychology and art in a powerful and useful way.

To speak practically - and so maybe a little bit calculatively - sustained reflective thought ferrets out new avenues of behavior and interpretation. It helps us cast our lives and environments in different lights. Even deeply conservative philosophies do this, by the way, though perhaps not very effectively.

When one thinks reflectively, one is trying to arrange the facts, conclusions and judgements they have formed in new ways, ways that uncover new ways of seeing the world. It is psychology, it is literature, it is art.

The limits of philosophy should be discussed too. I don’t believe that particular propositions hold any intrinsic motivation power. Changing or forming one’s belief about proposition X does not mean their behavior will change. Human behavior is not guided by propositions: this must be clear. We do not live by our moralities or our philosophies; we wear them like clothes. Our behavior is not subordinate to what we believe; what we believe is subordinate to our behavior.

Behavioral or psychological change does not come with epiphanies; it does not come when we accept certain intellectual propositions. Our behavior and psychology change as part of a circle; our environment changes us, and we seek to change our environment. Accepting propositions is only a piece of the circle; our relationship to our environment must change in ways we do not have full control over before our behavior and psychology change.

The most practical thing that can be said about philosophy is that it helps us ferret out those aspects of our relationship to our environment that we can change. Philosophy helps us consciously change the clothes we wear; our environment interacts with us differently upon that basis, thus bringing about a more holistic change. Philosophy is creation - of both ourselves and the world. Other pursuits - art, religion, etc - also “change our clothes”, but they do so in an unreflective manner.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Words as Pockets

There's something I've been trying to say about words and language these past few years. It has popped up in discussions with friends and in my comments on blogs. I've never been satisfied with how I've said it. Finally, Nietzsche has come to my rescue.

The word "revenge" is said so quickly, it almost seems as if it could not contain more than one root concept and feeling. And so people are still trying to find this root - just as our economists still have not got tired of smelling such a unity in the word "value" and of looking for the original root concept of value. As if all words were not pockets into which now this and now that has been put, and now many things at once! Thus "revenge," too, is now this and now that, and now something very composite.
- "The Wanderer and His Shadow," Basic Writings of Nietzsche.

Nietzsche's specific example is revenge, but it's the same with other words. Whenever we're talking with one another, we need to recognize that even though we are using the same words, we may very well be placing different things into these "pockets."

Here are two good examples, one from my own blog and one from Into The Depths. My post Suicide Is Painless provoked a discussion over exactly how we should be using the word suicide. I was enlisting the word "suicide" to describe an action that Stash felt required a more "dignified" term.

In the comments for Joel's 2 Kicks Dan and I tussled over both the words "evangelical" and "morality." Same words, same pockets. Different filling.

These disputes weren't trivial to Dan, Stash, or myself; we all had something at stake. We all find some sort of valuable or powerful conotation in these words, so each of us wanted to wield these words in support of our positions. It is somewhat futile to argue over who is right in these cases, though. Just like the value of money, the meaning of words is social. In our mutual attempts to alter the language each other uses, we were attempting to alter each other. If Stash began using the word "suicide" to describe what is more commonly and simply referred to as a martyrdom, it would have reflected (or caused? perhaps, yes) a change in how he viewed the world.

Despite these inevitable conflicts, it is possible to reach a practical and useful mutual understanding. Despite the reality of conflicting metanarratives or even the mythical Calvinist antithesis, we can see what another person fills a particular word with and so effectively communicate. And how can we do this? Empthy. Whenever someone is being weird, we can only communicate with them on the basis of empathy; temporarily taking on their perspective.

All this is important for... well, pretty much everything I thoughtfully speak and write about. It's specifically going to be important for the next couple of posts; I'm finally going to get around to the twin topics of religion and theology. And yes, part two of the morality thing is coming too.

I can't stress how valuable and insightful Frederich Nietzsche is, by the way. By all means, pick up Beyond Good and Evil or Genealogy of Morals. Better yet, get the collection I linked to above. Every single person that wishes to be thoughtful should write more like Nietzsche, myself included. I only wish the folks I'll be studying in the fall were influenced in a literary sense by Nietzsche and not only in a philosophical way.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Revaluation of All Values

So I'm going to start another series. This one is about morality - how do we think about it? How do we account for it? How does it affect our behavior?. My provisional to the first question: thinking about morality is about finding common ground and respecting difference.

And boy, there's a long of difference to be had. What is morality? There's a long list of standard answers. Some say it's an ontological issue - morality is woven into the fabric of existence. That would be natural law. Others say it is a question of responsibility to an Other, either a natural (people, animals, etc) or a supernatural (God) Other. Others relegate morality to a subsection of practical reason; Ayn Rand objectivists think morality helps us attain material goals. Still others - well, Nietzsche, basically - say morality is a power struggle between the strong and the weak.

How do we choose between moral paths? How do we judge what is "right" and what is "wrong"? Some will say it is an intellectual exercise. You have to figure out what is right. Others will say it is inborn - somewhere within us all, we know what is "right." Others will mix morality with aesthetics, saying that the good is also the beautiful. And then Nietzsche comes along and says it's whatever increases your power.

I think there is one common denominator among every last statement concerning morality - they are all valuations. Everytime someone makes a statement about morality, they are making a value judgment. X is more important/valuable than Y. For example, a certain brand of Christian will argue that every human being has a responsibility to God for their actions. This necessarily includes a valuation - it decides that fulfilling this responsibility is somehow important. The Nietzschean view also involves a valuation - increasing power is important. The other views all have their own versions.

Here's the thing about valuations: they are all personal. Individuals can find value in just about any ridiculous thing, and nearly anything can be insignificant. For example, I could never value the authority of an army officer for its own sake; another person would literally die before violating that authority.

No matter what statements one can make about ontology, their significance to any given individual is governed by how they interact with that person's imago (the "me" I am trying to be). If moral statement X is somehow woven into reality, that is a moot point to a person if this statement does not assist the person pursue or justify their imago.

This in itself is a refutation of the pathetically common apologist claim that there is no "meaning or value" in life without Christianity. The simple and easily observable fact that non-Christians do find satisfaction in life is enough to refute this claim to exclusivity. As I've said before, the only humans that haven't found something to truly value are the ones that commit suicide. To the extent that you aren't considering suicide is the extent that you've found value and significance in life. Even if you can't articulate exactly what it is that you've found, you've still found something.

You can, of course, argue that the things that non-Christians value aren't really valuable. You're welcome to try, but this is just as futile and stupid as telling a comics collector that Action Comics #1 is a rag that should be tossed out. That comic can be sold for ridiculous amounts because someone values it. The fact that others do not value it has no bearing on its value for the collector. It's the same with everything else: just because something is significant to you doesn't mean that it isn't beneath notice for something else.

Even people who claim to discard all morality are still making a valuation; they are valuing their own individuality.

So that's the common denominator of all moral statements. That's just to crack open this issue. More later.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Uses of Truth

So, if any definition of truth is necessarily circular (my definition is true because it meets my definition of truth) we have a bit of a problem in defining the term. I'm taking a roundabout route to grappling with it. First, I said that the medium of truth is language. Now I'm going to talk about how humans actually use and interact with potential truth. I'm not talking about different "kinds" of truth, just different uses for potentially true statements. Then I'll talk about some properties truth must have in order to actually be useful. And as a sidenote, all through this post I am talking about potentially true statements, even if I don't say it. I use "belief" as a synonym for "an accepted, potentially true statement."

I think there are two things humans use truth for. One is interaction with the physical world; both manipulating it through science and technology and explaining it. We not only want to know how to generate electricity, we want to know what electricity is.

Systematic observation and reason (ie, science, informal logic, etc) are the best tools we have to develop and apply truthful statements. We strive for simplicity and explanatory power in order to connect the dots of our world (As a sidenote and an addendum to the "Webs" post, "simplicity" doesn't necessarily mean "easy to understand").

When interacting with the physical world, it can be very easy to discover that statements are untrue. False statements that attempt to interact with the world fall apart and become useless when actually applied. Potentially true statements that are false are are eventually exposed.

Concerning the second use of truth, each of us holds certain propositions that we believe are really, truly important. These beliefs are the ones that are the most useful in our pursuit of our imago (the "me" I am trying to be). Our imago, along with these beliefs, form our personal centre. Others might insist on using the term "religion" here; indeed, I'm borrowing the term from the theologian Paul Tillich. I don't use the word religion, however, because I think that word is better off being used for a specific human activity.

We all need to use potentially true statements to aid us in our pursuit of our imago, and we also use them to justify the value of our imago. There is a difference here from the first use of truth; unlike interactions with the physical world, the statements of our personal centre can hold only a superficial resemblance to truth and still be useful. All that is required is that the person believe these statements.

So we use potential truth for interacting with the physical world, and in pursuit of particular personal goals. What qualities must statements have in order to fulfill either of these goals? There is one common quality, and one quality that is slightly different for each goal.

One, a statement must be universal. Statements about the physical world cannot be true in one time and place and false in another. In order for a belief to be useful in one's personal centre, one must believe that the belief is unconditionally superior to all others. Exactly how one comes to believe that a certain belief is superior can be different depending on what the truth is being used for. One can either encounter something with their senses, or the belief can be "warranted." Warrant is heavily subjective and relative; it is a question of what kind of justification one requires to believe something.

Everyone has beliefs they consider superior to all others, including the most ardent "postmodernist." Discovering exactly what these beliefs are is partly a matter of introspection, partly a matter of watching your own behavior.

For example, I consider the idea that meaning does not reside solely within language to be unconditionally superior to the opposite statement. I consider my beliefs about language to be true for all people in all times.

Two caveats: belief that a statement is unconditionally superior does not mean that one insists others share the beliefs. Insisting that others share your beliefs is a matter of your imago, and sometimes a matter of a lack of power (understood as a kind of metaphysical capital). It also does not mean that the belief must be complete; in other words, one does not have to have complete knowledge to find a particular statement valuable.

The second quality is slightly different for both goals. When interacting with the physical world, statements must be as concise as possible. You don't want meaning to slide around when an engineer is working on your airliner. Statements in historical, scientific and even psychological works must be rigidly controlled by a particular context, or they will begin to lose their value in interacting with the world. For the purposes of interacting with the world, the ideal is a scientific detachment; ie, reducing things as much as possible to numbers.

On the other hand, statements in one's personal centre cannot be a simple matter of numbers and detachment. Such statements are far too cold and grey; they are useless in forming the upper layers of our value hierarchy. Even the most ardent metaphysical naturalist who insists on accepting nothing but scientific findings will repeatedly speak of being in awe of the natural world.

Now, that is not to say that precision and clarity are not always goals in one's personal centre. Everyone, even the most philosophically apathetic person, needs to believe that at least they understand themselves. Being confused by our beliefs is an uncomfortable experience, and we always seek to remedy it. It is only to point out that the beliefs in our personal centre always carry a certain passion with them that a mathematical equation does not. One can find excitement and fulfillment in their study of math, but it is their beliefs about the value of math that are useful to them, not the math itself.

It is that desire for precision and clarity that raises so much ire against so-called postmodernism, because it seems to suggest that precision and clarity are always doomed to failure. The basically academic practice of deconstruction really freaks a lot of people out, because it suggests that something seemingly vital to them is unattainable.

I would insist that an unmediated expression of truth is not necessary for one's personal centre. It is the very richness of potential meaning that language slides on that offers us the ability to have a personal centre to begin with.

I'm writing down ideas that are important to me; the fact that there is an irreducible split between my words, my intent and my audience does not reduce the value of the ideas, or even of the words. To say otherwise is a matter of one's psychology.

So: truth must be universal. Striving for clarity is necessary, but the ambiguity is necessary also; the tension is perhaps something like the id/superego relationship.

The medium of potential truth is language. The uses of potential truth are environmental and personal. The characteristics of potential truth are universality and the clarity/ambiguity tension.

Not quite a definition of truth, but I'm not sure where to go from here, so I'll just bite the bullet and accept the most common definition - correspondence with reality. The correspondence theory is compatible with my description of truth thus far.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Truth and Such

Sidenote: Tool's most recent album further cements them as the only angry shouty metal guys worth listening to. Buy it, by all means.

Ok, so what does it mean for something to be "true?" Here's the problem with answering that question: whatever criteria you come up with, you'll have to move in a circular motion to apply that criteria to your definition of truth.

Truth = X
Y = criteria for X
X = Truth cause it meets criteria Y.

Now, this inescapable circularity can move you in a couple of directions. One common move is to put all your epistemological eggs in "faith." Another is to attempt a type of extreme skepticism. The problem with both of these moves is that they can be used to justify absolutely any statement. Faith as an epistemological tool can produce a practically limitless number of statements, and skepticism is simply the opposite side of the same coin.

Here's what everyone needs to recognize: every last one of us, nihilists and skeptics included, consider some statements to be superior to others. By whatever criteria, statement A is superior to statement B. Attempts to claim that all statements are equally true and therefore equally false cannot be squared with at least the obvious example of scientific vocabularies.

The word "truth" carries with it a certain dignity and certain imperative for us. In just about any setting, the term "relativist" is understood to be a perjoritive; nobody wants to be seen as a relativist. Nobody - not even the most ardent postmodernist - believes that there are no statements that deserve the title of "truth."

My attempt to dodge the fundamental circularity in defining truth has a pragmatic edge to it. Then we should ask after the medium of truth. Then, we should ask exactly why truth matters at all. Then we use those answers to start constructing a truth test.

My answer as to the medium of truth is, not surprisingly, guided by this post. Since language is our medium of thought and discourse, rational truth cannot be considered apart from it. This laptop is not truth - but statements about it can be. Facts, conclusions and judgments reside within language. "This laptop exists" is not the laptop itself.

The problem: words do not carry inherent meaning. They are symbols that stand in for their objects. If language does not carry inherent meaning, then how can it convey truth? Does this not leave truth as an impossible goal?

How does language convey anything rational at all? Context, context, context. Language always has a source (speaker, writer) and a target (reader, listener).

In the wrong context, a chemistry equation is a meaningless group of numbers and letters. In the writer context, it is fruitfully interpreted as a vaccine formula. In the wrong context, Korean characters are a meaningless series of scribbles. But to the right recipient, it is a coherent system.

Language is a useful tool - it can indeed carry accurate information, and therefore it can carry truth. All of this communication is affected by the context, however. The further you move from the rigid world of mathematics, the hermeneutic circle gains more and more power, making all statements a matter of interpretation regulated and limited by context.

This is where much of the epistemic anxiety surrounding postmodernism comes from. If all linguistic expressions are matters of interpretation, and truth can only be found as a function of these expressions, then is not truth a matter of personal interpretation?

Well, yeah. Sort of.

This is where we need to ask about why that matters. Who cares if truth is a matter of personal interpretation? What are the ramifications of accepting this? Are there statements that are genuinely superior, and not just a matter of wishful thinking?

It's my bedtime, so I'll finish this another time. See ya.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Symbolic Representation

Ok, I know I said I wasn't going to mess around with epistemology anymore, but I need a couple of neither/and posts to act as a segue into my next series.

Through the past couple of posts, I talked about how we gather raw data and tried to suggest how we should organize it. There's another aspect to our rational interaction with the world, however. After all, we need to be able to communicate our judgments to others.

After St. Augustine and before the 14th or 15th centuries, the Christian theologians/philosophers of Europe saw reality as a series of "books" to be read. There was the word itself - the Bible - but there was also the "book of nature." Nature was a series of symbols of God; not God himself, but simulations.

That view fell away for several centuries, but was partly resurrected in the 20th century by European philosophers. Starting with Martin Heidegger in 1929, hermeneutics - the study of how humans interact with symbols - began to be used as a path into human existence as such. That turn is largely responsible for the maligned monstrosity known as "postmodernism."

So the idea - and I think it's a nifty one - is that symbols, specifically meaning language - mediate our relationship to both ourselves and our world. Put another way, language is not only our mouth, but it is also our hands and eyes.

Because language has come to be seen as the medium of our rational relationship to both ourselves and our environment, studying it was one of the major philosophical preoccupations of the 20th century. There were repercussions for epistemology, ontology and even ethics. Jacques Derrida, arch-deconstructionist, sent the world into a tizzy with things like "the trace" and "differance." Other writers - from Nietzsche to Levinas to Foucault - have traced the many pitfalls and quandaries found in language. One of the most significant writers of the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once considered that the whole work of philosophy was a battle against the deceptions of language.

When we are trying to hold a discussion about any particular topic - from chemicals to the nature of love - we have to do so using the symbolic framework of language. This is because the topic of conversation is not simply a "given." (I'm wishing I had written some of the previous posts differently, because now I realize I may have seriously miscommunicated.)

This is a ridiculously abstract concept that took me a long time to understand: language does not point to it's object, but rather stands in for it's object. Any topic of conversation - from this laptop to the Trinity - is not immediately present to the speaker or writer.

This is not to malign the five senses, but merely to point out that sense data must be formed into a particular shape - and since my brain doesn't actually turn into a chair when I am thinking about chairs, it must use a symbol. A re-presentation. The five senses are purely physical tools; animals have the five senses. What they do not have is the rational ability to express and communicate, and that is linguistic.

It isn't only sense data that needs to be formed into a particular shape - the abstractness of our subconscious and imago also requires representation. We have to use language to make ourselves intelligible to ourselves. In the academic lingo, language mediates our self-presence to ourselves.

There are two topics I'm interested in. I'm going to try to discuss both in this single post.

The first is the hermeneutic circle. I think this term is an apt description of a large portion of human interaction with the world. Simply put, we affect the world, and the world affects us. We come to a situation or a written text; governed by whatever factors, we are affected. We act and affect the situation, or we re-read the text through a slightly different set of eyes. The situation is different, or our reading of the text is different. We affect the situation again, or we read the text again - each time, we are changed and our perception is changed. That is part of our constant engagement with the world; our perceptions and representations (and therefore our rational considerations) of the world are constantly being nudged however slightly.

The second is the question of meaning in language. Does a particular text mean one thing, and if so, what is the authority governing that meaning? Or perhaps any text can have a practically limitless number of meanings?

One could say that the meaning of a particular text is self-evident; this necessarily implies the belief that language points to something beyond itself. It is the belief that language stands for its object, not that it stands in for the object. This, however, has several problems. One, it denies the nature of language as mediator, leaving us without a seemingly necessary tool. Two, it has serious practical problems: I dare anyone to point me to a single non-technical text that people don't differ in their interpretations over. This second point is explained in various ways, and that can be left to various posts.

One could say that authorial intent governs the meaning of a text. However, the only thing the reader has access to is the text. We aren't mind readers. Authorial intent, by definition, resides within the author. Another problem with this is that it assumes that the author always says what she means, and means what she says. One, this conflicts with our common experience of being frustrated that we can't properly express ourselves. We can't properly express ourselves because we are trying to interpret something abstract within us.

Which is not to say that I'm denying the existence of authorial intent - obviously I'm trying to convey particular ideas. But this expression - of my ideas - is necessarily an interpretation of myself. I am forcing an abstraction into the external, cultural created and transmitted medium of language. This is an inevitable difference - however fine - between my words and my intent. Authorial intent exists, and in a certain context, it should most certainly guide the content of a discussion about a text. It must simply be recognized that my intent is not the final authority over the meaning of this text, and the attempt to deny this is futile. Just look at the comments in this post for a good example.

So how is communication possible at all? Even if the meaning of a text slides around a little, we still manage to communicate effectively. Why are architectural plans worth a damn? How come scientific texts - symbols though they are - are so useful in understanding and manipulating the physical world? It certainly appears as if certain forms of language - ie, mathematics - really do escape the inevitable slide of meaning.

It's all about context. Mathematics exist in an extremely narrow band of symbols; these symbols are rigidly controlled and no ambiguity is really possible. This does not mean that meaning lies within the numbers themselves - they still stand in for something - but what they stand in for is tiny and regulated by the community mathematicians. Math holds a lot in common with more traditional forms of language, and I'll talk about that in future posts.

Other, less precise texts - from prose to poetry - will inevitable slide more than math. The hermeneutic circle more blatantly affects these types of texts, and so there is a great deal more disagreement over "meaning."

There are not infinite possibilities for meanings in a text, however. Language is a social construct, and so its limits are socially constructed. No one individual can act as if the English language held a series of meanings only for him; the attempt to have an entirely person language is just as futile as having a personal currency. The value of the dollar is socially constructed, and it is in constant flux, but always within a context.

No text - other than math or computer languages - will ever mean one thing. Its meaning will always (again with the lingo) "differ" and "be differed." Possible meanings are not infinite in number. So there's a tension there - and the only way you can deal with it is to carefully tread the hermeneutic circle.

Which is all to say: stuff is complicated.

Ok, I think that's an adequate into to semiotics. Not terribly academic, but I'll take whatever license for mediocrity that self-publishing on the net provides.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


Part One
Part Two
Part Three

And here's part four.

So with definitions of facts, conclusions and judgments in hand, I'm going to talk about how we can come to arrive at accurate statements. By statements, I mean text or speech intended to convey or express information of any kind. Exactly what I mean by accuracy can wait for a later date, though a useful working defition is simply "truthful."

I know after all this it must sound like I'm a total reductionist - as if everything we do that could be called "truthful" is made from bits and bytes of information. I actually don't necessarily believe this, however. I'll explain more about that later. Probably when when I'm back in school and feeling more academic, I'll do a post on Heidegger and empiricism. For now, I'll just leave all that in the background and say that I don't think anything I've said here contradicts the idea of Dasein, which I am a fan of.

What I do believe, however, is that all the statements that we actually make about the world and ourselves are reducible to bits and bytes of information. It all comes from information gleaned through our five senses. Even a deeply introspective statement is still dependent on a certain (historio-cultural specific) vocabulary, and that vocabulary was learned through the senses.

So we have big, unorganized piles of information lying around; how should we organize it all? The basic method is that of questioning. We ask a question: what relationship does one conclusion have to another? We then seek an answer - we seek to form a judgement. Some judgements are more accurate than others; there are principles that help form judgements that are truthful.

One good principle is that of simplicity. I don't quite mean Ockham's Razor, here, though that's another good principle. What exactly I mean by simplicity is that conclusions and judgements should be as free of "wild card possibilities" as possible.

Let's say you have conclusion 1 (C1) and conclusion B (C2). You are having a hard time forming judgement 1 about CA and CB. However, there is an ambiguous group of facts that you may form an ambiguous conclusion from them - ?C3. ?C3, if accurate, can provide a valuable missing link between CA and CB.

The problem: C1 + C2 + ?C3 = ?J1, always. ?C3, because it is ambiguous, cannot object (the object objects). While C1 and C2 made be solid, connecting them with ?C3 inevitably creates a vacuum within the judgement - and that vacuum is either filled with skepticism or credulity, depending on one's presuppositions.

Tbe vacuum created by ambiguity is a deeply frustrating thing to people. The flight from ambiguity is partly responsible for the inability to say "I don't know." I think there is a brand of skepticism that has no limits (no object can ever object to it) and is rooted in a particular psychology rather than a philosophy. The ability to readily admit ignorance, however, is different - understanding that facts can be scarce is a matter of responding to the physical world as it is. Refusing to admit a lack of facts and information is one of the worst abuses of the word "faith."

Another strategy used to avoid this vacuum is an abuse of induction. Particular + particular = general. It is a simple matter to gather a few facts and conclusions and then claim that you have discovered a larger pattern. This necassarily involves overlooking the possiblity of exceptions. For example, it is common in some circles to make certain claims about genders. Males have trait X, while females have trait Y. One can parade a seemingly endless number of males acting under the influence of trait X, and then claim that trait X is someone "inherantly" male. Maleness is the decisive factor in whether or not someone has X. Trait X can then be set up as a virtue for males to perfect.

However, as I said, this ignores that it is inevitable that some males will not exhibit X to any degree. This fact absolutely objects to the judgement that maleness is the decisive factor in whether or not someone has X. Therefore X cannot be inherantly male.

I am not knocking induction per se. It is a useful guide when predicting the future; if a statistically large portion of males have X, then it is reasonable to expect to encounter X from a male. The problem comes when one insists that X is inevitable and/or desirable. It is also a problem when one uses the expectation of X as the primary basis of their relationship to a male; in a practical sense, that is the same as believing X to be inevitable. It is just as wrong, and will result in some kind of paranoid/controlling relationship.

Induction has a great deal of value for the natural scientist as well, but I'm going to leave that for a future post. That discussion will follow a similar pattern to this one.

A corralary to simplicty is explanatory power. We have a pile of raw facts, and we need to fit those facts into an interpretive framework. We need to explain as much of our sense data as we can; otherwise the physical world itself would become unnavigable and we would again quickly find ourselves being smashed by trucks on the highway.

Now, explaining facts is a subset of our hermenutical interpretation of the world. That larger topic can wait for a later date; here I am concerned with the practical, pre-theoretical ways of forming useful conclusions and judgements.

Let's say we have conclusions C1 - C10. We want to understand how these conclusions relate to each other - we want to form a judgement.

Man X develops J1. J1 incorporates C1 - C8, but cannot account for C9 and C10.

Man Y, however, uses J2 and is able to account for the whole group of conclusions. However, he is required to incorporate an eleventh conclusion - ?C11. J2 is therefore actually ?J2.

How to decide between J1 and ?J2? Partly, more observation is required. Other facts and conclusions need to be brought to bear. Also, ?C11 needs to be examined. How ambiguous is it? What facts are in question? Which judgement is simpler?

By striving for simplicity and explanatory power, I really do think we can make valid, truthful statements about the world (ourselves being a subset of the world).

The more I write about this, the more I think I've bitten off more than I can chew. I'm not defining simplicity or explanatory power to my own satisfaction, which means I'm not explaining how I decide what's right and wrong very well.

I'm going to try and avoid doing multiple posts on the same topic from now on... it's just too long between posts. Gotta stop being lazy about it, too.

For now, I'm going to leave behind this epistemology stuff. I'll come back to it after I read what others have had to say about it a bit more.

Monday, May 01, 2006

. . . another hour deeper in the night

Here we have a continuation of this post.

At the end, I mentioned a third epistemological concept. I also asked where that concept appeared in the paragraph that began "So, what exactly is the path. . ."

Here's my answer. Of all that paragraph, only this sentence is an empirical conclusion: "Even Buddhists develop complicated metaphysics."

The rest of the paragraph is a series of statements about the relationships between a broad range of conclusions (after finishing this post, I realized the sentence "I think it is an easily observable human trait - an empirical conclusion" isn't actually a conclusion). I'll use the word judgment for this.

We observe facts A, B and C. Photos of Washington DC, reports from people who have been there, and airlines offering flights to that location. We use these facts to form the conclusion that a city called Washington DC exists.

We can make other conclusions about Washington DC; it has a high murder rate, and many parts of it are quite poor.

Here is the danger: putting those two entirely correct empirical conclusions next to each other invites us to make a quick judgment about the relationship between those two conclusions. It is easy to believe that it is an empirical conclusion that poverty causes violent crime.

This is the line between a conclusion and a judgment. A fact's distinguishing characteristic is that is a part of the physical word; it is an object (noun) that can object (verb). A conclusion, can also object. It is a correct conclusion that Washington DC has a high crime rate, and you can experience this yourself by wandering certain neighborhoods at night. Conclusions can object against other conclusions; you hear a gunshot and a scream around the corner and conclude there is a crime in progress. That conclusion would object against the conclusion of Washington being a peaceful place. This being said, it is much more typical that only facts can object against conclusions. In fact I reserve the right to junk the last half of this paragraph at a later date.

A judgment, however, will not object in this way. The only things that can object against a judgment are conclusions and facts. The judgment that poverty causes crime cannot be objected to be saying the opposite; both judgments need to be broken down into their constituent facts and conclusions.

Facts are objects that object; conclusions are also (possibly?) capable of objecting. Judgments are not capable of objecting.

So, how to form correct judgments? Um... next time.

Contents Page Two

I'm creating a second contents page because the first was too disorganized. This page will be organized only by chronology, not by topic.

All posts prior to November 9, 2005 are on Page One.

On The Road Again - November 09, 2005
An attempt to create a plan for the next few posts. Rubbish, of course.

Roots - November 16, 2005
Part 1 in the presuppositionalism series.

What Kind of Humanist Are You? - November 16, 2005

Answering the Ready Answer - November 25, 2005
Part 2 in the presuppositionalism series.

For Whom The Bell Tolls - November 29, 2005
Sneering at the fall of the Liberals.

Lacanfest - December 10, 2005
My questionable attempt at translating Jacques Lacan's psychological stages into understandable terms. This is where I really start to lay out and systematize the stuff I've been thinking about the last 2 years.

Year That Was - January 1, 2006
A recap of 2005's best entertainments.

Bloggin' - January 14, 2006
A list of blogs I was reading at the time. I still regularly read Right Reason and Vox Popli.

Suicide is Painless - January 18, 2006
Possibly my favorite post ever. It's a stew of Lacan, Camus, Nietzsche, Bataille, and The Last Samurai.

Loose Ends - January 24, 2006
Attempting to clarify and develop what began in Lacanfest.

Laboring in the World - Febuary 1, 2006
An account of how humans interact with their environment: we change it, and in doing so become something.

Justified - March 20, 2006
Forming and developing our self image.

Empiricism and Death - April 6, 2006
Setting one foot down the ill-fated road of the epistemology project.

Another Mile Down the Road... - April 22, 2006
Just like the title says.

. . . another hour deep in the night - May 2, 2006
Just like the title says, part 2.

Webs - May 11, 2006
The conclusion of the attempt at epistemology.

Symbolic Representation - May 23, 2006
A very basic intro to semiotics.

Truth and Such - May 23, 2006
The difficulties in defining "truth."

Uses of Truth - May 29, 2006
Just like the title says.

A Revaluation of All Values - June 8, 2006
The first round in a discussion of morality.

Words as Pockets - June 13, 2006
More semiotics. This post is pretty essential, in my opinion.

Thinking - June 25, 2006
Asking why philosophy matters.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Another mile down the road. . .

In the previous post, I spoke of empirical facts and empirical conclusions. Here, I'll offer definitions of both and problematize their relationship.

Empirical facts are objects that make up the physical world. Even more specifically than that, they are the objects that make up one's own experienced world. The mouse beside your hand, the chattering people in the room around you, the air you breathe, and - significantly for future posts - the words on the computer screen you're reading now. Observed human behavior, also significant for future posts, also counts as being a fact. We all operate in the world of empirical facts; this is our common ground. We can all be killed by the truck on the highway.

Empirical conclusions are accounted-for sets of empirical facts. These conclusions do not share the same unavoidable nature(remember, the object objects) as the facts they are built with. Different facts are highlighted for us to different degrees according to the interests of our imago. Person 1 is interested in facts A, B and C, but is uninterested in fact D and is unaware of fact E. Person 2 is interested in facts B and C, but is uninterested in A and unaware of both D and E. Person 1 and person 2 will come to hold different conclusions, even if they strive to be empirical.

It is important to maintain the distinction between facts and conclusions. Conclusions are mistaken for facts on a fairly regular basis. Facts are atomistic; that is, they are the basic constituents of the world around us. The photos of New York City I have seen are facts; the existence of the city itself is a conclusion. This computer I see in front of me is a fact; the existence of others "like" it is not.

To a certain extent, we all live in the world of empirical conclusions, even if these conclusions are articulated in a completely different way. We all live in a world that includes New York City and Compaq laptops. However, because we are all interested in and aware of different facts, there will always be a multiplicity of conflicting conclusions and bodies of knowledge (a definition of knowledge can wait).

I should make clear that my idea of the "fact" is descriptive and really just a tautology. My idea of the "conclusion" has both an element of tautological descriptiveness and an element of proscription. We all use empirical conclusions, some are just more circumspect and less thorough-going than a committed empiricist. Examples would be rationalists and fideists.

I think I've already laid out a respectable and convincing case against this, however. To beat a dead horse, incorrect empirical facts and conclusions can get you killed must faster than incorrect rational notions, thus leaving your side of the debate voiceless.

So, what exactly is the path from facts to conclusions? Well... why we travel from facts to conclusions to whatever your system defines as knowledge is one thing. At base, it's about power. Knowledge is power. I think it is an easily observable human trait - an empirical conclusion - that humans want their worlds to be a systematic, ordered place. Even Buddhists develop complicated metaphysics. Blindspots in our knowledge not only resurrect our childlike/evolved fear of the dark, they also cast doubt on the quality and value of our personal centre. Ignorance makes us afraid of the world, and it makes us feel bad about ourselves. That's why we travel from facts to conclusions to knowledge. Rationalists, fideists and empiricists do it the same way. Why is a matter for psychology and an anthropological philosophy.

How we make that journey is an entirely different question. A description of this would itself neither be a fact or a conclusion. It's not a physical object or an observed behavior pattern, and it isn't an accounted-for set of facts. How can we move past that question of why - which if fail to do, we will most certainly end in a naive relativism?

So what is that description? Looks like we need a third epistemological concept. Look at the above paragraph about why; can you see where I am speaking of conclusions and where I am speaking of something else entirely?

Look! If you come to the same answer I do, then I'm leading you just fine.

Hmm. I feel like I'm about to write myself into a corner. I'm going to go eat dinner... I'll pick this up at another time.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Empiricism and Death

Ok, I'm going to continue on a topic that I first commented on last August. Epistemology: theories about knowledge. How we gain it, how we verify it, how we use it. This is part one, and is only an intro.

How we gain knowledge is perhaps the logic starting point; how do we gather information? How do our brains (and whatever other part of us that use information, ie a hypothetical soul) interact and organize the input received from our senses? Do we have innate characteristics that organize this information for us, or are we completely blank slates?

I can't help but think one would partly need a heavy background in neurology to deal with those questions. Answering the question of how we gather and process information must be at least in part biological, quite apart from any metaphysical or religious concerns. So in this regard, I'm as handicapped as Kant ever was.

But then, perhaps the acquisition of pure information is not the necessary starting point. Perhaps we need to know how to verify and use information before we can even talk about how we gather it in the first place. After all, how can we discuss the acquisition of information without first learning the language that allows us to discuss it? We can all agree we acquire information; the mechanics of this can be left for later, more theoretical discussions.

So that leaves two topics. How do we verify our information, and what do we use this information for. In other words, how do we test for truth, and what do we use this purported truth for?

The verification of statements is a tricky thing. It's so tricky that it is common to conclude that we can't really know anything for sure. Or even worse, there is the conclusion that all human knowledge ultimately rests on something called "faith."

The so-called "conclusion" of extreme skepticism isn't really a conclusion at all, and I doubt anyone other than over eager first year philosophy students would actually attempt to defend it. Holding to an extreme form of skepticism will simply get you killed on a highway when the truck whose existence you are questioning smashes into your puny body.

While we may not be able to articulate exactly how gather information about the physical world, we know that we can indeed gather accurate information. I would argue that this information - aka empirical data - is the primarily, privileged source of information for us. My argument: empirical data is the only information with which we can form conclusions that can either kill us or keep us alive.

To get a feel of how this argument goes, cast your eyes back to this post about suicide. I said that there is a wide range of ideas about the good life, but that there is no real way to choose between them. The only real indicator of one's quality of life is whether or not one wishes to end it. In other words, a life style that leads to suicidal tendencies can't be considered a good life.

In questions of life style, our lives are literally on the line; it is the same with knowledge. If we act by the light of false statements, we'll walk off a cliff or drink poison or get hit by a truck.

Our lives aren't on the line when it comes to other kinds of conclusions. Other statements - moral, theoretical, political, religious - can be pursued and lived by, even if they are false, and you won't necessarily die because of your errors.

We can gather empirical data and form empirical conclusions, and we can all live by these conclusions. What exactly is empirical data, aka facts? Facts are the entities that make up the physical world. We observe connections between these empirical facts - ie causation - and form empirical conclusions. Conclusions which we can then risk our lives by.

(Aside: "Facts" are not synonomous with "truth." Truth is a property of statements, not objects or events. Linguistic expression + empirical facts = "truth." That's another post, though.)

We'll all fly in planes; big hunks of metal 4-5 kilometers above the Earth. We hold the empirical conclusion that the principles between flight are accurate because the empirical facts will support or be easily explained by any other conclusion. We'll do it, because we all trust empirical conclusions. If empirical conclusions were truely wishy washy and worthy of the extreme skepticism offered by some, then a lot more planes would be inexplicably dropping out of the sky.

There's a phrase that must always be remembered when talking about our knowledge of the physical world, and it really is a fundemental axiom: the object objects. The physical world places limits on the truthful statements we can make about it.

I can hear the presuppers now; accepting the regularity of the world must be taken on faith. You can't really know that the sun will come up tommorow, and saying that it will is a statement backed by faith. As if there was an element of uncertainty that can never be exorcized from human life. Presuppers are haunted by their own latent philosophical nihilism; they're the other side of the extreme skeptic coin.

Well, I would point them in the direction of the concept of reasonable doubt. It is indeed possible to doubt anything and everything. Every statement can be doubted.

Some statements can be rejected in life, though. There may be theoretical room to doubt the regularity of the natural world and the safety of my flight, but I can easily lay my life on the line and live by the expectation of regularity. What other definition of "certainty" can anyone wish except that you can calmly put your life in the hands of a particular conclusion?

All this stuff I've basically said before. The new stuff will be in upcoming posts. One will be about truth as a property of statements, Another will be about the role of theory in a rigidly empirical epistemology. Then I'll talk about how historians, scientists, homocide investigators and philosophers can all use the same principles.

Monday, March 20, 2006


So here's part 3 in my little philosophical anthropology.

So: fundamentally, our efforts are devoted to justifying and pursuing our imago. If there is a difference between justification and pursuit, it is thus: our pursuit of our imago lies in the activities that we perform to take up certain roles in life. Our justification of our imago lies in the ways we attempt to add value to our imago itself.

Now, how do we increase/justify the value of our imago? Social recognition.

Consider gold. The value of gold lies entirely outside of practical concerns; gold's value is a purely social construct. If no humans recognized the value of gold, it would just be lumps of rock. It is the recognition of gold in the eyes of people that gold gains its value.

Our imagos are largely the same. Basically, we all want social value. We want others to Desire us. I wrote a bit about capital-D Desire near the bottom of this post. We need others to look at us and find us valuable.

Now, this is slightly different from one's value hierarchy. Saying that your "self" ranks high in your value hierarchy is not the same as social recognition. Your value hierarchy is basically a cognitive tool for judging the world; social recognition is part of our attempt to engineer the world into our own image. When we know others value us, it provides confirmation of the value of our personal centre (where our imago and highest values intersect). It is one of the two ways we can confirm the value of our personal centre; the other way is through actions, such as exercising our talents.

Social recognition also plays another role: it exercises and increase our power. When others value you, you increase your power; aka you increase your ability to engineer the world in your own image. Just like physical muscles. Working towards social recognition exercises our muscles, and gaining recognition acts like nutrients.

Social recognition is one of the most important aspects in our fight against nihilistic suicide. Being valued by others, and having a high social position, confirms and inceases the value of our centre and whole meaning structure.

So how to gain recognition? There are two ways: empathy and dominance. Empathy is a matter of two people seeing themselves in each other. You look at another personal, you are able to identify with them on some level. This provides them with recognition, and when they emphathize with you, you gain recognition from them.

Dominance is different. There is only one context that "equality" can possibly exist in human life, and that is within a complex legal system. Equal before the law and whatnot. Other than this, however, our lives are constant struggles over dominance and submission. You'll never find a social situation in which someone is not dominant. One person's meaning structure and power will always - even if subtly - shape the nature of any social situation. If you play the dominant role, than you gain more recognition from the submissive than the submissive gains from you. Um... I don't mean to sound so S&My. Really.

Empathy isn't better than dominance and vice versa. They have a strange relationship, and there are counterfeits of both. All for later dates, though. This is long enough already.

So: the justification of our imago takes place largely in the social world. Recognition tells us we are valuable and increases our ability to affect the world We gain recogition through mutual empathy and a master/slave relationship.

Questions? Yawns? Baffled looks?

(Post script: in later posts, probably about religion, I'll say that what we want is the recognition of "active subjects," or "knowing Is." Spirits such as God would then be included. But it's not important for now.)

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Laboring In The World

Or Loose Ends part 2.

So, to recap the previous post. I talked about how our imago is the foundation of our motivations in life, and how the knowledge that we build up over our lives is used by our imago, and how that imago regulates the significance of particular statements. Our primary use of information - be it education in carpentry, math or theology - is giving aid to justifying and pursuing our imago, the horizon of our efforts.

So, what do I mean by justifying and pursuing? Attempting to justify our imago is about asserting the significance or value of that image. It shares a lot in common with what we normally mean by "building confidence." That's the personal aspect of it; however there is more to it. We attempt to justify our imago in order to gain recognition from other humans. That is the common denominator of all social relations - the quest for recognition. More on this later.

Pursuing our imago centres around actions. Now, I'm going to be a bit cheap and lazy here: I'm going to set forth a rather strange and counter intuitive thesis, and then not defend it fully. We primarily perform actions not for the productive or practical benefits they offer, but rather because of how particular actions allow us to "look like" our imago.

Why do people become doctors? For sake of being doctors. Not to help others; the concern for the welfare of others (which is a real concern!) is secondary to the importance of the doctor pursuing their imago.

There's some ambiguity, of course. We all have careers for social purposes - people without jobs are bums. But this is simply another aspect of our imago at work. Even the seemingly mercinary goal of earning gobs of money has this truly unproductive and impractical fundamental purpose of pursuing the imago. I'm not saying practicality and productivity are not a part of our decision making processes. I'm saying the primary, fundamental drive is the attempt to assume our imago and to be just like that image we see in the mirror.

Now, justifying our imago works in two ways. One, the knowledge we have allows us to pursue our imago in fuller and more complete ways. I don't really mean to sound Platonic here... or maybe I do. I'm not sure. Anyways. If you know you're a kick ass carpenter, then you can more completely justify your own value relative to your imago's ideal. But even here, practicality and productivity take a back seat; the main concern is one's perception of their abilities and the resultant practical benefits. Hair splitting is fun for the whole family!

So the carpenter works for the usual reasons. He doesn't want to be a welfare bum. However, if he is a lucky man, than he also wants to be a carpenter. Being a carpenter helps him pursue his imago. So he builds a cabinet. Productivity is a seconary matter; so why does a carpenter take such pleasure in a well built cabinet?

A parallel motivation to wanting to be something: we also want the world to reflect our efforts and desires. When the carpenter builds a cabinet, he has taken some raw wood, and with his own labour, he has changed a part of the world to reflect his desires for the world. He has recreated at least a part of the world in his own image. This is the pleasure we take in our work. An addition source of pleasure is the exercise of power; both the labour and the skill required to build a cabinet are expresses of power.

Think about it. What is one of the surest ways to claw at someone? Call their work or art shit. And some of the highest praise you'll ever receive is towards work that is close to your heart. That's because it really is a piece of you.

Once the cabinet is complete, it becomes a tool for him to pursue some other goal. It can allow him to participate in the economy by selling it, or it will allow him to store his equipment in style, or it will gain him social recognition when others acknowledge his skill.

Ideas work the same way. Building what a presupper would call a worldview has many common denominators with building a cabinet. You select the body of knowledge your imago needs, and carefully build it with propositions and conclusions and concepts and whatnot. If you are really good, then you come out with a system you find coherant and useful. If you're kinda lousy at it, you end up an Evangelical. I JEST! ha, ha.

We're all engineers of our own worlds; some of us do it better than others. Some of us are so terrible at it that we lay on the couch all day sinking into depression, and some of us are are so God awful at it that we swallow a bottle of pills.

So, that's pursuing. Justifying next time.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Loose Ends

Now is the time on Sprockets in which we attempt to clarify and expand some past statements. Huzzah for quantity over quality!

Here's the last several posts in a nutshell:

As infants, we basically exist as radical empiricists. We know only what is right in front of us and what is inside us - ie, our hunger. A baby is a more consistant and thorough empiricist than David Hume ever was.

As we begin to conceive of the world as a discontinuous place (the mirror stage) and acquire language, our thought necassarily becomes more abstract. More symbolic, more concept based.

With the aid of our primary care givers (and possibly even a physical mirror) we begin to develop an idea of what we are, or what we should be. As the mirror stage metaphor goes, we see ourselves in a mirror, and our mothers say "Yes! That's you! Aren't you just so cute!" We see that image, we take it up, and it becomes our imago. Of course, it isn't us; it's a mirror image and we can't ever actually be that image. Our imago forms the horizon of our personal efforts - and like every other horizon, you can't actually reach it. It just moves further and further away.

Now, we live in a real world and there are facts about this world. Without getting into a discussion about theories of knowledge or tests for truth (they can come later), there is such a thing as a true statement. The thing is, our world contains such a vast number of possible true statements - or at least approximations of true statements - that no one human being can gather them all.

So which (potentially true or false) statements do we show interest in? The ones that serve our pursuit of our imago. I think the imago is basically a psychological concept, and as such I can only skirt around the edges of it. That being said, we find statements that we believe justify and aid the pursuit of our imago.

One can use both false and true statements to pursue their imago. This, I think, is what trips up pure subjectivists. You know, the people who think every truth statement is purely subjective. Statements that are false are almost or just as effective as statements that are true. Anyone who says their highest goal is the pursuit of truth is off the mark; their true highest goal is to believe and act as if their highest goal is the pursuit of truth.

An important point: while the actual truth of a statement is not vitally important, our belief about the truth of that statement is. Doubting a statement reduces its value in justifying and pursuing. And doubts about the justifications of our imago result in doubts about the value of our lives.

The statements that most readily aid and justify become the most important to us. Hence, our hierarchy of value. We also consider these statements to be the most true. It's the stuff we just won't question. This is also the stuff that the martyr and the seppuku-er die for. I like to steal Paul Tillich's term "the personal centre" and use it to describe how our imago and our most important statements interact; it's our personal identity.

The body of statements that aid our pursuit, as well as the (relatively) less interesting body of statements that we give intellectual ascent to but do not really care about, form our body of knowledge.

That's enough for one post. More later.