Nov 13 2007
philosophy for life in
This school of philosophy has a bit different origin. You have the Garden
of Epicurus, you have some pythagorean retreat, and you have even the
hardship embracing stoics, chatting on a painted porch, but the founder of
cynicism had a very different origin, the streets. He was homeless, he
begged, he lived in extreme poverty. He made a virtue of it, he was a student
of Antisthenes, whom Plato said was present at the death of Socrates… he
was known and respected, but his worldview involved waging “a crusade of
antisocial mockery, hoping to show by their own example the hollow illusions
of social life”, in the words of the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.
Have you seen anyone, say, on the internets, wage such a crusade of
antisocial mockery? I have as a matter of fact. Cynicism is probably the most
defensible of all these schools on relevance to the modern condition, it
reflects a condition we have had consistently for the 2400 years since
Diogenes, and longer than that before. One seeks to condemn the philosophy
and philosopher, but it is drawn from realities in our culture.
I think it’s fair to think of each of these philosophies as suiting, or at
leasts adapted to, different specific niche environments, contexts within our
culture, certain subcultures or roles in culture that lend themselves to
certain realities… realities being what honest philosophers (perhaps a rare
breed) attempt to make world views of. And for the cynics, that is life in
Nov 06 2007
Philosophy On A Porch
Pythagoras: A Mathematical Universe
Most of you will know Pythagoras from the Pythagorean Theorum, but
Pythagoras was not just a mathematician and geometrician. His mathematics was
not separate from his life and his ideas were not limited to mathematics. As
with all these ancient philosophies I am covering in this series, Pythagoras’
is also has a whole system concerned with how to live… a worldview. This
worldview is what I am looking at in this series, because these philosophies
serve as archetypes for worldviews, archetypes I seem to encounter daily, and
which you do to. Archetypes not fundamental, but nevertheless ancient and
soaked into us. The epicurean is looking for a pleasurable life, to find the
small pleasures and live simply Simply, perhaps, but still nearby these
pleasures. The stoic is more hardened, does not expect pleasure as reward and
even scoffs at it as such, being as indifferent to pleasure as they have
chosen to be to pain. The pythagoreans then are those that have their head in
abstractions. One imagines the sort that has had no time for epicurean
pleasures like meals, having been preoccupied with a logical proof. To these
sort, the sublime superiority of a mathematical pattern was and remains as
obvious as the rising sun.
Indeed, the followers of Pythagoras were prone to taking Pythagoras himself
as a god become human to teach mankind these sublime truths. I do not find it
surprising that such a man led to a philosophy including vegetarianism and a
semi-divine presumption. If that sound dismissive, I share the pythagorean’s
sensibilities, if more humbly so, with an eye to the errors it introduces
with its beauties. As for the nearly religious awe I can feel before a
mathematical truth, take pi, a ratio that relates, among other things, the
length of the side of a circle to the length of the sides of a square, such
that, if you were to take the width of a square, and the radius of the circle
having the same circumference as the “circumference” of the square, then the
relation between the two involves a number whose digits never end, which
cannot be finitely represented. To me that’s stunning, but that turning
square into a circle requires a transcendental number is not stunning but
fitting. It is sublime, divine, and while expected, only ironically. And that
the ratio is well named as a “transcendental” number is no doubt a product of
our shared if inexplicable love for the beauty of math and geometry.
Concomitant to this, however, is removal of the self from the material
world into the world of abstraction and the illusion that abstractions are
not even of this world. The pythagorean spirit, as archetype, might not even
concern itself with math or geometry, but some other family of abstractions.
But abstraction are made from material facts, from astronomy, from counting,
from imperfectly drawn lines in the sand, and from deducing concepts that can
explain the facts abstracted all at once. This has proved a practical and
rewarding endeavor, but it is a part of the loss of reason to consider an
abstraction so fine it’s not a part of this world. But now I have begun to
describe Plato… Pythagoras himself might in fact object, thinking the world
of mathematics imbued the world around us all the material reality it had for
us to perceive. If I may accept this archetype in such a light, it remains a
tactile abstractionism, we feel the mathematical world about us always. We
are not imperfect beings separated from this glory, but are abstract beauties
ourselves, actually made of it.
Oct 23 2007
The “If-Then”: Natural Language vs. Formal Logic
Philosophy of The Conditional
Logic vs Natural Language
Ok, this is a strange thing. I put it in a video, because I want to. But I
know many of you are written word junkies, and believe, I mean that
literally, and in the kindest but also you-may-need-help way, so I will
explain my brief point.
The logical form of the “if-then”, such as “if A then B”, is The
Conditional, and it’s a fundamental part of and a basic building blocks of
formal logic, and for that matter, informal logic, and il-logic. But it is
defined in a way that is very different and strange when compared to the
natural language conditional.
A –> B is a way of saying “if A then B”.
A strange thing in logic is that “A –> B” is untrue, false, when A is
true, and B is false. So that leads to two strange things about the
conditional used in formal logic.
Firstly, it means that if both A and B are false, then then A –> B is
true… we wouldn’t think that in natural language. “If bananas are blue then
oceans are made of ginger ale” is true? Maybe, on the theory also supported
in logic that with nonsense you can prove any other nonsense.
Secondly, and what I address in the short video below, meant to either
relax or stimulate you, either way, is the fact that if B is true, then it
doesn’t matter if A is true or false. Contrary to that in natural language it
matters that A is related to B somehow, regardless of the truth value, as
they call it, of A and B.
The example from the video:
If I have viable orange seeds, then I can grow an orange tree.
A = I have viable orange seeds.
B : I can grow an orange tree.
In the historical mainstream of formal logic A–>B here is true because
“I can grow an orange tree” is true. In natural language, it’s also true,
but not for that reason, it’s true because both A and be both mention
oranges, and thus have a relationship, which happens to be true, because
orange trees come from orange seeds.
In logic, this is also true “if I have a puppy, then I can grow an orange
tree”. In natural language that is not true, unless there is some link
between the puppy and the orange tree.
I love logic, but it’s a tool, and I think this is a very serious issue in
terms of what the limitations are for logic as we understand it right now in
terms of applicability to the natural world. It is possibly this logic
holding us back from abstract gains in knowledge in fields other than
physics, due to small errors in ancient logical tools meant, really, to
codify our true thoughts on “if then”.
Oct 16 2007
Philosophy On A Porch
As with most of these schools I’ll cover, the name of the school has come
to have a common modern meaning. If it’s fair or not is for someone else to
decide, as a skeptic I’m a bit biased but it seems to me the modern meaning of “stoic” get’s at the meaning of the original school better
than the Epicureans got with “epicurean”. An ancient stoic would have less objection to being called stoic in modern terms than and ancient Epicurean would being called an epicurean in the modern sense, which would offend them.
To be stoic is to be resolute in the face of adversity, to uphold virtue, usualy in a traditional sense of virtue. One
thing about the name, and the school, which reflects back on Epicurus’ false
reputation is that the Stoics are named after the Place where Zeno of Citium
taught, the Stoa Poikile, the Painted Porch, rather than after Zeno of
Citium. As a result, and due to a long life of the school, the stoic philosophy
various stages and had a chance to become something different from Zeno’s
philosophy. If it was a refinement or blurring is a matter of interpretation but whatever Epicurus’ self-described followers believed, his philosophy remains
a particular thing attached to his original thinking in spite of how it might be used as an excuse for
indulgence. In contrast to that, and also as a major
contemporary opponent of Epicureanism, Stoicism comes to represent a spirit. It becomes an approach, and that approach was traditionalism. That the world is knowable turns easilly into a belief that it is known, that the our leaders are the right leaders, that our traditions are not random, but sublimely reasonable.
Frankly, the Stoics are conservative in my book, but in moderation, and as such still have
some sage advice. Indeed, I often notice the stoic in the principled conservative, as the source of their misalignment with the Republican party, just a soul seeking a no nonsense strong will, sympathetic to tradition, and accepting the hardness of life as a given. Whomever you are, aometimes you have to be stoic, you ought to be. Sometimes
you owe it to someone, to civil rights, for example, and you have to stand
bravely against something hard. Sometimes such resolve requires philosophy, a philosophy where
virtue is a higher value than practicality… than fear, where hardship is a given and the mind spends no time railing against the unfairness of it all. Alternately, sometimes life is
hard, and the practical thing is in fact the stoic approach, “Don’t Panic”… and the Stoic philosophy is fairly
good at facing such natural adversity. The Stoics are
traditionalists, and take comfort in the certainty tradition offers.
If you want the details of such exchanges of control over the Stoic school and its teachings,
check out the links to the right. The final stages are dominated by an era of
“Roman Stoicism” and this philosophy represents a kind of more chaste Roman
than one might imagine from reading Gaius Petronius.
The Stoics ended up over time favoring a lot of conventional wisdom of the
sort that believes in the rules. They believe in order, it is both a
criticism and compliment to say they make apathy a virtue. I for one have more
sympathy with apathy as a value than traditionalism. Zeno held
that only living virtuously had value, all else was “indifferent”. This is
potentially the philosophy of a hardy soul. The term stoic isn’t quite fair
to that model because it implies something more resolute and less tender… so remember
the stoic of real virtue and endurance can be the noble political activist. Being
too rigid, too stoic, can be a vice when times are good, but when there is an
emergency, and a cousin has broken his leg on a family camping trip miles
from help, the family turns to the stoic members to bear their burdens and carry them through.
Stoicism is a very familiar philosophy, it can be going down with the ship with
dignity, or just as a way to endure winter without
the sort of panic and drama that besets the, well, less stoic. I’ll be honest,
appeal to me in nearly as pleasant ways as Epicureanism…
Below more technical details about the Stoics.
Oct 09 2007
As with most of these schools I’ll cover, the name of the school has come to have a common modern meaning. Also, as with most, the modern understanding of the term “epicurean” misrepresents the school. I will leave it to the historians of philosophy to gather why misunderstandings stand in common language about these schools, but I will also add that there are also relations in a warped way to the original.
A not particularly common but still well established understanding of “Epicurean” is one who likes fine foods and luxuries of that sort, good hosting, good service, the attendances of wealth, and which is, by that taste, indulgent. But Epicurus advocated the the opposite: personal restraint and intentional simplicity of pleasures. The relation by which the indulgent term comes is that the simple pleasures of life are, indeed, things like a pleasant meal.
Epicurus advocated an idea by which the more extreme the pleasures you sought, the more extreme the displeasure will also be, the greater your misery. Simple pleasures enjoyed well, like an afternoon at the ocean, can give exquisite pleasure, the reasoning goes, to make for an excellent and enjoyable life. But they are also mild enough according to Epicurus to lead to only mild displeasures (eating sand? salt rashes?). The combination, according to Epicurus, is the way to live well and have a good life.
These ancient schools generally take their goal as seeking a well lived life. Perhaps that means a tranquil life, but by whatever criteria, to be “satisfied” or, at least, “proper”, they seek good living. They offer principles and usually also a set of interpretations of life drawn from those principles. Note for example that the Epicurean approach does not strictly require seeking mild pleasures. It is also in accord with Epicurus’ principles to live extremely, if one realized this mean putting up with extreme misery, or at least, risk of that. However, one might, and some do, argue that is worth it in order to obtain extreme pleasure. And in this interpretation of Epicurus we reach a hedonistic philosophy for those willing to accept extreme risks, and therein a philosophical explanation for the extreme sports..
We all know modern Epicureans, I hope, for they make excellent friends. They are great to dine with, they care about subtlety in food, music, art and relaxation with the simple pleasures of life. They are able to enjoy pleasures with modest costs, so not only the best, most rare, wines, but also those of the common, reasonably priced wines. Your Epicurean friend knows which of these modest pleasures is still crafted with care and craft. I think an element of this philosophy is essential to a good life, and I side with the ancients that the purpose of a good philosophy is a good life. Epicurean sentiments, with a taste for high quality in the modest pursuits allows us to live without a lot of materialist anxiety on the one hand, but also without the life denying depravity of eschewing material pleasures on the other. Epicureanism provides a modest avenue for acknowledging and within reason embracing, the carnal pleasures.
Below, I will share some of the interesting points Oxford’s Dictionary of Philosophy shared.
Sep 26 2007
A lot of people say I’m confusing, and at least one reason is easy problems are no fun… once it’s easy, why bother. Well, I do know reasons to bother with them, so here are some easy things:
Health Care: we should have nationalized health care.
Drug War: There is no drug war… drugs should be legal along with medical care.
Abortion: Abortion is a serious and grave personal decision, as is the decision to have open heart surgery. Its also a medical decision for a person to ultimately make for themselves on consultation with a doctor.
Guns, War and the Military: I will not say that military is necessary in the world, but right now, the power of the world is still in GUNS. That’s just a fact of life. As for war, all war involves war crimes, which are some of the most horrific crimes known to humanity, and should only be undertaken fully realizing the crime one has willfully endeavored to engage in. The “noble purpose” is soiled, at best, and better be very important… in short the enemy really better be a hitler.
Sep 18 2007
My views on rules for blogs have changed to, essentially, “I no longer care really”, except that I do still like them to be stated. But in reality, my views have not changed, because my views, such as they are, are a superset of ideas, various different and contradictory actions, only a few of which will be my position based on a particular context, based on whats going on at the time. The views some on this site remember me for were based on the Peer to Peer Phenomenon of Amazingness Roll through Politics like a Tornado leaving the blogosphere. It’s like a tornado from the twighlight zone, instead of turning trailer parks and suburbs into wreckage and waste it took the wreckage and waste of politics and turns it into trailer parks and suburbs.
Sep 18 2007
I talk a lot about peer to peer politics and when I do I am referring to a very deep cultural framework, that is, the framework of an extended sub-culture which helped fire the net to life. The culture does not have a single name but it is one I consider the kernel of the net, it is the original source of the online culture as we know it, the origin of many of its traditions and standards (netiquette? obviously mostly forgotten). The sentiments of this culture explain many of the mysteries of the net. It is part cryptoanarchis, part geeks that matter, and part realization… the realization that distributed networks are needed in place of traditional centralized ones.
Whenever people gather throughout history, you have had human networks, the internet only speeds that up and gives us a venue, virtual community, with which to experiment.
It is my history in this culture which is the source of my fascination with virtual cultures as well as with wherever the edge of the peer to peer fire has rearranged the landscape. This phenomenon of peer to peer networks has struck, stunned, and subtly reformed many public debates. These debates are allowed to extend beyond the experts, many of whom were charlatans in industries whose internal debate needed the reform. When peer to peer networks take on a subject, more than anything else they shine a light on the proceedings.
Hobby by hobby this phenomenon spread, starting with things of interest to early adopters, things like Monty Python, Star Trek, and News for Nerds. It has progressed through a list of hobbies for shut-ins and want to be shut-ins (no offense intended) and subsequently through to politics, politics as a hobby.
Sep 10 2007
A few days ago at Talk Left Big Tent Democrat wrote a piece on his take on Matt Stoller’s and Glen Greenwald’s position on the Iraq war. In short he characterizes the position if not as defeatist, then somehow improperly resigned pessimism. Big Tando Dem quotes their willingness to cede the issue to a post-Bush world optimistically also known as “2009”. I agree with him on various things here: that Stoller is an ineffective activist and pundit both, except to be fair, I’m not paying attention, he could be brilliant and I wouldn’t know, I do not follow him at all except as he arises from time to time regarding things like Townhouse List or the “More $$$ for Bloggers! Movement”™.
Glen defends himself with this reply that leads to the point here:
Feel free to cheer for the war’s end. I do the same. But that doesn’t make it likely to happen.
And if Democrats are failing to stop the war – as they are – why should anyone refrain from being honest and saying so?
To which BigTentDemocrat replies:
But the question is why? To pressure them to react and do the right thing? OR to just say so?
We all have eyes. The question is what we want them to do and how to make them do it, if we can.