Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Scientists might be close to develop a drug to cure fear. For specific applications, like the ones on which the article focuses, this seems like a good idea. But I also think the author glosses a bit too quickly over the broader ethical implications of this sort of biotechnology.

Albert Camus gave a brave speech in Algeria in 1956, to stop the violence against civilians perpetrated both by the French colonial government and the National Liberation Front. It didn’t work. Still, can it teach us something about the modern “war on terror”?

Do we really suffer from information overload? Should we try to do something about it? Is this a new problem? Regardless, you can participate in a NPR-sponsored study of the issue.

Girlfriend? Mother? Professor? On the peculiar challenges of being a woman college faculty. (Even though I think some of the author’s generalizations about men’s behavior are rather facile and not evidence-based, as they say these days.)

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110 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. Hi michaelfugate,

    I must say I did not get what you were saying either, I had the same reaction as Dan. I am not sure that biological understanding has to do with it. In the first place we do not really understand what it is the mind does well enough for a biological argument to be of any use here. In the second place, would any great work of art be any less great or even different if it had turned out that we had a little assembly of tiny brass cogs in our heads?

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  2. Eric,

    But as I also point out, evolution is not the only path to meaning. A mind could directly and randomly fluctuate into existence from a physicist’s idea of ‘nothing’, think about meaning, and then immediately fluctuate back out of existence. This could happen infinitely many times. Evolution is not even necessarily the most common path to meaning under a Naturalist assumption.

    He might be right. Maybe there was a definite starting point to reality and only one universe and no seething foam of stuff from whence it sprung. But I don’t think you can assume that to be the case.

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  3. But as far as I can see there is only a semantic problem – ie Coel did not mean to say that the Universe was devoid of meaning, but that the Universe itself has no meaning. Which is, as far as I can see, as true and trivial as saying that the square root of two has no momentum.

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  4. …we do not really understand what it is the mind brain does well enough for a biological argument to be of any use here.

    But if you only understood biology, even in the least, you would see that this is not important. It is not even biology, it is what nature does. The point is that intelligence is overrated as a creative tool. Humans, vain as we are, are trial and error creators at best – no different than non-intelligence such as natural selection. There is not the least bit of evidence for top-down intelligence as an explanation of the universe.

    This is not to belittle any other way of human understanding – which are all important. I am not advocating scientism. I am just trying to point out that humans just aren’t that damn smart and to try to analogize our puny abilities to creating a universe is misguided.

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  5. The question suggests itself – if a mind fluctuates directly into existence and experiences meaning based on a deep love and care for a child who does not actually exist, would that meaning be the same as for the molecule-for-molecule identical equivalent which evolved and whose child actually did exist?

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  6. michaelfugate wrote:

    Also before blithely dismissing arguments, would it be too much to ask for even a minimum of basic biological understanding or do only human emotions matter?

    ———————–

    Emotions have nothing to do with it. I don’t believe that biology has anything interesting to tell us about the kind of meaning that we are talking about in this thread. It operates at the wrong level of description.

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  7. Robin, yes perhaps there are other paths to meaning than evolution, and fluctuantions might indeed occur. Yes something could theoretically happen an infinite amount of times, though I think I’ve mentioned to you before that I do have a problem with “natural infinity.” Infinity is not a number, and in nature I presume numerical occurrences. But yes, evolution is just a naturalistic theory, so I can’t comment on associated commonalities. If I (and perhaps Massimo) am right that there is just one finite universe, then well, this doesn’t much matter, does it? But I only “presume” this to be the case. As the English comedian Benny Hill once taught me, “When you *assume*, you make and ass, out of u, and me!” 🙂 Then as for your next comment, yes nothing can be expressed in one of our languages that’s not a semantic issue. Apparently semantics is how we express ourselves.

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  8. The problem I see is the issue of defining something, versus explaining it. In that to define something, we reduce it to to its clearest and most essential form, while to explain something, we need to place it in the broadest context of input and output.

    As such, meaning is more a function of explanation, rather than definition. In that it is based on the input and output, connections, etc of an event/person/object/etc. If we try to define something, then all those connections, events, emotional relations, etc, would be left out. Yet to really explain something, we need to focus on its individual history and network of relations, etc. and that is what gives it meaning.

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  9. Brodix, I do wish that someone with the proper pedigree would take my theory on the nature of definition, and then go off to become famous as the person who finally defined definition. Thus people might have better tools from which to comprehend my own ideas.

    No, defining something is far more simple than reducing it “to its clearest and most essential form.” Definition is quite arbitrary, as well as true by definition. Thus if you want to define something, then do it however you like — you can’t possibly be wrong! But does your definition happen to be useful? That’s the only practical question. (Thus “meaning” is simply a human term that you can define however you like, though hopefully you can do so usefully.)

    Then as far as “explaining something” goes, this represents my only other philosophical theory. Here we take what we think we know (evidence), and then use this to assess ideas that we’re not so sure about (theory). If you’re able to use your definitions to build a theory which corresponds with what we think we know, then you may indeed give us an idea which is of practical use. I do hope that each of us is able to become successful in this regard some day.

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  10. Eric,

    I see this misstep frequently from people who believe they have discovered The True Philosophy (their own or another’s), and are convinced that if readers don’t get what they are saying, or read it in contextual ways they won’t allow, or expect clarification in commonly understood conversational terms, that there is something wrong with the readers, or with the conventions of normal conversation, or with commonly understood language usage.

    Language does not function communicatively that way. Language has never functioned that way. Language cannot function that way. Language is a communal system of verbal signification that came before us, prepared us in our youth, and will speak eulogies over our graves.

    Of course language changes over time; But this takes concerted responses by groups of people engaged in determined efforts to do so. It may be a collection of academic professionals, it may be an ethnic minority unsatisfied with expected norms, it may be poets or novelists looking for better ways to express themselves – but it’s always a group, it is *never* an individual, and it is never achieved through a top-down injunction. Esperanto failed, Positivist purifications failed, puritanical grammarians have failed – all efforts to ‘clarify’ language from some supposed position of wisdom ‘outside of language’* will inevitably fail. Language just is, in the first instance, what we speak; and what we speak, if it is to communicate, must respect the expectations of our audience. Refusal here leads to isolation, not to superior authority or winning arguments.

    As to the question, whether ‘pain’ is ‘meaningful’ to a cat: here the distinction between semiotics and philosophy of language may be useful. If a cat steps on a thorn and thereby reacts in a manner attempting riddance of the invasive object, we can indeed say (semiotically) that its sensations have *significance* – the sensation signifies the invasion into the body of the foreign material, as immediate response to the thorn as sign of threat, calling forth the ‘ridding’ response.

    That doesn’t make it ‘meaningful’ in the semantic sense, since this requires an ability to formulate the experience conceptually for verbal expression.

    This also illuminates the issues of whether there is inherent meaning to the universe or to life. The universe is filled with signs that can be responded to as such – but only by living beings, since that is in the nature of life, that it is responsive to the stimuli it encounters as significant to its survival in one way or another.

    But if meaning is a function of language, then only an intelligent species capable of language (and humans are the only species we know to be so capable) will be able to ‘make’ or ‘find’ or other wise articulate meaning, for meaning to be understood.

    And it has to be understood, by those of like intelligence, in order to be communicated; elseways we are spinning wheels in isolation. That may make someone feel good about themselves or their ideas; but it won’t effect anyone else’s thought, nor the common language in which these thoughts are communicated.

    Bottom line: If one reader doesn’t understand you, that may be his or her problem. If multiple readers do not quite ‘get it’ or read it differently than you intended, then it is best to rethink your writing strategies.

    Believe me; I been there; I know.
    —–
    *There is no ‘outside of language’ for the human animal; hence no position of pure authority from which to adjudicate and purify language usage.

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  11. addendum to my previous comment:

    I should note that there is not such a thing as ‘The True Philosophy.’ There are only various efforts to come to terms with living life as it is, given the knowledge we have at hand at any given moment, in any given culture in which we live. That frustrates ideologues (like, say, Pol Pot), who feel the need to de-legitimate or suppress alternative philosophies. But philosophy is best understood as a useful conversation among inquiring minds, not as the effort to be ‘right’ about anything.

    Generally, I find that feeling ‘right’ about something usually means being wrong; and I see this recurrently among others as well.

    It is always better to ask the right questions, whether they have answers or no, then insist on ‘right’ answers (which are usually impermanent and myopic anyway).

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  12. Yes EJ, I agree with you entirely about the communal nature of language. But what happens when two people are discussing something, though use separate definitions for one or more critical associated term(s)? They obviously can’t then communicate effectively, and instead inevitably become frustrated with each other. I see this all the time, as I’m sure you do. Dictionaries don’t simply contain one definition for a given term, but of course many. Furthermore there are lots of subtle ways that we use our various terms, and so even comprehensive dictionaries shouldn’t be expected to provide them true justice. Thus I do believe that we need some associated protocol. If you write a paper, I believe that it should be the readers obligation to accept your implicitly or explicitly provided definitions. This should help what I consider to be a horrible problem.

    Now as far as the “meaning” term goes, I do see that you’re using a purely language based definition (such as the one that Daniel Kaufman did ultimately reveal to me). Furthermore if this specific community does tend to use this particular definition, then I won’t bother presenting my own. I actually have lots of standard terms from which to describe my various ideas.

    Regardless I do appreciate you taking this time to help me, and certainly hope for more. As you must know, I do need help!

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  13. Eric,

    “But what happens when two people are discussing something, though use separate definitions for one or more critical associated term(s)?”

    Well, that’s part of what conversation is about, clarification of terms of discourse; but it generally relies on commonly understood definitions (and more importantly, common usage), so that participants have a clear, shared, understanding of the language used. The point, after all, is to come to some agreement on terms, before we get to agreement (or disagreement) on the ideas expressed in the terms. (Or such agreements/disagreements will be expressed at cross-purposes, leading to unresolvable confusions, rather than to positioning of conflicting ideas.)

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  14. Sounds good EJ, though I do often observe people not even attempting to use common definitions. Sometimes I suspect it’s with the theme of “My definition is ‘true’ and therefore you’re wrong.” Then other times I see diverging definitions simply in the attempt to ridicule an adversary. In fact I tend to see such nonsense more often than not! Haven’t you also found this to be a common impediment to rational discussion?

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  15. Hi Robin,

    And, I actually meant that every philosophical position, even Theism, is compatible with a Scientistic approach.

    True, in the sense that in a universe created by a god, where signs of that were present, science could point to theism.

    As I understand it, under scientism, no axiom is a priori and every axiom is up for grabs to be tested empirically. So this would clearly apply to any axiom about self-consistency.

    True. I’ve argued that even the law of non-contradiction is adopted owing to the fact that it empirically works. Which it does in the classical world. One can then say that we do not adopt it for the quantum scale since it doesn’t hold there. If we accept that a particle can be in a superposition of spin-up and not-spin-up (aka spin-down) then LNC doesn’t hold.

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  16. Eric,

    To follow through on Ej’s general position, yes, there is no one true frame/view ideology/language, but the function of communication is to come to some form of mutual agreement. Frequently this doesn’t happen and either people go off in their different directions, or if it seems important enough, the situation heats up and they fight over it, until some far less complex point of connection is made.

    So if you really want to connect with people, you have to figure out what and how they think, not expect them to make the effort to figure out what you think, as they might not feel inclined to do so.

    We all have that basic sense of being at the center of our own universe and tend to organize things thusly, so unless you really manage to present a compelling argument, others will just continue what they are doing.

    Such as now, I have to go off to work and communicate with various equines who don’t much care what I think, unless I convince them it is important.

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  17. Also, there is no “law of non contradiction”, talking that way makes it sound like a claim about reality, which it is not. It is a tautology of logic. To talk of testing it misses the point. One can test if some or other system of logic is useful or not for a given situation, and this is an idea at least as old as Aristotle.

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