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.)

110 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. brodix

    From navigation we get narration-history-culture-civilization-education-? What is this “meaning” you speak of?

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  2. brodix

    Possibly we could equate meaning with purpose? In the sense that the meaning of our ability to consciously sense the world around us, is for the purpose of survival. ?

    Yet couldn’t it then be argued the purpose of a rock is its own existence? Such that it provides its own meaning.

    Otherwise the assumption seems to be that consciousness is the basis of meaning, in that without consciousness, there is no meaning. Yet it seems to me that consciousness is also the source of meaninglessness, in that without the conscious ability to ask questions and thus question the meaning of anything and everything, there would be no problem. It would just be physical interaction and only what doesn’t exist, or maybe just not interact, would have no further function or meaning. It seems the ability to ask “Why?” is the source of meaninglessness, as it considers those things which don’t exist and questions those which do.

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  3. Philosopher Eric

    I’d also like to add a couple of cents to this “meaning” discussion — a personal passion of mine!

    Labnut, one question to consider is how you are defining the term “meaning”? Coel seems to be referring to something associated with general consciousness, while Massimo might have gotten a bit more specific by referencing human consciousness. Either way, most here presume that biological processes produce such “meaning,” and we also generally presume that evolution accomplished this naturally. (Last time I mentioned that this may not be the case however. A god could have produced our entire universe a few minutes ago, and we simply wouldn’t know the difference!)

    Personally however, I like to use a “meaning” definition that goes even deeper than the consciousness which seems to produce it. I like to ask what it is about the conscious mind, which causes the irrelevant existence which we presume for everything else, to have personal relevance? What would need to be removed from a person such that existence would not be good/bad for him/her, or might theoretically be added to a computer to cause existence to be personally relevant to it? I call this presumed product of the conscious mind, “sensations,” such as hope, fear, love, itchiness, beauty, remorse, pain, and so on. If a given insect experiences any level of “pain,” then from this definition, existence will have “meaning” for it.

    Now if you’re asking how nature accomplish such a feat, I have no idea. This question is often referred to as David Chalmers’ “hard problem of consciousness.” Furthermore as I’ve just mentioned, perhaps a god was actually responsible anyway. About this, I care not!

    So what do you think?

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  4. Daniel Kaufman

    It seems to me unintelligible to speaking of something being meaningful, without it being meaningful *to* someone. Ditto for things mattering — they have to matter *to* someone.

    Consequently, speaking of there being meaning in the universe, independently of anything meaning something *to* people strikes me as a kind of deceptively cogent nonsense. We can say such things grammatically, but if one asks oneself what they actually mean, it quickly becomes apparent that we are involved in a category error.

    To speak of the “meaning of life” is to speak of that which makes one’s life significant, special, important, something with which one will be satisfied at the end of it — that sort of thing — and it really means no more (or less). And this is clearly perceiver/conceiver dependent and cannot be spoken about intelligibly in the absence of those perceivers/conceiver in whose case the concept is being invoked.

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  5. Disagreeable Me (@Disagreeable_I)

    Brodix, I’ll probably decline to offer a definition of what “meaning” is. It seems to me that if some people want to hold up “meaning” as something that needs explaining, the onus is on them to define what it is they’re talking about. All I know is that whatever it is, it seems to be something of relevance only to minds. And our minds evolved.

    You say there is a problem if minds are the source of meaning, because minds are also the source of meaninglessness. But the same is true of intelligence and stupidity, so I’m not convinced.

    Also, what Dan said.

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  6. SocraticGadfly

    Michael, that assumes that “counting” is meaningful. As a simple reflexive behavior, it’s not. When counting is done as part of making comparisons or other assessments that rise beyond reflex, it is.

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  7. marc levesque

    Massimo,

    (the big bang brought meaning into the cosmos)
    Biology brought meaning into the cosmos
    Natural selection brought meaning into the cosmos

    The ocean liner brought John to Montreal
    The wheelchair brought John to Montreal
    John’s body brought John to Montreal

    Not a great analogy but isn’t it more accurate to say biology brought meaning into the universe?

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  8. Philosopher Eric

    Daniel I agree entirely with your comment that “meaning” in any normal sense, will require a subject. Furthermore if you are defining the term such that it only references human subjects, then I can’t object — you’re free to define it however you like. But I did make it quite clear in my own comment that I was referencing a concept that was beyond human traits. From this definition, if all humans were to die, then meaning would still exist among the conscious forms of life that remain. Furthermore my actual theory is that meaning doesn’t just exist as consciousness, but rather as the positive/negative sensations which consciousness presumably produces for a given subject to experience. Thus for a cat in a world without humans, “pain” would be something meaningful to it.

    While you have no ability to logically assert that this definition of meaning happens to be “wrong,” (since it is true by definition) there are still some things that you could do to challenge my argument itself. You could say that your “human definition” for the term happens to be more useful than my own “consciousness” form of meaning. (Thus you might claim that it couldn’t be useful to say that cat consciousness has any meaning to a cat.) You might also claim that from the definition that I’ve provided, “sensations” is not what causes existence to be good/bad for that which is conscious.

    So is it non useful to have the term “meaning” apply to non humans? And if you can grant me that this definition could have some practical uses, can you argue that “sensations” are the wrong product of the conscious mind from which existence becomes good/bad to a given subject?

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  9. ejwinner

    Massimo,

    I indulged myself in a little side-bar snark, and went to bed not thinking twice about it. Then come back to find it had sparked a whole digression here. My apologies.

    The discussion of the meaning of “meaning” is always interesting – since the ‘making’ (or if one will, the ‘finding’) of meaning is what humans do, beyond taking care of base necessities – although obviously fraught with misunderstandings and confusions.

    However, I’ll reserve further contribution to that discussion for when the topic is centrally focused and better clarified.

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  10. Daniel Kaufman

    Eric: While you are free to invent a word, argument by stipulation is rarely very persuasive. My argument is that the word “meanin(ful),” as it is understood in English, is inherently perceiver dependent. Your move is to invent a new word, in which this is not the case, but then all that I’m going to say is “yes, very nice, but that’s not what anyone is talking about, when discussing this subject.”

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  11. labnut

    Oh dear, how people do impose their interpretations on the words of other people.

    I said ‘meaning’ but I never said ‘meaning of life’.

    Get the difference?

    A lot of people have dived down the wrong rabbit hole.

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  12. Philosopher Eric

    Well okay Daniel, but I was actually agreeing that the term is generally considered perceiver dependent, and did present a conforming definition. The only issue was whether or not the perceiver must be human, which I took you to mean through the terms “someone” and “person.” Of course it’s possible that I misinterpreted, and that you do consider a cat as a valid perceiver. Is this true?

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  13. Daniel Kaufman

    Labnut: I don’t think so. In looking back over your dispute with Coel, the question was, whether there was meaning in the universe, independent of things meaning something to people. Everything that I said on the subject would apply to that conception of meaning as much as to the “meaning of life” conception.

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  14. Daniel Kaufman

    Eric: Though cats are certainly subjects of experience, I have no reason to think that things have *meaning* for them, insofar as this would seem to presuppose a substantial linguistic capacity.

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  15. michaelfugate

    People are too wrapped up in thinking what humans do is special when most of it is mindless. As broadix has pointed out – simple feedback loops run almost everything within organisms, cells, ecosystems, atmosphere, chemical reactions, both living and non-living systems and their interactions.
    Intelligence is just not that important and if humans are the analog to some greater intelligence, then no wonder it appears as if there is none.

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  16. Daniel Kaufman

    Michaelfugate wrote:

    People are too wrapped up in thinking what humans do is special when most of it is mindless. As broadix has pointed out – simple feedback loops run almost everything within organisms, cells, ecosystems, atmosphere, chemical reactions, both living and non-living systems and their interactions.

    —————————————————————————–

    You’re right! I mean, what’s special about Oxford and Cambridge? The genome project? Renaissance painting? Ancient Greek plays? Shakespeare? The Hubble telescope? Gothic architecture? The Hadron Collider?

    Nothing but feedback loops.

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  17. brodix

    Dan,

    What gives them meaning is their connection to the world around them. So it would seem our definitions cross where the relationship is between consciousness and that which it is conscious of.

    I think why I would extend it further, to the larger physical network giving rise to these networks of intention, desire, appreciation, need, interest, etc, is that otherwise we loose sight of that larger reality and start to think it is all just what is in our minds, that is the only reality and that necessarily leads off into delusion and ignorance of that larger world.

    So, no, some rock in a valley in Nepal has no meaning for someone sitting in front of a computer in the US, but just that once we start down that road of dismissing whatever is not immediately apparent, or necessary, it is difficult to stop and we do start to loose touch with the larger reality.

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  18. Philosopher Eric

    Fair enough Daniel. You are of course a “language” guy, so I can see how you might tend to divide meaning from that point. Human language is an amazing tool, so I do realize that it can be useful to make this distinction for various purposes. Thus for a newborn baby, existence would have no “meaning.” Of course you didn’t originally address me, and I did wonder if Labnut’s dispute with Coel may have been your target (where Labnut may have referenced and “independent” notion of meaning).

    And speaking of Coel, he still hasn’t addressed my question to him about the student mentor dynamic. In fact, I don’t believe that any professor here has mentioned the subject whatsoever. Hmm…

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  19. Robin Herbert

    Hi Massimo,

    First off, Coel is right that natural selection brought meaning into the cosmos. We are the only creatures we know of who are capable of thinking about meaning, and we are the result of natural selection, ergo…

    I am not sure that follows even under a non-Platonic, Naturalist assumption.

    If one of these infinite-past cosmologies turns out to be the case, the there was never a point in the cosmos when there had not already been meaning. Evolution just rediscovered it.

    So the most you could say is that meaning is a small, sparse part of the cosmos.

    And evolution is not the only path. If there is this infinite stochastic foam from which Universes pop up from time to time then there must be infinitely many minds which fluctuate into existence, think about meaning and then fluctuate back out of existence.

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  20. SocraticGadfly

    I would disagree to some degree with Massimo on one point, probably because I’m more existentialist than him. I don’t think natural selection “brought” anything. Now, the result of us at the top of the current heap of critters being able to create meaning, and, to some lesser degree, primates, elephants and cetaceans, let agree, is true. But … the word “brought …. ” is a bit much for me.

    I am not saying that Massimo believes this, but, at a minimum, it leaves open Dennett’s algorithmic idea on evolution, vs. Gould’s “replay the tape and nothing will happen the same.”

    So, that’s one reason I’m not totally comfortable with the word “brought.” A related one is that “brought” can be read (again, not saying that’s Massimo’s purpose) as teleological, purposive.

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  21. Coel

    Re: meaning. This is a letter that Einstein wrote in 1950, in reply to a 19-yr-old who was pondering the “meaning of life”. I think it’s pretty good.

    “I was impressed by the earnestness of your struggle to find a purpose for the life of the individual and of mankind as a whole. In my opinion there can be no reasonable answer if the question is put this way. If we speak of the purpose and goal of an action we mean simply the question: which kind of desire should we fulfill by the action or its consequences or which undesired consequences should be prevented? We can, of course, also speak in a clear way of the goal of an action from the standpoint of a community to which the individual belongs. In such cases the goal of the action has also to do at least indirectly with fulfillment of desires of the individuals which constitute a society. If you ask for the purpose or goal of society as a whole or of an individual taken as a whole the question loses its meaning. This is, of course, even more so if you ask the purpose or meaning of nature in general. For in those cases it seems quite arbitrary if not unreasonable to assume somebody whose desires are connected with the happenings.”

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  22. Coel

    Hi Massimo,

    scientism … is a particular attitude toward the scope of science. If you take the meaning negatively, you think there are areas where science either doesn’t belong or if it can contribute it isn’t going to be the last word on the issue. If you take it positively (a la Rosenberg) then you think that science has a very broad, possibly limitless reach.

    Quibbling a bit, scientism (at least as understood by those who espouse it) isn’t so much about the scope of science as that word is commonly used, it’s more an assertion of a common underlying epistemology between science and other areas (and hence a rejection of “other ways of knowing”). It’s thus a unity of knowledge thesis.

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  23. Philosopher Eric

    Robin, though Massimo can reply as he sees fit, I believe that I have a reasonable reply for you.

    Most of us don’t presume infinite existence, but if that condition had been presented, I do suppose that Massimo wouldn’t have speculated that evolution “created” meaning, as if meaning hadn’t previously existed. In that case meaning would not only have existed in the past, but on an infinite number of occasions. What I think Massimo generally meant given your condition was that, evolution is what creates meaning regardless, or that he’s a naturalist. If we discount this temporal factor, do you not agree?

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  24. Robin Herbert

    Hi DM,

    Meaning is something brains do. Brains evolved. I’m not really seeing the problem here,

    As I point out above, even under a Naturalist assumption there is no reason to believe that there was ever a point in the cosmos when there had not already been meaning, and so it could not be brought into the cosmos, only rediscovered.

    And evolution would not be the only path to meaning. It wouldn’t even necessarily be the most common path to meaning.

    In any case, shouldn’t you, as our resident mathematical platonist, be arguing that since meaning is a mathematically possible state then it exists necessarily and eternally?

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  25. Robin Herbert

    Also, every philosophical position, even Theism, is compatible with Naturalism, since there can be no fact of the matter that one motivation is better than another. Doing something because you are convinced that a God wants you to do it, cannot be considered objectively better or worse a reason than any other.

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  26. Robin Herbert

    And, I actually meant that every philosophical position, even Theism, is compatible with a Scientistic approach. 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. If someone finds the self-consistency axiom does not work for them in their circumstance and plans, then they should simply fail to adopt it.

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  27. michaelfugate

    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?

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  28. brodix

    Dan,

    To extend on the prior thought, I live in the Baltimore area and central Maryland, to Northern Virginia are the extended suburbs of Washington, much as northern Jersey to Connecticut are suburbs of NY.

    As such, it would just not be proper form in many places around here to discuss the extent to which the prosperity of this area is based on unsustainable debt being incurred by the entire country, as well as that significant amounts of it are being used to create chaos around the world and that lots of that money ends up trickling down through this area.

    Now some people are quite cynically aware of this, but probably many more effectively have their heads buried deeply in the sand, as to what is generating their prosperity.

    So I do see it as important that when we look at what gives our lives meaning, that we do look under the surface and make the connections and try to account for that bigger picture, rather than just parse it into oblivion.

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