Friday, November 30, 2007

The Question Concerning Creepy Kids

I didn't do it. Really.
School officials said the letter made specific references to the controversial German philosopher Martin Heidegger. He was at one time a member of Adolph Hitler's Nazi party.
I would really, really like to take this chance to pump my fist at that. The good people at 6 ABC did not get the memo: don't mention the Nazis! Heidegger was confused, caught up in a movement that deceived him; don't blame Nazism on him! Such are the standard excuses of leftists who want desperately not to idolize a fascist. Heidegger himself was no Hitler, but he really did believe in Nazism. If it's not capitalist, it can't be bad, right? So I wonder how long until 6 ABC gets slammed with self-important intellectuals (other than...never mind) whining in letters and phone calls that Heidegger was a brilliant, noble man.

Of course, it's sort of unfair. I mean, that's how you introduce Heidegger to an uneducated public? Let's try this with a few others:

Immanuel Kant, widely reputed to be a virgin, rocked the intellectual world with his Critique of Pure Reason.

G.W.F. Hegel, who fathered an illegitimate child with a housemaid, was responsible for taking German idealism into a direction only barely hinted at by Kant.

Syphilitic loner Friedrich Nietzsche, one of the most prominent critics of the Western ethical tradition, had an anti-Semitic sister.

Hearing one of these as an introduction to a famous philosopher might just leave a strange, incorrect impression (just maybe).
"Obviously, he put time into it. He looked into it. He researched this philosopher. So I'm glad someone was taken into custody and hopefully, it is resolved," said junior Lauren Singer.
That madman! He researched Heidegger! ...actually, maybe he does deserve ostracism.

Post-writing, pre-publishing update: It's a chick.
Daly said that the student is a juvenile and he would not release her name or age. Nor would he disclose the full contents of the letter the girl taped to the door along with the knife and left copies in several places throughout the school.

He did say that it "was full of philosophical mumbo jumbo," quoting the philosopher Martin Heidegger. It contained no direct threats or racial or ethnic slurs, he said, but "had information that would lead you to believe that something was about to happen today," at the school. It included the phrase "Tomorrow it will fall apart," the police superintendent said.
Why don't we get to see the letter? I suspect because the district blew this completely out of proportion and it contained nothing but mumbo-jumbo (and this is exactly how we know, at least, that they were telling the truth about its being Heidegger. Or maybe Hegel, too. Or...). A letter containing no direct threats would sure scare me too.

I wonder if anything did happen today (which was yesterday). If it did, we should all be scared, because this girl predicted that something would happen today! Frightening.

Contrary to media reports, the language in the letter did not convey anti-semitism or ethnic bias.
I think that means "other media reports," or else the Philly Inquirer thinks it's on a different plane from the fools at 6 ABC. Or they don't understand non-contradiction.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gay Marriage: the penultimate post

Freiheit - I think that whether "marriage" and "circle" have independent conceptual significance is a question about realism. Marriage is a human institution that is created to serve certain ends, right? But then a circle is a mathematical concept created (perhaps) to serve other human purposes. "Circle" is a fixed concept if one of two things is true: either a circle is metaphysically independent of human thought, so nothing in our changing needs could affect the concept in any way; or a circle is the only way the human mind can think about a certain aspect of geometry, and that way of thinking could not be different for any human mind.

I don’t see much to argue with here except to point out that while marriage was created to serve certain ends, there is nothing to indicate those ends cannot change. Additionally, I don’t see how marriage falls into either category of a fixed concept, which lends credence to the assertion that it is a malleable concept.

Putting two homosexuals together and calling it "marriage" may be possible in the limited sense that one can draw any old picture on graph paper and call it a "circle." If "marriage" means something, and I think it does, it must have certain features. Can a homosexual couple replicate those features? What is the policy goal to be pursued by allowing the functional equivalent of marriage to a union that has so few of the features of marriage? Because "gay marriage" does not exist, it seems the burden is on those trying to extend the definition.

I agree that a marriage involves certain features. It involves at least two people creating a contract and the contracting parties receiving benefits from the government. I don’t see any reason why a contract between homosexual couple (or other combinations) cannot have those features. Certainly there are more features to traditional religious marriage, but that’s not the issue. The issue is state-sanctioned “marriage,” which probably needs quotation marks more than gay marriage needs them.

Legally, we can decree a great many nonsensical things. Sometimes, we have to. We have to establish a reasonably fixed definition of "cause" in order to make administration of the law possible, and that Hume thought causation impossible need not worry us. But we could also legally decree that pi is equal to 3. I think a legislature once tried to do that. The question is not law's power over human relations but the utility of ignoring real meaning in favor of legal meaning.

There is no real meaning of state-sanctioned marriage outside the legal meaning. It’s a creation of the state. There is no separate real meaning of social security or welfare; the legal meaning is the real meaning.

Incidentally, I think the pi story is an urban legend.

I would argue that "gay marriage" does not actually transmit information because it expresses nothing more than this: two (or more) homosexuals enjoying all the legal benefits of marriage as if they were a man and a woman married to each other. It is "as if they were married" because, I contend, the idea of two homosexuals' being married is impossible to comprehend, because it contradicts the definition of "marriage." So an analogy is necessary, but one that does not fully make comprehensible the concept, which is essentially nothing. Put the two men (or women, or more than two, I don't really see why not, if the definition is already changing) together in the mind; give this union certain legal consequences; still it is not a marriage.

If you mean “gay marriage (of the traditional religious meaning),” then yes, it appears nonsensical. However, the debate is over benefits and state recognition, so the information communicated is a contractual relationship granted benefits by the state. It would not be a marriage in the eyes of many religions, but there is a difference between religious marriage and legal marriage. Gay marriage is clearly a shorthand for a type of the latter, since the proponents are arguing for state recognition and not religious recognition.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Question for the field

A question, with many parts, for the readership and authorship (and thus I get to claim I only asked you one thing): What do you think of Judge Richard Posner? Specifically, do you find his law and ecomonics rationale convincing, merely theoretical, or perverse even if valid? That is, can an economic analysis of law decide real cases effectively? Is it merely a theory for understanding broad trends in the law and in people's behavior in light of their perceptions of the economic consequences of legal rules? Is it valid as a way to understand human relations but immoral for reducing competing interests to economic relations?

For my own part, I wonder exactly how far it can be taken with any real utility. At the extreme, we construct a spreadsheet, clients and their attorneys submit suggested data for that spreadsheet (a column for emotional distress, a constant [Posner's constant! why not?] for determining by what factor to reduce claims of bad faith), and statistics experts carefully calculate the most accurate values for each cell and determine the correct judicial result (that's cell AA87, "Net liability" which itself is a function determined by, inter alia, cell Z76, which has two possible values ["yes" or "no"] and corresponds in our primitive understanding to the concept of whether the defendant is liable).

Right, right, not even Posner is suggesting this, much less doing it. Still, when do the impossible-to-quantify factors confuse an attempt at mathematical manipulation of legal benefits and harms to the critical point? Has Posner stepped over the line? A lot? Often?

The Trifecta

Theoretical Philosophy, 1755-1770

The Philosophy of Material Nature

Opus postumum

My collection of Kant's works grows apace. You will notice a theme running through those three works, and that theme is philosophy of science. I hope to make sense of roughly all of Kant in the next few months; those books will fill in some gaps in my current knowledge. Add some (eventual) reading about religion and I think I can make a go of my project. What project? You'll see; or I'll get bored of it before it occurs.

Meanwhile, the project's literary home is up. Is that it? Another blog? No, that's not the whole of it. And no, I will not stop posting here. How could I resist?

Also, Freiheit is fat. Fight me.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Gay marriage, part the second

Rather than leave this material languishing in the comments to the original post, I'll present it here as grounds for more discussion. I'll craft another response in a new post, and then Vernunft will have the final word on the matter.

My response to the original post:
I'm not sure this argument really works. "Circle" is a fixed mathematical concept, while "marriage" is a malleable human instituition. Proponents of "gay marriage" are arguing for a change to marriage, and complaining that the term is nonsensical is merely pointing out that the proponents have not yet succeeded.

It's like claiming in 1970 that "no-fault divorce" is a meaningless combination of terms because divorce inherently involves fault. It's true to a point, but it doesn't actually address whether this change should be allowed. It's just pointing out that this change hasn't happened yet.

Then there's the linguistics argument that it's not nonsensical because it's successfully transmitting information. Where "square circle" is a null concept, "gay marriage" is simply a new concept, and even though a listener is opposed to the concept, he or she still understands what is meant by the phrase.
Auskunft's response to my comment:
Vern argues that "marriage" is indeed NOT a malleable institution (lovely phrase, by the way). Why should it be so? His argument postulates that the definition of "marriage" is not up for debate, and is valid. The onus is on the advocates to explain why the definition should change.

Furthermore, the mathematician in me would also like to quickly comment on the example of a circle; it is not so clearly fixed a concept as you believe. A circle is the locus of all points (vectors) in a plane the same distance (norm) from a point (origin). In any weighted or non-Euclidean inner product space this will not look like the circle with which we are all familiar.

I, of course, leave it to someone else to take on the metamathematical and linguistic significance of this (as I leave it up to someone else to write pretty much everything on this blog).
Vernunft's response to my comment:
Freiheit - I think that whether "marriage" and "circle" have independent conceptual significance is a question about realism. Marriage is a human institution that is created to serve certain ends, right? But then a circle is a mathematical concept created (perhaps) to serve other human purposes. "Circle" is a fixed concept if one of two things is true: either a circle is metaphysically independent of human thought, so nothing in our changing needs could affect the concept in any way; or a circle is the only way the human mind can think about a certain aspect of geometry, and that way of thinking could not be different for any human mind.

Putting two homosexuals together and calling it "marriage" may be possible in the limited sense that one can draw any old picture on graph paper and call it a "circle." If "marriage" means something, and I think it does, it must have certain features. Can a homosexual couple replicate those features? What is the policy goal to be pursued by allowing the functional equivalent of marriage to a union that has so few of the features of marriage? Because "gay marriage" does not exist, it seems the burden is on those trying to extend the definition.

Legally, we can decree a great many nonsensical things. Sometimes, we have to. We have to establish a reasonably fixed definition of "cause" in order to make administration of the law possible, and that Hume thought causation impossible need not worry us. But we could also legally decree that pi is equal to 3. I think a legislature once tried to do that. The question is not law's power over human relations but the utility of ignoring real meaning in favor of legal meaning.

I would argue that "gay marriage" does not actually transmit information because it expresses nothing more than this: two (or more) homosexuals enjoying all the legal benefits of marriage as if they were a man and a woman married to each other. It is "as if they were married" because, I contend, the idea of two homosexuals' being married is impossible to comprehend, because it contradicts the definition of "marriage." So an analogy is necessary, but one that does not fully make comprehensible the concept, which is essentially nothing. Put the two men (or women, or more than two, I don't really see why not, if the definition is already changing) together in the mind; give this union certain legal consequences; still it is not a marriage.

Monday, November 26, 2007

E pur si muove

Science still has its enemies. This finally gives me a chance to blog about Watson, that fool who made the awful mistake of speaking the truth without apology.
You will notice that the major proponents of these theories of inferiority are white men, and that for some odd reason, they are not threatened by admitting that the Slants are smarter than they are. Well, the White Women aren't at stake in that imaginary equation, are they?
But, of course, were one to argue against a hypothesis by attacking the proponents of it, one would be engaging in argumentum ad hominem. For those without my impressive education in Latin, that thing right there is a fallacy. Not only does that argument (I'm using the term in a very loose sense, and I hope that any fellow logicians will spare me any scrutiny and apply it where it belongs) trip over a fallacy, it sends Ockham's razor into apoplectic fits. Either those discussing racial differences in intelligence are engaged in machinations to denigrate the status of blacks so that they won't interfere with white domination, or, on the other (sane) hand, those discussing racial differences in intelligence are interested in knowing more about racial differences in intelligence.

Take this a bit further. The "get blackey" cabal that's trying to find a genetic basis for racial inferiority, in order to preserve the white race, surely wants to preserve the white race against all comers. But, then, aren't Asians a bigger threat than blacks to the continued existence of Western European and American cultural and racial integrity? To those too ignorant to know, China (a country full of Asians) happens to be very strong, both economically and militarily, and it certainly wants nothing to do with our culture. If China could eliminate us, I do not think it would hesitate to do it. So those with a stake in using pseudoscience to suppress threats to white dominance would surely be threatened by Asians, right?

It's almost as if that entire post was utter, insane nonsense. Almost.

More illogic:
Given the enthusiasms of its supporters, it's perfectly obvious that IQ is the current equivalent of phrenology
Well, wait; a scientific theory stands or falls on the enthusiasm of its supporters? In a way, of course, that's true; if the theory has timid supporters, it won't gain currency. But this strange specimen has exactly the opposite inference in mind. Because the supporters of the theory are so vociferous, they simply must be engaging in pseudoscience. After all, human beings who evolved in different areas, with different physical characteristics, couldn't possibly have different mental characteristics.

I'm torn. I want to argue that the mind is not the body, but, then, the materialists are insisting that mind and brain are identical terms. Thus, where genetic differences cause different traits in the body, they can damn well cause differences in the part of the body inside the skull. In fact, it would be extremely surprising if this were not so.

What do we do? Succumb to magical thinking and believe that this one thing about us, at least, is not subject to evolution? Or, as one commenter to that post does, engage in projecting?
"Race" is a social construct, a politically convenient category, but NOT a scientific term. Any inquiry into "race" is just politics masquerading as science.
Right, right. Race is a social construct; that's why Sub-Saharan Africans have dark skin, whereas Northern Europeans have light skin. It's not that they differ genetically; no, they simply willed themselves to look different. Similarly, Africans willed themselves to have sickle-cell anemia in order to protect against malaria. Strange, then, that they haven't bothered to will it away now that they're relatively safe, huh?

Where's the politics? Where's the science? The lines are blurring in this discussion. What is not blurry at all is which side in the debate is engaging in magical thinking.

Because, when a scientific conclusion is simply too reprehensible to stomach, we must commit it to the memory hole. "That can't be!" And so it isn't.

A close call, to be sure.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


I have had several recent revelations about the good and ill I can do with this blog. Therefore, I am going to try to cut down on the philosophy content, at least as far as daily posting goes. More entertaining posts with broader appeal are apparently the savagest of technology. On the other hand, I do not intend to actually eliminate the philosophy content, but to systematize it. Thus, those who want devastating, intelligent posts on popular culture will not have to wade through a mess of German obscurantism every week, but those who do appreciate the transcendental idealism will find a neat little corner carved out for it. I hope to keep content at five-days-a-week despite having to resist 1500-word posts about the Critique.

What this means is not settled for me. I may need to go back to the crutch of posting about what I, and only I, find relevant. But I have plans for the philosophy content, plans that may lead to Bigger Things. But Bigger Things must wait on Final Exams, and thus I do not expect the great philosophy project to start until at least January. Then, perhaps, we will see.

Until then, please enjoy the same awesome content from the same awesome bloggers here at the Skeptic.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving Warning

Blog content will be lighter (perhaps vanishing to nothing) until next week. Fair warning.


I mentioned Victory Brewing Co. very briefly before, but it deserves some loving remarks. For one thing, please note that this brewery is American. So those sneering anti-American snobs who speak deprecatingly of watery, weak, insipid domestic beer are speaking utter, unfounded nonsense. Weak? Try Old Horizontal:
Alcohol by Volume: 10.5%
But, of course, it's not merely the alcohol content that makes Victory beer good. After all, fortified Bud Light is still awful. No, Victory wins because of its quality and variety. What follows will be some unsystematic remarks about some of the beers I have had.

Victory does hops very well. HopDevil, the single best example of this accomplishment, is so hoppy as to be almost overwhelming. To those who dislike hops, this will be torture. But an occasional HopDevil is immensely satisfying - the sharpness of the hops is invigorating. Prima Pils, though less hoppy, probably strikes the right balance for those who enjoy hops in moderation. It's lower in alcohol, very low for a Victory (5.3%), and milder in flavor, making it excellent for sustained guzzling.

I'm not a big fan of the Victory lager. It's all right as a beer but a bit disappointing as a lager, being unnecessarily bitter. It's low on flavor and left the back of my mouth with a dry feeling.

Golden Monkey is sneaky - it has a thin feel, without the substance of the Pils, but packs 9.5% into that thin frame. The site describes it as having fruity notes, and I found this to be an excellent description. It's hard to make a night of it with Golden Monkey, though, because the flavor comes out only upon heavy drinking - and, as it turns out, that's a bad idea with such a strong brew.

Storm King is an attempt at a stout that invites comparisons to Guinness but fails to deliver - nothing can be as heartily thick as Guinness. Storm King will also overwhelm you with its 9.1% of blood-thinning. For all the company's attempt to make Storm King into Guinness, it reminded me much more of Yuengling's Porter - not thick enough, but with good strong flavor. In that vein, Donnybrook Stout, being infinitely more suited to long drinking sessions with its milder alcohol content, seemed good, although I only had one glass. Seeing as how it's draft only, I won't get much chance to sample it again.

Whirlwind Wit is the best beer they make, "they" quite possibly being the whole of humankind.
Offering a tamed tempest of flavors both spicy and sublime, this softly fermented ale greets the nose and tingles the tongue.
Calling it "spicy" is deceptive, because it's no HopDevil or anything like that; it has a bit of spice, but the flavor hits you in a broad, not acute, way and induces a pleasant sensation. Rather than assaulting the tongue, it stimulates it with balance. It's been a while but I think I can remember an alluring smell. Well, whatever; drink this.

Old Horizontal is, as you can imagine, excellent for getting you horizontal. The site claims that its flavor hides its strength, but at this level, nothing can really hide it. The alcohol taste is there, somewhat diminishing the experience. It's still good, but don't think it tastes like soda or anything.

V-Twelve seemed good. I only had half a bottle, though.

If you can manage to get around to their restaurant, you can enjoy all the draft-only beers that you won't likely find elsewhere (unless your bar has them). The food is excellent as well, surprisingly good considering the reasonable prices.

Drink this, for great justice.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Excitement! Finally.

Perhaps some readers were wondering if the Supreme Court would consider that D.C. gun ban case?

It took long enough.
The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to the following question: Whether the following provisions - D.C. Code §§ 7-2502.02(a)(4), 22-4504(a), and 7-2507.02 - violate the
Second Amendment rights of individuals who are not affiliated with any state-regulated militia, but who wish to keep handguns and other firearms for private use in their homes?
I have some interest in seeing how this turns out beyond my interest in being an American with constitutional rights. There may be money in it; I'll let you know sometime next summer.

Follow this case closely.

O'Connor - Mediocrity Unleashed

Ever since Justice Sandra Day O'Connor retired from the Supreme Court in 2006, we've all been wondering what she's up to. What brilliant, incisive legal commentary would she be offering as a private citizen to match her capable jurisprudence on the highest court? Wonder no longer; she's grossly misrepresenting Pennsylvania politics.

Now, I certainly don't want to to defend politics in the great (er) commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The state manages to shoot itself in the foot at every election, and is responsible for the self-important legislative roadblock called Arlen Specter. Our governor is a corrupt, turnpike-leasing, servicemen-disenfranchising weasel. But that's actually my problem with O'Connor - she's attacking grassroots efforts to actually hold politicians accountable for their corrupt dealing:
In addition to the contested Supreme Court seats, 67 state judges were up for retention election in Pennsylvania this year. Retention elections are historically very low profile, but they became contentious in 2007 when a small but organized grass-roots campaign sought to oust all but one of the judges whose names were before the voters because the judges had accepted a legislatively enacted pay raise rather than returning the money to the state treasury. They attacked the judges as "pigs in robes," conjuring images of greedy out-of-control politicians.

Fortunately, Pennsylvania voters were not swayed by the spurious attack, but that doesn't mean that the attacks weren't harmful, as they were essentially all anyone heard about Pennsylvania's 2007 retention elections. One of the dangers of low media coverage and high interest-group spending is that voters hear only from activists who have targeted a particular judicial race. The Pennsylvania retention races show how easily the issues in judicial elections can be controlled by special interests.
Those "special interests" included reining in a legislative attempt to raise its pay without voters' noticing, by conducting a vote late at night, when (the hope was) no one would notice. Those who voted for the pay raise (most of them Democrats) were rewarded with juicy committee positions. Does Justice O'Connor just not understand that "special interests" always include interests of actual citizens? In this case, the special interests were those of, well, all taxpayers in Pennsylvania who were faced with a corrupt legislature wasting their money (Pennsylvania already wasting plenty of money already and not really in a position to spend more) using a shady backroom deal. And the courts upheld this horrifically unrepublican procedure. Payback is a, well, payback isn't pleasant; and when that payback is the resolution of a political question by voter participation, it's really, really difficult to fault the voters for putting undue pressure on the judiciary. After all, in a representative democracy (yes, cliche time), officials serve at the pleasure of the people, the true sovereign. That judges are elected in Pennsylvania, not appointed, completely demolishes any notion that those judges should be entitled to the theoretical political independence that federal judges, for instance, have.

It is a very strange thing to hear from Justice O'Connor that political influence on judicial decisionmaking is such a sin. After all, this is the woman who espoused a judicial philosophy of "result first, justification later." If a result made her feel good, she would vote for it - even if the justification for that result involved tortured logic that both ignored precedent and skewed the subsequent caselaw. So the law is not independent of politics at all, but must respond to political demands in order to create the best result, and damn the rationale - it can always be constructed out of whole cloth later.

One got the impression that Justice O'Connor never really had the intellectual capacity to serve on the highest court. Perhaps I do not either; but then, I don't anticipate a nomination. It's disturbing that she never understood the basis for this country's political arrangements and that she doesn't have the brain needed to connect two thoughts in a coherent fashion.

I hope the bench will survive without her elitist judge-worship and touchy-feely jurisprudence.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Kant's Third Antinomy

Either Kant cut the Gordian knot vis-a-vis free will, or he violated non-contradiction.

No, that was not nonsense, but a preview to the upcoming discussion of the Third Antinomy in the Critique of Pure Reason. (If you wonder how many posts one can make about this book, the Hackett edition is 774 pages with a 38-page bibliography; blog posts are nothing!) It will take some time to explain exactly what the antinomies are, what place they serve in the Critical philosophy, and why the third in particular is so interesting.

The First Critique has two rather large sections dealing with very different sorts of judgments: the Transcendental Analytic, on the one hand, and the Transcendental Dialectic, on the other. The Analytic is distinguished by being merely a rigorous analysis of the proper function of the mind, without regard to the correspondence of its judgments to an independent reality:
Transcendental analytic consists in the dissection of our entire a priori cognition into the elements of understanding's pure cognition.
Because Kant, in the Transcendental Aesthetic, has already shown that the reality perceived by the senses is not entirely independent, but is the result of the filtration by the mind of pure data into spatially and temporally extended experience, it makes sense that Transcendental Analytic will continue the project of showing what preexisting conceptual arrangements in the mind allow that mind to shape its experience to conform to the instrument. Thus, although the Analytic does not deal with some mystical "real" reality, it deals precisely with reality as it must be for us, and thus with things that are (for all we can ever tell) as they are.

By contrast, the Transcendental Dialectic seeks to break free of cognition's earthbound limitation:
...this general logic, which is merely a canon for judging, has been used - like an organon, as it were - for the actual production of at least deceptive objective assertions, and thus has in fact been misused. Now general logic, when used as supposed organon, is called dialectic...Now we may note (as a sure and useful warning) that general logic, when regarded as an organon, is always a logic of illusion, i.e., it is always dialectical. For general logic teaches us nothing whatever about the content of cognition; it teaches us merely the formal conditions for the agreement [of cognition] with the understanding, and there conditions are wholly inconsequential otherwise, i.e., as regards the [cognition's] objects.
That may be rather confusing, so I will attempt to shed some more light on it, if at all possible. "General logic" is an exhaustive inquiry into the way cognition is able to take unorganized experience and make it into a coherent whole with parts interacting in regular ways. Whenever we think, we use logical relations to make sense of our thoughts, and without logic, nothing would be seen to be in any relation to any other thing, much less a law-governed relation. I think a reasonably enlightening analogy can be found in a computer program - say QBasic.* The program knows that, upon seeing the GOTO command, it needs to call up another line whenever the GOTO line is executed. In a variety of other ways, the program relates two lines to each other, by using a number created by one subroutine as the value for "x" in a formula in another line in another subroutine, and so on. The program has a warehouse of relations that it can use when called upon by the use of certain terms in lines of the program.

But the program will not do anything if no lines are written into it. Open QBasic, write nothing, and then run. Nothing happens. Similarly, cognition cannot occur without some external objects' being presented to it for it to manipulate and think about. Transcendental Dialectic is analogous to taking the commands of QBasic itself and trying to achieve a result, without writing any lines of code. Though space, time, and the categories (the conditions for cognition in the First Critique) contribute to experience, and indeed make it possible by importing organization to raw experience, they produce nothing without some data coming from somewhere to stimulate them to operate in the first place. A mind without external objects is entirely contentless.**

It seems like the proper goal of the Transcendental Dialectic would be, by exposing the illusion of the improper use of reason, to end such unfounded speculation permanently. Kant claims that this is not possible:
But that the illusion should even vanish as well (as does logical illusion) and cease to be an illusion - this the transcendental dialectic can never accomplish. For here we are dealing with a natural and unavoidable illusion that itself rests on subjective principles and foists them on us as objective ones, whereas a logical dialectic in resolving fallacious inferences deals only with a mistake in the compliance with principles, or with an artificial illusion created in imitating such inferences. Hence there is a natural and unavoidable dialectic of pure reason.
The mind is compelled to consider metaphysical questions, and because the mind has only the organizing principles it has to deal with reality, it must consider metaphysical questions in those terms. But things cannot actually be in themselves what cognition thinks them as, because cognition alters its objects to conform to itself. Metaphysics attempts to perceive things as they are in themselves. Kant views metaphysics as a natural, unavoidable urge of all rational beings, and one with some goal, at least; metaphysics can give ideal models of how things work, without actually bringing concrete, logically sound knowledge of those things to us. The model is a regulative, not a constitutive concept.

So much for the purpose of the Dialectic. Now a bit about the structure of it - the Dialectic is divided into three parts: the Paralogisms of Pure Reason, the Antinomy of Pure Reason, and the Ideal of Pure Reason. The Paralogisms are false inferences about the self that rationalist metaphysics (with Descartes as the patriarch) made. The Antimony is a list of four pairs of contradictory conclusions about the world as a whole that reason can provide equal proof for. The Ideal is the idea of a necessary being (God), and proof that that being is necessary and real by use of reason itself. As you might imagine, Kant is devastating in this section.

The Antinomy consists, as I said, of four antinomies, that is, four pairs of contradictory assertions. Kant takes it upon himself to state these pairs, and then to defend each assertion, showing that both sides of each issue have substantial rational basis, so that one cannot prove, by pure reason, one or the other. The conclusion is that thinking about the world as a whole is impossible, because the world as a whole could never be an object of experience. So the principles of thought that apply to experience cannot apply to the whole of experience, considered as an object. The Third Antinomy is especially fun:

The causality according to laws of nature is not the only causality, from which the appearances of the world can thus one and all be derived. In order to explain these appearances, it is necessary to assume also a causality through freedom.
And the antithesis:

There is no freedom, but everything in the world occurs solely according to laws of nature.
Following both thesis and antithesis are proofs, which the curious can find elsewhere, if they want. The reader is supposed to conclude, along with Kant, that neither free will nor determinism is a plausible theory about how things really occur. But in denying that either theory is true of everything, Kant affirms both theories for some (mutually exclusive) parts of reality:
Hence reason is the permanent condition of all the voluntary actions under which the human being appears. Each of these actions, even before it occurs, is predetermined in the human being's empirical character. But in regard to the intelligible character, of which the empirical character is only the sensible schema, no before or after holds, and every action - regardless of its time relation to other appearances - is the direct effect of the intelligible character of pure reason.
An example is helpful. Take an action - for instance, my closing the Critique of Pure Reason after typing that last blockquote. In one sense, that action is entirely conditioned on the operation of natural events in accordance with physical laws. I closed that book at that time because a chain of events, one causing the next, which next serves as the cause for another effect, had the eventual result that I applied certain force to a certain object in a certain way that can be described as "I closed that book." In this empirical aspect, my action was no different than the action of the wind I hear blowing outside, something that occurs according to laws of nature with no irregularity, no consciousness, and no spontaneity.

On the other hand, I am a rational thing, unlike the wind, and further, I have the freedom to choose what to do - or so we think. But how to reconcile this freedom with nature? Recall that empirical experience is subject to cognition and its conditions. Even the succession of events, of effect following cause, is only possible because our experience is organized temporally. So to say that one thing occurs later than another is to make a claim about experience, not about things-in-themselves. Considered as a free actor in myself, my choice to close the book was entirely free, and indeed could not be caused by any prior event, because in the world of things-in-themselves, time does not exist. Events in that world are not related temporally, and thus cannot be subject to the limits of causation, because causation and time are simply attached to raw experience by the mind, and do not attach to things considered as independent realities.

That has a curious consequence - each action a person takes is both entirely determined by nature and entirely free. When I closed the book, I could not have done anything else; but then, considered as a thing-in-itself, I could have done literally anything else. When we feel compelled by nature to do things against our will, we are in fact no less free than when we feel totally unencumbered in our choices. The person with a gun to his head is free to do anything he wants, and even if he does exactly what his assailant demands, his choice was entirely free. What this view does not address is our perceived interaction with the world of experience, of our capacity to make free choices that nevertheless have some operation in the physical world. If Kant's philosophy is right, and if a person can really adhere to it faithfully, then interaction is impossible and in fact irrational to consider. Something that is not physical cannot cause something physical to happen, because the two types of beings operate on different levels. Perhaps "levels" is not an accurate description, because there is not a division between classes of reality, but a division between aspects of a single reality. The human mind, considered as a thing-in-itself, is free, but the same thing, considered as object of experience, is entirely unfree. The ideal mind cannot cause empirical events because causation is applicable only to relations among empirical events, not to relations between things-in-themselves and empirical events, nor even to relations among things-in-themselves.

The Critique of Practical Reason attempts to give an account of human freedom and morality, but I wonder if Kant did not simply abandon the solution to the Third Antinomy in writing that second book. It is certainly hard to reconcile the solution with any coherent theory of ethics, because it cuts off ethics entirely from experience. Commentary would be appreciated, if you've made it this far.

*No, I'm not very good at computer programming. But I can write a mean QBasic program. Oh yes.

**Even the mind itself has to be presented as an object, and thus subject to cognition's conditions, to be an experience; therefore, even the mind cannot be experienced except as a sort of object of nature, and thus as an external object to the mind-in-itself.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Rank and File

U.S. News and World Report has a law school ranking that you might think, upon hearing its being bashed over and over again, is the work of Satan, Hitler, and George Bush combined (though that was entirely redundant). And I'm sick of hearing about it.

First, the ranking is pretty bad in some ways. For one thing, a person in a school ranked 97th will consider himself vastly more intelligent and better qualified than someone in a school ranked 100th. The thing is, the ranking breaks down as it moves down. The precision fails and you really have no basis for assuming that your law school is substantially, or even any, better than one ranked a few slots below yours. At the top of the scale, it works well - Yale is definitely better than Penn. But is Marquette better than Mercer? No one has any idea, and ranking them as if someone does have an idea is silly.

Second, look at one of these factors in the rank:
Library Resources (.0075)
The total number of volumes and titles in the school's law library at the end of the 2006 fiscal year.
Er, yeah. That big beautiful library is surely a good thing to have, because we can't just do all our research on Westlaw. That would be silly! So schools who throw money at building and maintaining large, completely unnecessary law libraries see a small boost in their rank. I've never even cracked a book in the library this semester.

Those were some of the problems. But critics all too often move beyond the specific problems and go so far as to criticize the idea of ranking law schools. Who knows what a student's need might be? Who could possibly rank law schools? Well, people with any sense can rank law schools. Here is the problem of a law school applicant: he has literally no idea what law schools are good. He hears Harvard is good, and that's about it. Other than that, friends and family are saying, "Oh, that's a good school" about many, many schools. I had this happen to me. People said "Dickinson's a good school." I suppose that's not precisely untrue, because Dickinson offers a real JD and real prospects for employment. But if we're describing law schools that way, then Dickinson seems to be on par with Harvard, which simply can't be right.

Another problem is focusing on specific alumni to tout a school's worth. Some guy goes to a weak school, graduates first in his class, manages to actually get a federal clerkship, and makes great money. The problem is, obviously, that we can't all expect to do really well at a weak school. Or maybe his father was a partner at the first firm he worked at, giving him an easy way into the field. The aggregate success of students from a particular law school is something that this cherry-picking is not helping to evaluate. We need a ranking with some sort of objectivity.

How could you possibly rank law schools? Because you have to rank them for anyone to apply in a rational manner. If U.S. News won't do it, Leiter will. And if the solution is to drop all numerical ranking and divide things purely into tiers, with no further ranking, then artificial distinctions will still remain. That school that barely missed being ranked in the first tier? Yeah, they're going to be totally hosed by being ranked with all the vermin in the second tier (like my law school!).

So please think about what you're saying before crying out for the end of all law school rankings. People would prefer not to take hundreds of hours personally researching law schools to see which one is best. While U.S. News sucks, it's probably due more to what people think it means than what it actually is. In other words, stop feeling like you're awesome unless you get into the top 15 law schools, at which point you can pretty much brag all you want.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

To Cambridge: Thanks

I was not aware that this had been published in paperback form.

$65 is a bit much to pay for a collection of letters. Some have philosophical content, some not. I actually borrowed a copy of this (hardcover) for my thesis preparation, way back in the dark days of undergrad. My favorite letter is probably the first - a glowing fan letter to Euler with a humble request that he read Kant's book Thoughts on the True Estimation of Living Forces. One can only imagine how that went over, because we have no reply. Other highlights - Kant may have enjoyed the affections of two women at once; Kant advises a woman to stop being such a whore.

If you can find this in a library, check it out.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

"Gay Marriage"

More Kant? Yes, more Kant. You know you love it.

Kant ends the Transcendental Analytic section of the Critique of Pure Reason with a discussion of, literally, nothing:
The object of a concept that contradicts itself is nothing because the concept is nothing; it is impossible (nihil negativum) - as, say, a two-sided rectilinear figure.
That's merely one nothing among four, but then it's the only one relevant for this post. "Square circle" is another good example of this sort of nothing. Because the thing supposedly described cannot exist in reality, no object corresponds to it; further, because the words comprising the nothing are meaningless when so combined, the nothing is not actually a concept at all. No possible object, no concept - this is as non-existent as a thing can get.

Contrast something like "purple unicorn." This object does not exist in reality; that is, the phrase does not apply to any real existence. But the concept at least exists, because a coherent set of qualities is described by that phrase. "Purple unicorn" is a concept that describes a possible object. That we will likely never find an actual object corresponding to that concept is not important. When you read the phrase, you have a concept of what is written.

So, "gay marriage"? This is a meaningless combination of two independently significant words. The combination annuls itself. It expresses nothing.

So, should gays be allowed to join in civil unions with precisely the same benefits as married couples? Oh, I don't know; that issue seems to have disappeared. But perhaps we could discuss it more usefully without making up nonsense phrases and empty nothings.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Thanks, Visa! I Almost Stopped Hating People

I'm sure you've seen the "When the Saints Go Marching In" commercial, but if not, let me now (sort of) be a corporate shill and actually encourage you to watch a commercial on your own time. I want to do that because you might be struck by how tasteless the commercial is.

Don't see it? You might notice that the commercial revolves around the convenience of using your Visa card to purchase a variety of trivialities while in New Orleans. Some of you may, like me, have a Visa debit card. Notice, too, that a certain gentleman is being painted in the New Orleans Saints colors in preparation for a football game, and another has a fleur-de-lis (the Saints symbol) shaved into his head. Later on, an almost painfully white man purchases tennis balls with cash, from a black cashier, in sharp contrast to the down-to-earth New Orleans Saints fans buying, well, whatever worthless thing they're buying.

How delightfully harmless! Except, well, there are certain, uh, negative associations with "New Orleans" and "debit cards."
The post-Katrina spend-fest in Louisiana will be remembered as one of the greatest taxpayer wastes in U.S. history. First came the FEMA $2,000 debit-cards fiasco intended to pay for necessities that were used for things like flat-panel TVs and tattoos.
So I guess the body-painting guy is using his FEMA-issued debit card, courtesy of you, taxpayer! Yes, yes, I'm sure Visa doesn't mean for you to draw that inference; but did no one in the advertising department even see this commercial? Body art, debit cards, New Orleans! Fun!

And I can only assume that the tennis-playing buffoon in the commercial is going to be ridden out of Chocolate City on a rail.
“This city will be a majority African American city,” he said Monday. “It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way. It wouldn’t be New Orleans.”
I'm sorry, tennis-playing guy, but it's divine decree. Take your cash and go home to Crackertown.

Oh, one more thing. Ever get stuck behind the guy who uses his debit card and just does not understand it?

Step 1. Swipe. Turn around, swipe again. Whoops, wrong side. Try that once more. Oh, wait, the cashier had to hit "Debit" first. Do it once more. There.

Step 2. Select "Debit." No, on the screen, not the actual button that says "Debit." No, now you screwed it up, cancel it out and try again.

Step 3. All right, enter your pin, then press "Enter." No, on the screen again.

Step 4. You're not done. Do you want cash back? NO DON'T CANCEL JUST CLICK "NO" Damn, too late. Start over again.

Step 5. Oops. Cashier didn't notice you wanted cash back. He's got to wait until the next person checks out to open the cash drawer. Sorry, I can't open the drawer without a transaction. Why not? Let me ask my manager.

How convenient! Compare the use of cash:

Step 1. Pay.

Step 2. Get change.

Step 3. Pump fist.

This commercial is absurd on every possible level.

Monday, November 12, 2007

I Am a Strange Loop: Nagging Dualism

It's time to finish up my review of I Am a Strange Loop. Hofstadter rejects dualism, harshly, but does his epiphenomenalism stand up to criticism? Does epiphenomenalism make sense at all?

Epiphenomenalism, (very) roughly speaking, is a view of consciousness that ascribes the status of an "emergent" phenomenon to the mind. That is, in some sufficiently complex brains, the large-scale activities of those brains cannot adequately be explained by reduction to the material components and processes at work. To say that thinking consists in the firing of neurons is not only misleading, to the epiphenomenalist, it is wrong because such an explanation gives no account of the mind. The brain and the mind, then, are two different things. Epiphenomenalism manages to make that assertion without falling into dualism by recognizing the ontological contingency of the mind. The mind cannot exist without a brain; the material processes of a brain have independent significance as objects of physics without the mind.

Epiphenomenalism thus attempts to sidestep the principal difficulties of dualism (positing mental substance, interaction) while avoiding going whole-hog in for reductionism. The whole idea is still a bit distasteful, and those who find application of Ockham's razor a compelling reason to accept reductionism will easily see the problem. An epiphenomenal mind, being the aggregate outcome of a large number of complex physical and biological processes, has no independent existence. Is not the mind just a name assigned to a large number of fundamentally mechanistic processes indistinguishable from "non-mental" physical events? Just as "tree" is a convenient shorthand for a more-or-less coherent body of many, many atoms behaving in incredibly complex ways, "mind" is a name for many, many atoms behaving in incredibly complex (but different) ways. Assigning a name to the thing artificially imposes order where no essential order exists; and having once assigned a name to the thing, in order that we can communicate about it, we assign independent significance to it. This is an error, not a sign of any metaphysical significance.

Epiphenomenalism is convenient when trying to refute those like John Searle who claim that machines cannot possibly ever think. Because computer-thought is composed of nothing but ones and zeroes, goes the argument, nothing like thought could ever arise amid those binary processes. Epiphenomenalism has the answer: chemicals in the brain, considered discretely, could not bring about thought, but the effect of all those chemicals' working together in the way they manage creates a mind from the matter. In the same way, machine minds could arise from electronic processes, at least in theory. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Hofstadter is unfair to Searle - perhaps it's not absurd after all to think that computers can't think. If epiphenomenalism is supposed to prove that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon, it seems like wishful thinking.

In fact, dualism wants very much to insert itself in the discussion and solve all the problems of materialism by rejecting it. Chemicals can't think; but humans do think; therefore, what thinks in humans must not be reducible to matter. It takes a little faith to accept dualism, obviously; however, I don't think Hofstadter has provided a sufficient refutation of it, though he does try. In a dialogue between "Strange Loop #641" and "Strange Loop #642," Hofstadter addresses and rejects dualism, with SL #642 being the skeptic who doubts Hofstadter's view of consciousness. Thus:
SL #642 : It's just that there has to be something extremely special that accounts for the existence of spiritual, mental, feeling, perceiving beings in this physical world - something that explains our inner light, our awareness, our consciousness.
He objects that SL #641, who is Hofstadter's voice in the dialogue, leaves no room for an independent "I" in his theory:
SL #642 : But that isn't the whole story, because I am nowhere in this story. There is no room for an I.
Recall the Cartesian "cogito ergo sum." SL #642 asks, "What is it that thinks?" As far as I can interpret Hofstadter, his answer would be, "'I think' is the thing that thinks. The act of thinking itself is what consciousness is, and nothing more mysterious than that." So far, that seems like a reasonable answer. Consciousness itself, considered as an object, is just the activity of thought itself. But something is missing, and Hofstadter does not seem to realize it, because he has his skeptic saying the following:
And my experience is the primary data on which everything else that I say is based, so you cannot deny my claim.
But this is not quite what the skeptic should be looking for in trying to locate an independent "I" at the heart of consciousness. Self-reflection is one thing, but the thing common to all experience that unites that experience in a coherent whole is what we are looking for. Thinking about thinking is making the "I" an object of experience, making the "I" into "data." But the phrase "primary data" is utterly incoherent. The "I" in the statement "I think" is not a datum at all, but a presumed entity that exists as subject of "I think" and of "I am hungry" and any other thought or feeling in the mind. More abstractly, "I" is implicit even when a person thinks, "That blog entry is awfully pretentious," because that is merely another way of expressing "I am experiencing sense-data that I am organizing in such a way that the phenomenon of a pretentious blog entry stands out amid the chaos." Consciousness, being the thing in which thought and experience occur as modifications of that substrate, is implicit in every single thing that happens to us. And something (Kant called it the "transcendental unity of apperception" [really]) must give coherence to different parts of experience at different times, so that our experiences are connected as experiences of a single "I" and not of multiple, independent selves. "I" am the same "I" who wrote the other entries in this review of I Am a Strange Loop. This unity is not a datum at all; it is not perceived, ever, but must exist for consciousness to function.

The physical layer of the mind, the brain, does not appear capable of creating concepts like the unity of experience on its own. That "I" is something metaphysically distinct from the brain thus provides a convenient solution to the puzzle about consciousness. Of course, reductionism protests that, having no experience of anything other than physical events, we have no legitimate basis for assuming a non-physical mind.

What gives experience coherence? What makes it possible for experience to exist in the first place? That last question, ultimately, is where philosophy of mind needs to start. Ultimately, Hofstadter's book hovers at a level ontologically posterior to that question, and seeks the mind in phenomena. That those phenomena are themselves contingent on the bases of human cognition seems not to have bothered him too much. I wonder if it should.

In other words, far from believing myself to be a strange loop, I still have no idea what I am.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Magus

The Magus is one of those novels that is frustrating to review. Describing the plot seems to give away too much, but the plot and its conclusion isn't as important as the journey. However, as might be expected, describing the journey is fruitless since each person's reading experience will be different. I can detail my reaction, though, and hope that interest in material that could cause such a reaction will attract other readers.

Perhaps due to its creation history (written 1952, published 1966, revised 1977), this book doesn't fit neatly in any category. It's too advanced for a modern novel, but it doesn't possess the sly self-awareness of a post-modern novel. In some ways, it is a commentary on the failings of novels to address the ambiguity of reality, although its characters are never as blatantly unreliable as those in Nabokov's Pale Fire. It's as if the novel is in between stages, just like the protagonist of the novel.

The story is about a young man who goes to a remote Greek isle as a teacher in the 1950s. While there, he encounters an enigmatic figure (the Magus of the title), and afterwards his life is never the same. The Magus appears to be conducting an elaborate game, but once involved, the protagonist can no longer distinguish reality from the game and cannot even separate the supernatural from the mundane. When the game appears to end, the protagonist must reassemble his life and make sense of a world in which he no longer belongs.

At its most basic level, the story is one of initiation. The title itself is a reference to humankind's history of wise men and the rites necessary to become one. The Magus is attempting to introduce the protagonist into a larger world, and the game is his means of doing so.

The game is a labyrinth of allusions, symbols, and parables; however, the reader cannot tell if there is any underlying meaning. The Magus intentionally fills it with references to Homer, Shakespeare, and Dickens, but using any of those references to impose a structure on the game only leads to dead ends. Once the protagonist (and reader) think they have a mental construct that makes sense of events, a new facet is revealed that destroys the construct and plunges events back into confusion. By the end, it is apparent there will be no easy answers: meaning must be created, not imported.

As I look at my struggles to review this novel, I am struck by the similarities to Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow. Both are filled with vast amounts of information, but even after the reader finishes, it is impossible to tell which bits of information were relevant and which were distractions. Some pieces of the stories managed to be both and other pieces were somehow neither: meaningful meaninglessness and meaninglessness meaning. If that's confusing, that's because the plot of both novels are attempts by humanity to impose meaning upon the chaos of the universe.

In paperback, this book is 650 pages long, but it was one of the fastest books I've ever read. Each time the plot stabilizes, a new twist is revealed that throws doubt on what has happened before. It took a few days to read the first half, and then a single sleepless night to finish. The book has much going for it: the characters are compelling, the story is well-plotted, the writing is elegant, and black humor provides occasional relief. This book will stick with the reader, and I cannot recommend it enough.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

I Am a Strange Loop: Gödel's Loop

Continuing my review of I Am a Strange Loop, today I get to tackle metamathematics. Hofstadter tackles it too, and finds it rich in philosophic insight. Strangely rich, actually.

I suppose I ought to explain who Kurt Gödel is and why he is a hero of many, many nerds today (I am among those ranks). And that tale doesn't start with Gödel, so stay patient while I explain the background.

Human languages are ambiguous. In many cases, perhaps in most cases, the ambiguity is not sufficient to fundamentally confuse communication. When I say, "The tortfeasor caused the injuries of the plaintiff," that little word "caused" is ambiguous, even in context. If I brought about a dangerous situation that led to the plaintiff's injuring himself, in what sense did I cause those injuries? Yet the law recognizes that I am the cause of those injuries, whatever the chain of events and whatever the underlying physics. Meeting the legal definition of "cause," an ambiguous, fuzzy concept, does not require epistemological certainty. Of course, "cause" itself has many meanings that have little to do with the meaning in the phrase "cause and effect." One fights for a "cause," for example. Contextual clues and the fact that we can understand each other without comprehending things in exactly the same way make such ambiguities trivial.

In some cases, of course, absolute precision is vital. In physics, and even more so (infinitely more so, as it happens) in mathematics, ambiguity is lethal. 1 + 1 does not sort of equal 2; it equals 2 or it does not. But notice that even here, language must be used to describe mathematical principles. Ambiguity can creep into any field when that field is explained in the rough, broad-brush language humans use every day. To bring this to even more concreteness, take this statement: "one and one and one is three." This could mean at least two different things: "1 + 1 + 1 = 3" or "1 ^ 1 ^ 1 <-> 3" or a number of other things. Because some of these statements are true and some false, the original utterance is too ambiguous to be valuable as a mathematical or logical statement. It must be reduced to symbolic representation that is entirely unambiguous.

Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead attempted to reduce mathematical logic to pure symbolism in Principia Mathematica. By assigning specific, unambiguous meanings to certain symbols, they hoped that ambiguity and its incidents would be banished from logic. Of course, merely banishing ambiguity is not sufficient; Principia Mathematica, in order to serve any purpose, had still to be able to express logical and mathematical truths, or else is would be useless. The goal was being able to manipulate symbols in such a way that a true expression represented by one string of symbols could lead, by absolute laws of inference, to another string of symbols expressing a different truth. At one level, the operation was purely mechanical: one string becomes another string according to a law of string-building. At another level, one truth implies another truth according to a law of inference. By means of entirely unambiguous language, any truth that could be expressed in the symbolic language of Principia Mathematica could be derived according to the symbol-manipulating laws of that system; or so was the hope.

Gödel extinguished that hope. The details may be appropriate for a separate blog entry someday, but in short, he constructed a string of Principia Mathematica that said "I am not provable." If this statement were true, it would have no proof, and thus Principia Mathematica would be capable of expressing a truth with no proof, and fail in its goal. If it were false, then it would have a proof, but then a proof would exist for something not true, something that should not be provable. This was rather inconvenient.

"I am not provable" is the source of Hofstadter's supposed insight into consciousness. Gödel's sentence says something about itself; similarly, conscious things are capable of thinking about themselves. What a marvelous analogy! Hofstadter calls this self-reflection a "strange loop." Principia Mathematica has a strange loop formula that is capable of making logical claims about itself. Human beings are capable of thinking about the very thing that is thinking about thinking; our consciousness is strangely loopy.

Is it? Strings of Principia Mathematica have dual meanings - symbols mean essentially nothing when engaged in the process of pure symbol-manipulation, but they still can be seen to stand for expressions about mathematics and logic, and the rules for changing symbols into each other are exactly isomorphic to the rules for deriving one true statement from another. Thus a statement, like "I am not provable," can be seen as a string of symbols and as a statement about reasoning at the same time. But by whom? The statement itself is lifeless; it needs an external observer to connect the two meanings. And this need is present in all cases of symbolic representation. That a stop sign is a symbol for a state-sanctioned command to perform some activity with one's motor vehicle is not immediately evident from the properties of the sign itself. It's metal; it's red and white; it's meaningless. It takes something with consciousness that can recognize the isomorphism between color patterns on the sign and legal meaning for the symbols to mean anything, to be symbols at all.

Hofstadter disagrees; in fact, he explicitly claims what I am about to say next. Hofstadter thinks that certain symbols are necessarily symbols, that anything with sufficient consciousness to understand them will recognize that they have dual meanings. This is quite a leap. Some of us (ahem) believe that symbols, being essentially meaningless, have to have something added to them to possess meaning. "I am not provable" is a mess of pixels of varying shades unless you're conscious. That those pixels should have intrinsic meaning is a strange (not loopy) idea, something that I cannot admit.

Think carefully about how Gödel's sentence has two meanings. It has those two meanings not because of anything intrinsic to the symbol-string it's embodied in (and that would seem a very unlikely, almost philosophically realist thing to think), but because an external observer (with consciousness!) recognizes an isomorphism. If consciousness is a strange loop, where is that external observer? If the "I" is the strange loop, then what observes the "I" and recognizes that it exists and has certain thoughts?

Far from locating the "I" in a strange loop, Hofstadter has pushed the inquiry away into another realm. For any "strange loop" to be conscious, there must be an "I" that observes the loop, recognizes its different levels of meaning, and recognizes itself. The Gödelian analogy is wide of the mark because the sentence, while expressed as "I am not provable," cannot actually talk about itself. The "I" in that sentence is a semantic shorthand; it would be more appropriate for the sentence not to use it at all. The "I" inside us is not the "I" of that sentence.

So what is the "I"? Calling it a "strange loop" and comparing it to Gödel's sentence is worthless because the particular strange loop in that example is only strange because of a third person who is capable of recognizing the strangeness; and such a third person (a human self) is exactly what we want to reveal when we ask what the "I" is.

"I" just don't get it.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

I Am a Strange Loop: Consciousness Continuum

To get back to reviewing I Am a Strange Loop, today I will be going over one of Hofstadter's cute analogies, a scale for comparing things of varying degrees of intelligence. Taking a cue from a quote by James Huneker, about a Chopin piece:
Small-souled men, no matter how agile their fingers, should not attempt it.
...Hofstadter creates a tongue-in-cheek unit of consciousness called a "huneker." A being's level of consciousness is measured along a scale from 0 to 100 hunekers; that maximum changes as he refines the scale, but as it can always be adjusted so that 100 hunekers is the maximum consciousness a thing can have, and since the whole idea is not quite serious anyway, let's stick with the original numbers, for ease of explication if for nothing else.

Fully-grown human beings with normal intelligence have 100 hunekers of consciousness. Children have something less than that, animals are further down the scale, and so on. Hofstadter even suggests that machines may be capable of consciousness at an extremely low level, so presumably even they could have a non-zero huneker value. He implicitly assigns value to things according to the consciousness possessed by them, and as the huneker scale measures value in terms of intellectual capacity, the scale implies that things have more value the more intelligent they are. This is not enough to disturb us at some level. For instance, say that a pig has 5 hunekers of intelligence, and the vast majority of adult human beings have 90-100 hunekers. Saying that things in the range of 0-20 hunekers can safely be killed for sport or for food therefore raises no particular moral problem (for most), and we can safely enjoy that ham. What if it turns out that some profoundly retarded humans have 40 hunekers? What about 30? What about (uh oh!) 20? Perhaps the problem is in the 0-20 range, which is too inflexible to account for the full range of human consciousness. But if intelligence is equivalent to value, then perhaps the assignment of moral value to intellectual capacity was the whole problem, and the huneker scale, far from being an indicator of value, is simply a measure of intelligence.

Part of the problem is that it is unclear what the huneker scale measures. It proposes to measure consciousness, but it does so in a way that corresponds closely to intellectual capacity (indeed, the two are not entirely unrelated). In any case, a profoundly retarded human is not likely to have any of the other incidents of consciousness (self-awareness, capacity for reflection, &c.) on a normal human level, and may in all mental respects be equivalent to a pig. If so, what harm is done by killing such a person? A possible solution to this problem is to regard classes of beings as having moral value, not merely individuals, and assigning value to each class according to the mean huneker value of that class. Because humans have a mean huneker value close to 100, even a profoundly retarded person, although having a low huneker value as an individual, still belongs to a class of beings that has a high huneker value and therefore high moral value. Pigs, as clever as some of them are (overthrowing farms and the like), have a range of huneker values very low. But perhaps that misses an important point as well. Not only is the mean huneker value of pigkind low, but no pig ever has an exceptionally high huneker value anywhere near that of a human. Say the mean pig value is, as I posited before, 5. And say the range of pig values is from 0 (genetically deficient pigs) to 6 (bright, socialism-embracing pigs). That pigs have such a low collective value is a function of the fact that no pig ever has a value above a very low huneker value. On the contrary, humans can range in huneker value from 0 all the way up to 100. Perhaps the value of a class should depend, then, on the value of the maximally conscious member of that class. I don't know; the whole thing is a thought-experiment about a thought-experiment.

There is also a problem with Hofstadter's view in that he does not assign equal value even to all humans:
It strikes me that when sperm joins ovum, the resulting infinitesimal bio-blob has a soul-value of essentially zero hunekers.
That might not be controversial, but what about his idea that a two-year old, being less conscious, has a lower huneker value than an adult?
Even though I sincerely believe there is much more of a soul in the twenty-year-old than in the two-year-old (a view that will no doubt dismay many readers), I nonetheless have enormous respect for the potential of the two-year-old to develop a much larger soul over the course of a dozen or so years.
But what value does potential have? It would make sense to discount that future value at some plausible rate, in order to take into account the possibility that the two-year-old will die before reaching full consciousness, or will receive brain damage as a result of an injury, and so forth. And Hofstadter himself, in that passage, admits that the potential value is not the same as the actual value, so presumably potential consciousness is not as valuable as actual consciousness; but by how much?

..."souledness" is by no means an off-on, black-and-white, discrete variable having just two possible states like a bit, a pixel, or a light bulb but rather is a shaded, blurry, numerical variable that ranges continuously across different species and varieties of object...
This is all very fuzzy, very skeptical, very undogmatic. Sometimes such a way of thinking can be useful; sometimes it just creates confusion. Here, for instance, we value 100 hunekers as something of immense value and 0 hunekers as valueless. But as we range up the scale, do we really correspondingly value things incrementally more? There is still a moment, both in moral valuation and in consciousness, where the switch turns on. I eat plant matter, I eat meat, but I would not eat a human being. I would not kill a human as easily as I swat a fly, for which I have precisely the same moral sentiment as a fully unconscious object. At some point, moral value goes from "worthless" to "infinitely worthwhile." Similarly with consciousness, where at some point (somewhere in evolutionary history between lower primates and humans) the "light" turns on and the being in question can think, use language, and reflect on itself. (Nothing but humans can use language; Pinker makes this clear in one of his books, which I do not own but had to read for a seminar in undergrad. Don't make me find it.)

Here's what seems like a piddling point that actually has strange implications:
Some of us (again, I count myself in this group) believe that neither a just-fertilized egg nor a five-month old fetus possesses a full human soul, and that, in some sense, a potential mother's life counts more than the life of that small creature, alive though it indisputably is.
Does the five-month old have less potential than that two-year old above? Further, I do not think it is terribly controversial to perform an abortion on a just-fertilized egg or even a five-month old fetus if the mother's life is in danger. Extending the example to include most abortions actually performed, what of the mother's convenience? It is convenient for me to have another person kill an animal of 5 hunekers, because it nourishes me and tastes good. What convenience will justify an abortion? A five-month old fetus may only have the consciousness of a pig, or even less; would similar considerations of convenience apply in that case? What happened to that potential to grow into a fully-conscious human?

The consciousness scale and its implications raise all these questions without answering them. Hofstadter's inability to recognize that his view of consciousness is inadequate is probably merely an effect of his prejudice. Hofstadter is presumably pro-choice, so the value of a fetus is nil. Hofstadter is also a vegetarian, so the value of that pig is actually pretty high, for him. At some point, things do become black-and-white, and serious moral issues arise about consciousness. Why not just come out and say that two-year olds have essentially no moral value? Some Objectivists do just that, because a two-year old cannot exercise the rational judgment needed to produce morally sound action.

Why not indeed disregard the low-huneker, ugly things in our world?

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Is Addition Synthetic?

All right, now I'm starting to figure it out. I suppose. At least I have the source material, as baffling as it is. Forgive the long blockquotes in what follows, but I thought clarity more important than elegance, at least for this post.

I'm shocked that I haven't made a blog post about the difference between analytic and synthetic judgments, and between a priori and a posteriori judgments, but a search reveals nothing, so here I go. For Kant, all judgments (statements of the form "A is B") can be described in those four terms, consisting of two dichotomies, as follows:

1. Analytic judgments are those in which the predicate is contained implicitly in the subject, so that the judgment expresses a definition and, ultimately, a tautology. As an example: "A bachelor is an unmarried male human."

2. Synthetic judgments are those where the predicate goes beyond what is barely expressed in the subject, and adds two things together. As an example: "That dog is black."

3. A priori judgments are universal and necessary. The negation of the judgment could not possibly be without contradiction. As an example: "A circle is round."

4. A posteriori judgments express a truth that is specific, not universal and necessary. Although expressing the opposite may (if the judgment is true) express a falsehood, it does not express a logical impossibility; the negation of an a posteriori judgment is not contradictory. As an example: "This book is heavy."

Analytic a priori judgments obviously exist as definitions. On the other hand, synthetic a posteriori judgments exist whenever a contingent fact is expressed. Analytic a posteriori judgments cannot exist, because for something to be true by definition, yet capable of being negated without contradiction, is impossible. The final potential combination is a synthetic a priori judgment. As Kant asks, "How are synthetic judgments possible a priori?" Much of the first Critique is fixed on finding an answer to that question.

Kant brings up an example, our old friend "7 + 5 = 12", in the introduction to the B edition of the Critique of Pure Reason:
It is true that one might at first think that the proposition 7 + 5 = 12 is a merely analytic one that follows, by the principle of contradiction, from the concept of a sum of seven and five. Yet if we look more closely, we find that the concept of the sum of 7 and 5 contains nothing more than the union of the two numbers into one; but in [thinking] that union we are not thinking in any way at all what that single number is that unites the two. In thinking merely that union of seven and five, I have by no means already thought the concept of twelve; and no matter how long I dissect my concept of such a possible sum, still I shall never find in it that twelve. We must go beyond these concepts and avail ourselves of the intuition corresponding to one of the two: e.g., our five fingers, or (as Segner does in his Arithmetic) five dots. In this way we must gradually add, to the concept of seven, the units of the five given in intuition. For I start by taking the number 7. Then, for the concept of the 5, I avail myself of the fingers of my hand as intuition. Thus, in that image of mine, I gradually add to the number 7 the units that I previously gathered together in order to make up the number 5. In this way I see the number 12. That 5 were to be added to 7, this I had indeed already though in the concept of a sum = 7+5, but not that this sum is equal to the number 12. Arithmetic propositions are therefore always synthetic. We become aware of this all the more distinctly if we take larger numbers. For then it is very evident that, no matter how much we twist and turn our concepts, we can never find the [number of the] sum by merely dissecting our concepts, i.e., without availing ourselves of intuition.

Just as little are any principles of pure geometry analytic. That the straight line between two points is the shortest is a synthetic proposition. For my concept of straight contains nothing about magnitude, but contains only a quality. Therefore the concept of shortest is entirely added to the concept of a straight line and cannot be extracted from it by any dissection. Hence we must here avail ourselves of intuition; only by means of it is the synthesis possible.
The technical term "intuition" needs to be defined. Intuition is that by which the raw data of experience are organized in such a way that a coherent experience can be made out of the chaos. That is, when sense data reaches our minds, it is just a mass of data of various types, containing within itself no principle of organization. Although we never have any experience of this type, because it would be incomprehensible and thus escape our understanding entirely, I think an illustration helpful. Imagine the experience of seeing a single tree in a field of grass, at noon on a cloudless day. Visual sense-impressions are coming from all over - blue sky, yellow sun, green grass, brown bark, &c.; but even describing those impressions with such language is misleading, because the data consist of a variety of colors, with (as yet) no organizing principle assigning the blue sense-impressions to the concept "sky" or even to any segregated area of the experience. Similarly, auditory sense-impressions will impinge the mind through the ears, but nothing in the raw experience itself exists to allow us to conclude that this particular sound is the wind rustling the leaves, that the same sound a second ago arose from the same source and thus the two sounds constitute a continuous, single sound.

Intuition is the first organizing principle to be applied to this raw data. Intuition has two forms: space and time. Space is the form of outer intuition; it presents things in experience as outside self, as extended and separated from the self and from each other. Time presents the mind's impressions as occurring in temporal succession, so that not experience is presented as occurring over a duration instead of at a single instant. Taken together, space and time make experience coherent by organizing things spatially ("there is an object of that size, in that direction, in that position") and temporally ("that bird was on that branch, then flew down to the ground, and now is pecking along the ground"). Out of a jumble comes a real experience. Besides intuition, concepts are necessary fully to understand what is going on in an experience, but intuition alone at least makes experience comprehensible.

Geometry is synthetic, as Kant indicates, and it's pretty clear why that must be so. The principles of geometry are just explications of the various relations different parts of space have to each other. Because space is not an objectively real thing, i.e., it does not exist as a thing in itself or as a relation among things in themselves, but rather exists only because of our capacity to perceive things outside ourselves, the study of the parts of space is a study of intuition, and, ultimately, of synthetic a priori judgments. The judgments are synthetic because geometric concepts do not consist of tautologies, because, in addition to the subject, the intuition of space must be added in order to reach the predicate, so that the predicate is not implicitly contained in the subject. Those same judgments are a priori because they could not be any other way; i.e., we could not possibly think a concept of space that would contradict the principles of geometry, so those principles are universal and necessary.

As a side note, what non-Euclidean geometry does for this conception and what relativity does for the ideality of space and time is unclear. I would contend that they do not actually refute the assertion that space and time are mere forms of intuition, though they do make intuition more abstract than Kant posited.

Back to my example in the previous post on this topic. "A triangle is a three-sided figure" is analytic, because it consists merely in a definition of "triangle." This is not as evident as I first thought, but it's still true. It is not evident because "three," "side," and "figure" are terms laden with intuitive implications. If those terms are meaningless without intuition's being applied to them, then "a triangle is a three-sided figure" turns out to be synthetic after all. I do not believe this to be a real problem. Purely as defining characteristics, and not characteristics that go into applying space to the concept of a triangle, those terms are essentially non-spatial in signification. The pure concept of a triangle as a three-sided figure says nothing about extension in space of the sides, that a figure must be extended, or that the three sides must be in different regions of space from each other. In order to use the concept in a meaningful way, of course, we need to attach spatial relations to those parts and to immerse the triangle in space. Once we have done that, then various qualities not contained in the definition become easy to find, and the synthetic a priori judgment "the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is equal to two right angles" is true.

What intuition makes "7 + 5 = 12" true? Kant rather unfortunately uses as examples some concrete instances of intuition in the quoted passage (fingers on one's hand and dots) to explicate the synthetic nature of the judgment, but those examples do not serve to locate the pure form of intuition involved in the judgment, which is our purpose here. However, Kant claims that we analogize time in spatial terms in order to understand it, and that the product of that analogy is seeing time as a line:
And precisely because inner intuition gives us no shape, do we try to make up for this deficiency by means of analogies. We present time sequence by a line progressing ad infinitum, a line in which the manifold constitutes a series of only one dimension.
What else is represented by a straight line in common experience? The integers, on the "number line." Given that time cannot be (or simply is not, in most people's understanding) represented except by resort to a spatial model of temporal succession, then anything we present in intuition will be represented spatially. Although space and time are different, time is understood in spatial terms, at least analogously. This may clarify Kant's fingers-or-dots explanation of addition. Although fingers and dots are symbols with spatial elements, in the act of addition, they are not being used qua extended objects. Instead, the process of counting five fingers, or five dots, to add to the seven already suspended in the mind is (I argue) a spatial analogy for time. Five follows four follows three follows two follows one follows zero, and by means of a temporal succession (most in evidence when we are doing the simple act of counting), five is thought, not merely as a unit (as seven was thought when suspended in the mind) but as the final stage in a succession of earlier stages. This five is added, one unit at a time, to that seven, in order to produce the sum, twelve. "7 + 5" contained the idea of addition without any indication of the intuition needed to make that addition into a further concept ("12"). "7" is a unit; "5" is a unit; "+" is an essentially contentless operator; "12" is a unit.

Of course, in actual experience, we rarely actually do addition on the fingers of our hands. It's simply not very efficient, and we have developed procedures for doing complex arithmetic without resorting to simple analogies; but, what Kant is saying, is that before those procedures can be invented, when humans first become aware of what the concept of addition of two numbers means, this concept makes no sense without some simple act of intuition. That intuition is no less important because it is so implicit; indeed, being implicit, lying at the foundation of experience and making experience itself possible, is what makes intuition indispensable. The use of shortcuts that go beyond what intuition presents in the first place is what allows us to engage in efficient uses of the intellect, but we should not forget the basic components of experience, vital both for initial comprehension and for continuing coherence at all levels of complexity.

Analytic judgments are static. They explicate nothing but what is contained in the concept. Synthetic judgments, on the other hand, are dynamic, and synthetic a priori judgments show something changing, but changing according to a fixed law. "7 + 5 = 12" is just such an example - the addition of the two numbers creates a new number, but according to universal and necessary laws of thought.

Arithmetic is the study of time; geometry is the study of space. Therefore, "7 + 5 = 12" is synthetic a priori because it requires immersion in time in order to make sense, for one concept to imply the other.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Lube Up, Baltimore

Cause here come the Steelers.


End of an era

With a dozen candidates from both parties currently competing for their chance to be president, it's hard to remember all the names of the mostly interchangeable politicians. However, in the all the confusion, something important has happened. For the first time since the 1972 presidential election, Lyndon LaRouche will not be running. To anyone only familiar with his name, the wikipedia entry is a must-read. To roughly summarize, LaRouche's political views are another piece of evidence that fascism and socialism are matters of degree.

To get a fuller picture of the LaRouche empire, this article in the Washington Monthly is recommended. The most amazing aspect is the amount of money LaRouche managed to receive from the FEC as matching funds for campaign contributions. Due to massive amounts of fraud and faulty accounting, the U.S. taxpayers actually supported LaRouche's crusade to spew paranoid nonsense during every presidential election. For that reason alone, I'm happy to see this era end.

Friday, November 02, 2007

I Am a Strange Loop: Preliminary Review

Well, I finished I Am a Strange Loop. It's a sufficiently wide-ranging and deep work (although shallow in its way; more on that shortly) that I can write at length about it. I think I will do this review as a series, starting now and finishing over several days next week, a topic at a time. First, though, the preliminaries.

I Am a Strange Loop is not a work of deep philosophical insight. This is not purely a disadvantage, of course, because by avoiding abstract philosophy, the book manages to ground itself in reality on all its pages. Hofstadter's incessant use of analogy, sometimes clever, sometimes corny, forces the reader to see his point. In case you were confused about anything, Hofstadter will compare that point to some situation with such precision that you can't fail to get what he means.

Getting what he means, of course, does not immediately lead to agreeing with what he says. In particular, though I plan to devote a full day and many more words to this, Hofstadter is obsessed with Kurt Gödel and incompleteness. Certainly Gödel is fascinating, but what, exactly, does his metamathematical insight have to do with consciousness? Hofstadter insists that the "strange loopiness" of the human mind is analogous, in some way, to the "strange loopiness" of Gödel's theorem. Repeating this purported identity does not serve to convince the reader of it, I am afraid. More on that next week.

Critics of Hofstadter's view are dealt with as strawmen in disturbingly many cases. I already mentioned how glibly he deals with Searle; even a former student gets the full brunt of a Hofstadterian attack, in the final chapters of the book. It's not as if these critics are obviously wrong and just not getting why "I" is a strange loop; indeed, in some sense, Hofstadter does not fully appreciate the viewpoint of his detractors and fails to see cracks in his system's edifice. He also made an attempted argumentum ad absurdum that failed in its goal because, at the point of supposed absurdity, none existed. Claiming that the inverted qualia problem, as applied to colors (you see blue, I see red, but we use the same name for it, so we never understand that our experiences are fundamentally different), could be extended beyond color, Hofstadter makes the leap from "red" seeming like "blue" to someone else to an experience like (I'm making up my own example) "there is a black dog in the hallway" seeming like "I am eating a sandwich" to someone else. Just as it seems absurd that two people could ascribe the same name to such radically different subjective experiences as black-dog-in-hallway and sandwich-eating, so it is absurd to believe that what I call "red" you call "red" but see as what I call "blue."

Well, this is what the whole argument is about - the subjective perception of any event may be fundamentally different, and someone who really believes that the inverted qualia problem is a problem would have no objection to saying that even complex experiences like the ones I mentioned above may seem identical to two different people, even if they express those experiences in precisely the same language (thus never having an occasion to suspect that the other views things completely differently). Far from being absurd, it follows. That's the whole problem of inverted qualia; and making a complex extension of the problem and labeling it an absurdity ducks the issue. Bad form, Hofstadter.

Well, this little preliminary went on for far too long. I don't want to waste time now talking about things that could be discussed better next week. I disagree with a lot of what Hofstadter said, but it's nice to have his point of view expressed clearly, and it's something that tends not to get much exposure - a theory of consciousness called "epiphenomenalism." I think that epiphenomenalism is ultimately badly flawed, ascribing both too much and not enough reality to the self. But please, visit next week for the exciting (!) conclusion(s).