Thursday, September 27, 2012

In Praise of William James, with Constant Reference to Myself

When I heard of William James' paper The Will to Believe I thought to myself, "well, that sounds like something my perspectivist ass could gush all over," and it was! I did a quick read through of an HTML copy I found through Google tonight, I will probably have to read through it a few more times. Thus far it seems the paper can help my vocabulary immensely, serve as a recurring source of inspiration, and help to keep my focus aligned by comparing my approaches to his. He did differ from me in important areas, the chief one I am thinking of being when he most strongly endorsed his pragmatism.

But please observe, now, that when as empiricists we give up the doctrine of objective certitude, we do not thereby give up the quest or hope of truth itself. We still pin our faith on its existence, and still believe that we gain an ever better position towards it by systematically continuing to roll up experiences and think. Our great difference from the scholastic lies in the way we face. The strength of his system lies in the principles, the origin, the terminus a quo [the beginning point] of his thought; for us the strength is in the outcome, the upshot, the terminus ad quem [the end result]. Not where it comes from but what it leads to is to decide. It matters not to an empiricist from what quarter an hypothesis may come to him: he may have acquired it by fair means or by foul; passion may have whispered or accident suggested it; but if the total drift of thinking continues to confirm it, that is what he means by its being true.

James clarifies that he has not given up on the quest or hope of truth. I, on the other hand, basically have. I am here talking of a kind of privileged truth: statements that are qualitatively better than all other statements that can be made on the relevant subject. Instead I rely on Geography of Thought, the idea that there are a collection of statements that can be made on a subject that all derive a legitimacy from the initial axioms and preferences that lend them comprehensibility. That is, James is willing to think according to his preferences and therefore is able to conceive of progress in thought, whereas I continue to fixate on the arbitrariness of my preferences and therefore cannot imagine our thoughts getting better, only different.

It should be noted, though, that James's thought approached human history in a far more active way than mine does. He was a psychologist, it is essential that he be able to say that his theories and ideas are in some way advancing the human condition. I, on the other hand, have chosen to stay nestled safely in my philosophical corner trying to understand the framework of propositions and human claims to knowledge. If I were to one day step into a science, I too would need a standpoint from which I could say that my scientific work were advancing human knowledge; for the moment, though, I can happily point out the futility of setting up any method of reasoning as being absolutely better than any other method.

Most impressive, though, was his argument endorsing religious belief. I have mostly made an implied argument for the justification of religious belief: that rationality depends on the context of an Epistemic Lens, and therefore under some Epistemic Lenses theism will be rational and under some it will be irrational. James's argument is far more detailed, but, on the face, I think it could also be characterized as providing an example of how theism looks through different lenses. He himself makes it clear that his argument is not coercive for a non-believer, his argument serves merely to justify the belief without condemning the lack thereof as it relies on what he calls the passional nature, which I would say is roughly equivalent to what I call love or preference, which differs in different men.

I aim to post another blog unpacking his main argument at a later time.

Monday, September 24, 2012

One Cannot Just Pick What to Believe

If I see red, then I see red. No matter how much I insist that I see blue, I know that it is red. The data is readily available, and even if I say, "I am looking at a blue expanse," I will know that I am lying. If it is my will that the expanse be blue, I will continue to see red, and I will know that I am lying if I say otherwise. Even if it is critical to the preservation of the species that the expanse be blue, I will continue to see red. I cannot deny it.

We can not deny what we know to be true. This must be recognized before you can understand how Epistemic Lenses work. Someone might suppose that Epistemic Lenses are a kind of epistemological anarchy; indeed there is chaos and anarchy in them, but they are not chaos through and through. I cannot look at a red point in the visual field and honestly say that I see blue. Rather, Lenses recognize that there is a disconnect between perception and reality, and in that disconnect we have no facts to appeal to that tell us how to interpret empirical data, let alone how to make ethical, aesthetic, or religious judgments. The data itself comes from outside of us, it is beyond our control and we know that we are lying if we misrepresent it. The framework, though, the axioms and the preferences (the intuitions and the loves) do not come from out there and for that reason we are free to intuit and to love as our nature dictates.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Desire for Completion

Sometimes when you speak you begin wanting to get detailed, but when you begin getting detailed it becomes difficult to know when to stop detailing. We want what we say to have completion, we want it to touch on all of the relevant points.

Which means we have to make the subject smaller so as to be able to comment on all of it. We abstract away an enclosed system so that we can name all of its parts and their relations. In so doing, though, sometimes it will begin to look that we have created a fiction that is too simple to exist.

Those who are comfortable making abstract systems to detail - in hopes that they accurately paint a picture of some facet of reality that aid in understanding - can write essays and books.

Those who are not, just make remarks.

Friday, September 21, 2012

A More Detailed Explanation of Belief Substance

In my last blog, I wrote about what I called the "substance of belief," which I characterized as the ability for a belief to move the believer. I mentioned as examples a person who claims to believe in equality but then consistently displays racist or sexist behavior and a person who believes that he is in sin, believes that hell is horrifying, and believes that his sin warrants hell. When I had someone read that blog, they said to me, "that's not a lack of belief - that's just hypocrisy."

Rereading my blog I see where my error lied. My examples painted a narrow picture, both examples are also examples of hypocrisy, so it would be easy to suppose that I was only talking about the fact that people claim to believe one thing but live as though that belief never factored into their practical reasoning. What I really mean to say is that all beliefs have a measurable dimension - what I have arbitrarily dubbed "substance" - that shows the extent to which the believer's life is impacted by the belief.

This dimension of substance allows us to distinguish beliefs based on the influence they hold over the believer. Not merely in the case of hypocrisy, but also in the case of moral beliefs, scientific beliefs, entertaining beliefs, and what have you. I shall try to draw out this concept in greater detail now.

Binary: Believed or ~Believed
Continuum 1: Nearness of Subject Matter [Near - Far]
Continuum 2: Influence over Believer's Life (Substance) [Substantial - Insubstantial]

Because I am here concerned only with beliefs, all of these categories assume a positive belief. So for the Binary listed above, I will not be dealing with ~Believed cases.

Distant Facts

Continuum 1: Far
Continuum 2: Insubstantial

In this category I would put nearly the entirety of objective facts about the world. Not all of them, of course, and the exact proportions would vary from person to person, but every person is completely unaffected by whether or not they acknowledge the truth of most true facts about the world. Park Rangers do not change their behavior based on the latest research on the evolution of Norse Mythology; MMA fighters lead the same lives whether they believe Robin Hood was a historical or a fictional figure; almost everyone you know will behave in the same way no matter what they believe about Quantum Physics; and the fact that light can not escape a black hole does not enter into anyone's consideration of how they should spend their weekend.

Frankly, most information, even true information, just does not matter. So any beliefs pertaining to these facts will barely influence the believer's life. For that reason, I say that these beliefs lack substance, but I also qualify this by saying that there is no reason for these beliefs to have substance.

Near Facts/Beliefs

Continuum 1: Near
Continuum 2: Substantial

Of course, facts pertaining to human biology or facts pertaining to human relationships or historical facts can matter a great deal. Maybe the theory of evolution gives you a new appreciation for yourself and your species or maybe it causes you to feel worthless - either way you will behave at least a little differently. Whether or not you and your cousin get along will determine what you get her for her birthday. The fact that a neighboring country once occupied your country will probably affect your political behavior. These facts have substance because people behave differently depending on what they believe.

Included in this category are our loves, which can not possibly be distant from us, and all that make up our framework/vantage points.


Continuum 1: Near
Continuum 2: Insubstantial

Included here are all those examples I included in my last blog: cases where someone claims to believe something that should affect them greatly, but then does not actually enter into their practical reasoning. People who claim to believe in hell, but then do nothing to avoid it. People who claim to believe that health is the most important thing in life, but then eat junk food and smoke regularly. People who claim that they believe in seizing the day, but then actively maintain a blog.

How do we determine when a belief should affect the believer? The believer is the the measure. The believer's claimed beliefs about his own values determines this. So if someone says, "I believe in putting health first," or says, "I think religion is very important," then we can say that his beliefs regarding health and theology should affect him greatly.

If his behavior does not correspond with his beliefs, we can say that some of his beliefs must lack substance, and we can say that in these cases this is indicative of insincerity.

Beloved Details

Continuum 1: Far
Continuum 2: Substantial

Sometimes you encounter someone who really cares about some seemingly obscure fact or the proper observance of some seemingly inessential custom or rule. Now sometimes this makes sense in the larger context of their vantage point, in which case you just note that people are indeed diverse and their value systems are likewise diverse. Other times, though, you will find that someone really cares about the truth of some belief, but they can not really tell you why it matters. Maybe they even acknowledge that there is no great reason for some given belief to be put on a pedestal, but they put it there anyway.

For example, anyone who makes sure you know the exact shade of green that the woman Kirk fucked in episode 85 of the original Star Trek, or anyone who makes sure that you know that their jacket is authentic leather, or anyone who will not let you forget that time they escaped from a rampaging bear in the woods. Even in their own worldview, these people probably can acknowledge how inconsequential these details are, and yet they love them. The man with the authentic leather jacket probably knows that no one's life will be affected by the authenticity of their cowskin, but they derive joy from the fact, which alters their behavior insofar as they set aside time or resources to enjoy these beliefs or to enhance the facts of the world so as to further enjoy their corresponding beliefs.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Substance of Belief

Suppose that you claim to believe some given statement of the world and someone responds that you "don't really believe that;" is there a place for such a response? Can you dispute whether or not someone really believes something. Not as in the case of someone who is being knowingly insincere about their beliefs, but someone who believes that they are sincere in what they claim to believe.

It seems to me that the substance and weight of a belief lies in the actions of the believer. If a person claims to believe that, say, all humans are equal and then proceeds to consistently bestow more time and value on one gender or one race over another, we might say that his belief lacks substance. And if a man believes that he is sinning and believes that the consequence for sin is hell and believes that hell is a terrible horrifying place, then either he must discontinue sinning (or actively struggle against his sin, since, perhaps it is a matter of weakness rather than will) or we must say that one of his beliefs lacks substance.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Losing Yourself

What is it to "lose yourself?" I imagine it in this way.

When one is calm and self-aware, we might say that his perspective of his actions or his feelings or his will includes "I" as the subject. For example, "I am walking down the street," "I am listening to music," "I am climbing a mountain," "I am thirsty," "I need to know." Losing oneself means ceasing to experience, or perhaps having a diminished experience of, the "I" part of all this. It becomes "walk down the street," "listen to this music," "climb!" "get water!" "tell me!" Or perhaps more truthfully, language itself ceases to be a factor, the commentary discontinues and there is merely feeling and impulse, reaction to stimuli.

The ability to stand back and observe as though separate from the experience is lost, we lose the ability to evaluate our own reactions to the situation. Instead we experience only the reaction, and only later can we look back on what we felt and what we did.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Intuition and Perspective

Previously, I tended to see intuition as a kind of deception that held a privileged position. Our intuitions varied too greatly between individuals and, especially, different cultures to be any kind of accurate description of the facts. Naturally, discarding intuition makes foundationalism crumble, leading eventually to my Epistemic Lenses/Vantage Points/Perspectivism once one realizes that Coherentism and Pragmatism can only rule out very wrong ideas but not necessarily discover true ones. However, intuition cannot really be removed from the forefront; even if we deny that intuition is discovering true facts we cannot deny that in everyday life we really just use reason to bridge the gaps between new information and old intuition. Only those of us who are aware of the frailties of foundational epistemology try to get away from that method of thinking and living.

It seems to me now that perhaps there is a place for intuition if we accept the kind of pluralism suggested by Epistemic Lenses.

If one craves honesty, then one must admit that intuition does not discover true, objective facts. If they did, then all intuition would have to come to the same conclusion – perhaps with a handful of exceptions that we could call diseased intuition. However, we also see that science does not seem to hang on to anything – it is free floating as its foundations cannot be established with rigor, with some branches standing on especially ghostly cornerstones. This is where I tend to mention Epistemic Lenses, where the world looks different depending on what presuppositions and values one interprets the world through. Intuition, however, could also serve as an explanation of Epistemic Lenses: we intuit certain foundational beliefs that make it possible to interpret the rest of the world, but intuition varies because it proceeds from the nature of the one who intuits.

Intuition is not true, but through intuition we can come to starting beliefs that make it possible to understand the rest of the world. But the intuitions vary from person to person, making the world as seen through each person's eyes different from the world as seen through other eyes. Not so distinct that we cannot relate to one another, but distinct enough that the perceptions are not identical.

Do we intuit values? I do not think that we do. I would not use the word “intuit” here. Do I intuit that strawberry ice cream is superior to vanilla? Do I intuit that it would be better for people to be allowed to make their own decisions for their lives? Rather I would use the word “love.” I love strawberry ice cream more than vanilla. I love that people choose their own paths. We confuse “love” for “intuition” when we want others to love as we do, but once we are comfortable with the sliver of loneliness that stems from loving without the support of the nature of the world, then we see that intuition and love work in different ways to form our perspective.

But which is more basic? Which is more primary: love or intuition? We intuit the world according to what we love, and we love according to what we intuit. That is, we see the foundations of the world the way that we want to see them, but we also desire according to how we think the world is. I can not say which one has first privilege. I want to say that it is probably messy and layered, with an intuition being reevaluated by a love which leads to a new intuition and probably a new love.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Whole and the Parts

Which is the truest way of seeing the universe?

As a whole, wherein everything is interwoven together and nothing can truly be understood unless everything is understood? Abstraction being a kind of useful fiction-writing and all contemplation of anything apart from everything is the study of a shadow.

Or as a collection of simple parts which can be individually understood and whose relations to one another can be understood, the totality of these simple parts and relations being what we call "everything." Abstraction allowing us to grasp the atoms that make up what we happen to call totality.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Pearls Before Swine

“Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces."
-Matthew 7:6

I could never understand this verse within the context of Christianity, because within Christianity we regard the gospel as true and we regard it as something that must be shared, distributed, and proclaimed. I, and many others that I knew of, took this as a verse advising against sharing the holy message of the gospel with at least some kinds of people - the dogs and the swine who could not appreciate it. But if the gospel is true, then it should not be defended through secrecy, it should be capable of overcoming any presented opposition by virtue of the fact that the truth will always be able to show itself superior to falsehood in a debate. That made this verse into one of those verses that you imagine has some deeper, more mysterious meaning that you do not yet understand.

Outside of Christianity, and with a healthy skepticism about humanity's ability to come to Truth, I think I understand the passage.

Pigs were unclean, they were reprehensible to the Jews. Dogs were common, wild, traveled in packs, and could turn vicious toward humanity. Neither of them have any appreciation for pearls. But a man does; a man can love pearls, he can regard them as precious, he can value and treasure them, and he can share them with those whom he loves. But if a man shares his pearls with dogs or swine, he is sharing them with those who are incapable of regarding them as he does, and he puts both the pearls and himself in danger.

This is the meaning: only share what is or what can be commonly loved, because it is a common trait of humanity to trample what is loved by few but not loved by many. The most important and defining things in life are often private in some way - unique experiences or unique blends of emotion that one will never find in another person. In this way, the experience can not be communicated, any other person will lack the vocabulary to understand you. Some will love you for having something that they can not share, but there are many who will seek to flatten you out, many who will devalue what you love simply because it is their nature to be amused by doing so.

Whatever you love dearly can not be shared too openly. Whatever is special and particular to you must be hidden except to those that you know will have some kind of appreciation for it. Because we are social creatures, and when we see what we love being trampled it is a challenge to our love. We can not make them see that whatever it is that we value deserves to be valued - because it doesn't - we love it because it is our nature to love it but it may not be their nature to love it. But when we see what we love being mocked and ridiculed, the social aspect of our nature will want to be reconciled to those who mock and ridicule and it presents us with a prompting to abandon some of our particularity and individuality for the sake of being reconciled with the crowd. On the other hand, instead we may cling more tightly to what we love and thereby come to hate the crowd who can not appreciate it.

By keeping what is particular to ourselves away from mockers, scoffers, dogs, swine, and crowds who loathe what is not a part of themselves, we avoid this challenge altogether. We avoid the experience of having what we love trampled - and the consequent challenge to our own identity. We also avoid the prompting to shut ourselves off from people to preserve our individual character.

I can scarcely imagine a more important lesson for the internet age.

Friday, September 7, 2012


Crime and Punishment is great literature, containing beauty, truth, emotion, and a perspective on some aspect of the world. Pop Goes the Weasel is something James Patterson cranked out to keep the money train rollin', it might be fun for a few hours, but you're not really missing anything if you skip it.

I agree with both of these (very simplified) assessments, but I also know that someone told me that Crime and Punishment was great prior to me reading it. Would I have agreed that it was a great book if I didn't sit down to read it with the understanding that it was a great book? If Crime and Punishment were published today and did not have an established reputation, would I regard it as highly as I do now?

Or, suppose that Wittgenstein was never heralded as the greatest 20th century philosopher (which is certainly not a universal claim). Would I be able to see his greatness just from reading his work? Certainly not. He is too high above me, when I read him I read him to try to climb up and become better through his influence. If it weren't for the fact that I was told he was great, I might have supposed that he just had a knotty mind and a knotty way of expressing himself. I wouldn't have given him the time needed to see what was great in his work - and even now I only see dimly.

We all want to see ourselves as brave and independent thinkers, but being a brave and independent thinker is like being a father. You need to be brought up yourself before you can bring anyone else up. Independence is an excellent thing, but it must be earned by a period where you allow the established to bring you up. Of course then you run the risk of living your whole life as a disciple.

Life Goes Beyond Reason

We know that human beings are an arrangement of atoms - we have no solid evidence that human beings are anything more than that. In the realm of reason, you are correct if you say that we have no evidence indicating that there is a dimension to human beings that goes beyond physical particles and energy; you would be wrong if you said that it was a fact that human beings are just particles and energy, though. You would be wrong because it is impossible for us to ever know that that is the case, rather, what we know is that there is no evidence currently available that there is anything beyond particles and energy.

But reason, while an excellent thing, is an activity that we are capable of, not the whole of our lives. So after we reason we have to live. If you live as though humans are just matter and energy, then your life goes beyond the rules of a strict rationality. If you live as though humans are more than matter and energy, then your life goes beyond the rules of a strict rationality.

There is an asymmetry here. In the former case, all you do when you live is deny ignorance and mystery, you are living only according to what you can discover; in the latter case, you use ignorance as an excuse to become self-indulgent and live according to something that may be lovely or satisfying but which has no basis in the available evidence. For this reason, I do not endorse the second approach. Neither do I endorse the first, though, although it seems closer to what I would endorse.

I do not endorse the first because we know that there is ignorance and mystery. We know that there are limitations to what we know - possibly essential limitations, things that we may never know. To deny this is to deny what we actually see (we can still see the blind spot itself). To fill it in with whatever we like is to lie to ourselves - and who can lie to himself effectively since he would be aware of the lie?

But, then, how do we live according to mystery? How do we incorporate the fact of our ignorance into our lives? I do not know in full, but in part it consists of living as someone who knows he is living according to perception and not according to fact - always on the lookout for more perception.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Wasted Brain Time

There is something that I have discovered the last week or so - if you do not have some idea or concept that fascinates you, your brain is going to go to some stupid places for stimulation during the busy times of the day. Old browser games I'm never going to play again, situations I'm never going to encounter again, jokes I told that weren't that great even when they were fresh; I find my mind playing them over and over again. Mental masturbation.

If you imagine thought as being like a geography, then contemplating new ideas and new perspectives is like adding territory to your estate, contemplating old ideas that have not been fully explored and that continue to inform your life and philosophy is like surveying and improving your territory, contemplating old ideas that were never important is like counting tiles in your house.