Archive for July, 2010

Science as Unknown Truth

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

After a two-week hiatus, I present to you the second installment in my series of papers on the relationship between our knowledge and the truth.


Science, providing for us as it does a method with which we can predict and manipulate the world around us, offers a solid and concrete argument for its own possession of the truth. But we must be wary of science, in this regard, for it plays to one of our most basic intellectual drives: rationality. We seek, natively, to make sense of the world. Wittgenstein said that it is impossible to have an illogical thought, and many have contested that envisioning a “colorless green unicorn” is impossible because of the nonsense and paradox inherent in the phrase. It is, however, my contention that the position that the rational inquiry generated by science is somehow superior in its accessibility to the truth stems from an untestable chauvinism and prejudice of the mind.

Science has always been concerned with the testing and honing of its instruments and technology in order to find more accurate results, or to be surer of the accuracy of the results already received. But the sciences—indeed, most fields of inquiry—have been historically lax in testing the source of all these tools and instruments: the thinking apparatus of the scientist (or human in general). The field of study which does concern itself with this apparatus, psychology, is not even yet fully emerged and formed as a science in the Kuhnian sense, and as such science cannot yet claim to be examining its primary tool for inquiry.

This “truth” that comes out of science is marked by rationale, reason, and logical explanation. But if, as some have suggested, our minds are only capable of logical thinking (whether we actively understand the logical path taken or otherwise), it would be necessary for science to reflect that logicality, irrespective of logicality present in that which science tests.

To structure the attack slightly differently, consider this: rationalists and atheists often criticize religious justifications for the existence of God because of the circular reasoning that presents itself in some of the arguments, i.e., “God exists; I know this because the Bible says so; I can trust the Bible because it is the word of God.” However, the assumption that posits the truth of rationality (of the a priori “pure logic” sort and the a posteriori sort of which science is a major part) is equally circular: we know that the world is rational because reason matches up with our perceived perception of the world; reason and rationality stem from the mind; our access to our perception of the world is filtered through our minds; that apparatus which performs the act of reason is the same which filters and understands the world. In both circularly reasoned cases, we have the source of “truth” claiming itself to be true. The case of the human mind is even more devilishly circular, though, because as we turn to examine it for veracity and accuracy, we must examine it through the lens of our own minds, generating a device whose total accuracy and relation the real world is essentially untestable, because we need to use the device in question to test its own accuracy.

What we then find ourselves with is a situation in which we have no reference point. That is, we have no “objective” truth against which to compare our notions of truth to determine how accurate they are. We use notions like “explanation” and “prediction” to attempt to approximate a reference point so as to judge the accuracy of a scientific theory, but what that essentially amounts to is not a measure of the correlation between theory and phenomenon, but rather a measure of the correlation between theory and the prejudiced interpretation of phenomenon.

On a quick aside, it should be noted that it is, despite the loud claims of rationalists, entirely possible to entice the mind to escape rational limitations. Many Eastern religious and pseudo-religious practices aim towards exactly such a goal, and there is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that many entheogenic practices lead relatively quickly to a temporary escape from the rational. People who have experienced such states oftentimes report intellectual and sensory abandonment of such basic presuppositions as causality and dichotomy. While this is not the place for the discussion of such matters, the fact that such experiences are possible and even relatively common among certain sectors of society is important to note when we discuss the relationship between the mind and the world and science’s role in that relationship.

Returning to the role science plays in attempting to illuminate for us some degree of truth, it has been argued that science portrays the truth of phenomena, and that its relationship to the truth of a noumenal realm is unknowable and, in the end, irrelevant. However, phenomena being understood as events as they appear to an observer, we have a very real problem once we have established the inability of an individual to judge the accuracy of their own mind: the observer can’t even be sure if the phenomenon in question is appearing a certain way. While this seems a bit ridiculous at first, we must recognize that scientific analysis of phenomena happens, by necessity, after the phenomena in question have occurred, with the scientist operating by memory and recordings. Even non-skeptics will agree that human memory is extremely fallible, and often flawed. Memory and recordings both are subject to that undetectable super-imposition of a rational prejudice discussed earlier. This moves the data used for scientific analysis into the same realm as our entire “truth” notion: those data now must exist in a truth-space without reference point. It is not that the data are not accurate, but rather that they are of unknown and unknowable accuracy.

At this point, clearly, all knowledge, not just science, is suspect. With our inability to accurately gauge the accuracy of our own minds, we cannot with any degree of precision ever know the accuracy of any data, analysis, or thought we encounter. So where does that leave science, the monolith of rational pursuits of truth? My claim: in the same world as other untestable truth pursuits.

If we roughly separate modes of thought into the rational, the intuitive, and the epiphanic, we can also roughly attach certain pursuits of truth to each category. Science would be a rational pursuit of truth, “common sense” could be considered an intuitive pursuit of truth, and religion could be considered an epiphanic pursuit of truth. In all three domains we see the exact same limitations that were considered in the discussion of science: the mechanism that we use to pursue truth has itself unknowable accuracy, leaving the pursuit in the domain of the unknowably accurate. This means that the truths originating from these various sources of knowledge have qualitatively identical claims on our acceptance of those truths as, indeed, true. That qualitatively identical value is, roughly, “indeterminable.”

Now, it should be clearly understood that I am not (nor could I possibly) argue that science or any other form of truth-seeking does not give us truth. What I claim is that we can’t know if it gives us truth. That is, the modes we use of logic and reasoning may be in perfect accordance with the modes of operation of the objective universe, but our lack of access to the objective universe—and our lack of access to an objective understanding of our own subjective mechanisms—means that we cannot possibly ever know with any degree of certainty how accurate our perceptions and thoughts are. From this examination we can state not that science does not give us truth, but rather that science gives us only unknown truth.

Science As Truth

July 16, 2010 Leave a comment

This is the first in a series of essays on the nature of truth and our relationship to it. Enjoy, dear readers.


A definition of science being something often discussed and hotly argued, I shall not attempt one here. Instead, a quick list of the functions of science shall be given. First, it seems clear that science purposes to approach some sort of understanding of the world. A weaker version of this thesis is that science gives us a framework within which we can operate and that we use as a filter for our interfacing with the world. Second, science allows us to make predictions about a future state based on initial conditions and the rules which we generate through the pursuit of science. Third, science allows us to manipulate the world around us and shape it as we so choose.

There is a fourth function of science, as well, that deserves mention. Science can also be a purpose unto itself. There are those for whom the scientific method of inquiry is simply a joy to behold in and of itself, and for its own sake. There are those for whom scientific inquiry is of itself a beautiful process. Indeed, I think it can be safely said that most people devoted to science are at least partially enraptured with the pursuit for that very reason. This reason, however, is more concerned with science as an aesthetic exercise than it is with science as a knowledge-oriented exercise, and it is knowledge with which I wish to deal.

It is clear how the third pursuit of science—manipulation—stems from the second pursuit—prediction. It is our ability to predict natural phenomena based on rules and initial conditions that allows us to generate those initial conditions necessary to create a desired effect.

It is further clear that science’s ability to make accurate predictions stems directly from the fact that it provides a framework within which to understand the world around us. That is, without a framework of understanding we could not possibly have a reference point from which we could being making informed guesses about the future. There can be no “informed” without “information.”

So it seems that the primary pursuit of science is to provide us with some sort of articulable understanding of phenomena that can then be used for other, secondary aims. At this point, we must ask ourselves about the nature of the phenomena that science understands and the nature of that understanding.

The phenomena that science examines are exactly that—phenomena. They are events in the world of perception, including that portion of the world whose perception is only open to us due to the advancements of science (phenomena at tiny scales, great distances, or in domains such as extremely low-frequency electromagnetic radiation serve as examples). To fall back to the Kantian dualism, it is impossible for science to investigate the “noumenal” realm, as it were. Despite the fact that science allows us to observe events that would be otherwise outside of our domain of experience, we only have phenomenal access to those events, and we cannot through science access any sort of “deeper” truth, penetrating past phenomena into noumena. Indeed, because science deals precisely with the world as we interact with it, science lacks the possibility of even determining if there exists a deeper, noumenal world.

An immediate reaction to this is to question the value of any understanding that comes from science. We must ask ourselves whether or not, given this inability of science to discern “true” nature (or even to discern whether or not there is a true nature to discern), science is inherently impotent. Stated lofty goals of “objective” understanding and a quest for “truth about the natural world” are left by the wayside, bringing the scientific pursuit back down to a trifling subject with limited and restricted power of understanding, just like any other human endeavor.

But this need not be the limiting amputation it at first appears to be. The phenomenal world is defined as the world to which we have access. Putting aside unshareable and untestable (to an outside observer) mystical and religious experiences, it is impossible for us to gain experiential access to any world beyond the phenomenal. As such, from our subjective position, it is not incorrect to act as though the phenomenal world is the only world that exists. While a “noumenal” world may in fact underlie the world which we experience, since we cannot access or interact with it, it is safe to operate as though it did not exist, much the same way the existence or non-existence of Mars is not something which most of us must take into consideration in our day-to-day activities.

As such, science can give us understanding about our world, the world in which we live. It cannot tell us about the foreign worlds to which we do not have access, but that capability is not demanded from it. Nor is it relevant to our operation inside the phenomenal world. Since we do not have to operate with consideration of the noumenal world, science can seek to give us a picture of the entire world with which we interact, and thus of our entire world.

I have already stated that science gives a framework with which we may understand the phenomena that present themselves to us. But perhaps more intriguingly, science allows us to perceive new phenomena and even to create ones that could not have existed beforehand. It is intuitively understood that science comes from the world, or rather that the world generates science. That is, the phenomena present themselves as facts and we coalesce those facts into scientific theories. But science also goes to the world, changing and manipulating existing phenomena and creating entirely new ones—television is a phenomenon impossible without scientific knowledge. In this respect we see that science as a field is not simply the extraction of information and principles from the phenomenal world, but also the injection of phenomena into the information and principles at hand.

In a very real sense, science as an exploratory field is in dialectic repartee with the phenomenal world around us. As the world shapes science, so science shapes the world.

Science itself understands the capacity for such intermingling of causation. The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle rests on the observation that as we observe and understand certain phenomena, we must affect the objects of those phenomena and thus create change and new truths in our accessible world.

This state of dialogue between science and phenomena leads us to a question of finality. If the reader will pardon the trite expression, where does it all end? Will it ever be possible for science to fully understand all phenomena with which we can possibly come into contact? It would have to seem as though the answer would be “no.” Even if science gets a complete hold over all phenomena that could have occurred before the development of science (although we’re blurring the line between the phenomenal and noumenal here), science itself can continue to create new phenomena that puzzle the researchers involved. If the phenomenal universe operates on a finite set of principles, it is entirely possible to accept the idea that we could master all the fundamental principles, but when we observe a new phenomenon, we would still have to tease out which principles were involved in the phenomenon and how exactly they manifested.

Another roadblock to total scientific knowledge will be human activity. Even if science progresses so that it understands the basic, fundamental principles driving all phenomena, the collective ambiguity that is human nature will serve as a monstrous obstacle to total understanding of everything. The placement of the individual scientist or a collection of scientists within the fabric of society will limit the objectivity of the inquiry into human nature, and the understanding of people by people will always have very real epistemological concerns, centered around Wittgensteinian concerns about the limitations of an inherently subjective perspective.

Despite these blocks in the understanding that science can deliver, science is still providing us with a very real understanding of the world within which we operate. As such, it is fair to state that science provides us with some form of “truth” about the world. It is a truth that does not expand to all possible domains, but that does not change the fact that it is true. A triangle’s internal angles do not have to sum to one hundred and eighty degrees in any possible space, but that does not render false the assertion that a triangle in Euclidean space does have that property. In the same vein, while science may tell us nothing about any noumenal world, it does give us truth about the phenomenal world, which is by definition the domain with which science is concerned.

Empathy Before Entropy

July 14, 2010 Leave a comment

A lot of people have a lot of strong opinions about politics these days, and in thinking about his, I came to a realization. I’d like to let you in on this realization: THE OTHER GUY ISN’T FUCKING EVIL!!

That’s it, in a nutshell, really. Republicans don’t tend towards pro-life stances because they don’t think women have the right to choose what happens to their own bodies, Republicans tend towards pro-life stances because they think the fetus is a living human being, and it is pretty well agreed-upon that taking the life of a living human being on purpose is murder. At the same time Democrats don’t  lean towards pro-choice stances because they think that an adult human is worth more than a fetus, they tend towards pro-choice stances because they don’t think that the fetus is a living human being. And the funny part is… neither side is necessarily wrong. Yeah, the Republican definition of life usually comes from a religious understanding of “life,” and yeah, there’s an established doctrine separating Church and State in this country, but science’s secular definition of life is debated even today among secular biologists.  Neither side is clearly correct, and neither side is idiotically wrong.

This extends through all issues of debate in the current political arena. The politically active populace spends much time arguing with the opposition and thinking of the opposition as the enemy, is it any wonder that the politicians in DC do the same thing? Politically aware citizens on both side of the aisle usually agree that lawmakers are, on the whole, ineffective. Most people are even aware of the fact that this is mostly due to party-line squabbling. Politicians are more interested in politics than policymaking, but I have to ask you this: how can you blame them when the constituency does the same?

In order to start getting effective, usable policymaking done in this country, the politicians have to stop throwing wads of paper at each other from across an imaginary line and come together to work on creative solutions. We have to stop arguing about the surface-level issues and start discoursing about the root issues. We have to dig deep into our own political views and find the philosophical, theoretical founts from which they stem and find ways to develop creative solutions that both philosophical pediments can support. Democrats want to provide healthcare, and Republicans don’t want to “rob Peter to pay Paul.” So find a clever way for government to work with Paul to get Paul some damned healthcare.

But our policymakers won’t be able to do this so long as the people voting for them are incapable of it themselves. See, the policymakers are a reflection of the political values of the people. The fact is that they grew up in the same country, the same society that we grew up in. They may have different career goals than you or I, but they still think mostly the same way. If we can start teaching ourselves, our friends, our families, our children to be able to see the other side’s argument and work together to come up with creative solutions, we can build a more effective political environment that will actually get shit done.

I want it understood, though, that I am not advocating compromise. I am not saying that we should settle for less than that which satisfies us completely. We should know what we want and we should gun for it. But instead of assuming that the people who don’t want the same things we want are evil gits, let’s assume that they’re good people, like us, just trying to do what they think is right. Let’s be open to reason, let’s understand our own philosophical foundations, and let’s just be fucking intelligent about the way we do things, instead of squabbling about like kindergarteners over the new Ninja Turtles toy.

It boils down to empathy, ladies and gents. The capacity to see things from the other guy’s perspective. That doesn’t mean thinking that the other guy is right. That doesn’t mean acquiescing. It means understanding where the other guy stands and why he stands there. A lot of our problems could easily be avoided if we’d just learn to empathize. It has been said that it is the mark of a freethinker that one can entertain an idea without accepting it. We must learn to understand the opposition, even when we don’t accept their views.

Categories: politics

The Luddite Fallacy

July 14, 2010 Leave a comment

The Luddites held that the changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution would lead to a moral degradation of society. Many modern Luddites often argue the same thing—that technological progress opens up the door for deeper and deeper immoralities and creates a darker and darker world.

This is not an incorrect assessment. Nuclear technology has given mankind the capacity to blow itself into oblivion, multiple times over. The internet has facilitated a whole new genre of ways to screw people over, from identity theft to bank fraud and internet-distributed child pornography. The printing press has been used to teach people closemindedness, destructiveness, and hate.

But that’s not all that any of these technologies have done.

Nuclear technology has also given us nuclear power, a clean and efficient energy source that could effectively power the world. The internet has given us nearly infinite founts of data and has facilitated the spread of messages of peace and goodness and charity like no technology before it. The printing press has been used to teach people to think and to provide basic literacy throughout most of the world.

The Luddites, see, saw a half-empty glass. But progressivists who see only the good of technology are like bright-eyed optimists. Oftentimes more fun to be around, yes, but also oftentimes blatantly ignoring the risks associated with various ventures. See, technology progress is neither a great evil nor a great good. It, like most everything else, simply is.

Every new technological advancement brings with it a potential for good and for evil. Recently, biologists have figured out how to manufacture brand new species using entirely fabricated DNA. The potential use of such technology for good is extraordinary: we could theoretically build a bacteria that fought along the immune system to ward off unwanted infections; we could create colonies that could break down oil into non-harmful components and then, when their job was done, simply deactivate and die off; we could use this technology to scrub the atmosphere and help fix much of the damage we’ve done. At the same time, the entropic, destructive uses of such technology are equally rife: an infection could be engineered to only target people showing certain genetic characteristics unique to a particular race; rampantly reproduced cancer-like colonies could be designed to choke out entire ecosystems; species could be built to produce toxic gases to render certain vast stretches of the planet inhospitable.

This technology, then, is neither good nor evil. It simply IS. It increases the potential action pool of the human species. Gives us more room within which to operate. Yes, the potential power is terrifying. But yes, also, the potential power is glorious.

This is not just true of technology. Ideas on the whole often exhibit this characteristic of an amorality, of a simple being. Religion is often touted by secularists to be a great evil, the cause of much of the world’s great terror and suffering and strife. But religion has also caused great good. Religion has led many who were suffering into a place of peace. Religious groups activate and mobilize for disaster relief faster than many governments, and often in greater numbers and with greater aid. Yes, religion has been used to preach hate, intolerance, exclusion, and dogmatic narrow-mindedness. But religion has also been used to preach love, tolerance, acceptance, and inquiry. Religion simply is.

It is up to us, as individuals, to wield these weapons properly and for good. The problem, of course, is that we have so many different ideas of that which is “right” and that which is “just.” But we must conquer this in ourselves before we can conquer it in others. We can only begin to use our vast power rightly when we understand, personally, what that idea means. I have my notion, yes, and perhaps you have yours.

But I have faith in the species. I have faith that we’ll do rightly. I have faith in your ability to choose correctly. And even if you or anyone else chooses incorrectly, I have faith in the power of the species to fight back and fix the errors committed by its brethren.

Categories: eastern, ethics, philosophy, western

Gravity Falling and What We Know

July 13, 2010 Leave a comment

I am no physicist, and I don’t read physics journals. But through the swamps of academic literature, vague abstracts and summaries often reach the common man. In recent days, I’ve noticed an upswing in the amount of  discussion going on in regards to models of gravity that differ from the currently accepted Einstein-Hilbert action of general relativity. From different actions that are still relativistic to completely different models of gravity that break away entirely from Einstein’s famous curved-space model.

The interest, here, lies in the fact that general relativity has been having some problems of late.  Relativity and quantum mechanics both explain their respective domains extremely well—relativity usually handling the very, very large in space and quantum usually handling the very, very small. But for some time it’s been known that when the two theories intersect, problems arise. The classic example of a problem domain is the deep mechanics of black holes, where physicists must deal with systems that are very, very massive and very, very tiny.

General relativity has also led to other problems, from the Universe beginning as a singularity (which is mathematically undefinable) to the whole Dark Energy/Dark Matter problem.

In short, while general relativity brought us deeper insight into the mechanisms of gravity than any other model before it, it opened questions that have stood open for decades, defying any attempt to solve within the relativistic model.

Thomas Kuhn, the man who wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the seminal work on the growth and development of the sciences, said that when a scientific model begins defying attempts to solve certain problems, the field moves into a state of extra-ordinary science, wherein scientists begin to get more creative and daring when proposing solutions to existing problems. In science, it is usually held that theories should be minimally modified to solve new problems. That is, if a model must be modified in order to solve a new problem, the modification which least changes the model is ideal. During a period of extra-ordinary science, however, scientists will escape that rule and begin seeing what happens when drastic, radical changes are made.

If the unsolved problems are then solved by one of these drastic, radical changes to the model, we enter a period of paradigm shift, where over roughly the span of a generation (usually), the new model is adopted and then fleshed out, changing the space of the scientific discussion inside the relevant field permanently.

It appears as though we may have begun entering into gravity’s newest period of extra-ordinary science. With radical new theories of the gravitational mechanism sprouting up, the academic community as a whole will begin to be more accepting of radical changes to the model. As the academic community becomes more accepting, more scientists will be daring enough to consider radical changes. And, eventually, one model may click.

We grew up with Einstein’s general relativity as the model of that basic force which keeps us attached to the earth. In most cases, so did our parents and grandparents. But our children might not. Our children may know that gravity is the result of some emergent property of entropy or they might know that the Big Bang is part of an infinite gravitational cycle. They might know this, because science might know this. But we know that general relativity is right, don’t we? Science knows that general relativity is right, doesn’t it? It makes one question what it means to “know” something, doesn’t it?

Competition and Cooperation

July 11, 2010 Leave a comment

There is a debate that takes many forms, but one of those forms boils down to the question of cooperation versus competition. In a macro sense, is it more effective to bring interested parties together to cooperate towards a goal, or drive them apart and incite them to compete?

Competition has this tendency to create friction, to separate people, to create artificial boundaries between operating agents. It has a tendency to make us prejudicial and hateful. It generates, often, irreconcilable differences between those competing as enemies. With good reason—in a competitive framework, where a win for one side implies a loss for the other, it’s difficult to cause others to lose if one likes those others.

Perhaps even more damaging is the truth that, in competition, competitors often lose seek of the original aims of the competition and the competition becomes the goal unto itself. We see this in sports when the goal of a player moves from the young, idyllic, “play to have fun” to the older, aggressive, “play to win.” We see this in business when the goal of a corporation moves from providing a valuable good or service into maximizing profit.

But empirically, we see great good come from this competitive mindset. Fantastic technological leaps forward have resulted from a necessity to innovate in order to keep up with the rest of the field in essentially every industry known to man. Professional level, competitive sports have resulted in athletes showing almost super-human talent and progressing to positively remarkable levels of skill in the pursuit of the win. Competitive admissions to schools and universities have resulted in those schools teaching and forming the cream-of-the-crop.

Could such things have resulted from totally cooperative social systems? I don’t think so. We see, obviously, much progress coming from cooperation. The International Space Station is a cooperative effort between nations all over the world. The internet’s odd, new open-source community, wherein thousands of people cooperate and volunteer their time for a common goal. Cooperation is, clearly, at least sometimes effective, and it rarely presents the collateral costs that are engendered by competition.

The end result is that, clearly, competition has its downfalls. But for sheer getting-shit-done capacity, it’s really not easy to beat. The declaration that competition is universally hurtful, universally cost prohibitive, is patently incorrect. But so, to, is the declaration that competition is always the best response. The most effective path, then, would be to keep competition and cooperation mixed and balanced against each other in harmony. What we, in building our lives, and our civil servants, in building the social structure around us, need to do is carefully and intelligently decide where to build competitive environments and where to construct cooperative frameworks. How we decide where to build which framework is a question that must be left to the intelligence and sense of the designer. But with practice, we can develop the clear thought and open eyes that are necessary to correctly see the situations and build the solutions necessary to move forward.

Categories: eastern, philosophy, western

Ideas Beyond Language

July 10, 2010 Leave a comment

I begin with mathematics.

The study of the vastness of numbers has led to powerfully interesting results. If we begin by examining the Naturals—the counting numbers 1, 2, 3, etc—we can quickly and easily see that there exist an infinite number of these objects. If we next examine the Reals—those numbers existing on a continuum, containing all natural numbers, all numbers expressible as a fraction, and all numbers NOT expressible as a fraction, such as pi—we also see, relatively intuitively, that there are an infinite number of THESE objects. But a famous result shows that there are more Reals than there are Naturals, with the magnitude of the Naturals referred to as a “countable” infinity and the magnitude of the Reals called an “uncountable” infinity.

This, at first, seems strange. How can one infinity be larger than another? This result was first proven by Georg Cantor. A famous demonstration known today as the Cantor Diagonalization Argument proves this in so elegant a fashion as to be essentially uncontestable. For today, let us simply accept the truth of this separation between values of infinity. I shall allow the curious reader to investigate this independently.

We next move on to language.

Language is built around sentences expressing ideas. Those sentences are built of words. At any given moment, a language has a finite number of words. Language morphs and changes and evolves over time, adding a degree of complexity to the expressive power of a language, but I am concerned right now with language as it stands in any given instant.

When we build sentences, we combine these finite words into sentences. A given sentence is finite in length, but there is no theoretical limit to the length of an individual sentence. I’ve read sentences in books that span pages, and with embedded clauses it is trivial to demonstrate that a sentence can be of any length.

But it is clear that, however many words are in a sentence, that number must be a Natural number. That is to say, to claim a sentence has 7.6 words doesn’t mean anything. For a sentence to follow the structural rules of grammar, that sentence cannot have a fractional number of words. More to the point—and even less arguably—a sentence cannot feasibly have an irrational number (a number only expressible as a non-repeating, non-terminating decimal) of words.

What this tells us, in essence, is that there are a countable number of sentences. Not that the sentences can actually be counted by a human being, but that the infinity of sentence variation is the same size as the number of Natural numbers—a countable infinity.

A book or a paper or an argument, something built of sentences and used to convey ideas, is also necessarily finite in length. Once again, there is no theoretical limit to the number of sentences in a book, but whatever number of sentences are placed in a book, that number will be finite. So the number of feasible books or papers or arguments is countably infinite.

The point of this, then, is this: at any given moment, the number of ideas expressible in a language is countably infinite.

I find this to be quite interesting. If the number of ideas expressible through language is countable, what if the number of ideas which exist is uncountable? It seems to me as though this uncountability of the idea-space is likely true, since it is fair to call all possible numbers an idea, and so long as we accept the Reals we’ve immediately granted a number of ideas minimally equal to the number of Reals.

This means, in short, that there are ideas that language cannot possible express. As a matter of fact, there are an infinitely large number of ideas that cannot possibly be expressed in a language at a given moment.

So where are those other ideas? Well, perhaps some are expressible in non-linguistic media. Music, images, movements, and the like. Perhaps some are simply inexpressible. This is something to ponder, something to consider. It is important, I think, because it suggests the untruth of the often-believed idea that we can only think that which we can linguistically express.

I’d be interested to know where this takes the reader.

Response to an Open Letter to Taoists

July 9, 2010 2 comments

A friend of mine sent me a link to an open letter to Taoists written by the Reverend Daryl E. Witmer. I read it, and was intrigued. Hoping to engage Rev. Witmer in dialogue, I’ve sent him a response, and for transparency’s sake I’ve included all of it here, minus a postscript declaration that I am, indeed, publishing it as an open response.

Forgive the length, but there was much to say…

Rev. Witmer,

First of all, please allow me to thank you for your open letter to Taoists. It is this kind of comparative thinking that I find lacking in most of the spiritual discourse of today. I often wonder how it is that someone can properly understand their own religion if they do not put it in the context of other religions, and I find it beneficial to study the views and ideas of other modes of thinking, at the very least so that we can articulate how it is that it demonstrates incorrectness.

Next, I would like to introduce myself. My name is William Byatt. I do not identify with any religion, but my spiritual upbringing has brought me near to many. My father is a Universalist Unitarian minister. My mother is Roman Catholic and I was raised attending the Catholic Church. In recent years, I have been encountering the Eastern religions, primarily Taoism and Zen Buddhism, and it is the ideas of the Tao which have been most instrumental in my current spirituality.

As it stands, I would like to discuss certain elements of your letter with you. In your first paragraph, you address the paradox of expressing the inexpressible. My personal interpretation of this issue centers around the paradox aspect of the point (I’m a student of philosophy and mathematics, specifically logic, and have made protracted studies on the nature of paradox), but that is for another time. What I think is more immediately relevant here is the relationship between words and the Way. When Lao-Tzu writes that “The Tao which can be spoken is not the eternal Tao,” it is no accident that these are the first words of the Tao Te Ching. This sentence stands as caveat to the rest of the Tao Te Ching, a warning that everything that follows is only an approximation of “truth” (Though the whole notion of truth crumbles inside the Way. That, too, is for another letter). Mathematically, I have interpreted this to mean that language can be thought of as an asymptotic function with the Tao itself as the asymptote. That is, by talking and writing about it, we can only approximate the Way. In order to fully understand the Way, we must transcend language and enter into a realm of knowledge that can be mundanely understood as that which is drawn from experience, or more spiritually understood as something approaching “divine revelation.” When Taoist writers step back into language, they are only trying to point the aspiring Taoist in the right general direction. They are trying to shape the student’s mind in such a way as to prepare it to understand the Tao of its own accord, but the student himself must make the experiential leap into actual understanding.

The line that you have quoted, “Those who know don’t say, and those who say don’t know,” is a generalized statement about wisdom that expresses the Taoist outlook on life as a whole. It is NOT, specifically, a statement about understanding of the Tao specifically (though it is, indeed, about that as well). As such, I think it is fair to say that it is often the case that the wise do not talk incessantly about how wise they are. They act. They lead by example, they do. That is not to say that they do not talk at all. It stands, as most aphorisms do, as a generality. It is a statement expressing the value of action over words. It expresses the reality that people who don’t know what they’re talking about often talk a lot, and people who do know what they’re talking about don’t talk much at all. A generality is not identifiable with a universality, however. Aphorisms are generally meant to be taken as guidelines, not as hard-and-fast rules.

Remember also that most Taoists do not think of Taoism as a religion in the sense that followers of the Abrahamic tradition think of religion. For many the separation between religion and philosophy is tenuous at best, and it is widely accepted that Lao-Tzu did not write the Tao Te Ching as a book of holy scripture, but rather a book of general wisdom, perhaps as a grandfather would give their grandson when the grandson becomes a man and must enter the Real World. The holiness that has been ascribed to the Tao Te Ching in the intervening two and a half millennia is a product of the book’s antiquity and the tendency of the Chinese to venerate the old and traditional.

When you go on to delineate the separation between a monotheistic, personal God as something separate from the monistic, all-being God that is Barry Pierce’s interpretation of the Tao, you enter into very old and oft-discussed (even among Christians) theological grounds. I would like to point out, however, that an interpretation of the Tao as God is simply Mr Pierce’s interpretation. The Tao Te Ching nor the Chuang-Tzu say anything about the Tao in that regard, and it is a product of a mind which likely would already understand God in a monistic sense without the Tao entering the picture, ala Baruch Spinoza.

As an aside on this point, I’d like to mention that I do know a few people who consider themselves “Christian-Taoist” who identify the Tao as, in some sense, the agent of motion inside the universe, and God as the exterior motivator of that agent. I do not profess to understand in entirety what it is these people mean, but the point is that I do know people who believe in the existence of the Tao AND a separate, exterior-to-our-universe personal God.

When you next say that “no ruler anywhere in the world has ever considered [non-action] to constitute a workable plan or a viable option,” I have two responses.

First, I think it should be realized that, in the cryptic and romantic fashion of ancient Chinese, Lao-Tzu was speaking in terms of ideal. Whether or not the ideal is attainable or unattainable is up for discussion, but the point remains that Lao-Tzu understood non-action to be an ideal towards which we should aim. Obviously, the conditions have to be right for non-action to be effective.

Second, I must remind you of Mr Thomas Jefferson, who very famously wrote that “The government which governs best is that which governs least.” Mr Jefferson did do service as the President of the United States of America, which makes your claim that no ruler ever considered non-action correct empirically wrong.

At this point I do ask you again to remember that Lao-Tzu probably did not intend his work to be holy scripture or dogmatic, but rather generalized wisdom. In this sense, whether there is objective truth to Lao-Tzu’s understanding of goodness in non-action, it does represent his opinion on the matter, which clearly aligns with that of Mr Jefferson.

Your last two paragraphs, however, present the most interest to me. You enter into forever-discussed philosophical realms when you say that “no butterfly is ever known to have questioned whether or not he was a butterfly, much less recorded such a predicament, it is probably safe to assume that you are Chou and not the butterfly,” you have effectively entered into the domain of a very important question about the nature of consciousness. It is my fervent belief that just because no recording exists of an act does not mean it has not happened. I have to question the logic regarding your safe assumption, and I must ask exactly how safe that assumption is. The fact is that I have personally experienced things, especially things that occur solely within my own consciousness, that have not been recorded and that, as far as I’m aware, no mortal but myself knows. These things have still happened.

But that point is broader than that which is a direct criticism of Chuang-Tzu. To understand what Chuang-Tzu has written, an understand of the Chinese in which it was written is necessary. The ancient Chinese language does not give its words hard-and-fast definitions, and the ancient Chinese form of constructing sentences does not work in the blueprint-specificities with which we are familiar. Ancient Chinese was a more archaic, organic, flowing sort of communication device. It conveyed broad ideas and romantic brush-strokes. Further, Taoists dabble in one of the more interesting philosophical hallmarks of Hinduism and Buddhism: the ego illusion. This, actually, is the deep root of Chuang-Tzu’s metaphor here.

A discussion of the nature of the ego illusion is something that is REALLY for another letter, seeing as how this one is already on its third page. But suffice it to say that the Taoists believe in a unity of things. To the Taoist, separation between entities is not a necessity. When Chuang-Tzu questions whether he was Chou or a butterfly, he is entering into discussion on relative space. Alan Watts, in a lecture on Taoism, once said that, in a vacuum, without a point of positive reference, it is impossible to tell which of two objects move. That is to say, if you construct a hypothetical space with no zero-point of origination, and place within it two separate objects occupying different portions of that space, and one of them moves, it is objectively impossible to tell which one is moving. This is a very real and important point that is quite important, even outside of philosophy. Physicists often employ this truth when dealing with moving bodies—it can sometimes be easier to assume that the more complex body is stationary and a simpler body is moving. When one performs the calculations, we would get the same result with either one moving, but one calculation is simply easier to perform.

You lastly treat on the idea of Taoism as a yin to, perhaps, Christ’s yang. I must admit that I am very glad that you brought this up, because Taoism as a philosophico-religious yin has been an idea with which I have been toying for some time. However, I believe you have placed a yang-centric interpretation onto the yin-yang dichotomy that is not what is intended and abuses the concept. The whole point of yin-yang is that the two are in harmony and cannot exist without each other. The whole point is that BOTH are beautiful, and wholesome, and correct. There can be no feminine without the masculine, there can be no positive without the negative, there can be no light without darkness. The Tao, then, is not a “yin of misguided thinking” against Christ’s “yang of truth,” more accurately it is a “yin of mystery and darkness” against Christ’s “yang of understanding and light.” While the image of the light is a popular symbol of Christ’s majesty and truth, pure light is blinding, and when blinded we are overwhelmed by darkness. Fear of darkness and mystery is not, I believe, what Christ wants from us. Indeed, I believe it is our duty to take Christ as our light into the darkness. Delving into mystery and the unknown enriches us, teaches us, emboldens us. Christ can be held up as the light of comfort in that darkness, as we are indeed taught to do in the face of death. Death is the great mystery, the great darkness, the great unknown, but with the light of Christ in our hearts it is not to be feared. We may venture forth and be safe in the knowledge of our own eternality. The darkness, then, is something that is beautiful and necessary in our development as people, and should not be seen as something from which we need deliverance. With yin and yang the whole point is to embrace the two equally for balance and harmony. To allow the yang to overrun the yin is as much folly as it is to allow the yin to overrun the yang.


- William Byatt

Categories: eastern, philosophy

A Statement of Artistic Intent

July 8, 2010 Leave a comment

Philosophers are traditionally concerned with the question of truth. However, the field of philosophy began with an understanding that one couldn’t ever know anything. Socrates in the West, perhaps Laozi in the East (though that’s hard to say), both knew that they knew nothing. It was from the antecedent of these gentlemen, and early thinkers with them, that philosophy as a field of discourse grew to what it has become today. The path changed, however, as thinkers thought. At some point, philosophers became convinced that they could know something, and many of them even started to think that they did know something.

And ideas progressed.

Thinkers continued to think and to write and to peer inside the fabric of the universe. Eventually natural science caught up with (and, frankly, overtook) philosophy, adding more and more to the human field of knowledge. And now the circle is turning full.

Mathematics, the field of certainty, has shown that there are an infinite number of things which cannot be proven, and thus cannot be mathematically “known.” Physics has entered a realm wherein the most rational results are literally illogical, defying the basic laws of reason. And philosophy is starting to remember how little it knows. Wittgenstein wrote that we can’t know anything of value. Alan Watts brought the Eastern ideas of knowing nothing to the West in a form that the West, with our Socraticly-born mindset, can conveniently digest.

So where does that put me, in this time of thought-space revolution?

Blissfully free.

If one were to read through all of the frothing philosophical writings littering my various harddrives, one would see great, giant sweeps of opinion and huge, tectonic shifts in worldview. I’ve been Marxist, Nihilist, and Randian all in very short order. In reading what I’ve written, one would be liable to assume that my philosophical ideas and opinions have changed, and that my worldview has shifted from one conception of truth to another.

This is so. Ish. What really happened is that I absorbed the truth of it all, and then moved on. I would not describe myself as Marxist, Nihilist, or Randian at this moment. But I see the truth in all three.

The attack then comes: aren’t these three ideas mutually contradictory? In fact, I think one would be hard-pressed to find three schools of thought more completely mutually contradictory than these three. How is it, then, that I find truth in three ideas that cancel each other out? The obvious answer is that there is a grain of truth in each of them, and that they fill each other’s holes. This is not what I believe. I believe them all to be completely true. This, though, is because I don’t know anything. In what has been called a “philosopher’s surrender,” I believe them all to be true because I believe everything to be true. Strictly, I don’t believe there to be a difference between “truth” and “untruth.” As such, all things which are untrue are also true, because the two are the same. Of course, everything which is true is also then untrue. It becomes clear why it just boils down to a point where “truth” is a null word. It means nothing. In short: I do not believe truth to exist. I am working on a metaphysics for this, but until I have that somewhere where I can unveil it to the world, I will respond against the most obvious argument against this idea: how can I believe it to be true that truth does not exist? This is paradoxical. My response: That’s okay. I accept paradoxes. When we boil away the central dichotomy of truth and untruth, all dichotomies must evaporate (because their dichotomousness is based on an understanding of the “truth” of the dichotomized), and all things (including the false) become workably true. It is paradoxical, and makes no sense, I know. That’s kind of the point.

From here, one must ask what the philosopher’s job could be. Philosophers are concerned with truth, and I believe truth to not exist, so what in the hell do I do? I don’t give a damn about truth, that’s what.

For me, the philosophical end is something beautiful. I’m not concerned with developing or uncovering or understanding the truth, but rather with building and seeing and experiencing beauty. And beauty is something that damn near everyone can agree is entirely subjective. What I wish to do, philosophically, is think beautiful thoughts. And this isn’t out of some notion that truth is beauty (I can’t say whether or not that statement is true, because I don’t have an idea of what “truth” is), but rather because I like pretty things. That is the only reason. So I will probably continue to write mutually contradictory ideas. I will probably continue to believe mutually contradictory ideas. But so long as I find the ideas to be beautiful, I will persist.

Perhaps, then, “philosophy” is the wrong word for what I do, because I don’t give a damn about the truth. But if I were to actually believe that the ideas that I have to be true, then it would be philosophy. Since, then, the output would be called philosophy if the motive were not known, I shall continue to call it that. At least until I hear a prettier name.


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