I, Animal

There is a bee hidden in this picture

All life is imbued with a “divine spark,” some intangible essence that keeps chemical reactions continuing in anti-entropic modality. Being alive, being an animal, is at the base of who we are. Senses, emotions, all the functions (heartbeat, breathing, eating, digesting, circulation, excreting,etc) go on in each one of us, often unnoticed. Hormones slosh through us, causing emotions and flavoring actions and thoughts. 

Yet, when we consider intelligence, most people consider only the brain. And in fact consider it only as thought, language, applied logic, dry reasoning.

That is a huge mistake. Some fanatics think a person can be poured into a machine. After all, computers use language almost as well as we do. Just a few more pieces of hardware and we can achieve the singularity or a multiverse more real than reality, a dream in mechanical construct.

No. When you or I exit being an animal, even with all our language intact, we are no longer alive, no longer real, no longer our self. The dead can be made to appear alive, but they remain dead. That “singularity” is the modern equivalent of the medieval Philosopher’s Stone which was never found and can never exist.

Irrelevant Butterfly

End of the line

There was a time in my youth when _ mostly ignorant of quantum physics and immersed in history, science, and Horatio Alger economics _ I believed firmly in determinism. Know the exact place and direction of everything in the universe at any given time and all could be predicted. In fact, time could rerun exactly so all would be the same.

Even learning concepts like fractals and chaos hardly changed that. I read A Sound of Thunder and agreed that killing one butterfly in the deep past might change everything now. Another butterfly flapping wings in China could affect hurricanes on the US East Coast.

But, alas, no. The effects of that ancient butterfly were completely erased by the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. Air puffs in China have about as much effect as the ripples created by throwing a pebble in the ocean. Smaller effects do not culminate in large effects _ they are swamped by them.

So I guess that is a kind of free will, but a tragic sort of free will. It does not much matter that the ant is free to choose to go left or right or stay in one place or turn around. An anteater or rising flood waters will negate most possible outcomes.

Poor butterfly.

Properties

Late summer view

A scientific age tries to rely on concept management. We can think of most concepts as defined by properties. An object is heavy, red, contains silica, for example. A force has so much inertia or strength. Even emotions are strong or weak. And so on. Furthermore almost all concepts can be broken down into components each  with their own properties.

And all properties in the scientific world are exclusive, although quantum physics have changed some of that.  Generally, a piece of gold is not tin.  Something that weighs 10 oz does not weigh 30 ounces..

But none of that works with philosophical concepts. Good or hate cannot be subdivided _ something can easily be good in some ways and not good in others. More than that, those very properties and their relative importance change constantly as our perception of them changes. In philosophy, it seems, no concept truly has intrinsic definitions.

So we must wonder can we even share a language here? Can my hazy definition be understood by you? If we reach agreement now will we still agree tomorrow?

Much easier to reach long-term consensus on a lump of lead.

Isoverse

Everything in our universe is infinitely amazing

Much has been made of the multiverse _ the idea that there are entire universes which differ from one another. But we have always been aware of that _ we each inhabit a unique universe of our own and only partly intersect in a supposed commonality.

There may always be disagreements on whether or not there are any or many, or the nature of “objective realities.” Even when we seem to agree on crude values and concepts _ “it is day” _ we may never accept each other’s evaluation as to whether it is “a nice day.”

Our perspectives change dramatically. In my universe I am the only really important certainty. In a general agreement of the “real objective universe,” I am irrelevant and insignificant. In your universe I may very well be missing altogether.

So let me propose the concept of an “isoverse” which is the common path where you, I, and objective reality share the same existence. Only in and about our isoverse can we agree, argue, act, and communicate.

Our isoverse can be exclusive, or it can contain others, forming a cult of those who see life the same way.

In effect a group of philosophers.

Stupid Trolley

Joan’s Italian patio

The ethical trolley problem has interested me for some time. No doubt you know of it in some guise. You are at a railroad switch and an out-of-control train is rolling down the track. The switch is set to send the car into a siding with three people standing on the tracks, while only one person is on the other. Should you throw the switch to save three and kill just one?

Oh the hours I have wasted on the various stupidities of this scenario. But I will mention only a few. 

  • Why are you constrained? Can’t you just shout?
  • How about imperfect knowledge? The three people may have a better chance of noticing the danger and getting out of the way.
  • People are not equivalent apples. What if it is three drunken bums and one beautiful young woman? Or three old geezers and a best friend, or a baby?
  • There is a cost to involvement.  If I throw that switch, I can be sued, jailed, or hung. 
  • And one more _ although I could list hundreds _ in a real situation there is no time to think. The more you puzzle out what is right the less you can do.

And yet _ this is a standard problem often presented as profound. What is truly profound about it is how well it does demonstrate our philosophic helplessness in the face of complex reality. Unfortunately it is typical of such examples.  You might as well ponder things like “what color would you make the sky if you could make it any color.”

We need a philosophy that works when we get up in the morning, face a problem during the day, or worry at night.  Unless you inhabit a totally different reality than I do, trolleys never enter the picture.

Method

Caumset Beach

I have decided that since the study of philosophy is necessarily illogical, I need not write about it in a logical way. I cannot declare axioms and corollaries nor trail their inevitable implications. 

So I am free to wander. Some of it must be fully personal because the core of philosophy must begin with the philosopher. Some have even questioned if anything beyond that is illusion. Should I accept that as a ground rule? Or is my feeling that there are external realities a valid philosophical bedrock? Outlining a roadmap of chapters just will not work.

So a sporadic entry referencing a jumble of what falls into my head, off my lists, from my experience, may be as valid for this project as any other approach.

Fortunately my elementary school teachers will not be grading, so each proto-essay does not even have to make much sense.  Not much different than a lot of material these days.

Implications

All nature is spectacular, but some a little more spectacular

First, perhaps, we should throw everything out. The world is different than at the time of Lao Tze, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Aquinas, Kant, or even James or other famous philosophers of the last century. My life does not resemble theirs in any reasonable way.

Sure, they were people just like me and the seven billion others alive today, the billions who lived in the past. Same bodies, same brains, same _ well exactly what else is the same as anyone a hundred or more years ago?

And this is a key to the main problem. How can philosophical concepts or tools be applied to anyone of any time in any condition? Should there even exist such tools?

The past is of little use because _ face it _ the past was ignorant and crude. Trying to mine the “wisdom of the ancients” is like trying to understand thunder by collating every legend of thunder that ever occurred to anyone.

Given that, is trying to understand philosophy a lost cause, impossible? Is it in fact too amorphous to conceptualize? It certainly often negates logic.

Concepts

Empty beach, summer ends

Language communicates concepts. Animals use calls to convey information _ a blue jay shrieking about a hawk nearby. Non-auditory communication involves visual clues _ like flower color _ or olfactory _ like insect pheromones_ or various tactile signals like grabbing a friend’s arm.

In a narrow sense human language requires a vocabulary which consists of predefined concepts associated with words. Obviously, for language to be effective, the meaning of words between people must be congruent. That is not so much an issue when at the gross simple level _ “look, a deer,” or “it is day” _ but meaning is easily confused when applied to fine details_ especially intangibles like emotions.

Science tries to pulverize concepts into tinier and tinier bits _ each more restricted then the last. A chunk of gold is carefully measured,weighted, defined by crystalline atomic structure and chemical and physical properties. Thinking of problems in this fashion almost defines our technological existence.

Philosophy is not able to do this. All concepts are chimerical: anger becomes laughter, love becomes hate, beautiful turns ugly. Not because the concept has changed but simply by our shifting of the perspective of the concept. Trying to break “love” into tiny bits may yield a splendid poem, but scarcely a better definition of what it “really” is.

Language

Enjoy a neighbor’s tree as if it were my own.

Language is almost useless for discussing philosophy, but it’s all we have. Language is best for describing objects, a little less adequate for actions, barely competent for properties. And it fails as often as it succeeds for emotions and thought itself.

Language is nevertheless the premiere human tool, and we can (literally) not imagine intelligence without it. Only verbal imagination even lets us try to understand life without intelligence (such as how does a bird think.). Only language allows us to construct a framework of past and future, predict cause and effect, develop tools that control our environment.

Yet language easily founders. A “rock” can be many things and can imply different things to others or even to ourselves as time passes. Some human experience such as emotions, dreams, being itself, cannot be verbalized _ we hope to merely evoke the same response from other beings with whom we assume we share our essence.

Given all that, it is amazing that we do, in fact, endlessly discuss philosophy.  But almost all such discussions work primarily in analogies, metaphors, and similes, which are helpful but surely not conclusive. 

I will, naturally, be forced to use language as I go on. That is merely the most glaring and deepest problem of the many we shall encounter.

But we must always keep in mind that the word is not the concept itself, No amount of words can nail down a “truth”. There is no equivalent to Plato’s ideal forms in the jungle of language nor even a true equivalent to shadows on cave walls.

Foundations

Old dairy barns as Caumsett

Euclid intelligently began his presentation of geometry by declaring certain axioms, which he could then build upon for further discussion.  Axioms could not be questioned, and they led logically to a consistent view of a universe of angles and lines. Eventually, mathematicians challenged the axioms and came up with completely different topologies.

We’d like to do the same for philosophy but, alas, the axioms are missing.  We cannot even agree on what they should be, let alone what they are.  And should we find valid axioms, which is probably impossible, we could never agree on their relative importance, nor their logical connections.  Problems Euclid never faced.

Instead what we begin with are amorphous concepts. They are not only vague and slippery, they are also impossible to define otherwise. Even vague and slippery ideas are useful, of course, and we use them all the time _ joy, love, life, good. 

Can we somehow use these vague foundations to construct something useful in real life? Or can it at least provide a means by which we can discuss our existence?

I note that I restarted this blog with the idea of a formal inquisition into these very topics.  But I already find it impossible, and have shifted to approaching the questions of the philosophy of life by nibbling away at the edges with notions of my own.  I hope they provide you with food for thought.