Thursday, November 29, 2007

Philosophical Descent

When I was growing up, I was of the opinion that everyone was just interpreting reality in the best way they could, notwithstanding those evil brainwashed Christian commahippajewanazies.

Since no one felt the need to disabuse me of the notion, I assume you did too. Now, however, you will be treated to a full analysis of the real situation.

First, let me say that I'm aware of the irony and hubris of this statement, and will be slightly chuckling to myself for this whole essay. Second, I am aware of how this idea applies to me.

Specifically, while I haven't found a school of thought that I follow well, I've borrowed heavily from several, such as logical positivism, capitalist anarchy, Buddhism, and what I now call Universalism.

The stage is set. The actors walk into the limelight, and they ask each other, "Are people really coming up with their own ideas about the world?"

Are they at least selecting from the most cogent ideas available from a board of articulated and snappily dressed intellectuals?

In short, obviously not. Notwithstanding this fact, people carry on as if their ideas were really theirs. An astounding achievement, that is. I wish I could convince people that my ideas were really theirs. I'd have an army in no time and take over the world.

The problem with this, of course, is that it already happened. Specifically in Massachusetts, but I digress. (On a blog, no less!)

In reality, most people are members, in whole or in most, of some intellectual dynasty. Christian, atheist-Universalist, Libertarian, or something. What's more, each of these dynasties have either one person or a small cabal that made up their main ideas, possibly their axioms, which have passed unchanged through time.

For instance, the idea of souls that we now hold today, whether we agree or disagree with the notion, would not have bothered Plato at all. He's the dude who came up with the basic idea, at least as far as our records show. Descartes later added some refinements, which we now call Dualism.

Platonic ideals - entities existing 'above' this plane of existence, perfect and unchanging, do not appear as far as I know in history before Plato, and the idea of souls, far from being 'obvious,' is completely dependent on this idea. While uncertainty is great when we're talking about ideas this old, the basic point stands: nearly every widely held idea started as a kooky thought in the head of some weird old guy.

In fact, a truly well educated person wouldn't even bother talking about their ideas at all. None of this "Well, I believe that..." nonsense. Instead, they'd just have a list of problems, with an attached list of philosophers. Getting to know such a person would go something like this:

"Who are you on race relations?"

"Martin Luther. You?"

"Oh, Malcom X, definitely. What about the God issue?"


So the hypothesis:
Ideas spread by presenting themselves, received ideas, as created, and usually in blocks or what I call 'suites.' As in, "the full office software suite." Or, "the full Democrat suite, with some customizations on finance."

It may not always have been this way. For instance, when Christianity was dominant, certain things were called sacrosanct and were privileged. They were labelled explicitly. Now, certain things are still holy, but go out of their way to present themselves otherwise, usually as self-evidently true, and yet still questionable. It may be, then, that holding other people's ideas as your own is an innovation, or it may not be.

The suites will warp logic in the suite user. If it were not so, the suites would rapidly decay on contact with either evidence or competing or more useful ideas. My evidence implies that the confirmation bias and identity biases are the main culprits. The suites encourage the user to say, "I am a progressive," and thus to take progressives conclusion, lest they allow insults to their personality. Having taken the conclusion, they build up evidence below it.

The suites are usually not full personal ideologies. The person who gets all of their understanding from any one source is rare. Usually, they are sets of related ideas from a small group of thinkers.

Take a person self-labelled as a freethinker. Anyone likely to take offense to statements like, "You just believe that because you're a progressive."
Get to know what they think. That should be enough, as you'll be able to clearly see which dynasty they fall into.

When I did the test, I found it's really amazing to see ideas just pop out as clearly the work of some weird old guy. Consider how often the random person finds themselves incapable of remembering what you said even last week, and combine that with a widespread distrust of authority. It's incredible to see how strongly influenced they are by well-known philosophers, like Kant or Hobbes.

Did they ever read Critique of Pure Reason? Did any of their friends? Their teachers? No. Yet, even a casual perusal of La Wik's article on Kant finds several ideas that are in common parlance. Similarly, lots of ideas that are supposedly just common sense are actually exact copies from Hobbes and Hume.

In fact, reading even Shakespeare naively, such as during the high school English classes, one tends to say, "What cliched hackwork!" But of course, this is just because so many people wanted to imitate the Bard, followed by imitators of the imitators who recognized a nice turn of phrase.

Similarly, reading the ideas of the famous philosophers, one is tempted to use that ever present 'obvious!' to describe their ideas, to say, "But certainly this is simply a recording of what people were already thinking." This is false. Even if it were half true, or even 90% true, these philosophers got their ideas seeded into the English consciousness. That is exactly why they're considered great.

And now, poor ignorant us, think we're coming up with our own ideas. Ideas we will, too often literally, defend to the death. Pathetic.

On Truth: Because the Title is Insufficiently Overused

Truth is a virtue, so they tell me. They also tell me the truth will out.

No, don't give me that crap about 'who is they.' You know exactly who they are.

By now you've probably surmised that I disagree. Indeed, what would be the point of writing an entire article about how awesome someone else's idea is?

This isn't a newspaper, dammit.

Regardless, here's what I interpret when I read the letters, 'truth.'

Truth is always true, for all people at all times and places.
Truth has two parts, objective and subjective.
Truth is necessary to live a happy life.

Seeing other people refer to truth is very annoying, as it's usually misused, from my perspective. :-)

Truth is Always True
So, is the first part even possible? I've used the word true in my definition, which would be a no-no if hominid brains weren't so good at parsing crap like that.

It's possible because I can define anything that isn't self-contradictory. If it's not completely out there, it probably exists. Truth is what's constant across all situations. It's what we can ultimately agree on. It's something I can say that can't somehow be refuted.

Anything that fails these tests can't be truth. It must be something else.

How much truth exactly there is in the world is an area of heavy debate. Since this seems to be an axiom war, I'm not going to expend much effort on it.

By experience I can say this both a very broad and very restrictive definition. It's exacting to have to say things such that they are exactly true. It's extremely easy in standard English to accidentally include or exclude too much. Conversely, while thinking strictly conceptually* it's almost too broad. It can actually be difficult to find the parts of an idea that aren't true, simply because of the vast area of ideas that needs to be trawled over.

*(The idea that people think using words is blatantly false. Any evidence to the contrary is illusory. It's therefore very easy to figure out how deaf people or babies or animals think - exactly like you do.)

However, the definition highlights very effectively the extreme importance of definition. For instance, the simple statement of "I have a computer," is a nightmare of definitional tragedy to a philosopher who hasn't thought about it yet. Still, since I'm writing this post, you can probably agree that it's true.

But what does 'I' mean? What does 'have' mean? How can I define these so that I can't go somewhere else or to someone else's perspective and negate them? Simultaneously, I have to encompass everything they mean in common parlance. The definitions can't be used, unless absolutely necessary for consistency, to go around telling people they don't mean "I" when they say "I."

So, cogently, what do I mean by agree? Can we disagree on the beauty of the sunset? Yes, but only because we're using disagree and truth loosely. The real statement of truth is, "I, Alrenous, do not find sunsets compelling." How can you disagree with that? By noticing me appreciating a sunset when I think no one's watching. You won't, but that's the method. The statement is irrefutable, and therefore true. Looking at our actual statements, you can see that we don't really disagree at all.

Running around the aforementioned way and telling people they don't really disagree, while amusing, can be avoided by simply noticing when people are making statements of truth, and when they're just making statements. You can't make statements of objective truth about beauty, because beauty is subjective, and so any statement that looks objective is obviously not what it seems. I personally think you shouldn't make such statements because it's a mild form of lying, but if you stopped completely you could never have a conversation with anyone.

Truth is Either Subjective or Objective
Given that truth must be true for everyone, and also various norms in English, I have to divide truth into subjective and objective types. Preferably, the language would recognize this difference implicitly - perhaps subjective descriptors like beauty and other emotions would have their own articles, and so it would be impossible to grammatically state subjective truth as objective.

Nevertheless, it is not so. Therefore, I have to describe truth as either objective, having to do with objects, or subjective, which needs a subject.

Notably, all subjects are also objects, but objects aren't necessarily subjects.

Take an orange. The orange is an object, and has certain objective properties like mass and frequency-dependent light reflection. The experience of orange, however, is subjective. If the orange reflects photons of wavelength approximately 590 nm in a forest and no one sees it, does it make a colour? No, of course not. While it is objectively true that I see oranges as orange, and objectively true that most people see oranges as orange, the subjective truth that I'm seeing orange requires the subject.

In the case of orange, I can even say something objective about the world given this experience, regarding the aforementioned photons of 590 nm. However, subjectivity ranges from these instances which are very close to objective, to things that are way way off like taste and emotion. It's pretty rare that I can say something objective from the subjective experience of emotion, though not impossible.

Here, incidentally, I see the real non-division between these two ideas. Is it objectively true or subjectively true that I'm feeling a bit annoyed right now? Is it objectively true or subjectively true that I have found something annoying?

The real reason for the label subjective is simply that people insist on talking normally, instead of warping their diction around the constraints of truth, which means I have to run around labelling some statements as subjective and some as objective. People also insist on thinking that other people are important. Think of the last movie or book that had as its main character a non-human? Can you imagine a nature documentary following, say, a crocodile and letting its actions speak for themselves? How about a non-living thing?

Even the idea of a subject itself is Cartesian dualism. Still, I find it rather useful. Given that, I can now say that objective truths exist in our shared reality, and subjective truths exist for me the subject, and therefore cannot be objectively verified, at least with current technology.

So, subjects are inherently distinct, while objects are inherently shared. I'll have more to say on this later.

Truth Is Necessary for Happiness
Having figured out what I mean by truth, I was still left in something of a quandary. Truth is considered very important, and the hominid brain posts error messages to our shared space when they find they have been intentionally led away from the truth.

Despite these, most endeavors in modern society seem to depend rather heavily on keeping the truth at bay. Almost every argument I run across explodes violently when exposed to logic.

Clearly, it's quite possible to live at least a somewhat happy life, and to achieve one's goals without acceding to anything more than the most basic truths. I'll have more on this later.

What, then, is the purpose of truth? Even if I had a whole warehouse of the stuff, what can I do with it? I can explain the anti-lying complex as a simple hominid dominance-managing device, which, even if statistically untrue, I can't rule out. I can say that the basic truths run at a different level of thought and therefore don't heavily interact with the philosophical level. Thus, truth doesn't appear to be very useful to the average person. In fact, to the level that people are hypocrites, they hate truth.

Still, engineers have to respect at least physical truths, or the bridges and skyscrapers will all collapse, and the production lines will jam. But beyond our specialist truth-managing caste, society seems to get along fine with the current truth level minimizing strategy.

If I were to start a company, and the whole point was to peddle the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth so help us God, and to make shit-tons of money because everyone wants some, what would I have to sell my product for?

It turns out I would have to sell it for freedom and happiness.

I suspect but cannot prove that the truth makes you happy directly, that being a hypocrite is inherently painful.

Even if that's untrue, when you believe untruths you are under the control of the untruth peddlers.

When you are told a lie, the purpose is to control you. Sure, the lie-teller will try to put as much truth and comfort and other benefits in the suite with the lie, but the point is control. They lie to you so that you will do what they want you to do. If you continue to buy their lies you will continue to buy their product, physical or political. The lies will be set up so that to challenge any one important lie will be to challenge all of the lies.

You can buy a lie, but the only currency is your soul.

So, do you believe that you need to be controlled, for you own good? If so, I suspect that my first axiom, Trust Your Senses, will grind unbearably against your sensibilities. We probably have nothing to discuss.

Otherwise, you want truth. Whether you think so or not.

Nevertheless, society does work. People are happy. Freedom does exist. So, truth is not critical. But, society is not working well. People are not very happy. Freedom is on a relentless decline.

If you want to continue to believe your lies, there's nothing actually wrong with that.

If you want to be actually happy, profoundly happy, you need to know the truth. The truth clearly does not out on its own, but if it does it will set you free.

Further reading: Philosophy Now

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The First Step

Naturally, I believe I have a coherent theory about truth. About what is truth, and about how to find more. I'm going to share it with you for several reasons. If I'm correct, this theory of truth, this epistemology, is superior to any other that I've found, if for no other reason than that it includes all their good parts. I assume that you want to know truth, not lies, yes? If nothing else, you can update yours the same way I update mine. Also, by sharing it, I have the benefits of peer review, which given standard conditions is enough to find every logical error in triplicate. Finally, if there's anyone else like me it'd be nice to talk to them, and if I can't find them on the internet, I'll be damned if I can find them at all.

Following Socrates either literally or by convergent evolution, every person seeking truth must start with accepting their own ignorance. Preferably just the ignorance they actually have, rather than going Decarte's route.

So! I've accepted ignorance. I've found zero. Where is one?

Already the metaphor breaks down. There isn't a one. There's only Godel's Incompleteness Theorem.

Godel's theorem is incredibly broad in valid application, right up there with causality and Newton's Third. In English, Godel realized that every theory has a finite volume, and at the edge are things that are unprovable within that theory. For every provable truth, somewhere along the chain of proof is an axiom, simply taken as true. In the case of ontology, it means you have to start somewhere.

In humans, this starting point is simply memories. Since babies aren't philosophers in a strict sense, anyone practicing philosophy already has some understanding of the world. At a deeper level brains are already preferably wired to understand things like gravity and 3D space and the concepts of past and future.

However, at some point a philosopher will have reduced every memory they own into principles they use to explain the world. I exaggerate and simplify for logical effect, but even having done this, the explanations will depend on axioms.

Now, often two people meet and discuss with the goal of coming to a common understanding, taking the democratic idea that if more people agree it's more likely to be true. However, it is nearly always impossible for two people to come to a common understanding, as their axioms will differ, and how are you going to convince someone that their axioms are wrong?

Luckily, our brains are all hominid brains. Most of the axioms are the same. Even still, this axiom changing crusade seems an ongoing obsession with anyone even slightly contaminated by intellectualism.

How do we form our axioms? Well, I certainly can't figure it out yet, and I've never run across anyone even beginning to examine this question. For the moment, I'm just going to enumerate mine.

1. Our perceptions are trustworthy.
2. Self-consistency is proof on its own merit.

That's basically it. Number one I've had as long as I remember, while number two I created later.

Still, number one needs some additional explanation. It means that when I see an object, that object is really there. It doesn't matter whether it's actual sight or hearing or emotional seeing, it doesn't matter if I can tell what it is - that's interpretation - but if I see something, it's really there.

Now, for the physical senses this is pretty obvious, and you can easily define disorders as simply the physical senses not obeying this simple rule.

Notably, there are far more than five senses, though there seems to be wide agreement on those five. To tell when you're hungry, do you taste or touch your hunger? How about the sense of where your limbs are, your proprioception? Your sense of balance? When you're sick, what hurts, exactly? Based on an article in New Scientist exploring the issue, a conservative estimate for total senses is about 50. Some of those are unconscious, like your blood pH, and perhaps shouldn't be counted, but the point is that five is way too few.

However, for emotional or mental senses, the objects under scrutiny do not apparently exist in our shared physical space. Put this way, it's not surprising at all, of course. It means that disorders of emotional and mental perception are nearly impossible to define, and may even mean that they don't exist at all. I don't normally find sunsets beautiful. Does that mean I have a 'disorder?' Are they objectively beautiful but I'm simply emotionally blind? Or, does it mean that what I see is true? Does it mean that, for me, sunsets are kind of boring?

I assume that when I have an emotion, while I may not know what it means, just as I may not know what an object is when I see it, but I assume it's trustworthy. I assume that I am in fact sensing something that is exists.
The only proof I can offer is that emotions are extremely consistent across similar situations. If I have a particular feeling when someone is bullshitting me, I'm going to have that feeling again and again every time someone is bullshitting me. I just have to figure out the association once.

Notably, the opposite contention of post-modernism is logically inconsistent. If you can't trust your senses at all, how can you trust your perception of the idea that you don't trust your senses? Same goes for brain-in-a-vat hypotheses and similar trash.

This is subjectivity. It's not invalid or somehow beneath (or above!) objectivity, but simply different.

However, there is at least one problem with my axiom. Logic. I want you to go find or construct a logical progression so you have it to play with. A true one, specifically. What you think is true, not necessarily what I think is true. B, therefore C, something like that.

Now, how do you know that C follows from B? Is it 'obvious?' Okay, now define obvious.

You don't know, do you? I certainly don't. Accept ignorance. We can name it though: this is our logical sense or senses.

But that's not the real problem. Even though you can't describe it, you know it when you see it. That's emotional consistency. The problem is that logical senses are very dependent on previous conclusions, through things like the confirmation bias. 'Obvious' is a shifting mire.

"Be rational! Use your reason! It's the golden age of enlightenment!" That's nice. What's rationality? What's reason? Is it your logical sense? Is it deduction? Induction? Bayesian averaging?

Luckily, there's a hack solution. Your logical sense is exactly like a muscle, and can be trained. The process is often called science, but the label is being eaten away by corruption.

Hypothesis, testing, conclusion. Use your logic, make a prediction, and find where you've gone wrong. If you look hard enough, you'll find something. Use that to find the flaw in your thinking. Repeat.

After an interminable time, you can eventually have some confidence in your logic alone. Most experts need about a decade of practice to truly master their craft. For me, there were ten years between the time I wanted to make people laugh and the time I did.

I say science is corrupt because most scientists do not go through this process. Even though science is supposed to be the great culmination of rational thought, most scientists can't think their way out of a paper bag. They seem to rely on the 'scientific method,' that fuzzy beast, to do their thinking for them. And of course emotions are but poisonous 'subjectivity,' which I will talk about later, because my ideas on that are a result of my axioms.

My axioms are not true axioms. They can, with a few clarifications, be confirmed or refuted. That's not the point of the essay. The point is that they are my axioms. They didn't come from some analysis of the evidence, I didn't logically disprove all the other possibilities. I simply jumped up one day with them in my hand, and started hacking away at the jungle of reality.

As such, if you disagree with them, and want to argue with me, realize that if your goal is to change my mind, you will axiomatically fail. We can still debate some more minor points, the subset of axiomatic towers that work have to overlap, especially in the fine details. However, the true bedrock of my thoughts really is adamantium against the weathering of argumentation, and the sediments above are like Ultima's Blackrock - only powerful magic will ever change them.

In return, I will attempt to respect your axioms. If I find a flaw in your reasoning, I will try to present it in a way that does not contradict your most basic beliefs. It's polite, and frankly a waste of time otherwise.


The purpose of this blog is basically so I can think in public.

What, then, is the purpose of that? What do I hope to accomplish?

Is it simply some deep and nonrational 'psychological' need?

Or perhaps I actually have a concrete goal?

Certainly, I can invent justifications, meanings, incentives. But these are, most likely, all rationalizations. The only way that I know to truly find the purpose is to do it. Just do it.
Then, look at what I've done, and see what it is. Carve out a statue, and then see what the statue is of.

That is what I'm truly doing.

Regarding the name, mostly it's just poetic. I like it. But I'll tell you a story about it anyway.

Accepting ignorance has many levels and consequences. First, it means not fighting ignorance. Indeed, what purpose is there to attacking a lack of knowledge? You going to move up to assaults on the clear sky next?

Logically, it means doing the Socrates thing. Realizing how little I and the people I want to listen to really know. Only then I can go beyond Socrates, to know something as true. By accepting that we are ignorant we create the possibility of learning.

Also, it's an expression of humility. While certainly, I want to think I have found some knowledge, and want to spread it, yet without incredible wealth and power, such as owning a school board or a church or the New York Times, I can produce but a drop in the bucket, a ripple soon lost in the noise. I must accept that whatever I find will most likely be lost, in time, and find a purpose for it other than increasing the sum total of human knowledge.

So naturally I have every blogger's ambition: replace the New York Times. However, I accept that I am ignorant as to how to bring this about. I accept that most people will be ignorant about things that I know, often aggressively so.

In the second level, it's also the acceptance that people will always be 'ignorant' of what I know in the sense that they will disagree. Imagine a comment thread, on anything, going like this:

"Your ideas are horrible, I can't imagine how bad they must be from the inside, and this is why."

"Oh really? Well, all your objections are but farts in the wind, and vanish as soon as they are fully formed."

"Oh dear! How wrong I was. I must thank you for the incredible gift of changing my mind."

How often have you seen anything like that?

This seems like one of the hardest things for people to accept. They aren't, apparently, convincing anyone. Idea and anti-idea cancel out and only the status quo wins. Only those childishly empty and accepting ever seem to absorb the ideas of others.

And yet, must there not be other reasons? Surely each mind is not unchanging adamantium in the face of arguments weathering the bedrock of reason? Christians become atheist and atheists become Christian. And yet, how? Not, certainly, because anyone reads Dawkins.

It's also because I want to use this blog as a repository for questions. I have many questions, which I seem to be really good at answering. Some of these questions are of general interest, and I would like to publish them.

Accepting Ignorance contracts to AI. Deliciously ironic.

Writing a lot will probably improve my writing style.

Finally, one of the most compelling explanatory ideas that I have found is that we simply don't know. Why is modern physics so hard to unite? Because we don't know what time is. Our ignorance is nearly perfect, as we should accept.

So why am I really writing this, here and now? Ha! As if I could know.