Category Archives: Ah, Sophia!

Contemporary philosophical musings and their various relatives.

When confronted with an alien way of organizing experience, however, we sense the frailty of our own categories, and everything threatens to come undone.  Things hold together only because they can be slotted into a classificatory scheme that remains unquestioned.  We classify a Pekinese and a Great Dane together as dogs without hesitating, even though the Pekinese might seem to have more in common with a cat and a Great Dane with a pony.  If we stopped to reflect on definitions of ‘dogness’ or on the other categories for sorting out life, we could never get on with the business of living.
Pigeon-holing is therefore an exercise in power.  A subject relegated to the trivium rather than the quadrivium, or to the ‘soft’ rather than the ‘hard’ sciences, may wither on the vine.  A misshelved book may disappear forever.  An enemy defined as less than human may be annihilated.  All social action flows through boundaries determined by classification schemes, whether or not they are elaborated as explicitly as library catalogues, organization charts, and university departments.  All animal life fits into the grid of an unconscious ontology.  Monsters like the ‘elephant man’ and the ‘wolf boy’ horrify and fascinate us because they violate our conceptual boundaries, and certain creatures make our skin crawl because they slip in between categories:  ‘slimy’ reptiles that swim in the sea and creep on the land, ‘nasty’ rodents that live in houses yet remain outside the bounds of domestication.  We insult someone by calling him a rat rather than a squirrel.  ‘Squirrel’ can be a term of endearment, as in Helmer’s epithet for Nora in A Doll’s House.  Yet squirrels are rodents, as dangerous and disease-ridden as rats.  They seem less threatening because they belong unambiguously to the out-of-doors.  It is the in-between animals, the neither-fish-nor-fowl, that have special powers and therefore ritual value:  thus the cassowaries in the mystery cults of New Guinea and the tomcats in the witches’ brews of the West.  Hair, fingernail parings, and feces also go into magic potions because they represent the ambiguous border areas of the body, where the organism spills over into the surrounding material world.  All borders are dangerous.  If left unguarded, they break down, our categories could collapse, and our world dissolve in chaos.
Setting up categories and policing them is therefore a serious business.  A philosopher who attempted to redraw the boundaries of the world of knowledge would be tampering with the taboo.  Even if he steered clear of sacred subjects, he could not avoid danger; for knowledge is inherently ambiguous.  Like reptiles and rats, it can slip from one category to another.  It has bite.  Thus Diderot and d’Alembert took enormous risks when they undid the order of knowledge and drew new lines between the known and unknown.

–– Philosophers Trim the Tree of Knowledge as printed in The Great Cat Massacre (and Other Episodes in French Cultural History) by Robert Darnton p 192-193

(Diderot and d’Ambert edited the famous Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers.  I would guess they would be very much impressed by the advent of the Internet.)  


Self v Other re: Ideas

There will come many times as you progress through life where the other will present opposition to the self.  This is not surprising in the main, but it will potentially be in the specific.  It can come at any time and it can work to pull out that proverbial rug.  Proceed with caution.

I was taking guitar lessons from a guy I knew.  Not much of teacher, really, but he had his certain skills as a guitar player.  At any rate I informed him when we were first starting out about how I was developing my finger-picking style.  It was a style that involved all five fingers of the picking hand.  He dismissed this as not being finger-picking but perhaps merely some gimmick and proceeded to inform me of a two-to-three finger-picking style (such as he used).

Subsequently I read about other finger-picking styles, some of which included five-finger styles.  Perhaps he wasn’t wrong but he wasn’t all that right.

When I was a young driver I received a negligent driving ticket.  This is a criminal as opposed to a moving violation, and as such is subject to trial by (short=8 person) jury.  I told my mom I would be defending myself in court and she proceeded to inform me that I would be up against professional attorneys and would surely lose.

This is the only time I swore at my mother.  I scolded her for not believing in my abilities.  Subsequently I won in court.  The assistant prosecutor said to the prosecutor “his jury instructions are better than yours” when I arrived at court prepared for court the first day.  The prosecution motioned to dismiss.  No one objected.  The case was dismissed.  Perhaps she wasn’t wrong but she wasn’t all that right.

During my time studying architecture at the University of Washington I remarked to a professor that I had surmised architectural perspectival drawing was a type of geometry.  He assured me that was not the case at all.  I could not imagine a way to reconcile these disparate notions; surely it must be a kind of geometry.  We even built each line according to a set of rules!  Alas, he said, it was not.  Even Euclid, primarily famous for his Geometry, wrote one other book to secure fame and his place in history:  Optiks.  No, not geometry.

Subsequently, I read this passage in “Math through the Ages (A Gentle History for Teachers and Others)” by William P Berlinghoff and Fernando Q Gouvêa (page 36):

Somewhat related to all this was the discovery of perspective by Italian artists.  Figuring out how to draw a picture that gave the impression of three-dimensionality was quite difficult.  The rules for how to do it have real mathematical content.  Though the artists of the Renaissance did not subject these rules to a complete mathematical analysis, they understood that what they were doing was a form of geometry.  Some of them, such as Albrecht Dürer, were quite sophisticated in their understanding o the geometry involved.  In fact, Dürer wrote the first printed work dealing with higher plane curves, and his investigation of perspective and proportion is reflected both in his paintings and in the artistic work of his contemporaries.

As you can see, many did not know that what they were doing was geometry but yet some did.  Perhaps my professor wasn’t wrong but he wasn’t all that right.

Also at the UW, I had a philosophy professor who let me know that what he was doing was philosophy but he was unclear as to what I was doing.  I suggested my philosophical leanings were more narrative to his more analytical leanings.  He also insisted this was incomprehensible, assuring me that he was doing philosophy and having no idea what I was doing.  I could hear Nietzsche cringe, I’m sure of it.

It’s hard not to believe people, especially those whom you respect for any reason, when they tell you that your brilliant idea is shit.  It’s always a challenge to disagree with the other and all the more challenging in this kind of situation.  Often these folks are trying to help!  They are not nefarious.  They want you to succeed!

Of course, just because this pattern exists doesn’t guarantee the self is justified or correctly imaging the world at large.  But it may well be worth your time to scour the literature or other evidence to see if there isn’t a modicum of vindication available.  And, as always, proceed with caution.

As a peripheral tale, when I was in grade school and bored with the math homework we had been assigned (four-digit multiplication) I sought to make it more interesting by doing the assignment in Roman numerals.  I don’t know if you have ever tried doing any sort of math with Roman numerals but they are not well-suited to long multiplication, let me tell you!

Also from Math through the Ages (but page 70):

Of course, it’s not impossible to compute with Roman numerals.  It’s just complicated.  Logician Martin Davies tells that

“In 1953, I had a summer job at Bell Labs in New Jersey (now Lucent), and my supervisor was Claude Shannon [a computer pioneer and the creator of the mathematical theory of communication].  On his desk was a mechanical calculator that worked with Roman numerals.  Shannon had designed it and had it built in the little shop Bell Labs had put at his disposal.  On a name plate, one could read that the machine was to be called “Throback I.”

Though we still use Roman numerals for ornamental purposes, there is no chance we’ll ever abandon the compact, convenient, and useful Hindu-Arabic system.  The power of the Hindu-Arabic system stems from its efficient positional structure, which is based on powers of ten.  That’s why we call it a decimal place value system.

I managed to complete only one of the problems assigned.  The teacher made no mention of these efforts.  I was disappointed.  I thought “look what I did!” and no one cared.  Story of my life, I guess.


Things to Do Today

  • Working toward any goal is merely a matter of selecting something I can do and then doing it.
  • Brush and floss my teeth.
  • Expend some energy while making my heart race and perhaps seat a little.
  • Eat some vegetables and maybe a little fruit.
  • Take some action which may by its doing make The World a better place.
  • Remind someone I love them, especially those who maybe think I am upset with them.
  • Honor reason as my guide and as the guide of others.
  • Contemplate the good, the true, the kind, the wise, as these are our best guideposts.
  • Say what I mean and mean what I say.
  • Respect the evidence.
  • Finish something I already started.
  • Yes and… or at least Yes but… .
  • I’ll do my best to be my best me.

Road Map to Ultimate Reality?

David Deutsch has plotted out a course toward understanding ultimate reality.  His map includes four courses in fact.  Here they are:

Theory of Evolution

Quantum Physics

Theory of Knowledge

Theory of Computation

He is endeavoring to move toward a new way of looking at knowing and explaining.

Here is a brief introduction to Constructor Theory of Information.

Constructor Theory

And here is Dr Chiara Marletto discussing this same subject in an interview.

Beautiful, smart, and driven. But I digress.

Get out there and get thinking!

9 July:  Found this clip which is relevant here.

Reason, baby!


Contemplating Dreadful Experiences

We often forget that we are not the one who commits suicide but only the recipients of realizations relating to the other’s decision to leave us.  It’s easy to forget.

The media, as a general rule, does not report on suicides.  The reason for this is that when the media reports on suicide there is a corresponding uptick in the suicide rate.  We might think of this as a sort of permissions slip passed around the news rooms and living rooms of this Earth.  However, when the person who commits suicide is a celebrity there is little avoiding that reporting:  we all want to know what has happened, the consequences be damned!

Last night one of my all-time favorite bands lost a singer and friend.  Let us take a moment.

That angelic voice, you will note is silent.  This is the future echoed from the past.

Please take some time out to say hello to your old friends.  They may appreciate hearing from you.

Good-bye, Chris.


Autism and the Brain EQ

Here is a great article discussing one particular mental ordering (autism) and how diagnosis changes and does not change lives.  I find this story to be compelling because it lays bare the defining mental orders and how mental ordering defines individuals.

When We Realized My Husband Has Autism

My usual metaphor for brain traits is an enormous equalizer loaded with perhaps billions of sliders.  You could conceptualize these sliders as broad categories like autism or obsessive compulsive disorder, but it may be more appropriate to scale the sliders as individual traits like those which make up the diagnostic criteria for the various mental states we have so-far defined.

In any given individual a particular slider may be higher or lower depending on various contributing factors.  It would be somewhat rare to locate someone who had all the sliders for a particular concept (autism or even masculinity) pushed all the way to the top (or pulled all the way down), but we should expect that for any given individual few sliders would be resting right in the middle.

(This model should work for genetic expression as well.)

Food for thought.


The Source of Bertrand Russell’s Famous Tea Pot Argument

I really like Bertrand Russell and so should you.  He’s one of the last great intellectuals.  Sure he’s British but he’d hold his own in any circle of American pragmatism.  He’s got brainy gumption and moxy.

Probably he is most famous for his tea pot argument.  Essentially it stakes out the notion that a lack of evidence disproving something cannot be taken as sufficient cause to believe in the un-disproved whatever-it-is.

Finally, this argument appears in a paper Russell wrote on commission from Illustrated magazine (1952).  This paper was never actually published by the magazine, but it is probably available in a collection somewhere.  (This one looks like a good collection but I don’t see the article in question.)

You can find the text here and here (the second link provides a couple of interesting footnotes).

It’s a short article and well worth reading.  I hope you enjoy Russell too.

Go get ’em.


Happiness Just Might Be a Warm Cup of Coffee

Rocky Raccoon may have been satisfied reading that book placed by the Gideons in his hotel room, but I have something better for your reading list.  I read this book  a while back and am just now reminded to say something about it with all this hubbub about Starbucks and guns.

The book (by John R. Lott, Jr.) is called More Guns Less Crime (Understanding Crime and Gun Control Laws).  It is the most comprehensive analysis of crime statistics I have ever seen.

More Guns Less Crime
More Guns Less Crime

The gist of his argument is that when a certain kind of liberal concealed carry law is implemented there will be an associated reduction in the rates of violent crimes (both locally and in neighboring areas).  The statistics seem to uphold this theory and provide especial insight into the relationships between these same laws and the protections afforded to women and minorities.

I think folks on either side of this issue (as well as anyone on the fence) will benefit from reading this book.  I make no bones: he is writing (even if from the compulsion of reason) in support of the laws he finds protect us best.  Whether you are swayed by the power of reason is up to you, but you will find much within the pages to respect.

Of course the Starbucks issue is really a non-issue.  It is both opposing groups attempting to get a corporation to sponsor their petty debate.  This is not an issue for a corporate board room decision.  This is an issue for legislation.

I think we have great legislation in Washington state (very much in line with what Lott suggests provides the safest social sphere), so I’m not going to get all up in arms (what?) if cowboys start spinning their spurs while waiting on their capuccini.

I’d rather see Starbucks fix their grammar in whatever language they are under the impression they use.

Lock and load, baby-doll.


Storing Errors in the Brain and Creative Sparks

It occurs to me that there could be a connection between those mistakes we make, which we store as truths for even small fractions of time, and the later ability to create or innovate.  As I can at this time conceive of no scientific proof by which this speculation may be either confirmed or denied, it must remain solidly in the realm of philosophy.  First I will outline what I mean and then I will look at the possible consequences should this be true.

The brain stores memories, experiences, and the like as synaptical connections within its neural networks.  Some of these stores data points we can think of as true and others false.  Consider a child who encounters a small furry four-legged animal.  They may, adorably, call that animal a dog.  This experience will become part of their neural matrix relating to dogs and fur and animals &c—complete with many storage points, interrelations, and connections.  When later that child discovers this animal was and is in fact a badger, adjustments will be made across the matrix to allow the child to correctly distinguish between the true dog and the true badger.  However, what is important here is the false badger.

For the duration in which the badger was falsely identified as a dog, pathways were formed and connections were created all of which can be called upon later.  Clearly the person in question will not want to falsely identify the badger as a dog, but these pathways and connections provide alternative routes of thinking along which new ideas and innovations might be prospected.

Consider next that any brain, young or old, will contain thousands upon thousands of these false truths.  They may have been briefly held or long-standing, what matters is that what is false was thought true.  This branching allows for later branching.  It seems to me that this later branching can assist in the creative and innovative processes—branching into new ideas heretofore unthought.

I do not claim that this is the only nor the necessary cause of the creative spark, merely that it can be considered as a partner in the innovative process.

If this is the case, then we might surmise that any brain which was not capable of allowing for false truths of some minimal duration would also be in capable of exploiting those alternate pathways for creation and innovation.  Clearly this would have an impact in the field of Artificial Intelligence.  Such an artificial brain must be able to store indefinitely and use at least occasionally information which is incorrect.

My understanding of the current breed of AI decision making networks is that they are able to learn by adjusting weights over time.  These weights do not store the incorrect pathways; rather, they replace them.  This may well yield positive results in creating brain-like computing devices; however, it may be necessary to allow these artificial brains to maintain databases of false truths, mistakes, and incorrect impulses if we are to see them create and innovate.

This is speculative and probably highly condemnable by stronger philosophers than myself, but here it is anyway, out in the theater of ideas ripe for your consideration.