Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It is complex and meaningless but...

One day, on a certain occasion, a friend stated confidently but ruefully that scientists don't like Plato. Will, by and large, they don't like dogma, and Plato just happens to be a byword for dogmatism, partly due to history's characteristic caprice. Still her remark was quite accurate, and I even found it to be impressive on the account of its "insiderness", and the challenge it throws to us: seeing philosophy through the eyes of a scientist. However, as soon as we take this challenge up, it proves to be a complex mental exercise.

The enterprise of science is delicate. Dogma will naturally render it mystical and vain - think alchemy - but nevertheless, some "self-evident" propositions are always needed to hold any theory's structure together, like mortar holds the stones of a masonry. Actually, when science was subjected to a scepticism of a radical degree, manifest in Hume's dissolving criticism, it was stymied for a brief while, and it took only somebody with Kant's caliber to pull it out of this quagmire, and put it back on its tracks. But that is only one of its aspects, and one gets the hunch that all of its others are as delicately balanced.

Yet much of the layers of this complexity can be peeled away by utilizing a few realizations. One is that talking of a perspective of scientists on philosophy is conceivable only in our contemporary time, for before the advent of modern science, probing the depths of nature was a natural philosopher's job, and after science came onto the spectacle - a thing we have Bacon to thank for - the walls drawn up between it and philosophy were porous for centuries further, allowing for considerable scholarly exchange across the division, and it even was the norm for a bright mind to straddle both. The caulking of the boundaries demarcating the different domains of knowledge that we live today is largely the legacy of the twentieth century - perhaps out of necessity at first, but then it became an expedient variant on the strategy of divide and conquer, upon which our false culture of the expert rests, to the advantage of politicians.

A second realization that springs forth readily from the first is that the purview of the one of them does not fully coincide with the other. It is hence where they happen to do that the loudest incongruencies between them arise. One such major, and informing, point of difference is that scientists, especially 
biologists, take the corporeality of the universe for granted, or else, for their money, this quasi-infinite range of the phenomena it harbours becomes a gaudy extravaganza that can only be explained via revelation, a thing that they necessarily reject a priori. Philosophers on the other hand have the chutzpah to question the materialness of nature, or anything else for that matter, and have no troubles with entertaining, and even endorsing systems of thought where the entire universe is nothing but the product of the mental processes of some mind - one mild and understandable exception to this is the founding fathers of quantum physics, since they were taken by surprise to find that the act of observation in tiny realms plays an active role in the unfolding of events. That is exactly why some philosophy was in fact integral to their arguments, which also occasionally included references to a creator, as is reflected in few of the quotes of that dolt of a genius, Einstein.

But at a deeper level, we will find that many of these incongruencies are less profound than they may appear, and can be imputed to secondary reasons such as mere tastes. For instance, scientists are fond of using simple and clear language, while philosophers are given to ornate and florid styles of exposition. So, whereas a scientist would proclaim prosaically that the laws of the universe are inescapable, this same fact expressed by a philosopher would assume something of a numinous quality, and since the current curriculum of either does not include adequate readings into the corpus of the other, such differences come to pass as fundamental rather than incidental.

Perhaps the third realization that trails the first two is that this exercise is futile altogether, mainly because it was a folly to speak of scientists as unified in perspective from the onset, since it becomes apparent from the forgone discussion that how scientists perceive philosophy is not normally guided by something common among them, and as such falls to become a matter of peculiarities and personal convictions. Nevertheless, one can still speak of contemporary philosophic contributions to and inspirations by science, and visa verse. But these are better suited for discussion as particular cases, with, as an extra, few morsels on the lives of the philosophers involved. Here is a few.

Karl Popper:

The idea that what delimits scientific activities from their non-scientific counterparts, is the deduction of explanatory models and the subsequent act of working hard to falsify them is the brainchild of this guy. One consequence of it though, which he never failed to stress whenever he had the occasion, is that the social sciences, or alternatively the soft sciences, e.g. political science, sociology, psychology... etc., should be evicted from the circle of what we call science, and, presumably, be considered systematic studies only. However, it seems that at first his idea of falsification was 
embarrassingly enough inside the box, as when he denied natural selection the status of a scientific theory. A year later he recanted this position, when it was brought to his attention that finding certain animal fossils in certain geological strata is all we need to discard the theory for good.

Personal life: few can boast a career path as erratic as his, taking him from carpentry, to teaching at school level, then to philosophy and professorship at London School of Economy. From his contemporaries we get the impression that he retained throughout his life the childish quality of hating to lose a discussion. His impugning the social sciences can be understood as an act of atonement for his joining the Marxist movement in Vienna for a while as a youth, though he forever stayed a staunch supporter of the establishment of welfare states and an advocate of social engineering.

Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell:

Founders of the school of analytical philosophy. They might not be the first philosophers to have got intoxicated with the clarity and well defined structures of mathematics and logic - PlatoDescartes and Spinoza 
are the firsts to come to mind in this regard - but they were among the firsts who tried to import these features into language, and even demanded it be refashioned in a manner conducive to such ends. To accomplish this, each devised his own distinct program, but generally speaking, they agreed on that words should be broken down to a level were they become referents to solid facts, or, failing that, be discarded. Once fully achieved, they told us like some did before them, this will solve every philosophical problem there is or will ever be. The geniuses that they were, however, they could not see from the beginning that any meaningful proposition we may utter is founded upon implicit suppositions, which is to say that imagery and relativity are endemic to the way humans understand the world around them, and therefore are inextricably reflected in languageWittgenstein acknowledged this oversight in his posthumously published book, though he never wavered in his demanded for clarity of language.

In the case of Russell, it was his predilection for logic and mathematics that inspired him to such an adventure, but it can be easily seen in Wittgenstein's case - an engineer turned philosopher - that his source of inspiration was the central role that he saw math and logic playing in the formulation of various scientific theories.

Wittgenstein's: a despondent soul, whom I personally also believe to have been a masochist (I mean, why would somebody suffering depression ever spend a part of his life in Norway?). He was a Viennese as well and tried his hand at teaching for a while, but it seems like he was a terrible teacher, who had no qualms about boxing the ears of his students. One source I have on him claims that his favorite relaxation activity consisted in watching cowboy movies, which might sound as an odd way for relaxing, until we learn that his sexuality is a subject of varying speculations. He also happens to be the eponymous subject of a British movie produced in 1993. The director was gay himself, the auteur Derek Jarman, and one wonders if this is the reason why Ludwig's homosexuality is taken for granted in this movie.

Russell's: at first apathetic toward everyday matters, it seems that World War I pricked his intellectual bubble once and for all, and from that moment on, no attempt at suppressing his voice succeeded. He, in no particular order, stood against the "great war", opposed Britain's 
colonial policies, campaigned for women's suffrage, was among the firsts to speak against nuclear armaments, and called for the implementation of eugenic laws and programs! A literature Nobel laureate, he bequeathed to humanity a treasure trove of essays and books that tackle themes from the philosophic to the social, and it was his Principia Mathaematica that proselytized Wittgenstein to philosophy.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

A modern rather than a contemporary philosopher. And while his opinion on science - among arts and culture - seems to have shifted during the course of his life, from science as an inducer of the corruption of societies, to science as a symptom of the moral degeneration of human beings, to science as a mere conglomeration of artifacts, made in the eternal race among individuals to prove their moral superiority to one another, we can notice that the constant thing in all of this is that progress in science and depravity come in pairs. We now know that this is not necessarily the case, and we might even hastily discard these warnings as the false prophecies of a deranged man. But this is to take the matter personally, and overlook whatever nuggets of wisdom these arguments contain, and to be sure they contain some. Rousseau takes us all the way to the threshold of a very important realization, leaving to us the last step to make on our own, in a critical time when people seem to have finally started blowing the saintly halos that have adorned the heads of religious figures for too long - a very commendable act - only to confer them upon the heads of scientists.

Personal life: a misanthrope and a well documented case of paranoia, but also a gentle character and a believer in the innocence and purity of humans in their pristine state. Alternatively, if we are welling to expend some effort in understanding a person as she is, rather than as she appears like to our eyes, we might have second thoughts regarding Rousseau and entertain the possibility that he was generous and constant in his love for humanity, but where he felt this had gone unrequited, his reaction was excessively dramatic. His most notable contributions span a range of subjects, from politics to education, and from music to history and philosophy. We might even regard him as the modern father of the humanization of knowledge, on the score that he had written a very accessible account, The 
Dictionary of Music, on the theory and history of the musical arts. Toward the end of his life he dallied with botany and it seems that he had assembled a number of herbaria, of which many were destroyed during Wold War II.

Despite their names being effectively antonyms, he and Voltaire are generally considered to be the two major epicentres of the earthquake that brought about the destruction of the ancien régime.


  1. But didn't Kant pull religion from a similar quagmire as well?

  2. That is true BritBoy, but I think he did so only by divesting religion from theology, and basing it on morality instead. So his religion was not a religion in the strict sense of the word, but may be in that sense used by philosophers, which is meant to preserve the sanity of the simple minded masses. It could be very well something similar to Rousseau's civil religion, since Kant was influenced by Rousseau. Either way, he surely was against ecclesiasticism.

  3. Nader,

    This is my post jordanmafia sanctuary in the cyper world. The question should be though, how did you get here?

  4. I have to admit I barely understood anything in this post! Can you summarize in a short paragraph what you are trying to say?!

    I got few remarks. I am not very acquainted with Kant's philosophy, but based on Ayn Rand's critique of Kant, Kantianism is one of the most destructive and misguided philosophies in the modern world. [Ayn Rand is one of the few philosophers who seems to me, to have a functioning brain. That's an argument from authority, so I know it is not a very good argument.] Plato is also one of the philosophers whose philosophies have been thoroughly refuted and proven to be non-sense! Of the Greek philosophers, Aristotle is the one whose philosophies still have significance to this date. (Aristotle and Plato are almost diametrically opposed!)

    And regarding quantum physics. Most of what you hear about it is non-sense. I am actually in the process of learning about it. And when I say learning, I mean good science with math, formulas, and evidence. The non-sense interpretations that you hear about it from various sources are misleading. [I can point you to resources to learn about it if you are interested.]

  5. If I could have summarized what had been already written in a short paragraph I would have saved me the hassle of writing a long post from the beginning.

    I am not sure that any of Plato's works that survived to our day were truly philosophy. What we got of him are works written for the Athenian layman, and they were literature, hence his reputation for being a dogmatist, but nevertheless they give an inkling of one of his technical ideas, i.e. the perfect forms or universals that exist for real in some higher realm. We are sure he did have some other ideas though. Also I am not sure Aristotle has any significance to our day in a functional sense. He divested Plato's idea of universals from independent existence, and employed it instead in something more practical, which is categorizing natural phenomena, and hence he established the first foundation of science. His other significant contribution was founding the study of logic by introducing the notion of syllogism. But that would be more accurately described as a first correct step on the ladder, than something significant to our date.

    My understanding of philosophy the way it was practiced historically is that it revolved around five themes: politics, ethics, aesthetics, logic and metaphysics. Personally I couldn't care less for others' theories on how I should behave, how I should enjoy beauty, or how societies should be organized (in this latter I am not completely averse to theories, but more in favor of empirically verified policies). The only two themes that are possible to lend an ear to are metaphysics and logic.

    Hence, to say that Kant is destructive without a context means nothing at all. He put an end to metaphysics, so is that what Randy means by destructive? If so, then that should be understood as a compliment. Metaphysics had its productive function one day, but since we now have more reliable methods of producing knowledge, such as the modern sciences, many believe, and I am one of those, that metaphysics should become merely an entertaining activity such as is chess. This is the reason I like Kant. He put an end to theology in its most sophisticated guise, i.e. metaphysics. Based on this, I also find the word misguided here irrelevant. But that is a matter of perspectives.

    As for quantum physics, I would never advance an argument I did not think for myself, so don't worry, I got my own back here. Quantum physics, quantum chemistry, and modern cosmology were all part of my last three-year academic curriculum at school. So I am conversant with their early mathematical formulations as well as with their verbal arguments. And anyway, I only mentioned the verbal arguments to demonstrate an exception to the observation I described before. Also, I wanted to take the chance to clarify a common misconception among people that Einstein argued for the existence of personal god. He was merely using the word metaphorically and I also believe irresponsibly. But since we are at it, it would be a good thing to point out the fact that because of the far from intuitive features of this realm, it presented a ripe chance for metaphysics to revive itself in the form of the different schools of interpretations (e.g. Copenhagen's and the many-worlds').

    I know my writings are big on abstraction, so if you need clarifications regarding anything, I might be able to help if you point out to certain instances, and I would be glad to give concert examples.

  6. I think we don't agree on the definition of metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of the nature of existence. If anyone could be to blame for giving metaphysics a bad name, it is Plato. Great example of that is "Platonic Forms", which is what I was referring to when I mentioned that his philosophies were completely refuted. Kant, also, did not eliminate metaphysics, he just proposed a completely different metaphysics. Ayn Rand's greatest criticism of Kant was his ethics [and his ethics were largely based on his metaphysics, so you cannot separate the two]. So, the context of Ayn Rand's critique is that if humans where to adopt Kantian ethics, it would lead to the destruction of human civilization; That is what she meant by destructive. [Since, I am not knowledgeable of Kantian ethics, I am not sure how accurate that statement is. Some critiques of Ayn Rand say that she misinterpreted Kant's philosophy, so her critique might be limited to her own interpretation of Kant. However, a quick read in Wikipedia about Kant's philosophy seems to me to suggest that Ayn was spot on, and that Kant's moral philosophy is inconsistent. See this very brief critique: 2 3]

    "My understanding of philosophy the way it was practiced historically is that it revolved around five themes: politics, ethics, aesthetics, logic and metaphysics." - True with one small modification; Epistemology should replace logic. Logic is a disciple of Epistemology. Epistemology is the study of the nature of knowledge. Logic and science are branches of Epistemology. So, yes, Aristotle's major contributions are in the field of epistemology.

    Ethics is the study of the nature of human action (the standards by which a human action is good or not). Ethics is derived from Metaphysics and Epistemology. Politics and aesthetics are then derived from ethics.

    "how societies should be organized (in this latter I am not completely averse to theories, but more in favor of empirically verified policies)." - That is a very healthy approach. But I do not see why you consider there to be a contradiction between "theory" and "empirical evidence"; A good theory is one that is supported by empirical evidence, so there is no contradiction in that in my view. But the question is: How do you judge the outcome of a political system without some views of ethics?! For example, would you consider Hitler's political system based on eugenics to be a good political system?! We have the facts, that he killed millions of people, but by what standard would you judge that empirical observation as "good outcome" or "bad outcome"?! Wouldn't such judgement be based on a philosophy of ethics?!

  7. Since we don't agree on what metaphysics is I think we better leave it off the discussion. Regarding epistemology and logic, it is also a matter of definitions. All the books I read on philosophy treat logic as encompassing of epistemology, but it seems that your sources had it the other way around, so while I acknowledge the legitimacy of your point of view, I won't go there.

    About Kant's ethics and his inconsistency, will, it is a matter of how you view his ideas. German idealism has a reputation for being abstruse and so it lends itself to different modes of interpretation. It is additionally a matter of how you model the events in your mind. For instance, I won't say that Plato's idea was refuted, only that it was refined in Aristotle (Btw, today some physicists believe that our universe might be a projection of another reality, which means that Plato's original idea can still salvage some credibility. I personally prefer nuanced criticism of ideas instead of a wholesale acceptance or rejection).

    Kant's ethics resemble an evolutionary endowment, since he maintained that it comes a priori. And it is very simple. It is similar to that biblical commandment of do unto others what you wish they do unto you. I can see how this can be destructive according to certain interpretations though, as when you refrain from lying at the expense of your own life. But that become a matter of principles. For some, an utter act of stupidity, for others a very honourable act, and for Randy it is destructive.

    I am not saying that theory and empirical evidence contradict. I am saying that theorizing on social phenomena is futile all together. There is a fundamental difference between natural phenomena and social phenomena which Hume and Popper wrote extensively on. I can’t really enter on an explanation here, since that means writing a comment no less than 10000 words long, and anyway you would be better off going after what Hume and Popper said. However, if you insist on encyclopedias as a proper source of knowledge, then may I suggest Stanford’s encyclopedia of philosophy ( instead of Wikipedia?

    But to address your point on ethics, we are always free in choosing our starting point, and different paths lead to different notions of anything. I don't see why we all should abide by any one specific notion of ethics, unless we were forced to, which would be at odds with the much more valued liberty of thought. Some seek ethics by starting from egotism others by starting from altruism, a third school of ethics might start from utilitarianism... etc. I myself prefer using my own discretion on a case-by-case basis instead of adhering to general precepts. This may pass for inconsistency for some, but for my money, I believe that generalized codes of ethics are quixotic, and there is no justification why they should be the norm other than human whim.

  8. "I don't see why we all should abide by any one specific notion of ethics, unless we were forced to, which would be at odds with the much more valued liberty of thought." - I agree. But each person has, either implicitly or explicitly, an ethical philosophy.

    I suggest that you read this quotation by Ayn Rand. Do you agree with what she is saying or not?!

    If you agree then you might start to see the mistake in the last paragraph.

    You say that you look at situations on case-by-case basis. That is fine. But the question becomes, what is the rule that decides in which cases you choose egoism, in which cases you choose altruism, and in which cases you choose utilitarianism?! Do you believe it is random?! Or is there some idea that you were either lazy, unobservant, or unable to articulate that made this case-by-case basis a coherent process?! [Remember I am talking specifically to you as an individual, you don't have to generalize that ethical view on other people.]

    As you know, philosophy and science involve the art of identifying generalized rules of things that might seem at first uncorrelated.

  9. BTW, just to make one thing clear. Ethics is NOT necessarily social. Actually, Ayn Rand always likes to say that a man living on a deserted island needs ethics far more desperately than a man living in a society. If this idea is unclear to you, maybe we need to discuss ethics more in depth.

  10. Thanks for the quote. It reeks with dogma though, and each statement presupposes a long list of positions that I could not swallow down. It reminds me of that neurolinguistic programming thing.

    What decide is my own discretion. I believe that we are free agents, and as such our interaction with the conditions around us is not passive or ruled by fixed rules. We Play an active role in shaping them and ourselves just like they shape us. I also believe that the universe is too vast and complex to be captured by even an umpteen codes of conduct. And no one understood this like mother nature did. Too many different forms and systems of life, and there is none that proved fit under all conditions, but combined together, life had proliferated in every cranny and nook on this planet. This was her uncanny strategy.

    I am not alone in this case-by-case basis thing. I am aware of at least one philosopher who had a generally similar notion, John Dewey, and there are probably others. And this might count as an ethical philosophy if you insist. I will reiterate again that having one general abstract rule to go by is not justified in itself.

  11. I am actually a minimalist and reductionist [ie. I support Occam's Razor (A theory should be as simple as possible, but no simpler)]. In science we have "unified field theory", that captures all of the complexities of different field theories. Quantum Physics is a very simple theory, with the same characteristics. Why shouldn't there be a "unified ethics theory"?!

    And just to make things crystal clear, I am a moral relativist. I believe that each person should develop his own code of ethics; I have no problem with that. I don't even mind if some people thought that murder is okay; I don't have any objections to that in principle.

    It is not clear whether or not Ayn is a moral relativist (she never made any remarks in favor or against moral relativism, as far as I know). Notice she always claims that "this is immoral according to my philosophy" [which translate to that she wouldn't personally do it.]; She never claimed that people have an obligation to follow her philosophy. Just because you think something is immoral does not mean that people are not allowed to do it.

    Actually, Ayn once claimed that people have the right to choose destruction, if they want destruction, no one should stop them from doing destruction. But she also claimed that people have the right of self-defense; So, if someone chooses destruction, she claims they only have the right to choose their own destruction; They don't have the right to destroy others;

    To illustrate that, let's say there is a suicidal terrorist bomber. She would say that the bomber had the right to choose his own destruction, but not the right to destroy others. So, if people in self-defense kill that terrorist before he fuses the bomb, that is a moral action because he had already chosen destruction; So we grant the terrorist his *wish* of destruction (we are really nice people ;) ), but we limit it to the only destruction he had the right to choose: His own.

    In the same sense, if someone chooses to follow Kant's philosophy, he has the right to apply it to himself; But he does not have the right to impose his views on others. And if he chooses to impose his views on others, they have the right of self-defense.

    Do you disagree with the right of self-defense?! [Obviously I do believe in the right of self-defense]

  12. Yes, I believe in self defence. But I am feeling this is turning into a kind of interrogation here, if you got what I mean.

  13. Oh, I am sorry. I rarely debate about ethics, I guess I was a bit aggressive and without clear purpose of my rant or argument which ever you want to call it.

    My whole argument was going to go back to the first question I asked: "Would you consider Hitler's political system based on eugenics to be a good political system?! We have the facts, that he killed millions of people, but by what standard would you judge that empirical observation as "good outcome" or "bad outcome"?!"

    And that question itself is to show that a political system cannot be derived without an ethical framework in mind.

    You can have data (empirical evidence), but different people might interpret the data differently. We both seem to agree on moral relativism (correct me if I am wrong).

  14. No worries. I won't call myself a morally relativist.


  15. The more I know you the more I like you. The reasons are;
    1-I can spend hours with you on the above topic, mostly listening. Anyways, very impressed.
    2- More impressed about you because your core competencies are pretty different then Philosophy. And still you could [pull it nicely] as my friends would say it in their own words. In my modest attempt, I tried to learn Philosophy in portions. First read as much as I can History, no doubt, still learning the Alphabet, then politics and etc... In other words, less abstract human sciences and all this is to hear some names that I would come across, like Aristotle. And then start relating the ideas when reading, say, 'pure' Philosophy. You made me wonder if I chose a bad strategy to learn the easiest way or just I am simply lazy. It did though, in my humble opinion, helped understating cultures.
    3- Your courage not only in lightening with such skies of knowledge but also maintaining your aeries‘ features, for example, being able to comment on your posts when you are a-soon- to- be-but-not- yet, former Jordanian blogger and IN Jordan at same time.
    Last: allow me to ask you "as a fan" did/will you read futuristic studies such as "The future of Management by Drucker"? There are much more though, but/and also, my following question is; which book you ARE going to advise me to read?
    I sound like those pirate-torrents-downloaders asking a good guy (good guy = good /quality files) to upload a good movie, or whatever they would like. My BTWTL (Between the Lines) comment is to sell you the pleasure to read, what you might already have, and blog it (good verb). Eh! Since, you ARE going to advise me. Wouldn’t you?
    Having fans comes with responsibilities too.
    Wherever you are good luck, flourish and enjoy! Keep blogging and remember that we sometimes have blackouts.
    PS: After we finish with the suggested topic I would like to comment, if you would not mind?

  16. Hello Luay,

    I think your strategy is an excellent one. Starting with the history of "anything" is the best way to start learning this "anything"(you start weaving your own version of the narrative). But later you have to delve a bit deeper, by reading a book on one philosopher that caught your attention, preferably a book more about his thoughts than anything, and then plunge yourself into the œuvre of this particular philosopher. From there, things will unfold in ways unexpected, and you will see yourself winding down a certain path uncontrollably. In my case for instance, I started with Rousseau, who lead me to his "archenemy" Voltaire, then Kant (abstruse style), Nietzsche, Schopenhauer and finally Foucault (abstruse style as well). The theme uniting them is the relation between, in broad terms, reason and, lets say, subjectivity. So, whatever theme gets your attention, that would be your clue to go after it.

    I had interests in management in my early twenties when I was a student, and Drucker was on my list, but so soon as I graduated, and my formal education in science and engineering came to an end, they and philosophy and literature classics entirely took over my reading interests, for good most probably.

    Btw, you can find the full œuvre of many philosophers for free online. The trick though would be to find a readable translation. Also, if you want to read good stuff about a certain philosopher, then why not try Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy? The encyclopedic form is outdated, but it is still useful in the case of this one online Encyclopedia.

    You are free to comment as much as you want Luay :) and thanx for the friendly wishes.


    I think I will be Jordanian for ever, but a blogger? That I stopped being almost a year ago.

  17. I need to clear one thing, you do believe Futures Studies enhances ones vision?

  18. Not at all. On the contrary, I think that they blind us.