Yaknow what’s weird to me? I think most people, without thinking deeply about it, assume that science is factual, while theology is theoretical. The actuality is that scientific theories, no matter how thoroughly tested and proofed, are always considered theoretical by scientific practitioners while theology demands that its practitioners accept a number of theories as fact with no testing or proofing. I am not commenting on the veracity of any of it, just that it seems strange.
Racism is an insidious, sneaky thing. It is practically impossible to completely stamp out once it is inside you, and it is almost impossible to keep it out with so much racism-soaked reality television splattered everywhere. I notice twinges of it in myself occasionally, and it is frustrating to realize that my brain has that sort of garbage in it. Many years ago I read about the difference between ‘attitude’ and ‘behavior’ for a class on leadership. Attitude was considered your inner outlook (so to speak), inside you where you cannot manipulate it or control it, while behavior was the outer manifestation of your outlook, outside you where you can manipulate it and control it. The trick, as I was taught, was to control your behavior and, as a result, in time gradually change your attitude to reflect your improved outlook. Reading Hume – some of his work really sticks with me – this makes even more sense. As we are products of our experience, we can improve our own outlook, and our attitudes, by giving ourselves as much positive experience as we reasonably can – and exhibiting positive behavior will eventually lead to improved attitudes, and an improved outlook.
I’ve always thought of pragmatism as the opposite of romanticism. Romantics look at the world in an idealized manner, seeing the world as they think it should be. Pragmatists, in this form, look at the world in a realistic manner, seeing the world without illusion. A romantic would say “why does congress lie? They should be above that, as elected officials!” while a pragmatist would more likely say “well, we survived worse than this group; we’ll survive them, too.” A romantic looks at clouds and finds shapes in them, while the pragmatist sees rain and puts on a jacket. I think I would be categorized as a pragmatist by the philosophical definition of the term, since I see scientific truth as a moving target and I am aware that even telling the truth can be a complicated task. With seven billion people generating truth faster than any man or man-made machine can keep tabs, the truth is miles ahead and gaining on us, and even the truths we supposedly do know might not be truths in a few years.
Since all acts are selfish, then no act can be selfish because the term would lose all meaning. If this is true, then the concept of selfishness cannot exist except for the instant when selfishness is defined, and that definition is used to identify those who exhibit selfishness. Thus, the only truly selfish act is the act of identifying selfishness.
My brain doesn’t buy the heap paradox as a true paradox. Heap is not a specific numerical distinction, so taking one away or adding one has no meaningful impact on the concept of ‘heap’. Much like there is no black or white race distinction, there is no heap or non-heap distinction. The two people at the edge of the black or white race definition are virtually identical, so there is no line in between black and white. Since all sand heap amounts are one grain of sand apart – which means they are virtually identical – there is no line in between heap and non-heap.
I think the (absence of) race concept can be explained well using this exercise. If a person flew around the world, landing at the center of various geographical areas, they might believe that there are several distinct and separate races of human beings. If that same person walked around the world, though, the concept of separate races would seem nonsensical. There would never be a single instance of a clear, discernable difference between two people outside of instances where people were displaced from their ancestral territories, such as Africans in America or Englishmen in Australia.
The concept that all existence is actually a dream is eerily possible. I don’t think we can control our dreams, or freely move around and exercise free will while dreaming, but what if we are so able to control our dreams that we don’t even realize that we are dreaming? I once (ok, more than once) knew a man who drank like a fish for years and never seemed drunk, until the first time I saw him sober. What if we have never been awake?
The human race shares a few unflattering characteristics with viruses, but it is stretching the analogy to call us a virus. I have never heard of a virus caring what it kills, or what it eats. We kill and eat anyway, but at least we feel bad about it and hold the occasional telethon.
I think the red pill is like the apple offered to Eve in the Garden of Eden. While the Bible infers that Eve had a choice, and that she could have turned the apple down, on a certain level she never really had that choice. Once the apple was offered, she could never go back to her old life knowing that the apple was out there. The red pill, once offered, would be incredibly difficult to turn down by an intelligent human being. How hard would it be to take a pill that was going to return you to a state of stasis when you had the option to be awake, and you were aware of that option?
I thought the most interesting concept in the entire film was the concept of a perfect world that Agent Smith talked about. I find the concept of a perfect world infinitely imperfect. Page 254 of Dream Weaver expresses the sentiment through the lyrics of an un-named band: “Without dark, there is no light; without wrong no right.” I’ve always felt that perfection makes for a worthy goal, but a horrible result.
When I play games I always, always try to win, but once the game is over I hardly ever remember whether or not I won five minutes later. I’ve read more than once – in autobiographies of successful people – that they miss the old days when they were still struggling. They missed the challenges, and the feeling of striving towards something. The successful conclusions they reached were only satisfying for a short time, but the sense of being alive they got from the struggle was stronger and longer lasting. Gamblers struggle to quit, not because they miss winning but because they miss the hope of winning. The moments leading up to the resolution give them that same alive feeling that the young strivers feel while they work their way to that goal of perfection. Once the game ends, or the struggle is over, instead of feeling satisfied the feeling is more one of emptiness.
Math is a convention of relativity more than a priori knowledge of things-in-themselves; what I mean is that, if I am seeing it correctly, our mathematical concepts are based on agreed upon conventions, not dropped into the universe out of nowhere to express universal truths. In music there is a concept called ‘perfect pitch’ where some people can tell pitch perfectly, which means that they can – if they know the translations between pitch and the number of vibrations – tell you the exact number of vibrations that produced a sound. I have been told that these people exist, and if they do it’s possible that there are intuitive mathematicians, but there is another musical concept that fits where our math comes from better: perfect relative pitch. With perfect relative pitch I can tell what a pitch is but only after being given a baseline pitch to compare it to. I think mathematics works the same way; the best mathematicians can work numbers with incredible accuracy, but first they must be given an agreed upon baseline to work from. In other words, a convention of relativity. E=mc2 (the theory of relativity) is, in a manner of speaking, a convention of relativity about the convention of relativity. As long as it fits with our mathematical conventions, it is accepted. If someone can demonstrate that it doesn’t agree with our conventions, though, it ceases to be accepted and gets tossed out on its can while the conventions remain.
Frederik Nietzsche: My mother seemed to be channeling Nietzsche when she used to ask me “how can I fly like an eagle when I’m surrounded by turkeys?” or tell me “no, I’m not taking you shopping with me, I can get it done much faster if I do it alone.” The great German philosopher might have simply been ahead of his time, a critical thinker among the teeming masses for which critical thinking meant being critical, not thinking with a critical mindset. My number one takeaway from learning about Nietzsche is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve greatness as part of a group. To succeed requires turning away from group conventions and making decisions based on your own free will and personal judgment.
David Hume: It seems like the mainstream memory of Hume is his stance that we can never know anything for certain, and that we are nothing but a bundle of our previous perceptions. I don’t know why this is seen as such a negative attitude, honestly. I find the idea that we are the product of our experiences encouraging, not discouraging. If we have control over our personalities to that extent, we can self-program to become better people. If we have control over what our children can become, that is both scary (in the wrong hands) and exciting (in the right hands). Much like everything else, we have the ability to mold a better future, or blow the whole thing up. It’s up to us and our bundles of perceptions.
Voltaire: I am going to have to find time to read more of his work. He speaks to my own sense of the absurdity of human nature, and the innate perversity of human existence. In other words, if he was alive today he would probably be a stand-up comedian. My favorite Voltaire-isms are “The Holy Roman Empire is neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire” and “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” Both roll off the tongue, are memorable, are funny/witty, and express a powerful sentiment as painlessly as hiding your blood pressure medicine inside a ball of cheese. People who can deliver high concepts with wit and humor are a rare breed, and we should always cherish them.
Socrates: I love watching YouTube videos of the old Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts, especially the ones with Orson Wells on the dais. I remember him from my childhood; he was as famous for his weight as for his wit, and I never really appreciated his sense of humor. I would guess, without asking, that Kelsey Grammar modeled his Frasier Crane character after Wells; the voices are almost a perfect match. From everything I’ve read about Socrates, if he had lived in modern times I think he would remind us of Orson Wells, or Wells would remind us of Socrates. The whole absurd process in which he went from getting a compliment to drinking the poison smacks of the sort of pompous arrogance and stubborn hubris of Frasier Crane, perhaps ramped up a bit by the times Socrates lived in. Another historical figure who might have been Socratic to an extent was Ronald Hughes, the portly defense lawyer who was killed by the Manson family. His manner of speaking, his towering intellect balanced by his stained suits and abject poverty, and his combination of reckless naiveté and courtroom cynicism all seem very Socrates-like.
John Locke: Locke’s most enduring legacy in the United States is probably his work that influenced our Constitution, but his work within his own mind might have been more important to the rest of the world. Locke separated how our sensors take in data into categories, which (according to Locke) combined with our previous experiences to create our perceptions. His belief that our minds begin as blank slates seems to have fallen out of favor, but I don’t see any reason why this can’t still fit with the available data. More importantly, to me, is that Locke laid much of the groundwork for Hume and others who dealt, or still deal, with the concepts of perception and reality.
I think there is something ego-sucking about cosmic decentralization, and I don’t know if we have all handled it as well as we should going forward. Reading about it got me thinking about the sorts of human decentralization most of us go through as kids. Robert Fulghum, in his All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (this is not a direct quote, I don’t have the book anymore), mentioned a teacher asking her kindergarten class which of them were singers, dancers, drummers, actors, painters, etc., and virtually every kid raised their hand for each talent; they were all singers, dancers, painters, etc. Later, asking a group of older students, only a few – the ones who were actually trained in each talent – raised their hands. They had been trained to stop thinking that they could do everything, and they seemed to accept this in stride. Of course, you don’t have to be a singer to sing, or a dancer to dance, or a painter to paint, but that’s a different argument. My point goes in another direction.
Cosmologically, it might be best if we were a little bit quicker to accept that we have the stray limitation or two. The earth doesn’t have to be the center of the universe to matter to earthlings; the Milky Way doesn’t have to be the only galaxy to still be a cool name for a candy bar; and even the universe itself doesn’t have to be the only universe to justify building another Starbucks. Every cosmological decentralization has been followed quickly by a tantrum (or worse) from various groups who have had a hard time fitting new data into their old views. I would hope that we, like our children, will eventually learn that we aren’t everything, and focus on learning how to be something.
Mathematical conventions to limit measurements that limit things that have no theoretical limit, like distance (long and short) and speed (fast and slow) are indicative of our own limitations, not the limitations of the measurements themselves. The universe is both too big and too small for us to see. These limitations will relax as we develop technology that allows us to get a better look.