Philosophy

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Lawrence Krauss (the officianados call him Larry;) has answered the question Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? in his new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, or should I say he has claimed to have answered the question.

But I’m sure old Martin Heidegger, Nazi sympathizer that he was, is rolling over in his grave now saying, “No, he hasn’t. The Nothing that Krauss uses is really not the true Nothing, but already a Something. The true Nothing is not empty space but the absence of empty space altogether, in fact, “There was not then what is nor what is not.”, as found in the Song of Creation from the Rig Veda is perhaps an approximate, and only approximate, way of characterizing the Nothing.”

I hope my translation of his German is accurate. Old Martin was talking really fast and sputtering in frustration from his grave there. But I think I caught the gist of it, I hope.

LOL

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Psybertron always leads me down untrodden paths. Today he introduced me, unbeknownst to him, to a heavyweight intellectual I had never heard of, Slavoj Zizek. The reason Zizek is interesting is that he is the very model of a modern secular humanist, i.e. the very model of what a secular humanist should be, one not just tolerant of both sides of fundamental issues, but radically tolerant of both sides. Now what this really means is still not entirely clear to me. Perhaps this final paragraph of Zizek’s The Empty Wheelbarrow will illustrate the point:

Recall the old story about a worker suspected of stealing. Every evening, when he was leaving the factory, the wheelbarrow he was rolling in front of him was carefully inspected, but it was always empty – till, finally, the guards got the point: what the worker was stealing were the wheel-barrows themselves. This is the trick that those who claim today “But the world is none the less better off without Saddam!” try to pull on us: they forget to include in the account the effects of the very military intervention against Saddam. Yes, the world is better without Saddam – but it is not better with the military occupation of Iraq, with the rise of Islamist fundamentalism provoked by this very occupation. The guy who first got this point about the wheelbarrow was an arch-intellectual.


OK, I think the point is clear, except I’m not sure of the last sentence, i.e. what is an arch-intellectual?

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Every so often I check out The Edge. Here’s what its purpose is:

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

The Edge question for 2012 is WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

Explanation for what? Well, the universe of course! Are they kidding? No, and they get quite a bunch of answers, 192 in fact. LOL!

If you have nothing to do sometime, check them out. Well, at least scan through them. You might be amazed.

The very first response in the list of 192 is by Andrei Linde, Professor of Physics at Stanford and father of the Eternal Chaotic Inflation theory. He begins by a quote from Albert Einstein, “The most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.” Off to a good start, if true. I haven’t read much beyond the 2nd paragraph yet.

And then there’s the beautiful and brilliant Rebecca Goldstein asking an even deeper question, “Why does the beauty of an explanation have anything to do with its being true?” She leaves that question unresolved. Good for her!

Well, I could spend the rest of the day, and then some, scanning through these 192. Psybertron has brief insightful summarries of a whole lot of them here.

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While walking fast on my treadmill today I thought again, as I often do, of the process that is my life, how 2007 was just as present as 2003, how the past is ever present but always moving inexorably on into the next moment. My body is changing as we speak, has been for a lifetime. The strangeness of all this hit me intensely for awhile on that treadmill. Just now I looked up Ever Present Past and what do I find but a song by Paul McCartney based on the urban legend Paul Is Dead. Yes, I too was another person then which often I remember fondly. The photos are a great help.

I have a new close friend this year, developed within the past few months. I met some old friends too, and together with the new friend, we had a most delightful conversation. Life goes on. Change occurs. It’s all beautiful, but I’m afraid it’s all precarious as well. So, appreciate it all the more, please.

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God versus Rationality may be a better way of phrasing the Religion versus Science debate. I always find great food for thought on Psybertron, and here’s some of that great food: Privilege which suggests we have not quite proven that we do not have a privileged place in the universe. This is well worth a serious read, including especially, the Larry Kraus quote linked to, and all the other links there. I’m still working on it and may not get to the end in my lifetime.

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This is from the comment section of the NYT article today by David Brooks titled “It’s Not About You”. It’s a comment by a William Taylor of Nampa, ID, and it rang a bell with me.

As Robert Cole pointed out in his “Habits of the Heart” America entered its individualist era during the early to mid eighteen-hundreds, as documented by de Alexis de Tocqueville in his famous book chronicaling his journey among the American people. The visitor from France wondered what would happen. I think he is the one who first coined the word “individualism,” describing a pattern in which the horizon is finally reduced to “me.”

The main thing lost due to the triumph of individualism has been a sense of the common good. Democrats still have some allegiance to the idea, as illustrated by their continued concern for social welfare and the supportive role of government. The Republicans (David Brooks is a good example) have always been suspicious of this idea, but their almost religious individualism really took over with Reagan and now reigns supreme thanks to the libertarians and the Tea Party. The Ryan budget is a good example of individualism’s rotten fruit.

In philosophy, they talk about a “reductio ad absurdum,” the condition that exists when the fallacy of an idea finally reaches its ultimate point of absurdity. With the ongoing financial debacle…the loss of cheap oil…and climate change, we face huge problems that can only be solved when “I” becomes a “we.” The prognosis is not good.

That’s right. The prognosis is not good.

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Just discovered an interview by Third Way magazine of a Professor John Carey who appears to be a religious agnostic. Here are some excerpts that caught my fancy:

I also think that the notion that science, or logic, is capable of something you might say is truth is itself quite questionable. I mean, the human brain, the scientists tell us, is a piece of meat with electric impulses going through it. Now, why should that piece of meat have some connection with something called ‘truth’? You know? I don’t see why they’re so sure about it. It seems to me the whole business is so uncertain that their dogmatic certainty seems extraordinary.


And aggression – well, obviously, aggression is, alas, what you don’t want.
There’s another thing about the human brain from that point of view – going back to Richard Dawkins. He often talks about awe, doesn’t he? About how you don’t need religion because science gives you awe and wonder – as if religion only gives you awe and won­der! But awe and wonder, it seems to me, are simply traceable to the deficiencies of the human brain as it has dev­eloped over the millennia. What it’s developed to do is to, well, solve simple physical problems – make stone axes and so on. And if you look at subatomic particles and think how awesome they are – well, they’re only awesome because we’re completely unable to deal with them. What Dawkins calls ‘awe’ is actually ignorance. I don’t see anything particularly wonderful about it.

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The fact is that without consciousness there may as well be nothing. The real paradox of the universe is that it managed to create sentient beings who can actually attempt to understand it at all.
This I found at the end of a comment by Paul Mealing on Stephen Law’s post, “Peter Atkins vs myself on limits of science”. It expresses perfectly my believe as well.

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Yes, I’m spending too much time on facebook. Why? Well, it’ so easy. One waits for comments on your posts, posts on your comments, comments on your comments, and finds some posts, some comments, interesting even if you don’t comment back. It’s one gigantic blog where everyone is posting and commenting at the same time. The stream of information is sweeping by at an alarming rate. A hot topic one day disappears into the next. It’s information overload! But fun. Still, is it largely a waste of time? Not necessarily.

It can be a channel into interesting topics. Sam Harris has a FB page which I looked into and found an interesting two hour long debate between Harris and Shermer on one side and Chopra and Houston on the other. Juan Cole has a page. And Barney Frank. Then there’s Karen Armstrong with her Charter for Compassion. Countless others. Too much of course, and how does one pick and chose?

The net result is I ignore this blog. Not that I don’t have enough to do besides facebook. The Norway UU church keeps me busy. The stewardship campaign is beginning and there’s hardly anyone to run it. A flurry of emails amongst Chris Davis, Kathi Pewitt, Deborah Crump, Richard Beal, and me, plus a couple of phone calls from Chris to me, finally resolved a date for our kickoff meeting: April 16th from 5:30pm to 7pm. And then there’s all the church’s financial stuff with me as treasurer. Then there’s OUR financial stuff.

Enough for now. I’ve got to think about food and interact with Cynthia regarding the food, plus check our provisions.

Oh, but I’m reading an interesting philosophical book by James P. Carse, “Breakfast at the Victory: The mysticism of ordinary experience”. Fascinating but difficult. The need for silence. The heading for the sixth chapter is one of my favorites. It’s from the Rig Veda X:129:

Then even nothingness was not, nor existence.
There was no air then, nor the heavens beyond it.
What covered it? Where was it? In whose keeping?
Was there then cosmic water, in depths unfathomed?
Then there was neither death nor immortality,
nor was there then the touch of night and day.
The One breathed windlessly and self-sustaining.
There was that One then, and there was no other.
In the beginning desire descended upon it —
that was the primal seed, born of the mind.
The sages who have searched their hearts with wisdom
know that which is kin to that which is not.
But, after all, who knows, and who can say
whence it all came, and how creation happened?
The gods themselves are later than creation,
so who knows truely whence it has arisen?
Whence all creating had its origin,
he, whether he fashioned it or whether he did not,
he who surveys it all from highest heaven,
he knows — or maybe even he does not know.

Now I gotta go.

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I’ve reported on Aifric Campbell’s “The Semantics of Murder” in a previous post. But in the past couple months I’ve also read three philosophical books.

1. “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong
2. “The Beginning of All Things: Science and Religion” by Hans Küng
3. “36 Arguments for the Existence of God: a work of fiction” by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Armstrong’s book is in big print (I mistakenly ordered that format from Amazon) and her case for God is far from conventional. In fact her concept of God is close to that of an atheist, I think. She joined a convent at an early age and rebelled strongly becoming an out and out atheist. But now she apparently believes in God in the sense that action alone is an expression of what God is. Her big project is The Charter for Compassion based on the golden rule. I’ve subscribed to this.

Hans Küng’s book is challenging in part perhaps because it’s a translation from scientific German. He’s actually still a Catholic although I’d say it’s by quite a stretch. To him the miracles are metaphors and God is somehow wrapped up in the incomprehensibility of an origin of the universe. Mankind’s reason meets its limit in its inability to fathom a “first cause”, and also an ending. He discusses the question, “Why not Nothing?” a great deal, something I have mentioned in this blog as my favorite question, i.e., why is there something rather than nothing?

Rebecca Goldstein’s book, basically an exciting novel which captures the kinds of feelings associated with the Why not Nothing? feeling, demolishes all the arguments for God (36 of them in the Appendix) and replaces these with a defense of morality based on the feeling of “ontological wonder”. So, if you wanted to call this “ontological wonder” a replacement for God, you could I suppose, although Goldstein herself claims to be an atheist intellectually. She seems a little worried, in the interviews of her I’ve found online, that some of her academic friends might think she’s NOT an atheist. She’s obviously a fascinating and brilliant woman and graduated summa-cum-laude from Barnard College.

So what do these three books all add up to in my mind? Not sure, to be honest. However, I am thinking of getting Goldstein’s book on Spinoza who she thinks has it all. From what I’ve gathered by listening to her, she thinks Spinoza has successfully used reason to explain, or account for, the “it’s turtles all the way down” problem. I’d like to see that one explained!

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