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April 19, 2009

There Is But One Truly Serious Philosophical Problem

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 6:30 pm

As a species with the apparently rare gift of being able to contemplate life and death, being able to choose our own end should we desire it, we are endowed, unavoidably, with the problem of suicide.

”There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” –Camus

Let’s start by acknowledging that it is a serious question, a serious problem. The answer is not simple. We cannot get away from this issue by blanket affirmations against suicide because it is cowardly or because it is hurtful to others. These things may be true, but they do not answer the question.

Those with the benefit of an airtight faith in some religion or creed that prohibits suicide may seem to escape the problem; but only because they never really address it. To eschew consideration of suicide because it is against the laws of a god or against the imperatives of a philosophical system is to have already given up the reigns of your own life to an outside authority. Rather than face the question yourself, it is side-stepped; in removing that one threat to your life, you have given up claim to that very life.

No, we must deal with the question head-on, on its own terms, for and by ourselves.

December 1, 2008

Experimental Philosophy

Tags: , — Strange Loops @ 11:05 am

Science and philosophy are traditionally considered very distinct disciplines. Certainly many scientists are philosophical, and there are many philosophers of science. But we think of the two domains as following very different methodologies. Scientists perform experiments: they manipulate variables and observe the outcome. Philosophers think: they perform thought experiments, manipulating concepts by pumping intuitions in one direction or another using words. Which is far from putting on a lab coat and collecting data, right?

Well, recently a subdomain of philosophy has appeared on the scene, called experimental philosophy. Philosophers have long pontificated about how people think, and base their thought experiments on the assumptions of “folk psychology” — naive, common-sense assumptions about our everyday behaviors and why we think and act the way we do. Until recently, philosophers have pulled from the work of scientists (at best) or just ignored the science (at worst).

But now, experimental philosophers are performing actual experiments, controlling variables and collecting data. Take, for example, the entertaining video below of comedian Eugene Mirman explaining a recent experiment:


November 20, 2008

Word of the Day: Eudaimonia

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 12:45 am

Eudaimonia, n.
1. The good life.
2. Happiness, not as a state of mind like joy, but in the sense of human flourishing.
3. The process of living well, as an end in and of itself.

Eudaimonia is a classical Greek word that comes from ‘eu’ (good or well-being) and ‘daimon’ (one’s spirit, one’s fortune). It is the good life, the life lived in harmony with one’s inner spirit, informed by thought.

The Greeks differed on the details of what this meant. For Plato, arete (virtue knowledge, ethical knowledge) was an essential part of eudaimonia: the good life is one informed by knowledge and thought. In his system, eudaimonia was proper ordering among the three competing aspects of the soul (the rational, the emotional and the appetitive), with the rational guiding desires and actions based on arete. For Aristotle, eudaimonia was a life not of honor or wealth or power, but “rational activity in accordance with virtue over a complete life” [Wiki], a combination of character virtue, intellectual virtue, friendships, scientific knowledge and more. For Epicurus, on the other hand, eudaimonia was a life of pleasure. Not simply short-term, immediate pleasure, but a thoughtful, long-term, big-picture view of pleasure in life.

More generally, eudaimonism is an ethical system where the ultimate aim and justification of activity is personal happiness. Virtuous activity is that which leads to happiness or well-being. Thus it is very distinct from utilitarian ethics wherein the virtue of an action is determined by how it affects everyone. Eudaimonism is concerned with the individual’s life, though the social and communal aspects of that life may be considered crucial to flourishing.

Nor does eudaimonism make specific prescriptions for ethical behavior that apply universally. Insofar as everyone is different, a flourishing life for those people will necessarily look different. Eudaimonia is living your life true to your individual daimon (‘spirit’, roughly), and the good life may not look the same for everyone.

October 26, 2008

Accepting Impermanence

Tags: , — Strange Loops @ 11:56 am

“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” –Heraclitus

We humans are innately wired to seek out permanence. In our evolutionary past, it was useful to be able to generalize from patterns of past experience in order to predict future events. If this one plant has killed people that ate it while this other plant has had no ill effects, then we learn which types of plant are safe and which are not. We do this by assuming a certain permanence in the world – that things will continue to be as they are. A plant that was safe yesterday won’t be poisonous today.

This innate need to seek out permanence carries over into modern life as well though. When we have a good job, are in a good relationship with a friend or lover, or are otherwise pleased with a situation, we want it to last; sometimes we even expect it to last and are surprised when it does not.

In the end, this expectation of permanence, this desire that the good things stay how they are, can trap a person. It can lead to worrying about the possibility of things slipping away and ending. Pretty soon, we get so wrapped up in the possibility that this good thing might not last that we are unable to enjoy it.

October 24, 2008

I Am a Strange Loop

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 10:13 am

Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter has long been one of my favorite books. That book tackles what it means to be conscious and how consciousness or meaning could arise out of unconsious and meaningless elements (i.e. physical particles bouncing off of each other). It was witty and fun and enlightening, drawing from the math and logic of Kurt Godel, the impossible artwork of M.C. Escher, the many-leveled fugues of J.S. Bach, as well as Zen, Lewis Carroll, meta-fiction, puzzles and more. I love Godel, Escher, Bach.

For that reason, I was tentative in 2007 when Hofstadter released I Am a Strange Loop, a thinner book than the earlier tome, and of narrower scope (but still tackling a broad and deep subject!). How could it possibly live up to Hofstadter’s original, Pulitzer Prize-winning work? Thus, I put off reading the new book for a while.

I Am a Strange Loop Hofstadter

Having finished it recently, I admit I did feel a little let-down. Partly due to repetition (rehashing arguments and analogies made in GEB), and partly due to some slips into weak argumentation against straw man opponents. Once in a while, I found myself shaking my head where he could have tightened up his philosophical discourse and made his case stronger than he did.

January 17, 2008

Last Week’s Potatoes

Tags: , , — Strange Loops @ 3:35 am

“So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week’s potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago — a mind which has long ago been replaced. To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of my brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out — there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.”
–Richard Feynman (The Value of Science)

Back in 1953, researchers at the Smithsonian Institution concluded from radio isotope tracings of chemicals entering and leaving the body that we replace around 98% of our bodies’ atoms every year or so.

Most of us are familiar with the cells in our body being replaced (the new daughter cells being made up largely of new food we take in). Skin cells slough off constantly and yet we retain skin. Hair is lopped off and new hair comes out. The stomach lining is replaced in a matter of days, the liver in weeks. An 18% yearly calcium replacement in the adult body replaces most of our bones in a few years. Neurons essentially stay for life (though adult neurogenesis sometimes replaces these).

But even those cells that are not replaced through duplication — even those holdout cells like neurons — have shifting make-up on the level of particles. New atoms flow in to replace old ones.

Now, we need not concern ourselves with whether or not every single atom actually gets replaced, or on what timeframe. We can at least be confident that a very large and significant amount of material in our bodies — even in our brains — was not there previously and won’t be there for very long. As Feynman put it, our bodies and brains are last week’s potatoes.
richard feynman
Obviously, this suggests that the individual atoms in our brains aren’t like packets of information holding memories or personality. Rather, the structure is what is important to cognition: whatever materials can instantiate that structure so as to carry out the computations and lead to the proper outputs are sufficient.

December 29, 2007

Death Gives Life Meaning, or Cognitive Dissonance?

Tags: , , , — Strange Loops @ 2:14 am

The Singularity Institute (Oct 2007) posted a piece on how immortality can give meaning to a life, in much the same way people have argued that death gives meaning to our lives.

The author, E. Yudkowsky, gives some common arguments about the meaning death gives to life, and then goes on to provide examples of how similar reasoning could be applied even if people never died.

Death gives a sense of urgency, people say, so we are motivated to do things we would otherwise put off. “Go hang-gliding today, go learn to play the flute today, for tomorrow may never come.” But, as Yudkowsky points out, if you were immortal, you’d still have motivation for not procrastinating. “You’ve got to learn linear algebra eventually – why not start today?” Or perhaps a better argument would be that the boringness or regret of time not well-lived would still be there for immortals, pushing them toward more interesting or worthwhile pursuits (whereas those who age and die may come to their regret — or wisdom — too late to do anything about it).

Some people are nice to others in the here and now because, who knows, they may never see those people again. But presumably that gives you just as much reason to be an ass, which is why people are often more rude and confrontational when anonymous. For that matter, Yudkowsky points out, if people lived forever, they would be much more likely to run into the same people again eventually, so we have good reason to treat them well.

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