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Monthly Archives: August 2008

“I’ve burned my own house down, the torch is in my hand.
Now I’ll burn down the house of anyone who wants to follow me” — The Bijak, Kabir


A philosopher-joke runs like this:

An engineer, an experimental physicist, a theoretical physicist, and a philosopher were hiking through the hills of Scotland. Cresting the top of one hill, they see, on top of the next, a black sheep. The engineer says: “What do you know, the sheep in Scotland are black.” “Well, *some* of the sheep in Scotland are black,” replies the experimental physicist. The theoretical physicist considers this for a moment and says “Well, at least one of the sheep in Scotland is black.” “Well,” the philosopher responds, “on one side, anyway.”

You will notice it is possible to go further in the one-up-man-ship game emphasized in the joke. For instance, a philosopher’ (or a pseudo-quantum-collapse-philosopher, if you will) may say “One side of the sheep is black when you look at it”.

Let us go exactly opposite to the trend highlighted in the joke in analysing it. What the joke captures is a tendency I often encounter: the tendency to steer clear of that beast called falsifiability

Notice how the ‘hierarchical heros‘ of our joke steer ever so clear of abstraction and universalizing, and by doing so, carefully disentangle themselves from falsifiability.

Notice however, that falsifiability is intimately coupled with hypothesis-building, and by consequence – learning something new, above-and-beyond what is experientially true at this point. A non falsifiable statement is content-free, contains no new information, or doesn’t impinge on the real world.

Metaphorically speaking, it behooves us to leave our safe havens of terra firma and step on the rocky boats of falsifiable hypotheses, if we ever intend to discover unknown and exotic worlds.

Bite the bullet. It holds the sweet juice of anagnorisis.

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One common pattern that executes itself repeatedly in human history is the following loop:

Step 1. Individual (small-collection) nonconformism with prevailing philosophies and establishments.
Step 2. A successful nonconformist movement gaining establishment status.
Step 3. A different counter-culture looping back to Step 1.

The transition from Step 1 to Step 2 is curious. This is where large numbers of individuals consider themselves unique in their nonconformism. This is where people are occasionally surprised to learn that there already is an ‘ism’ in prevalent language for their espoused brand of antiestablishmentarianism.

One such contemporary phenomenon is self-proclaiming (in a sense) definition-defying postmodernism. (Although, I believe that it is now generally considered that we have left the postmodern era behind us, or are in the process of doing so.)

The following are excerpts from Paul Newall’s introduction to postmodernism:

” … we could say that postmodernism is skeptical of theoretical viewpoints that are foundational (as we discussed in our fifth article) or grounded in some way, and critical of theory in general. Sometimes a distinction is made along the following lines:
Affirmative postmodernists: theory needs to be changed, rather than rejected
Skeptical postmodernists: theory should be rejected, or at least subject to severe critique …”
“… Although we must be careful to over generalization or oversimplification, opposing modern to postmodern we have:

Structure opposed to anarchy
Construction opposed to deconstruction
Theory opposed to anti-theory
Interpretation opposed to hostility toward definite interpretation
Meaning opposed to the play of meaning or a refusal to pin down
Metanarratives opposed to hostility toward narratives
The search for underlying meaning opposed to a suspicion (or certainty) that this is impossible
Progress opposed to a doubt that progress is possible
Order opposed to subversion
Encyclopedic knowledge opposed to a web of understanding …”

“… Another telling criticism is to note that to be anti-theory is still to have a theory; that is, the theory that we shouldn’t have a theory. Rejecting the need for criteria (whatever their purpose) is still a criterion. Is it possible to be as playful as some suggest, not holding beliefs or methodological approaches and instead refusing to define or pin down narratives? How lightly can we hold our ideas before we end up either holding nothing at all or become certain of them without realising it? …”

“… Are long, complicated words being used as part of a specialist language or because postmodernists have nothing of consequence to say and want to hide this fact behind their rhetoric? Often the answer is a matter of opinion, or of saying that even a difficult writer can sometimes offer a comment clearly enough to raise an eyebrow before plunging back into a thicket of terminology. Since a key assumption of this series is that anything worth saying can be said clearly, it may be that some people are reluctant to wade into postmodernist thinking for fear that their time will be wasted; unless the writer is composing his thoughts merely for the amusement of himself and a few select friends, this is a difficulty that still restricts the impact that postmodern ideas can have. …

The following are excerpts from Richard Dawkins’ polemic on postmodernism: Postmodernism Disrobed reviewing the book “Intellectual Impostures”

Quoting Medawar: “… Style has become an object of first importance, and what a style it is! For me it has a prancing, high-stepping quality, full of self-importance; elevated indeed, but in the balletic manner, and stopping from time to time in studied attitudes, as if awaiting an outburst of applause. It has had a deplorable influence on the quality of modern thought . . .
and
“… No doubt there exist thoughts so profound that most of us will not understand the language in which they are expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how are we to tell the difference? What if it really takes an expert eye to detect whether the emperor has clothes? In particular, how shall we know whether the modish French ‘philosophy’, whose disciples and exponents have all but taken over large sections of American academic life, is genuinely profound or the vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans? …”
The following link leads you to a new, automatically generated “postmodern” article, each time: http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/
The postmodern mara-dragon has slippery and multi-speckled skin of indeterminate colour. It is said to spew flames of rhetoric with a hiss that is said to sound like “Who is to say?”.
The postmodern Rainman writes up a self-referenced, anti-structural, high-style null-truth-value (what is that?) interpret-me-if-you-dare write-up and gloats to his brother: “I made a falutin’! “.

Upon encountering passive and active resistance, and apathy regarding my persistent (- but I will be the first to note, of questionably formal precision -) focus on logic, rationality, limits, formalism: I ponder some more on the relationships of the above to emotions, building of opinions and changing of minds.

It was said that logic, formalism, rationality and evidence are all fine and dandy, but they do not comprise what it takes to influence minds into doing XYZ. It was said that people make up their minds, change them et. al. based on emotions and no strength of logic will get Joe/Jane to do something they wouldn’t do if it weren’t for another’s influence. In other words, an appeal to people’s reason is inconsequential. Shouting against the wind. Also, who is to say nonformal, haphazard, inconsistent or whimsical means, methods and frameworks do not contain truth or do not offer equally valid approaches at getting at answers.

There is a lot of truth in the above statements, and they contain little I would disagree with if presented as such. However, I have to state where logic, formalism, demonstration of evidence, appeal to reason etc. do play a role. Perhaps I will present this as a laundry list.

  • We are minds that do not start out with complete knowledge of everything. In other words, we need to learn to fill in the incompleteness in our knowledge.
  • We need to exchange information in order to learn.
  • If it were true that one needs to influence a mind in a write-only (or more write-only than read-write) fashion, then a formal system that uses logic, reasoning to build on established ideas and principles is probably not the most effective instrument.
  • I am more interested in the “read” part of “read-write” than in the “write” part.
  • The “read” part of “read-write” is important. This is what enables learning.
  • For the read part of read-write to be effective, demagoguery is not the right instrument. The below bullet-points on this.
  • If my mind were to provably advance in knowledge-update, it has to convey information to another mind in clear, transparent ways where the path traversed to labels are visible to the other mind. Elaboration in next bullet.
  • When a held position and its motivations are transparently exposed to another mind, that is when the other mind can offer checks and guidelines to further knowledge-update to my own mind. By occluding the traversed paths i.e. introducing any non-transparency, I may protect myself from criticism, but I will be stubbing out learning along that unexposed vector.
  • The above bullet point means that while an argument by emotion, or to emotion, such as appeal to emotion may hold truth value and may convey truth to a mind, this truth value may not be establishable in a framework where the path-transparency is guaranteed. In other words, this truth that may be felt is not provable leading to lack of transparency, leading to lack of utility in further guaranteeable knowledge update.
  • This is why, while a statement such as “I’ll vote for Clinton, because I feel good about her” may hold intrinsic appeal and may be above reproach, and that is how people may decide on their voting, its intercommunicability-value with another mind is low. Lack of transparency means lack of communicability on a commonly establishable basis.
  • The role of logic, formalism and reasoning is to provide a framework which if accepted by minds engaging in answer-seeking, lead to establishable ideas the trails to which remain transparent, and further provide transparent trails to other ideas following the same system that led to the labeling of intermediate nodes.
  • This, in my opinion is the value of reasoning and frameworks. It is “establishability” of meaning that can be held common across minds.