Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Chris Port Blog #262. “The truth of any statement depends upon its purpose.”

The following post is an extract from a comment trail on Blog #260. A Reply to Reductionism and Sloppy Thinking at http://martygull.blogspot.com/2011/05/chris-port-blog-260-reply-to.html.

If you have a spare day, I would recommend reading through all the other posts referenced. If, however, efficiency drives require that you have little or no time to think for yourself, the following comments stand reasonably well out of context as a snapshot of how philosophy works (not to be confused with pedantry, which just covers ignorance). Believe it or not, philosophy is work (bloody hard work sometimes). Back in the days of wisdom, it used to be quite well paid too…

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ADAM: Were the scope of your definition of 'Philosophy' not erroneous, it could still not be said that I hate "wisdom", only that I hate "love of wisdom". Even this is a more reasonable position than the strawman you've erected, since love is irrelevant to the importance of wisdom. However, I would reject this definition as an etymological fallacy.

The null hypothesis to which I refer would attempt to falsify any positive claim regarding the influence of a god over natural phenomena. In the absence of evidence for such a claim, all we're left with is an atheistic position. This requires no affirmative belief.

P.S If you wish to sit down, a chair CAN just be a chair.

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ME: Thanks for your follow-up comments Adam. I suspect from your tone that this is not so much a Platonic dialogue as the law of diminishing returns, so please take note of my request for a decent joke…

In response to your criticisms:

‘Scope of definition’ and ‘erroneousness’

There are many working definitions for philosophy. Etymological origins are often a useful place to start, but not an interesting place to finish. My own favourite working definition of philosophy is ‘thinking about thinking’. I like this definition because it clarifies a common misconception. Philosophy is not so much a subject for study as an activity in its own right. Philosophy is something we do. It is not the study of wisdom but the act of becoming wise.

The extent to which a philosopher ‘acquires’ wisdom (a profoundly arguable and, I would argue, unmeasurable concept) depends upon the extent to which they engage with the activity. That is why I regard scientific reductionism as unwise when applied to the wrong ‘language game’.

A good scientist is a sceptic, plodding methodically towards a ‘Promised Land’ of positivist certainty. They view semantics with suspicion as quicksand.

A good philosopher knows that this ‘Promised Land’ is a myth. The journey never ends (and even if it did we would only find more quicksand there). Thinking always brings its own quicksand.

Leaping with surreal quickness from the ‘desert of the real’ to the sea of politics, philosophers are the ultimate boat-rockers. That is why people in sinking boats are so intolerant of thinkers. This metaphor has some worrying implications. The more people shout down sophists (in the pre-Socratic sense) as specious (in the post-Socratic sense) the more likely it is that we’re in trouble…

‘Hating wisdom’ and hating ‘love of wisdom’

Is there any meaningful difference here?

If we replace ‘wisdom’ with ‘money’, then yes there is. I would ‘love’ (be very pleased) to have money to do ‘good’ things in the world. So I do not hate money.

However, many of the ‘bad’ things in the world seem to be attributable to some people valuing money over human beings. I ‘hate’ (am deeply unhappy and angry with) this state of affairs.

So it would be correct to say that I do not hate money but that I do hate the love of money. In this language game, the two phrasings are not equivalent.

Returning now to wisdom (deep understanding) is it possible to hate the ‘love’ of wisdom while not hating wisdom? I think not.

Clearly wisdom is not the same as money (although the pre-Socratic sophists would argue otherwise). Money has no inherent moral worth. It can be put to good use or bad use. It is a means to an end.

The ‘love’ of money is valuing the means above the end and is thus a ‘bad’ thing. That is why people tend to envy wealth but despise misers.

However, in the case of wisdom, the means is the end. Deep understanding may be put to good use, but it is also regarded as inherently valuable in its own right.

Therefore, I would claim that the two phrases are equivalent. It would be contradictory to say that one hated the ‘love of wisdom’ while ‘loving’ wisdom itself. Philosophy is the activity of becoming wise, not the possession of wisdom.

Therefore, if you say that you hate philosophy, you are claiming to hate the activity of becoming wise. Since the activity is the wisdom, this is equivalent to saying that you hate wisdom. I stand by my abbreviation.

Wisdom and money (or whatever other term you may wish to substitute) are different language games. The rules of grammar and logic may be pseudo-fixed or repetitive (although they do evolve) but meanings can change in an instant depending on the context.

‘Love is irrelevant to the importance of wisdom’

This statement is so stupefyingly crass that I think I’ll just quote Richard Feynman then leave you to find out a bit more about life…

“Physics isn't the most important thing. Love is.” (Richard Feynman)

“Tell your son to stop trying to fill your head with science - for to fill your heart with love is enough.” (Richard Feynman)

“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn't matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don't think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn't stop you from doing anything at all.” (Richard Feynman)

‘Straw man’

Abbreviation of pedantry and unfair caricature are not the same thing. On the grounds of the above elaborations, I reject the ‘straw man’ accusation and hold his mirror up to your own scant critique.

‘If you wish to sit down, a chair CAN just be a chair.’

A chair is a chair is a chair. But is it just a chair? Look at it more closely, and the ‘chair’ disappears. It’s ‘just’ atoms. Look at atoms closely… and you’re looking at a very different ‘reality’…

A chair may be used in various ways, but is primarily designed to be sat upon. Is this the same as claiming that design, utility and ontology are equivalent? Be careful here. This line of argument can get you into philosophical quicksand quicker than ‘God’.

If a chair is used for another purpose (e.g. standing on to change a light bulb) is it still a chair? I would say yes because I still recognize it and label it as such. So does that now mean that a chair isn’t defined by its use but by its form? This can also get you into all kinds of philosophical difficulties.

The real focus of the ‘chair’ example is not the chair itself, or the various uses to which we can put it, but the ‘truth’ of the chair - in particular whether ‘truth’ is consistent (like maths) or context-specific (like language).

Chairs are a bit like language games here. Sometimes we just use ‘the truth’ without thinking. Sometimes we think of different purposes for it.

“The truth of any statement depends upon its purpose.” (Bertolt Brecht)

“There is no such thing as a fact. There are only stories. Choose different facts, and you get a different story...” (Marty Gull)

Beware of taking analogies too literally. It’s the thinking that’s important, not the bloody chair. You can sit on the ground for all I care (although it wasn’t intelligently designed for this purpose…)

The ‘Null Hypothesis’ and the ‘Atheistic Position’

As I’ve said before, I’m guessing you’re a reductionist. Reductionism makes for good science but lousy philosophy.

See ‘category errors’ and God’s Null Hypothesis: The Banana Skin on the Pavement…

As I’ve also said before, going by the reductionist pedantry of your observations, I don’t think you actually know what you’re talking about. In essence your language games are context-vague and boring. If I was a pre-Socratic sophist, I would charge you a fortune for some of the wise activities I’ve suggested. I would again suggest that you do the reading and thinking that I’ve indicated, then come back with some context-specific language games. Or at least come back with a decent joke ;)


  1. From the The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (Official) Facebook page. A classic example of how empiricists can get themselves into trouble without metaphysical perspective...

    [Original post]: "I have just had a thought that may bear some examination and may be a problem for theists, though they will have a facile way out. It has just occurred to me that Mathematics is something that exists in effect outside of the universe and simply is. Completely immutable, absolute, existent before time or the big bang, defining everything there after, and built upon rock solid axioms. Like “god” Mathematics is eternal and self existent though sadly has offered no opinion as to how Noah should have built the ark."

    [My reply]: The word ‘exist’ may be leading you astray here. Mathematics is the study of quantity, structure, space, and change. It is overwhelmingly probable that these phenomena exist independently of our minds. However, mathematics is the study of the phenomena, not the phenomena themselves. Mathematics is the attribution of consistency in the mind. The universe itself is as indifferent to mathematics as it is to beauty. Without consciousness, mathematics would not exist.

  2. [My response to a subsequent post that "the universe is mathematics made function"...]

    I think that you may be falling into a classic teleological trap (getting things back to front).

    Teleology is the supposition that there is purpose or direction in natural processes. To say that “the universe is mathematics made function” is to infer that mathematics preceded the universe, and that the ‘purpose’ of the universe is to give mathematics physical form.

    I would argue that in reality it is completely the other way around. The universe came first. Mathematics is our expression of patterns that we observe in it. These patterns are relationships attributed by our minds, not inherent properties. The only inherent properties of the universe are the four basic force charges and the ways in which they interact with each other. Everything else in the universe is an ‘emergent property’ rather than an expression of function.

  3. "... as far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality." ~ Albert Einstein.

  4. [Subsequent post: “… how do you solve the problem of unity out of the diversities when it comes to logic/math? If we are contriving these realities [individually] how do they work as a unity?”]

    [My response]: It’s a fascinating area of study. Does the recurrence of similar patterns in different systems suggest a metaphysical role for mathematics? The problem then would be an inference that physical forms are an expression of mathematical functions…

    My initial solution to this ‘problem’ is simply to suggest that there is no problem!

    Starting from the four fundamental forces, why shouldn’t localized systems arrive at similar ‘solutions’, even at different scales? The diversity of emergent properties is the result of slight inhomogeneities in the quantum state of the early universe. Time, expansion and chaotic (complex) interactions have provided a wide variety of phenomena for us to study. We use mathematics to model their forms and behaviour. Some physicists have even speculated that chaos theory may give rise to new ‘emergent’ laws of physics, but the gist of String/’M’ Theory seems to be that all matter and energy is just variations on a fundamental theme.

    Unity in diversity only seems to be a problem if you think that this is an underlying ‘design’ feature. I would cite the Weak Anthropic principle and say “That’s just the way it is, otherwise we wouldn’t be here to see it”.

    As a very simple example, many different types of forces tend to be transmitted equally in all spatial directions. One consequence of this ubiquitous behaviour is that the pattern of a circle or sphere is likely to recur throughout nature at different scales. If mathematics starts to develop self-consistent variations on the component relationships of circles and spheres, it shouldn’t really surprise us if we start to discover more and more apparent similarities in different phenomena. Basically, the more complex mathematics becomes, the more opportunities it creates to find patterns. That’s what maths is designed to do.

    Whether this recurrence of patterns suggests anything deeper actually leads us away from numbers towards language and metaphysical discussions (which I suspect you wish to avoid!). For example, if I was to claim that the ubiquitous recurrence of ‘God’ in different localized cultures inferred that there must be something like ‘God’ in nature, I suspect you would retort that all it actually reveals is people’s general urge to invent explanations. A diversity of religions does not make a unity in a deity.

    Once the concept of ‘God’ is invented, this can lead us into all sorts of teleological traps. I would say that ‘unity in diversity’ is actually just another variation on this theme. We invent a notation designed to find patterns. We then map that notation on to the physical universe. We are then surprised to find recurring patterns in the notation. I don’t think that’s a problem. I think that’s what we were looking for, so we found it.


    Mathematics - Unity in Diversity

    The Significance of Unity and Diversity for the Disciplines of Mathematics and Physics

    Functions and Mathematics

  5. [Subsequent post: “Nice Google. Now, please explain how, if we are [individually] [making] mathematical truths, subjectively, how they are united into a coherent [objective] system."]

    [My response]: Because that's what we've designed the system to do. If it's not consistent, its not maths. You're starting to slip into Wittgenstein's 'category errors'.

    Mathematics (unlike language) is specifically designed to be consistent and coherent. The universe, by existing, is coherent. The ‘laws’ of physics are consistent and (quantum theory of gravity aside) mostly coherent down to the Planck scale. To map a coherent system onto a coherent universe, then claim that the universe is somehow a manifestation of the system, is to confuse two different categories of coherence. They are physically unrelated. They just look similar. Fortunately, the consistency and coherence of our mathematical system enables us to make testable predictions about the consistency and coherence of physical systems. There is a ‘family resemblance’ concept at work here. But they are not the same thing at all.

  6. [Subsequent post: “You didn't answer the question, my friend;)"]

    [My response]: I have answered it. I've just not answered it on the terms you've suggested ;)

    Coherence gets more ‘fuzzy’ at the quantum scale. Quantum mechanics is the most consistently accurate scientific theory ever devised. Heisenberg was dismissive of attempts to understand what was ‘physically’ going on. As far as he was concerned, all that could be claimed about quantum mechanics was that the maths worked. The uncertainty principle, and the strange interference of measurement and even consciousness on quantum level 'events'/probability waveforms, are still profoundly incomprehensible to us. As a lyricist physicist, I derive a wry satisfaction from this. Maths is designed to be ‘perfect’, yet the universe (so far) eludes perfect notation. There is, of course, no such thing as an objective system.

  7. [Subsequent post: “Great! Can't answer, so you pull the old QM card....gotta love it!"]

    [My response]: All roads lead to foam...

    Although (strictly speaking) non-sequiturs, you may find the following 'family resemblance' posts amusing when pondering some of the discrepancies between numbers and 'reality'...

    Marty Gull - Targets

    Monkey Dust - Government School Targets


    Sam Harris (world famous neuroscientist philosopher) is offering his critics a chance to put up or shut up. He's offered a cash prize of $20,000 (about £12,800) to anyone who can convincingly refute his central argument for a scientific morality.

    Assuming no-one can refute him, there's a consolation prize of $2,000 (about £1,280) for the most interesting response.

    See FAQs in link for further details. Closing date for entries is 9 February 2014, so you've got time to buy his book and boost his royalties.


    Hmmm… Traditionally, science has been regarded as descriptive and morality as prescriptive. But science is also predictive. So, in Sam’s moral landscape, do good* predictions = good** prescriptions?

    * Falsifiable
    ** Beneficial

    Possibly. But if they’re truly equivalent, does it work vice versa? This leads out onto some very thin ice…

    The real question is always “Cui bono” (to whose benefit?). So I suspect that Sam’s thesis could only be refuted by reference to de facto cynicism rather than de jure principle (i.e. selectivity and performativity)


    I don’t actually want to refute Sam’s thesis (fortunately for me). I just want to qualify it (modesty is my only flaw). But, in order to qualify it, I’ll have to fail to refute it in a way that grabs his interest. So, all I’m really looking for is a fascinating aesthetic conundrum at the heart of his argument…

    See also:

    Can Science Answer Moral Questions?

    First Draft PhD Proposal

    Woolwich Threads

    A Crash Course in Aesthetics

    Metamodernist Case Notes on a Think Tank Thread: Why Us and Why Now?

    Notes on Metamodernism: The Pit and the Pendulum...

    The Name of the Ghost

    Teachers Talking Rot (1 of 2)

    Teachers Talking Rot (2 of 2)

    See also: "Perhaps description is the key?"

    Marty Solves One of the Problems of the Universe

  9. WG: If morality evolved for the purpose of fostering community, can we deduce anything about what is moral/immoral without committing the naturalistic fallacy? If so, what?

    Naturalistic fallacy

    CP: Assuming evolution (and discounting intelligent design) we would be committing a teleological fallacy if we claimed that morality evolved for any purpose.

    See Teleological Argument

    It would be less erroneous if we simply claimed that community evolved as a successful survival strategy. From this we can deduce that morality evolved from a natural hierarchical pecking order into etiquette.

    See Etiquette

    The problem of the 'Naturalistic Fallacy' arises because of a manmade distinction between natural and manmade.

    This distinction seems to be an inverted form of the anthropomorphic/pathetic fallacy.

    See Pathetic Fallacy

    Man (i.e. homo sapiens) evolved IN the natural world. However, our intelligence evolved as another successful survival strategy. Eventually, this sapient differential resulted in misrecognition. We began to see ourselves as SEPARATE from the natural world.

    However, this separation is a fallacy. In (physical) reality, sentience is an emergent phenomenon. The artificial is still part of the natural world.

    From our initial premises, we can deduce that morality (i.e. evolved etiquette) can only exist in higher level consciousness. Therefore, we can deduce that morality is a complex emergent property.

    After that, we can only deduce that we are playing Wittgensteinian language games.

    See Language-game (philosophy)

    In 'The Moral Landscape', Sam Harris proposes we should discard cultural relativism and quantify these language games in terms of 'the well-being of conscious creatures'. It's a logical deduction and a valid premise.

    See 'The Moral Landscape'

    Whether his arguments are sound is still up for grabs though.


    CP: If morality is ‘the well-being of conscious creatures’, then consciousness must precede well-being.

    This is a one-way logic gate. We can talk of consciousness without well-being, but it makes no sense to talk of well-being without consciousness.

    Ergo, existence must precede essence (sans Sartrean Free Will).

    Ergo, survival must precede morality.

    But survival of what? Individuals, communities, genes, or memes?

    These qualities are entangled and interdependent. But which is most important?

    Ironically, we cannot be equitable from first principle here. Unfortunately, we do not live in a deathless paradise. Therefore, in the physical universe, we can only talk of survival and morality in terms of priorities (e.g. dilemmas or conflicts of interest).

    The scientific method can quantify well-being. But can it qualify existential priorities? If not, then a scientific morality without aesthetic qualification has no system of prioritization.

    Ergo, does ‘scientific morality’ encounter similar inconsistencies to those identified in Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems?

    Raatikainen, Panu, "Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)