Friday, July 18, 2008

Shall we talk Philospphy?

Its around 3:57 AM, IST, friday evening(or saturday early morning, to be precise), without a drink and writing about philosophy. Sounds strange or sounds familiar? Well, i am not blaming my lack of nocturnal activities of any kind on a friday evening for this, but the fact that these days i am kept busy reading (or re-reading ) some interesting works of plato and aristotle. Anyway, let me get back to the point of discussion : Philosophy.

When i was in school, I decided I wanted to study philosophy, at some point. But then, practical aspects of life and money, sort of made it impossible to take up philosophical studies, as a serious subject in this country. I followed the other sheeps around my school, went into an engineering college and all that. But what is important here is, I had several motives, some more honorable than others. One of the less honorable was to shock people. You know, Schools and Colleges is always regarded (or atleast i did) as job training where I grew up. So studying philosophy seemed an impressively impractical thing to do. Sort of like slashing holes in your clothes or putting a board pin through your ear,belly, and your tongue which were other forms of impressive impracticality then just coming into fashion.

But I had some more honest motives as well. I thought studying philosophy would be a shortcut straight to wisdom. You know, all my friends would just end up with some "specific" domain knowledge, based on their coursework. But, I would be learning what was really what.

I'd tried to read a few philosophy books. Not recent ones; But I tried to read Plato and Aristotle. I doubt I believed I understood them, but they sounded like they were talking about something important. Honestly, I learned a lot in my Real Ananlysis class, but I didn't learn much from these gentlemen. And yet my plan to study philosophy remained intact. It was my fault I hadn't learned anything. Then, i was sugested Berkley by someone(dont remember who). I did give Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge another shot in college. Anything so admired and so difficult to read must have something in it, if one could only figure out what. I still don't understand Berkeley, after almost a decade now. I have a nice edition of his collected works. Will I ever read it? Seems unlikely. The difference between then and now is that now I understand why Berkeley is probably not worth trying to understand. I think I see now what went wrong with philosophy, and how we might fix it.

Philosophy doesn't really have a subject matter in the way math or history or most other university subjects do. There is no core of knowledge one must master. The closest you come to that is a knowledge of what various individual philosophers have said about different topics over the years. Few were sufficiently correct that people have forgotten who discovered what they discovered.

Heard of Formal Logic? It does seem to me very important to be able to flip ideas around in one's head: to see when two ideas don't fully cover the space of possibilities, or when one idea is the same as another but with a couple things changed. But did studying logic teach me the importance of thinking this way, or make me any better at it? I don't know.

There are things I know I learned from studying philosophy. The most dramatic I learned immediately that I don't exist. I am (and you are) a collection of cells that lurches around driven by various forces, and calls itself I. But there's no central, indivisible thing that your identity goes with. You could conceivably lose half your brain and live. Which means your brain could conceivably be split into two halves and each transplanted into different bodies. Imagine waking up after such an operation. You have to imagine being two people.

The real lesson here is that the concepts we use in everyday life are fuzzy, and break down if pushed too hard. Even a concept as dear to us as I. It took me a while to grasp this, but when I did it was fairly sudden, like someone in the nineteenth century grasping evolution and realizing the story of creation they'd been told as a child was all wrong. [1] Outside of math there's a limit to how far you can push words; in fact, it would not be a bad definition of math to call it the study of terms that have precise meanings. Everyday words are inherently imprecise. They work well enough in everyday life that you don't notice. Words seem to work, just as Newtonian physics seems to. But you can always make them break if you push them far enough.

I would say that this has been, unfortunately for philosophy, the central fact of philosophy. Most philosophical debates are not merely afflicted by but driven by confusions over words. Do we have free will? Depends what you mean by "free." Do abstract ideas exist? Depends what you mean by "exist."

This brings me to an interesting question. How did things get this way? Can something people have spent thousands of years studying really be a waste of time?In fact, some of the most interesting questions you can ask about philosophy. The most valuable way to approach the current philosophical tradition may be neither to get lost in pointless speculations like Berkeley, nor to shut them down, but to study it as an example of reason gone wrong.

Western philosophy really begins with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.There started to be a lot more analysis. I suspect Plato and Aristotle were encouraged in this by progress in math. Mathematicians had by then shown that you could figure things out in a much more conclusive way than by making up fine sounding stories about them. [2]
People talk so much about abstractions now that we don't realize what a leap it must have been when they first started to. It was presumably many thousands of years between when people first started describing things as hot or cold and when someone asked "what is heat?" No doubt it was a very gradual process.Aristotle in particular reminds me of the phenomenon that happens when people discover something new, and are so excited by it that they race through a huge percentage of the newly discovered territory in one lifetime. If so, that's evidence of how new this kind of thinking was. [3] Something similar happened when people first started trying to talk about abstractions. Much to their surprise, they didn't arrive at answers they agreed upon. In fact, they rarely seemed to arrive at answers at all.They were in effect arguing about artifacts induced by sampling at too low a resolution.

Lets just step back to see what really was the goal then. Aristotle's goal, for instance was to find the most general of general principles. The examples he gives are convincing: an ordinary worker builds things a certain way out of habit; a master craftsman can do more because he grasps the underlying principles. The trend is clear: the more general the knowledge, the more admirable it is. But then he makes a mistake—possibly the most important mistake in the history of philosophy. He has noticed that theoretical knowledge is often acquired for its own sake, out of curiosity, rather than for any practical need. So he proposes there are two kinds of theoretical knowledge: some that's useful in practical matters and some that isn't. Since people interested in the latter are interested in it for its own sake, it must be more noble. So he sets as his goal in the Metaphysics the exploration of knowledge that has no practical use. Which means no alarms go off when he takes on grand but vaguely understood questions and ends up getting lost in a sea of words.

His mistake was to confuse motive and result. Certainly, people who want a deep understanding of something are often driven by curiosity rather than any practical need. But that doesn't mean what they end up learning is useless.So while ideas don't have to have immediate practical applications to be interesting, the kinds of things we find interesting will surprisingly often turn out to have practical applications.That's what makes theoretical knowledge prestigious. It's also what causes smart people to be curious about certain things and not others; our DNA is not so disinterested as we might think.The reason Aristotle didn't get anywhere in the Metaphysics was partly that he set off with contradictory aims: to explore the most abstract ideas, guided by the assumption that they were useless.

So, is there a problem?
And since his work became the map used by generations of future explorers, he sent them off in the wrong direction as well. [4] Perhaps worst of all, he protected them from both the criticism of outsiders and the promptings of their own inner compass by establishing the principle that the most noble sort of theoretical knowledge had to be useless.

The Metaphysics is mostly a failed experiment. A few ideas from it turned out to be worth keeping; the bulk of it has had no effect at all. The Metaphysics is among the least read of all famous books. It's not hard to understand the way Newton's Principia is, but the way a garbled message is.

In the intervening years an unfortunate idea took hold: that it was not only acceptable to produce works like the Metaphysics, but that it was a particularly prestigious line of work, done by a class of people called philosophers. No one thought to go back and debug Aristotle's motivating argument. And so instead of correcting the problem Aristotle discovered by falling into it—that you can easily get lost if you talk too loosely about very abstract ideas—they continued to fall into it.

If you write in an unclear way about big ideas, you produce something that seems tantalizingly attractive to inexperienced but intellectually ambitious students. Till one knows better, it's hard to distinguish something that's hard to understand because the writer was unclear in his own mind from something like a mathematical proof that's hard to understand because the ideas it represents are hard to understand. To someone who hasn't learned the difference, traditional philosophy seems extremely attractive: as hard (and therefore impressive) as math, yet broader in scope. That was what lured me in as a high school student.So, whats even worse is, When things are hard to understand, people who suspect they're nonsense generally keep quiet. There's no way to prove a text is meaningless. The closest you can get is to show that the official judges of some class of texts can't distinguish them from placebos. [5]
ecause philosophy's flaws turned away the sort of people who might have corrected them, they tended to be self-perpetuating.

So, is there a solution?
Here's an intriguing possibility. Perhaps we should do what Aristotle meant to do, instead of what he did. The goal he announces in the Metaphysics seems one worth pursuing: to discover the most general truths. That sounds good. But instead of trying to discover them because they're useless, let's try to discover them because they're useful.Lets use, applicability, as a guide to keep us from wondering off into a swamp of abstractions. Instead of trying to answer the question:

What are the most general truths?

let's try to answer the question

Of all the useful things we can say, which are the most general?

The goal is the same as Aristotle's; we just approach it from a different direction.

As an example of a useful, general idea, consider that of the controlled experiment. There's an idea that has turned out to be widely applicable. Some might say it's part of science, but it's not part of any specific science; it's literally meta-physics (in our sense of "meta"). The idea of evolution is another. It turns out to have quite broad applications—for example, in genetic algorithms and even product design. Frankfurt's distinction between lying and bullshitting seems a promising recent example. [6]

These seem to me what philosophy should look like: quite general observations that would cause someone who understood them to do something differently.

One drawback of this approach is that it won't produce the sort of writing that gets you tenure. And not just because it's not currently the fashion.Here's the exciting thing, though. Anyone can do this.

If it seems like a daunting task to do philosophy, here's an encouraging thought. hough the first philosophers in the western tradition lived about 2500 years ago, it would be misleading to say the field is 2500 years old, because for most of that time the leading practitioners weren't doing much more than writing commentaries on Plato or Aristotle while watching over their shoulders for the next invading army. It didn't shake itself free till a couple hundred years ago, and even then was afflicted by the structural problems I've described above.If I say this, some will say it's a ridiculously overbroad and uncharitable generalization, and others will say it's old news, but here goes: judging from their works, most philosophers up to the present have been wasting their time. So in a sense the field is still at the first step. [7]

Hmm... That sounds a preposterous claim to make. Civilization always seems old, because it's always the oldest it's ever been. The only way to say whether something is really old or not is by looking at structural evidence, and structurally philosophy is young; it's still reeling from the unexpected breakdown of words.

Philosophy is as young now as math was in 1500. There is a lot more to discover.

Notes and References

[1] It was harder for Darwin's contemporaries to grasp this than we can easily imagine. The story of creation in the Bible is not just a Judeo-Christian concept; it's roughly what everyone must have believed since before people were people. The hard part of grasping evolution was to realize that species weren't, as they seem to be, unchanging, but had instead evolved from different, simpler organisms over unimaginably long periods of time.

Now we don't have to make that leap. No one in an industrialized country encounters the idea of evolution for the first time as an adult. Everyone's taught about it as a child, either as truth or heresy.

[2] Philosophy is like math's ne'er-do-well brother. It was born when Plato and Aristotle looked at the works of their predecessors and said in effect "why can't you be more like your brother?" Russell was still saying the same thing 2300 years later.

Math is the precise half of the most abstract ideas, and philosophy the imprecise half. It's probably inevitable that philosophy will suffer by comparison, because there's no lower bound to its precision. Bad math is merely boring, whereas bad philosophy is nonsense. And yet there are some good ideas in the imprecise half.

[3] Aristotle's best work was in logic and zoology, both of which he can be said to have invented. But the most dramatic departure from his predecessors was a new, much more analytical style of thinking. He was arguably the first scientist.

[4] The meaning of the word "philosophy" has changed over time. In ancient times it covered a broad range of topics, comparable in scope to our "scholarship" (though without the methodological implications). Even as late as Newton's time it included what we now call "science." But core of the subject today is still what seemed to Aristotle the core: the attempt to discover the most general truths.

Aristotle didn't call this "metaphysics." That name got assigned to it because the books we now call the Metaphysics came after (meta = after) the Physics in the standard edition of Aristotle's works compiled by Andronicus of Rhodes three centuries later. What we call "metaphysics" Aristotle called "first philosophy."

[5] Sokal, Alan, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity".
[6] Frankfurt, Harry, On Bullshit, Princeton University Press.

[7] Some introductions to philosophy now take the line that philosophy is worth studying as a process rather than for any particular truths you'll learn. The philosophers whose works they cover would be rolling in their graves at that. They hoped they were doing more than serving as examples of how to argue: they hoped they were getting results. Most were wrong, but it doesn't seem an impossible hope.

This argument seems to me like someone in 1500 looking at the lack of results achieved by alchemy and saying its value was as a process. No, they were going about it wrong. It turns out it is possible to transmute lead into gold (though not economically at current energy prices), but the route to that knowledge was to backtrack and try another approach.


Anomalizer said...

May you have better nocutrnal activities to engage in rather than write such stuff!

Pallavi Damera said...

Hey nice article there... really enjoyed reading it. Having taken Mordern Alzebra in my Undergrad, I loved the math-philosophy comparison part... .Also liked the cool observation: impressive impracticality = fashionable