My philosophical position and how I reached it
and philosophy's most important unsolved problem
"My work is near its end, and the time has come when I can survey it as a whole... I have lived in pursuit of a vision, both personal and social. Personal: to care for what is noble, for what is beautiful, for what is gentle; to allow moments of insight to give wisdom at more mundane times. Social: to see in imagination the society that is to be created, where individuals grow freely, and where hate and greed and envy die because there is nothing to nourish them. These things I believe, and the world, for all its horrors, has left me unshaken." - Bertrand Russell, from the serialisation of his autobiography published in "The Listener" (UK) in late 1970 or early 1971.
My philosophical outlook derives from three main sources – flashes of insight, weighing up arguments presented in the literature and thinking things out for myself. Needless to say, I have received no formal training in philosophy or logic. It was my mother who started me off: she had been reading some of the Penguin series on philosophers during my teens and I soon followed suit.
Attaining a strong philosophical position depends on having original ideas and experiences – original, that is, for oneself. It doesn’t matter that someone else has had the same or similar ideas, perhaps centuries before you. What matters is that you create or discover the ideas and experiences for yourself, or at least get the feeling of having done so. You need to have one or more major “Aha!” or “Eureka!” moments in your life – exhilarating flashes of revelation or inspiration in contrast to the stuff you find in books or spend hours constructing. Of course, you still need to scrutinise such insights methodically and guardedly, to avoid being hypnotised by absurdities.
I well remember my most important “Aha!” moment, very many years ago whilst driving a car along one of those winding Devonshire country lanes, when I suddenly realised that not only sensations (like colours and smells) are entirely mental, but so are space, time and force, so far as they are experienced by us. Very soon afterwards I realised that our various senses and the ways we interact with the world actually provide very different impressions of space (etc), and I wondered what holds these impressions together, to form a single coherent idea of space – an underlying, theoretical or “real” space.
An answer was not long in coming, when one day it occurred to me that space consists of nothing but mathematical relations - at the time an obvious conjecture, which I still believe to be valid, after certain adjustments. There is no reality “in between” what we experience and this mathematical complex, either out there or inside ourselves. Occam's razor dismisses them (rather messily, as I now think). The same applies to time and force. Essentially the "real" universe is a purely mathematical structure, and since we can comprehend this only through our brains, the human brain must to some extent reflect this structure. Later on I came to believe that reality has finite bounds which somehow depend on the architecture of mathematics, and, conversely, that the whole of mathematics itself is finite (so infinitudes and various other mathematical devices are fictional – they exist only as meaningless tokens). In this sense, mathematics is “empirical”. Of course my favourite philosopher, Immanuel Kant (in particular various interpretations of his masterpiece "Critique of Pure Reason"), and other idealists had helped me to these conclusions.
The central element of Kant’s treatise is neatly summarised by Ray Monk (writing on Russel) in “The Great Philosophers”, Ed Monk & Raphael, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2000, p. 266. But Monk, in line with prevailing philosophical opinion, then proceeds to cast doubt on Kant’s brainchild with remarks which in my judgment are peripheral to the crucial point - that our working concept of space and time is a purely mental construction, whose form is in fact essentially Euclidean/Newtonian. (In modern times similar ideas have been put forward in different terms, while neuroscience, despite its uncompromising materialism, now provides so much support for this picture that one might find it hard to dismiss.)
Recently I have come to appreciate the significance of language in this organisational power of the mind. Language does not merely reflect facts, it plays an important part in creating them by imposing its structural properties upon our interpretation of reality. And so I have come to merge my "Kantian" outlook with Chomsky's view of innate brain/mind structures (not only language structure), combined with an evolutionary component (Kant was pre-Darwinian) that could be described as "parallel structural emergence" - simplistically, reality as perceived by the human mind has emerged as the structuralising capacity of the brain has evolved, with a kind of continuous feedback from this reality to brain development, on an evolutionary scale. Not forgetting that individual brains (and their environments) vary widely, so their personal realities also differ.
A consequence of this position, so far as it goes, is that you should be able to glean something of the structure of the universe by studying pure mathematics, and conversely you should be able to learn something about the limits of mathematics from empirical observations of the universe. I have also suggested that you might be able to modify aspects of the universe by constructing sufficiently complex mathematical models. I guess there are now better ways of describing this broad concept, enlightened by recent advances in maths and neurology. For example, an interesting development in mathematics has been the study of cellular automata, showing how complex structures can evolve from very simple initial conditions and rules, and can be used to simulate real-life events.
Regardless of the foregoing, for other reasons I do not believe in the philosophical (as opposed to anthropocentric) primacy of physical objects extended in space and time and resent the confinement of most philosophers' ingenuity to this world view. Amongst other things, it has led to the development of an extraordinarily shuttered "standard logic", even in the face of quantum theory, which clearly doesn't comply with its rules.
I would like to see it replaced by a system such as the one outlined here. In its basic form this system removes the divisions "between operations, relations and proper subsets, between subject and predicate, between affirmative and subordinate locutions (e.g. swans are white and white swans), between 'existing' and 'non-existing' things, and between things, stuff and attributes (e.g. swans, water and whiteness)".
Another kind of insight comes from thoughtful reading. It usually takes the form of realising that many of the words one reads have little depth of meaning, or that apparently opposed viewpoints are really similar, just expressed in different words. A simple (if not simplistic) example that comes to mind is Berkeley versus Locke (they were not contemporaries). While Locke explains the continuum of experiences in terms of matter, Berkeley explains it in terms of the mind of God. But the difference between matter and the mind of God is never made clear, and neither has much explanatory power. One simply goes for the terminology that has the most relevant connotations and connections. For me, “matter” sounds more practical and less superfluous than God, but I still don’t really know what it is. Maybe the utility of matter is all that matters, maybe it “really is” more like an idea or maybe, as I’m inclined to think, it’s an aspect of that grand mathematical structure that includes space, time and various forces. But it also seems to be an aspect of "thrust" (see below) and in that respect it is experiential, and unable to explain the existence of unperceived objects.
A third kind of insight comes from stepping outside the box and observing things from afar. It pays to try to get outside the local picture, the framework in which your thoughts are confined. A lot of things will then seem trivial, and a lot of things that seemed disconnected will suddenly become connected. Seeing the larger picture brings unity into your life, an extra dimension of understanding, a sense of who you are, a realisation that nothing is certain or necessary and an ability to handle (if not dismiss) the “small stuff”. (Well, I might have to retract the last one: a person trying to fathom the big stuff finds the small stuff irritating.) It was my reading, during my teens, of the popular British philosopher and aviation engineer, J.W. Dunne, that taught me how to step outside the picture, although his aims were questionable.
There are many problems which insight appears unable to resolve, but whose puzzling nature it throws into perspective. An example is outlined in a footnote to this page.
These revelations might seem to mark me as primarily an idealist. On the contrary, until very recently I strongly believed that truths are establishable only in terms of clear, objective criteria. All "idealist" language seems to depend on "objective" assumptions - for example the assumption that a person is a body (whatever that means) that interacts with its environment (whatever that means). The fact that our knowledge of the world as experienced is interpretative doesn't make the world any less objective, independent or real, or provide grounds for talking as if we live in a dream. The world as experienced is dominated by thrust (that from which a conscious person cannot escape). This fact alone really makes me an existentialist, in the Sartrean sense, for I find it difficult not to believe that "existence precedes essence". However, the underlying reality may not be as we imagine. It could be nothing but a mathematical structure. At the same time, I don’t think we should recoil from calling the world as we perceive it “real”. For us, this is reality, this is our entire life and being. On top of this, I don't give credence to any kind of reductionism whereby statements about primarily mental phenomena can be reformulated as statements about primarily physical phenomena, or vice versa (See below).
In short, my "metaphysical" outlook is multifaceted, taking on board a number of attitudes often considered irrelevant to one another, if not incompatible, but in fact all interconnected and essential fuel for any "proper" philosopher - as I have tried to explain, rather naively, in Wotser Proper Filossofer?. But despite my best efforts, I have never managed to escape the clutches of dualism (every philosopher worth his salt aims to become a monist). This mind-set derives from Cartesian dualism which, in the 20th century, was attacked by Gilbert Ryle, in my opinion with only partial success. It has been a contentious issue ever since. There are two kinds of existence - human or mental existence and physical existence. The first kind is extinguished by death, the second is supposed to "keep on going" regardless. Although I'm inclined to believe that the first kind depends on certain features of the second (such as brain events), no philosophy that I know of succeeds in reconciling the two. This remains the most important problem in metaphysics (but not in the philosophy of science - see below). Having said that, I do not hold any of my views with a great deal of confidence. If I were to become a monist, it would probably be because I had formed the unlikely belief that consciousness is all there is. Some of the views of little-read philosophers (such as Donald D. Hoffman - see e.g. this paper) have begun to sway me.
Apart from Kant, then, the philosophers who have most influenced me, for better or worse, include Hume, Peirce, Sartre, Russell, Strawson, Ayer and Feyerabend. On the other hand there are some highly influential, purportedly superintelligent, twentieth century academics (among them Wittgenstein, Tarski, Popper, Kuhn, Kripke, Whorf and Derrida) whose principal ideas seem to me, for various reasons, trite or relatively unimportant, sometimes rambling and far-fetched, or simply mistaken. In particular, I can't see the point of turning elementary observations into grandiose theories. And I can't see the point of bypassing the obvious altogether and trumping up bogus problems (the "proper names" muddle comes to mind). Some of these guys are charlatans, their followers too easily taken in. (Sometimes including me for awhile, at other times definitely not. For example I have elsewhere referred to Tarski's famous theory as "a tautology with feeble excuses". It infuses me with almost as much ire as the man in the pulpit's theory that "God is testing us", as his best response to the loss of a quarter of a million lives in a tsunami.) Much of this trouble undoubtedly stems from Bertrand Russell. But the cockeyed theories of some post-Russellians* are nothing compared to the flatulent inventions of most continental academics. They make very heavy reading indeed. I have only recently come to realise that the nitty-gritty of Heidegger's Dasein, a concept made interminably bewildering by its author, can actually be reduced to a few intelligible paragraphs and, I think, is probably right!
* I really have no right to speak derisively of these guys, most of whom are or were highly intelligent university professors who have come up with some pretty hefty ideas in the fields that interest me, but sadly often conveyed in needlessly ponderous jargon.
I did not become much interested in logic until I turned 25 years of age. From the beginning it seemed to me that standard logic had many faults. I have spent (in fact wasted) a lot of time inventing systems of logic, aimed partly at simplifying calculations (systems based on modulo-2 arithmetic), partly at eliminating the ambiguities of interpretation, partly at demonstrating the bare bones of logic and partly at avoiding the paradoxes of both traditional syllogistic and classical predicate logic. In pursuit of the last aim I devised a number of systems that were mostly subsets of ordinary first order predicate calculus (i.e. their truth tables had fewer columns).
The main outcome of these deliberations was an existentially non-committal system that used normal propositional calculus plus a strict-entailment/deduction qualifier, and with a simplified predicate calculus add-on that could be represented by Euler diagrams. This system contained no individual variables (x, y etc) and no simply negated predicate variables (~f, ~g etc), and it blurred the distinction between relations and operations*, between affirmative and subordinate locutions and between things, stuff and attributes, and I believed this logic could faithfully represent valid arguments and shut out most invalid and paradoxical arguments, within the scope of the system. An informal summary has recently been added to this website. (*A useful way of visualizing elementary logic is to mark the distinction between primary and secondary structures. Much of the work of doing logic arises from the fact that a given primary structure can be represented by any number of secondary structures or formulae, e.g. the relation/operation represented by pVq can also be represented by ~(~p & ~q) and by
~p q. Some of the paradoxes of logic are due to our tendency to interpret secondary structures with the same primary form differently from one another.)
The ties between logic and language, truth and meaning, are unshakable, and feature most prominently in things called propositions, which compose the topic of my most ambitious scheme to date - certainly no flash of inspiration but a result of much hard thought. This is based on the organisation of propositions developed mainly in the 1980’s and recorded in a (too-) long article on this site – Six kinds of proposition and the edges of normality - truth on trial, necessity negated, deflationism deflated, purportment promoted . I still believe it to be essentially correct, though errors abound and some of my explanations are woolly and wanting. The main features of this system are the hierarchy of six distinct kinds of proposition, the concept of “purportment” and the arguments that there are no genuinely “necessary” propositions, not even in pure logic. In the real world there's nothing at all that complies with the fundamental logical formula X v -X except possibly at the subatomic level, and perhaps not even there except where the mathematics is indistinguishable from the "facts".
Otherwise, in matters of truth and meaning I have for long subscribed to an essentially logical-positivist-cum-pragmatist position with an extended set of criteria of verification. I don’t endorse Popper’s falsificationism, and I don't believe that philosophical theories such as verificationism and relativism can be deflated on the grounds that the theories themselves don't measure up to the principles advanced by them. Indeed the typical philosopher's habit of unearthing paradoxes or extreme cases that appear to contravene a theory generally contributes very little to the devaluation of that theory.
My thoughts about the way we experience (and think and talk about) the world also influenced my ideas about logic. I had always questioned the distinction between sense and reference (and between connotation and denotation) and eventually came to the conclusion that it is arbitrary and unnecessary. Language is wholly connotational (or perhaps "associational") but uses words in more “encyclopaedic” or more “domestic” ways. Standard logic thus leads to a mistaken (and philosophically quite barren) way of thinking about facts, individuals and existence, though it does reflect the way we do in fact deal with certain kinds of complexity in our experience.
In the fields of language, logic and maths, there are hierarchies everywhere, but none of much significance. One thing is clear: twist and turn them as you may, language and logic alone can never draw the distinction between fact and fiction. No wonder so many people cannot draw that distinction either! (But see the footnote below - there's a way of thinking of language as a participant in reality rather than as an aloof description of it.)
I was for long fascinated by “fundamental notions” – a body of related concepts at the heart of our understanding of human existence. Some of these were “more fundamental” than others, and some were subcategories of others. One of my lists includes awareness (duration or time experienced, thrust, discrimination and emergence of actualities, recognition), wellbeing and stress (pleasure/pain – a basic kind of thrust), externality (naïve notions of space and external phenomena, naïve substance/force, the public world), choice and creativity, self-awareness and enterprise. Thinking about these was quite useful in unifying my ideas, and led to some important further principles such as “No perception without conception” (there exists nothing that has percepts and doesn’t have concepts) and “There is no subconscious mind” (the so-called “subconscious” comprises only brain events; mind is conscious by definition).
I have never been a conversationalist, never had the opportunity of conversing or corresponding with philosophically minded people and always thought of normal conversation as philosophically mundane or worthless. Most people's spoken opinions are too relative, limited, simplistic, inconsistent or just plain ludicrous. Chit-chat allows no space for reflection. (As Douglas Adams puts it: “If human beings don't keep excercising their lips ... their brains start working”.) This is not to say that some of my own opinions don't fall into one or more of these categories. But had I been born deaf and dumb, I suspect it would have made very little difference. Deafness, however, would have seriously affected other aspects of my life (or should I say, my lives: I have almost always led three separate lives - a family life, a working life and a personal life. The sharp disparities between them have never bothered me much!)
My primary stand in "practical" philosophy is straightforward: Philosophy, for me, is mainly about reality and truth, and ethics is mainly about living in tune with reality and communicating truths. A moral person is a person of integrity - one who interacts appropriately with the real world, is not deceived by falsehoods and nonsense and does not deceive others. Appropriate behaviour stems chiefly from the urge to survive, preferably in an amicable physical and social environment. Reality and truth are objective and non-relative, and so are ethical standards (though "the needy thief is less culpable than the prosperous thief"). Moral concern has a transcendental (but not necessarily altruistic) aspect; in particular, it extends not only to the plight of people one may never know, but to other species, the environment and the future. Morality is attributable to social and economic entities and institutions as well as to individuals (for a devastating commentary see "The Doubter's Companion" by John Ralston Saul). The moral complexion of our society is tarnished by the refusal of people to recognise inconvenient truths (and their obsession with recognising convenient untruths).
All this needs to be pondered in the light (and darkness) of early human development. From the moment of birth a child starts to interact with its environment and learn from that exposure. If the environment is authentic and natural, the child will gain true knowledge - will learn what you might call facts or truths, a process which I call enlightenment. (Presumably most animals learn the same kinds of things.) The child's response depends very much on its bodily attributes and other factors determined by its genetic make-up. It will also learn by watching the behaviour of other people. The problem is, much of the child's environment is not authentic and natural. It consists of a heap of junk passed down through the generations, riddled with perverse cultural nonsense having little or no connection with the basic requirements for pursuing an authentic life. In other words the child has not been enlightened - it has been brainwashed.
Add to this the ubiquity of the contrivances of modern technology and you have the makings of tragedy, even allowing for the extraordinary adaptability of the human species. Regardless, I believe it's an incontrovertible truth that we have all been brainwashed during our early years, and this is equivalent to saying our development as complete human beings has been blocked. Undoubtedly throughout the world there's much variation in the intensity of this disease, so does this imply that some people are less human than others? Probably not, because currently we don't measure human beings that way.
Recently (2013) my ethical inclinations have taken a serious twist. I no longer consider myself to be a humanist, in the ordinary sense, and I don't believe any particular moral stance can be rationally justified (for example the original utilitarian principle of "the greatest happiness of the greatest number"). Although my own "principles" strongly uphold the reduction of hurt and distress amongst human beings, in many other respects they do not look upon mankind at all favourably. This is because I can find nothing more worthwhile glorifying than life on Earth in all its astonishing diversity and beauty; its preservation has become my overriding principle and it is most regrettable that Homo sapiens, the only species capable of fully understanding and treasuring this most remarkable of episodes in the history of the universe, has also become the planet's number one pest. (With my heavy dependence on "dirty energy" - e.g. see "The real cost of travel" in Will travel, won't track - this brands me as a hypocrite of the worst possible kind.) On top of this, the slow realisation that human beings really are just a part of the natural world has led me to believe that society has developed a warped sense of values and justice. But despite this change in outlook, I still maintain (and force upon you) the other half of my dualism - the world began rather fuzzily soon after you were born and will end abruptly when you die. That makes you the world’s guardian as well as it’s most remarkable inhabitant.
I must add to this, while opportunity knocks, that I find the arrogance of some high profile physicists in hot pursuit of a so-called "Theory of Everything" distressing and naive. They speak as if their discovery (if it ever eventuates) will mark the end of science and solve all the world's problems. Nothing could be further from the truth. Their equations will make only a trivial contribution to our knowledge: they will barely touch upon the intricate marvels of life on Earth, nor even on some quite basic physical phenomena, much less on the wonders of consciousness and human thought. Besides, whatever theory they come up with, though it be the product of many brains in concert, it must be understood by individuals, and while individual brains may be remarkable bits of machinery they obviously have their limits. I'm inclined to think that a Theory of Everything will be more like a theory of some portion or aspect of the human brain! How could it break loose from this cage? (For my answer to the cosmologists and the "scientific progress" theories of Kuhn and Popper see A ravenous tale - the induction and
My moral outlook has been coloured by an intense, and still increasing, opposition to religion and cultural hang-ups. In my school days I was more or less an atheist, but in my early twenties I went through a "spiritual" period (believing my prayers were answered etc, and almost persuaded by the writings of converts such as Malcolm Muggeridge). After consorting on and off with various non-conformist Christian organisations, I soon decided their creeds were not for me and delved into other religions. Nothing struck me as being either credible or desirable, so common sense prevailed and I returned to atheism again, consolidated by reading such books as “The Martyrdom of Man” (Winwood Reade) and “Language, Truth and Logic” (A.J. Ayer), and, on the negative side, certain religious texts. I’m pleased that religious experience has touched my life, but I’m jubilant in the realisation that it was all a pitiful delusion. The final unconditional renunciation of all religion and supernaturalism was one of the most liberating moments of my life. My current view is that religion is primarily a linguistic anomaly - and transparently unethical and irresponsible (in this I concur with the nineteenth century pseudo-philosopher, W.K. Clifford). However, I remain a strongly "spiritual" person insofar as my intense appreciation of the beauty of nature, and feeling of oneness with it, continues to dominate my life (for example, it means more to me than social relationships do - I could easily have lived as a hermit).
Other influences on my ethical views include my schooling in biology, and various philosophers who helped to make me aware of the poverty of metaphysics and the utter meaninglessness of various ethically loaded catch-phrases (such as “inalienable rights” and “innate equality”). Although my outlook could be regarded as naturalistic, I have never been attracted to any particular school of moral philosophy (such as emotivism, prescriptivism or consequentialism), and I lean increasingly to the view that all moral explanation (so far) has little to do with morality as such. However I do identify broadly with the mainstream rationalist/humanist/free-thinkers movement, though my core ethical values have always been severely compromised by a growing disillusionment with humanity (not least myself), engendered by world population spiralling out of control, the appalling habits (condoned by most ethical systems) and inconsistent attitudes* of almost all human beings and the abject poverty of human intelligence. In the end, ethics mostly comprises a plethora of questions concerning fearful problems which the human race is busily creating and which science must answer.
*Here's an example of inconsistent thinking, as well as of the dependency of ethics on scientific knowledge. Currently neuroscientists seem to have no idea whether either young babies or fully grown pigs are conscious in anything like the way that humans who have learned to talk are. But if we give the benefit of the doubt to the one we should give it to the other. Regardless of ancillary considerations, it's probably no more humane to raise pigs for slaughter for human consumption than it is to raise human babies for the same purpose.
This "naturalism" has led me to the view that, in social and ethical matters, human beings should be defined by their psychological and behavioural characteristics, not by their genetic make-up. The human species is indeed dominated by human beings, but it also contains both mentally impotent beings and anti-human monsters. Why should the same rights and laws apply to all? Perhaps, for example, we should revise our views on who can count as a victim of "murder" and who may be immune from capital punishment. Add to this the clear trend towards a blurring of the distinction between crime and warfare and we might well reconsider who should be tried and gaoled and who should be shot on sight. (Are terrorists and drug smugglers our enemies or are they just social miscreants?) And if human beings are a part of nature, why do we make such heavy weather of human crime and error when their role in the overall scheme of things pales into insignificance compared to the effects of natural disasters? Is the abduction of a single child worth ten years of investigation and persistent media commentary when the many thousands of children who die from natural causes every year receive only cursory mention?
To summarise some of my negative views in the ethical sphere: there are a number of widely held concepts which I very strongly reject:
1. the existence of One God, any other gods and all things supernatural (see here)
2. the equality of human beings (when taken literally - see here and here)
3. the alienation of human beings, including human consciousness and thought, from the rest of the natural world
4. natural rights (see here)
5. moral relativism
6. moral determinism (with its invasion of individual responsibility and freedom of choice)
7. political correctness and the (absolute) wrongness of discrimination and stereotyping (for example I'm inclined to think
that rational racism is a useful concept)
As well as these broadly ethical concepts, I also reject the notion of a single scientific methodology. In this, I more or less agree with Paul Feyerabend's views, with some additional (?) detail regarding such matters as the limitations of statistical methods in experimentation. (But I certainly do not concur with Feyerabend's moral relativism.)
Recently my outlook has been further tested by certain discoveries in mind and brain science which seem to challenge our concepts of time, consciousness and freedom. It looks as if conscious thought, along with the feeling that we are free to make choices, may be only a time-delayed video of brain events, which are causally determined only by other physical events and completely beyond the control of our conscious minds*. In that case there would appear to be no justification for attributing moral responsibility to specific, conscious individuals. There are at least two ways of avoiding this conclusion, however. One is to suppose that time can flow backwards, and the other is to suppose that individuals cannot so easily be absolved from moral responsibility, since the concept of responsibility only applies within the domain of conscious experience and has no relevance in the underlying physical world; while the concept of causality only applies within the physical world, so the supposed causal connection between physical and mental events is "not what it seems". Regardless, there are other good reasons for removing the burden of responsibility from individuals in many circumstances. Too bad. If we want to live without fear in a smoothly running society, someone must be held responsible for every crime and be firmly disciplined by the law. Unfortunately we are still learning where to find fault and how to allocate blame, so "criminals" may not always be dealt fair justice. Of course, I'm not going to abandon Sartre easily and therefore I'm attracted towards compatibilism, the thesis that free will and moral responsibility are compatible with causal determinism. But there are many kinds of compatibilism and sorting out the pros and cons is far from easy.
*What the experiments collectively appear to show is that certain physical events in the body may precede the associated
conscious events - whether intentions/decisions or responses to external stimuli - by about 0.5 seconds and possibly up to
3 seconds. Yet it only takes 0.1-0.2 seconds for a person to react to a stimulus.
These same discoveries in brain science, together with my contention that the "real" world comprises nothing but mathematical relations, also suggest that the question (typical of the current obsession with "thought experiments") whether we live in a real or a virtual world is irresolvable, because in fact the two concepts are indistiguishable - unless one supposes that a real world is self-constructed while a virtual world has an author!
Cosmology consumed my interest for many years, during which I developed a ridiculous infatuation with fundamental physical constants, supposing that they could be derived from basic mathematical constants (a surprisingly common belief). I also thought there should be a system of non-arbitrary physical units, and sought to discover it. Instead my technique (a kind of dimensional analysis) led to an endless series of systems, the main problem with the simplest member being the large unit of mass, which seemed not to correspond with anything in nature. While all this was unduly time-wasting, it served to indulge my obsession with one of life's greatest puzzles:
What is the most important, least pondered unsolved problem in the philosophy of science? It is the question "Why does mathematics work in the real world?" Mathematicians will dismiss this question at once, claiming it is wrong-headed; maths only works because it is designed to model certain aspects of reality. But their story doesn't quite ring true and I'm inclined to turn it on its head. Although, on the face of it, there seems to be no good reason why maths should have any connection at all with reality, not only does it work, it is the foundation of modern science and of much that we take for granted in our lives. It works so well that it can be used to make incredibly accurate predictions about the natural world, and to construct real aeroplanes that really fly and real mobile phones that transmit and receive real messages. But many people, philosophers and mathematicians among them, are unwilling to admit the possibility that mere numbers and formulae could have anything to do with the beauty of a loving smile or a leaf blowing in the wind. They don't fully appreciate the seemingly infinite complexity of mathematics - a complexity that may be unmatched in the real world itself. Mathematics may have the power to describe (explain?) a great deal more of reality than we imagine. However, should the answer to this monumental problem turn out to have no use, the importance of the question will immediately diminish. The world faces a mountain of practical problems, acute and chronic, which are of far greater importance than mere philosophy.
I really have no idea whether any of my own conjectures are original or worthwhile, because not one of them has been scrutinized by the academic community. The concept of “purportment” (of propositions) looks hopeful as it is quite elementary, unbelievably obvious, at odds with current “semantic” theories of truth and I haven’t come across it anywhere else. My betrothal to purportment coheres with two other sentiments about propositions and truth, namely the meaninglessness of universal propositions, and verification (as opposed to falsification) as the core precept of scientific methodology (if there’s any such thing - see A ravenous tale.....). One of my favourite ideas is the (badly named) "dictionary/domestic" theory of meaning which, amongst other things, largely displaces reference (including the reference of so-called proper names) with a rich kind of meaning called domestic meaning. This idea runs hand-in-hand with an unconventional approach to "naming" - all this explained informally here. I find that language - at least in the form of propositions - cannot construct solid links with the real world and therefore that the concept of truth is seriously compromised; though there are elements of language embraced by semiotics which have better prospects. I’ve also spent some time untangling the concept of existence (yes, it too is a concept) from a number of other concepts with which it is confounded in classical logic: this, together with the redundancy of universal propositions, led me to conclude that classical logic is fatally flawed. Furthermore I have argued that all logic is inductive and that the entire basis of logic is empirical. In the social and ethical sphere a number of human (or rather anti-human) maladies continue to provoke my unbridled rage. I have afforded religion far more time and space than it deserves. But if I may lower my standards for a moment and condense this endeavour into the few unphilosophical words that it does deserve: religion is a load of crap, the biggest load of crap ever to smother the face of this planet, and the traffickers in religion are just big crappers. Amen. Nothing original here, as men of integrity have (in effect) been saying this since well before the “great” religions were invented, often very fluently, but I hope I have managed to add a few fundamentals (if ever a load of crap needed spicing up!).
I'm watching this tenacious ant struggling to heave a mighty bread crumb along the edge of the table, after which it will take an uncertain zig-zag path to a nest about fifty metres away. In the ants' world, the shortest distance between two points is a pheromone trail. Are human beings in a similar situation? It's high time somebody started to think outside the square again (the next "paradigm shift"), but I just have this strange feeling that outwards is inwards. And it's easy to squash ants.
In summary, my outlook is an amalgam of empiricism, idealism and rationalism, along with a non-speciesist, anti-religious, slightly cynical form of humanism. If there were just three crucial points I'd make about today's world, they would be:
1. The universe is a bundle of mathematics
2. Human beings are the world's most dangerous pest
3. There is no God
Most of my philosophy, in particular the logical aspects, laboriously and fitfully developed between 1958 and 1990, and amateurish in the extreme, survives in a series of 19 notebooks spanning those years. A considerably larger volume of decaying rough notes was trashed when I last moved house in January 2009.
Here's a crazy tale to head us in the right direction:
It was an exciting, glamour-filled occasion for racegoers, the day of the Golden Shield. On that day a seer approached a bookmaker. "What odds have you got on the black horse with the white star on her forehead to win the Golden Shield?" asked the seer. The bookie laughed. "You mean Anzac! She's the only black horse in the race. If you lay your bet now, I can give you 25 to 1" said the bookie. "Is that so?" the seer countered, "well I'll give you a tip: you'd better shorten your odds because I know that horse will win, and by how much." "Oh yeah, a great joker we've got here haven't we" the bookie sniggered, " how can you possibly know that?" The seer knew that if he misused his powers, his soothsaying ability would diminsish, but he was desperate for cash. "I just do know" he said "and here's my stake - $1000 to win." The bookie gasped. "Crikey, that's a bundle" he sputtered, grabbing his calculator, "now I'll have to put her at - let me see - 17 to 1."
Two hours later Anzac, a rank outsider, won the Golden Shield by a nose and a half. The bookmakers, armchair punters and newsflash devotees heard only that the horse had won. But here is some of what the seer foresaw and indeed what in fact happened: the black filly won the race, she won by a nose and a half, the jockey wore red and white silks and let loose with his whip on the final stretch, a heavy rain shower made the track slippery, the second place went to Grenadier, another outsider, the onlookers were colourful and noisy, the race-caller went into a frenzy, the winner was presented with, guess what, a golden shield and a bouquet of roses..... In short, the seer had a detailed vision of the scene that would eventuate two hours later, perhaps as he himself actually saw it, or perhaps as someone in the crowd with whom he had telepathic rapport saw it. As for the bookie? He just knows Anzac won and he lost. Not his day!
I realised long ago, when I was interested in parapsychology, that there’s a crucial difference between prediction in the mathematical sense of the probability of an event occurring at some time in the future, and prediction in the prophetic sense of visualizing the future; and later on that the distinction has something to do with at least one of the miscellany of differences that various philosophers draw between truths and facts. (It is also related to the distinction I make between dictionary and domestic propositions.) The betting odds of a particular horse winning a race refer to the discrete fact of its winning, and such a fact can be expressed by a simple proposition. If the horse wins, the proposition is true, if it loses, false. On the other hand, a competent seer foretelling the event might well form a picture of the “whole scene”. Indeed, one might imagine that a super-seer would see the state of the entire universe at that moment – if it were sensible to speak in those terms (but it is not: presumably the seer can only reveal his own personal experience of the future event, though the acuity and "future memory" of the experience may vary in detail; his prophesy is limited by his brain, not by the universe). Probability theory, in effect, only applies to situations that can be described by discrete propositions. This has always been the drawback of statistics: it can give you a solution to a simple enquiry, but in practice those solutions occur in a real world environment - the more of the environment that's included, the less applicable the statistical solution (the maths becomes increasingly redundant). It's a worry when it comes to extrapolating experimental results to far-removed situations, for example the results of medical experiments on rats to human beings, or in economic forecasting when future scenarios are riddled with uncertainties.
A proposition, like a probability statement, represents only a kind of throttled abstraction from experience or reality. Now, some philosophers say a fact is what makes a true proposition true. But the “what” here is a mysterious entity. Clearly it is nothing like the situation or event that the seer claims to witness or, for that matter, any actual situation experienced by anybody. Indeed the “fact” expressed in a true proposition seems to be nothing more than what is expressed. So a “fact” in this sense is identical with a true proposition, or a truth (assuming that propositions are the primary or perhaps the only bearers of truth). And in that case one might feel inclined to opt for a coherence theory of truth – the truth of “facts”/propositions/truths can only be established in terms of other “facts”/propositions/truths.
For the persistent philosopher this scenario is clearly unsatisfactory, because one seems to end up with a web of words or ideas that are cut off from reality, from existence. If there’s a question of propositions corresponding to objective facts, however, it is a question of how they relate to the relevant aspects of whole situations, the amount and kind of meaning that can be drawn from them. But speaking in these bland terms doesn’t help, whether or not we invent a new name for this kind of fact (such as situation, actuality or reality). Moreover, as already intimated, the “whole situation” is virtually a state of the universe (or of the model universe inside one's head), having an infinite, or at least indefinite, description. We might attempt to narrow this down to all the presuppositions that must be or could be called upon to make sense of the proposition, but these presuppositions in turn would require presuppositions, so we’d be no further forward.
I'm certainly no "externalist", but it was largely because of this impasse that I came to think of words and statements as themselves being part of the world of real objects. This viewpoint initially took shape as an elementary theory of signs, somewhat after the manner of C.S. Peirce. Utterances of words were objects that had meaning in virtue of their signifying other objects, and in that respect they did not differ from the many other objects which, in certain contexts, act as signs for other objects again. Thus in appropriate circumstances an utterance of the sentence “There are bees” might indicate the presence of bees in much the same way that a bee-hive might. Thinking along these lines led me to realize that the greater part of one’s experience is something like a web of signs, all kinds of signs ranging from human constructions such as traffic lights and church bells to natural objects and events such as animal footprints, noises, clouds and sunrises. In fact any object or event that we associate with another is acting as a sign, with any of a considerable number of different types of function, and it is this network of signs together with our choices that controls our behaviour and runs our lives. Anyone who has studied biology will appreciate its importance on all levels of the evolutionary scale. Indeed all this was really an extension of an earlier idea which I had called Organic Process (something like a primitive version of Quine’s “Natural Kinds”). Thus it seemed to me that there was little difference – except in complexity – between interpreting a sign and interpreting a situation – and between these and ascertaining the meaning and truth of a proposition.
Now, if propositions have their basis in sign language, and if they are also considered to be the ”bearers of truth”, it’s reasonable to suppose that the strength of the concept of truth cannot exceed the strength of the association between a sign and its object. Strictly speaking, only propositions can be true or false and the question is what is the meaning or force of true/false? Well, there are various kinds of proposition and various ways they might be true or false, but the ones of most interest (now and for most philosophers) are those which I call material (see relevant sections of Six kinds of proposition...) and which are typically the subject matter of correspondence theories of truth. However, since it is the force of "truth" as exhibited by physical signs that concerns us, I will talk loosely of the "truth" of signs. The nature of this force is far from clear. As a rough start, we could say: a sign is false if it deceives or misleads, true if it leads to the expected object. So, for example, the twitching of a divining rod is true if there’s water beneath it, false if there is not. (The example is a poor one, immediately begging the questions "Is it true that the divining rod twitched?" and "Is there really water beneath the ground here?"). But the “strength” of this association clearly depends on past experience (whether one’s own or that of others, perhaps of generations long since vanished), and also on the reliability of the chain(s) of communication. In this instance, at least, the concept of truth appears to have an inductive basis, elements of subjectivity and an affinity with pragmatic theories of truth. Although seemingly a far cry from the robust “scientific” concept of truth sought by philosophers, one might imagine that, with a bit of work, it could be brought into line with, say, the verification theory. And indeed it was this gathering of ideas that propelled me in the direction of verificationism, or something very like it. My current position is that I find it extremely hard to distinguish modern correpondence theories of truth from modern pragmatic theories. They are just two ways of saying the same thing. So what can I make of propositions? Perhaps what chiefly distinguishes them from other kinds of sign is their complexity and ability to generalise and connect with remote states of affairs. I'm inclined to call them "metasigns". And the reason we have confidence in their ability to convey "truths" has something to do with these special strengths. (All this from “a rough start!”)
Yet one keeps returning to the undeniable fact that, at the human level, experience, intelligence and self-integrity are essential both for sign giving and for sign reading. One might say: An integrated person is one who tries to interpret signs correctly; an intelligent person one who is good at it; a wise person one who responds appropriately. (Indeed, rather strangely, the prevailing theory of semiotics is wholly psychological and seems to make no strong connections with physical reality.) The notion of "correct" interpretation, however, once again suggests reliance on objective criteria of truth. In the past, the responsibility for interpretation has been borne mainly by the sign-reader, but in this age of information overload it is shifting increasingly to the sign-maker. A worrying trend, suggestive of psychological manipulation, and no rules at all for evaluating truthfulness.
.......Dabs of Grue.......03/09/07 - 02/08/10.....................HOME