Category Archives: Philosophy

BBC News – David Cameron says the UK is a Christian country

BBC News – David Cameron says the UK is a Christian country.

No, Dave, it isn’t. It’s a secular state which has been heavily influenced by Christianity in the past, a point which the PM eventually makes. Actually, this isn’t my main purpose for making a note of this particular story.

What caught my eye on this occasion is how wishy-washy Dave was because, obviously, he was desperately trying to avoid offending potential voters – any potential voters.

He also turned his hand to a little irony:

“Many people tell me it is much easier to be Jewish or Muslim here in Britain than it is in a secular country like France,” he said.

The difference, as far as I can tell, is that the French state defends secular values (e.g. the ban on veils); but I wouldn’t be surprised if the number of people who go to church in France on a Sunday is comparable with the number in Britain. Also, from the outside, France seems less tolerant of otherness, which probably has less to do with its secularity than it has to do with the general culture. In other words, if France was a more religious nation, it would still be no more tolerant of other faiths.

By the same token, I suspect British tolerance has little or nothing to do with religion given the quite small number of actual, practising Christians. There just aren’t enough of them to go round being tolerant.


Problem 101

The meaning of life.
The final philosophy problem sees prominent guest star, Mr Megasoft, return. he’s been reading a book about the purpose of life being the continuation of the species through the production of children. People are then driven to look after their children in order to ensure their genes have a future. Mr Megasoft agrees with the explanation of the “selfish gene”.
And genes determine all the rest about us, too, right down to dying once we’ve done the reproducing part, our duty having been done.
Mr Megasoft has a secret lab set up so that his DNA can be implanted in an egg donated by his girlfriend, Charlene, and then shot into outer space for eternity. Mr Megasoft is thus ensuring that his genetic code will last longer than anyone else’s, and now that he’s done that, the human race no longer needs to continue.
But there’s one problem. If our purpose in life is to pass on our genetic code, what’s the purpose of the genetic code?
My answer is that it doesn’t have one per se. It’s a bit like saying that water doesn’t harm us unless it’s decided to or that poison does harm us unless it decides not to (though one man’s meat is another man’s poison). It’s all a bit Panglossian. Only humans might think that there’s something more to life than eating, sleeping, and reproducing. The rest of the animal kingdom does what it does without leaving monuments of one sort or another, and if they produce music or art, it’s all part of the mating game.[1]
As I believe I’ve said before, most of us come and go and merely leave children behind as our legacy. A few people are famous well beyond life. Unless I delete this blog or something else happens to it, I expect that it’ll still be around long after I’ve gone, possibly archived, and almost certainly forgotten. And if it doesn’t survive and little else of mine survives, my PhD thesis will continue to moulder, best forgotten, on the shelves of the John Rylands Library. But it wouldn’t surprise me, because irony and I are old friends, if I were to become famous after I die, although I hope it might be for the right reasons rather than the wrong ones.
And that’s the last of the philosophy problems. It leaves a hole in the means by which I can bore you, although I am continuing, sporadically, to translate Crito.
1. If that’s even the case subliminally for humans, prolific composers such as Vivaldi and Telemann were either getting some all the time or desperate for it.

The meta-problem

To cut to the chase…
Because philosophy problems don’t have proper solutions, is that a problem with philosophy problems?
What is the purpose of the problem? If we’re trying to find an acceptable solution to something that has no proper answer, I think we’re missing the point of the problem. Yet some of the early ethics problems were of the sort to which we wish there was some solution because we wouldn’t want to be placed in a situation where we must sacrifice at least one human life directly or indirectly to save one or more others.
The discussion at the back of the book has much to say about the Logical Positivists who would, it appears, classify a lot of philosophy problems as nonsense just as various utterances (e.g. How much does philosophy weigh?) can be nonsensical.
That was Problem 100, which means that tomorrow’s problem is the very last one – the problem of existence.

The Matrix problem

I think, therefore I am. Presumably.
Indeed, today’s problem is what underpinned The Matrix. Human beings were being used like living batteries by the machines, but all the while believing that they were living out their lives in the real world. (Of course, you have to wonder why the machines went to such lengths and why they’d care about humans seeming to have lives.)
Thus we can’t really be certain whether any of this is real. For all I know, I may be the one being deceived or deceiving myself. I doubt it, though. I’m sure (though how can I really know?) that reality is as most people perceive it because if we were all being deceived, there might be inconsistencies in the world. We can, of course, deceive ourselves. I know that I can misinterpret information such as the time when I was going to school one day and thought I saw my Mum’s car. The car turned out to be the right make, but wrong colour (it was hard to be certain of the colour in the morning light) and wrong driver, who happened to live across the road from us. But although my initial perceptions were wrong, it was a matter of misinterpretation not a gross violation of reality.
duck_bunny And I know of other occasions when my perceptions have been mistaken but I’ve clearly not been misled. It’s rather like that picture which might be table legs or a vase, or the duck bunny, or those magic eye pictures when you see something, but not the thing you’re meant to see.
It also seems rather pointless to worry about such matters because we’re always having practical demands made of us by others. I could say that none of this is real, but if I did that, I’d soon be out of a job, have no money, and be out on the street. It wouldn’t help me on iota to sit on the kerb repeating the mantra, “None of this is real.” Next thing you know, I’ve starved to death and found out the hard way that whatever we might think of reality, there are some things we can’t avoid such as eating and drinking.
If Descartes said that he thought, therefore he was, he might’ve observed that hunger wasn’t something you could pretend not to have.
As our long journey through problems in philosophy comes closer to its end, we find ourselves faced with the issue of the meta-problem, but that’s for tomorrow.


Or then not perhaps.
I’ll quote the book’s definition of validity directly:
A philosophical argument is valid if it is not possible for the premises (assumptions) to be true and yet the conclusion to be false.
The book asks, “Is this a good start for solid, rigorous thinking?”
Mr Bamboo’s spidey sense says that this has to be a trick question. (And later he started thinking that he hadn’t understood the definition above at all.) Where, exactly, is the problem with this definition? “A(T)+B(T)=C(T)” is true, but “A(T)+B(T)≠C(F)” is an invalid argument where A and B are true themselves. Are the sceptics about to pop up and claim that since we can’t know anything, there can be no such thing as a valid argument? (Mind you, if nothing can be known, how can the sceptics know they know nothing?)
If I understand the book correctly, the validity of the argument doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the content. For example,
Dogs always have tails.
Some dogs do not have tails.
The moon is made of green cheese.
is a valid philosophical argument because anything can follow from inconsistent premises.
Or the conclusion is necessarily true as in
Money grows on trees.
The King of the Potato People likes money.
Money is either a good thing or a bad thing or neither.
Thus validity is one thing, but its reliability is another because it’s separate from the content. As one final example, I used Fergus Duniho’s silly syllogisms generator[1] to produce
Some hats are dogs.
All hats are wagons.
Some wagons are dogs.
which is valid even although it’s surreal.
If there were doubts about validity today, there will doubts about reality tomorrow. There really were; there really will be. Don’t doubt it. Or perhaps you should.
1. It appears that Duniho’s website where I got the generator from several years ago has gone, but the generator can still be found here.

Are Vulcans logical?
After I watched the latest Star Trek film, this question, which I’ve pondered before, popped into my mind again. For example, in the latest film, the Vulcans were prejudiced against Spock because he was half-human. But if the Vulcans are logical and this entails the rejection of emotions, then this invalidates that claim because prejudice is an emotional response to difference. A logical mind, it seems, would be objective and detached on such matters.
Also, I quote from Memory Alpha:
"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one" is a fundamental element of Vulcan philosophy.
It may be, but it’s a proposition from ethics, not logic. I’m not even sure it can be expressed in logic as an argument of a sort. It may contribute to an argument not to undertake a specific course of action, but there’s no inherent reason why the needs of the many should be placed ahead of the needs of the few. It’s merely a reasonable assumption. In addition, if the needs of the many are so important, why is it that the needs of the few in power would be placed ahead of them in, say, the event of a nuclear war? I can only deduce that there must be at least one argument which renders the statement above invalid.
It might’ve been better if the Vulcans had been portrayed as being guided by reason and simply not given to emotional displays rather than allegedly deeply emotionally repressed.

How frightfully beastly

Below the belt.
Apart from the name, I know nothing about Arthur Schopenhauer. It turns out he was German, born in 1788, and one of those miserable ascetic sorts. Well, I did say he was German. He appears to have used his genitals at least once for more than just pissing, and had a thing for younger women. But he also had a low-ish opinion of them, probably not helped by Caroline Marquet who may or may not have been a con artist.
He thought of love as a trifle or an accident, the will to reproduce being the main drive.
I told you Arthur was German.
I don’t really have time for asceticism, which is seems to be the wilful infliction of discomfort for no tangible gain. And don’t say peace of mind since the mind merely pretends not to want something and to be happy about such denial. If blogspot was unblocked, I’d desire it less; but now that it’s blocked, I desire it more and refuse to pretend that such things don’t matter. But since I care little about YouTube, I’m not bothered whether it’s blocked or not, and if Twitter gets blocked in China, I won’t care at all.
I’m not inclined to view love as just a consequence of biological urges even if they might underpin it. Unfortunately, I think that too many people are inclined to mistake urges for love, which is probably why so many marriages end in divorce. Too much biology (i.e., lust; physical urges) and not enough brains (i.e., love; considered relationships). But I’m not going to pretend that the urges won’t subordinate rationality from time to time. It’s all part of human nature.
Arthur’s other consideration was that solitary contemplation was better than social companionship or even love. That depends on who you are. Some people like company. In China, it’s part of the culture, although I’ve read about and have known one or two people here who don’t like the package tour mentality of the country. Other people prefer a more solitary life. That doesn’t necessarily mean a hermit-like existence, which would be the extreme end of this scale, but a preference for a greater number of quiet, contemplative moments. But man is a social animal. Woof!
Tomorrow, the underpinnings of a logical argument.

Subatomic schizophrenics

Problem 92.
Because I’m not really interested in physics problems being paraded as natural philosophy, I’m going to go through the remaining problems in this section with all due brevity. Problem 92 is about the slit experiment which reveals the schizophrenic nature of photons, being, apparently, both a particle and wave simultaneously. Well, since photons travel at the speed of light, and have no mass, such peculiarity may be perfectly normal.

Problem 93.
And just to be annoying, even when the quantity of photons is reduced to a really small number, the same interference pattern still appears. The photons seem somehow omniscient. Any attempt to use some sort of particle detector to study the photons results in the interference pattern disappearing as if the particles know the detector is there.
To adapt a Chinese anecdote, one day Einstein put a particle detector in his laboratory on which he hung a sign saying, “Albert Einstein did not put this particle detector here” so that the photons would behave as they did when the particle detector wasn’t there. But when Einstein returned to the laboratory the next morning, there was another sign on the machine which said, “The photons didn’t know that they knew there was a particle detector here”.

Schrödinger’s Cat.
The cat’s in the box. A radioactive particle might hit a Geiger counter, releasing the poison gas which will kill the cat. But rather annoyingly, the particle will behave like a photon, simultaneously releasing and not releasing the gas. That is, until someone or something tries a little detective work, and then the particle no longer behaves like a schizophrenic. But while it does have a split personality, the cat would seem to be both alive and dead.
Hmmm, that sounds like me in the morning.

Problem 95.
Having done with his atomic watch, Mr Megasoft heads off into outer space on his solar-powered yacht. The vehicle constantly accelerates, although will never actually reach the speed of light. But when Mr Megasoft looks back where he’s come from, he sees the stars disappearing.
According to the book, this is like Zeno’s paradox about Achilles and the tortoise (or even the Jeometers from the other day). Light will never quite catch up with the space yacht because it always remains just a little bit ahead of it.
With physics natural philosophy done, we’re back to, er, unnatural philosophy tomorrow, and Schopenhauer’s problem. Or he might have two.

Whichever way you look at it

The speed of light and constancy.
When Albert Michelson and Edward Morley tried to measure the speed of light back in the 19th century, they found that no matter what they did to it, the speed remained almost exactly the same.
All right, philosophy, huh? Not physics at all. No, must be physics. Anyway, the speed of light can be affected by things like black holes, but it can’t be relative because if xms-2 + yms-2 adds up to some velocity greater than x or y individually, then things in the night’s sky would disappear if light behaved in the same way.
But I’m still not really seeing the philosophy. All right, I suppose this is like the natural philosophy of the Greeks, but if this section of the book was really going to work, it’d have to be some of their more absurd theories rather than things that have been established by scientific investigation.
Today it was the speed of light; tomorrow, the contrariness of the photon.

Hot air

The shorter it stands the longer it grows.
The Jeometers live on a gaseous planet at the core of which the temperature is very high, but on the surface the temperature is absolute zero. As the Jeometers ascend towards they surface, they and everything else on the planet shrinks at a uniform rate.
One year, the Jeometers decide to explore the upper reaches of the planet and determine just how much planet there is. They build a ladder. And then they add some more bits to the ladder, and more and more and more. But no matter how much they add to the ladder, it’s never long enough. (If they’re gas creatures themselves, why are they building a ladder? How would they hold on to it? Why don’t they just float?)
Of course, as they’re climbing, it’s getting colder as they approach absolute zero and they’re shrinking, as is their measuring equipment. To them, it all remains the same because the rate of shrinkage is uniform, but because of this, they don’t realise that this diminution is happening, and they conclude that their planet is infinitely large, which it isn’t.
The problem is, whose measurements are the ‘real’ ones?
Since a property of the Jeometers and everything else on their planet is to shrink at a uniform rate so that they become infinitely small at absolute zero, and since they seem to be unaware of this, they can have no absolute means of measuring anything even although they live within a finite space. At the same time, they have no idea that their planet isn’t infinite in size.
This seems similar to Mandelbrot’s question about how long the coastline of Britain is, since it becomes infinitely long when the length of measure is infinitely short. The book is 0.131m wide or 13.1cm or 131mm. It’s the same width every time, but the number gets bigger as the unit of measurement diminishes. [Yeah, I think we get it. –ed.]
Tomorrow (or some day in the future), we’re going to try measuring the speed of light and finding that not everything is relative.

Is anyone really going to swallow this?

The cleanser.
Who said the Middle Ages were over? In a nameless town in a nameless southern state in the US, freakish weather leads the local Bible-bashing crank, Reverend Newman, to fulminate about the sinful life style of the local population. In fact, he has a vat of moral cleanser in his church for them all to drink. But if any evil person drinks it, they’ll be burnt up inside.
The locals, obviously being rather credulous, flock to the church to quaff this elixir of dubious provenance just prove they aren’t evil.
But a few weeks later, a mystery illness strikes the town, the symptoms of which rather resemble the effects which Reverend Newman’s cleanser was supposed to have had on the evil. Thirteen people die and the potty priest is convicted of murder.
There’s another “but”. For one thing, the moral cleanser is tomato juice and for another, they voluntarily imbibed the liquid. If some people really were eaten up inside, their problem would seem to have been psychosomatic.
Is the Reverend guilty?
No, I don’t think he is. At least he’s not guilty of murdering anyone. In addition to the flaws in the case which have already been noted, why did only thirteen die? Did more become sick but recover anyway? Was there a demonstrable connection between the victims and Reverend Newman that might’ve led to him attempting to murder them.
This particular scenario is based on a true story, but the main player was an African witch doctor back in the 50s who was tried in the UK. But when it was found that his potion was harmless, his death sentence was commuted to a prison term, which seems a little much.
Actually, you could accuse the water companies of the same crime because I’m sure that lots of people have probably been drinking water not too long before they die. And if you take this to its logical and absurd extreme, life is the illness, death is the cure.
We leave the world of religion today for the world of natural philosophy tomorrow, and a return to infinity within finite bounds.