(part of) You Are Here: Explorations in Search of Current Reality

See also Tales of the Early Republic, a resource for trying to make some sense of early nineteenth century America


Sunday, July 4, 2010

What is a Machine?

The concept of machine pervades our culture, and has occupied an important place in philosophical debates for at least the last two or three centuries. For example, it is often argued that living organisms, or the human mind, are "ultimately just machines".
But are we clear just what a machine is? Suppose we accept that any piece of nature "is a machine", or that it can, in theory, be analyzed as a machine.
First of all, the everyday usage of "machine" implies a certain class of man made object. How would we describe that class?
The (or one) prevalent modern scientific point of view is to surmise that ultimately underlying all the organic, often amorphous complexity of the world we perceive, is a level at which ultra-miniscule machines function predictably. Electrons spinning around nuclei at an exact, measurable speed; light photons traveling always at a particular speed. At the heart of biological processes are DNA molecules whose properties can in theory be exactly deduced from the sequence of molecules of which they consist.
We want to apply this machine analogy to all of nature, yet we are hard put to find anything that really looks like our everyday notion of a machine, except for those man-made objects that everyday language calls machines. To find mechanical behavior ready-to-hand in nature (before books, economic systems, large-scale governments, and factories came into being), we have to start with systems too simple to fit the everyday notion of a machine. A good example is a rock that is thrown. Once set in motion, there is such predictability about the trajectory of the rock that a skilled person can make it strike in a certain place from 100 feet away.
Now in those caveman days, when we used to throw a lot of rocks, and other projectiles, at animals to kill them for food, it was a great mystery what went on between
(1) the moment when I think of hitting "that animal with this rock" and
(2) the moment when the rock leaves my hand in flight towards the animal.
How does the thought lead to the perfect motion of the hand? A total mystery then, about which even today we have only very partial explanations.
But we have long had a very good understanding of the rock's path from the hand to whatever it strikes. This is called the study of trajectories. In the rennaissance, men like da Vinci and Galileo developed mathematical theories for modeling these trajectories, and used these theories to calculate the elevation of a cannon's muzzle that will make the ball land on the target.
The path of the cannonball, as science tells us today, is so simple and predictable because forces have been isolated. We can almost say that the rock's path is determined by (1) its initial velocity and (2) the earth's gravity, and the interplay between these two "inputs" is indeed simple, and reducible to a formula, as Newton showed.
Now the caveman could not work out this theory; nevertheless the mathematically predictable behavior of a compact heavy object in flight (given its velocity and direction at the moment it goes into free flight) made is possible for the right-brain, which deals with spatial relations in a nonverbal way, to determine how to throw a rock in order to hit a target.
When we build a machine, we build something that somehow, because of its polished, precisely straight or precisely round, or otherwise precisely, regularly, fashioned surfaces, and arrangements, is precisely predictable and controllable. Once set in motion, we know which way it will go; or if we want it to go a certain way, we know how to make this happen. Where do we find anything of such regularity in nature?
The rock or cannonball in flight is one such. But being a system that only exists for a second, it is not very satisfactory. There is one great, exciting, example, which is the solar system. A set of bodies in motion, so arranged that all the possible forces that could come into play have been put into a balance, such that only some few properties determine the visible parts of the system's functioning.
Perhaps we should really study the idea of mechanical regularity, how humankind ever discovered such a thing (which may help us understand something about how the idea is construed by people). What sorts of things we can accomplish with this phenomenon called mechanical regularity, and to what extent does it really pervade nature.
Can we find anything in nature that is demonstrably like a machine?

  • Movements of the stars -- the same stars, night after night, pass in succession; except not quite; there is variation, according to season, in the southernmost(?) visible stars.
  • The gradual recognition of regularity of time; learning how to measure time, and what signs indicate that it is time to plant. Probablistic.
  • The challenge of understanding the movements of the planets.
  • Out of contemplation of the stars and planets -- out of our fascination with this phenomenon which is available and visible to anyone anywhere on earth -- and its remarkable regularity, comes the beginning of truly powerful modeling systems for complex moving systems -- Calculus and Newtonian physics.
  • Other aspects of nature that helped point the way to the exact sciences.

  • Some precursors came from the study of trajectories, and of optics -- these also can be linked to important mathematical understandings.
  • The behavior of pure substances (chemistry).
  • So I'm saying that mechanical regularity is a rare phenomenon in nature. We have to look very hard to find them, and in doing so, we develop a habit of not focusing on the contingent.
    If our surroundings seem very regular and controllable, as they do (though maybe not if we were to focus our attention differently), in our technological civilization, it is not just because humankind "discovered" the regularities of nature. It is largely because we rearranged the substances of our world into regular, governable, objects.
       [Note: The next and final couple of paragraphs are ruminations that haven't gotten very far, and may appear to point in directions that I would disavow after spending more time with them:]
    During the Enlightenment, there was a great fascination with the idea of social engineering. But what do we have to do to make people and societies controllable? We make objects controllable by reshaping them; purifying the materials; making things exactly round or exactly straight or exactly flat (as nearly as possible). Maybe an analogous process with human beings is to reduce motivations to one simple one, which, for someone in the right position, can be easy to manipulate; i.e. fear.
    At any rate, that is largely the rule that slave owners followed, and the rule used by the largest-scale social engineers of the last two centuries: Napoleon, Hitler, and the leaders of the large Communist nations.
    The liberal economists had a different approach. They did not claim discover a method for making a social machine that would perform acrobatics and turn on a dime, but thought there was great virtue in making everything reducable to money (much as a free-flying object is reducable to mass and speed and direction of movement), so that most of our energy is exerted towards solving an optimization problem: some kind of maximization of wealth.

    Saturday, July 3, 2010

    The Triumph of (a) Monotheism (b) Reason (c) Liberty

    I listened (on CD?) to quite a bit of The Gnostic Gospels by Elaine Pagels today. I am impressed by how old ideas or themes come up again and again in different guises, so that again and again, people receive the same ideas as if they were completely new. In particular, it seems to me the gnostics were very close in spirit to Transcendentalists -- not that the latter promised such explicit secret revelations as tended to permeate Gnosticism -- but there was a sort of obscurantism or sense of dealing with the ineffable about Transcendentalism which made it opaque to outsiders.

    One thing that has always tended to excite people is newness itself, and a variant that I might call "at-last-ness". The perception that an idea or movement is new, or has arrived "at last" tends to give us a certain optimism about it or enthusiasm for it. The "idea whose time has come" is thought to be irresistable or inevitable.

    Inevitability is another eternal theme, but is often found tightly bound up with its apparent opposite. We seem strangely happy to view an idea as both "INEVITABLE" and "OVERWHELMINGLY RESISTED". A deep well of folklore supports this strange pairing. Ideas which have been strongly cast in this (dual) light include Monotheism, Enlightenment (with various meanings), the "Triumph of Reason", Equality, Liberty, Democracy.

    Saturday, May 22, 2010

    When Someone says Islam *IS* based on Tolerance, Charity, ... [It Really MIGHT depend on the meaning of IS, part II]

    If you haven't already, I recommend reading Part 1.

    OK, if someone says (as I'm sure some do) that "Islam is based on Tolerance, Charity, ..." -- while on the other hand inciting hatred and violence to Jews, or Americans, or Muslims of another persuasion, then this is something we call lying, and that sort of thing happens a lot, as we all know.

    But there is plenty of evidence if you're willing to look, of ordinary Muslims, in America, Britain, Pakistan, or Africa, whose lives are about going to work and raising children who say and sincerely believe such a statement.

    As I see it, they are to a great extent using the word is to make a declaration; they are not merely describing some objectively observable entity called Islam. Now as I said in Part 1, we human beings are habitually often muddled about whether something that comes out of our mouths is a declaration or a claim of fact. This "muddle" has been called by one ontological comedian  "not knowing your ass from a hole in the ground", because he claims nothing is more like the essence of who you are than your ability to make a declaration, and know that you have made a declaration, and follow through as if what you just spoke was a declaration. In fact when most mortals say something say something like "I'm going to lose 10 pounds in the next month", our mental attitude is somewhere on the boundary between promise and mere prediction.

    So, even if the declarer says "No, this isn't me, this is just what Islam is", I say they are almost surely in part holding it as a declaration. And, unless they are among the liars and propagandists, they truly believe, and may actively support the belief that the haters, the terrorists, and the Imams who act like a law unto themselves are not practitioners of their Islam.

    And we ought to be very glad they are out there talking and living that way.

    P.S., the Koran and other Islamic writings, like the Bible, contains contradictions, and people resolve those contradictions in their own creative ways, or the ways of their communities. I'm not familiar with the most disturbing passages of the Koran, which I assume exist, but in the Christian and Jewish Bible, Isaiah 13, we see God's declaration that:

    3: I have commanded my holy ones; I have summoned my warriors to carry out my wrath...

    15: Whoever is captured will be thrust through; all who are caught will fall by the sword.

    16: Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be looted and their wives ravished.
    Infants dashed to pieces before their eyes? wives ravished?  Strong words.

    There is a whole lot of exhortation to slaughter wicked infidels in the "Old Testament" as Christians call it, yet I don't personally know any Christians or Jews who live by that sort of code today, though I'm sure they exist somewhere. Maybe you would say they are not real Christians or Jews. And if that's what you say, holding it partially, at least, as a promise, then I say "more power to you".

    If we blind ourselves to the existence of sincere Muslims who are decent human beings, we are left with what? Wage war on the whole Muslim world?  Nothing could do more to bring on a uniting caliphate in that very divided world.

    QUOTE: "There could be a powerful international women's rights movement if only philanthropists would donate as much to real women as to paintings and sculptures of women"
        This book has plenty to say the very worst things happening to women in the world. Chapters include "Rule by Rape" and "The Shame of 'Honor'", and it certainly doesn't shy away from misogyny in the Muslim world.
        But it doesn't stop there -- with no hope unless maybe the "hope" of converting (or if not that, then what?) 1.5 billion Muslims -- an idea as impossible as it is inhumane, and based on inability to see that there are many Muslim cultures.
        Indeed the last chapter, which can be read online, is "Four Steps You Can Take in the Next Ten Minutes."

      Bangladeshi-born Muhammad Yunus is another believer in improving society by empowering women.  In 1973 he was an economics teacher in Tennessee with an American wife.  Shortly after Bangladesh became independent, in a time of severe famine, he returned to his newly independent native country.
       After some years there founded the Grameen Bank, the original blueprint for "Microlending" which is now a worldwide phenomenon.  It started with money out of his own pocket to provide tiny loans to poor villagers, especially women, and has grown and diversified enormously in the last 35 years.  The loans must be for specific business purposes (such as buying a supply of bamboo for making stools), and loan recipients are required to belong to support groups, which have helped maintain the extraordinarily high rate of loan repayment.
        Yunus is no fan of government programs for the poor, but believes passionately in his trademark form of "social business" which is something in between the normal non-profit, and corporations which are legally obligated to maximize profits no matter what.
         Some of Grameen's enterprises have included the "Telephone Ladies" who for a time were likely to be the only owner of a phone (cellular) in a village, and who made the phones available for a fee.  Something like the old style payphones that those villages never had -- at a fraction of the cost.
         The "Micro Lending" which Yunus made famous, has been imitated by groups all over the world, and I believe the total scale of this kind of operation had gotten into the billions of dollars.

      History of the Shiite-Sunni split.  Particularly interesting at a time when people believe an email that says the martyr "Imam Ali" flew one of the planes on 9/11 (it turns out Imam Ali was a founding prophet of the Shiites, who died before 800 AD, and so did not live long enough to participate in the 9/11 attacks  - see "My Not-Really Right-Wing Mom and her Adventures in Email-Land"

    Wednesday, May 5, 2010

    It really MIGHT depend on what the meaning of the word "is" is.

    If you think every word has a definition, and definitions are how we know what words mean, consider the word "is" -- which is a pivotal part of every definition -- indeed of the very idea of definition. A bear is a large furry mammal that sometimes walks on it hind legs, etc., etc.

    When Bill Clinton said:
    "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the--if he--if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not--that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement....Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."

    it was just an example of a legalistic way of dealing with a question -- i.e. it's fine to ignore the intention of a question, even when it is perfectly obvious that you are doing so -- you can split hairs and answer the literal meaning of a poorly or not too carefully worded question, and not say "Oh, but I suppose you meant ...". That's the rule of the game on the witness stand.

    But there is one huge and important variation in the way the word "is" is used. If someone says, "I am your friend", or "I am a Christian", or "I am a Muslim", the statement is or should be a promise. Actually it is almost certain to be a mixture of promise and assertion. By the "assertion", I mean you might run through some checklist like "I go to church", "I pray", etc., or "We get together socially every week or so", "I came to help you when you moved".  But the statement {I am your friend/a Christian/a Muslim} would be heard by almost anyone* as having an element of promise, promising for one thing that you will still be  ____ ten minutes from now, tomorrow, maybe forever [your friend/a Christian...]; you are not just making an observation about this moment -- indeed you are not "just making an observation" at all. Unless that element of promise or intentionality  was part of your being as you made the statement [I am your friend...]  -- i.e. if you had a mental reservation like "but I won't be your friend tomorrow", most people with normal brains would consider that untruthful.

    The same sort of distinction applies, even more sharply, to any sentence purely about the future (so we're likely to pass from "am/is" to "will" or "shall"). A sentence about the future is either a promise or a prediction, and people are apt to interpret a sentence about oneself in the future as a promise.

    Well, maybe, because what you would wish to be a promise is more typically an unholy mixture. A real promise is like when Scarlett O'Hara says "Never Again", and is never quite the same again. A real promise changes the person who makes it. The truth is, nearly everyone is a bit confused about whether they're really making a promise or not. E.g., when you said "I'm going to lose 10 pounds in the next month", it was part promise and part prediction, and as soon as you saw, with a sinking feeling, that the prediction was proving false, whatever promise aspect was in it when you said "I'm going to lose 10 pounds in the next month", that promise aspect probably started to evaporate.

    I could cite John Searle (a philosopher) or others, but these words either get you or they don't.

    * Now how the hell do I know this, you might ask, but at least consider whether the statement "rings true" for you or not.

    Thursday, April 29, 2010

    My Life, Pandemonium (Moynihan), On the Shoulders of Giants (Robert Merton) ...

    Originally: Wednesday, May 10, 2006 (After a Long Absence)

    What constitutes my being these days?

    I'm an online bookseller, struggling to make it pay decently.

    It often seems like I'm just shuffling around; as for intellectual life, I pick up a book, read it for a while, then go on to another, and maybe back on another day to a previous one. It feels pretty aimless. Every now and then I go to a history seminar and get somewhat inspired. I hope to say something useful to the speaker.

    Books looked at recently: have almost read to the end Pandaemonium by Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Seems like very good ruminations on the influence of ethnicity on recent history, and how ethnicity has been given short shrift in political analysis. Marxism has focused on economic class as the Rosetta Stone of history. Liberalism has believed too much in the rational individual, and market forces, which are seen as largely benign. Enough for now on Pandaemonium.

    Not too long ago I was readhing Thomas Browne, a physician in the time of Cromwell and the Restoration. This was influenced by the course I took over a year ago on the History of Communication, an experience that turned out badly, as due to the difficulty of making a living, I found myself at a critical point in the class, unable to spend time writing a paper, which led to one more incomplete. If I ever salvage my graduate school career, it will take almost a miracle.

    I also read, with some pleasure, On the Shoulders of Giants by Robert Merton, a playful exploration of Newton's saying "If I see far, it is because I stand on the shoulders of giants and its antecedents, perhaps going back to the classical era -- certainly going far back into medieval times.

    For entertainment, I've read Depth Takes a Holiday by Sandra Tsing Loh. It is for some reason one of a couple of dozen books that seem to be climbing the stairs, trying to escape the basement or "book dungeon".

    Not long ago I was working on scripts or programs to identify past customers most worth contacting to make suggestions about books I have that they might want, and to facilitate finding books related to those they'd ordered in the past, but where in the million files on my computer IS that code? I have no idea. I pulled out of that sort of work abruptly to bail out the ship by putting lots of books on line.

    Friday, April 23, 2010

    This Isn't Living ... it is merely Existing.

    Originally Written: Thursday, February 03, 2005

    This is Merely Existing - not Living. That's the sort of thing some of my generation used to say when we were young, real young, High School age, when we went to liberal church camps and sang folk songs around the campfire.

    What would an existentialist think of such a statement. One of the problems is that words of this sort always wander in their meanings. Deprecating "mere existence" would be a strange way for someone calling themself an existentialist to talk, yet we might reasonably understand them as really "live" and not merely "exist" -- at least in a 1960s liberal teen-ager's understanding of those terms.

    I went looking for a decent definition of ontology. The first illustration in the 'wikopedia' version, of an ontological problem was
    "Do all nouns refer to entities?"
    and they assert that Platonist philosophers tend to say "yes", but others would say that "society" for example isn't an entity, but only refers to some sort of collection of persons.

    It is fairly common to believe that there are fundamentally different ways of being as a human being. What would qualify as fundamental? Might this involve mere pretentiousness, or the manipulation of words that elicit highly emotional reactions from people -- perhaps for questionable purposes?

    There are many ways to try to speak about this. "Higher consciousness" is a favorite phrase, or just "consciousness", or enlightenment. Many "masters" have a recurrent theme of putting us on our guard against making a fetish of the sonorous word or phrase. The great ontological comedian Werner Erhard used to like to say "You don't know your ass from a hole in the ground", implying that this "ass vs. hole in the ground" might be an important distinction he was about to impart. Not as nice, for some people, as being promised the "beautific vision", or nirvana, etc. Zen Masters sometimes spoke of the "stink of Zen".

    Is there a way of being
    (Note: a way, not a kind of being -- you need a certain gravitas, which way has and kind doesn't)
    compared to which what I'm doing right now is a sort of passive, unconscious thing, just allowing myself to be pushed along?

    Does true being, or really living mean something like "the creative life?" If so, what does it take to be really creative? We see generations of artists dismissing their predecessors as uncreative. Take a look at How to Draw a Bunny, (Amazon Link) the movie about Ray Johnson, for an extreme example of a different sort of being. You might say he was a profoundly playful man. Is play the essence of "real being"? Some will say it is fierce commitment. Are they somehow the same thing?

    One reason I'm doing this blog is to help make play a more central part of my life.

    Another sort of play for me is to get onto some beautiful wild trails, on cross-country skis, or just on foot. Anyway, moving through an unexpected world -- going someplace just because I'm drawn to it. Most of the time I seem to be running around in circles pursuing goals that seem urgently necessary for survival, and it is hard, and might seem foolish, not to put those survival goals first, but I find myself growing indifferent and hence weaker. Next, perhaps, I must beware the trap of doing just enough "real living" to keep the machine charged up with a certain amount of spirit -- treating my self as a means.

    Googling the Ontological Comedian

    Originally Written: Sunday, February 20, 2005

    I'm very disturbed to find that, after over 2 weeks, I still can't find anything when I google "ontological comedian". What's become of all-inclusiveness of google? Is it making value judgement, maybe due to 'payola' or other commercial considerations? Or is it's 'scan cycle' longer than I'd have imagined?

    Or does blogspot hide (on fail to disclose) its contents by simply not providing a table of links to the various blogs in a known place? But didn't I create my own static link to it?

    A Sampler of Ontological Comedy on the Web

    When I google ontological and comedian as 2 words (no quotes), it's a very different matter. There are 931 (English) hits, including: