Thursday, July 27, 2006

Michael Hirsch: Making Enemies

Michael Hirsch has written an excellent article about the "War on Terror" here at newsweek:
Today, more from the muddled strategic thinking of the Bush administration than the actual threat from Al Qaeda, the "war on terror" has become an Orwellian nightmare: an ill-defined war without prospect of end. We are now nearly five years into a war against a group that was said to contain no more then 500 to 1,000 terrorists at the start (in case anyone's counting, 1,776 days have now passed since 9/11; that is more than a full year longer than the time between Pearl Harbor and the surrender of Japan, which was 1,347 days). The war just grows and grows. And now Lebanon, too, is part of it.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Still Deeper Embarrassment for My Country

I bet a lot of Republicans think it's hilarious that we have a frat boy as our President. They probably think that other countries are just cesspools to be treated like dirt. Is it appropriate for our President to use foul language in the presence of world leaders? How about giving Chancellor Angela Merkel an uninvited neck rub? This isn't a Pink Panther movie, it's reality, people!!!

Now, it looks like the Bush Administration has lost its bid to throw out the Geneva Conventions:
The Pentagon has acknowledged for the first time that all detainees held by the U.S. military are covered by an article of the Geneva Conventions that bars inhumane treatment, according to a memo made public on Tuesday.
So, we've spent the last 5 years abusing human rights in order to gain what? Nothing. The policy is overturned because it has been shown to be both useless and illegal. How much damage has been done to the reputation of the United States by this utter incompetence in executing foreign policy? Could Osama bin Laden have asked for more? I doubt it.

How about this?
McConnell, R-Ky., the second-ranking GOP leader in the Senate, said the 5-3 court decision "means that American servicemen potentially could be accused of war crimes."

"I think Congress is going to want to deal with that," McConnell said on NBC's "Meet the Press." He called the ruling "very disturbing."
This sad excuse for a human being is upset because American servicemen might be accused of war crimes. He's not concerned about whether war crimes occurred, but whether they might be accused even if they're guilty. Senator, some American servicemen are guilty of war crimes, and they should be dealt with as war criminals. To fail to do so, would bring dishonor to all American servicemen. Are American war criminals exempt from accountability? You don't have to be a foreigner to be sickened by politicians like McConnell.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Axioms and Morality

"Axiom" is just a fancy name for an assumption. Our view of the world is built on assumptions, and the logical structures that result from them. These assumptions cannot be proven, for even the principles that guide logical proof are also founded on unprovable assumptions.

We assume that the world is at least partially logical and structured. What does this mean?

In a partially logical world, we can point to some things that could, in principle, be contradicted. A historical claim is contradicted if the event never occurred. A house is painted or it isn't. A glass is broken or it isn't. 2 + 2 = 4 or it doesn't. Without logic, we would have to admit facts and their contradictions simultaneously. No proposition could be meaningfully true because its negation might also be true.

A partially structured world is one in which we can recognize some persistent patterns. 1 + 1 = 2 every time, not just the first time we compute it. A dropped glass falls to the floor every time. Most memories are recollections of past occurrences, not fantasies.

Life without these two assumptions is almost unthinkable, yet there is no proof at all without these axioms, so the axioms cannot prove themselves. Though we will be tempted to regard these axioms as necessary, they cannot be proved to be so. Any act of rational thought relies upon them, so they are necessary for rational thought, but does that mean we should accept these axioms? Can we imagine someone who rejects these axioms, and lives life in the moment, eschewing rational thought? It's difficult to imagine, but perhaps not inconceivable. Perhaps, if a person ignored all rational predictions, he might live in accordance with rejection of the two axioms. Not that I know of anyone who would actually do this. Logic and structure are too useful, too emotionally satisfying. For humans, it may be biologically impossible.

Though the axioms of logic and structure cannot be shown to be necessary in any broad sense, they are necessary for rational thought. If you're going to reason about philosophy, you have already accepted these axioms.

As it happens, these are the axioms of naturalism. These axioms predict that science will work. If we can find persistent logical structures in the world, then those structures make predictions. It's that simple.

Morality is a phenomenon that may end up being explained naturalistically. However, such an explanation only tells us why we feel to do what we feel we should do. It can only explain our feelings. It cannot tell us whether we should act on them or against them. In the eyes of naturalism, morality is as real as any other phenomenon, but it makes no prescriptions for how we should act. Naturalism can only tell us how we should act if we already know what goal we should seek, and it is that overarching goal that moralists want to identify.

What moral conclusions can the naturalist draw? Well, presumably the naturalist accepted the axioms of naturalism out of a desire to benefit from them. Humans naturally want to survive, to avoid pain, and to obtain pleasure. They can only act to achieve these things by assuming the axioms of naturalism. Otherwise, no action could be predicted to have desired effects. We each have our own thirsts to be quenched, and we're just using the predictability of the universe to assist us in quenching them. For the naturalist, the good is that which satisfies desire.

Where do the supernaturalists fit in? I think that most supernaturalists accept the axioms of logic and structure, making them baseline naturalists. However, they go beyond the naturalist's belief that we can find logically consistent systems, and beyond the belief that we can find structured things. Rather, the supernaturalist believes that the entire universe is logical, even when we cannot find the logic of it, and that the entire universe is structured even when we cannot find that structure. Supernaturalists may even propose that there are structures that are utterly undetectable.

These supernaturalist beliefs require additional assumptions, and these assumptions are motivated by new desires.

I think that morality is the primary motivation for accepting axioms. Morality, is all about how we should act. Naturalistic assumptions can tell us whether actions will lead to desirable results, but they cannot tell us what we should desire. For supernaturalists, this is inadequate. We know that people differ in what they desire. If another man's good is my evil, how do I know my good is, er, good?

Thus, the supernaturalist is drawn to make additional assumptions. Since naturalism cannot provide an "ought" from the observed "is," the supernaturalist proposes additional axioms:

1) There is an objective morality by which actions are judged to be right or wrong. This right or wrong is independent of personal opinion on the matter, and independent of social consensus. An act we consider evil, might actually be universally good, or vice versa.

2) There is a being that can see this objective morality. This is a huge assumption. What assumptions must the being adopt to be able to see this moral reality? What senses must the entity have? We cannot even imagine such a mechanism.

3) This moral sensitive can convey objective morality to humans. This is a relatively small assumption compared with the last two.

4) This being will convey objective morality so in a trustworthy manner. This assumes either a) that trustworthiness and truthfulness is a moral virtue and the being is morally good, or (b) that trustworthiness and truthfulness are evil but the being is objectively immoral. Another big assumption, and one that clearly begins to beg questions.

5) That such a being has communicated with us in the past. This sort of claim is rather different from normal testable claims. Objective morality is inherently untestable. All we have to go on are our personal feelings which have been assumed to be unreliable guides to objective morality. This is quite unlike a sighted man leading a blind man. A blind man knows when he is led into brick walls, or whether his leader appears to see objects at a distance. A morally led person has no way to know whether his leader is trustworthy.

Here we have five big assumptions. Why make them? When you ask the supernaturalist what's lacking with moral relativism, they will respond with a laundry list of moral transgressions, each one assumed to be allowable under the relativist worldview. Supernaturalists will argue that the murderer does what his desires tell him to do, so a murderer is no more wrong for himself than the volunteer firefighter is wrong for himself. I'll examine this claim below, but, suffice it to say, the supernaturalist desires to avoid a personal list of subjectively immoral acts. He wants to say that his rules apply to everyone, no matter what anyone feels.

This moral desire inspires the supernaturalist to adopt the additional axioms. It also inspires the supernaturalist in his decision on who to trust as an objective moral authority.

However, in taking this course, the supernaturalist reduces his worldview to a morally relative one. How can objective morality be arbitrated by a subjective decision to adopt unnecessary axioms, followed by a subjective decision to trust a source as authoritative and trustworthy? It cannot be so arbitrated. The supernaturalist merely cloaks his desires in objectivism to make moral choices look like logical deductions.

The saddest part of the story is that the supernaturalist chases this metaphysical goose for no practical gain. Our social structures of law and order form naturally from moral relativism. Objectivism is useless. Objectivism is not of any help when trying to persuade another party unless both parties have made the same assumptions. Thus, the supernaturalist's assumptions are pointless because they do not lead to avoidance of the supernaturalist's laundry list of evil activities. Like the moral relativist, the moral objectivist must still appeal to the desires of the offending party in order to persuade.

Thus, as far as morality is concerned, moral objectivists have no legitimate claim of superiority over moral relativists. Both have the same persuasive capability, and both are equally founded on personal desires.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

The Difference Between Intelligibility and Meaning

I'm going to expand on my last post about the connection between recognition and meaning. In that last post, I wrote that we only name things that are recognizable (if not recognized). There's little point in naming something we would never recognize again.

In general, meaningful propositions look like:
There are some recognizable x1, x2,...xn such that x1~x2~...~xn
where "~" means correlation. For example, "Tim is tall" means that I will correlate the experiences I would recognize as Tim with experiences I would recognize as tallness. Indeed, the correlation in the proposition is itself recognizable because correlations are inherently recognizable. We recognize both the subjects (xi) and the correlation specified by the claim.

I noted in my last post that we've made a mistake whenever we claim that one of the subjects is unrecognizable, since that contradicts our claim that we started by talking about meaningful things.

An unintelligible proposition is one in which we cannot recognize the subjects. For example, we may be told that "Kes qera tovu axia" is a proposition, but not know what it means because we fail to recognize the words as symbols for recognizable things or relationships.

However, a meaningless or nonsensical proposition is one that contradicts itself by claiming that it represents something recognizable and simultaneously claiming that its correlations are unrecognizable. For example, "all apparently uncaused events have undetectable causes," uses the dangerous word "undetectable." Undetectable is safe when used in a context, as in "undetectable with a Geiger counter," or "undetectable with the unaided eye." However, in-principle undetectability is a meaning-killer. We recognize the individual words in their respective contexts. We can recognize an event as a point in time and space where we see a transition of some kind, e.g., a transition in the trajectories of interacting particles. We recognize a cause as a correlation between the initial and final states of an event. We recognize detectability as a correlation of some kind. Yet, we would never recognize apparently uncaused events having inherently undetectable causes. Indeed, this is a prototypical nonsensical proposition - all of its subjects are recognizable, but its meaning is unrecognizable. Recognition and prediction go hand in hand, and that is why non-predictiveness is sign of meaninglessness.

I'll present one more test proposition: "pixies are undetectable with the naked eye." This proposition assumes that the pixies can be seen or recognized using techniques other than the naked eye. Otherwise, we would not know what it is we were talking about. For the proposition to make sense, we must know how to recognize a pixie in some fashion and with some degree of precision. For example, it is enough to say that a pixie is a tiny humanoid with wings. If we saw such a thing, say, through an ultraviolet camera, we would say, "Aha! A pixie!"

Monday, July 03, 2006

Free Will and Determinism

Why do so many people who claim humans have free will dismiss the deterministic-random dichotomy, and regard free will as a third option?

We recognize that a system is deterministic when we recognize the laws that determine its future state. We recognize that a system is random when we fail to recognize any laws that determine its state. So, what does it mean to recognize that a system is free?

We are familiar with the idea that a man can make a decision of his own free will. A decision made by free will is not made under duress or under "abnormal" external influence (e.g., the decision was not induced by mind-altering drugs). Using this same definition, we can see that it really doesn't matter whether the decision-making process was fully or partially deterministic. What matters is whether the decision was significantly determined by a certain class of external influences.

Thus, there is really no direct connection between "free will" on the one hand, and determinism-randomness on the other.

Where, then, does the mistaken link between free will and determinism come from? The problem arises when we disproportionately focus our attentions on the determinism required for coercion, and ignore the determinism required for free decision-making. For an external influence to coerce a decision, there has to be some causal link between the influence and the decider. However, for the decider to be able to make a free decision that weighs options against the decider's values, there must also be some determinism. Otherwise, a person could not be trusted to make any given decision freely with any reliability at all. In that case, we would not even need a word for "decision."

One clue that the link between free will and determinism is a false one comes from a linguistic analysis of the statement "humans make free decisions, i.e., decisions that are neither deterministic nor random, nor a simple combination of the two."

How would we recognize the difference between humans making free decisions and humans making non-free decisions? After all, if we are going to name a decision as free, we had better be able to recognize free ones versus non-free ones. Our inability to do this is a clear signal that we have stretched our definitions beyond recognizable limits.


I have observed that, before we can name a thing, we must be capable of recognizing it.

It is difficult to imagine uniquely naming a swirl of unrecognizable sensations. Rather, we would just call it something like "that unrecognizable thing that happened last Saturday night."

This requirement that named things be recognizable appears to apply to itself. If we are to name a process "recognition," we must be able to recognize recognition.

Recognition appears to be a sequence of experiences that trigger related experiences. In speaking of the sight of a friend, I might experience the sight of a face which triggers experiences of affection, memories of past experiences, empathy, etc.

While this reliance on recognition places obvious limits on what we can talk about, we should ask whether there are things we can know that we cannot put into words or symbols - things that might not rely on recognition. Let's consider what that might entail.

A statement of knowledge is a attribution of one thing to another. For example, the "carpet is red" assigns a color attribute to the carpet. Suppose that we cannot put this statement into words (not even for ourselves) because we cannot recognize the carpet, the color red, or both. In light of examples like this, it seems utterly implausible that we could know one thing about another without recognizing either. The content of a knowledge statement is precisely that pattern which we claim to be recognizing by its utterance.

Things get interesting when we start to create calculus for meaningful propositions. When I declare that "there are no neon pink things in the forest," then I am clearly creating a shorthand for the following statement:
If X is in the forest, then X is not neon pink, where X is a placeholder for a recognizable thing.
The requirement that X be a placeholder for something recognizable is implicit in most contexts, and its usually omitted. However, there are cases when it needs to be explicit.

If, through a calculus of propositions, we arrive at a proposition like this:
X is good, but X is not recognizable, where X is a placeholder for a thing.
then we have made a mistake somewhere along the way. This is because our statement really should include our implicit condition that X be capable of being recognized as a thing. Making explicit the foundation of our calculus, our statement reads:
X is good, but X is not recognizable, where X is a placeholder for a recognizable thing.
Thus the original statement is self-contradictory if it is regarded as part of a calculus of meaningful propositions.

Therefore, any conclusion we reach is only meaningful to the extent we can replace its placeholders with recognizable things.

I've already written about this as it applies to statements like "every event has a cause." In that post, I showed how easily confusion can arise when we are sloppy about how we recognize the terms in our expressions. Specifically, the recognition signature of total undetectability is identical with the signature of non-existence. When this fact was neglected, it was possible to come up with non-sensical conclusions, such as "every event that has no detectable cause has an undetectable one."

Gentlemen, we have the technology.

The BBC reports on a breakthrough in bionic limb technology:
The technique, called Intraosseous Transcutaneous Amputation Prosthesis (ITAP), involves securing a titanium rod directly into the bone.

The metal implant passes through the skin and the artificial limb can be directly attached to it.

Currently, artificial limbs are fixed or strapped to an amputee's stump.