Life as it ain't

"I'm not really from outer space. I'm just mentally divergent."

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy’

A New Source of Horror

Posted by Ronak M Soni on August 16, 2011

(Horror is so odd. Not terror, which is what you feel when a bus is rushing down on you or when you are confronted with a phobia of yours, but the deep, vertiginous horror that you feel in the pit of your stomach.

Reading H P Lovecraft a couple of months back and thinking about why exactly we feel such a thing, and why everyone understands what you mean when you talk of this feeling, has taken my thinking into various knots whose existence have fairly changed the way I look at the human intellect and led me to explore deeper the connection between intellect and the body. That’s what I should be writing about rather than this, which a weird fiction aficionado characterises as angst rather than true “cosmic horror,” but I’m too lazy and the subject gets me too confused. Hopefully I can come up with a post about it sometime in the next year or so, but there’s a good chance I won’t be able to.)

The greatest horror is not in the existence of ghosts or murderous trans-human species with tentacles (both of which I feel fill the same role for horror as God does for existential comfort, the idea that something predicated on the same vicissitudes as day-to-day life is worthy of greater emotion than it simply because it is not our everyday life) but in the passing of time itself — the inexorable, half-noticed way in which time jumps scales — coupled with the need to be productive, the constant asking of oneself, “where have I got?”

There are over thirty days in a month, yet a month consists of but four weeks and a week, but of seven days. It is in this ripple-like effect of wasting even one hour of your life wherein lies the horror.

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A Meta-Philosophy of Life

Posted by Ronak M Soni on May 5, 2010

I was surprised when I learnt that philosophy was Greek for love of knowledge; I’d always thought that love came as -philia and philo- was language. But that was subsidiary, I don’t know Latin and I’ve been under no illusions whatsoever about the fact as far back as I can remember, what really surprised me was that it made so much more sense the other way: ‘language of knowledge’.

Isn’t in fact ‘language of knowledge’ a better definition of philosophy as a field than ‘love of knowledge’? The latter is how I’d describe the major attribute of professional quizzers rather than the people who go about trying to understand why we live our lives the way we do, and how we should change that.

‘People who go about trying to understand why we live our lives the way we do’ might sound like a very restrictive definition of what philosophers do, but I’d disagree: I say that the objector’s definition of the word ‘life’ is too restrictive.

As can be read in the right column of this blog, I am at present reading the London University’s undergraduate text book of philosophy (which describes philosophy as the set of all pursuits of knowledge not deep enough to be their own fields). According to it, philosophy, the field, has four major branches, and virtually anything can be said to belong to one or more of these branches. The branches, in order of discussion in the book, are epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and aesthetics.

Epistemology is how we argue, metaphysics is how we look at the world, ethics is how we relate to other beings, and aesthetics is how we achieve beauty; philosophy, in other words, is the study of how a well-rounded person lives his life.

But the reason I’m writing this essay is not a desire to brief my readers about what philosophy is. They all understand that; they just wouldn’t put it into the same words that I just did, and in some cases their descriptions will actually be significantly clearer and more definitive than mine.

What I want them to see, however, is not ‘so this is what philosophy is’ but that we are talking about the same thing but describing it differently. In fact, why go for something as complex as philosophy? Describe the shape of your elbow when your arm is bent. “Tapering convexly.” Of course, someone who can write half-decent prose will think up a much better description, but what you’ll realise is that us describing the things around us – assuming that we are seeing the same things for the same words, which itself is an assumption worth examining – is reminiscent of the story of the blind men and the elephant.

Three blind men are told to describe an elephant that they will get to feel about. One touches the trunk and says that the elephant is like a pillar, one touches the tail and says it’s like a floating broom, and one touches the stomach and says it’s like a rock (or something of the sort, I remember six blind men and more plausible comparisons). What I was describing last paragraph is, in fact, even more extreme; it’s as if all three are feeling the stomach and describing it as a rock, a deserted island and a whale.

But, you’ll be thinking, this is so obvious! Therein, dear sirs, lies the catch. When I was in my eleventh, I read an essay by Aldous Huxley in which he claimed that the best essays said things that you already knew. As you can understand, I was completely baffled, and more or less dismissed it, until I realised this, what I’m trying to say here.

Now, I will stop. It is time to step outside the flow for a moment and state clearly what I’m trying to say here. The problem is, it can’t be said, not really, it can only be really led to, because what I’m trying to say here is exactly that what you say is not what you mean, that you can wander around trying to say meaningful things, but even people who agree with you will disagree with you; what I’m trying to say is that the only meaningful way to make a point is to lead the reader to it.

I realise I’m not making all that much sense here, so let me help you by telling you that this is what art is all about. Recently, I was very strongly mesmerised by the movie Chinatown, but every time I tried to write about it I made its morality sound so simplistic that I began to doubt that I liked it for anything more than how well it was made. Jim Emerson, a critic I respect more than almost every other I’ve read, lists Chinatown as his favourite movie of all time, but has never written about it.

Chinatown: Frames & Lenses, Doors & Windows from Jim Emerson on Vimeo.

Also, take Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. I wrote a little piece on it, and followed it up with this:

This little runt of an essay is, I believe, the centrepiece of my method of understanding this book (revealing the understanding itself, in my opinion, would be spoiling the goods).I began planning to portray this beautiful and poignant novella, how it went from an extended whine to parody during its course, how I love Eliot (quoted at title) because he sounds good but Dostoevsky because he goes so deep into what life is, but soon found that my writing skills weren’t up to the job (it’s certainly a pity that writing has become, for me, the major channel for catharsis). To be honest, even Dostoevsky’s weren’t; didn’t this book, after all, begin as a negative review, a negative review supposedly of a book but actually of a genre, a genre that was basically a mindset? If Dostoevsky needs a hundred pages, how can I be expected to do it in a few hundred words?

That’s not the only time I’ve done it. My essay about the movie Lola Rennt, for example, is full of me dodging having to do any real description.

Why? Because, as J. M. Coetzee (one of my favourite writers) says:

If there were a better, clearer, shorter way of saying what the fiction says, then why not scrap the fiction?

I hope that, amid all the above obscurantism, something emerges for every reader, something at least slightly akin to what I was trying to convey, something akin to what even Huxley was trying to convey.

My title for this piece refers to a “meta-philosophy” of life. The word ‘meta-philosophy’ means nothing but a philosophy (the countable noun as opposed to the uncountable one which refers to the field) of how to deal with our philosophies.

My meta-philosophy, as you’ve probably guessed, takes into account what I’ve tried to lead you to. What my meta-philosophy basically does is warn against taking what you say you believe too seriously. My meta-philosophy is: Do not live by your philosophies; let your philosophies live by you.

PS: Going by my own meta-philosophy, I’m leaving this article unedited, except for basic grammar and phrasing.

PPS: Alternate definitions of philosophy, as well as dissections of mine, are welcome and encouraged.

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A Philosophy of Mutability (or) what was supposed to be a love poem

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 31, 2009

Illustration is probably science and religion with the wall being philosophies.

I'm not completely sure why I think this fits here. Not a collage, I swear.

The world is full to the brim with religions and philosophies. Religions are based on faith. Philosophies are, going on what I have observed, based on perspective. Religions are based on belief in a (technically) immutable God. Philosophies are based on belief in a mutable enough perspective. Philosophies, it can be argued, are better for that very reason: mutability is certainly better than non-mutability (please accept this for now; I’ll come to the justification later). Going down that road, it would seem that the more mutable a philosophy is, the more points it would have by default. Actually, the closer mutability is to the heart of a philosophy, the more points it would have by default. Now, imagine a philosophy based entirely, and exclusively, on (its own) mutability. It would be the best possible thing, except for the fact that we need something concrete to work from. So, we’d need a philosophy that, in spite of being based on mutability, provided us with a concrete basis. Now, suppose the principle behind mutability, for we would need something to guide the mutation, itself provided the means for choosing that concrete basis.

In real life, we have natural selection, a mechanism based on a similar process of guided mutation. Is it a co-incidence that long before we had discovered natural selection, we had discovered its intellectual equivalent? (Not really answerable; just a cool parallel.) In fact, is it a co-incidence that natural selection itself was discovered using, and has maintained respectability due to, this very philosophy?

Yes, dear reader, I am talking about the scientific method. It is a method which starts at the basis that everything is a hypothesis, and we have to search for the truth. It is the first system of thought in history that has started from a method for looking for the truth rather than a statement, or at least tentative idea, of the truth; it has replaced knowledge by the search for knowledge, much like the progress of narrative art from the Greek morality plays to the “art for art’s sake” post-modernists. Most people will tell you that science does make the assumption that our senses are right. Let me tell you: science makes many, many more assumptions. It’s just that they are not central to it.

The idea here is what is known as ‘Ockham’s razor’ or ‘Occam’s razor’. Suppose you arranged every hypothesis in the world such that the more assumptions it made, the farther right it would be. Let’s call this the ‘idea line’. Now you start from the left, and say put a razor in as far left as possible. If whatever came out on the left turned out to be useful or not wrong, we would use it. If it didn’t, we would move one space right. This razor that we are shoving is what is known as Ockham’s razor. If you think about it, it’s a logical step away from the premise I have not quite stated, given the need for something concrete to perform our search with.

So, here’s the beauty of the idea line: none of the hypotheses on it are making any pretensions at truth. They are merely making attempts to get at the truth: science’s basic claim is not truth, but the best way to get there.

How come? What if something to the far right of Ockham’s razor is true? Science’s best answer is a question: how can we ever know if it is true? To which, it gets the question how do we have a better idea of the left hypothesis’ trueness than the right one’s?

Science, of course, must answer this question. Its answer speaks in terms of probability, or – as many would have it – a different version of probability called truthlikeness. I won’t go into the difference, as I am not outlining the various standpoints in science. What it says is, in essence, this: for a hypothesis further left, a statement stating it is true has a greater likelihood, according to our knowledge, of being true (for any estimation of probability is an approximation based on knowledge). That’s it. From what we know, we can’t justify either God or relativity. It’s just that we can come closer to justifying relativity. This is also why mutability is good: if it can be seen that the doctrine is wrong, it should be open to change. The basis for mutability is the ability to disprove anything that is said, and that – that any concrete claim that is made must be refutable – is the best statement, that I know of, of the premise of the scientific method.

Now – and here’s the crunch –, how do we translate this to action? If we don’t know what’s true, how do we manipulate the world based on what little knowledge we have? There is one response to this: the experimental sciences, a branch of science that only experiments. There is also another, not mutually exclusive with the first, response: approximations. Where these work, they work, like in technology, due to which I am now writing this and you reading it.

And, where they don’t, they don’t. Like in medicine. Much of modern medicine can be considered to be quackery, full of doctors making approximations based on statistics. Many of these statistics are in question, as are many of the approximations: many of Somalia’s children may be getting a vaccine proven to work on eighty percent of Americans, and dying because of the mild version of the disease they are getting.

There is also one case where the scientific method is well nigh useless: outliers, a specific kind of them. Remember that story you heard about the blind woman who could narrate a scene which is supposedly recorded by a trustworthy doctor? How do we know whether that is a figment of someone’s or many people’s imagination, or true but unbelievably infrequent? Most of this stuff is what is known as ‘anecdotal’. This means that it has reached from source to other places without meticulous and rigorous examination at the source, so we really have no idea. Now, suppose many, many independent witnesses, at least a few among whom are experts who have thoroughly cross-examined the situation, corroborate an observation, and it is stunningly improbable, like the Statue of Liberty waving at us and going back to its original position, how do we study it? The answer is that we simply can’t. All studying has to be of the evidence for the event actually having happened, in which case no theory can be verified/disproved, for the simple reason that none of its predictions can. And I can make this point without even referring to the human tendency of hyperbole.

There is another thing, not quite a problem with it but an issue surrounding it, about science: fair discussion. It’s very hard to achieve this. It’s a natural human tendency to employ a more effective means of convincing: show me a man who has never used bad logic to his advantage and I’ll show you an alien (see what I mean? If no, look at what that sentence means). Very often, even when your reasons are good enough, they sound weak, which leads you to hyperbole. There are many lines of argument one can, in a large discussion group, demolish in one sentence, but speak it, and the line of argument is going to go on; that measly sentence just doesn’t take up enough space in your audience’s minds, minds where point after point, argument after argument, thread after thread, are fighting to take up space. In such an environment, what chance does one(1) measly, even if incredibly deep – especially if incredibly deep –, sentence have?

This is just what happens in the case of helplessness. There is another, more natural, tendency to bad logic: that of conviction. I’ve already talked about the difficulty of translating this method to action. For this very reason, many have learnt that it’s better to stick to your guns than listen to someone who’s telling you you’re going to die if you do, possibly. It’s as simple as that. The second guy doesn’t make the good leader, the first guy does.

Also, if you notice, the doctrine that would better fit the first guy is religion, which is why all through history it hasn’t been a conquest of people without science by people out to teach them science but a conquest of people without the invader’s religion by people out to teach it to them. It is the great failure of these conquests that a majority of those invaded in the modern times have learnt science rather than Christianity.

This is also the ultimate demonstration of the power of science. Yes, it has its problems, but it is also the best thing we have, and this is the only way I can possibly end this, something that was supposed to be a love poem to the greatest doctrine of truth – nay, the search for truth – in all of human history.

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The Problem of Change

Posted by Ronak M Soni on October 3, 2009

We all say, pretty often, that a person has ‘changed’. But what does that mean? If the person has changed, isn’t he a different person now? If he is still the same person, how can it be that he has changed ? What, basically, do we mean by the word ‘changed’? (This is an easily solved problem, but worth stumbling upon anyway: some essential properties stay the same and some peripheral ones change.) What, also, do we mean by ‘this person’? Is a person simply the sum total of his actions and thoughts, or can his essence be somehow distilled out? In other words, what do we mean by ‘knowing a person’? Does it mean that, given a situation, we can predict what the other person will do? Obviously not. People are too complex for that to be possible. But what does the word ‘complex’ mean here? What, exactly, in a person is so complex that we can never really predict his actions, except in the most mundane of cases? Read the rest of this entry »

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