Concepts that Apply to Everything: Being and Meaning

Concepts are rules for dividing things into two groups: the things that fall under the concept and the things that don’t fall under the concept.  So if you possess the concept “horse” you are able to distinguish between horses and non-horses.  If you are unable to so distinguish, you lack the concept horse.

What about being?  Is that a concept?  According to the above you should be able, if you possess competence at the concept “being” to distinguish between things that are things that are not.  The only problem with this is that there are no things that aren’t, as they aren’t.

A similar issue seems to come up with the concept “meaning” or “meaningful”.  If you possess the concept “meaning” you should be able to distinguish things that are meaningful from things that are meaningless.  But what if everything were meaningful?  Then there would be no example of the meaningless to discriminate from.

Suppose I ask you for an example of the meaningless and you say “Gazblaba”.  Is Gazblaba meaningless?  No, it isn’t. You have just proffered it as an example of meaninglessness, and therefore it has meaning.

So is the definition of “concept” wrong?

Or is the concept of meaning meaningless?

If the concept of meaning is meaningless then so is the statement “the concept of meaning is meaningless”.

If the definition of concept given above is wrong, what is the correct one?


Two Philosophies of Failure

Let’s say we are looking at a tree and it looks like it has ten apples growing on it.  I say “That tree has ten apples.” and you say “No, it doesn’t.  Not necessarily.”  I say “What do you mean?” and you say “You can’t know for sure.  Maybe there is an invisible apple on it that won’t be detected until science reaches a more profound understanding of the the nature of light and the nature of apples, and that won’t happen until you and I are dead, many, many thousands of years in the future.”

You are being a skeptic, and a lot of philosophers since Descartes have argued that is no way to be, and have tried to articulate just what mistake you are making.

I remember hearing Hillary Putnam argue once, in a lecture on pragmatism (although I may misremember), that when I say “there are ten apples on the tree” what I mean is “If science continued for the next 10 to the 100 years –an inconceivable time for humans — far longer than the age of the universe from Big Bang to heat death — we would have no reason to believe there were any more or less than ten apples on that tree.”  So if I say that there are ten apples on the tree I’m right.  That’s what apples being on a tree means — that given our understanding of an unimpeded growth of science into an indefinite, but not infinite future, we will have no reason to think otherwise.

That is definitely one way of assuring that I’m right.  Except for the problem that when I say there are ten apples on the tree, I don’t mean that.  I just mean that there are ten apples on the tree.  And I might be wrong.

It seems like the pragmatist impulse is one way of protecting against failure.  It tries to make the goal of statements like “there are ten apples on that tree” more limited and human and humble, so as to avoid the anxiety of total failure.  Another way is to just make the statements and fess up to the fact that they may fail.

Let’s call these two approaches the “pragmatist” and the “fallibilist”.

Which is a better way of coping with the possibility of failure?  They are both attempts to achieve a sort of cognitive humility, and therefore like all attempts at humility, are prone to morphing into their opposite.  The pragmatist endeavors to be humble about the use of his concepts, but if he becomes proud of his humility he seems to make a dubious claim to have an extraordinary insight into what we really mean by ordinary words like “know” and “apple”.  The fallibilist endeavors to be honest about our mistakes but if he becomes proud of his humility he seems to have discovered something amazing: that we don’t know anything.

Is there a way of making sure for once and for all that our humility will not degenerate into false-humility?   There may be somebody out there who knows the way, but if you meet him don’t tell him he does, as this will surely go to his head.


Old Man in the House Full of Books to Lonely Child

I will tell you what I really think of your parents, and you will promise you will not tell them, but eventually they will figure it out and they will never let you come back here again, and then in a few years there will be an ambulance in front of this house and I will be dead, okay?  So I will just tell you rather than expecting you to guess.

Your parents are piss poor human beings. They are bad at taking care of themselves, bad at loving each other and bad at raising you.  That’s just the way it is.   They just happened to be that way, and if you expect more from them you will get nowhere.   Also your Mom has sexual problems.  Also your Dad treats you like a motherfucking baby.

You need to find other parents.  Most of the best parents are dead, but they have written books.

But your school which is also pure shit and staffed by power-mad, frightened neurotics, is teaching you exactly the wrong thing about books.

Books are weapons for you to fight for your freedom.

I cannot believe you are ten years old and have not read “The Worm Ouroboros”.  Go and fucking read “The Worm Ouroboros”.  Jesus fuck!

Read Bishop Berkeley, read David Hume, read Plato, if you like it read Plotinus otherwise don’t bother.

Read Theodore Sturgeon “The widget the wadget and Boff” and while you are at it read Maakies by Tony Millionaire.

Read Charles S. Pierce and get a thorough grounding in probability theory and some DECENT FUCKING EPISTEMOLOGY not the shit they are sneaking into your books at school.  And sure Machiavelli if you feel the need for politics.  Well you probably will.  So read Machiavelli and the Concept of Anxiety by Kierkegaard and Emerson and Thoreau and then read what you need.

I know at some point after I am dead (and if when that happens you feel sad or scared you might want to read The Upanishads and Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines, or you might not — or Gerschom Scholem?  Maybe.  You decide when you’re older) you are going to ask

–well sure you can get a girlfriend why not?  I had eight children and two of them were not idiots– wiat?  where was I?

–oh yeah.  You’re going to say “I get that I’m locked in a room but why should I assume that my head is the shape of the keyhole?  What is the likelihood?”

What is the likelihood that your head is the same shape as the keyhole?  What is the likelihood you can change your head to be the right shape of the keyhole or change the shape of the keyhole to the shape of your head?

Did that old man trick me?  Did he waste my time?

You’re going to ask that.  I promise you.   You are a smart kid and not an asshole and you will ask that question.  And you will come up with the obvious way to answer it, obviously, as everybody always does.

Unless they don’t.

Anyway, go home and tell your parents I used bad words but I didn’t do anything bad to you.  And they give each other a look that they think you don’t notice and will think to themselves “As far as you know.”


Math is Good: Against Math-phobia, “Lies Damn Lies and Statistics”, “Not Everything that Counts can be Counted”

People sometimes say things like:

  • you should feel what is important in life and not go around measuring everything like a computer
  • there are lies, damn lies, and statistics
  • not everything can be counted.

But do they really mean them?

People also think:

  • it’s a bigger deal if one hundred children die than if one child dies
  • it’s a bigger deal if you have to wait a year to see a doctor than if you have to wait a minute
  • If you have thirty moments of incredible bliss listening to composer A and 1 moment of incredible listening to composer B then composer A is more transcendent than composer B
  • If potential life partner A did one caring thing for you and a thousand selfish rotten things and potential life partner B did a thousand caring things for you and 1 selfish rotten thing then partner A is a worse choice for a husband or wife than partner B.

Why the contradiction?

The number of things is important.  A drug that kills 1 out of a billion children is very different than a drug that kill 200 million out of a billion children.  A person who is nice once a day is different than a person who is nice a hundred times a day.  A piece that makes you feel the touch of God on your heart a hundred times is more profound than one that makes you feel that only 1 time or zero times.

But you need to know what the units are and be able to identify them in order to count them.

You just need both: the ability to recognize an instance of a concept and the ability to count it.

You need to recognize how one child is different from all other children and is unique.  But you also need to be able to recognize that if you take one child and add another child you get two children.  In other words you need to know what counts, but you also need to know how to count.

Poets are not the enemies of mathematicians: and indeed how could they be?  They need to count the syllables in their lines.


What Does it Mean to “Upload My Intelligence into a Computer”?

The legend or rumor says that some very wealthy businessmen in Silicon Valley hope to live forever by means of artificial technology.  The idea is that a very old man will die but before his death will have constructed a robot that is sufficiently like him that he will not die.  The robot will be him.

To see the problems here, consider that the simplest way to produce a being that is biologically identical with you is by cloning.  If you have the ability to create a much younger clone of you, and you believe you are identical with a clone, the if you can create a much younger clone of yourself at the moment of your death then you have achieved your goal.

But now consider further (I promise this will be one of the last things to consider) that an identical twin is a clone.  So if your mother used IVF technolgoy and created more than one frozen embryos, and one of those was an identical twin, you could at the moment of your death cause that embryo to be brought to term.  Would that mean you were still alive?  No, it would mean that you were dead and now had an identical twin.

What if you took steps to ensure  that that identical twin was raised in an environment so it saw the world the way you did, and had your beliefs and answered to your name?    Would you still be alive?  Another way of asking the question — fi you were very old, would you sacrifice your life to bring about this state of affairs?   Aside from the fact that this twin would have a very different history than you did — you were raised by humans and allowed to form your beliefs freely (more or less) the clone would be the victim of a brainwashing program intent to make him like you — would its life compensate you for your death?

Somebody might think that.    Somebody might take all his money and resources and time away from his family and community and devote them to creating the identical twin who answers to his name and votes the same way he does.  It’s hard to prove people wrong who do things to save their lives.  We consider “preserve yourself” to be a rock-bottom axiom of practical reasoning.  Beyond “it’s good for me” (or perhaps “it’s good for us”) how do persuade?

That means you could not prove such a person wrong., but it also means you could not prove such a person right either.  They would have no reason for believing the future twin was worth spending money on.   The hypothetical silicon valley businessman who sacrificed his own concerns could not I think be shown to be inconsistent, but neither could the person who chose to commit the resources not to creating the brain-washed twin but to a local hospital with his name on it.

This is analogous to those of us who make sacrifices for a group.  During the nuclear arms race the philosopher Bertrand Russell argued “better red than dead”.  In other words he thought it would be better for the US to stop being the US than to risk global catastrophe.  Most Americans (or at least politically powerful Americans) disagreed.  Yet it was a hard question to argue because as in the case of uploading its hard to argue people out of an identity.

If somebody says they will risk a nuclear war that destroys the human race in order to preserve the United States because “I’ll do what it takes to keep us alive” you might think that was rational.  What if the United States that they preserved had no humans in it and consisted of just a bunch of intelligent chimps who wave American flags?  It would seem pretty strange that this hypothetical patriot was willing to risk global annihilation to keep America alive if America wouldn’t even have any human beings in it, but  how could you prove such a person wrong?  He considers the future flag-waving chimps part of his “we” and a Russian not part of his “we”.  I think you could induce him through love and friendship to see the world differently.

What counts as “me” and what counts as “good” are questions that we don’t answer separately.  We answer them together. What I desire for me depends upon what I care about enough to consider as “me”.  And vice versa.  The “good”, “me” and “what is to be desired” seem to connect on a very deep level.

So for example a person can kill himself because he thinks he’s no good.  A person can hate himself.  And yet — he does think he is himself.

It’s schizophrenic that our civilization holds simultaneously

a)the self is an illusion

b)the most rational people care most about themselves.

You can’t have both.

It makes you wonder whether the problem with bad people is that they love themselves too much or not enough.


Why Believe in the Singularity?

One argument for the singularity is that artificial cognition will become so advanced that it will be able to alter itself, that eventually it will reach a point beyond which we won’t be able predict.  This point of self-transformation functions iike an event horizon, beyond which we cannot see, or conceive.  Hence it is metaphorically compared to the singularity at the middle of a black hole.

This is specious.   First of all, there is no reason why in principle it would be impossible to speculate about the future — in other words no analogue to the physical limitations on the speed of light. Maybe as robots advance our understanding of them will advance with them, or maybe they’ll provide us some sort of gigantic tutorial so we don’t lag behind.  As far as we know there is no past epoch which is separated from our present by an event horizon.  If you asked Xerxes to speculate about the 21st century there is plenty he wouldn’t know but he would get some things right: there is sex, and wars, and banking, rivers are still important, people like dessert, and so on.

Secondly if the post-singularity state of the world is truly “inconceivable” then we have no grounds for saying it is singular, or not singular, or future, or past or anything.  It’s just inconceivable.  We can’t even say that it is not just extinction.  We just don’t know.  It’s a null claim.

Another argument that I just heard from a commenter here is that super-powers will tend towards the quick establishment of a super-empire, which will be unified.  I don’t see why this should be the case — every global empire has fallen to internal division and revolt.  Even if one of the super-advanced super-robots of the future were to discover a death ray at 10 am and conquer the world by 10:30, there’s no reason to believe that by 10:45 he would not be faced by revolts by whatever was the analogy of his generals and provinces.  Perhaps even subsystems of his own super-self.

Would he not then try to incorporate every other being in the world until Borg-like, he reigned alone?  This brings us I think to the nub of the mistake of the singularity fantasists.  It assumes that given awesome power a super being would use it to be safe and alone rather than say use it to help the other robots do their thing.  It assumes he would not want to have a romantic relationship, or friendship, or children, or just partners for different pursuits.

That is to say the singularity theorists think logic tells us that a barricaded lone ego is the logical result of progress.  Actually they have a previous belief that a barricaded lone ego is the best thing or the most fundamental reality and therefore interpret motion towards that state as progress.  As in so many things if you scratch a grand philosophy of history you find personal psychopathology.


New York, 1983

“For a time it was the spot, a phototropic draw to every dappled semi-entity and mecurochrome-swigging hotsy-totsy; the atmosphere by turns keen, bitter, brittle and plangent seemed to reflect a deep-seated awareness that from here on in no awarenesses would be deep-seated but would pull up a chair at the banquet of life with hairy haunches; the sound was an erratic mixture of rhythm, silence, and a pullulation that seemed to be an irritating mixture of the worst qualities of harmony and discord: the myriad scenes that made up the unconscious of the city’s dream-life were played out every time two people shared a glance, a moment, a word, a touch, as if each of these (glance,moment,word and touch) shattered under the impact of the city’s own investigation into itself into a dust of auto-reflective fragments which viewed from the one distance seemed a gibbering ape-face intent on copulation and from another distance an angel from the book of Enoch who looked upon apocalypse as a throw of dice forged from the skeleton of a pharaonic Hermes and from another distance as a mirror reflecting a desire to know not what the next moment would bring but what might transpire before that.”

— Tabitha Wolpe, “Famous People I have Known”, Hello New York magazine, v.1, issue 1, 1983.


Signs he is Not the One for You

  1. He is not the one for you as he not one but many as a collection, a swarm, or crowd.
  2. He is genderless being an abstract quality such as equality, justice, or temperance
  3. He is for no one: he  spreads his musk on the prospector’s cabin and rends the items therein with his claws as he is a wolverine
  4. He is for no one: he is a fine dust coating the books and papers of Bernardo De Las Casas in the University of Salamanca
  5. He is for no one: the echo of a yodel on a fine winter’s morn
  6. He is not as he is a misconception about the meaning of a poem by Keats
  7. He is not for you as he is yourself, but temporally displaced, your Sunday occuring on his Saturday
  8. He is not as he is the copula, connecting Socrates and mortal, banana and yellow
  9. He is not the one for you as “he” “is” “the” “one” “for” and “you” cannot be applied to him as he is ineffable
  10. He is old, fat, or dead

I Caught Myself About to Post An Annoying Comment

I recently caught myself in an act of hypocrisy.   A commenter had responded to a post I made by saying “Have fun!”  He meant it ironically — his point was I was being an idiot.  As I was driving to my office I figured out how I would respond.  “Bless your heart!  You have fun too!”

As I drove I thought what I was doing.  I was deliberately pretending to misunderstand the aggressive intent of his message in order to annoy him.  In my fantasies he would waste time and get mad trying to tell me that he meant to hurt and his message “Have fun!” should not be taken at face value.  He would feel ashamed to have to cop to his aggression or perhaps just baffled — not sure why my concept “Bless your heart!” annoyed him, but annoyed all the same.  My fantasied riposte — “Bless your heart!” was therefore designed to cause pain, and also designed to hide the fact.

I don’t want to cause pain to random people, and I want to be honest.   I also knew why even though I don’t want to cause pain or be dishonest I had been about to be cruel and mendacious.  If I posted the comment  I would have the feeling of having power over another person without without risk and vulnerability.  I believe this is impossible, so once I realized what I was up to my desire to post the annoying comment melted away.