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Alfie? Alfie? What the hell?

I just finished reading ‘Plato and A Platypus Walk Into A Bar…’ by Cathcart and Klein for the fourth time. It’s not Harry Potter or The Lord of The Rings, but it’s pretty good for an intro to the odd and winding paths of philosophy. And it’s fun to read. Plenty of jokes to illustrate ideas.

Reading this book is all part of my plan to do the stuff I thought I’d be doing when I tottered off to college back in the day. You know, study stuff. How long ago was that, you ask? Well, back then a college education wasn’t fraught with career decisions, a liberal arts degree in the humanities opened the door to a wide variety of work and careers, and employers weren’t looking necessarily for fully trained people but for people who could think and learn. Yeah, that long ago.

I finally got a degree after seven years of educationis interruptus. An Ivy League degree at that. But I’d be hard pressed to say I learned anything that mattered. Certainly nothing that prepared me for my career of some fifty jobs, from waiter to corporate legal admin.

The most interesting work? Reporter for a daily newspaper, and temporary office worker. Reporting, every day was different and new stuff needed to be explored. Working temp provided a change of job and scenery every week or two usually. For better or for worse, I bore easily. And persistence numbers not among my great virtues. Persistence requires a narrowing of focus, but look around. There are tons and tons of interesting things in the world, things, places, objects, creations, ideas, all swirling about an open mind like the vast swirls of dust and gas that forms stars and galaxies. My default choice is to be a galaxy.

So, I end up reading about Plato and an odd creature from Australia doing philosophy. But I’m also studying social psychology, which I didn’t know existed until a few months ago. And logic and argumentation and philosophy, with side trips into math and learning Morse code for radio communication and electronics and reading history and dabbling in all sorts of stuff, from Greek and Latin to modern cosmology. And I play backgammon and am interested in Go.

But these days few people really care for these things. I suspect that all through history only a tiny percentage of humanity ever really cared about them. It’s like the old saw about the library at Alexandria, the one that goes ‘Raise your hand if you still get angry about the library at Alexandria.’ I suspect most people wouldn’t know what the hell you’re talking about when you say that. Me, I still get mad that all that written knowledge was destroyed. I wonder sometimes if the world would have been different if the Alexandrian books had survived instead of the babblings of religious zealots living in the desert near the Dead Sea.

Yeah, so I’m more than a little weird. So what? You expect normality from a guy who spends ninety-nine percent of his time alone? Except for the cats. As long as I feed them I can be as weird as I want and they won’t say a word. On the other hand, when I think I’m getting a bit too far out there, I tell myself that for all the contact and noise and babble people toss back and forth among themselves, everybody is alone. The noise is just about avoiding that fact. Or maybe that’s just sour grapes because I don’t have a girlfriend and a circle of friends. Doesn’t really matter. I may not be able to cuddle with a book, but I can open any of my thousands of books and in a few moments go just about anywhere in time and in the universe in the company of interesting people. (Though sometimes, I admit, I’d rather have the real girl.)

I dunno. I’m babbling. It’s been a long ride. I’m probably going to die alone, but I’d like to think that when I go I’ll have a book in my lap open to a page discussing something really hard to understand. Then when the EMTs find me one of them will say, “Hey, look at this. This guy must have been pretty smart, huh?” It’d be nice if I were smiling.



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Moral Choice?

“If it takes the threat of hell to make you a moral person, then you are not at all moral, you are just a coward who responds well to threats.”

I like the simplicity of the statement, but on further thought I think that perhaps it’s too simple, and a weak counter in that it shortcuts thought.

Consider the proposition that a choice made under duress cannot be a moral choice, but can only be amoral.

If you are ordered by an authority to kill someone or to be killed, and there are no other options, can you make a moral choice, a choice that accrues personal virtue to you? If you kill the person, you have chosen to live, but that doesn’t make you good or bad (or virtuous or non-virtuous). If you refuse to kill and instead die, still nothing accrues to you. Some people will say you made a moral choice, some will say you made a stupid choice: the matter comes down to opinion and as such is simply amoral.

You can only make a moral choice if you make the choice free of all authoritarian duress. If you see a person struggling in a flood and you dive in to try to save him, risking your own life, you’ve made a moral choice. If you choose not to try to save him, you’ve made a moral choice. But if someone orders you to jump in, or to stay on the bank, you haven’t chosen if you obey. Your morality is only tested if you disobey in such a case. Obedience in itself is not moral though it does occasion choice.

That’s a quick limning of the matter. The point is that it serves no purpose to call people cowards if they make their choices on the orders of a being they regard as an absolute authority and under threat of burning in hell or drowning in molasses or whatever if they disobey. They cannot make moral choices in that case and thus cannot call themselves moral beings. They can do great harm or great good, depending on their particular religious delusion on any given day, but they can only be considered moral if they disobey.

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A note from the garret…

I’ve struggled of late (actually for several decades) to define my life to myself in order to focus my scattershot efforts at trying to do something useful and intelligent with my life. And I’m still not having a lot of success with that.

The closest I’ve come to some sort of definition, or defining quality, is that I like to learn stuff. All kinds of stuff. Not to become an expert in anything, nor to win a job or a grade or a girl, but just… because.

Unfortunately one of the obstacles I’ve allowed to get in the way is an insidious drug, an intensely addictive, if ethereal, substance. It is highly addictive, as any number of social and neuroscientific studies have shown. It is corrosive, eating away at the brain, which it simultaneously deadens, much as certain insects anesthetize their prey while their venom eats away at very substance of the victim.

Unlike insect poisonings, however, this thing also insults the intellect by hurling at the still living brain a continuous slew of commercials.

Yeah, yeah, I’m talking about television.

My brain is addicted. Neuroscientists have shown that feeding the visual centers of the brain an image that changes about every two seconds makes the brain happy, almost like those lab rats so addicted to cocaine that they will forgo food for another hit of the drug. The brain will hang there in the increasingly empty space of the skull and insist on more, more, more moving imagery. It can’t get enough. And of course the television people, the people who make the commercials and the programs, know the same bit of science, so they keep that image moving along, bang, bang, bang. That science may explain why an intelligent discussion on PBS can’t compete with… well, with anything else on television, except perhaps the old midnight test patterns.

As for me, I would rather watch a rerun of Bones or Criminal Minds for the third or fourth time than crack open a really interesting book like Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason or Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture. A few months ago it was NCIS reruns, and before that Angel, and Buffy. Lately I’ve exhausted the Bones reruns and the Criminal Minds reruns. Not even watching CM’s Lola Glaudini gun down a serial rapist in cold blood and get away with it holds any charms for me now.

Of late I have found myself sitting in the recliner realizing I was bored out of my skull, feeling insulted by every idiot commercial (there are no other kinds) seeking to suck money from my pocket and intelligence from my mind, and angry that I was still sitting there.

Even the shows I like a lot and that I think have some merit, shows like Stargate Universe and Caprica, barely do it for me anymore, even on tape that lets me speed through the commercials (no machine can go fast enough). The other day, twenty minutes into a brand new, and interesting, episode of Bones, I quit the show during a spate of commercials that had no end in sight, and that seemed to possess no end of stupidity and insult. I didn’t just change the channel. I turned the damned thing off. Click. Gone.

And I think I actually felt my brain breathe a sigh of relief. Or at least relax, as if it had been spasming and suddenly stopped and calmed. The relief was physical, palpable, and utterly enjoyable.

After a few moments basking in the silence of the room and of my mind, I decided it was time to kill the beast, or if not kill it entirely, at least make it miserable. For starters I took a demonic-looking, sort-of-maybe-Mayan cloth and draped it over the television screen, thusly:

2010-10-17 15-27-11.795Perhaps I should have turned it so that the face faced the screen, but that would require me to acquiesce in my brain’s belief that little people live in the box, and I’m just not that far gone.

So far, so good. I have watched some, but not much. I can barely stand to watch anything. Today I tried to watch the Patriots game and once more realized that NFL football is nothing more than a long string of commercials occasionally interrupted by men doing something with a pointy ball. The SyFy (dumbass name) channel held no no more charms for me either, and within a few minutes the set was off and the demon back in place.

There are those, and they shall be nameless, who would say that television does have some good things going for the viewer. They would be wrong, aside from some intelligent work on the Rachel Maddow show, and some things now and again on PBS, but the good stuff is so slight that it hardly qualifies as ‘good things’.

Well, perhaps the news? No. The news shows today are dumbshows, but with noise and words. The producers of television news have subordinated genuine, informative news to personality and to trivia and to trivial personalities. To these people in-depth coverage equates to dipping one’s little toe in the deep end of the pool for a few seconds and then withdrawing it because someone might get offended and not buy the sponsor’s product. ‘The news’ dragged the United States into two useless wars in the last decade, and has dragged itself downwards into its own muck in the process. With the possible exception of the Jon Stewart faux news show, which does a much better job of presenting the news than pretty much any other show.

Dramatic shows? I doubt there are any that can survive the onslaught of commercial nonsense that pays the actors’ salaries. An aware, intelligent mind can’t put up with the commercial stupidity and the general insipid repetitiveness of the so-called dramas unless it has allowed itself to be deadened by too much exposure to television, as I have been.

American sports? See my comment above about the NFL.

Science and learning shows? Sure, that’s an improvement, but those shows are pretty much dumbed down for an increasingly poorly educated American public, and most would rather present a dramatic image or graphic than try to explain a moderately difficult concept like the meaning of the word ‘theory’ in science.

And so on. Newton Minow had it right when he called television a ‘vast wasteland’ in 1961.

"When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you’ll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."

Nothing has changed in almost fifty years, though I do think he was wrong in the first sentence. Television has become more sophisticated in many ways, but at heart it is still the same old crap that so disturbed Minow. The little bit of good that might sneak by the purveyors of telecrap doesn’t make the entire enterprise worth watching. If you dress the village idiot in a thousand dollar suit and make him a CEO, he’ll still be the village idiot.

But in the end the struggle is, as all struggles are, personal. To watch or not to watch. To watch one’s mind decay or to click the ‘Off’ button and cover the set with a demon-infested piece of cloth. I still feel the pull of the addiction, but now I try to take a different path. I’ll turn on the radio and listen to NPR or some music. I’ll pull out a book I’ve read part of and neglected, set a timer, and read. I’ll go for a walk or do some exercise while listening to a CD of Buddhist chants (very heady stuff). But sometimes I’ll push the demon cloth aside and stare at something moving around on the screen for a while until I realize how screamingly bored and utterly disgusted I feel. Then, ‘click’. I’d rather sleep. There’s more to be learned in struggling to sleep, more to be learned in sleep, than anything that piece of electronics can provide to my mind.

Sorry, Rachel. Sorry, Lola. Sorry, Zoe. You can’t be my friends anymore.



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Baptized in the water of Thales

Cosmologists, in their quest to discover the origin of the universe, ran the positions of the galaxies backwards and discovered that everything came from a single point a long time ago. That was the Big Bang, the beginning of things and thingness.

If we were to do the same with Western civilization and Western imagethought, viz., roll everything backwards, we would end up in the Aegean seaport of the Ionian city of Miletus, and thence somewhere in the brain of a fellow named Thales, a.k.a Thales of Miletus, about twenty six hundred years ago.

Miletus was a seaport on the southwest coast of Asia Minor, what we call Turkey. It was rich, it had colonies in Thrace and Italy, it was a sea power. And thus it had leisure time for non-slave, non-working class Milesians. All of which led Thales to his questions.

Thales was no slouch. He knew math; he knew geometry, which he may have introduced to Greece; he knew astronomy; he knew meteorology. In fact, or in legend, one can’t be sure because so little is actually known about his life, Thales made a fortune off his knowledge of weather. He predicted a bumper olive crop one year and bought up all the oil presses, then rented them back to the olive farmers. Who said there’s no money in philosophy? (That only makes sense if you realize that science and philosophy were largely the same thing back in the day.)

Anyway, a couple of hundred years later, Aristotle, the main man of it all, called Thales the father of philosophy and/or science. He also got listed as one of Seven Sages of Ancient Greece, an obviously rather select little group. Impressive credentials for a guy who didn’t leave any works behind. No books, no writings, just a couple of sentences. But he did start the ball rolling for our journeys into space and our probing the depths of subatomic matter.

imageAnd he did it with water.

No, none of this turning water into wine nonsense. Thales looked around at the world, wondering to himself, “What the hell is the world made of?” He said it in Greek, of course. The answer up to then had been that the world was made of whatever the gods made things of – call it godstuff. It was out there, it was run by gods, and that was that.

That wasn’t good enough for Thales. Nope. Thales decided that to discover the true nature of the world he had to look at the world as it was, not as it was imagined to be. His attitude was somewhat zennish, as in, “The wise man looks at a mountain and sees a mountain.”

So Thales looked and he thought and he looked. Back in the day he had no instruments. No microscopes. No telescopes. No linear accelerators. He had his eyes and his brain. So, looking, he noticed that life was pretty much wet. Plants were full of wet. People were full of wet. Seeds needed wet to germinate. Thus wet went into the equation.

Then there was other stuff that wasn’t wet. Rocks. Stone. Dried up formerly wet stuff. Dirt. Sand. Metal. Thus solids went into the equation.

And there was stuff that was neither wet, or wet some of the time, nor was it solid. Air. Vapors. Gasses venting from the ground. Thus airy stuff went into the equation.

Add it all up and Thales comes up with water. Water is the cause and content of everything. Obviously. What other single thing in his world could be a solid, as in ice; a gas, as in steam; or a liquid, as in water water. Thus he determined water was the root of everything, was in fact everything.

Okay, he was wrong. Not the point. The point is that Thales looked at the real world to find the cause of the real world. He looked and he reasoned what the world was. He reasoned reality. He is the first person in Western civilization of whom we have record who eschewed the supernatural and sought the cause of things in the world he could see and touch.

He amplified imagehis thought by concluding that things behaved as they did because the principles of how they acted were within themselves. Water flowed because of what it was, not because some god deemed it should flow from here to there. A rock fractured a certain way because it was a certain type of rock, not because something mystical was done to it. Supposedly Thales said, “All things are full of gods,” to explain this principle. Cryptic, even when explained, but the consensus is that he meant stuff acted the way it did because of what it was. A rock’s principles were contained within the rock, not forced on it by supernatural agencies.

And therein, in water and in the idea of the internal principles of things, lies the Big Bang of Western Civilization. Thales started the ball rolling. He messed with the old order of a gods-centered universe, and he put it out there in public for all to see and question. He looked at the world and saw the world as it was and tried to make sense of it on the world’s terms. The modern world was born and baptized twenty six hundred years ago in the water of Thales.

And apparently the old devil opened up a successful T-shirt business that’s still going today.

Of course there’s always some young gun out there challenging the old master. Some things never change.


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Case Studies in Logic

Please analyze the following:

(On September 17, 1994, Alabama’s Heather Whitestone was selected as Miss America 1995.)
Question: If you could live forever, would you and why?
Answer: "I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever,"
–Miss Alabama in the 1994 Miss  USA  contest.

Put the argument in standard form.

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Why Philosophy Frightens…

Blurb from the latest Labyrinth Books sale catalog (#83) for the book Morality Without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism by Mark Timmons:

Investigates fundamental metaethical questions about the meaning, truth, and justification of moral thought and discourse. Timmons maintains that all versions of descriptivism in ethics, particularly certain accounts of moral realism, fail. He argues instead that a correct metaethical theory must embrace some version of non-descriptivism.

Yup. That’ll bring ‘em in in droves.

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Abject Neglect…

Yeah. That’s what I’ve been doing. Abjectly neglecting the whole study thing. Focused on other stuff. Texas stuff. Grumpy Lion stuff. Buying booky stuff. Gardening stuff (cucumbers and beans are in – took me a good half-hour to do that).

Anyway, new toy alert, new toy alert!

Over the years (some might say decades) I’ve futzed about with various ways of taking and organizing notes on the computer. I’ve used yellow sticky programs, formally structured programs like DeBrief (not an underwear program), and journal programs, and Personal Brain, which is an amazing program in all kinds of ways. And one of my favorite programs, Brainstorm, from England, a text-based program with its roots in the old days, but modern in being neat, clever, fast, and flexible.

Alas, none suited me. I need a quick way to gather information, put it into one place, keep it accessible quickly via searches. I want it to accept all kinds of information: direct text, copied text from any source, images, sound, videos, anything and everything that I might want to collect or create. I want the program to easily organize the stuff, easily categorize it, easily find it, and relatively easily integrate it into and with other programs. And the more freeform the better.

Might just have found what I want. It’s called OneNote. It’s from (shudder) Microsoft, and it works with their Office suite or independently.

You organize your information into notebooks, your notebooks into sections, your sections into pages. It’s got a fast search. It does tags. It takes anything, like a giant garbage sweeper. It’s got a quick note feature for notes on the fly while you’re working in other programs. It’s just very neat and well thought out.

I’d heard of it before, but never considered it because I haven’t been using Office programs. Recently I had the good fortune to be able to get my hands on an Office suite, and decided, after investigating, to add OneNote. It looks like a good combination. I won’t know for sure until I’ve messed with the whole package of Office and OneNote for a while, but it appears promising.

And there’s this incredible PowerToy for OneNote called Canvas. Stunning. It’s experimental, from Microsoft, and very very kewl. I think it may have the potential to completely redefine how people work with computer data if MS pursues it formally. For now, for what I’m doing, it’s not practical, but when it reaches final version it might be one of those must-haves.

For now, I’m off to play with OneNote – which is ironic, considering my seeming inability to focus on and stick with one thing. Too many interests, too many fascinations. A character flaw, no doubt. Or are flaws merely a part of character?

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