Philosophical Musings

February 26, 2006

Plato on Blogging

Filed under: Blogging — Elad Kehat @ 9:12 pm

Reading Plato’s Phaedrus, I found that he has some interesting things to tell us about blogging.

Socrates tells us of the words of Ammon, king of Egypt, to the god Theuth, who offered to teach letters to the Egyptians:

“..this discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

It is as if these words were written to describe our own world, where writings abound, but understanding is as rare as ever. But could it be that the great philosopher holds such animosity towards the written word? After all, it is in writing that his words have come to us.

Let us continue reading a little further then :

“I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.”

This reminds me of literature classes in high school, where we’d learn a poem and give different interpretations. It always bothered me then that the teacher claimed we are free to interpret it as we see fit, regardless of what the poet really meant. But I guess that are is meant to be interpreted, what about writings of philosophy, science, or any expression of opinion? Are they meant for us by their authors to interpret as we see fit? Surely not!

Think of all the books and articles you read, interpreting them according to your own views, never knowing if you fully grasped the author’s meaning. Worse still, how about when you firmly object what you just read – would there be anything more satisfying than to engage the author in dialogue, assail his erroneous views and have him vehemently defend them? Is there anything more frustrating than not being able to do so?

Well, that’s where the web comes in. Talk back, comment, engage, participate. Let the author know your thoughts, let all readers read them, not before you read theirs. Take part in a global conversation that is a celebration of human spirit.

How could we even read those old news papers, unable to reply in real-time? How could we write, without being fed-back, knowing that we’re truly heard?

But what if our reader are few, or none at all, should we still write? Of course!

Socrates has a few more wise words for us:

“..in the garden of letters he will sow and plant, but only for the sake of recreation and amusement; he will write them down as memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age, by himself, or by any other old man who is treading the same path. He will rejoice in beholding their tender growth; and while others are refreshing their souls with banqueting and the like, this will be the pastime in which his days are spent.”

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February 25, 2006

Law and Freedom

Filed under: Freedom — Elad Kehat @ 7:09 am

I read Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” today. The last time I read it was many years ago, as a teenager, and I’ve been meaning to re-read it for a while now. I was interested in seeing how the imprint of his wonderful discussion of the mysteries of the universe on my older and more learned mind would differ.

One thing that has changed, though it has nothing to do with me personally, is the ability to user the web to get more information whenever the discussion of some topic is not comprehensive or comprehendible enough for my taste. Wikipedia is an amazing resource, and combining it with a good book such as this overcomes the inherent problems of the medium – the brief and disconnected discussion of every one article on the one hand, and the chaotic nature of further research based on following links on the other. The methodical examination of the subject, provided by a well written book puts you in the context of the big picture, whereas you can use the infinite depth and relative up-to-date nature of the web for further exploration.

It is common for people to answer the question of why something behaves like it does with a reference to some law. Scientists are no different at that (at least when writing popular science), and I just encountered that phenomenon reading Hawking.

While discussing the directed nature of time, he mentions that the common explanation given to the fact that we never see broken glasses jumping from the floor back to the table and becoming whole again is the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

The explanation of one fact by another fact, causality, forms the basis for science, and is probably a process that is deeply embedded in human nature. However it is all important to remember that it is in fact no answer at all. Explaining the effect by a cause can always lead to another question – about the cause as an effect, which should lead to another answer, explaining the original cause with a prior one. Since we don’t have a scientifically proven Big Answer yet, or for that matter any answer that would be acceptable to most intelligent people (thus banning out religious answers, if only for the fact that different intelligent people can evidently hold very different religious views), we cannot really explain anything. The answers that we’re able to give are very good at providing us with a better understanding of how things work, enabling us to manipulate that knowledge and create technology, but without the big answer, the ultimate cause, we have no better understanding of why.

For some reason, possibly because facing the truth – that we don’t really have an answer, or simply because providing the answer to the next why in the chain gets increasingly harder, we tend to stop at some point and content ourselves with a partial explanation.

Hawking provides a good example for that in the story of an old lady who once rose in a public lecture on astronomy and told the speaker that he has just told them rubbish, and that the world is actually a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise (a theory shared by any avid Terry Pratchett reader). The speaker’s clever reply: “What is the tortoise standing on?” was easily countered by the claim that “it’s turtles all the way down!”

Regardless of whether this story is true, the failure to see that the answer should only lead to another question (“and what’s down there?”), is emblematic of human behavior in everyday life. Science and philosophy are different, in that they relentlessly ask more questions, but the tendency to rip some characteristics of scientific method away from their context, and apply them to everyday life (in what might be called scientificism) has a dangerous effect on human behavior.

Let me explain by going back to the Second Law of Thermodynamics example given above. A physical law is nonchalantly give as a reason for an everyday situation. Examples abide: why does a rock fall back down to earth after I throw it? because of the law of gravity; why do we have a cycle of day and night? because the earth is spinning on its axle; etc. Causality here serves to describe a situation – the how, and not the why. We didn’t’ answer why there is a law of gravity, or why there’s a sun and why earth is turning, but most people would suffice themselves at that. For science to develop it may be enough that some people won’t, but for humanity to improve itself, the consequences of this tendency are dire.

It is too often that people mix the existence of a law, that is, the law in the legal sense or the norm in the sociological sense, with a sufficient cause. In other words, the mere existence of codes, de facto or de jure, is often mistaken for a good enough reason to follow them, whereas in many cases that reason should only be the implications of not doing so. It is the edicts of one’s morals, ethics, conscience, arrived at in one’s course of life through reason and experience, that should be the primary guide. Thus, barring implications, such as in acts done in the private, our actions should only be dictated by our own views, and when those views are strong enough in our mind and heart, it is imperative that we battle the code and eradicate the implications of acting in public according to our conscience. Only then can we truly be free.

The success of the scientific and technological revolutions, which has led empiricism to take hold on our minds in the place of more abstract thought, may have taken religion’s former place as the source of laws, but has merely imbued us instead with an equivalent concept of scientific law, rather than provide us with science’s penchant for critical thinking. We confuse thus scientific law’s claim for absolute truth (according to the naïve empiricist view of science still accepted by the masses), as a replacement of religion’s claim for divine truth, with the temporal, man-made laws of society and state.

Evidently, personal conscience and public law are compatible in many cases. Murder, rape, or theft of physical property, are frowned upon by both, as are most behaviors that endanger the fragile fabric of society. But most laws and norms are merely there because they made sense at some point in time, or because they are, or were in the past, beneficial to the powerful classes of society. Many are being changed around us all the time. I was not so long ago that women couldn’t vote and homosexuality was a crime. But these were man-made laws that reflected what was seen as the truth at a time, not an absolute truth. They still hold in many places of the world, where either the majority of the population, or the more powerful parts of society hold them as true, and they may yet change again in western societies, if our world view on those matters changes. The important lesson is that when we do not agree with the law, and have strong arguments to back our claim, we must do our part to change that law. It may be little: mere disobedience when the implications are bearable, letting our views be known, creating a discussion around the issue and persuading others. We must realize that in most cases, if not all, there is nothing divine or universal about the law, and we must bear in mind that change is possible.

February 17, 2006

Hello world!

Filed under: About — Elad Kehat @ 1:57 pm

I’ve been thinking about starting a blog with my amusing philosophical musings for a while now, but in the last couple of days several things happened that made me finally get up and do it. First, yesterday my boss told me that it’s time I published the stuff I blurt out on occasion while discussing whatnot with my co-workers. Second, I read J.S. Mill’s On Liberty today, and all the arguments on the importance of constant discussion of opinions made me feel I need to make mine heard. Third, my wife just threw me out of the living room where I was reading because she wanted to watch a movie. Finding it hard to read outside the cosy confines of my beloved sofa, I went to the study, sat at the desk and started writing.

The question that comes to mind now is whether anybody’s actually going to read my blog. I have no intention to actively promote it, so will I be able to stand out among all the clutter? That remains to be seen. However, to improve my chances I vow to make this as interesting as possible to the public, the latter comprising of intellectually minded individuals who like to read well-articulated dissenting opinions, by sticking with such, and avoiding the nitty-gritty of my personal daily life.

So, I’ll get going with a quote from Mill: “The fruits of conquest perish by the very completeness of the victory”.

Mill actually phrased that as a question, and answered it negatively. I disagree with Mill and agree with the epigram as I quoted it. Life is only meaningful so long as some battles remain to be fought. The fruits of conquest are of great value – as fodder for the next battle, and victory itself as incentive for the next challenge.

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