On Bullshit: Studying for the GRE

I would like to think that there is something meaningful manifest in the fact  that I happened upon Dr. Harry Frankfurt‘s somewhat-philosophical work On Bullshit on the same day that I started doing actual practice essays for my upcoming GRE.  Frankfurt’s piece is remarkably

Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of Princeton
Harry Frankfurt, professor emeritus of Princeton

short, and contains a few interesting observations about the supposed nature of “bullshit”–the sort of deceptive claptrap/hogwash which Frankfurt sees as utterly ubiquitous.  While I wouldn’t award the book any prizes for exhibiting exhaustiveness  or exceptional reasoning–nor for providing any earth-shaking conclusions or consequences–it is illustrative at least insofar as it demonstrates that there is much to be said about this odd phenomenon so prevalent that we hardly take note of it (though, frankly, I think a good, in-depth psychological approach might have been more  revealing).

Still, the work’s pertinence and timeliness for me is a testament to its broad applicability.  I speak, of course, of my recent attempts at engaging the Graduate Recognition Examination’s analytical writing component.  To be most fair, I am k7929scarcely a fan of academic grades and testing in general (I think they ought to be used, but in moderation and with somewhat restricted authority over one’s grades, future, and so on), but let us reserve this point for a later journal entry… Quite frankly, after reading some sample questions and “ideal” answers from test practice experts (Kaplan, Princeton Review, Peterson’s, ETS, Barron’s, and friends), I have come to the conclusion that the GRE’s writing component is a carefully-crafted attempt at getting one thing from its victims: bullshit.

This is not a mere ad-hominem (ad-examinem?) attack on my part.  As Frankfurt illuminates, the term, though it does have a pejorative connotation, does not denote an outright lie.  Rather, I mean to accuse the writing component of encouraging the creation of drivel, and nursing the already-commonplace skillset that allows people to promulgate misleadingly content-devoid hogwash.  This may seem pretty benign, in fact, especially to many of my close friends who (like myself, surely) have already developed a rather acute attachment to this sort of rhetoric.  I disagree.

Most of the writing prompts seem to follow a similar form; basically, an uncontextualized nugget of text presents or assumes an overly generalized dichotomization of some topic, and then selects one of the options with little or no substantiation or reason.  The example which I randomly chose to write about today fits this norm pretty well:

In most professions and academic fields, imagination is more important than knowledge.

 

Perhaps I am so steeped in the tradition of philosophical dichotomy-smashing, or perhaps it has been too long since I have been trapped in some middle-school classroom bombarding me with inspirational posters lauding generic goods like imagination and knowledge, but offhand it seems to me that vague concepts like knowledge and imagination can neither be neatly separated nor have their quasi-practical features like “importance” compared without proper practical context.  In general, is knowledge more important than imagination?  This question seems to me to be inane.  At the extremes, knowledge devoid of imagination seems to me to be impotent, likewise with  imagination devoid of knowledge.  In the abstract, I simply don’t think that these two generic mental states can be organized hierarchically, and I suspect that those who think that they can be have not been very reflective about the topic–in other words, in responding to such an essay prompt, they would simply select their choice capriciously or based on a loose, unreflective preference for whichever option they desire.

I am not arguing, of course, that there is no difference between imagination and knowledge, nor that we cannot distinguish the two notions.  Rather, I am arguing that to make a determination about practical aspects of these vague general terms, one has to consider the specific contexts, and probably only the best results in any case will be achieved by utilizing the highest possible levels of both manners of thinking (again, given the allowance of the circumstances).  If I am given an example in situ, I can actually make some kind of real determination about whether to emphasize my imagination or my knowledge.  If I am, for instance, drafting a legal document to articulate an already agreed-upon end, then I had best focus on my knowledge of established court procedures to ensure the validity of the document.  Yet it may be almost entirely by virtue of my imagination that I can reconceptualize the arrangement of court evidence which allows me to prove my client’s innocence (or as a prosecutor to prove his guilt).  With proper context, examples like these can certainly allow us to distinguish one of these vague terms from another and place a value on each by which they may be compared.  When the only situational information provided is limited to presumably all the activities which occur “in most professions and academic fields”, then I could utilize either of these aforementioned examples to demonstrate the superior “importance” of either of these two concepts.  In other words, the truth does not matter–neither to ETS nor to the student responding to the seemingly meaningless prompt.1

I think that a reasonable argument could be made as to the harmlessness  of the essay in itself.   Indeed, of the forms of B.S. described by Frankfurt, this seems to be the least overtly dangerous–a rather unintentional variety  which “is unavoidable whenever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about”.  Furthermore, the essay’s influence will be quite limited.  Presumably, it will only ever be read by two (or in some cases three) likely jaded professional test-graders, who will get only a couple of minutes during which to reflect on the work.

I wonder, though, if there are broader consequences of accepting the authority of such a component on an exam like this.  Undoubtedly, the GRE has an influence on who is admitted into graduate schools in the USA.  I anticipate the counterargument that one’s admittance into any school is probably almost never alone decided by his or her score on the GRE’s writing component; this is true.  However, my impression is that GRE scores are often taken as one of the first excuses for filtering out applicants, if only because these scores are a quick and dirty method for getting some objective value for the level of education from applicants from such diverse educational backgrounds.  This is significant because it means that most applicants to most programs leading ultimately to many, many professional and academic jobs will have been forced to score well on their GRE’s, and more specifically to demonstrate their ability to excel at generating bullshit2.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Yes, I am aware that I could, instead of playing the choose-one-of-two-bad-answers game, simply respond to the prompt with the more academic equivalent of this rant, arguing in essence that the question posed a false dichotomy which one must get beyond; however, given the nature of the so-called ideal answers in the guides which I have read so far, this seems to be an unfortunate choice if I care about scoring well.  (I do.)  Additionally, experience has taught me that, no matter how artfully phrased, telling any test grader that the question is inane or not germane to anything is simply asking for a lower score.
  2. It is also possible, of course, that these people will excel by not recognizing the nature of the absurd, abstracted false dichotomies such as those provided by the test questions.  If this is the case, then the test has, instead of ensuring the ability to produce drivel and claptrap, reinforced one’s ability to think uncritically, which is probably even worse.  ugh.

Apparently, I am reading Wittgenstein

It feels, once again, like time to ping-back to the internet (I’m here, big guy!).  I caught a lot of hype a week ago about abandoned blogs (the New York Times claims 95% are dead!), so I thought I would at least make some feeble attempt at proving to myself that I can keep writing every now and then.  To forgive myself for never spouting my thoughts, I formerly had the allowed myself the excuse of a busy end-of-semester, and now I will grant myself the excuse of having no stable internet access–but this excuse will only carry me so far.

Since I was last writing somewhat regularly, have learned and read a fair amount–a healthy legion of unfinished posts in my publishing queue attest to this.  I rather hope to polish up a post or two on what I have learned about Levinas and religion, Levinas and political systems, Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, Gottlob Frege, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the history of the classical world, relativism, Jurgen Habermas, naturalism, Re:, Hangedup, and a few other broad topics like languages, reason, atheism and theism, poverty, and the like.

In the meantime, the Summer Support Group for Philosophers has kicked off, with one meeting under its belt.  We focused that session, as well as the upcoming one, on Wittgenstein’s Tractatus-Logico Philosophicus.  My immediate reaction to the work was mixed.  If you have not had the pleasure of skimming the work, I suggest trying it.  You can find copies of the Ogden translation (the version I am reading) all over the web, but I suggest finding a good tabular or tree layout version to help encourage you to read it the way it was intended (read: the way I didn’t read it the first time).

So far, Wittgenstein has proven to be a pretty decent discussion generator.  I am not quite sure of his laconic/aphoristic approach was meant to ensure ambiguity or clarity, but it certainly seems to me that the former is the end result.  At times, the lack of explanation for his terminology is befuddling, and it is easy to lose track of the point of his work entirely from time to time.  Still, many of Wittgenstein’s propositions have proven to be good points for discussion–including such greats as 1, 2.0123, 3.02,  3.328, 3.333, 4.002, 4.003, 6.45, 6.54 (don’ t look ahead!).  So far I can see much of Rorty’s thought in this reading already, but I am trying hard to resist the temptation to defer to the Rortian interpretation–while I may be getting a good idea of how Rorty read Wittgenstein, my suspicion is that his reading might not be completely faithful to the author’s own thoughts.  In fact, I rather wish I would have better used my Rorty-reading time to finish trudging through Principia Mathematica, because this probably would have made Wittgenstein’s responses to Russell more intelligible.  Luckily I had the foresight to pick up a little Frege reading beforehand.

I might try to keep more info about thoughts and future readings for the summer group at another location, where members of our smallish group might enjoy doing public exegesis.  For now, I have put up a message board on the yet unused ThoughtAndPraxis.com.

Goetz and Taliaferro’s “Naturalism”: A Little Argument with Myself

recommended listening: Low’s “A Little Argument with Myself”, from the album Trust (hear it on Youtube or buy it at Insound)

I recently took it upon myself to read Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goetz‘s work Naturalism (for sale here).  I highly recommend the book for anyone looking for a good summary of some considerations of modern philosophy on the topic of naturalism.  The work is pithy, cogent, and I think easy to follow even for those not well-versed in the technical jargon and historic arguments surrounding this traditional metaphysical debate.  I would caution, though, that I think that the book seems to me overly critical of some features of naturalism, and also to me seems to overgeneralize many characteristics which I think abound in naturalists and non-naturalists alike.

I had the great pleasure of being introduced to Taliaferro last fall, and will likely be meet him again in a few days, so I took the time to throw together a little gut-reaction response to the work Natualism (which, I rather think might be better titled “Against Naturalism”, which indicates better that the purpose of this book seems to be the construction of an argument against naturalism, rather than some merely informational and “objective” presentation of historic facts and debates).

Here is my response to their work (in either ogg vorbis or mp3 format).

If you don’t feel like taking the 15 minutes to listen, here’s the gist of my thoughts, without most of the explanatory substance:

  1. Yes, I agree with Goetz and Taliaferro that naturalism as they characterize it (through examples) stands on shaky ground, but…
  2. Naturalist perspectives, being based on the ever-expanding realm of scientific advancement, are not simply reductionist.  Rather, their role can expand as our empirical observations and theories about these observations expand.  My feelings on this follow from my (mildly Kuhnian, i think) view that science is a primarily pragmatic rather than epistemological endeavor.
  3. Because science offers us the opportunity to challenge traditional “supernatural” explanations, it bears the possibility to act as a corrective check for, or at least calls us to critically reflect upon, our folk psychology/physics/philosophy/metaphysics/dogmas.
  4. Finally, I think that a strict, parsimonious, positive naturalism is not just likely epistemically problematic–it is psychologically untenable even for its most outspoken adherence (but so is anti-naturalism in some ways).  In the long run, though, if the apparent choice is between accepting on or the other tradtional dogma (either naturalist or unnaturalist), I would just assume have both perspectives around as long as possible duking it out, as neither seems wholy cogent to me.  With the argument preserved, we can pragmatically utilize one assumption in one context generally (say, anti-naturalism for religion; naturalism for science), but allow these perspectives to challenge each other in their own contexts as well.  In this way, I hope we can either realize that these distinctions are irrelevant, or that they are somehow complimentary, or that some better alternatives exist instead–and enjoy the fruits of continued argument.

What struck me as interesting, was that when I was looking for some alternative perspectives on naturalism while writing my response, one of the first results provided by my friend Google was lil’ ol me.  Yes, on the first page of my google results was an entry that I posted in October last year, entitled “Hobbes and Modern Science v. Descartes“.  Back in October, though, I was sort of on the other side of the argument.  Back then, I was chastizing modern science for its naturalist assumptions, rather than lauding it for bringing options to the table–at least until the end of the article.  In the end, though, it seems that both today and last october, I was arguing from one side (first against naturalists, then against anti-naturalists) in order to get to the middle.  In both places, I criticized dogmatism, dualism, and hubristic assumptions that we already know what types of substances make up the entirety of the cosmos.

The major discrepancy between my old article and my new one, it seems to me, is that I was content to characterize science in my October post as presuming the sort of materialistic naturalism that Goetz and Taliaferro seem to see in it, but this week I argued that that view of science is short-sighted.  Which description is more accurate?  In a way, I think both.  I think the end paragraph of my recorded response hints at the answer.  It seems that real human beings simply don’t portray stable, context independent dispositions of this sort.  In one context, we might all predictably be naturalists (say, when you consider whether or not you should worry about a 1,000 anvil falling on you from above), and in others we may all be anti-naturalists (say, when considering our plans for the future or interpreting our emotions).  It may simply not be possible to separate these two categories in a way that is both meaningful and able to be held by a real person over time.

Also, if you’re in the Sioux Falls area, I heartily implore you to come to Charles Taliaferro’s talk at the Augustana Naturalism Symposium this week; it will make your life better.

Also, I tried to stream my recorded response to Naturalism, but it does not seem to work for me.  Try it, if it shows up for you:

Audio MP3

Installing e17 on (k)ubuntu jaunty jackalope

Open a terminal.

sudo apt-get install build-essential cvs subversion libglib-2.0-dev automake libtool libltdl3-dev automake1.9 autotools-dev libpopt-dev libcurl3-dev libx11-dev x11proto-xext-dev libbz2-dev libid3tag0-dev libpng12-dev libtiff4-dev libungif4-dev libjpeg62-dev libssl-dev libfreetype6-dev bison flex gettext libimlib2-dev libpam0g-dev libxml2-dev libxcursor-dev libgtk1.2-dev autoconf pkg-config libpng3-dev libxine-dev libxkbfile-dev libsqlite3-dev giblib-dev libxmu-dev libxdamage-dev libxcomposite-dev libtag1-dev libtagc0-dev giblib-dev libasound2-dev libdbus-1-dev libfontconfig-dev

Say “y” to install… then try this…

wget http://omicron.homeip.net/projects/easy_e17/easy_e17.sh

next, this:

chmod +x easy_e17.sh
./easy_e17.sh -i -e

After the install is finished, do this:

sudo nano -w /usr/share/xsessions/e17.desktop

You’ll be taken to a brand new document.  Paste this text in it:

[Desktop Entry]
Encoding=UTF-8
Name=E-17
Comment=
Exec=/opt/e17/bin/enlightenment_start
Icon=
Type=Application

(click your mouse from the end of this text and drag it back to the beginning to copy it, middle-click to paste in a terminal)  Then hit Ctrl + x, say “y” to save changes.

Additionally, it’s a good idea to add e17 to your PATH:

sudo nano -w /etc/environment

go to the end of the line on this file, just inside the quotation marks, and add the text “:/opt/e17/bin” (no quotation marks), then Ctrl + x, and “y” to save changes.  Log out of your desktop environment and e17 should now be an option to select from GDM/XDM/KDM/etc.

Music review: “The Happiness Project” by Charles Spearin

In the event that you happen to be reading this review in order to decide whether or not to purchase Charles Spearin’s record The Happiness Project, I will attempt to make that decision easier for you.  If you enjoy music which inspires some basic level of reflective thought, and you are not afraid to step outside your comfort zone a bit, beyond the industry standards for music easily defined by terms like “pop” or “rock”, then I would strongly cadge you to just purchase the record from Arts & Crafts (you can preview the record online there), or somewhere else.  If you are unreflective or uncomfortable trying new things, I would suggest exploring your world a bit, reading some good books, and then buying the album and listening to it in a few years.

For myself, as both a self-diagnosed music junkie and a self-knighted meaning-ferreter, I am always particularly enticed by musicians who seem to work as hard as putting meaning into their pieces as I try to work getting it out.  That said, in my rather snobbish opinion, it is a rare album indeed which can exhibit a pretty clear goal1 yet not dilute it to the point of total ambiguity, triteness, or perhaps just propaganda.  For succeeding where so many others have failed, I tip my hat to Charles Spearin.

Charles Spearin is certainly more well known as a membership in and contributions to Do Make Say Think

The Happiness Project by Charles Spearin (Arts & Crafts, 2009)
The Happiness Project by Charles Spearin (Arts & Crafts, 2009)

, Broken Social Scene, Valley of the Giants, and KC Accidental.  In fact, despite the Spearin’s undeniable musical talent, prior to the release his new record The Happiness Project, a Google search for “Charles Spearin” was more likely to take you to fans of his moustache than fans of his music.  This has since changed, and with good reason2.

I should mention one quick caveat; Spearin’s Happiness Project falls within the much-maligned category of “concept albums”.  The so-called “project” around which the album centers is a series of seemingly informal interviews to which Charles Spearin subjected his neighbors, friends, and family on the general topic of happiness; Spearin and company then proceeded to arrange music inspired by the interviewees’ responses.  For my own part, before hearing the album I recognized this concept as laudable but likely dubious, at the risk of becoming trite.  However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the actualization came off as personal, particular, varied, and earnest enough to actually be insightful.  I suspect, also, that the apparent sincerity of the record’s attempt to broach the topic of happiness is not hermetically confined to Spearin’s respondents.  Certainly, if Spearin had much to do with the directional changes evident in Do Make Say Think’s marvellous last record You, You’re a History in Rust (Constellation, 2007), the topic of human happiness and interrelationship has been on the man’s mind for some time now3.

To finally get back to The Happiness Project itself, the album opens with one of the most conceptually simple, musically basic, topically relevant, an–in my view–powerful testamonials of disc.  If I may refer to each track as a case study, the first of these is of “Mrs. Morris” and her simple recipe for obtaining and mainting happiness.  As Mrs. Morris describes her basic application of love–rambling enough to show her sincerity and excitement, her rhythm and pitch are matched closely by a saxophone, forcing the listener to recognize the strange, comforting music flowing from her irrepressably human voice.  Mrs. Morris’s track clocks-in at under a minute and a half, and in a traditional musical sense it is certainly the most raw, sparse track on the whole album, yet she kicks off the album in a saliently meaningful way through her words, mood, attitude, as well as the surprisingly musical correspondence of her voice and mimicking instrumentation.  Although Arts & Crafts Records appears to be promoting the much more tradtional musical composition of track 2, Anna, I hold that Mrs. Morris’s account is the most dense, meaningful, and original–and I like to think that Spearin tacitly endorses my position by reprising Mrs. Morris at the end of the record.

That is not say that Anna lack’s meaning.  Indeed, it is only a testament to the record’s strengths that a track like Anna could be considered below its cohorts on the album.  Anna is a more straightforward song, heavily jazz-oriented with bits sampled bird chirps, based again on the rhythm, and to a lesser extent melody, of the “music” already present in Anna’s voice as she provides a few brief, insightful comments about happiness and her work with challenged young women.  Anna is double the length of Mrs. Morris, with the bulk of the latter half being repetition of the more meaningful first half.

Vittoria, the third song, is a much more light-hearted, yet jazzy track inspired by the stuttering responses of young Vittoria as she talks, apparently, about her schoolwork.  While happiness does not seem to be addressed directly per se, I think we can all learn a little something about happiness from a little child who spits out the brief phrase “you don’t get to do work”–as if she is so uninitiated into the cultural pension for defining our duties as drudgery that she is still able to approach many hated tasks with enthusiasm.

Vanessa–who follows Vittoria–broaches the topic of happiness via a discussion of deafness and coclear implants–a topic certainly foreign to most musical compositions.  My personal experiences made this testamonial come alive, but any music lover without much experience with deaf culture should grab this track and mull for a while.  Musically, this piece moves from the upbeat, jazzier approach to a softer and more Do-Make-Say-Think-like hum with a bit of light piano playing in the background.

Marisa follows next.  Her voice is shadowed by a somewhat unmelodic harp, as if foreshadowing her eventual assertion that her attempt to answer Spearin’s questions was a failure.  Her thoughts focus on human interaction, and though she stumbles a bit, I suspect she does so no more than we all do in our attempts to consider the broad topic of human happiness.  Her track is both serious and fun; like her answer, the music is both melodic and experimental, depending on the moment.  Do Make Say Think fans should be able to invest in this track for the music alone without disappointment.

Next on the record is Ondine, another young girl with seemingly little of relevance to say, but determined and astute syncretizers will find a good way to equate her whining with insight on human happiness4.  If nothing else, I managed to glean a little happiness directly from this track, laughing just a little bit out loud as I considered how such a little thing seemed to have such a grand effect on the happiness of this child, while interpreting the violin which follows her voice as a tiny (read: world’s smallest) little instrument.

Mr. Gowrie engages in active conversation, then, with Charles Spearin.  With the exception of Mrs. Morris, Mr. Gowrie‘s track seems the broadest attempt to discussing happiness.  Spearin’s accompaniament begins by anticipating Mr. Gowrie‘s voice, and then later extends it into a vague, rolling atmospheric melody persisting through the song’s close with quiet assaults from other instruments, especially the violin.  At times in this short song I could not help but reflect soberly, but at other times I was struck by irrepressable smiles.

The Happiness Project closes with another rendition, this one more melodic and more musically complex, of Mrs. Morris.  This brings the album to a nice refrain and close, and I should hope it is enough to cause a bit of pause to encouring a little mulling on the topic which Charles Spearin initiated at the album’s outset.  Despite some of the simple responses that some of the interviewees give, I did not find  any simple answers, but I found a few new interesting questions and a bit more cause to reflect on questions with which I am already long acquainted.  I think many of these questions relate not as much to happiness specifically as they do to humanity in general, and perhaps that philosophical trope “the good life”.  If nothing else, Spearin’s voice-inspired music should give us pause for how to relate to humans in a different self-other relationship.  When others speak, what are we listening to?  What does it mean to “hear” each other?  Does it matter how we approach listening to others?  Perhaps listening to the music of the voice of the other is a romantic exaggeration of the respect we ought to have for our fellow humans.  Or, perhaps this notion is only a distraction from really listening; isn’t it the same as Kierkegaard’s aesthete who entertained himself not by understanding the philosopher’s drivel, but by watching the beads of sweat form and jump from his nose?

At any rate, I implore you to listen to the record and tell me or others what you get out of it.

  1. read: concept album
  2. It is not my intent to disparage the moustache; it’s clearly immaculate.
  3. It seems to me that the moods, music, titles, and lyrics make the theme of happiness salient–though perhaps not as overt as Spearin’s latest record does.  Consider, as one of the most obvious examples, the uncharacteristic use of lyrics at the close of Do Make Say Think’s record: “When you die / you’ll have to leave them behind / You should keep that in mind. / When you keep that in mind / you’ll find / a love as big as the sky.”
  4. any Bentham fans here?

Happy Chord-Change Day (a smidge early)!

On 5 September 2001, an organ in 639 year old church in Halberstadt, Germany started

Inside St. Burchardi church, Halberstadt
Inside St. Burchardi church, Halberstadt

pumping out silence.  A couple of years later, on 5 February 2003, the organ played some notes for the first time.  This initial musical rest and corresponding set of coordinated musical notes represent perhaps the most ambitious musical project in the history of humanity.  The organ is playing a piece written by the infamous 20th Century American composer John Cage.  His work, appropriately entitled As SLow as Possible is a relatively sparse piece for which the composer deliberately left the duration up to the performer, in order to further discourage the feeling that one is ever able to hear the same performance twice.  Typically, performances of Cage’s work last anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour and a half; this Halberstadt performance is anticipated to last 639 years.  Tomorrow, if the piece is well-played, weights will be shifted on the piano’s keys so that a new chord configuration will begin sounding.

Some of my friends accuse John Cage of being gimicky as it is; I suspect many would only amplify that criticism for this performance put on by this small German parish, but I think that there are real and meaningful considerations to take into account.  Perhaps the most relevant of these, in my mind, was the consequences of the performers’ attempts to take

The Organ
The Organ

John Cage literally, in asking themselves “How long is ‘as long as possible?’ “.  Perhaps it is because I dwell in The U.S.A. where the age of most of our construction is measured in decades (if not years), but it seems to me something of a miracle that the building in which the performance is taking place has survived 639 years–let alone that the continuation of the performance practically depends upon its surviving twice that long, to 1,278 years!

While the Halberstadt church performance may have attempted to take into account the raw lifespan of materials in the organ and perhaps the building construction, the real wildcards in the vicissitudes of time that threaten this performance’s completion must surely be so-called acts-of-God and the violence of human action and conflict.  That this church has survived not only longer than Germany–with all of its history of destructive war and conflict–but predates even the Prussian state by nearly 200 years is astounding.  Calling for an uninterrupted performance of this sort is not just expressing faith not only in time; it is a laudable statement of hopeful fate about the stability of the future of humanity.

For more information about this fascinating performance, visit the ASLSP/Halberstadt website.  NPR also had a nice write-up on this performance a half decade ago.  Also, if my one-day warning was not enough for you to get your celebration on, the next note-change is scheduled for a little over a year from now, on 5 July 2010.

Philosophical Categories & My Ontological Argument for the Existence of God

God: a more concrete version than that for which I will argue
God: a more concrete version than that for which I will argue

If you are viewing this from facebook, please visit the original article, for better formatting.

Ontological arguments are fun, aren’t they?  I’ve had this one on the back burner for a while now1, and I had hoped to make some improvements before discussing it with anybody.  However, last night after finishing up an article on Levinas by Roger Burggraeve 2, I came to all-too-many realizations which should have been obvious to me long ago.  One of these realizations is that my ideas will not improve substantially if they are not subjected to the unexpected (i.e. the perspectives of Others).

I should begin by mentioning a few caveats:

  1. This is an argument, not a proof
  2. The product of the argument is not the stereotypical Christian God, nor any other well-defined God with knowable attributes.  In fact, it is a more vague God than even that abstracted object of Anselm’s famous argument3.

My argument is something done for my own pleasure and as an example of my method of applying philosophical categories.  One of my long-standing criticisms of most philosophers and most philosophies, is that they tend to proffer, promote, and perpetuate false dichotomies and sets of categories which hold some of these qualities:

  • Categories or alternatives are presented as binary opposites, when they are not.  In fact, I would argue that in most of these cases, so-called binary opposites are not even mutually exclusive.
  • Likewise, categories are presented as distinct when they are not necessarily so.
  • Categories, distinctions, or divisions are presented as the only available or important options, when in fact the only “only” which these categories have in common is that they were the only categories or distinctions that the philosopher could think of at the time.
  • Categories distinguish quantities or qualities based on the assumption that these can be meted out discretely, when in fact it is not clear that they can be.

Note that one mode of categorization that I am explicitly ruling out here, is the classic binary 2×2 table.  I don’t think, in other words, that our perceptions, experience, and reason give us enough information to presuppose that, for example, a thing must either be or not be, a thing must either be good or not be good, a thing must either be one thing or many things4

In response to this, I have tried to think up some sort of system of categories which can be applied to the real world, and the only categorization I have been able to think up5 is the following, presented in a nice6, discrete table:

categories

Note: Please forgive my imprecise/confusing language; I have no real experience yet in formal logic.

Now, this little categorization is fun, because it allows me to get away with a lot.  The “anything else” category includes such gems of possibility as: 1) the given quality is extant, 2) the given quality is both extant and not extant, 3) the given quality is somehow neither extant nor not-extant, , 4) the artificially abstracted categorical quality is not itself measurable, identifiable, abstract-ible, describable, or is otherwise irrelevant, or–my favorite–5) anything else.

The Argument for God’s Existence!

Just for fun, I’ll apply my categorization method to God’s existence.  Take the following possibilities:

  1. solipsism: either you and only you exist, in a discretely definable way, or…
  2. anything else

I suspect I have already gotten you, by this point, to agree to the equation, and, in most cases, to believe that option #1 is false7.  Now comes the controversial part of the argument–the definition of God.  My challenge here is to find a way to get you to accept “anything else” as implying God.  A slight reformulation might help get my point across before I go any further.  Take, now, these possibilities:

  1. solipsism: either you know/perceive, all that there is to be known/perceived8
  2. anything else

A tempting route to go from here is to say “if I do not perceive/know everything that can be known/perceived, what exists which can be, counterfactually, perceived?”, or, in other words, “what is the source of my knowledge?”.  Hopefully there are a few romantic transcendentalists out there who are willing to let me apply Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of God/Nature here: the vague not-me9.  Of course, this assumes a source is required and that it is the excess of knowledge that makes is disagree with proposition #1.  There is no need, however, to presume any discrete division between a me and a not-me.  It might also be the case, that neither I nor knowledge/perception are discrete in such a way as to fit into the restrictive bounds of option #1.  This is fine, because the fluidity of self-identity jibes well with other definitions of God, such as Spinoza’s great pantheist notion, certain Buddhist and shamanistic approaches, and the like.  Phenomenologists among us will point out that all we need is an Other to demonstrate against proposition #1, and the Other need not be God.  I am rather content, though, to let this Other stand retain the same role as Emerson’s not-me, such that the Other, or indeed an aggregate of others, fulfills the minimum role of God, should no other discrete being be evident.

Okay, whatever…

Alright, perhaps I did not quite get to the grand argument for God’s existence.  What did I learn in the process?  While I have appreciated attempts to give philosophical systems some sort of reasoned foundation, it seems all of these attempts rely on assumptions which do not necessarily hold.  In attempting my own such system, I found really, only one small means of sorting out knowledge which I have been unable to disprove as a tool (my either/or tool used and explained above).  Unfortnuately, this tool, as applied, typically only allows me to say only “okay…so…’anything else’ is the reality”.  In other words, I have found that the strictest standards of scrutiny have shown me that, if we want to say anything, we have to start making precarious generalizations, inadequate analogies, erroneous abstractions, and arbitrary categorizations at some point, if we want to be able to say anything interesting or useful.  Hopefully, time and energy will and has allowed us to demonstrate (with faith in probability as a founding assumption, unfortunately) which of the unprovable tools of logic, perception, and knowledge-making (modus ponens, modus tollens, statistics, calculus, analogies, etc.) give us results that are more true, more often (or at least more beneficial).  Still, I hope my categorization example has gotten someone out there to ponder, in some useful way, the similarity between believing in any not-me and beliving in God.  I do love feedback, if for anyone who has managed to get through this wordy writing.  If you have any rule of logic that you think might survive my scrutiny, I would love to hear about it!

  1. since I read Sartre’s Being and NothingnessL’Être et le néant, over a year ago
  2. The Bible Gives to Thought: Levinas on the Possibility and Proper Nature of Biblical Thinking, from Jeffrey Bloechl’s The Face of the Other and the Trace of God
  3. Broken down in a fun way here
  4. I suspect many, perhaps most, intelligent people will argue against me on all of these points on a case-by-case basis.  Some categories, like number or existence to mention some off-the-cuff, seem to be discrete.  In other words, I suspect most people would probably say that we can know that, for example, a thing either exists or it does not exist.  Or, one might argue, one must be able to describe (as a numeric category) the quantity of a thing.  To the contrary, my suspicion is that we terms like existence and number express a kind of practical convenience in language, and though it may be difficult to imagine how a thing might partially exist or both exist and not-exist, that does not mean these categories can be ignored.  I should love to argue this point with any takers, though, as I am willing to admit that it is hard to come up with clarifications and examples for this sort of provisional thinking.
  5. Warning!  Warning!  Flags should be going up right now if you have been awake while reading this!
  6. yes, “precise”, for you philologists!
  7. I would love to argue about this one, too.
  8. While most people–even some supposed solipsists–will deny this outright, I think this theory warrants more merit than we generally give it.  Our experience has conditioned us to believe that intellectual solipsism is false on its face, but if infant psychology has anything to say about this, the assumption was not once so well ingrained. Imagine the infant who thinks that when mommy disappears mommy no longer exists and is marvels at when some object appears to have a back side.
  9. See Nature