Screenshot from the excellent iPhone app Sleep Cycle:
In skimming through Rodolfo Llinás’ neuroscience book I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self, I’ve come upon some remarkable statements. First, what he says in foreshadowing some of his conclusions, like that the waking state of mind is separated from dreaming merely by the former being “modulated by our senses” (p. 2). Except for this, the two states are indistinguishable. “When dreaming, as we are released from the tyranny of our sensory input, the system generates intrinsic storms that create “possible” worlds —perhaps — very much as we do when we think” (p. 2).
Much later, after several very technical and difficult chapters that I skipped, he arrives at some surprisingly juicy speculation. First of all, he asserts that human society is comparable to the brain in a non-trivial way, in particular after the emergence of the Web:
Is it reasonable to consider the world order as being at all like that of the brain? Yes. What we observe is a similarity of order expressed at different levels, at all levels from cells to animals and from animals to societies. One wonders if this is perhaps a universal law. The way the system organizes itself may reflect, for example, its solution to the tyranny of the second law of thermodynamics, “order will decrease with time.” There may be a deeper message here. One of the few ways in which local order can increase is through the generation of such things as a nervous system that employs modularization of function. If modularization is indeed a universal to combat disorder, such a geometric and architectural solution may have happened at other levels as well. (p. 258)
This is a new idea to me, and I think it is a very profound one. Reading on, Llinás almost immediately tops himself (in my view, anyway):
The spawn of the technology behind the Web presents an ominous event if not properly modulated. If allowed to expand out of all control, it could become a danger, perhaps the most serious threat that society has ever encountered, eclipsing that of war, disease, famine, or drug problems. The event we should fear most is the possibility that as we develop better forms of communication with one another, we may cease to desire interaction with the external world. If one considers the problems for society of mind-altering drugs, then imagine if people could realize their dreams, any dreams, by means of virtual communication with other real or imaginary human beings. And not just via the visual system, but through all sensory systems. Keep in mind that the only reality that exists for us is already a virtual one — we are dreaming machines by nature! And so virtual reality can only feed on itself, with the risk that we can very easily bring about our own destruction.
[...] Here is the possibility of creating a totally hedonistic state, a decadent sybaritic society rushing headlong into self-destruction and oblivion. (p. 259)
This is pretty much exactly what I have been saying for years! Complete with a clear formulation of the basic virtualistic assumption! I am perhaps less unequivocally pessimistic in my divination, but the normative judgment is nonessential here — he is echoing core tenets of my world view, ones I thought I was pretty much alone in holding, at least in this form. Oh, happy day.
I’m back! On wordpress that is. And the reason: I got an iPod Touch for christmas, and would like to be able to post from it. I thought post-by-email would make that very straight-forward no matter what service I used, but for some reason I get unwanted line breaks when using both the native email app and the web interface for gmail. So my posts end up looking awkward. Luckily, I stumbled upon the excellent app the wordpress people have made for iPhone/iPod Touch. I was sold almost immediately. Not only can I post without unwanted line breaks (as you can see — this post was written on the pod), but I can completely manage my blog (posts, pages, comments and all) through its brilliantly easy interface. It was too tempting. I had to come back.
Annoyingly, posterous has no export option, so I’ll have to import what little I have written manually. I’ll bring everything from both blogs in here. In other words, I’m reverting to a single track.
“Poor taste” is a misleading and unhealthy expression we’ve inherited from the economically stratified societies of our past. There is no poor taste, only crude and undeveloped.
Philosophy is the part of culture responsible for speculative consolidation of all the parts — its aim is a coherent, meaningful whole, within which all actual and possible parts can be positioned in relation to each other. In other words, one of the main roles of philosophy is to be the arbiter of which cultural conflicts are real and which are merely apparant.
Kommentar til bloggposten Kratylus og sannhetens historie:
“Ordene er faste og tingene er flytende, derfor fant Kratylus ut at det var best å holde munn.”
For en herlig ekstrem reaksjon. Men det er jo opplagt andre ting vi kan bruke ord til enn å forsøke å fastsette en flytende virkelighet. Som han selv sier er jo i det minste ordene faste. Et byggverk av ord kan vel da være absolutt stabilt, så lenge vi ikke stiller det opp som virkelighetsbeskrivende. Med ord alene kan vi altså skape virtuelle “surrogat-virkeligheter” som er objektivt gyldige eller hjemlige eller hva vi skulle ønske, til den pris at vi må begrense bruken av dem til dyp innlevelse, dvs. ikke ta skrittet fullt ut til dogmatisk tro (overtro). Dette er på en måte en skuffelse, for vi skulle jo helst sett at vi kunne fullt ut begripe virkeligheten, men samtidig er det også et sterkt innslag av befrielse her, idet dogmatisk tro sperrer oss inne.
Ene broren min var nettopp og besøkte den andre i Libanon. Her har han satt seg godt til rette med lokalbefolkningen:
On p. 56 of the very charming book Letters from a Stoic:
I’m abandoning this ship in favor of a couple of posterous blogs. One is for thinking out loud, mostly about philosophy, and the other is an outlet for more personal stuff that I can’t imagine anybody except family and friends being interested in reading. The latter will probably be in Norwegian only, while on the former I will alternate between writing in English and in Norwegian.
The reason I am doing this is that I like the aesthetic and practical simplicity of posterous. It makes it feel more natural to write casually, and that’s what I would like to do. Write casually and more often.
We look back on our predecessors with equal part pity and ridicule. But history hasn’t plateaued, and we are not on top of things but on a steep and climbing slope. It won’t take long before our current state will appear just as pitiful and ridiculous as the primitives of the past look like to us. From the point of view of a hypothetical future peak of history, our present is just another step on a long ladder of insignificant and pitiful primitives. This is an historically new perspective, and it’s very unsettling. It’s like the future is reaching back to puncture our present dignity. A very hostile environment — albeit only for the few people who are aware of the situation.
Standing in the shadow of probable descendants is something very different from standing in the shadow of remembered ancestors. Ancestors are dead, and can only be imagined to be disappointed. Descendants, on the other hand, will at some point, possibly within the reach of our lifetimes, be very much alive and vocal in their disdain. Somehow, this makes the latter worse. We will be judged harshly. Really.
Belief in substance, taken transcendentally, as a critic of knowledge must take it, is the most irrational, animal, and primitive of beliefs; it is the voice of hunger. But when, as I must, I have yielded to this presumption, and proceeded to explore the world, I shall find in its constitution the most beautiful justification for my initial faith, and the proof of its secret rationality. This corroboration will not have any logical force, since it will be only pragmatic, based on begging the question, and perhaps only a bribe offered by fortune to confirm my illusions. The force of the corroboration will be merely moral, showing me how appropriate and harmonious with the nature of things such a belief was on my part. How else should the truth have been revealed to me at all? Truth and blindness, in such a case, are correlatives, since I am a sensitive creature surrounded by a universe utterly out of scale with myself: I must, therefore, address it questioningly but trustfully, and it must reply to me in my own terms, in symbols and parables, that only gradually enlarge my childish perceptions. It is as if Substance said to Knowledge: My child, there is a great world for thee to conquer, but it is a vast, an ancient, and a recalcitrant world. It yields wonderful treasures to courage, when courage is guided by art and respects the limits set to it by nature. I should not have been so cruel as to give thee birth, if there had been nothing for thee to master; but having first prepared the field, I set in thy heart the love of adventure.
Skepticism is not a dead end but a portal that opens only to those who have laid down their hopes for truth, and picked up the hope for fiction.
Wait, let me first share something I wrote:
To reach the sought-for starting point, Neurath’s ship has to face its destiny in the storm of skepticism — its shipwrecked crew will drift ashore an unexpected land of fiction and speculation. Here they can regroup, build shipyards, and set up bases for new explorations, by land and by sea.
Ok, pardon that feeble attempt at being poetical. I’ll make up for it immediately by giving you this, the most satisfying passage I’ve read in a long time:
The Indians, in asserting the non-existence of every term in possible experience, not only free the spirit from idolatry, but free the realm of spirit (which is that of intuition) from limitation; because if nothing that appears exists, anything may appear without the labour and expense of existing; and fancy is invited to range innocently — fancies not murdering other fancies as an existence must murder other existences. While life lasts, the field is thus cleared for innocent poetry and infinite hypothesis, without suffering the judgement to be deceived nor the heart enslaved.
It is from George Santayana’s excellent book Scepticism and Animal Faith (p. 53).
Bonus quotes, added later:
[A] mind enlightened by scepticism and cured of noisy dogma, a mind discounting all reports, and free from all tormenting anxiety about its own fortunes or existence, finds in the wilderness of essence [-- equivalent to what I call "virtuality"] a very sweet and marvellous solitude. The ultimate reaches of doubt and renunciation open out for it, by an easy transition, into fields of endless variety and peace, as if through the gorges of death it had passed into a paradise where all things are crystallised into the image of themselves, and have lost their urgency and their venom. (p. 76)
All essences and combinations of essences are brother-shapes in an eternal landscape; and the more I range in that wilderness, the less reason I find for stopping at anything, or for following any particular path. Willingly or regretfully, if I wish to live, I must rouse myself from this open-eyed trance into which utter scepticism has thrown me. I must allow subterranean forces within me to burst forth and to shatter that vision. I must consent to be an animal or a child, and to chase the fragments as if they were things of moment. But which fragment, and rolling in what direction? I am resigned to being a dogmatist; but at what point shall my dogmatism begin, and by what first solicitation of nature? [...] (p. 111)
I have abandoned the project to make decimal time systems, firstly because it is really impractical, and secondly because I’ve realized that a base-16 numeral system is preferable to base-10 anyway. But of course, I couldn’t quit altogether. Our conventional systems are so frustratingly bad, I had to at least try to make them more intelligible. Here are my suggestions for new ways to present our conventional time systems; one for the clock, one for the calendar, and one for a full lifetime (100 years). The idea is that a new way of presenting these things will enable us to relate to time in an easier and more intuitive way. For me at least, they do the trick.
I’ve introduced my idea for the “clock” before, but for the occasion I have made a more presentable image file. To repeat what the idea behind it is: to include only the 16 waking hours, and split these up in four groups of four hours each. Why four? Because this number is so eminently intelligible.
The following is my new suggestion for how to reorganize the calendar. It was made with the OpenOffice equivalent of Excel (here’s the file, in .pdf and .xls format). As you can see, I have split the year in four seasons with an equal number of complete weeks. This way, it is not strictly adjusted to any definition of New Year, but starts, loosely, somewhere near the winter solstice. Also, a day or two will be left out of the overview of any one year, but this is of lesser importance, as the calendar is optimized just for ease of comprehension.
And finally, my suggestion for how to present the time available to one in one’s entire life. Plotted below is my own life (descriptions in Norwegian). It was quite powerful for me to see my whole life laid out like this. That might be partly because I have a poor memory, but I think a diagram such as this provides a perspective that would be useful even to people with excellent memory. On the one hand perspective on how long life really is, on the other, how significant every single season is.
The two quarter-circles on the outside of the life-circle represents the two seasons on the cold side of the equinoxes, and vice versa with the inner quarter-circles. My life began in the spring of 1983, and the chart ends 100 years after that. Click the image for a larger version.
I have taped the calendar and the lifetime overview on my door, so I see them several times a day. And I have printed out a few copies of the week overview, with the intention of testing it out over the coming weeks as a tool to help me make better use of my time. Already the comprehension of time is motivating. I have a feeling this method will work better than have some previous approaches of mine.
One last thing: An list view of how the decimal time project developed. This is provided primarily to get trackback links to here in reply to each of these posts.
- Version 1 (in Norwegian)
- Helpful tables for version 1 (in Norwegian)
- Version 1.5 (from now on, all versions are in English)
- Version 2
- Helpful tables for version 2
- Version 3 (an outline)
Imagine an ideal world. Or a personal dystopia of some kind. Or just some random imagined place or situation. You probably have no problem whatsoever conjuring up at least the vague beginnings of such worlds in your imagination, and given some time, you’ll probably be able to elaborate quite a lot on them, without any further guidelines. Now, here’s a question I’d like you to think about: What is the relation between your imagined worlds and the real world? It’s an awkward question, and I guess you are at a loss for how to deal with it properly. Perhaps your most immediate response would be to start looking for similarities and differences, something which would result in a list of realistic and unrealistic properties of the imagined worlds. But this isn’t the kind of relation I’d like to have established, as you probably suspect. The question is ontological. What I want to know, to be specific, is what kind of world the real world is, what kind of world an imagined one is, and whether or not the latter can be reduced to the former.
We could take a reductionist approach: What are the respective worlds made of?
Reality, at least as far as science have been able to discover so far, is made of leptons, quarks and bosons with completely incomprehensible properties. Space and time is somehow interconnected, and there might be quite a few additional dimensions to the four we actually (if indirectly) do perceive. It’s an exceedingly strange world, far bigger, older and more complicated than any pre-scientific thinkers dared to suggest.
I think imaginary worlds can be separated into components as well, but doing this requires some care to avoid having one’s imagination start detailing further as one investigates. Take an imagined tree for instance: One might not originally have given the color and texture of the tree beneath the bark any thought. Therefore, filling this in would be tampering with the subject matter under investigation. A better approach would be to label the insides of the tree as “undefined”. Only the appearance of the tree was originally rendered, and this “skin” we might do well to define as one of the separate components we were looking for. Other components might include individual leaves or branches, if the level of detail in the imagined scene is sufficiently high. If not, the tree crown might be found to be defined in imagination as a whole. As a general principle, the imagined world is optimized for fast rendering in the mind, not for accurate modelling of whatever elements of reality it happens to imitate.
In one sense, it does seem perfectly plausible that the latter kind of world is reducible to the real world, as the organs presumably responsible for creating mentality are made of real stuff, with no supernatural components. A perfect theory should be able to account not only for the normal stuff of physics like matter and electricity etc., but even the far more elusive nature of mind. Thus, it seems very plausible to declare that the ontological domain of reality includes that of imaginary worlds.
But in another sense, the only reality we have access to — the one described above — is but a set of accepted beliefs rendered in mind. True reality is not to be equated with what in fact is merely a set of beliefs, even when these beliefs are perfectly reasonable and confirmed by all currently available empirical evidence. If we truly believe that mind is created somehow by computational activity of leptons, quarks and bosons (or whatever), we have to admit that the reality we can perceive, think about and talk about must be on the same level of ontological status as completely fictional, imaginary worlds. That the latter is not encompassed by the former, but that they are both encompassed by the ontological domain of an unknown true reality beyond the reach of mind.
We mistake our beliefs for reality all the time. In fact, that is essential for how our minds work, because our brains have limited resources and have to optimize for the greatest possible efficiency in the tasks we set ourselves to. So the illusion is our friend, as it saves us a lot of headache in most practical areas. But in certain theoretical areas, philosophy prominently among them, it is an obstacle we have to be very aware of. Philosophers should strive to become thoroughly acquainted with the reality illusion, to master it in the sense of being able to brake or restore it at will, as per required by practical and theoretical circumstances encountered. And what’s more, they should come up with theoretical accounts of mind and reality that can make sense of this aspect of our human situation.
This, I think, is what should be the defining role of philosophy.
(This is a 4000 word exam paper I wrote a couple of weeks ago.)
A common view is that we should take Plato’s ideas as very serious theoretical arguments, to be held up to scientific standards, and, when found wanting, excused on the ground of being ancient and charming. With this strategy of interpretation, most of Plato’s work has to be rejected. The only idea to withstand at least the bulk of such scrutiny, and which for that reason is framed as the great theoretical achievement entitling Plato to his traditionally very high position in the hall of philosophical fame, is his so-called Theory of Forms. This kind of interpretation was introduced as early as with Aristotle, who saw in elenchus something like a rudimentary scientific method, aiming narrowly at logical definitions. The modern heir is the tradition of linguistic philosophy, where prominent philosophers such as Frege and Russell self-identified as “platonists”, referring by that term to a philosophical realism of universals and abstract objects. But this tradition has long since outgrown the connection to its inspirational root, and is generally no longer invested in the issue of how we should interpret Plato.
In this essay, I’ll propose a “fictionalist” strategy of interpretation to challenge the one sketched above, which I’ll call “theoreticalist”. The term fictionalism is primarily meant to suggest that the best measure against which to judge Plato’s work is something else than truth (at least in the conventional sense). My ambition is to persuade the reader that this is a much more profound perspective than one might at first suspect.
I do not pretend to do theoreticalism justice. In fact, I am using it as a straw man position, to lever against in launching the fictionalist interpretation. The point of this essay is not to compare and evaluate the possible ways to interpret Plato, merely to propose and elaborate the fictionalist one.
The original intentions of the historical Plato is not the issue at stake here; for the purposes of this essay, the measure of an interpretation’s merit is simply how much it allows us to take out of Plato’s work – the width and depth opened to us by it. The interpretation is thus given a long leash: It shouldn’t stray too far off course, transforming Plato into something else entirely, but, on the other hand, there is no aspiration to actually capture the real Plato.
I will start out by reminding the reader of how Plato makes Socrates go about presenting his conception of the tripartite soul, as a representative example of Plato’s constructive thought. Then, I’ll point out the difficulties a theoreticalist interpretation of it faces, and go on to introduce the alternative, fictionalist approach, not just to the tripartite soul, but to Plato in general.
Read the rest of this entry »
Base-4 timekeeping method to make more sense of our standard (thousands of years old and completely obsolete) clockPosted: 20/06 -09
Lately, beginning with getting really carried away with decimal time last year, I’ve been thinking a lot about timekeeping. Decimal time has the great advantage of making timekeeping intuitive for base-10 minds such as our own. But it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see any revolutionary changes in society on this point, and even if we would have, I’d still have been unhappy, because I’ve realized that there is another, even more revolutionary step I’d much prefer: A step away from the base-10 numeral system. I’m not sure which alternative I prefer yet, but I think both base-8 and base-16 is far, far better. These have one huge advantage in common: They are multiples of 2. This is good for several reasons:
- Doubling and halving is by far the most intuitive way we have of dealing with numbers.
- In base-10, halving a number repeatedly becomes very hard very fast. Starting with 10, we get 10 — 5 — 2,5 — 1,25 — 0,625 — eh… That was four halvings. This is in stark contrast to the ease of halving in a base that is a multiple of 2. Take base-8, starting with 8, which in base-8 is written “10″, for reasons that should be obvious: 10 — 4 — 2 — 1 — 0,4 — 0,2 — 0,1 — 0,04 — 0,02 — 0,01 — 0,004 — etc. etc. That was 10 halvings, but you can go on forever without even having to think.
- Computers are base-2, and use multiples of 2 as byte-sizes. We all know how poorly this translates to base-10: 2 — 4 — 8 — 16 — 32 — 64 — 128 — 256. In base-8, this same series would read: 2 — 4 — 10 — 20 — 40 — 100 — 200 — 400. And in base-16: 2 — 4 — 8 — 10 — 20 –40 — 80 — 100. A numeral system with a base that is a multiple of binary is perfectly suited for our computer age.
But this post isn’t really about numeral systems, I’m just getting carried away again. Let me just point to a brilliant pro-base-16 book from 1862 by the Swedish-American John William Nystrom, and get on to what was the reason I started writing this post: I have found a close-to-perfect system for timekeeping that doesn’t demand a hopelessly improbable revolution. I romantically call it the base-4 timekeeping method. The premises are that our waking day is 16 hours long, and that 4 is the most intelligible number there is. Now, have the day split in four parts of four hours each, and each hour in four quarters, and you get a new map of the day that looks something like this (the bars are hatched up to 10:30, the time that this post was published):
A full day is 64 quarters long. You probably have a lot better sense of the length of a quarter than of a full hour, so calculating time in terms of quarters might be a good idea, in particular short spans. You gain a better grasp of the experienced duration of time that way, and, when placed on the map above, you know exactly how to weight time in relation to a full day. Timekeeping is made very simple.
You’re probably not convinced yet. But try to think about — for instance — how your waking time is budgeted on work, play, exercise etc., and I’m quite confident you’ll start seeing some benefits to the base-4 method.