Archive for the ‘Metaphysics’ Category

This post is from two years ago. It’s been sitting in my drafts folder, and I decided it was time to release it from purgatory.

I recently finished the re-imagined series Battlestar Galactica, an epic space opera that drew praise from a wide variety of viewers. I have also been on a Philip K. Dick binge of late, reading many short stories and several novels, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Ubik, and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

As a way of jotting down some of the thoughts I have running through my head, I want to try a short comparison of the criticisms that each face.

PKD’s greatest strength is his ability to weave intricate and complex plots in an effort to explore abstract philosophical ideas. One of the prime examples of this, highlighted in both Ubik and Stigmata, is the line between reality and illusion.

In the former, written in the same year as Electric Sheep, Dick tells a story in which the characters are never sure who is dead and who is alive. In Stigmata, a similar problem occurs, this time on the basis of drugs that create hallucinations that eventually make their way into sober reality. The characters are never sure if they are under the effect of the drug, seeing manifestations of Palmer Eldritch at the most inopportune moments.


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Wittgenstein, being silent

I came across the following quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein‘s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicuswhich was cited in Wolfhart Pannenberg‘s Theology and the Philosophy of Science (32-33):

The sense of the world must lie outside the world. In the world everything is as it is, and everything happens as it does happen: in it no value exists—and if it did exist, it would have no value. If there is any value that does have value, it must lie outside the whole sphere of what happens and is the case. For all that happens and is the case is accidental. What makes it non-accidental cannot lie within the world, since if it did it would itself be accidental. It must lie outside the world. (6.41)

This, in the manifesto of logical positivism!*

*Pannenberg cites this in a section that discusses the problems presented for theology, particularly the word “God,”  and how certain theologians (van Buren) reduced the content of theological speech to a “mere form of expression.” Of course, Pannenberg does not accept a logical positivist approach to theological language, which results in something like the liberalism of Schleiermacher or the neo-liberalism of Bultmann. Rather, he follows Popper’s critique of positivism (which he considers total and complete) and suggests another way of regarding the content and function of theological language.

When I initially read this quote in its full context in the Tractatus my mind was immediately drawn to the classical distinction between necessary and contingent beings. Wittgenstein is of course concerned with language here, but in his quest to understand meaning in its ultimate or unconditioned sense he is driven “outside the world.”

This statement, rather than lay the foundation of an all encompassing positivism, seems to provide strict limits for the ability of a completely immanent logic (and metaphysics) to establish any final meaning or value. The reference for any one thing, a word in a sentence or an object in a painting, has meaning only in connection with those words or objects that surround it (this was the fundamental thesis of the Tractatus, wasn’t it?). Any necessary meaning, as Wittgenstein says, must lie outside the world, outside the internal reference of a sentence or language or system of culture.*

*There is of course the interpretation of the Tractatus as a big middle finger to the Vienna Circle, who are supposed to have completely misunderstood its purpose and proceeded to build a philosophical system on its basis. I so hope this is true.

In spite of these limits, Wittgenstein is not saying that we should aim to speak of the value of things in their ultimate, unconditioned reference. As he famously concludes:

What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.

What can we truly and meaningfully say, then? Maybe the monks had it right after all.

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An interesting post on 3 Quarks Daily, entitled “Only Philosophers Go To Hell.” It is written by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse, authors of Reasonable Atheism (Prometheus, 2011).

It is basically a riff on the Problem of Evil, focusing on how the idea of hell is logically problematic in the Christian universe:

The Problem of Hell is familiar enough to many traditional theists.  Roughly, it is this: How could a loving and just god create a place of endless misery? …Hell, on its face, seems like it is actually part of God’s plan, and moreover, the misery there far exceeds misery here.  At least the misery here is finite; it ends when one dies.  But in Hell, death is just the beginning. Those in Hell suffer for eternity.  Hell, so described, seems less the product of a just and loving entity than a vicious and spiteful one.  That’s a problem.

From this, the authors establish that the only legitimate defense of an eternity of pain and suffering (and no, I am not talking about taking the kids to Disney World) comes from a retributivist or libertarian position.  (more…)

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I have been musing the past two days on Simon Cricthley’s three-part article on PKD, which has thus far been a summary of Dick’s religious experience (here) and his particular take on Gnosticism (and here). Today, rather than just telling us about PKD, Critchley finally said something. The problem is, its just not that interesting – or at least not as interesting as reading PKD.

This final installment revolves around the idea, common to both Gnosticism and modern sci-fi, that the world as we know it is an illusion. In fact, this idea is rather common in many religious traditions, though in varying degrees of paranoia. Gnosticism represents one of the more extreme forms, but Eastern philosophy also trumpets a similar tune.

These connections also abound in sci-fi films, as Critchley points out. Probably the most famous (at least in my generation) is The Matrix, but he also includes in his list James Cameron’s Avatar and a few Lars von Trier films, Antichrist and Melonchalia (neither of which I have seen). We should also put Inception here, as well. (more…)

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I intended this to be a short post dealing with the phase of scientific history that Kuhn calls “pre-paradigm” science (its not). Basically, in what is an 11-page chapter in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (SSR, for short) Kuhn discusses the nature of the scientific enterprise before a “paradigm” emerges and orders all research projects towards its explication.

A Geocentric Depiction of the Universe

A paradigm, briefly, is a theoretical framework that emerges and functions as a rubric under which scientific research programs take place. The paradigm sets the agenda during its reign, establishing a period of normal science. An example of a paradigm would be the Copernican heliocentric universe, which replaced the geocentric Ptolemaic model (this change is an example of a revolution, or a paradigm shift). The idea here is that prior to the emergence of a paradigm, scientific research is relatively random “fact gathering.” Yet once a paradigm emerges, now experimental research has its problems defined for it. This includes, among other things, the limiting of the scope of meaningful questions to those that are answerable within the paradigm. Those questions that lie outside the paradigm are bracketed off, often labeled “metaphysical,”* though this is not the proper use of the term.

*Just a brief note about what metaphysics is as a discipline. In modern philosophy, particularly in the analytic tradition, metaphysics has come to mean those problems that are not answerable by science. So the mind-body problem for example is a metaphysical problem. However, classically this term referred to a line of inquiry that examined being qua being.

What does this mean? Well, all ‘sciences’ (i.e. methods for gaining knowledge) study ‘being’ (i.e. that which is) under certain aspects. So biology studies being qua (i.e. under the aspect of) living, psychology is the study if being qua mental (psychical?), mathematics studies being qua quantifiable, and physics studies being qua repeatable and mathematically reifiable. All of these sciences (and many more) study certain slivers of being; that is, they study what is (i.e. the universe or reality itself) under a certain aspect. What does metaphysics do? At least in the classical sense it studies being under the aspect of being. It is the most abstract, most universal way of exploring being.


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I have chosen a “project” that, depending on my level of interest, should occupy me for a number of months.

I have done a fair bit of philosophizing about science, concerned mostly with ontological questions concerning the laws of nature in contrast to the laws of physics. More directly, I have been absolutely plagued with the question of the to ti en einai. *
of things, i.e. what constitutes the “really real,” the “real world” of Popper. Is it, I have often wondered, that which is repeatable and subject to being algorithmically compressed? Or does reality resist such reduction? Maybe it is rather the case that the real world of physics relates to reality itself about as well as MTV’s series “The Real World” represents lives that actual people actually live!

*I reserve the right for explanatory notes within the body of post, a trick I picked up from Joe Posnanski, the greatest baseball writer since, well…ever. This is a space for more technical explanation that the uninterested reader can simply pass over, at the potential cost of missing something funny/odd/irrelevant.

The Greek phrase to ti en einai comes from Aristotle’s text Metaphysics. It is usually translated “essence” following the Latin essentia, a term coined precisely to translate this phrase. Literally translated into English, it means something to the effect of “what it was(is) to be that thing.” Confusing? Not really, its actually pretty simple in the context of Aristotle. Simply put, whatever a thing is (by definition), that’s what it is (by definition). The hard part is actually figuring out exactly what a specific thing is, or even what the definition of “is” is. Yes, these are the things that keep me up at night.


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