Up@dawn 2.0

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Philosophy, Experience, and the Self (Posted for Sarah Anderson, #H1)

Sarah Anderson H1 Final Blog Post 2:

“A particular set of ideas about knowledge, truth, the nature and meaning of life, etc;”

This is the second definition of philosophy given by Merriam Webster dictionary, and it differs from the first because of the phrase “set of ideas”. Beyond the contemplation or study of philosophy, this is an individual’s collection of opinions on what he or she has learned, or an established school of thought outlining opinions on various philosophical ideas. The nature of philosophy is to question everything, often to the point that the philosopher asks “Is this concept that I’m contemplating even real?”. When that “concept” is something like knowledge or nature, no one can reasonably argue that it is not real on some level—it is experienced and observed even if only in individuals’ minds. Concepts like truth and meaning are unobservable, so the range of beliefs about them is wider. Truth is necessarily boolean, so it can have two values: truth = true (absolute truth exists) or truth = false (absolute truth does not exist, though subjective truth may). In the latter case, the significance of truth is greatly diminished because if truth is not universal, how does it differ from opinion? It could also be argued that truth is a three-valued boolean system, the third value being truth = null (truth as a concept does not exist). (More on three-valued logic here, if you’re interested.)

Meaning, on the other hand, could have infinitely many “values”. A philosopher could argue that it exists or it doesn’t, that it matters or not, that it’s subjective or absolute, assigned or inherent. I find, though, that the fact that the meaning of “meaning” can be argued validates its existence (perhaps this is a situation where truth = true ☺). Unfortunately, when we talk about “proving” a thing, there is a notion in our Western culture that we must do it mathematically. Even when I evaluated truth, I used Boole’s system of mathematical logic, but an entirely abstract concept like meaning is impossible to evaluate in purely mathematical terms. Far too often the STEM-oriented great thinkers of the now try to boil experience down to numbers and verifiable facts, ignoring the parts that don’t have a place in science. People who think like this will say there is no meaning in life, there is no purpose, and that we are on a level with all other animals. To accept this is to accept an accompanying meaning to human suffering, and by extension human happiness because if our lives are worth nothing, why struggle through them? Why have fun? Learn? Travel? Give? It is interesting that the very people who argue for the meaninglessness of human life are usually well-educated, working in a technical field, often with the aim of improving quality of life for humans or living things on the whole. A person who truly believes human life is meaningless would ask all those questions and be forced to dehumanize the world, to train him or herself to think of strangers, neighbors, family as ultimately insignificant. This points out what I find to be two unfortunate facts about our modern Western attitude: 1) We allow ourselves to be hypocrites in the name of science, accepting formally that science alone governs every part of our universe, our thoughts and emotions included, rendering them meaningless, but we treat others as if they are meaningful; 2) We have largely ceased to accept our own experience as evidence.

To make my meaning a little clearer, I’ll use an example from my Discrete Structures class. We’ve been working with formal logic and proofs, and in the unit we’ve learned about five types of mathematically accepted proofs that can be used in different situations. The direct proof is the one we (the STEM-oriented West) are most comfortable with—it’s the one where you take a statement (usually an equation), hypothesize it, and flip it around and substitute things until you get the conclusion you want or a contradiction of it. There is also contrapositive, where you prove that the opposite of the statement (again usually an equation) is true. There is proof by contradiction where you substitute a false value to show that it doesn’t work, and there is an exhaustive proof, where you substitute every possible value into a statement to prove they all work. But the final type of proof doesn’t even have a name. When asked to simply disprove a statement, students of formal logic know to use this kind because it is simplest and best suited to everyday life. In the quiz below, #1 reads “Disprove the following: All flowers are roses,” and all I had to say to earn the points was “But what about tulips?”

The argument against meaning is another a situation where I can see this applied. When someone says human experience is meaningless, all it takes is one instance of meaning to disprove that, and one instance of meaning occurs when one person says “Human experience means something to me.” What I’ve sought to do in this post is establish that meaning exists, but that it is independent of science. This is scary for a lot of us because it forces us to consider that there’s a higher/deeper/different level of experience, a second layer to humanity, that will never be explained by science. It makes sense that we would first look to science to explain what we don’t fully understand because science has allowed us to make sense of so much, but we take it too far when we reject unscientific theories on principle. It is interesting that we make fun of religious fundamentalists who deny scientific truths like evolution and the age of the Earth for fear their worldviews will crumble, while many of the rest of us cling to science with equal desperation.

Sarah Anderson H1 Final Blog Post 3:

Originally, I planned to use my final post to talk about our personal philosophies, but a recent conversation with a friend has inspired me to change my topic. When we were discussing the possibility of souls, he told me that he wondered if humans were even distinct beings. He subscribes to a science-only worldview and to the idea that humans are nothing more than temporary manifestations of nature, so he says that a consequence of those premises is that we are all one force—nature—and the “self” is an illusion. I immediately thought of Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am,” and our class discussion about his inability to use “I” in the premise if he has yet to establish himself as an entity. Dr. Oliver amended his statement to something like “There is thinking happening, therefore something is doing it.” I would argue, though, that the “thinking” that Descartes is talking about is another name for consciousness.

I know for sure that I have a single consciousness—I never exist in another person’s body and I never know anyone else’s thoughts—and I can assume, because the majority of the world says the same is true for them, that everyone else has a single consciousness, too. I want to jump automatically to the assumption that individual consciousness implies a self, but I can see the argument that our brains, which control the subconscious thoughts that bleed into our consciousness, do not allow the conscious and subconscious to communicate consciously. If the collective self conforms to the same rules, individuals are simply nature organizing consciousness into containers that can’t communicate with each other. However, I am a fan of Occam’s Razor, which says that if two theories are equally likely to be true, choose the one that’s less convoluted.

Therefore, I am going to write my own version of Descartes’ statement about the self, and I’ll start by asserting that there is a self because that is more likely than there accidentally being a collective consciousness that contains lesser sections which, cut off from each other, give the illusion of independent thought. The next thing I want to assert is that I have an identity that is paired to this self; it is continually formed by my conscious experience, and it belongs uniquely to me. I don’t know quite how to quantify “me,” but clearly I exist because there is a self and I have an identity, and it is paired to this self. My variation, then, is this: “There is a self, and it is me, and I am uniquely conscious of it. Therefore I am, and I am individual.”
Sarah Anderson (H1)

1 comment:

  1. You think very much like a Jamesian pragmatist/radical empiricist, Sarah, in your insistence on humanizing and personalizing honorific absractions like Truth and Meaning, and in your insistence on taking individual & personal experience seriously. Good! (if you ask me)... This is not anti-science, but it is anti-reductionist. Also good! (same qualification)...

    I know you were under some duress to pull these final posts together, and the result is quite impressive. Well done!

    And to all who've experienced pressure to meet final semester and course deadlines, well done! Take a good break, a "moral holiday" in WIlliam James's phrase, and resolve not to let the formal pressures of academia compromise your commitment to learning for learning's sake. We've not devised a very good system in higher ed. I'll keep tinkering with my own course format to humanize the process in my little corner of the university.

    Last thought: anyone who denies the reality of the self should try meeting all the deadlines of a typical college semester. The unique and persistent self really is inescapable. (Except on moral holidays.)

    Courage! Good luck! Happy learning & living!