Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

Which is more fundamental: processes or things?

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I would vote for processes, obviously, since things are in fact processes (though sometimes slow processes). Celso Vieira writes in Aeon:

Metaphysics is the attempt to understand how existence works by examining the building blocks of reality, the distinctions between mental and physical entities, and the fundamental questions of being and reality. But metaphysics is not only an arcane branch of philosophy: human beings use metaphysical assumptions to navigate the world. Assumptions about what exists and what is fundamental exert a powerful influence on our lives. Indeed, the less aware we are of our metaphysical assumptions, the more we are subject to them.

Western metaphysics tends to rely on the paradigm of substances. We often see the world as a world of things, composed of atomic molecules, natural kinds, galaxies. Objects are the paradigmatic mode of existence, the basic building blocks of the Universe. What exists exists as an object. That is to say, things are of a certain kind, they have some specific qualities and well-defined spatial and temporal limits. For instance: Fido is my dog, he is grey, and was born one year ago. (It’s worth noting that such a simple statement will give rise to a litany of metaphysical disputes within substance metaphysics: realists believe that universals, such as the natural kind ‘dogs’, exist while nominalists believe them to be only intellectual abstractions.)

Though substance metaphysics seems to undergird Western ‘common sense’, I think it is wrong. To see this, consider the cliché about the glass of water: is it half-empty or half-full? The question assumes a static arrangement of things serving as a basis for either an optimistic or a pessimistic interpretation. One can engage in interminable disputes about the correct description of the physical set-up, or about the legitimacy of the psychological evaluations. But what if the isolated frame ‘a glass of water’ fails to give the relevant information? Anyone would prefer an emptier glass that is getting full to a fuller one getting empty. Any analysis lacking information about change misses the point, which is just what substance metaphysics is missing. Process philosophers, meanwhile, think we should go beyond looking at the world as a set of static unrelated items, and instead examine the processes that make up the world. Processes, not objects, are fundamental.

The pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus provides the most famous image of process metaphysics. ‘It is not possible,’ he says, ‘to step twice into the same river’ – because existence depends on change; the river you step into a second time is changed from the river you stepped into originally (and you have changed in the interval, too). And while substance philosophers will tend to search for the smallest constituent objects in order to locate reality’s most fundamental building blocks, process philosophers think this is insufficient. So do modern physicists. Electrons are now understood as bundles of energy in a field, and quantum vacuum fluctuations prove that there are fields without bundles but no bundles without fields. Things seem to be reducible to processes – and not the reverse. (As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, we should think about ‘occurrences’ instead of ‘things’.)

Change poses a recurring problem for substance metaphysics. Universals have traditionally been a popular way to circumvent it. These static entities are difficult to define precisely, but can be thought of as ‘hyper-things’ that are instantiated in many different particular things. A universal is the thing that particulars have in common, such as types, kinds and relations. Universals are essentially different from particulars: Aristotle, for instance, argued that particulars – such as Fido my dog – are subject to generation and corruption, while species – the universal – are eternal. This particular example provides another instance in which science seems to favour process metaphysics. Thanks to the theory of evolution, the Aristotelian view that species are unchanging and eternal was proven wrong. Species evolve. They change. Dogs, after all, evolved from wolves to constitute a whole different kind. Once again, we’re better off using the paradigm of change rather than substance.

Process metaphysics leads to a re-evaluation of other important philosophical notions. Consider identity. To explain why things change without losing their identity, substance philosophers need to posit some underlying core – an essence –that remains the same throughout change. It is not easy to pin down what this core might be, as the paradox of Theseus’ ship illustrates. A ship goes on a long voyage and requires significant repairs: new planks to replace the old, fresh oars to replace the decayed, and so on, until, by the time the ship returns to port, there is not one single piece that belonged to the ship when it departed. Is this the same ship, even though materially it is completely different? For substance philosophers, this is something of a paradox; for process philosophers, this is a necessary part of identity. Of course it is the same ship. Identity ceases to be a static equivalence of a thing with itself. After all, without the repairs, the ship would have lost its functionality. Instead, as the German philosopher Nicholas Rescher argues in Ideas in Process (2009), identity just is a programmatic development. That is, the identity of a process is the structural identity of its programme. Other things being equal, every puppy will turn out to be a dog. (This programme need not be thought of as deterministic. The interactions between processes, Rescher argues, open room for variations.)

Processes are not the mere intervals between two different states of affairs or two objects, as the paradox of the heap exemplifies: take a heap of sand and remove one grain. It remains a heap; one grain doesn’t make a difference. But if you repeat the subtraction enough times, eventually there will be just one grain. Clearly, this isn’t a heap. Where did it become a non-heap? By looking at the process, and not the end-states of affairs, you’ll realise the impossibility of pinpointing the boundary between heap and non-heap. (Similarly, no individual was the exact turning point between wolves and dogs.) At the very least, this gives us a warning about the unnoticed abstraction operating on our division of natural kinds. Process philosophers such as Henri Bergson stop at this negative conclusion, believing that processes cannot be known but only experienced. Regardless, as the Danish philosopher Johanna Seibt notes, it might just be the case that focusing on the process requires a whole new perspective.

Looking at the world as a manifold of interconnected processes has scientific and philosophical advantages, but . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

6 November 2017 at 11:20 am

Posted in Daily life

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Roland Barthes – How to Read the Signs in the News

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I found this brief video that describes how Roland Barthese looked at TV news to be quite interesting:

And then I found this series of four brief videos on YouTube. Worth watching especially nowadays. It’s an interesting way to look at media, for example: peeling off and lifting up the cultural overlay on reality, removing the memes to see what is underneath.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 April 2017 at 7:22 pm

Posted in Books, Education, Media, Memes

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Twenty-First Century Stoic — From Zen to Zeno: How I Became a Stoic

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William B. Irvine has written an interesting book on his decision to become a Stoic: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. Boing Boing has a two-part essay by him, which I imagine is an extract from the book. The first part begins:

This is the first in a series of three essays, written by a Stoic, about what it means to practice an ancient philosophy in the modern world. (Read the second essay [and in my browser, you have to scroll down quite a bit – LG].)I never intended to become a Stoic. Who, after all, were the Stoics? They were those grim, wooden figures of ancient Greece and Rome whose goal it was to stand mutely and take whatever the world could throw at them. Right?

About a decade ago, though, I began a research project on human desire. The goal of the project was to write a book on the subject, but I also had a hidden agenda in conducting my research: I was contemplating becoming a Zen Buddhist and wanted to learn more about it before taking the leap. But the more I learned about Zen, the less it attracted me.

Practicing Zen would require me to suppress my analytical abilities, something I found it quite difficult to do. Another off-putting aspect of Zen was that the moment of enlightenment it dangled before its practitioners was by no means guaranteed. Practice Zen for decades and you might achieve enlightenment — or you might not. It would be tragic, I thought, to spend the remaining decades of my life pursuing a moment of enlightenment that never came. Zen doubtless works for some people, but for me, the fit wasn’t good.

Then something quite unexpected happened. As part of my research, I investigated what ancient philosophers had to say about desire. Among them were the Stoic philosophers — people like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus — about whom I knew little. As I read them, I discovered that they were quite unlike I imagined they would be. Indeed, it soon became apparent that everything I “knew” about the Stoics was wrong. They were neither grim nor wooden. If anything, the adjective that I thought described them best was “buoyant” or maybe even “cheerful.” And without consciously intending to do so, I found myself experimenting with Stoic strategies for daily living.

Thus, when I found myself in a predicament — being stuck in traffic, for example — I followed the advice of Epictetus and asked myself what aspects of the situation I could and couldn’t control. I couldn’t control what the other cars did, so it was pointless — was in fact counterproductive — for me to get angry at them. My energy was much better spent focusing on things I could control, with the most important being how I responded to the situation. In particular, I could employ Stoic strategies to prevent the incident from spoiling my day.

I also started making use of the Stoic technique known as negative visualization: I would periodically contemplate the loss of the things and people that mean the most to me. Thus, when parting from a friend, I might make a mental note that this could conceivably be the last time I would see the friend in question. Friendships do end, after all, and people die suddenly. Doing this sort of thing may seem morbid, but the practice of negative visualization is a powerful antidote to a phenomenon that will otherwise deprive us of much of the happiness we could be enjoying: negative visualization prevents us from taking for granted the world around us and the people in it.

When they hear about negative visualization, people often get the wrong idea. They think the Stoics advocate that we spend our days dwelling on all the bad things that can happen to us. This, of course, would be a recipe for a miserable existence. What the Stoics in fact advocate is not that we dwell on bad things but that we contemplate them, a subtle but important difference. They also recommend that we engage in negative visualization not constantly but only a few times each day and for only a few seconds each time. Our negative visualizations, then, will take the form of fleeting thoughts.

Visualizing in this manner has the effect of resetting the baseline against which we measure our happiness, and it can have a profound and immediate effect on that happiness. As the result of negatively visualizing, we might find ourselves taking delight that we still possess the things that only moments before, we took for granted, including our job, our spouse, our health — indeed, our very existence.

One of my favorite visualization exercises involves the sky. When I see it, I periodically remind myself that the sky didn’t have to be blue. But on most days it is blue, and a gorgeous blue, the hue of which changes subtly from hour to hour. Then I reflect on how wonderful it is that we inhabit a universe that can, on a nearly daily basis, present us with such a spectacle. A simple exercise, to be sure, and some would say a silly one. But if you can learn to appreciate the sky — something most people take utterly for granted — there is a good chance that you can learn to appreciate your life as well and thereby enjoy a happier existence than would otherwise be the case.

I mentioned above that the benefits to be derived from practicing Zen are uncertain. Stoicism, by way of contrast, does not dangle before its adherents a moment — maybe — of life-transforming enlightenment. Instead, it provides a body of advice for them to follow and a set of strategies for them to employ in everyday life. The strategies in question are easy to use. (Indeed, I suspect that many of the readers of this essay have already, in the last few seconds, successfully attempted negative visualization.) That said, I should add that it takes rather longer to internalize Stoic advice and strategies so that one’s response to the events of daily living becomes reflexively Stoical, at which point one can truly claim to be a Stoic.

My experiments with Stoicism were sufficiently encouraging that I abandoned my plans to become a Zen Buddhist and decided instead to follow in the footsteps of Zeno of Citium, the Greek who formulated Stoicism in about 300 B.C. I decided, in other words, to become a walking, talking anachronism: I would attempt to transform myself into a twenty-first century Stoic. My goal in the essays in this series is to describe some aspects of this transformation.

Most people, of course, would think of Zen Buddhism and Stoicism as being polar opposites, philosophically speaking, but that is because people tend to be, as I was, woefully ignorant of what Stoicism is. One of the most surprising things that came out of my research was how much Zen and Stoicism have in common.

They both advocate taking what Buddha referred to as “the middle path.” Buddha lived a life of luxury in a palace but was not fulfilled by that life. He abandoned the palace to live a life of extreme asceticism but again did not find fulfillment. It was then that he experienced his moment of enlightenment. The wise person, Buddha concluded, will not shun pleasure; at the same time, he will keep firmly in mind how easy it is to become enslaved by it. He will therefore be guarded in his enjoyment of pleasure.

The Stoics likewise advocated taking the middle path. Zeno of Citium began his philosophical education by practicing Cynicism, the ancient philosophy that advocated an ascetic lifestyle. The ancient Cynics (including Diogenes of Sinope and Zeno’s teacher Crates) lived on the street and owned only the clothing that they wore. Zeno abandoned Cynicism in part because he rejected its asceticism. In the Stoic philosophy he formulated, we are told that there is nothing wrong with enjoying life’s pleasures, as long as we are careful not to allow ourselves to be enslaved by them and as long as, even while we are enjoying them, we take steps to prepare ourselves ultimately to be deprived of them.

Offer a Stoic a glass of fine champagne, and he probably won’t refuse it; as he drinks it, though, he might reflect on the possibility that this will be the last time he drinks champagne, a reflection, by the way, that will dramatically enhance his enjoyment of the moment. Then again, offer a Stoic a glass of water, and he might go through the same thought processes with the same result.

In having “last time” thoughts (which, by the way, are a form of negative visualization), a Stoic is behaving rather like a Buddhist. Both Stoics and Buddhists think it important, if we are to have a good life, that we recognize the transient nature of human existence, and both advise us periodically to contemplate impermanence. This is what Stoics are doing when they reflect on the fact that since we are mortal, there will be a last time for each of the things we do in life. Thus, there will be a last time you drink champagne — or water, for that matter. There will be a last time you touch the face of another human being. There will even be a last time you utter the word “forever.”

Along similar lines, both Zen Buddhists and Stoics think it important for us to strive to . . .

Continue reading.

Also see The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 February 2017 at 7:50 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

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Spot on!! 95 philosophical concepts, each realized in its own logo

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You have to see it:

That’s from an OpenCulture post by Colin Marshall, worth reading in its own right.

Written by LeisureGuy

4 January 2017 at 6:21 pm

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Teaching children to think philosophically

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The video comes from an Open Culture post by Josh Jones, which has some content worth reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 January 2017 at 10:02 am

Posted in Daily life, Education, Video

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A two-year-old gives a quick solution to the trolley problem

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This is from Open Culture, posted by Colin Marshall. He provides an introduction (and, later in the post, some discussion):

“A runaway train is heading towards five workers on a railway line. There’s no way of warning, but you’re standing near a lever that operates some points. Switch the points, and the train goes down a spur. Trouble is, there’s another worker on that bit of track too, but it’s one fatality instead of five. Should you do that?” Here we have the trolley problem, which since its first articulation in 1967 by Philippa Foot has become the classic example of an ethical dilemma as well as perhaps the best known thought experiment in all of philosophy.

The post at the link has two videos. Here’s one:

Written by LeisureGuy

22 December 2016 at 9:06 am

Posted in Daily life

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Fascinating short video on—correct me if I’m wrong—Epicureanism

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I touch on some of the points mentioned in the film, but the film has quite a bit more in terms of the alternatives.

Written by LeisureGuy

29 November 2016 at 3:09 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Memes, Video

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