The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell: REVIEW

It’s undeniable that Bertrand Russell has had an intense influence on a very large portion of Western thought since his heyday.   In some ways, he is the quintessential dogmatic academic.  His ideas about logic, ethics, and philosophy at large have lasted as the vast library of analytic philosophy over the last century.  He and his colleagues constructed a system via logical positivism that seemed at the time to close many of the gaps in philosophy.  Russell himself calls it the answer to all the inconsistencies in Kant in closing the gap between a priori knowledge and a posteriori knowledge.  From this perspective, he is able to look back at the entire Western canon of philosophy and make judgments about each and every philosophical position.

The book is written not with an emphasis on who Russell thinks was right, but on who was influential.  Three chapters are written on Locke though his inconsistencies are persistently pointed out.  It is split into three books.  The first on Ancient Philosophy, the second on Catholic Philosophy (which he more or less equates with the Dark Ages), and the third on Modern Philosophy up to and including himself (that is concluding with himself).  

A majority of the book feels not as if Russell wanted to provide his readers with a wealth of historical information, but as a stage upon which he makes fun of and pokes at everyone else’s ideas.  This attitude seems to be justified by his occasional assertion that everyone else isn’t scientific enough and they are religiously holding on to ancient dogmas which he is lucky to be enlightened enough to let go of.  He describes other philosophies as inferior to his own in that they are not on an “indifferent quest for truth”.  His attitude is reminiscent of (and likely informed) popular contemporary intellectuals like Bill Nye, Sam Harris, or Neil DeGrasse Tyson.  It seems as if he does a disservice in writing the book by interjecting every few pages to include his own opinions, and gets especially worse by the end of the book.  Especially his chapters on Hegel, Nietzsche, Marx, and the pragmatists he shows great dislike and contempt for their philosophies (not to mention that he wholly emits existentialists like Kierkegaard and Heidegger).  I can’t help but think that his vitriol is leftover from arguments he had in graduate school.  

Economist Deirdre McCloskey calls Bertrand Russell a paragon of our current phase of modernism or a dogmatism that claims we have finally found the correct way of doing things.  His chapter on Hume brings up many contentions to the foundation of his own reason, and he even mentions that many of Hume’s problems haven’t yet been solved.  However, he conveniently forgets these when he reaches his own philosophy.  

In spite, of my complaints, I think that the book is well worth reading by any interested in a general picture of Western Philosophy.  Though be warned that what you are reading is nowhere near a consensus, no matter how it is presented.

Ultimately, I give it a 6.5 out of 10 with a big Bias sticker.

 

 

A Rough Outline of the Modular Theory

The following is a rough outline of a philosophical theory that I’ve constructed.  It follows a pragmatist vein that I’ve been reading into after getting into t
he work of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson.  Also a bit of Wittgenstein influence in there.  The italicized sections are my father’s comments.  Anyone with additional insights on either of our
comments is highly encouraged to comment below.

I.The fundamentally undeniable is the existence of reality
(Descartes: I think, therefore I am.)
II. The second undeniable is that reality does not and likely cannot match our perceptions and thoughts perfectly. (more the reverse, our perceptions are limited, we cannot comprehend reality perfectly. The ideal is to understand reality, not for reality to conform to our concept of it.)
III. Reality can never be known but truths can be known.
IV. A truth is a reference for guiding action in reality.
A. They are typically manifested in thoughts which are constructed             with words, but can be manifested in artistic representations.
B. For example time is a truth that we behave by, but can’t prove that it      is a part of reality as the only clue we have to it’s existence is in our            memories and predictions.
V. A truth is judged based on its claims about reality when put into                  practice.
A. In other words when you live by correct truths you will never trip.
B. Truths are correct if they are useful.
C. If you were to behave as if time is not a part of reality you could                 achieve nothing, but if you believed in time you could use it towards           goals.
In summary, a truth can be classified as useful or not useful
Can something that isn’t true be useful? A “Convenient fiction”, like property rights.
VI. One particularly useful way of organizing truth is the module.
A. A module groups truths together as either describing a codified                   section of reality or as a pathway to a certain goal.
1. The module that we call economics is a grouping of truths                            about the section of reality that we call action and choice                             relative to scarcity.
2. The module of parenting is a grouping of truths that relate to                      the goal of raising children.
B.Something can be modularly true, but not have a particular guide to             action.
1. This is the use of the correspondence theory of truth.
Something is true if it corresponds to the module properly.                          This is very useful in the temporal, spatial, and physical                                modules.

What do you mean modularly true. True only within the module, but not outside?
The something is usually called an “assertion” or a “statement”. My hat is black.
VII.  We construct modules of truths to guide us to a position from which we need take no more action.
A. This can be called the position of eternal peace and is the goal and               meaning of our existence as we understand it.
B. The position of eternal peace does not mean motionless and can                 exist in the module of time as a vector of some sort. (See                               Wittgenstein’s quote in the quote page on the sidebar)
But for many, taking action is worth it in itself. Eternal peace is dull and boring.
VIII. The ultimate module is one which claims to group all truths of reality.
A. Traditionally the ultimate module was the religious module.
B. Also the philosophy module.
C. When the module of physics took over as the ultimate module the                “Death of God” occurred.
D. It did not work as truth because it could not guide action towards                eternal peace as it is constructed for. Science alone does not explain            the world enough, yet.

It took a while, most physicists saw themselves as exploring God’s creation.
Bertrand Russell thought: all reality can be written down as mathematical formulas
Goedel proved: it can never be written down completely, there are always statements that cannot be judged true or false.
IX. What I call for is a reconstruction and revival of the religious module as the ultimate module.
That’s pretty strong. You may want to hold off on calling for something. May want to flesh this theory out a bit first. Get feedback.

RE: Does Technology Lead to an Existential Crisis?

I recently ran across a post on /r/philosophy by /u/_pseudointellectual that I couldn’t help but respond to.

The thread has since been removed, but you can read the original posters thoughts here.

There has been a lot of buzz in the tech community for some time now about the impending robotic revolution. This, for the most part, hasn’t bothered me, progress is progress. But I recently stumbled across this video on r/all and near the end, Elon Musk raises an extremely interesting question about meaning in life.

Now, this isn’t a post in which I want to start a discussion on our meaning (or lack of) in life. I’m interested in exploring the soon to be realities of those who don’t bother to even question existence but merely ‘get on with it‘ as if it’s a chore. Because this is a place we’ve gotten to in our modern capitalist society. Living, for a lot of people, has become almost a burdensome routine which main focus is situated on employment. So, what happens when those people lose their jobs?

Assuming Musk is right, that a Universal income is implemented and we end up having an almost socialist-like society; the majority of humanity being supported by a Government of some kind. Will this push people into an existential crisis? And possibly even be the cause of many suicides? A situation like this brings us all back to that wonderful -and albeit overused- Camus quote “there is but only one serious philosophical question and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy”.

Of course, as someone with a keen interest in philosophy, this prospect does in some ways delight me, I’m also struck with a chord of sadness for those that simply do not want to confront this reality yet.

What happens when people don’t know what to do with themselves?


EDIT: Also, what would this do to educational institutions? Will people bother getting an education anymore? How about business ventures, if the majority of the world has the same individual amount of wealth and that will suffice, does that entail mass apathy?

My response:

I can speak from an economic lens as that’s what I study, but it does have philosophical importance.

In the past, the economic importance of human labor was mostly the physical aspect and we were all employed with physical labor. i.e. farming, hunting, building

As those got pushed away due to technology, we shifted to a service economy. Most people today are employed providing some sort of often mental service to others. Financial advice, medical advice, being a philosopher, being an economist, writing, and organizing various aspects of society.

Some of these will be replaced by technology again if technology can produce as good or greater output at the same or lower cost. If we employ technology to it’s utmost peak we will be left doing things that robots can never do. Theoretically these things will be those concerned with what is unique to human experience manifesting themselves in art and creativity. This leads to a creativity economy instead of the manual labor economy or the service economy. Kevin Kelly said on an episode of the freakonomics podcast that the last job that robots will take from us is comedy.

As to your question on educational institutions, there are two perspectives on their utility relative to production. One that they grant us skills that we can use, and second that the fact that we have a degree or any form of educational accreditation is information for others to use in deciding if they want to hire us or relate their own choices to us in some way. However, education may also be consumed in the sense that if education is a value on its own, it will be pursued regardless of productive utility. Both this consumption use and possibly the second productive use of education will still exist post-AI totality.

How’d I do? Other thoughts? Thoughts on basic income?

 

Photo Credit to http://www.chilloutpoint.com/featured/human-and-robots-visions-of-the-future.html

Economics and Plot: Vol 2, Applications

If you have not read Vol 1 yet ,do so before reading this article.

As I stated in the last article, a plot can only be considered relevant at connoting a message to the audience if it follows economic reasoning.  This doesn’t make economics the sole determinate of how good a story is.  Remember, this method can only be applied to the pure plot.  Other literary devices can be just as effective if not more so.  We can still use a criticism of the piece through economics to determine a plot’s coherence.  Coherence is not in and of itself a artistically superior pillar of a story, but is necessary to open up certain doors to the writer.  In this article, I will elaborate on some of the applications that plot coherence offers to a work.

 

Plot Holes and the Suspension of Disbelief

A plot hole is a gap in the flow of logic in a plot or the blatant disregard of relevant information.  If the author doesn’t regard information about the world that they have already established then the actions of the characters will likely be economically incoherent, and limit the value of the story.  It is unrealistic to assume that an author can create a world that has absolutely zero plot holes, but as a rule of thumb the fewer plot holes the better.  Plot holes are often mistaken to be a part of the plot that isn’t explained.  However a plot hole has to directly violate economic law not just possibly violate it.  The author gives the audience relatively little information about the world behind the story, and there are many other economic factors that may affect the surface story.  An example of this misinterpretation that often annoyed me was in The Lord of the Rings.  Many plot hole whistle-blowers will claim that Gandalf could easily have called upon the Great Eagles of Mirkwood to drop the ring into the fires of Mt. Doom instead of making poor Frodo do it.  However, unlike most of Tolkien’s work he gave very little information as to the background of the Eagles.  Even though we see Gandalf acting friendly with them we really have no idea what their goals and motivations are in the world as a whole.  The suspension of disbelief is occasionally necessary to keep a plot coherent.

 

Crossroads as a Question

Often characters will find themselves in a situation where they have to make a decision.  If they had all of the knowledge that they needed  to make this decision they wouldn’t find themselves at the crossroads and the plot would continue.  When a character is stuck in this position the reader is presented with the same question.  By showing that a character lacks information it asks the reader whether they have the proper information to answer the question as well.  This may be transient knowledge about the plot of the story, or it may be something deeper that in fact the reader or author also does not know such as a moral question.  The reader might in fact have an answer that neither the characters in the story nor the author has which can lead to quite a bit of frustration.

 

Perspectives as a means of Revealing Information

The amount of information that a reader has about the fictional world is incredibly important to what the reader can draw from the plot.  The way that an author designs the telling of their story is integral to the amount of information that the reader has and the best example of this is the perspective of the story.  First person limits all of the reader’s knowledge down to one person, and the crossroads method can be applied more often.  A plot from one perspective can evoke more thoughts of personal choice and moral deliberation.  Third person gives the reader far more information, and gets them to understand the greater world.  A multi-perspective presentation of the plot can offer more social, political, or economic questions because they give the reader enough information to believe they could actually answer such questions in both the fictional world and in similar circumstances in the real one.  

 

Incoherency

No author is perfect and plot holes do often arise in a work, but this doesn’t mean that nothing can be understood from the incoherent story.  Sometimes incoherence, intentional or not, can shock us to the degree that we realize what makes this plot incoherent.  Often comedy will use this tool, and a particularly good example would be South Park.  The characters commonly act in incredibly contradictory, and not utility optimizing ways.  This brings out flaws in the characters that represent people in the real world, and make us laugh.  When we find unintentional incoherence it also might tell us something about the author’s views or understanding of how the real world operates, and whether our view of what that is is validated by this plot.
Vol 3. Will cover specific genres and elaborate how they use plot in their own ways.

Photo Credit by http://feelgrafix.com/1001400-crossroads.html

Economics and Plot: Vol 1, Theory

Last year, I wrote an essay for my high school senior project.  Originally I began writing for fun, but then quickly realized I needed to turn something in (sunk costs I guess).  The question that I wanted to answer is, how can we relate the study of economics to characters in a fictional story, and what does it tell us about plot as an art form.  The essay itself was a bit too long to upload all in one go, but I thought I would summarize it in multiple parts.  This one is the theory, second are some applications, and thirdly the theory in the context of various genres.

Economics is traditionally a science for use in the concrete world.  However, I want to broaden the uses for the discipline.  Economics can be used anywhere where scarcity and decision makers exist to make choices.  When these things exist we observe certain patterns that we call economic laws.  These laws certainly exist in our world and we don’t have a choice to live without them.  Our intimate yet often unrealized connection with economics can lead us to appreciate the economic situations of others, and draw meaning and understanding from purely their position in the world.  Many people have probably already used economics in this artistic style before without even realizing it.  What most people would call plot in a piece of literature or a film, could be described as a series of actions, events, and values intertwining to create a story.

If economics is the understanding of the laws by which individuals make decisions in scarcity then any imaginary plot which assumes scarcity would also obey these laws.  It may be difficult to differentiate between plot and other parts of the work of art.  In film for example, the cinematography, lighting, acting skill, and editing are all important parts of the artwork, but none of them directly affect the plot.  If we were to strip away all artistic elements of a story and describe it in purely terms of the plot we have the plot all by itself.  This can be called the Pure Plot.  For example,  the epic poem of the Aeneid describes the great journey of Aeneas and his compatriots after the Trojan War.  The poem is famous for its use of poetry to emphasize points of meaning complimented by Virgil’s excellent craftsmanship of the Latin language.  If we ignore the poetry all that we have left is the pure plot.   Here is a pure plot version of Book 2:

  1. Aeneas decides to tell the Carthaginians the story of Troy’s fall.
  2. One morning, the Trojans find a large wooden horse in front of their gate, and the Greek ships are no longer on the horizon
  3. They must debate over whether or not to bring it into the city.
  4. Laocoon, a priest of Neptune, warns them that this horse is just another one of Ulysses’ tricks.
  5. Laocoon is then eaten by a serpent from the sea.
  6. The Trojans take this as an omen, and bring the horse in.  
  7. At night, Ulysses and his men come out of the horse and let the Greek army in.  
  8. Troy is destroyed.

Even though this passage has thrown out all of the “artistic” elements it still has a relation to our world in that the economic laws which govern the individuals in the story are the same as those that govern us, or at least they should be.  With a good understanding of how economics is the range in which plot is formed, economic analysis can be used to judge the validity of a plot and help readers and critics judge the validity of a plot as an artistic piece.  If a plot is artistic because it connects to economic realities of our world then connections that more effectively connote the message the artist wants to get across to more people can be considered better.  One way in which plot can be considered objectively better is that if it properly follows the economic laws that it is based on in the first place.  If a character’s action clearly violates an economic law then there is no way that that plot, or at least that section of the plot, can connote anything about the real world.  It would be the same as if an artist were to paint in a color that does not exist.  The reason that green can be effective in a painting is because we experience green in the real world and can connect the painting to those other parts of our life and the artist recognizes this.  If an artist was to paint in a nonexistent color there is no possible way that we could connect this artwork to our lives because we have nothing to connect it to and therefore can make no connotations about it. Strangely enough, this is a problem that no painter will ever have to face unless someone figures out how to paint in infrared or ultraviolet.  Authors however must make sure to avoid this mistake.

Vol 2 will cover some applications that I have discovered of how Pure Plot is used to connote something to the reader.

Thanks to Sarah Chaga Crispin and David McCauley as I came up with the idea in their class.

Picture Credit to http://www.amaravatiproperty.net/amaravathi/plots-for-sale

Can Philosophy be Specialized?

I’m better than you at X, and you’re better than me at Y.  This seems fairly intuitive, but is a really important concept in economics called the Law of Comparative Advantage.  Basically, if I engage in X I’m giving up less productive time in engaging in Y, and if you engage in Y you’re giving up less productive time in engaging in X.  It’s a bit more complicated than the way that I describe it here, but that’s another lesson for another time.  The important thing is that this results in the phenomenon that we call specialization or the division of labor.  These are things in the economy that most people take for granted such as the fact that there are certain people who specialize in medical work and we call them doctors, and there are those of us who specialize baking cakes and we call them bakers.  The division of labor makes people more productive, and therefore people have an incentive to behave in this way making specialization a cornerstone of our economy.

 

There are certain things that might pose a problem to the productive efficiency of specialization.  Perhaps, some things, if specialized, lose a part of their value.  When you specialize you are placing the production process upon someone else.  So are there goods that derive a part of their value from the production process?  When we engage in creating an idea, the production process is the various logical gates or hoops that must be jumped through to come up with a valid idea.  In the case of philosophy, a philosophical idea is produced when one creates a set of proofs that have true premises and a valid argument which would lead to a true conclusion.  To understand what makes this good valuable, we need to consider why anyone would engage in producing a philosophical idea.  If it is only so that they have the final product, the conclusion of the argument, to guide their actions buy, then anyone could go to the philosophy store and pick up a package of conclusions to valid arguments. However, this isn’t entirely true.  A large portion of the reason that we engage in philosophy is not only to know what conclusions to act by, but also to understand the process by which they are arrived at in order to make ourselves feel more secure on the conclusions that we live by.

 

“Believing things on authority only means believing them because you’ve been told them by someone you think trustworthy. Ninety-nine per cent of the things you believe are believed on authority. I believe there is such a place as New York. I haven’t seen it myself. I couldn’t prove by abstract reasoning that there must be such a place.”      

-C.S. Lewis

 

Taking things on authority is not a bad idea as Lewis states, but just because it is okay to believe people in whom you trust does not mean that this is true of all ideas at every level.  If Immanuel Kant was to approach me today and tell me that I should not murder, am I now to trust him and not murder?  My trust in him is based mostly on the fact that he is well established and reputable philosopher, and many people revere his work so I can trust that his argument behind “Thou shalt not murder” is sound.  If I live my entire life based on true conclusions of philosophical arguments, one could say that I am acting morally, but did I gain the full utility of philosophy?  

 

A large reason that we can’t take philosophical conclusions based purely on authority is that in the real world, even if a philosopher is reputable they may be wrong, and we want to do our own proofreading of their argument.  There are many opposing conclusions out there, and we need to do our own processing of the arguments behind each to figure out which one we believe to be most true.  If we were to take a conclusion based purely on authority than we are leaving ourselves vulnerable to a situation where another conclusion is proposed to the problem we are trying to solve by an equally reputable source as our previously held conclusion, but since we cannot tell the difference between the validity of either argument we are left in a philosophical limbo where we now have less knowledge than we had before.

 

Does this mean that philosophy cannot be specialized?  Let’s imagine a world in which no philosophy is specialized.  Everyone does their own philosophical proofs starting from cogito ergo sum.  This would take incredibly large amounts of time, and if every person was to do all of the other activities of their life in addition to creating their own philosophy then no one would get very far in life, philosophy or otherwise.

 

In real life, we have come to a consensus.  The kind of specialized philosophy that I have been describing could be called perfectly specialized philosophy, in which there are designated people called philosophers who produce a philosophical conclusion which are accepted on authority and directly applied to the life of the consumer for an ambiguous amount of utility.  In reality philosophy is specialized, but not to this perfect degree.  The philosopher creates arguments and conclusions and puts them into the world for people to either accept or to criticize and modify to something that they believe is more accurate to live by.  Perfectly specialized philosophy may occasionally create individuals who do the morally correct thing, but it does not give the consumers the personal comfort of additional confidence in the good they are using nor does it allow them to distinguish from other philosophical ideas.  

 

To put this into more economic terms, we could consider the perfectly specialized philosopher to produce consumer goods.  The philosophical conclusions are the part of philosophy that we directly apply to our actions so that we derive more utility from our life.  People cannot really choose an action based on its actual utility, but act on how much utility they expect to gain from it.  A philosophical conclusion in and of itself does not communicate to its adherent how much utility they might gain from it.  Therefore, what the real life imperfectly specialized philosopher does is create the various productive such as factors and relevant premises that they analyze and organize for their followers to produce conclusions from themselves. At the very least they show the entire process, and allow the public to understand and consume them at some degree.  
So in fact many things that seemed perfectly specialized may in fact not be.  Even the baker who makes the cake to the very end does not lift the fork to the diners mouth.  The basic Law of Comparative Advantage still holds true in light of the productive complications that philosophy holds.  There are those of us who are better at engaging in the activities that are useful for philosophy, and therefore those become philosophers as they are more productive than if those same people became construction workers.