We breathe calmly. The word purpose agitates. Propos, to ‘put forth’ says the etymology. We are familiar with a hierarchy of purposes. At the end of a curious child’s inquisitive series of “why?” every adult will resort to “just because”. The purpose of growing up is to contribute to society. The purpose of society is to make people live happy lives. The purpose of happy lives is to conform our creator’s vision. The purpose of our creator is to put forth the beingness of being. The purpose of being is – will you finally shut up?

According to Aristotle, purpose is a baked-in feature of its carrier (causa finalis). Bicycles, arrows, forks are purposeful objects. Purpose is a metaphysical quality that goes beyond our consensus: we can’t change the purpose of a bicycle or a fork by voting, we can only abuse the objects. Such metaphysical thinking sounds dangerously naive. There is no inscription in a tool of its maker’s purpose, it has to be recognized and explained every time someone new uses it. We could think of the tool as the artifact plus the story that is passed along with it. When we refer to a “fork”, we mean the toothy object plus the story of its purpose.

When we talk about our mind, we mean the mesmerizing firework of neurons that happens in our brain plus the story of its purpose. Our minds, however, have developed to set their own purpose. They are the most versatile “tools” we know. This means, we can’t learn anything from comparisons to less versatile tools.

Our mind puts itself forth, proposes itself. We have an intuitive concept of mental health, of an inquisitive, curious, critical mind that cannot see purpose on its own horizon, but can act as the anchor of purpose for much of what we do in life. The mind’s own purpose is an enigma that we intentionally create, our mind is the authority that implicitly claims to be the purpose of being. It is the knot in the loose end of purpose that keeps the rope from unraveling.

Hence, the purpose of the mind is itself. Some philosopher might draw that conclusion. We count a few more breaths. We visualize our thoughts. We see them dancing. “Mind” becomes a universal organizing principle, detached from our persons. We reluctantly accept that principle as the ultimate purpose. It is just a regulative idea – nothing to be afraid of.

was originally published on Meandering home

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Meditation on Value

What do we mean when we say of something that it has value? And isn’t all our speaking inherently evaluating? Isn’t every utterance we make freely, an assignment of value? Isn’t it much more elegant if we consider ourselves living in a ‘soup’ of value, rather than in a generally valueless world, in which we occasionally elevate some special things as valuable?

Let’s breathe calmly as usual. This is a meditation, not a treatise. Value is a powerful abstraction. Quantified value is the premise of economic activity and qualified value underpins all other human interaction.

Here, I understand value as receiving attention. In this sense we turn everything we look at into something valuable. It is not an ontological trick. We think of value this way because we can’t find another meaningful distinction. In other words, we deconstruct the distinctions that were made in order to ‘save’ value. This is sympathetic when we talk about the value of material items. When we take on the special value of life and living beings, we seem to be in trouble. We don’t want to apply the same concept of value to the life of a child, and a stone. We can look at the stone all we want – it should never be valuable in the same way as the child.

I’m afraid we won’t find the ontological key to some sort of higher-level value of conscious or sentient life. The best we can do is becoming aware of our evaluation, of the way we attribute value to whom and what we encounter. In the example of the stone, when we do look at it for many generations, shave off some oddities and build a museum around it for good measure, we call it Unesco Cultural Heritage and indeed condemn those who destroy it in the strongest possible words. I am referring to the 2001 destruction of Buddha of Bamiyan statues by the Taliban.

We try to understand value. Not any specific value, but the gesture of giving-value in itself. We tell the story of a world in which we are surrounded by value and highlight some at the expense of others, but never relegate them to a domain of no value. We communicate values implicitly (by merely focusing our attention on something) and explicitly (by capturing it in words). Perhaps authenticity is the alignment of our implicit and explicit ways of gesturing values.

Meditation on Value was originally published on Meandering home

Review: Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz

Cover on Goodreads

Being Wrong is a well-written account of our understanding of error. The author points out how central error is for all aspects of cultural proress. It is not an academic treatise, but still gives the history of thinking about scientific and religious truth a fair treatment, by mentioning for example St. Augustine’s fallor ergo sum, expressed an entire millennium before Descartes. It gives the beautiful definition of the French Larousse dictionary from the 1600s: Error is “a vagabondage of the imagination, of the mind that is not subject to any rule.”
The book references the idea of household philosophy names like Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, but its real strength and appeal are the many well-researched anecdotes. Being deceived by our senses is illustrated by the story of captain Ross and the phenomenon of a superior mirage; there is the story of the Millenarians who thought the world would end in 1844 (and how they behaved as it the apocalypse didn’t happen); there is the story of a woman losing faith twice and an apt description of the emotional twilight zone in between; there is Abdul Rahman who converted from Islam to Christianity (losing everything), or Alan Greenspan, who after the financial crisis of 2008 found the courage to admit his entire way of thinking was wrong. We also find a gripping crime story of innocent prisoners who are eventually released on the basis of dna-evidence. The author documents the ultimate deception of divorce by visiting a celebrity divorce lawyer. The wealth of anecdotes makes this book an entertainining and interesting read. I learned that it takes courage to be wrong in the right way.

Review: Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz was originally published on Meandering home

Experiment

It is not because I have conclusive evidence of it, but because I enjoy teaching new things to my daughter Miru, that I believe we should introduce the most basic concepts of science to our children as early as possible. When Miru and I were wondering if the sea could freeze over, I suggested that we could do a little experiment with two cups of freezing water, one with and the other without salt. She is only five, so I decided a binary setup was enough: “does contain salt” versus “does not contain salt”. I explained her what a hypothesis is and that ours was that the water in the salty cup would not freeze. We filled two small cups with tap water and placed them in the freezer.

The next morning I reminded her of our experiment.
“Oh yes yes yes the experiment!” my little girl shrieked, rushing to the freezer to open the door. I took out the two cups. When she found out that the pure water had turned into a block of ice, while the salty water only had a layer of frost on the top, she smiled victoriously and we high-fived.

the scientific attitude at its most fundamental defies any authority that doesn’t try to defy itself

What did she actually learn from this experiment? Can she design experiments now in order to answer questions about the structure of the world around her? Can she judge a good experiment? Does she know the difference between a hypothesis and a wild guess? Perhaps not. But she has been primed and prepared for more experiments. She has been introduced to the scientific attitude, that at its most fundamental defies any authority that doesn’t try to defy itself (I just came up with that definition, let me know what you think). Eppur si muove.

Soon, she will learn that the theory generating our hypotheses should be falsifiable, and that the experiment should be repeatable. I don’t plan to replace her bedtime reading of Tolkien and Roald Dahl with Karl Popper or Thomas Kuhn, but to do more experiments with her. Don’t take daddy’s word for it – trust only that what you can most readily question – your own senses and mind.

Experiment was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Hope

We sit and pretend we are terminally ill. We breathe calmly. What is hope? What do we make of the bonmot that ‘hope dies last’ if we are lost in a desert without the prospect of water? And isn’t the human condition hopeless ‘in the end’, if we presuppose a rough understanding of hope as the desire that something that we identify as pleasurable will be the case in the future? Doesn’t the ultimate nihilism, if we buy into it, undermine all discourse of the temporary affair that is our hoping?

Without hope life would be maddening. We would lose our orientation and ambition, and society would fall apart. So from a pragmatic point of view there can be no doubt about the value of hope. What about the theoretical operation that discounts all hope because there is no ultimate hope, in much the same way as fanatical relativists discount all truths because they think there is no ultimate truth? I don’t think it is legitimate. In the beginning of this meditation we pretended we were terminally ill, but we did not lose hope.

What can we hope for? Comfort, status, security? What does it mean to hope something while you are fully aware that it is insignificant in the light of eternity? Doesn’t such hope require the courage of a madman? Doesn’t humanity, once it acquired a penchant for staring into its own abyss – require the courage of a madman?

Or would not even the most outspoken and acerbic atheists among us ultimately find solace in the idea that our ‘having been there’ is in some form the expression of a principle that will last for all eternity? That our lives (and, more depressingly, those of our children) have been ‘for nothing’, but that at least they share a celestial common ancestor with an unknown something, some sort of cosmic anthropic principle as established by the physicist David Deutsch?

We breathe slowly and listen to the buzzing of the fly of futility on our back. We smile at each other because we have once again realized that we need each other to swat the flies on our backs.

Artwork by Ian Bourgeot

Meditation on Hope was originally published on Meandering home

Meditation on Equality

We breathe the same air. That statement is already beginning to be problematic if you live in one of China’s heavily polluted cities and you can’t afford to escape to the relatively unspoilt countryside. You can’t afford to buy Canadian air in a bottle, shipped to you by a special company. Let’s breathe some air before we continue. Equality is a wonderfully artificial concept, but it is often understood in a rather idiosyncratic way.

Some right-wing populists distinguish equality of opportunity from equality of outcome. They argue that left-wing policies cancel out the differences caused by the hard work and perseverance of some, rather than the differences caused by the lack of opportunities or disability. More principally, they would argue that equality is not something that can be enforced.

For the religious right, equality is an abstract, absolute and ‘untouchable’ value. At life’s edges, this is turned into an intuitive moral argument by pro-life activists or people who oppose euthanasia. Perhaps precisely because equality is such a sacred and abstract value for them, they don’t feel good about ethical debates about redistribution that seem to quantify people’s value. If equality is something that can be manufactured, as the liberal mind believes, it becomes a mundane and fragile balance, rather than the equality ‘under god’ (who is the ultimate guarantor of justice, at Judgment Day).

We breathe and wonder once more about the complexity of this concept. We see it translated and dismissed as ‘sameness’, or embraced as the rationale of solidarity. We all agree that people should be treated the same by the law, more precisely, that the law should have already spelled out any differences before a trial, and further that such differences don’t pertain to things like race or sex, but could pertain to things like wealth or mental health (for example to determine the degree of punishment).

We feel compelled to come up with a technical, legalistic definition. We want to spell out our intuition of equality, but might lose sight of the actual practice of equality. We can for example write mathematically about representative democracy and ‘one person one vote’ while forgetting the messiness of the influences of moneyed interests on politics.

Equality, we should perhaps admit, doesn’t exist. It is an important article of secular faith. It is a transcendental condition of rational debate that prima facie, the value of your opinion is the same as the value of mine. I will need to give a reason to show the superiority of my opinion, authority won’t do. Perhaps rational debate is the best we have to celebrate the value of equality.

Meditation on Equality was originally published on Meandering home