Time Heals All Wounds.. And Then Kills the Patient
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Dawn
Dawn
Fri Sep 12 00:24:52 2008
Existentialism ex nihilo
Topics:

I haven't talked about this much, largely because I haven't had any good conversations on the matter for years. I may have said the exact same things before though, because my thoughts on these matters have not changed for many years.

Recital on meaning and the universe, touching lightly on topics of interest to existentialists (VERY LONG AND LIKELY TO BE INTENSELY DULL FOR PEOPLE NOT INTO PHILOSOPHY): I hold that all conclusions of any kind are to some degree tenative, as any new experience might suggest overhauling everything that came before. Further, I hold based on memories I have of some experiences that both senses and the mind itself in some circumstances are regularly not reliable. It is easy to imagine that I may in fact not exist, and that the mental model I have for what intelligence is could self-percieve and have an apparent reality without existence in a meaningful way (more on this in the next lj-cut). These things notwithstanding, I make a pragmatic choice to admit some foundational material into my worldview in order to better interact with the world I perceive. Solipsism is a stage, even itself unjustified (for the mind cannot even strongly assert that it exists if it is as careful as it might be), which we branch from in knowledge that we both admit the possibility of error and pragmatically see great fruits in moving forward. We admit the notion of a universe based on what we see, that there are other entities like ourselves based on our experiences, and eventually, based on science, that the brain houses our intellect. This last conclusion has many possible variations in form, particularly considering with the various ideas about what intelligence is that may predate (temporally/developmentally/culturally - not the "pathline" I'm sketching here) our careful and scientifically informed understanding of these matters (the notion of whether to trust science is itself pragmatic, not principled - I trust it as a tool, holding that over long periods of time the social and methodological tools provide a good path to what I'd call knowledge (much nuance omitted here for now)). The most relevant ideas for me here are part of the tradition of neuroscience, dating from Phineas Gage onward - with that tradition we begin to confirm the brain and its inner/outer life as being part of the materialist worldview that science in practice has been building. We discard dualism (and thus discard souls) both because we see no need for it to explain what we see and because it opens questions of an interface that seem broken to us. Looking back at human traditions and other worldviews not tied into what we have so far, we see deities (some discarded, some not), values, morals, other abstract concepts like justice, and intermediate concepts like love, and we try to reconcile them with what we have - the phonomenal, like love, are not too difficult - a theoretical pattern over states of the brain (like the more abstract pattern we describe as intelligence, but simpler). Other things can be understood as also being brain-states (or memes) - the problem comes when some of these things have truth-claims attached that would mean our understanding of them differs substantially from other understandings of them. For those that package their own notion of truth (like maths and many areas of philosophy), there is not necessarily a deep contradiction - provided we can keep their notions of truth weak (or isolated from our primary notion of truth) enough, there's not necessarily an incompatibility (there's a lot more to be said on this, but unless prodded that's another topic for another time). Traditional philosophical foundations of morality usually don't fit with this worldview though - they (at least) usually have a notion of moral truth that claims to be nonpragmatic in origin and is exclusive - unlike in maths where one can have different basic axions and say that something is true using one system's truth-notion and false or indeterminate in another's, there is usually a claim (when religious philosophy addresses the matter) that there is one value system holding the true values, and claim there to be a "privileged path" to that through scripture/revelation (or possibly through tradition, although those that are based on tradition do tend to be a bit less problematic in this regard in that while they value tradition, some consider that error may have been introduced at some point and they "do their best"). This notion of a "privileged path" is interesting - with it is the claim that one can avoid all the pragmatism that I have mentioned, tunnelling through the possible levels in which things we hold to be true may not be to acquire some fragments of pure Truth on some matter on which we might build at least a fair amount of reliable thought before we have to resort to pragmatics again. Unfortunately for that line of reasoning, recognising that privileged path and pulling data out of it is something I think impossible to the point that we might consider any given random set of ideas (or those we wished to favour) or paths/methods as being privileged - from "just open your heart to God" to "recite Haare Haare Krishna and these other mantras", we find that in fact this is a common claim - I cannot deny the possibility of privileged paths affirmatively, but my intuition based on considering how we might find/use them and observation of that line of reasoning suggests that it's not only not fruitful but broken - instead of believing in a particular privileged path, I instead conclude that there are no privileged paths to truth, and in doing so I lose sight of those value frameworks as traditionally expressed. Meaning in the universe, things that we should and should not do to each other, these begin to recede.

There's a problem here - we want some form of these concepts, even if they don't fit in using their old phrasings. The problem with the ideas was primarily the philosophical foundations they were housed in - we can plant them in new soil without the type of truth claims they used to relate to - a code of conduct can be more than just something we empirically observe both in practice and in effects as a very large memecloud over a society - we can pull it apart into the values it came from, see them in ourself, and feel it - it's real enough to us and lets us oppose and favour things, argue about them with others (with possibly a bit more care) without needing to attach to a transcendent (our our normal) notion of Truth in the way others claim it to be. Meaning of life similarly - we can see how the search for a meaning in life (or having made one) changes people and if we're fortunate and inspired enough do that for ourself.

Holding this flavour of empiricism as our path, new data may open the doors to stepping back any number of steps in this progression, potentially all the way back to solipsism or one further, if needs merit. We reject any deep truths not rooted somewhere in what we've built of empiricism and creeping pragmatism, and consider other notions of truth to be distinct and inferior to this one we carefully extend and adapt as needed. Science, being empiricism with certain traditions, precautions, and other material added, is something we claim as one of our tools (but not uniquely so - other broad philosophies might see that it fits as well in their hands as in ours).

To touch briefly on a few other existentialism-related topics:

On that later topic, life is deeply tiring, on some level I think for everyone, and while I can't accept much in buddhist doctrine/philosophy as-is, there is much worth "replanting" from it, particularly the three marks of existence - no-stability, no-soul, and imperfection/brokenness and ways of coping with them. This is not strongly tied to the above, of course.

I know I've said this before, but this is the framework into which I place intelligence (not a definition): A pattern over states (or transitions) in a sufficiently complex object to instantiate the pattern, that pattern having characteristics that I would traditionally consider intelligent (let's pass that part off for some other time, possibly some other person because that's not what this is about). One object that under the right circumstances has been known to exhibit patterns over its states (or transitions - think this part out later) is a sufficiently mature living human brain. The patterns themself are what we would call intelligent though, and being an abstraction, we could easily see those patterns, like any other type of pattern, in the abstract - there is no need for an object to exist for the pattern to "be there" - the reality of patterns is something we might see as either meaningless/undefined or independent of instantiation. The entire delusion of subjectivity along with all other parts of mental life fit into that pattern, and I could imagine all possible future branchings of that pattern, both those that remain within whatever criteria for intelligence I provide and those that do not, to fit into that notion of conceptually simple combinatorics. If we want to take this mental funnel and scoope entire universes of input and output into these huge sets of numbers for our intelligences to relate to, we can - when we take that step, it muddies the nature of what exists considerably, but I will claim that intelligence is at least a natural fit for this notion - we can still give special attention to the reality we see and assume it to exist and tie one interpretation of this framework as saying that our mind happens to have inputs that are strongly convergent to what we hold to be objective reality. To tie in together with above, whatever reality we're handed, we decide to work with it and make reasonable assumptions on it in order to best interact, there being no privileged path to truth.

Also... *ahem* I've been informed by my lawyer that anyone reading the above may be at risk of bleeding from their eyes. To cover myself, said lawyer suggested I include a disclaimer (added above) and a picture of something really cute. I thus present an old-ish picture of one of my cats sleeping on my desk.

p.s. don't tell people who did not read it about the cat. It'll be our secret.. well, among the fellowship of people who read this (who may in fact be nobody).