Zeno of Elea - Motion Is Impossible

Let me just say before we start that I don't agree with Zeno. Motion is impossible? This is some different definition of motion than the one we use in everyday life, yes? But I also have to say that, although I don't agree with him, Zeno's famous paradoxes have always held an irresistible fascination for me.

Zeno apparently did believe that all motion is impossible, and that therefore it follows that what we see or experience as motion must necessarily be an illusion. I have no idea how Zeno died, but it's just possible he died of starvation. Since motion is impossible, a trip down to the local food store would have been an adventure that was fraught with cosmic impossibility. Therefore it would hardly have been worthwhile to make the attempt. So we can thus imagine Zeno wasting away, while the steak and fries waited a short distance from his doorstep, philosophically unreachable.

Not much is known about Zeno. None of his writings have come down to us, and we only know of his existence from the writings of other philosophers, some of whom may have been opponents. He was said to be a pupil of Parmenides, who was himself a philosopher who believed the world was stuck.

Zeno's most famous paradox concerns Achilles and the Tortoise. The two agree to have a race. Because Achilles is an athlete, he gives the tortoise 100 metres start. Achilles runs 10 times as fast as the tortoise, so you would expect him to easily overtake his opponent.

But not so, says Zeno.

BANG! goes the starting gun and both runners are off. Achilles runs 100 metres, to arrive at the place where the tortoise began. But the tortoise is now 10 metres ahead. So Achilles runs 10 metres, but the tortoise is still 1 metre ahead, so Achilles runs 1 metre, only to find the tortoise is still 0.1 metre ahead.

And so on. You get the picture. This proves the athlete can never overtake the tortoise, and so we have a paradox. Therefore, motion is impossible.

I like this paradox. The great thing about it is that you know it can't be right, but you can't really fault its logic. Many have tried. Most counter-arguments fall into some absurdity or logical trap. Or, even worse, bluster! To refute it is not as easy as you might think it would be. That's one reason why I like it so much.

Once I asked a Math professor to give a refutation of Zeno's Paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise, upon which he started to drone on about infinite seqeunces with a finite limit, and Leibnizian calculus. This may indeed have been very dull, but probably it was about as close as you will ever get to a refutation of Zeno.

We Create Our Own Universe

The information we receive from the universe is in the form of millions and billions of pieces of sense-data. This is clearly too much data for us to process without confusion. So we filter out that which we do not require.

Thus the world "out there" that we experience is partly given, and partly constructed by our brain's filtering process.

So then, if I choose to ignore the colour red, for example, does that mean there will be no reds in my universe?

Democracy - Is It Good or Is It Bad?

This is a philosophical article, not a political one. I detest politics, and I wish to have nothing to do with the subject. The argument here is purely theoretical.

If you were to ask people in the street, probably over 90% would say democracy is good, but would they be right? Are they expressing a considered opinion, or have they been mentally conditioned (brainwashed?) to accept democracy without question?

Democracy, or "majority rule", is the accepted method in the so called "free" countries of the West. One of the most devastating arguments against democracy is to point out which television shows get the highest ratings, that is, are chosen by the majority. They are usually among the worst and most pointless shows. This tends to cast doubt on the wisdom of a system which bases its policy on the choices of the majority.

And of course, we have to remember that the majority doesn't actually rule. What the majority does is vote, it is still a minority that does the ruling.

Democracy was invented by the ancient Greeks, but in their system you could not vote if you were a woman, or of a different race, or if you were a slave, or you were young, or you didn't own land. So it was rule by what we would call a minority. However, the "show of hands" was the key element that made it democratic. They used to gather in the forum, and discuss policy at great length, and then decide. Even though the electorate was "intellectual" (meaning they didn't watch TV soaps) they still managed to come up with some abysmally idiotic and disastrous decisions.

Have you noticed how many of the most totalitarian communist states describe themselves as "Democratic Republic" or "People's Democratic Republic?" What do the people living in them think of that? Do they inwardly rebel against the misnomer? Or perhaps they are led to believe that their country really does have a democratic system? We in the West tend to smile at their naivete in falling for such a simple trick.

But if you examine closely some of these states, you will see that in fact they do have elections, in which candidates run for office, and one is voted for by people in his local area, and takes a seat in a parliament. Surely this is democracy? Is this democracy or not?

Some would say no, it is a sham, because people's votes can never change the system, because the totalitarian government stays in power, regardless of the change of faces of the deputies, which is merely a cosmetic change. So it's not real democracy, is it?

So we infer that the people living under those regimes may well be under a delusion that they live in a democratic state.

It was when I reached this point in the argument that a sudden thought occurred to me. We who live in the "free" democracies of the West are different because we really do have a free democracy, don't we? But if it was in fact a totalitarian regime disguised as a free democracy, how would we know?

In other words, how can we, in the "free" democracies, ever know for sure that we are not in exactly the same situation in relation to the ruling power as are the inhabitants of the "People's Democratic Republics?"

The Uniformity of Nature

The Uniformity of Nature is a presumption that the future will be like the past. If it is conceded to be a true reflection of reality, it can form the basis of inductive reasoning. Thus, we can make plans to get up and go to work tomorrow morning, because we can make the reasonable assumption that today will be the same as yesterday, or at least as much like it as to render it unnecessary to consider the differences. Actually in this example, it would be more accurate to say that tomorrow will be the same as the corresponding day last week. But the principle is the same.

When one considers this presumption closely, there seems no particular reason why it should be so. Why should nature not undergo complete and radical changes every five minutes? When the laws of nature and even the names of the days of the week change beyond all recognition? Someone might argue that, if this were to happen, we would notice it happening. However, that argument does not stand, because if our brains and sensory capacities, being part of nature themselves, underwent the same radical changes, our perception of reality might well have the same relational connection to natural events and processes as they have before. So we would be unaware that anything had happened.

There's another objection also. It is called Goodman's Paradox of Induction. I make no claim to understand it fully, but essentially it says that although we experience Nature as a uniformity over time, it is undeniably true that individual, particular objects do undergo changes. Now if we examine an object and then try to predict its state of being at some future specified time, there is equal support for the hypothesis that at that time it will be the same as now, or the hypothesis that it will be different from now.

Therefore the presumption of the Uniformity of Nature is not really as helpful as most people would like to think, since the only time it is fulfilled is when it works, and it is unfulfilled when it doesn't. Which leads the philosopher to the following aphorism:

Don't bother trying to predict the future.

Hermeneutics is Not Easy

Today I was intending to say something more about the debate on free will versus determinism, but I got sidetracked by a discussion about hermeneutics. Then I was asked by a "dear friend" to postpone the treatment of free will/determinism until some later time.

The "hermeneutics" difficulty was caused by the attempt to understand what exactly it was in the first place, since the definition I found merely said it was the science of textual interpretation. I would have said that every time we read anything, we are involved in interpretation, so that the question arises as to how we can ever speak of a "separate" science or discipline of hermeneutics. How can we isolate an activity as being distinct from that which we do all the time?

Besides, and once again, we find the word used to mean several different things. In theology, it refers to the interpretation of sacred texts, many of which are about as obscure and cryptic as it is possible to be, and furthermore, since they are usually old, they are subject to the suspicion of falsification either by deliberate means or by copyist's errors. This seems a reasonable definition of hermeneutics as a distinct activity.

But apparently, the word "hermeneutics" can also be used to describe the attempt to interpret human behaviour and the workings of human institutions.

As if that were not bad enough, it is also in some accounts mentioned as being used by existentialists to denote the activity of examining the purpose of life.

It could be argued that this overloading of a single word with so many different meanings is such as to render it almost useless, particularly as the meanings themselves are anything but sharply defined.

Perhaps my time would have been better employed if I had, after all, concentrated on the free will/determinism debate. If it had not been for the intervention of my "dear friend" I would have done so today. But I shall return to it, perhaps tomorrow.

Is A Single Definition of Reality Too Much To Ask For?

Reality: if regarded from the empirical perspective, this refers to the ordinary world of nature; if regarded from the transcendental perspective, it refers to the transcendent realm of the noumenon.

I just found this definition of "Reality" and it's just about as helpful as it could possibly be. Did I say helpful? Of course I meant unhelpful. I don't mean this as a criticism of whoever was the anonymous lexicographer who wrote it. Only that it is not one definition, but two masquerading as one. It seems ironic that this should be so. We associate the world reality with solidness, lack of ambiguity, and all those other straightforward qualities - and yet it seems we are not to have the luxury of a single cosy definition.

Which one to choose? Most people I guess would choose the first. Naturally I would choose the second, and more especially because of that very reason. If most people choose a particular way of viewing reality, that seems an excellent reason to reject it. After all, if you look around, it hasn't done them much good, has it?

The real world is the world that exists beyond appearances. The observer is the creator of the universe. That is an axiomatic statement. If I had to climb down from that position, I would only descend as far as to say that the observer is the co-creator of the universe.

Who is the partner in this co-creation? This is difficult to answer, not because there is any difficulty in  formulating the notion, but because most of the words used to describe it are so heavily loaded with historical accretions of meaning as to render them almost useless for rational debate. Many of my readers will remember the ruckus that ensued after I used the word "God" in this context. For this reason I always avoid using the word whenever possible, unless my interlocutor demonstrates a clear understanding of its use in a Berkeleyan sense.

Well, not exactly a Berkeleyan sense, although not far away.

But such a situation is all too rare.

What is Dialectic?

dialectic (n): discussion and reasoning by dialogue as a method of intellectual investigation.

This is a very famous philosophical technique. I say philosophical, but it would be more accurate to describe it as a literary technique, since it is used by philosophers for the writing of philosophy, rather than for actually doing it.

It's famous because it was used by Plato all the time in his many books, which have since become the cornerstone, or perhaps you could say, virtually the entire edifice, of Western philosophy.

Plato's main character, Socrates, disputes with a selection of rival philosophers, and invariably wins. For this he uses the so-called "Socratic technique" although it could just as aptly be called the "annoying technique." He cunningly questions his opponents, pretending to be ignorant, in order to reveal fatal flaws in their thinking.

One wonders how these people fell for it every time.

And after Socrates had begun to work his method, the opponent all too often surrendered meekly, but was then forced to go the distance.

For example, in the Republic, Glaucon, after making a fairly bright start and putting across his opinions at great length, gets reduced, in the latter two-thirds of the book, to a rather pathetic figure, whose only contribution is, "Yes, Socrates," "No, of course not, Socrates," or "Undoubtedly, Socrates." It's true that Socrates views and analysis are definitely of the killer variety, but you would hope that Glaucon could have put up a bit more of a struggle. After all, this was his one chance in history to be in the spotlight.

Of course, it's always possible that he really did exactly that, but Plato, being naturally biased towards his teacher, censored it out, after Glaucon had provided the raw material which Socrates could then rip to pieces.

Philosophy, like history, is written by the winning side.