Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Ismism is the position that people's positions in debates must be identified with the nearest matching 'ism'. It is often used as a mental shortcut enabling one to rebut the ism with a canned refutation, or cancel the need to by invoking an emotional reaction, while ignoring the subtle issues of the individual case. It's opposite might be called 'issueism' by ismists.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

philosophy and the other disciplines

the difference between philosophy and other disciplines, is that in the other disciplines there are facts and arguments: You don't necessarily have to understand the argument in order to acquire the facts. In philosophy there are no facts without the arguments. If you don't understand the arguments, you have nothing.


People cry when they are sad and when they are overwhelmingly happy. What is the relation between these two kinds of emotional states that we respond similarly to them? Perhaps we cry when we feel an intense connection to some being; and the feeling of connection is evoked both when the being is experienced as intensely present or intensely absent.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On the absurdity of number

Are numbers just a useful fiction, or are they real things that exist? It would seem that they have to be real because true things can be said about them, e.g., it is incontrovertibly true that there is no highest prime number, thus there are infinite prime numbers, thus there are numbers. The question is, what are they?
Two answers are:
First, they are abstract, not really tied to any material thing, although we can use them to help us think about material things. If so, then every number must equal 0. This is because in the abstract, there are an infinity of numbers, so any number X is really X/∞ = 0.
Otherwise, they are concrete and we can think of them as not tied to objects, but they don't really exist except in objects. If so, then every number must equal 1. Say there are 14 pencils in a bag. So I count them: 1/14, 2/14, 3/14 ... 14/14 = 1.
So all numbers equal either 0 or 1, which is absurd.
I think that the basis of mathematics is not the number but the ratio. Though we learn to count first, the order of learning is not the order of being, and the most basic mathematical operation is not addition, but division. I haven't worked out the details.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The metaphor of the "foundations" of knowledge

When you build a structure it is essential that you build the foundation first; but when you plan a structure, you don't plan the foundation first: first you see what kind of structure it is, and then you decide on the kind of foundation you need. This is roughly analogous to the process of scientific discovery and its actual structure. We don't know what kind of foundation science needs until we know what the science has to say; but once we know a certain number of scientific data, we need to apprehend the foundations lest science be seen as a collection of unrelated facts.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Global Warming? or Which is the Gentler Cataclysm

Well, either the Earth's climate will grow warmer or it will grow colder. One thing is for damn sure - the climate of the Earth does not, will not stay the same. So which would you prefer? Another ice age? Don't forget that, geologically speaking, we're in middle of an ice age.

From a biodiversity perspective - hot is good, cold is bad. Watery is good, icy is bad. If you really cared about biodiversity, you would not be so concerned about global warming. Will the polar bears go extinct if global warming continues? Perhaps a few specimens will be rugged enough to survive in warmer climates and will evolve into new species. Or they'll go extinct, which they would anyway sooner or later. On the other hand warming will do good for many species, and it will open up the polar regions to all kinds of new life.

Think of it this way. Imagine there was a global phenomenon that would shrink the Sahara desert. Will we try to oppose that, merely because it's a change? The polar regions are the fucking desert. Why are we so afraid of losing it? especially environmentalists!

Would environmentalists rather lose the icecaps or the jungles?

It's not like there's anything we can do about it, but once we're already talking about it, let's talk about it intelligently.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Reincarnation - Part 1

My personal view of what it is about ourselves we are trying to capture when we think of ourselves as “having souls” will be explicated in Part 2 of this series. For now, let us assume the popular (Judeo-Western) view that every living human body is animated from the time of birth to the time of death by an individual soul, disconnected from other souls in more or less the way the body is disconnected from other bodies.

What about before birth and after death? According to the popular view, individual souls migrate here from another realm, let's call it Zoop, and when the body dies, return to Zoop, sometimes never returning to Earth, but enduring to eternity. Some may think of this eternity as just more time, time filled with very different kinds of experiences perhaps, but still abiding, one-way, flowing time. But in the realm of the spirit there is no time. So in a certain sense it is not true that the soul was formed before the body and will endure after the dissolution of the body, because technically there is no before and after except in Earthly, embodied life.

For those who ascribe to the popular view, and ascribe to some theory of reincarnation, the process would look something like this: Dorp is born in 1900 and lives until 2000. Then he dies, and his soul goes back to Zoop for some non-zero period of time, during which it is determined that this soul must go back to Earth. So the earliest time the soul can come back for a new life is in 2000, the moment after Dorp dies. Of course, the waiting period could be longer. Perhaps he won’t come back until 2050 or 2500.

But if there truly is no time in the spirit-realm then there is no reason why a person can’t be reincarnated at what on Earth would be considered earlier than the time of death. The question is, what if “after” death, Dorp’s soul is reincarnated in 1940 and lives to 2040? In that case, the same soul can be wholly present in two individuals living on Earth at the same time!

If so, then you might have met yourself in another person already. Literally.

Perhaps there is only one soul.

(There are other reasons why the same soul can be multiply embodied, with different consequences, which will require a more subtle notion of the soul, which I will share at some time in the future, if it please God.
I'd also mention in passing that in the Indian notion of reincarnation, there is no Zoop.
More to come on this topic) 

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


This post is intended to mutilate the view that there is no such thing as “true” altruism, that however noble our actions are, our true motives are always selfish.

First, the two main versions of this faulty view: The first is that whatever we do for others, we do because we expect something from others in return. The second, more subtle version is that whatever we do, we do because it makes us feel good, and we don’t really do for others, but for this good feeling.

The general refutation will, I hope, lay to rest both forms of the view, but I’ll make this one point regarding the first: Even if we fully expect reciprocal (material or social) reward for what we do for others, there is no reason to think that that is the only, or even the main motive for what we do. When we say someone has “mixed motives”, we mean just that – part of the person’s motive is benevolent, part is selfish. If so, then there are benevolent motives, even if most of the time one is only partially motivated by them.

Now the main argument: Some people get pleasure from doing for others, and some people get pleasure from doing for self. Similarly, one’s conscience can cause one pain in the plight of others, a spring to action, or one can become so dissociated from one’s conscience as not to detect its call and command. One can train oneself, even if one doesn’t have the natural inclination, to take pleasure in the flourishing of others, and to be pained by their distresses (except in certain pathological cases). And if one can, I think you’ll agree, one ought to.

Now both the person who takes pleasure in altruism and the person who takes pleasure in self-indulgence take pleasure in what they do. But they are not equivalent – they are not both selfish. Thus we can distinguish between selfish pleasure, and altruistic pleasure. It is in the definition of the refined character that one take pleasure in the good of others. The naturally altruistic person will have an easier job of it, though will still have to combat the temptation to selfishness from time to time. The naturally selfish person who wishes to refine his or her character must take pains in order to develop this attitude.

In the end it will be worth it for the person, as excessive concern for the self naturally leads to a terribly stifling way of life, and the pleasure that can be taken in altruism is genuine.

Our opponent will then respond: “I am confirmed. I told you that we do everything for pleasure, and therefore even when one acts for others, one really has only one’s self-interest in mind. It may be, as you say, that the pleasure one gets in acting for others is better and deeper than the pleasure one gets in acting for oneself. That just means that if someone is really self-interested, it is in his or her own best interest be concerned for others.”

I have already partially dealt with this point, having argued that people may be willing to experience pain in order to develop a benevolent attitude. But it is still valid to press the case that one does this in calculation that overall this will result in greater personal pleasure, (notwithstanding the fact that many people who make the decision to develop morally often don't think they're doing so for this reason.)

The more profound point is this: Why do people take pleasure in being good to others in the first place? (The neurological explanation is informative, but trivial.) People take pleasure in being good. To feel good is not the same as to feel good about yourself. One feels good about oneself when one does the right thing. This has nothing to do with satisfying one’s libidos or gaining social status, etc. Sometimes, in order to be good, one must forget about oneself and surrender to more important things. A good person can only be happy when he or she does good actions. Paradoxically, then, the confirmation of self sometimes requires an absolution of self. This is hardly the same as mere indulgence in pleasure.

If the pleasure that comes from the recognition of the moral good doesn’t have a different metaphysical source than selfish pleasure, though I think it does, it certainly has a different psychological source.

People judge altruism to be a masked form of self indulgence in order to advance a certain amoral philosophy. But what is often forgotten is that the correct ordering and control of one’s appetites is a crucial part of the development of a moral character. One’s observance of morality is what determines whether a person is good or bad Therefore a morally sensitive person will take pleasure in being good and will feel pain when moral flaw is recognized, and work to regulate one’s attitudes in accordance with one’s principles. The amoral person will not regard the morality of one’s actions as valuable in determining which pleasures are to be prioritized, but only how good they feel.

If one takes pleasure in altruism, then that person deserves our highest respect, and we shouldn't think that our respect is a necessary motivator for that person, or a condition of his or her happiness.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Good = The Will of God?

This is an adaptation and extension of an argument by Plato, in the dialogue Euthyphro.

Let us say, as many do, that the definition of The Good is nothing more and nothing less than the Will of God. That would mean that whatever world God creates would be, by definition, perfectly good. Our world, then, is not the best world God could have created – any world must, by definition, be perfectly good. That means that a world far more miserable than ours, e.g., one where suffering is not justified, one in which there is no prospect of salvation, must be equally good as ours, if God were to decide to create such a world. Equally, for those who believe that all morality requires God as moral arbiter, then whatever morality God decides is objectively moral, even if it were the opposite of justice and morality in our world, even if it would promote dishonesty, selfishness, unjust privelege and liability, etc.

In such a case, though we may be beholden to God and subject to His reward and punishment, there is nothing “good” about the world or about moral behavior as dictated by the command of God. That is to say, though perhaps we would be grateful that God created us at all, we should not be grateful that He created a world for us that is good. Any world God would create is good by definition.

But the faithful believe that not only is God the creator, not only does He write the rules of the game, but that the rules are fair, just, and good.

Conclusion: There is a criterion for what counts as good independent of God and God’s will. Thus, if God is truly good, He is good according to a criterion He does not Himself create.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Can a Computer Be a Composer?

I wrote this a little while ago for school. I lost the footnotes and am too lazy to find them now, but if you ask me for them, I'll go look them up

Can a Computer Be a Composer?
An Essay by David Lampert
Touro College, DMX
April 2007

The composition of music is a mental feat of remarkable intricacy. While it is not overtly obvious, musical composition is a number game. It has been long known, since at least Pythagoras in the second century B.C.E., probably longer, that the essence of the musical scale is the numerical relationships between the degrees of the scale. Theories of melody, harmony, structure, rhythm obviously, all of these components of music can be analyzed as numerical permutations. And no one is better at number permutations than a computer.

Can a computer, then, be a composer?

In 1950, Alan Turing proposed that if a computer can produce a response indistinguishable from a human response, then the computer exhibits humanlike intelligence. If a computer can produce music that is indistinguishable from humanly composed music, according to this diagnostic, then the computer is a composer.

There are no more than three possible ways for causation to occur in the world: By predetermination (natural or otherwise), by randomness, or by free choice. It is debatable whether all three actually exist as causal agencies in the world, and if they do not, which one(s) do(es).

Nature produces sounds: The rolling of the river, the songs of the birds and insects, the rustling of the leaves. These sounds are often beautiful. They are produced and arranged by randomness. Is the forest a composer of music? If the answer is no, which I suspect is the case, then to be a composer is not merely to run a process and end up with beautiful sound.

But computations are not merely random events. Computer programs are forms, and though they do not predict or anticipate the content they will have to process (input from the user, for example), the processes they undergo to deal with the content are predictable. Music is methodical, and for a computer to compose music, it needs a method. However, music cannot be strictly predetermined either, because if so then the same program will always produce the same piece of music, which renders the programmer the composer and not the computer. In all music composition programs, there is a randomization factor, (based on the computer’s clock usually.)

“In 1787 Mozart composed the Musikalisches Wurfelspiel (Musical Dice Game). This composition was a series of precomposed measures arranged in random eight-bar phrases to build the composition. Each throw of a pair of dice represented an individual measure, so after eight throws the first phrase was determined.”

I am compelled to determine that Mozart, the programmer, and not the dice or computer, is the composer of any piece of music composed by this sort of method. First, all the phrases are pre-composed. Thus, they are already composed by the composer before they were fed to the computer. Thus, the computer does not compose them. Second, if the phrases go together musically, they were pre-composed to go together musically. However, a program with a hundred thousand phrases to choose from will have to have rules built in to determine which phrases (parts, chord progressions, key changes, etc.) go together. But might such a program be capable of generating good original music?

At the time of this writing, my opinion is no. A most important factor will be missing.

Another set of music generating programs use “evolutionary methods”, where the computer attempts multiple solutions to musical problems, which are controlled by a selection factor. Suitable solutions are reinforced, made to repeat in subsequent projects, while unsuitable ones are cut. However, who determines which solutions are suitable and which ones aren’t? “The results of the process are supervised by the critic, a vital part of the algorithm controlling the quality of created compositions”

Third, then, and of utmost importance: Computers have no taste. Mozart’s dice game doubtless produced some musical pieces that were better than others. However, which pieces those were were not determined at all by the process that produced them, but by the human listeners. Occasionally, perhaps frequently, a computer program will come up with a good piece of music, but as long as the piece follows the rules of music – nay, as long as the piece follows the rules of the program, the computer will not be able to determine whether it has produced a piece of music worthy of the name.

I have listened to a number of computer composed pieces of music (some are linked to Wikipedia’s article “Algorithmic Composition”). They suck. Many of them are pretty, to be sure. For example, the most common genre of computer composition I have encountered consists of forever-meandering, new agey, structureless soundscapes. But we have determined, as regarding the sounds of nature, that mere prettiness of sound is not sufficient to qualify as music. Random sounds can be pretty, especially to one who is open-minded to it. And, if occasionally such processes do result in compelling musical ideas, that is not to the computer’s credit at all, because the computer cannot distinguish worthy musical ideas from unworthy ones.

Also, to be fair, my listening did not qualify as a Turing test, because I already knew that I was listening to computer generated music. I think I’m open-minded, but I am not immune to bias. Even the most human of them sounded mechanical to me.

It is interesting, however, that the names of the pieces are always listed with the names of the human composers. Interesting, because if the computers are the composers, the humans don’t deserve credit. Perhaps it is egotism on the part of the composers, but I think it is a tacit acknowledgement that whatever technology used as tools, it is the human being alone that composes.