Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Limits of Logic

Reality and the Limits of Logic
or, “This Essay Doesn't Exist”

At its core, philosophy is the search for the meaning of life, as approached from a variety of viewpoints. This search is conducted, to varying degrees, through the use of rational thought, or logic. As shall be shown through the examples of such notable thinkers as Renée Descartes, George Berkeley, and David Hume, however, the seemingly-infallible progression of logic is actually inherently flawed in its application, and therefore the conclusions it leads to are, at the very least, doubtful. This is not to advocate for the abandonment of logical thought; rather, it is simply to advise the temperance of any belief with the understanding of the basic tentative nature of all knowledge. In an ironic twist, the method used in this paper to disprove the infallibility of logic is, and must be, logical reasoning. While this may seem to contradict the aim of this paper, it will be shown that, indeed, it is evidence in favor of the concept of logic's limits.

Deductive reasoning in philosophy tends to follow a certain pattern, perhaps ultimately best outlined in its barest form in Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy in Which the Existence of God and the Distinction between the Soul and the Body Are Demonstrated (hereafter to be referred to as Meditations), in which he applies skeptical thought to not only the conclusions that he has come to during his life, but also the bases of those conclusions. This method of deductive reasoning, informed by his basic skepticism and doubt, is a particularly effective one for the purpose of discerning reality, as it allows one to let go of one's presuppositions and forces one to prove again any beliefs, rather than bringing what one assumes to be true into one's thought process. Indeed, the title of Descartes' first Meditation is “Concerning Those Things That Can Be Called Into Doubt”. In it, he begins with an explanation for his thought experimentation, an explanation as good as any at bringing to light the merits of logic proceeding from nothing, or “re-proving”. Descartes writes that he has come to realize “how numerous were the false opinions that in [his] youth [he] had taken to be true, and thus how doubtful were all those that [he] has subsequently built upon them.” (Descartes, 69, emphasis mine) Descartes realizes that, logically, if he cannot confirm the truth of the “opinions” of his youth—which could include not only his beliefs but also what he was taught and what he reasoned—and if, inevitably, the beliefs he holds are founded upon those opinions, than it follows that he cannot confirm the truth of what he now believes to be true. This is the beginning of his logical process; he states that he “would do well to. . . pretend for a time that these opinions are wholly false and imaginary” in spite of his belief that, while doubtful, his opinions are “nevertheless highly probable.” (Descartes, 71)

Proceeding from this realization, Descartes attempts to determine how he can confirm the truth or existence of anything, as his previous method of assuming based simply on perception had proven false. Having discarded perceptions, however, Descartes does not discard his belief in God. Descartes' justification for the existence of God is his belief that all concepts are derived from perception. For example, he can hold the conception of substance because he observes he himself to exist as substance. In the case of God, however, this theory doesn't hold water, as Descartes, being a finite being, thinks he cannot conceive of an infinite being on his own, having no experience or perception to base the idea on. Therefore, in Descartes' mind, God must exist for the idea of him to do so.
While on the surface this may seem a logical idea, it is in fact one that makes a number of assumptions. Descartes asserts that his knowledge of the infinite is in fact more objective and whole than his knowledge of “darkness” as an absence of light or “rest” as a “negation of motion”. In fact, Descartes argues, he “clearly understand[s] that there is more reality in an infinite substance than there is in a finite one.” (Descartes, 79) This is, however, an assertion without any real argument. Not only can the existence of infinite substances not be proven without this being true, but it cannot be true without infinite substances existing. This circular reasoning means that, in spite of the strong foundations of his logical process, Descartes' statements about the infinite nature and inherent reality of God are arbitrary and unprovable. So too is his famous assertion “Cogito ergo sum”. While it remains one of the most well-known philosophical statements of all time, it is hardly one of the best thought-out. Descartes falls victim to a fallacy that Hume will later highlight in his writings on morality: that of the transition of “is” to “ought”. No matter how much evidence Descartes accumulates (his perceptions, his reasoning, and the idea that because he thinks it logically follows that there must be a thinker) there is no logical connection between his evidence and the actuality of existence, and therefore no way to prove the “sum” part from the “cogito”.
One alternative to Descartes' arguments, and one that follows similar logical lines, is presented in George Berkeley's A Treatise Concerning the Principals of Human Knowledge. Berkeley, realizing that all he could confirm was his perception of substances, proposed that the substances themselves did not exist independent of perception. Because perception is the only thing one can experience or know of, argues Berkeley, and since even “the very patrons of matter themselves do not pretend there is any necessary connection between [existence outside of our minds or perceptions] and our ideas,” then the possibility exists that there are no “bodies” corresponding to the ideas and perceptions we hold to reflect reality. (Berkeley, 120-121) Furthermore, even our ideas of objects are defined by perceiving them. Berkeley challenges his reader to imagine an object, which would seem to be a simple task. However, all one is doing, asserts Berkeley, is imagining an object as one would perceive it. It is impossible to imagine anything “existing unconceived or unthought of”, which would be the only method in which to prove the objects to exist independent of the mind.

These assertions of Berkeley's would apparently refute the idea of an objective, infinite substance of any sort, and therefore the idea of God. After all, how could such a thing exist if indeed there is nothing that can be confirmed to exist outside of the mind? And yet, Berkeley takes almost as a given the existence of God, referring to the idea of bodies without minds as “God [creating] innumerable beings that are entirely useless.” (Berkeley, 121) This is consistent with his view of the functions of so-called “natural laws”, which he says are ideas with a steadiness, a predictability, such as the idea that “food nourishes, sleep refreshes, and fire warms.” (Berkeley, 123) To Berkeley, these “laws” are the product of the will of some sort of “great spirit”, or deity-like figure, a concept he gives no real justification for besides the inane argument that natural laws would require a great spirit to be consistent, and that by observing—subjectively, remember—consistency, one could determine the true laws governing and ordering nature. Like Descartes, Berkeley utilizes circular logic in his argument. The basis of his support of the existence of a “great spirit” is in his belief in “natural laws” which could not exist without a “great spirit” to create an orderly world in which the laws would function. Not only that, but he makes an intuitive leap that cannot be justified with the evidence he provides: having just finished showing that there is not necessarily any connection between perceptions and what truly exists, Berkeley turns around and claims that, through perception, the truth of “natural laws” can be discovered. Because he does not bring himself to doubt the existence of the “great spirit”, and therefore does not subject that idea to the same intellectual rigor that he has subjected other concepts to, Berkeley, too, fails to account for the influence of his personal beliefs on his logical conclusions.

There is, however, a third philosopher whose conclusions, while possibly less satisfying than those of Descartes and, to a lesser degree, Berkeley, are far more contextualized with the knowledge of his own—and his logic's—fallibility. At its heart, David Hume's basic argument about perception seems to reflect that of Berkeley. However, while Berkeley stopped at showing to be utterly ridiculous the idea that a substance could exist or be thought to exist unobserved or unperceived, Hume extends this theory to the self. “When [one's] perceptions are removed for any time,” argues Hume, “. . . so long am I insensible of myself and may truly be said not to exist.” (Hume, 127) Here is an immediate refutation of Descartes' “I think (or doubt), therefore I am.”; rather, Hume would argue, one thinks, and therefore there is thinking. Nothing further can be extrapolated. This is the purest logic exhibited so far by any of the three philosophers, for it denies the assumption of even the most basic belief in the self, whereas Descartes and Berkeley's arguments are essentially tautological, proceeding as they do from the idea that reason can reveal something deeper than perceptions, even though reasoning simply reveals definitions that have been arbitrarily assigned. Hume also allows, as the other philosophers were less overt in doing if indeed they did at all, for the possibility that his theory is incorrect or non-universal. He says that if any man believes that he has a different sense of himself from Hume's that there is the possibility that this other man “perceive[s] something simple and continued which he calls himself,” though he does assert that he is “certain there is no such principle in [him].” (Hume, 127) This idea of the slef—or lack thereof—is what informs the rest of Hume's philosophy.

Hume argues that the sense data of the current moment, being the only thing we can confirm that we have ever experienced, is the only evidence we can proceed from. From there, he continues on to claim that memory is merely another perception of our current state, similar to our emotions, and that it tells us nothing concrete about any sort of linear past or progression of causation. Instead, the use of memory is to define personality, as “memory along acquaints us with the continuance and extent of this succession of perceptions. . .the source of personal identity.” (Hume, 131) The conclusion Hume reaches in his Treatise of Human Nature is one that goes far beyond the notion of the self he was attempting to disprove: when he says that “the whole of this doctrine leads us to a conclusion. . . all the nice and subtle questions concerning personal identity can never possibly be decided and are to be regarded rather as grammatical than as philosophical differences,” he might as well be speaking of philosophical conclusions as a whole. (Hume, 131) Because the very manner in which these conclusions are reached can be called into doubt, so too can any conclusion itself.

Hume's philosophy, however, fails in two ways. First, he defines “self” in a rigid, antiquated manner, thus allowing for his disproving of its existence. His definition of the self as a constant being that exists at different points in time is too limited—essentially, he is setting himself up to be able to disprove it. Secondly, and perhaps more egregiously, Hume presents a theory that utterly lacks pragmatic justification. While there is no way to disprove his conjecture about the “self”, there is also no practical way to apply it. Therefore, despite its logical strengths, Hume's arguments are of no use in and of themselves.

Having exposed the faults in the reasoning of some of the most influential Western thinkers, I will now attempt to provide a compelling alternative, one that builds upon Hume's logical structure. Given that all we can know is our perceptions, and also that simply denying the self leads to a philosophy without application, I propose that the definition of reality be changed to refer to our current experience. That is to say, reality is not some great objective thing, nor is it even a subjective existence created by our perceptions. Reality is what we experience in each individual moment, and the self if the perspective from which we experience it. This concept both satisfies Hume's objections to the perception of a constant self and allows for the existence of something other than sense data in our experiences. Not only that, but it allows for debate and disagreement over the nature of the self and experience, as our fallible perceptions can be changed, and the self governing them can be as well.

Philosophy is the search for truth, always through some form of logical thought or another. In this search, however, many lose sight of the path they are treading, and forget that, in their quest to truly know anything, they must begin from knowing nothing. Even then, the fallible nature of our understanding prevents us from ever comprehending true objectivity, if indeed it exists at all. Hume said it perhaps best of all when, at the end of his Treatise, he wrote “Can I be sure that, in leaving all established opinions, I am following truth? And by what criterion shall I distinguish her, even if fortune should at last guide me on her footsteps?” (Hume, 132, emphasis mine)

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Limits of Logic by Philip Halim is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Dear English language--

This is an ultimatum. Fix your shit or we're through.

Either "messenger" needs to lose an "n" or "message" needs to gain one.



Saturday, August 14, 2010

Apropos of the Previous Post

"All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth come only from the senses."

-Friedrich Nietzsche

Friday, July 23, 2010

Subjectivity and the Unconfirmed World

Let's talk about existence! It can be a boring thing to debate, often left to the dusty old philosophy professors with nothing better to do. It's a futile argument, because nobody can really prove, to the satisfaction of anyone else, the veracity of any one viewpoint. The debate about our existence, the reasons for it, the hows and whatfors of it, will probably go on as long as humanity does. Is there any point to it, though?

I would argue that there is not. Now, this is hardly a unique view, but hear me out. The reason that the debate really doesn't matter is because the debate itself might not actually exist. Same for those dusty philosophy professors, same for you and me. There is no proof that any of it exists. The problem with anything that claims otherwise is that it is all subjective, and therefore subject to the whims, inclinations, and instincts of the person who thinks it. Obviously, for those of you who believe in it, there is science in its many forms, which purports to tell us about the nature of the universe. Unfortunately, that noble discipline which we would all like to believe is objective is, in fact, as subjective as everything else--which is to say, quite so. Sure, you can read the latest scientific journal and read the direct observations made about an experiment, but you're seeing this information through double-lenses of subjectivity. First, there is the scientist, or group of scientists, that performs the experiment. Of course they are trained to give their honest, "objective" view, but in the end the observations they make are just that: observations. Observations made by malleable, subjective human beings, interpreted through the senses of human beings, which almost never overlap nicely with the senses of other human beings. For instance, I am "color-blind", which means that I don't see the same colors others see. Sensory perception is different for each person, which makes any observations made by someone other than you instantly suspect. Then, of course, there is the fact that you, as the person reading the scientific journal, are using your notoriously subjective sensory perception to observe the words on the page. And then you are interpreting them, using your knowledge and world experiences, including your conception of the language you are reading in.

Beyond that, however, there is the further problem of the world you are reading that scientific journal in. See, as I've already discussed, the very senses with which you perceive the world are inherently subjective, and therefore any conclusions you draw from the can only be held as objective truth for you. Think about it this way, if it helps: each person has their own universe, defined by their sensory perception of the world, which is different from everyone else's. Because everyone's worldview is equally subjective, there is no way of knowing who's is right, or indeed if there is a correct way of seeing the world.

"But, Philip!" you might say, were you still following me in this ridiculous enterprise, "This is a ridiculous enterprise! Other people see things the same way as me, or damn near the same way. I've interacted with them!" To which I say "Pshaw!" And also, "No, you haven't." What you've done, you see, is believed that you've interacted with them. You're subjective worldview tells you that you have. For all you know, everyone else is a figment of your imagination. And for all I know, you are a figment of mine.

What's the point of all this? I'm not sure. But here's what I want you to take away: whenever someone tells you something is an absolute truth, run screaming. Because he or she is a crazy person.

((I just said something as an absolute. AAAAAHHH.))

Da Baron

Monday, June 28, 2010

Oh, Canada

The videos I talk about can be found here:


Reports on the conditions in the detention areas:



A report about the assault of an accredited journalist:


A journalist and released detainee talks about police threats of rape:


The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms:


Rabbleca on Twitter:


Saturday, May 8, 2010

Terrorist Expatriation Act

Before the 2nd Session of the 111th Congress, Senators Scott Brown and Joe Lieberman presented a proposal to amend the Section 349 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The proposed change would mean that anyone joining or aiding in any way any organization deemed "terrorist" or "hostile" to the U.S. would forfeit his/her U.S. citizenship...and, more importantly, his/her Constitutional rights.

Now, I'm not saying that terrorists, or whomever attempts to harm other people, shouldn't be punished. If I may blatantly quote what I typed the other day:

Accuse them if you like. Jail them. Charge them. Sentence them if they're guilty. But do it WITHIN the law. Within the realm of human decency and fairness. They may have committed horrible crimes and they may not have. Either way, that have basic rights and denying them those rights is hypocritical and dangerous. I'm going to separate this next sentence out so it will stand out.

Once the decision is made to suspend or rescind rights based on ANYTHING, once that precedent is set, it becomes a matter of choice; rights become mutable and it becomes up to whomever is in power to decide where that line is drawn between enemy and friend, between human being with rights and thing without them.

Now Messers Lieberman and Brown aim to make the removal of human rights "within the law". They would like us to believe that they are fighting the good fight for our safety. I call bull. Because they define, within their proposal, those who are liable to lose their basic rights as anyone who:


(I) has engaged in a terrorist activity, or (II) a consular officer or the Attorney General knows, or has reasonable ground to believe, is likely to engage after entry in any terrorist activity (as defined in clause (iii)), is excludable. An alien who is an officer, official, representative, or spokesman of the Palestine Liberation Organization is considered, for purposes of this chapter, to be engaged in a terrorist activity.
# (ii) ''Terrorist activity'' defined

As used in this chapter, the term ''terrorist activity'' means any activity which is unlawful under the laws of the place where it is committed (or which, if committed in the United States, would be unlawful under the laws of the United States or any State) and which involves any of the following: (I) The highjacking or sabotage of any conveyance (including an aircraft, vessel, or vehicle). (II) The seizing or detaining, and threatening to kill, injure, or continue to detain, another individual in order to compel a third person (including a governmental organization) to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the individual seized or detained. (III) A violent attack upon an internationally protected person (as defined in section 1116(b)(4) of title 18) or upon the liberty of such a person. (IV) An assassination. (V) The use of any -

o (a) biological agent, chemical agent, or nuclear weapon or device, or
o (b) explosive or firearm (other than for mere personal monetary gain), with intent to endanger, directly or indirectly, the safety of one or more individuals or to cause substantial damage to property. (VI) A threat, attempt, or conspiracy to do any of the foregoing.

# (iii) ''Engage in terrorist activity'' defined

As used in this chapter, the term ''engage in terrorist activity'' means to commit, in an individual capacity or as a member of an organization, an act of terrorist activity or an act which the actor knows, or reasonably should know, affords material support to any individual, organization, or government in conducting a terrorist activity at any time, including any of the following acts: (I) The preparation or planning of a terrorist activity. (II) The gathering of information on potential targets for terrorist activity. (III) The providing of any type of material support, including a safe house, transportation, communications, funds, false identification, weapons, explosives, or training, to any individual the actor knows or has reason to believe has committed or plans to commit a terrorist activity. (IV) The soliciting of funds or other things of value for terrorist activity or for any terrorist organization. (V) The solicitation of any individual for membership in a terrorist organization, terrorist government, or to engage in a terrorist activity.

That was a wall of text, and I apologize. Here's the synthesis: terrorism is a specific crime; committing murder or kidnapping or any of that jazz isn't enough. So all the normal murderers and kidnappers can continue to be charged as U.S. citizens, with fair trial rights and all that. No, because the United States government has decided that they are the best judges of intent, and have defined terrorism not be the crime committed, but by the intent behind it. The wording of these provisions almost guarantees that the choice of who or what organizations is considered "terrorist" will be entirely subjective. Which means that who loses their rights and gets subject to who knows what (though Guantanamo certainly gives an idea of a baseline) is entirely subjective as well...No, wait, it isn't. See, this just occurred to me:

...to play Devil's Advocate to myself, I must admit that my initial reaction was an overreaction. Within the passage quoted, there is logic. Those who commit normal kidnapping are not threatening a government or anything, and I see why they would not be designated "terrorists". So I rescind some of the venom of the rant I just unleashed. It's not entirely subjective, as you can see. There are reasons for the phrasing. To anyone offended, I apologize.

But I lose my temper again when I see, within Lieb 'n' Brown's proposal that anyone involved in any conflict subject to the laws of war would also lose their citizenship and rights. That...it just feels far too much like the "enemy combatants" designation for my comfort.

So to conclude: The proposal put forward by Brown and Lieberman is not evil. It is not as bad as I thought it was upon first reading. I dislike the terminology and the very idea smacks of unneeded legislation (see the Boston Globe editorial in the May 8th paper about the bill; it raises an extremely valid point: This law is not going to deter anyone who is determined to be a terrorist or aid terrorist groups. So what's the point?). Why does this bill exist, though? To allow us more legal leeway to deal with terrorists? That's worrying. We shouldn't be trying to treat the system. This bill won't stop would-be terrorists; it will only allow the U.S. government to cheat it's most important guarantees to deal with them.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Government and Rights; or, where the line is drawn

How do you judge judging? I think it's a question that deserves at least an attempt as answering. How do you know when you are being prejudiced?

To me, it's pretty simple. If you are making a decision, or having a thought about another person or persons, and there is any consideration of race, creed, gender, gender identity, or sexual preference. The problem is, we're a judgmental people by nature. We size people up at first glance and reassess them based on what we learn later. We are completely subjective. I'll get into that more in my next post on subjectivity. So what's to be done?

[digression]In the United States of America, which is where I live and therefore the frame of reference for my comments of political nature, there is a plethora of idealism in the essential documents of our founding and development. There is the ubiquitous flowery phrasing of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; the concept that all men (and later women and transgender and...you get the point) are created equal (and the issue of religion, like subjectivity, is for many other posts), and therefore have inalienable rights. Along with the bill of rights, these established documents and their amendments have given us the lovely image of a free nation. In the ideals of America, we have a vision of a world where everybody accepts everybody. Okay, not everyone has that vision...the religious opposition to gay marriage, for example, would disagree with me. Yet another topic I will address later. But in general there is a dream of America as the land of the free and home of the brave. Play ball. [/digression]

How does this relate? Well, humans are subjective; there is nobody without prejudice or opinion on issues, and therefore nobody who is truly objective and fair. I tend to agree with the late great Howard Zinn on the idea that the only way we can even approach truth is to have a marketplace of ideas, where we combine all the subjective viewpoints. Such, in essence, is the concept of democracy. But in the United States, we have a representative democracy, which means that the marketplace of ideas is consolidated into a couple of stalls with similar merchandise that don't really help their customer base like they promised. If I may hop off of the overextended metaphor...

It is the job (not the sole job but the most important one) of the U.S. government, in my opinion, to ensure the fairness that our country espouses; to put our money where our forefathers' forefathers' pens were. To do so, we must create an even playing field. Not to give wealth to all who want it, regardless of effort, but to protect those who need it, to support the needy, and most of all to eliminate prejudice. That is why not only should any laws that restrict freedoms be repealed (I'm looking at you, Arizona!), but laws should be in place with tangible punishments for those who restrict freedoms on any basis. At all.

I've had an argument with a friend of mine, a right-leaning moderate, with an intellect I respect and a good sense of humor. We were discussing the use of "enhanced interrogation" (hurrah for selective vocabulary. Shoutout to my boy Calvin Coolidge and "normalcy") in Guantanamo Bay, the U.S. base in Cuba. He insisted that the ends justified the means, and, more relevant to this meandering mess of a post, that the terrorists and accused "enemy combatants" had forfeited their human rights by being accused terrorists. This didn't, and doesn't, sit right with me. Accuse them if you like. Jail them. Charge them. Sentence them if they're guilty. But do it WITHIN the law. Within the realm of human decency and fairness. They may have committed horrible crimes and they may not have. Either way, that have basic rights and denying them those rights is hypocritical and dangerous. I'm going to separate this next sentence out so it will stand out.

Once the decision is made to suspend or rescind rights based on ANYTHING, once that precedent is set, it becomes a matter of choice; rights become mutable and it becomes up to whomever is in power to decide where that line is drawn between enemy and friend, between human being with rights and thing without them.

It was unacceptable when Lincoln did it in the Civil War (jailing thousands for sedition and deporting outspoken political foes), and when Roosevelt condoned it in WWII (Japanese internment, one of the largest scars on modern America), and when recent presidents, Bush the most prolific, allowed it to happen at Gitmo.

Rights are not privileges. They are solid, nonrefundable, or they are not really rights at all.