Everything is Going According to Plan

on nihilism


note: this is very long.

You taught me language, and my profit on ’t
Is I know how to curse. The red plague rid you
For learning me your language!
-Caliban, The Tempest


Their ideals had begun to turn on them.

If you want to be a philosopher about it, the problem is being vs. becoming, Heraclitus’ Fire and Flux vs. Parmenides’ Oneness and Rest. Plato unites these, so the story goes. This isn’t exactly true, but it’s close enough: the very highest things are Being, so eternal, and the very top of that is the Form of the Good. The lower things of this world are becoming – shadows in the cave – but they partake in Being via the forms. Man has two natures – flesh and soul – flesh is becoming and soul is being. The best human life, then, is one that partakes in the eternal, and especially in the form of the good. Normally, this is just called “Truth.” It’s important that this work in a particular way: if there is no access to being, then all our knowledge is shadow and wind. This worked out very well for us for a time, truth was a fine friend, it even gave us a God or two for when the nights were particularly nocturnal.

Then the first problem: Truth unsettles everything around it. Empiricism is a very effective way to pursue our ideals, and it pursues them right off a cliff. Turns out there is no metaphysical ground, atoms in a void, many worlds in the multiverse and the You in each of them is terrified and confused. Theoretically, you were supposed to find a sobering and harmonious universe. What you find is a teenage goth’s wildest fantasies: there is no heaven, there is no God, there is no meaning, morality is arbitrary, justice is the will of the stronger, humans are self-deceiving moral monsters, fuck it, I’ll be a gnat next life. But you can’t just lie, that’s still wrong for poorly understood reasons, we can’t go back.

We want a reason to exist, so that’s a bummer, but not really the end of the world. I guess you can just mope or something, Siouxsie was pretty cool. So you Phil 101: “Humans determine their own meaning.” Blatantly untrue if you’ve talked to one, but I understand the significance of the words. It’s a subjective phenomenon, we are subjects, maybe meaning [static and wails]. I don’t even disagree, I just don’t think you understand. Not only did you not make that choice, it’s not even the right one. “How wondrous to exist and Sisyphus really digging the struggle,” is no meaning at all, it’s too abstract, it’s both flabby and hollow at once, it’s only possible for a weakling to raise it because it’s so empty. Everyone wants “good things” and is quite sure that “good things” are rather important. Does that help us coordinate for the specific goods we want?

Here’s your second problem: Truth unsettles itself. What truth does find doesn’t look much like its first mandate. Not only are there no Platonic Forms, there’s nothing that even resembles objective truth. The human mind evolved to lie to itself, to interpret according to experience, but even checking experience against experience is merely the best approximation of a human experience. It may be our best interpretation, but scientific truth is just an interpretation conditioned by the creature experiencing it. No, sadly, there aren’t better ones. Trust me, I’ve looked. Without Platonism you’re screwed for the deep deep grounding. This should change something maybe, if there’s no moral purpose and Truth is just an interpretation then why not discard it for happiness? Deepak Chopra seems like he has a pleasant outlook – I imagine it’s much like thought thinking itself through a lukewarm bath. That it’s “wrong” is no count against it if you can’t justify your own truths, but you still can’t seem to lie to yourself.

Good instinct. But also why silent black screen, slow rise of a single note, cigarette-voice: Their ideals had begun to turn on them.

Here’s your third problem: it is hard to be a creature of becoming that understands being. We judge ourselves by unrealistic standards. “Understands.” Now you know that’s a ridiculous problem to have, an artifact of evolution, just some cave-man shit. Does that make it go away? It’s the thought of it that hurts, not its reality. Zeus isn’t real either but it’s the reason you understand why Homer made Zeus judge: “Of all the living creatures, man is the most wretched.” You are a creature that has some notion of ephemerality, some desire to be more-than-that, and finally the knowledge that this is impossible. Eat up. Continue reading “Everything is Going According to Plan”

In which there are ghosts

Plato is hard, so let’s shitpost about art.


relatedThe Guardian’s Inferno and Notes on Values


Plato is hard, so let’s shitpost about art.

SSC writes a response to The Good Guy/Bad Guy Myth by Catherine Nichols. Nichols’  piece claims that good vs. evil stories are distinctly modern, older tales were more ambiguous, this was a causal factor for modern nationalism and subsequent atrocities.

On one hand, I don’t want to look a gift-horse in the mouth. I’m in favor of Old Books, they are indeed complex, thanks for the backup. Nichols’ underlying premise is worthwhile: a) Myths and epics and fairy-tales have a moral complexity and ambiguity we casually ignore; b) There has been a genuine shift in values, and while Christianity was part of it, the after-effects of the industrial revolution are much more relevant for our current society.

On the other, I agree with Scott’s criticisms. The historical argument presented is wild. The Spanish conquered most of the Americas between the 16th and 17th centuries under the pretense of moral ineptitude and evil among the natives. They had to be forced into enlightenment, which meant murder, torture, and slavery. Bartoleme de las Casas is considered more rhetorical than accurate, but he says some true things. Here’s his book A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies: there’s a lot about feeding people to dogs and slaughtering children for fun, sometimes both at once.

Then again, maybe the Spanish were just early adopters. Pierre Menard (PDF) or Miguel Cervantes wrote a book about simplistic values in literature causing illusory political actions way back in 1604:

And so, having completed these preparations, he did not wish to wait any longer to put his thought into effect, impelled by the great need in the world that he believed was caused by his delay, for there were evils to undo, wrongs to right, injustices to correct, abuses to ameliorate, and offenses to rectify. And one morning before dawn on a hot day in July, without informing a single person of his intentions, and without anyone seeing him, he armed himself with all his armor and mounted Rocinante, wearing his poorly constructed helmet, and he grasped his shield and took up his lance and through the side door of a corral he rode out into the countryside with great joy and delight at seeing how easily he had given a beginning to his virtuous desire.

The Aeon piece is factually incorrect, its timing is screwy, fine. That’s not my problem.  The essay set off a very particular panic point for me.

In making the case that we have a simplistic good/evil binary, it set up its own – nationalist/liberal, politically bad/politically good, whatever you want to call it. Nazi references rule everything, it was not subtle. It argues against art as a tool for training moral values – which I happen to agree with – but makes it, instead, a political tool. Not that she wants that, because she doesn’t, but that it can do that, and thus that art which does such a thing is bad art.

In other words: it uses a political reason to brand certain types of art as “bad.” Continue reading “In which there are ghosts”

Platonism without Plato


coming from here


Pythagoras assigned cyclical motions to the planets. Circles are eternal, and thus the motion most suited for the motions of the heavens. This essay is about circles, as well, albeit the more homely human kind. It’s about racing so far in one direction that you wind up back at the get-go.

All theories have assumptions, all assumptions lead to their own conclusions. Inconsistency is not bad for the sin of pride, it’s bad because it makes you wreck yourself in conversations. Worse is inconsistency with power for reasons that are too obvious to lay out, [Goya etching here], etc.

This blog has recently been focused on the epistemology of mathematics. It has interesting and far-reaching consequences, but it’s often ignored as meaningless specialist nonsense and/or ivory tower shit.

Those consequences are the real interest, and I’ve explicitly stated that the end is modern phenomenology. But to get to [anything modern] you need Kant, to get to Kant you need Hume, to get to Hume you need Idealism, to get Idealism you need Plato.

Platonism (in math) is, essentially, the position that mathematical objects are real. They are as “out there” as a planet is “out there” (just not in space-time, spoiler alert). Because it’s hard to really precise this, here’s (hilariously) an entire appendix of people defining it.

Naive versions of Platonism are astoundingly common when it comes to the epistemology of mathematics. These aren’t “wrong” per se, they just lead to consequences counter to what we tend to want. I’m pretty sure this is because mathematics is secure enough that it’s the very last metaphysical “thing” we want to deny. The denial also leads to tricky questions about the physical sciences, i.e. the point of this series. Thus, we’re a lot more willing to grant ontological primacy to mathematics than we are to, say, “beauty” or “virtue.”

But also: Plato himself is a necessary nightmare to talk about. He’s a great example of why one should read primary sources, because “platonism” is historically sideways. This is bad enough that I have to write two separate articles. This one is on “Platonism.” The next will be on Plato.

When we talk about Platonism now, we’re not actually talking about a 4th century BC philosophical school. We’re talking about a 20th century one. Godel absolutely stomped the early analytic schools, and everyone wandered in a daze looking for a new position. Kind of, this is bad history, don’t @ me. I’m not going to get into that because [long] and [besides the point], but it’s consistent that Godel himself was a devoted Platonist.

It’s quite popular, so note that any criticisms I make will 100% have objections and counter-arguments. Platonism is the plurality position by this survey (PDF) of philosophers. (Q: Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism? Results: Abstract objects: Platonism 39.3%; nominalism 37.7%; other 23.0%.) Since it says “abstract objects” rather than “mathematical objects”, that probably confounds full-blooded Platonism (“all abstract concepts exist”) with mathematical Platonism (“at least mathematical objects exist”), but I’ve yet to meet someone who thought that the abstract concept “beauty” is real but numbers are not. In other words, that 39.3% almost certainly covers all mathematical Platonists.

If I get around to talking about the analytics (way later), I’m going to have to return to Platonism, i.e. this is incomplete. I’m much more interested in arguments mustered for naturalism on Platonic grounds, both as a personal preference and for subsequent articles. Less in arguing for or against Platonism than in showing some of the consequences, and for those we basically assume it’s true. After all, this series begins with the question: “Why does math work in reality?” and Platonism is an answer to that question. It works because math is real, it doesn’t matter how frail the human mind is, somehow we frailed our way into the Truth of the World, take it and run.

Still, there’s a reason that a shocking number of otherwise-impartial descriptions of modern platonists use phrases like “bite the bullet” to describe their admissions. The consequences of the argument are wild, and for that one actually can turn back to Plato. It matters less whether he himself believed it than it does that he develops some of the results and, even if ironically, these went on to have some super weird consequences.

You might ask why start with Platonism, then. Long story short: [history] happened, modern Platonism is enough like what pre-modern philosophers were responding to that it’s basically fine. There was a long historical bit here, but it’s been banished to an appendix for taking up space without moving the argument forward.

I’ve praised the virtues of careful philosophical argumentation. In an act of stunning hypocrisy, I will now write a very reckless article about Plato and Platonism.

This is because I want to. Continue reading “Platonism without Plato”

On a Particularly Difficult Question

coming from here


Let’s start this with an obvious question: “Why are you so concerned with math?”

It has to be answered for any description to make sense. Looking back, it does appear that my interest is just because of Kant’s interest. No, and:

It’s not good that our root instinct is a lazy Cartesian skepticism, but it does make my job easier. That was something earlier writers had to inflict; it being the default lets us move quicker.

Ask a college kid what Truth capital T is and they’ve already absorbed the right lessons: truth is a construct determined by your culture’s valuations and epistemic suppositions, therefore we’ll never be able to actually arrive at the Truth. “It’s subjective.” Moreover, logic is dependent on language, which is dependent on culture; reason needs categories to manipulate, which are dependent on [relative thing]; trying to interpret the empirical world is a problem because you can never step outside yourself, data isn’t “there,” it must be uncovered, hence the flaws of naive science.

I say this like I’m mocking the arguments, but I do really mean this is the correct way to start. Not only are we in the cave, that cave is in a metacave. Don’t trust yourself to trust the outside world, reason splinters out of a bunch of psychological flaws and biases, inner fickledom influences outer fickledom, there is a great gnashing of teeth.

Nietzsche, who I will quote this once and then avoid until [distant post]:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history,” but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die.

One might invent such a fable, and yet he still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature.

We should be extremely skeptical that the human intellect can touch on anything True, much less even vaguely functional. I do mean that as a starting point: get as deep into skepticism as you can, or else what follows won’t be as baffling as it should be.

If human reason were worth a damn, there would be no question about the status of math. Only in light of its complete and total vapidity do we realize how baffling it is that Leibniz can think about geometry real hard, Maxwell can apply that hard thinking, and now we have computers. Continue reading “On a Particularly Difficult Question”

Aeon Piece

Old readers: I have a short essay in Aeon:

Whence comes nihilism, the uncanniest of all guests?

It’s something like a condensed version of the Uruk Series, and much shorter than most essays here. (I didn’t ditch this blog for other publications; I’m working on them, more posts here in a few days.)

People coming from Aeon: Hi. Thanks for reading. The Aeon essay is (kind of) a condensed form of a series I wrote here (the index of which is here), and a few odds and ends.

The most relevant pieces are this one on Seeing Like a State, this on Karl Polanyi, and this on gri-gri. All of those are much longer than the Aeon piece (and my tone is less neutral). Eventually it goes into Eric Hoffer, Christopher Lasch, and some other stuff.

I haven’t addressed Nietzsche very explicitly (although I mention him at the end of the series), nor differing conceptions of nihilism. I plan to in the future. Sorry.

At the moment, I’m writing a new series. It’s about Kant and mathematics, and how that leads into early phenomenology. The first post is here. It will likely make people with different philosophical commitments angry.

I feel like people are going to ask this, so: Qohelet’s Ossuary is intended to be a list of quotes pulled from history books. I’ve been bad about updating it.

My email is luukeep at outlook.com if anyone has questions.

Euthyphro Dilemmas as Mathematical Objects

introduction to series ii


introduction to series ii


This blog has recently been grasping at the notion of values, either directly or by reference to nihilism. I’ve mostly failed, because I need vocabulary that I don’t really have, because the question isn’t really the question it looks like. This is an oldnew question, in precisely the way that most things are oldnew questions.

This is the old form of it: Socrates asks Meno what virtue is. Meno, reasonably, replies with a list of actions that are good things to do. Socrates, reasonably, answers that there must be some essence of “virtue” that connects all of these things, a value or judgment or faculty of judgment that determines the “good” from the “bad.”

No one can figure it out, which leads to the Meno problem. The Meno problem is this:

A man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows–since he knows it, there is no need to search–nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.

So, it seems that knowing virtue is impossible. Socrates then leading-questions a slave boy into doing geometry, which proves something about inborn knowledge, and Socrates suggests that knowing things maybe comes from reincarnation. Kind of. Either way, knowledge of “virtue” is, at least plausibly, as objectively valid as mathematics. To really drive the point home, Socrates relays a series of poetic invocations of the gods and tells a myth about the afterlife. Meno asks him how true any of that is, and Socrates responds by saying “Eh.” and also “We’ll be better men if we think it is, because it will make us brave enough to question things.”

This is really weird. It’s not obvious that math is anything like virtue. Moreover, it’s not clear that math is itself objective, which is underlined by the fact that it’s reliant on a mythical interpretation that presupposes its own existence. Finally, Socrates forces acquiescence by calling it “better” to believe in true knowledge, but the point about not knowing about knowing is that it means you can’t tell what’s “better” and what’s “worse.”

Plato is a motherfucker, he does have a point, I’m ignoring it, moving on. Continue reading “Euthyphro Dilemmas as Mathematical Objects”

Links and Thanks


I don’t really do links pages. I did one, once, but decided against continuing it. The links that I’d post are directly taken from links pages of other blogs, which feels more than a little parasitic.

Instead, I’ll post an annual list of my favorite articles. Since it’s hard to remember all of the articles of the past year, there’s no possible way this is fully accurate, which really makes this a list of articles that left a lasting impression. It’s by no means fair or objective; most of these are personal reading habits that I’m pretty sure a lot of my readers share.

This is also not in any order. I’ll limit myself to twelve, because there are twelve months in the year and twelve is the superior number. Continue reading “Links and Thanks”