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.
“Phil 101 and the Cave, etc.” I know, Reloaded and Revolutions really killed the franchise, but bear with me here.
This next series is going to be on epistemology. This is the introduction, just like the old one had an introduction, and that introduction still applies: it’s about nihilism and modernity, and it’s going to connect with politics and narcissism and values and meaning. Unlike the old series, it’s going to take me a bit to get there. The first series had a bunch of stuff we can agree on, like “Politics are things people do, sometimes with ballots and other times with guns.” This one is going to have a lot we don’t agree on, like “Actually, it makes perfect sense for Heidegger to talk about the world worlding, really clarified the passage for me.”
The reason it makes sense is math.
The “worlding” school of philosophy, i.e. continental philosophy, where “continent”=France and “philosophy”=[tasteless joke at the expense of the dead], is generally considered to be the one that tacitly endorses neo-Kipling verses like “The scientific method is a social construct, foisted on hapless Natives by monopoly men in Pith helmets, haven’t you read post-colonial theory?” Dazzlingly incoherent, and also why it’s going to sound odd when I say that they’re part of a tradition that was all about the problem of saving math as a reliable thing.
They’re responding to Heidegger, who is responding to Husserl, both of whom are dealing with Kant’s framework, and Kant’s framework doesn’t make any sense until you realize that he needs the entire thing to address one central issue: why does math work with the physical world?
As shocking as this sounds to people who dismiss continental philosophy as inherently anti-rational, I guarantee it’s more shocking to people heavily invested in post-Heideggerian Comparative Literature departments.
This is the short form.
Hume comes shrieking down the mountain and wrecks everything via skeptical empiricism, which leads to this:
But what have I here said, that reflections very refined and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty.
This is bad for several reasons, but the worst part is how to deal with the concept “several.”
Included in the wreckage is geometry, because empiricism. Algebra and arithmetic are not, which is extremely confusing, and Hume has no decent way to address that (his attacks on geometry are also kind of contradictory). Either way, even if those are saved, it’s not clear why they should be. That is, if all our faculties are too flawed to have any value re: truth, then how does math somehow make the cut? As in: where did it come from?
This leads to a second problem: why should they work with the outside world? It’s, I guess, intelligible to assume that maybe we’re just “lucky” or something, but that still leaves us with the fact that all of our other senses are bullshit. The fact that we can reapply mathematics to make airplanes fly, despite all the components of airplanes being subject to human frailty and untruth, is pretty weird.
On way to address the problem is to consider it almost like the Euthyphro dilemma. The dilemma is originally over “piety” or “goodness.” It goes: “Does God command it because it is good, or is it good because God commands it?” i.e. is goodness inherent to the world and God judges accordingly, or is “God” our only measure for some arbitrary goodness. The mathematical version is: “Does math fit physics because the physical world is mathematical, or does math fit physics because our nature makes the physical world mathematical?”
Kant’s answer is “Yes.”
No one had ever thought of this before, and it’s convincing enough to resolve a pre-Socratic epistemological conundrum (I really need to emphasize just how rare that is philosophically.) That “Yes” saves the certainty of mathematics, our capacity to use it in the sciences, and more-or-less the practical virtues of empiricism. The problem is that Kant’s method of saving those is incredibly counterintuitive, and its implications are weird enough to lead to, well, modern phenomenology.
The analytics mostly ignored that as “weird metaphysical stuff,” ran into the problem independently, couldn’t logical positivism out of it, and have now, finally, returned to Kant. The continentals took Kant seriously, continued his tradition, at some point forgot that their school only makes sense in light of Kant, proclaimed math oppressive and/or not real.
It’s also really, unbelievably hard to try and succinctly capture Kant’s reasoning, so this is going to take some time. Anyone in modern philosophy departments feel warned, I’m not a professional, you will not stop me. Scream in the comments.
The series is still primarily concerned with books I use to understand the world. But to get at why those particular books make sense, and therefore why they have anything to offer, I’m going to need to do two things: 1) try and explain why that question is important, and why its answer should make you accept otherwise alien interpretations of the world. 2) Give a super rough-shod history of the answer, focusing on the parts important for people I like.
This is not because I’m particularly gifted at philosophy, nor is it because I want to act professorial. I’m not, I won’t, don’t care. It’s because “Why does math work?” sounds like philosophy’s worst excess, right up there with “why” over and over again, which means any response is not going to be taken seriously if it sounds particularly weird. (It’s also because I don’t know of any decent writeups that aren’t as painfully obtuse as the writers themselves.) I’ve tried to avoid explicitly discussing philosophers, but that’s not really possible here.
In practical terms: the first posts are on Plato and Hume dealing with the question of mathematics (and, by extension, Gettier, Wigner, Carnap, whoever seems important, etc.). Kant is going to be a while. Heidegger and Nishitani next. Aristotle (and/or Heidegger’s use of Aristotle), and Nietzsche are going to be the end of it, with the last two transitioning this series into the next one.
I’m not going to talk about Hegel because I don’t want to. Same with all the other obvious gaps.
Since I predicted five essays for the last one and went well over that, I’m not going to make the same mistake here. “It will be an amount.” I will be interrupting this series with other posts, quite plausibly (read: certainly) the next few. This introduction serves two purposes: a) I have a bunch of drafts of things that I don’t want to finish without moving onto something else; b) I hate writing introduction posts to series (and/or this blog, the since-September planned post of which is still absent), which meant I was delaying actually writing about the things I needed to write about to write about other things I didn’t really want to be writing about.
Last one was convoluted, my bad: I hit a wall, and “get over the introduction and on with it” was the superior option.
Nothing I say here is going to be unique, and it’s not from me. It’s interpretations of books applied to interpretations of other books. More importantly, those books are also not saying anything unique.
The last introduction had a TLDR that was a short story. This one is, thankfully, shorter. It’s a poem, interpret accordingly, by which I mean “carefully.”
It’s probably obvious, but “dewdrops” are a traditional image of ephemerality in haiku. A “dewdrop world” is, thus, an image of our own. The moral implications are clear: this world is not something to be attached to. It is suffering and escape.
The poet Issa was a devout buddhist (specifically Pure Land), and he knew suffering. His mother died when he was young, and his father remarried the Platonic form of Disney stepmothers. His father then sent him to work in Edo, died, and left Issa fighting his step-mother in court for years. Issa married late, and his son died just after birth. Two years later, his daughter followed her brother.
After the death of his daughter (he would lose another child soon after), Issa wrote the following poem. It is true, and it’s a better version of everything I’ll need wasteful words to say.
Issa was a monk, and he knew the renunciation of this world was our own solace. His daughter died in his arms and he still knew that, but his daughter died in his arms when he knew that. He wrote:
This dewdrop world
Is a dewdrop world
And yet — But still —
top image: La maja vestida by Goya