Top 10 Books of All Time

9 03 2011

Yeah, all time. I could even say Top 10 Books in All Possible Worlds. They’re that awesome.

People often ask me what are my favourite books, or the books that have most influenced me – in philosophy, science, history etc. So I figured I’d post ’em here to fuel my laziness; if I’m asked in future, I can just give a URL. Nice.

The Iliad – Homer

Sing, o muse… Not sure what’s more astounding, that it’s one of the first written works in human history, or that it’s still one of the most profoundly moving books, dripping with pathos and turgid prose the likes of which a pitiful writer like myself can only dream. I mean, rosy fingered Dawn, who spread her light across the lands of the deathless gods and mortal men. Sublime.

There’s a also lesson in reading in reading the Iliad, too. It’s the catalogue of ships. It’s almost the peer of all the begetting in Genesis (well, I assume Genesis is worse because I’ve never made it through that whole section). But it’s like you have to earn the rest of the tale. That makes it all the more epic. In fact, every epic has a catalogue of ships. My thesis has its literature review…

Although I still have an unresolved question: who would win in a fight between Achilleus and Arjuna. Man, that’d be an epic bout.

More below the fold…

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Cartography, Pragmatism and the Liberation of Metaphysics

14 06 2010

All maps are lies. That’s one of the first lessons of cartography, particularly when it comes to the problematic task of representing our 3-D world on a 2-D plane. It just can’t be done. At least, not without some distortion. Yet, even in the face of this necessary distortion, and in the absence of the ‘perfect’ map projection, cartography lives on. Why? Because maps are useful.

I think this is a notion that could lead to a ‘liberation’ of metaphysics, and its daughter disciplines of epistemology and ontology.

To explain why, we need to venture briefly into the world of map projections. Our planet is a globe. Or an oblate spheroid, if you want to be more precise. A world map is typically a 2-D plane. There is, as a matter of fact, no way to represent an oblate spheroid on a 2-D plane in such a way that it doesn’t distort some feature of the original globe.

Mercator projection

This is where map projections come in. The one you may be most familiar with is the Mercator projection. It was developed by Flemish cartographer, Gerardus Mercator, in the mid-16th century, and (obscenely) is still used in schools and travel agencies – not to mention popular representations of the world – to this day.

This is despite the fact that the Mercator projection made a monumental sacrifice – i.e. correctly representing the true relative sizes of continents – in order to preserve ‘constant bearing’. This means that you can draw a straight line between any two points on a Mercator map and derive a bearing that will allow you to easily navigate to that destination – a useful feature for ships exploring the world during the Age of Discovery – but the picture of the world that it offers is grossly distorted as a result.

This is further hampered by the tendency to ‘trim’ Antarctica from the bottom, nudging the equator two-thirds of the way down the map (it runs just under the western ‘bump’ in Africa). The result is that Greenland looks absurdly huge, while ‘diminutive’ Australia is tucked into the bottom corner. In reality, Australia has an area three and a half times that of Greenland, and Sydney, for example, is actually at a similar latitude to Morocco rather than Reykjavík, as it appears.

This makes it great for navigating, but dreadful as a tool for giving us an appreciation for the size and shape of continents. (As such, I strongly recommend that you dispose of all Mercators in your possession – unless used for historical reference – and protest at its use as the default representation of the world. I do in public, frequently, much to my friends’ distress. But some things are more important than dignified behaviour.)

Goode Homolosine

Thankfully, cartographers are well aware of the shortcomings of the Mercator as a general representation of the globe, and there is a flourishing industry in producing new projections of the world that are less obtuse. There are hundreds of alternative projections, from the Peter’s projection (equal area, but distorts shape and bearing), Goode homolosine (equal area, but interrupted), to the Robinson projection (an appealing compromise developed by National Geographic in the 1960s), to the spectacularly named Winkel Tripel (another compromise projection currently endorsed by National Geographic) and many, many more.

You can play around with them, or roll your own, with a brilliant piece of freeware called Flex Projector. My favourite (this week) is a synthesis of the rectangular Equidistant Cylindrical (Plate Carrée) and Sinusoidal (Sanson-Flamsteed). While fiddling with the various knobs and sliders, you’ll soon notice that no matter how hard you try, it’s just not possible to create a projection that doesn’t harbour some compromise somewhere. That’s to be expected.

In fact, one the the main jobs of cartographers is to pick the most suitable projection for your purpose. Need to sail from point A to point B (without GPS)? Perhaps a constant bearing map, like a Mercator, is the most appropriate. Want to see the correct relative sizes of continents? An equal-area projection is what you need. Maybe you need something that simply shows all continents in a reasonably realistic and aesthetically pleasing way. Go for a projection with gently curving meridians, like the Robinson. And so on. But remember, there is no ‘perfect’ map projection of our world.

Now, on to metaphysics.

The world-as-it-is – the ‘objective’, ‘noumenal’, ‘concrete’ world, whatever you want to call it – is our 3-D globe. The world-as-it-appears – the ‘subjective’, ‘phenomenal’, ‘abstract’ world etc – is the map projection.

As such, the pursuit of a ‘perfect’ systematised, abstract, propositional representation of the world is folly. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon all hope of understanding, or representing, the world-as-it-is.

Robinson projection

Making the concrete world intelligible inevitably requires us to enforce distinctions, to carve things up into x and not-x, to abstract away particulars, leaving us with generalisations. Doing so inevitably results in us shedding some of the unique detail that is fundamental to the concrete world. It flattens the spheroid.

Yet metaphysics and epistemology still strive to find the abstraction that best represents the world – or that is the ‘perfect’ representation of the world. The failure of metaphysics and epistemology to achieve this goal lends evidence to the notion that, like making the ‘perfect’ map projection, it just can’t be done.

However, this doesn’t necessarily lead us to a skeptical conclusion. This is because there’s a difference between ‘distortion’ and ‘error’. An erroneous map projection would seek to represent some aspect of the world in some way, and fail to do so. Placing Australia in the northern hemisphere, for example, would be an error. But ‘distorting’ Australia’s shape in order to preserve constant bearing is different. Providing supernatural explanations of natural phenomena is an error. Employing the empirical method to infer laws of nature that can be used to predict future phenomena is a distortion.

While we may never have an intelligible metaphysics without distortion, that doesn’t mean all metaphysical systems will be in error.

And we choose which distortion we’ll live with depending on the purpose we have on hand, like in cartography; the Mercator is good for navigating, bad for representing the relative size of continents.

I take this to be my (roundabout) definition of metaphysical pragmatism. It’s an approach that is non-skeptical, but acknowledges our inability to perfectly represent the world in an abstract system. Yet it also acknowledges the use of skilfully applied distortions – such as by carving the world into forms, or x and not-x – in order to achieve some practical end.

Moreover, it rejects the claim that the world-as-it-is, the ‘objective’ world, is somehow fundamentally separated from the world-as-it-appears, the ‘subjective’ world. Instead it sees the subjective as being a part of the objective. We are in-and-of, the world, not external observers to it. The subjective is just one projection, but it’s a projection of the objective world.

That is what I call the pragmatic liberation of metaphysics through cartography.





Evolution & Ethics

29 04 2010

In 1893, Thomas Henry Huxley gave the second ever Romanes Lecture at Oxford University. It was entitled ‘Evolution & Ethics’. In this lecture, delivered in some of the finest of 19th century prose, Huxley presented one of the most clear rebukes given then and since against the coarse injection of evolution into ethics. Even though I’m of the belief that evolution is central to a complete understanding of morality, Huxley’s arguments still stand, and I hold them in the highest regard. Here are a few snippets with which anyone interested in the intersection of evolution and ethics should be familiar:

“But as the immoral sentiments have no less been evolved, there is, so far, as much natural sanction for the one as the other. The thief and murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before. Some day, I doubt not, we shall arrive at an understanding of the evolution of the aesthetic faculty; but all the understanding in the world will neither increase nor diminish the force of the intuition that this is beautiful and that is ugly.”

“There is another fallacy which appears to me to pervade the so-called ‘ethics of evolution.’ It is that notion that because, on the whole, animals and plants have advanced in perfection of organization by means of the struggle for existence and the consequent ‘survival of the fittest’; therefore men in society, men as ethical beings, must look to the same process to help them towards perfection. I suspect that this fallacy has arisen out of the unfortunate ambiguity of the phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ ‘Fittest’ has a connotation of ‘best’; and about ‘best’ there hangs a moral flavour’. In cosmic nature, however, what is ‘fittest’ depends upon the conditions. long since, I ventured to point out that if our hemisphere were to cool again, the survival of the fittest might bring about, in the vegetable kingdom, a population of more and more stunted and humbler and humbler organisms, until the ‘fittest’ that survived might be nothing but lichens, diatoms, and such microscopic organisms as those which give red snow its colour; while, if it became hotter, the pleasant valleys of the Thames and Isis might be uninhabitable by any animated beings save those that flourish in a tropical jungle. They, as the fittest, the best adapted to the changed conditions, would survive.”

“Social progress means a checking of the cosmic process at every step and the substitution for it of another, which may be called the ethical process; the end of which is not the survival of those who may happen to be the fittest, in respect of the whole of the conditions which obtain, but of those who are ethically the best.”

“As I have already urged, the practice of that which is ethically best – what we call goodness or virtue – involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence. In place of ruthless self-assertion it demands self-restraint; in place of thrusting aside, or treading down, all competitors, it requires that the individual shall not merely respect, but shall help his fellows; its influence is directed, not so much to the survival of the fittest, as tho the fitting of as many as possible to survive. It repudiates the gladiatorial theory of existence. It demands that each man who enters into the enjoyment of the advantages of a polity shall be mindful of his debt to those who have laboriously constructed it; and shall take heed that no act of his weakens the fabric in which he has been permitted to live. Laws and moral precepts are directed to the end of curbing the cosmic process and reminding the individual of his duty to the community, to the protection and influence of which he owes, if not existence itself, at least the life of something better than a brutal savage.”

“Let us understand, once and for all, that the ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process, still less in running away from it, but in combating it.”

And one final note: Huxley was not only a great biologist, natural philosopher and defender of evolution, but he was one of the rare English thinkers of his time to give great credence to Eastern thinkers. Here is just one insightful passage from Evolution and Ethics that hints at his surprisingly nuanced view of Indian philosophy, and at his ability to weave that into a distinctly English narrative:

“The earlier forms of Indian philosophy agreed with those prevalent in our own times, in supposing the existence of a permanent reality, or ‘substance,’ beneath the shifting series of phenomena, whether of matter or of mind. The substance of the cosmos was ‘Brahma’, that of the individual man ‘Atman’; and the latter was separated from the former only, if I may so speak, but its phenomenal envelope, by the casing of sensations, thoughts and desires, pleasures and pains, which make up the illusive phantasmagoria of life. This the ignorant take for reality; their ‘Atman’ therefore remains eternally imprisoned in delusions, bound by the fetters if desire and scourged by the whip of misery. But the man who has attained enlightenment sees that the apparent reality is mere illusion, or, as was said a couple of thousand years later, that there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.”





Zen Epistemology: Knowing-That, Knowing-How and Everything in Between

16 12 2009

This is a post that was originally on my old blog, Logos. However, in the wake of my post about the Knowledge Argument, I thought it might be worth resurrecting it, with a few updates. Here goes:

At first, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Finally, I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers.

It has come to my attention that contemporary epistemology is disconcertingly arse-backwards. This is because it’s caught in the uncompromising grip of an obsession with knowledge-that. This, over half a century after Gilbert Ryle famously made a strong case that knowledge-that is not all there is to knowledge as such. Disappointing.

All the way back when I was writing my honours thesis – which applied knowledge-how to Frank Jackson’s Knowledge Argument in the philosophy of mind – it appeared as though there was at least a modicum of debate going on over the nature of knowledge.

But in the decade that has lapsed since, it seems knowledge-that has come back to the fore an, in my opinion, thoroughly gummed up the works when it comes to some of the most important questions in epistemology: what is knowledge?; to what does it apply?; how is it acquired?; can we really know anything?; is there such thing as a priori knowledge?; can anything be said to be analytic?

These are important questions – more-so than many in metaphysics – because they virtually underpin every other philosophical endeavour, as well as relating to a number of very significant real-world issues, such as ethics (and metaethics), politics, science, and philosophy of mind.

So, what I’d like to do here is espouse an alternative view to the paragon view of knowledge-that espoused by Stanley and Williamson, who recently suggested that knowledge-how is a species of knowledge-that. In fact, I’d like to espouse the entirely opposite view: that knowledge-that is a species of knowledge-how. An arse-forwards view, one might say.

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