Monday, November 23, 2009

"Spirituality and medicine" - some thoughts (and an anecdote for good measure)

Recently, a group called the "World Christian Doctors Network" (WCDN) organised what seems to have been a pretty "serious" event attended by over 500 medical professionals - the 6th "International medical conference" (this can't actually only be the 6th medical conference ever ... but anyway ...) in order to discuss "Spirituality and medicine". The point of the event seems to have been to allow Christian doctors to get together and "share" anecdotes about instances of "divine healing" of their patients.
Perhaps they wouldn't put it exactly that way (i.e. my scare quotes) themselves - in their idiom, the aim of the conference was to give Christian doctors a platform where they could "objectively confirm and examine instances of 'healing by the power of God'".
(Note : the WCDN looks shady, but the stated aim of their conference is as good an example as any for my purposes here)

Now, I have absolutely no problem with a doctor being religious. Really, as long as she or he is competent within the context of the doctor patient relationship, that's all good with me. However, as soon as a doctor (and I mean real medical professionals here, not homeopaths and chiropractors) starts attributing spontaneous recovery to the power of God, then it's another story altogether.

The problem is that it almost certainly wasn't God's intervention that "healed" the patient. For every single one of these "miracle" cases we can be sure that there is some rational, scientific explanation for it. But isn't this is some scientistic hand waving on my part, I hear you say? I don't think so, and I'm actually making a stronger claim than this anyway, so lets assume, for the sake of argument that there is no possible way that we could ever explain a patients spontaneous recovery, surely this must count as a miracle?

Not at all, it should never be an option - for a doctor, at least - to declare a recovery a "miracle", even if the explanation lies beyond the reach of our current best, or even future best, scientific theories and methods. A doctor declaring a patients recovery a "miracle" is always a profound failure on their part as a doctor.
This is because even if it were the case that we would never find a reasonable explanation for the patients recovery, the notion that all diseases and cures are, ultimately, amenable to scientific explanation should be a regulative ideal of the medical profession.
To abandon this regulative ideal by crying "miracle" is to simultaneously abandon one's identity as a scientist, and - in my opinion - as a doctor. A doctor, in the moment that he or she declares something a miracle, is not being a doctor.

Since everyone seems so keen on anecdotes, let me present one of my own - and try to imagine what the outcome would have been if the doctor involved had merely thrown up his hands and declared this a miracle (The following, long, quote is taken from Robert Klee's "Introduction to the philosophy of science : cutting nature at its seams")

In 1956 in a Massachusetts hospital a man 51 years old was released and sent home to die. A large cancerous tumor had been removed from him, but a number of other malignant tumors had been found--all inoperable. The surgeons had sewed him up in dejected resignation and his case had been filed away. Twelve years later, incredibly, the same man, now 63 years old, showed up in the emergency room of the same hospital with an inflamed gallbladder. Some doctors might have concluded that the original diagnosis 12 years earlier had been in error and think no more of it, but a young surgical resident at the hospital named Steven Rosenberg was not like some other doctors. Rosenberg made a determined search of hospital records, even going so far as to get a current hospital pathologist to pull the original tissue slides of the patient's removed tumor out of storage and reexamine them. The slides showed that an aggressively malignant tumor had been removed from the man twelve years earlier (so it was a sure bet that the inoperable ones had been of the same aggressively malignant type). During the subsequent operation to remove the patient's gallbladder Rosenberg did a bit of exploring in the man's abdomen to see if the inoperable tumors from twelve years earlier had stopped growing. The man had no tumorsat all in the places his record from twelve years earlier located them.

To Rosenberg, the man whose gallbladder he had removed presented an absorbing mystery. How had a patient with multiple inoperable cancerous tumor survived for twelve years in the apparent absence of any therapy whatsoever?
Such "spontaneous remissions" were not unknown in medicine--they have long been a central obsession of trendy occultists and other kinds of miracle mongers--but Rosenberg wanted to know the detailed why of it. He wanted an explanation of it in perfectly natural terms. He wanted to know how the everyday physiological processes of the human body--in this case, the immune system of the human body--could produce such a remission. Where less curious persons might have shrugged their shoulders in amazement and thought no more about it, Rosenberg instead proceeded on the supposition that there had to be some structural physiological basis behind the patient's remission and survival for twelve years, a structural physiological basis that was consistent with the otherwise ordinary causal operations of the human body. Rosenberg wanted to know the causal details of that structural physiological basis. If he could find out those details, especially if they were quantitative details, then the possibility opened up of being able to manipulate the physiology of cancer patients so as to destroy their cancer.

It would take Rosenberg a number of years to come up with a detailed account of that basis, but come up with it he did. Not only did he find an explanation in perfectly natural terms for the original patient's spontaneous remission, but using the theoretical account of immunological processes associated with that explanation he was able to design a complicated therapy that involves artificially growing cancer-killing immune cells outside the body. These cancer-killing immune cells, called LAK (lymphokine activated killer) cells, are injected back into the patient's body in an attempt to intervene and manipulate the patient's immune response to the cancer. Rosenberg and his colleagues have had a considerable degree of success at producing remissions with this therapy but only for specific kinds of cancer--particularly, kidney cancer and skin cancer. Apparently, knowledge of further structural detail is needed in order to be able to designLAK cells that are effective in other kinds of solid-tumor cancers.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The skeptical Buddhist - enlightenment and rationality

Let me start by saying that I don't, in any way, intend this to be an apology for Buddhism.
However, I do have a soft spot for Buddhism in general. And I have a much better grasp of the principles of Buddhism than I do of any other religion, so it makes sense that I use Buddhism as a kind of case study.

Buddhism's public image is of a rational, moral, and open system of thought, the principle aim of which is to eliminate the suffering of sentient beings. And so we have the Dalai Lama engaging with neuroscientists, cosmologists, and high ranking political figures. We have FGS building temples across the globe (including a beautiful example here in South Africa). We have people like Guy Newland publishing books that are very much what we expect from philosophy, not religion. And we have a practice, namely meditation (particularly in it's secular forms), that seems to be pretty beneficial, and not require very much from us in the way of belief.

It looks to have all the benefits of religion - moral teachings, consolation, community etc. while having none of the downsides of the kind of religious systems we know here in the West. A lot of Westerners are attracted to Buddhism because of this image.

And, at it's best Buddhism is just like this.

The problem is, though, Buddhism at it's best seems to only actually exists in books.

By this I mean two things.

On the one hand, if one reads Stephen Batchelor (which I highly recommend), or D.T. Suzuki's books on Buddhism, one necessarily gets a lopsided view of what Buddhism is about, you're going to be getting large doses of Buddhist philosophy. And like philosophy as we understand it in the West, the philosophical practices within Buddhism are - for the most part - rational. But this philosophical aspect of Buddhism is only a tiny part of it, and anyone who shows up at a Dharma centre looking for long stretches of meditation punctuated by Socratic dialog is going to be sorely disappointed. Much of the day to day life of Buddhists are characterised by the same kind of supernatural woowoo rituals that characterise any other religious tradition. I know when I heard of one of my Buddhist friends burning little bits of paper every morning to "clear his Karma" (or something), I was horrified - this could not be a part of a rational religion.

On the other hand, Buddhists themselves tend to be exactly the same kind of petty, politicking, perverted, impolite people as we all are. Anyone who has spent any time with anyone involved in a Sangha (Buddhist community) of more than one person knows this. And this is what we should all expect, given the fact that they're just human. And, in fact, Buddhists themselves never really make the claim that they're perfect. It's just, once again, the "public image" that sets up this expectation. Most practicing Buddhists will admit their fallibility and imperfections readily and, usually, with a cheerfulness that's unthinkable for a Christian.

The first point is relatively benign, we can certainly live with it - at least, I could, especially if it was a genuine path to world peace, a healthy environment, and a three day work week. For these things I would happily spend my life prostrating and burning paper in front of Statues.

The second point is more problematic.

By and large, one of the big motivations for new Buddhists to practice is the "enlightenment" idea. Now, if any one's interested, I can go into this a little deeper in some posts later on, but from the outsider's perspective, "enlightenment" tends to look like something very mystical, and very important. Something very different from our mundane experience of life. "Enlightenment" is seen as something to be achieved (and, indeed, in some schools of Buddhism enlightenment is seen as being something that's only achievable over thousands of lifetimes - but Reincarnation and Karma is some nonsense I don't have time to get into right now).
However one conceives "enlightenment", Westerners coming to Buddhism are going to see it as a goal to be achieved. They are going to think of it as an endpoint for their practice. No matter how much someone like Seung Sahn stressed that "wanting enlightenment is a big mistake", Westerners are going to want enlightenment.
How do we seek/get enlightenment - well, generally through a teacher (who may or may not be enlightened him/herself).

Can you see what the problem is?

The teacher/lama/guru/Roshi/Shifu in Buddhism is an authority figure that is given an immense amount of power over their students for reasons that are, almost by definition, not accessible to the student. The teacher can ask things of the student without reason, and their will will be accepted because the student cannot (yet) understand the workings of the enlightened mind. I have personally seen the fierce devotion that a teacher can elicit from their students. And one need only do a little search online (for opinions on Michael Roach, for example) to see how heated the debates over teachers can be.

The point is not that all Buddhist teachers are corrupt - the Buddhist teachers who I have met have all been very kind, very intelligent, and very humble people. The point is that the student/teacher relationship in Buddhism is liable to be abused - and it has been abused. (read these for examples). Furthermore, this relationship is open to abuse insofar as (the particular brand of) Buddhism requires us to believe something that can't be verified. Sure, we can eventually get enlightened, but it may take several kulpas. This is irrationality at its best, and this irrationality opens up the possibility for abuse. I'm not saying that this is in any way the general case - just like it's not the case that every Catholic priest is a child molester.

This leads to a more general point I'd like to make about the role I see Buddhism playing in the future of humanity and the west in particular. Having spent a lot of time reading about Buddhism the last ten years or so, I don't think that - as a religion - it has very much to offer us - that is, I don't think there would be much to gain by us all taking refuge. I think that certain meditation techniques that come out of the tradition have some potential therapeutic applications. I also think that the Buddhist philosophical tradition may have some useful insights - as an example, Fredrick Copleston suggests we read Dogen as a kind of proto-phenomenologist, and in doing so we may learn from his explorations of the ordinary mind. But the appropriate attidude towards the philosophical aspects of Buddhism should be the same kind of attitude we take towards Hellenistic philosophy, that is, being sympathetic to their aims, but deeply skeptical about their conclusions.

If you want rationality, if you want profundity, you needn't look any further than your own back yard (or local library). Read some moral philosophy. Read some books on science and mathematics. Read Proust, James, and Nabokov. If you want to meditate, get hold of Jon Kabat-Zinn's books and spend some time on your living-room floor. You certainly don't need to seek out a teacher with a funny name to meditate (although Kabat-Zinn's name is pretty funny).

Way safer is to become a well-read, meditating atheist than becoming a Buddhist. At least you wont need to give an inch of rationality for some vaguely defined, but impressive sounding word.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Carnival of the Africans #12

In case you didn't know (and I realize I'm a little late on this) the latest 'Carnival of the Africans' is up at ionian-enchantment

Some notable entries - for me, at least - are Simon Halliday's post (one in a series that looks like it's going to be great) on Gender and Risk aversion , Doctor Spurt's discussion of whether music produced by computers has any value, and Michael Meadon's smackdown of Gene Callahan's opinion of Evolutionary psychology.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Some useful reading in and around Moral psychology

I hope to finish up a fairly detailed post on some issues in Moral psychology in the next week or so.
So, in leading up to that I thought I'd do some lazy linking to some important resources you can find online.

First - two papers from Jon Haidt
The emotional dog and it's rational tail - this is the paper in which Haidt first sketched out his Social Intuitionist Model of moral judgment.
- a review of Moral psychology, a valuable resource for anyone coming to the field for the first time.

you may also want to take a look at and, for those of you with the bandwidth (unlike myself, who is struggling over iBurst at the moment), you might find Haidt's presentation at TED interesting.

Next, to get an idea of the different theoretical perspectives on emotion in general by taking a squizz at de Sousa's excellent entry on emotion at the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy.

Finally, if you think you might be interested in my future blogs on moral psychology, you might want a little background on the so-called "emotions of self assessment", like Shame and embarrassment - a useful discussion, from a psychological perspective (to which I hope to add a more "philosophical" perspective) can be found in Tagney, Stuewig, and Mashek's Moral emotions and moral behaviour.

Happy reading.

Saturday, October 31, 2009


And if I look at the mutual friend I know that this is probably legit ...

Friday, October 30, 2009

Computational thinking

I just read a little article from CMU's Jeannette Wing where she discusses "computational thinking" as a basic skill that everyone should have, and that should be taught in much the same way as a skill like critical thinking is at universities.

The idea is that computational thinking is collection of mental tools, approaches, and metaphors, more or less drawn from computer science, that we can bring to everyday problems. This would include things like useful abstraction, suppressing detail and complexity, optimisation of solutions, formulation of algorithms and so on. Computational thinking also has one up on straight up "mathematical thinking" (which has all these goodies I've just listed), in that it requires one to wear the engineers' boots while wearing the mathematician's hat, bringing a vital pragmatic element into the mix that might be well be missed amongst the glorious abstractions of a purer mathematical environment.

The article itself is pretty interesting, and could usefully be summed up by saying that she'd like to see everyone learn to embrace their hacker nature.

By the way, the points that she makes about education, about teaching people outside of computer science and engineering departments about programming is exactly the kind of thing that Felleisen, Findler, Flatt, and Krishnamurthi are trying to accomplish with their wonderful book How to design programs which is in fact the very text that a course called "Ways to think like a computer scientist" should be based on.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Rudiments : Exploding logics

Rudiments : Exploding logics

A while back I was sitting in a pub with a mathematician, a psychologist, and a philosopher. And while this certainly sounds like I'm getting ready to tell some corny joke, the truth is that we were actually just trying to get a philosophy of mind discussion group off the ground, so it wasn't as strange as all that.
Anyway, at one point, the philosopher turned to the mathematician and asked him if he could explain something that he, the philosopher, had either learned in an elementary logic course, or had come across somewhere in his (admittedly vast, and very deep) reading.

He asked the mathematician to explain just how it was that if we have a contradiction in a formal system, we can derive any conclusion we want?

I was a little surprised at the question - the guy who was asking is super smart - but was even more surprised when the mathematician couldn't answer it (not his field, apparently)!

So it seems to me that one can go pretty far in one's education without learning about the "principle of explosion", or - if you like your Latin - ex falso quodlibet, ex falso sequitur quodlibet, that is, "from a contradiction, follows anything you like" (or something like that - You'll see I'm playing as fast and loose with my Latin as I am with my logic in what follows, so please forgive me)

A little groundwork

I'm going to give something of a semi-informal proof so that it can be understood by anyone who hasn't really done any formal logic. But since we're speaking about formal logic, there are a couple of things that one should know.

When one is starting out, a useful way of thinking about Formal logic is to consider it a study of valid forms of reasoning. So when we're doing formal logic we're less concerned about what we're reasoning about than we are about than we are about the structure of arguments in general.
As a way of abstracting away from the details, logicians will do things like use symbols to represent basic units of meaning, rather than actual sentences in a natural language.
So instead of saying "the sky is blue", a logician will use the symbol (A). Symbols like (A), (B), (C) and so on are sometimes called primitives. We can think of these primitives as being able to represent very simple facts about the world (although they don't have to), and we can assign primitives some value, usually true or false. The advantage to using these kinds of symbols rather than actual sentences is that these symbols could stand for anything. So we know that what we discover about the shape of an argument is going to be true for any argument whatsoever because we can substitute pretty much anything we like for our symbols (as long as what we're substituting can be given a value of true or false).

Logicians also use another set of symbols to combine these basic truth bearing entities, these are called connectives. The basic vocabulary will consist of, at least (AND) and (OR) allow us to build up sentences from propositions in such a way that at each step, truth is preserved. We also need negation (~), which "flips the truth value" of a primitive - so if (A) means "the sky is blue", we can think of it's negation (~A) as meaning "the sky is not blue".

Since this post isn't a primer on sentential logic though - I'll point you to a page that is. But with a little common sense you should be able to follow most of it, but the problem is that the formal proof that we can get anything from a contradiction relies on some "moves" that are a little too slippery for common sense.

Let's say we have some proposition (A), what true sentences can we derive from this?
Well, we can get (~~A) without a problem, since double negations cancel themselves out.
We can also get something like (A AND A), which, if we substituted "the sky is blue" into our sentence we would get "the sky is blue AND the sky is blue" - and this, other than being redundant, is true. A sentence of the form (E AND F) will be true just in case that (E) and (F) are true.

But here is something odd - we can, for free, tag anything we want onto the end of our sentence using a move called disjunction introduction.
Let's say we have the primitive (C) which can stand for anything, including "cats can fly"
We can use disjunction introduction to derive the sentence (A OR C) - which when translated says "the sky is blue OR cats can fly", and this move would be - in the simple kind of logic we're dealing with here - truth preserving. We say that (A OR C) is true, because the only thing that's required for truth over disjunction (OR) is that ONE of the primitives is true.
(A) is true, and so (A OR C) is also true.

An interesting aside here - can you see how, because of disjunction introduction, for any system we can derive an infinite number of true sentences?
If we know that (A) is true, we can just keep adding more "stuff" onto it using disjunction introduction forever and ever. We could derive long sentences like (A OR B OR C OR D OR E OR F OR G ... OR Z) and it would be true because we know that (A) is true, so all of the sentences we generate using this rule will be true as well.
As I said, it's a little odd, but that's the thing, while it's useful to think of AND and OR being like "and" and "or" in natural language, they don't entirely match up.

The other thing we need to lean on is the disjunctive syllogism. Now, we can actually give a proof for this in sentential logic, but it's easier to understand in plain language, because we reason this way the whole time. The disjunctive syllogism is a way of reasoning from something like (A OR B) to either (A) or (B) by itself.
Let's say that I know that (A OR B), but, on top of that, I also know that (~A). Well, that makes it pretty obvious which of (A) or (B) is true, we know that (A) isn't true, so (B) must be true the term that's true, so we can confidently add (B) to our collection of things we know to be true.

The proof

Well, lets say that we've got a contradiction, and from this contradiction we want to prove (C) - how do we go about that?

Let's say our contradiction is

(A & ~A)

Which, using our examples for substitution would say something like "the sky is blue AND the sky is not blue"
This means that we can infer both (A) and (~A) by themselves.
Okay, now, remember our rule about disjunction introduction - we can take any of our theorems and, for free, paste anything we want onto the end of a sentence (even if the sentence is a simple primitive)
So we're interested in (C), so let's introduce that by pasting it on to our (A) using our rule for disjunction introduction.

(A OR C) - by disjunction introduction

Now, this wouldn't pose any problem for us, except for the fact that we actually HAVE (~A) as somthing we know. Why is this a problem?
Well, remember our disjunctive syllogism? Well, if you agree that the disjunctive syllogism is indeed a truth preserving move, then we're in the awkward position that we can use that move to infer (C) from our theorem ((A) OR (C)).

That's really it - easy huh?
There are actually a couple of ways of proving that we can derive anything from a contradiction and they give three different derivations over on the wikipedia page about the priciple of explosion. Check it out if you want to see what a full formal proof of the principle looks like - they also give a semantic proof as well (I hope to cover some stuff from formal semantics properly in some other posts).

Does any of this sound dodgy to you though? Well, if it does, you're not the only one. If you find you don't like your logics to be of the exploding variety, mosey on down to wikipedia and check out paraconsistent logics - these may be more your taste.

What does this tell us?

To sum up, I want to discuss one of the real problems with being able to infer anything from a contradiction.

We can intuitively think of the true sentences that we derive as being a way of eliminating possible ways things can be.
For example, lets say that I don't know whether or not it's raining in London - let's agree to represent the basic fact "it's raining in London" with the symbol (L).
Before we check the weather online, we only really know (L OR ~L) - which translates to something like, "it's either raining in London, or it's not".
These are, for us who don't yet know the facts of the matter, the two possible ways that the world might be.
When we do hop online and see that it is in fact raining in London, that is, the fact that (L) is true, we've effectively reduced the number of possible ways the world could be given what we know.
If we wanted to, we could think about the amount of information that a sentence carries as being equivalent to the number of ways-the-world-can-be that are eliminated by us coming to know a fact.

You should be able to see where I'm going with this. If we hit a contradiction, and the principle of explosion holds, we find that our system gives us absolutely no information at all, because being able to derive whatever we want means that anything is possible we can't use our system of logic to deduce any particular way the world could be, all states are possible for us, given what we "know".

Contradiction = knowing absolutely nothing.

Yeah, it gives me the chills too :)

Labuschagne - applied logic and Rudiments

Dr W. Labuschagne (Otago, formally UNISA) and Prof. Heidema (UNISA) are apparently writing a book on applied logic together, parts of which are available online at Labuschagne's website here

I'd suggest that anyone who is interested in learning about formal semantics, non-monotonic logics, philosophy of formal logic etc. takes a look at it, working through the exercises will give you a good sense of the field and some of it's applications. If it's anything like his other books, you'll either love or hate Dr Labuschagne's sense of humor - and you'll become intimately acquainted with the infamous light-fan system.

It seems to be a continuation of the old UNISA philosophy/3rd year course in formal semantics and applied logic, and it's something that I'm personally quite passionate about, but haven't had much time to look into, or do any work, in since finishing up with logic a couple of years ago.
So part of these posts that I'm going to be doing will make up a series of "rudiments", used in the same sense and spirit that our drummery friends use it - I see these as being basic ideas and topics in philosophy of information, philosophy of mind, computer science, logic, psychology and so on, that one needs to have a grip on to understand higher levels of the discipline. This will also give me a chance to brush up on my basics as well.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Random links - stats and machine learning

There have been a few discussions of statistics, probability and machine learning on some of the feeds that I follow - here are some of the best suggested resources to come out of those discussions.

Andrew Ng's course on machine learning up at Standford's "engineering everywhere" page is amazing. The notes for the course are pretty much a textbook on machine learning themselves.

For those of you who haven't yet downloaded Hastie,Tibshirani, and Friedman's Elements of statistical learning, I'd suggest you take a look at it as soon as possible. Very comprehensive.

Another useful, and free, resource is McKay's Information Theory, Inference, and Learning Algorithms

Finally, be sure to check out - another top notch resource for, well, pretty much anything.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Formal introductions

*Edit: This page is about 6 years old now. A lot has changed since then, a lot has stayed the same. I finished my Masters, I had a kid, I started a company. As such, this page's use as an introduction is questionable at best. Don't trust it :) *

Recently, Michael over at ionian-enchantment suggested I start blogging seriously as a kind of intellectual exercise - or something like it.

So instead of going ahead and launching something new, I thought I'd start posting more regularly here, and with more focus. As such, I've cleared away the more diary-like entries.

I'd imagine that this blog will become more focused in terms of the kind of content that I post as we go along, but what can be expected for the moment will be posts dealing with topics in psychology, philosophy, and computer science.

As for myself. I'm a software developer at a small company called Thinkopen - we develop most of our software using PHP and the Zend Framework, sometimes do work in Drupal, and - very occasionally, when we have absolutely no other choice - we work with Microsoft Products (mainly C#/ apps). That isn't to say I don't like MS - I couldn't care less about the beef people have with them - I taught courses on their products for several years and am a fan of SQL server, especially now that Management studio has intellisense. It's just not our prefered development platform.

I've got a BA in classics, philosophy and logic from the University of South Africa (UNISA) - a correspondence institution, and the largest university in South Africa. I've also completed a qualification called the National Certificate in Datametrics, which allows one to take courses in Computer science at Undergrad level without having to complete an entire degree.
I'm finishing up my honours at the moment, and will be starting my MA in cognitive science at UKZN mid-2010.

Monday, August 10, 2009

First Fractals

I've been playing with Fractals lately. It's not particularly impressive, but it's not anything I've done before, and it's quite a lot of fun actually - so I thought I'd post my first results.

First up is the Sierpinski triangle. I generated it with a crash happy PHP app using some dodgy recursive function (hence the "crash happy" ...) - but I thought it was cool because (believe it of not) it was the first time I've generated dynamic graphics from PHP - so that was pretty cool

Then we have the ever popular Mandelbrot set - This was really cool to do because, looking at it you would think that it would take some serious maths to generate something so complex. Turns out the maths isn't very hardcore at all, and writing up an algorithm to generate the set is super easy. But it looks pretty.

I'll post anything else I do up soon.
Graphics programming is always cool because the payoff can be impressive - if you're doing something like a search or sorting algorithm it's like - "oh, yay, the list is in the right order" - but when something comes right with graphics it's always way more satisfying.

Friday, June 5, 2009

GEB lectures for highschoolers

As promised, I'll try put stuff relevant to my Hofstadter presentation whenever it's worthwhile.

Here is a link to an MIT OCW series of video lectures on GEB designed for highschoolers - there might be some interesting stuff in it, so I'll work through 'em the next week or so.

Here is the link

Monday, February 16, 2009

Knights of faith - question on Fear and Trembling

The feed from popped up with a discussion that has seemed to go nowhere the last few weeks.
I've started writing in answer to this question about three or four times and each time I get stuck somewhere, so I thought I'd try and work it out here.

The thread can be found at

Cadmus asks :
I've recently finished Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, and was continually asking myself, 'Though Abraham, as a Knight of Faith, was asked to kill; he did not kill. And insofar as he did not kill, how was he acting unethically toward the universal? He did not commit the unethical deed, but only considered committing the unethical deed. Therefore God, nor Abraham, were acting unethically.
Okay, so here is where I've been going with the posts I almost put up.
The thing I've been trying to say in my many abortive attempts at replying to this question, is that Kierkegaard turns almost all the the usual categories that Cadmus is using on their heads - in a very interesting way.

In the beginning of Problema 1, Kierkegaard says that 'The ethical as such is the universal, and as the universal it applies to everyone, which can be put from another point of view by saying that it applies at every moment' - okay, so the universal and the ethical are somehow the same - note that he could have said that the ethical is that which is legislated by God, this is pretty important in answering Cadmus' question because it already gives us a clue - if God was the universal legislator of all ethical principles, God's command for Abraham to sacrifice Issac would have simply been the ethical course of action, no problem.
Kierkegaard's way of dealing with the ethical is stronger than the God-as-legislator solution in that it 'applies to everyone ..[and] at every moment' but also less ... umm ... absolute because it seems to me that the ethical/universal isn't somehow supposed to be built into the fabric of the cosmos (as it would be, I presume, if the ethical was just what God commands).
Okay, so what exactly is the ethical in that case?
This is the interesting part - the ethical/universal is that which makes our actions intelligible to others and to our-selves. Now I'm not really too clued up in the philosophy of action, but as I understand it for it to be said that we have done something willfully, performed some action, that action stands in relation to things like our intention in performing that action, the reasons we would put forward for justifying that action and so on. Now these things like intending, providing reasons and so on can only really make sense when embedded inside of a culture. We can only really understand ourselves as agents, or as selves, acting intentionally (as opposed to just running on instinct - something Kierkegaard refers to as 'lower immediacy', a term lifted from Hegel) if we have this kind of cultural/linguistic background against which we can act and which makes our actions intelligible to ourselves and others. This is not me saying that 'truth is relative to culture' or some other such paradigm relativist stuff, it's just to say we need a language and culture for our actions to make sense (think about it this way, if there was no language and culture, would we be worried - of even be able to be worried - about our actions making sense? Let me ask my cat ....)
The textual evidence for all this culture stuff can be pulled from his discussion of whether there are any examples where someone sacrifices one they love for some 'higher universal' and Kierkegaard points to the examples of 'Agamemnon, Jephthah, and Brutus' - regardless of what pain was caused by their killings, their actions were understandable in their culture.
Kierkegaard says that in Abraham's culture the call to kill Issac and his willingness to do it (although this is a really weak way of saying it, rather read F&T) was totally unintelligible.

This brings us to the question of sin - how are we to understand someone sinning in Kierkegaard's scheme - well, sin is somehow 'falling from the universal'.
Now this is the part I had trouble with (but the book is all about absurdity and paradox, so it's okay to not understand a lot of it I guess) - because we can actually understand sin, right? I mean, the actions of thieves are just as understandable as the next mook's aren't they? But we will skip over this, and I'll read some of F&T again when I've got a moment to see if I can figure it out (if anyone has any answers, please tell me).
Right, well - regardless of this difficulty we can see how it is that Abraham was sinning even though he didn't actually do anything - first, even though he was called to do something 'by God' Kierkegaard is absolutely certain that he here falls out of the universal, he says that
'Abraham cannot be mediated, which can also be put by saying he cannot speak. The moment I speak I express the universal, and when I do not no one can understand me. So the moment Abraham wants to express himself in the universal, he has to say that his situation is one of temptation, for he has no higher expression of the universal that overrides the universal he transgresses'
Check it - 'he cannot speak' - i.e. there is no ways to make his actions intelligible, and every time he tries to explain what he is doing (namely, taking Issac off to sacrifice) he has to admit to those with whom he speaks that he is sinning, even though he knows - non-cognitively perhaps - that what he is doing is somehow not a sin. That is, to everyone else he is sinning, and even if he had to put what he is doing into words (that is, even to think it) he would have to say that he was sinning - but somehow was he was up to wasn't a sin.
Okay, so here we have a contradiction - it is a sin and it's not a sin - so how is it resolved? This is where God comes in (I think) as a kind of field of possibilities that allows such contradictions. I'm really fuzzy on that though and need to give it a whole load more thought and read a lot more Kierkegaard - this is the part where my attempts at answering that question usually come to a halt, because although I've shown (I hope) that Kierkegaard uses the notions of Ethical,Universal, and God in very special ways, I'm not a Kierkegaard scholar, or even someone whose read his stuff or, in fact, any secondary literature on the guy.

I think the best thing to do would have probably just have been to quote the summary that Kierkegaard gives us at the end of Problema 1 - and that's what I'll do here -

But now I return to Abraham. In the time before the outcome either Abraham was a murderer every minute or we stay with the paradox which is higher than all mediation.
So Abraham's story contains a teleological suspension of the ethical. He has, as the single individual, become higher than the universal. This is the paradox which cannot be mediated. How he got into it is just as inexplicable as how he stayed in it. If this is not how it is with Abraham, then he is not even a tragic hero but a murderer. To want to go on calling him the father of faith, to talk of this to those who are only concerned with words, is thoughtless. A tragic hero can become a human being by his own strength, but not the knight of faith. When a person sets out on the tragic hero's admittedly hard path there are many who could lend him advice; but he who walks the narrow path of faith no one can advise, no one understand. Faith is a marvel and yet no human being is excluded from it; for that in which all human life is united is passion, and faith is a passion.