Archive for August, 2008

The Love of Wisdom

Posted in Uncategorized on August, 2008 by melendwyr

(Taken from a thread at Overcoming Bias)

Well of course one standard response to such complaints is: “If you think you can do better, show us.” Not just better in a one-off way, but a better tradition that could continue itself.

Can do?  It’s already been done, long ago – we call it ‘science’.

Do not confuse technicians and stylists with those that apply the scientific method.  Among those that do, some of the greatest of them made greater ‘philosophical’ progress while working and writing on matters only tangentially related to their nominal fields than countless generations of so-called philosophers who supposedly dedicated themselves to the issues.

Even an amateur scientist can quickly develop working resolutions to questions that philosophy has held up as eternal.

By this point, even an extraordinarily-unobservant thinker should have realized that philosophy isn’t about finding the answer to questions – it’s about posturing as profound while mouthing questions, then talking with others to mutually demonstrate the intellectual importance of the topic and thus those that discuss it.  It’s a form of status-masturbation.

Socrates invented the concept of philosophy, but the sophists he despised quickly stole the name he created and gave it to themselves.  There is little love of wisdom in ‘philosophy’, and much sophistry.

Pattern Recognition

Posted in Uncategorized on August, 2008 by melendwyr

Someone I knew once argued to me that a single dose of LSD should be enough to convince anyone that the mind is a physical and physiological process.  I responded that a cup of moderately-strong coffee would be sufficient; if that wasn’t enough, no amount of mind-altering drugs would suffice.

Being able to derive probable conclusions from very little data is something quite valuable – deriving certain and necessary conclusions, even more so.

I remember a time when I had yet to learn the rudiments of Tic-Tac-Toe.  It’s a trivially-obvious game that is obvious only because we’ve already mastered the forms and levels of thinking involved; for a young child, recognizing that the center square was critical was an accomplishment, and each win a victory.  It’s something that I often remembered while learning geometry.  Trivial theorems were trivial only because we had the mental resources to quickly and easily produce them from the basic premises – the demonstrations that we worked so hard to produce, the proofs that we struggled to derive, were non-trivial only because we weren’t smart enough to see that they were obvious.  ALL of the statements logically derivable from a set of premises are necessary and inevitable; the only difference between them was whether we individuals had the capacity to grasp them with effort, or without.

Looking at a diagram of two vectors meeting in an analytic geometry textbook, it struck me that it alone is sufficient to deduce that there was no transcendent god or pantheon, that causality-violating time travel was impossible, that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, that existence can only be defined in terms of relative interaction, and that the universe was the set closed under interaction.

What’s the minimum data required to determine that a philosophical position is necessary?  When we struggle for years to accept certain conclusions, do we do so because the truth of the matter is obscured, or because we’re just too dumb to recognize what’s been right in front of us the entire time?


Posted in Favorite Words on August, 2008 by melendwyr

This word demonstrates one of the important aspects of evolution of meaning.  Sometimes words don’t lose or corrupt their meanings over time, but through a process of analogy, take on deeper (and often fuzzier) significance.

‘To justify’ is to show that something is just or right, to produce a demonstration of the correctness of a thing.  ‘Just’ and ‘right’ have the same conceptual roots:  they both originally referred to the act of setting building materials at a ninety-degree angle, and when people justified, they were making sure that things were aligned to the correct standard.

To be ‘right’ is to be correct, and ‘right’ angles are the ones desired in buildings.

The key concept at the heart of the word is the establishment of a similarity between an implementation or manifestation and an absolute, objective standard.  From this we derive concepts such as justice and justification across many diverse and seemingly-unrelated fields.

Nothing’s Perfect

Posted in Uncategorized on August, 2008 by melendwyr

In my continuing tradition of pointing out the problems with cherished cliches, I’d like to address the saying that “nothing’s perfect”.

What is usually meant by ‘perfect’?  People often use the phrase to express the idea that no situation is likely to have all of the properties they want, with the missing or undesired properties being considered to be flaws.

Every object or situation has a complete description.  If that description is used to define what you’re looking for, that entity fits those criteria perfectly, possessing all listed qualities and having no additional ones.  Everything is perfect according to the right set of standards.

The point is that it’s not very useful to conform the standards of your search with what you’re presented with.  The purpose of the search is to find something similar to a pre-existing set of standards, a definition that we start out with and don’t vary at will.

This principle is very important when considering Eliezer Yudkowsky’s ‘meta-ethical’ claims.

Garden Role Call

Posted in Gardening on August, 2008 by melendwyr

True Red Cranberry Bean:  qualified success

The vines didn’t do nearly as well as last year – the newly-ordered beans were covered by bacterial inoculant intended to ensure the plants had plenty of access to their symbiotic, nitrogen-fixing bacteria.  It worked quite well, but unfortunately those bacteria were in the upper layers of soil.  The large raised beds that came as a legacy with the house dried into hard, solid clay unless they were constantly watered, so I removed most of the raised topsoil – which also removed the bacteria.  As a result, the plants were noticeably less prolific and had fewer, smaller beans.  I should have enough to replant for next year, though.

Scarlet Runner Bean:  failure

The vines grew, but they persist in losing all of their flowers without setting pods.  It seems runner beans prefer a cooler, moister climate – one more like England, where they are very popular – similar to their South American highland understory origins.  I doubt they’ll give us any beans at all.

Rat-Tailed Radish:  qualified success

They grew enthusiastically, despite being crammed too close together, and produced lots of tender green seedpods that reminded me of spicy green beans.  I was told it’s important to pick them small, but I didn’t realize how small – the pods turn woody and unpalatable quite quickly, about when they become around two and a half inches long.  Considering that the pods are often closer to six inches when they’re mature, that should give you an idea of how early the harvest needs to be.  I left most of the pods on the plant for too long.  Next year, I’ll have a better idea of how to use the bounty I’m given.

Garlic, unknown:  success

The two-year-old plants grown from bulbils matured very satisfactorily, and produced bulbils of their own.  The strain I found in the nearby nature preserve didn’t have purple stamens, which I am given to understand is an indication of pollen fertility.  The seed project needs more cultivars to move forward.  Cloves are pretty tasty, so that should tide me over until I can start breeding my own strains.

Amish Paste tomato:  success

I suspect the plants would be truly amazing if I could provide the plants with rich, moist soil.  The lack of sufficient compost material seriously hindered the tomato’s growth.  One of my neighbors gets silt from a nearby river for his plants, and they grow beautifully – I may have to try something similar.  The fruits are elongated, something like Roma tomatoes, with relatively firm and dry flesh.  They’d be good sliced on a sandwich.

Mouse Melon:  failure

Never came up.  I shouldn’t have tried planting all of the seeds at once.  We’ll see how it goes next year.


Posted in Uncategorized on August, 2008 by melendwyr

I was reminded today that, no matter how long-abandoned or recognized as fallacious an argument has become, there will always be someone to bring it up again.  Most especially if the topic under discussion is a ‘philosophical’ one – people who fancy themselves philosophers never seem to discard arguments.

Today I saw someone break out the “extremes are bad, mediums are good” moral argument.  As archaic as the ancient Greeks, and just as dead, but out it stumbles like a reanimated corpse to devour brains.

Thing is, always avoiding extremes is extreme.  Where’s the happy medium between always seeking out happy mediums, and never doing so?  Rigid adherence to the principle requires not rigidly adhering to it… which poses a bit of a problem in application.

It seems to me that the universal rules people are seeking for don’t necessarily need to point to themselves, but they do need to be self-consistent.  And stay that way, no matter how many levels of analysis you put them through, or however many times you recursively apply them to themselves.

Legal Orders

Posted in Politics and Society on August, 2008 by melendwyr

I have previously been told that soldiers do not accrue responsibility for following legal orders, so that they are not culpable for the consequences of those orders. Their commanding officers, the ones that give the orders, are responsible, and as long as the orders fall within pre-established criteria of legality.

Setting aside the point that those criteria are really quite broad and permit all sorts of regrettable and undesirable outcomes, I don’t think most people have considered the implications of this position. If soldiers cannot be held responsible when things go wrong, they can’t be held responsible when things go right instead. Being liberated from culpability is a double-edged sword.

People give up their ability to make most moral or ethical decisions when they become soldiers, becoming instead the means by which others’ decisions are implemented. Rather than moral actors, they’re like guns and tanks: replaceable and interchangeable pieces of equipment, albeit expensive and difficult-to-replace. We don’t hold the gun responsible for killing someone, we blame the person, but if the person is liberated from culpability the gun and the person have equal moral weight.

It seems to me that surrendering the ability to make your own choices to an external agency can only be as virtuous as that external force is; nothing done afterwards can be considered either vice or virtue, wrong or right, because the actions do not originate in the actor. Soldiers are less-than-human.

Why this is considered an honorable and righteous thing-in-itself escapes me.