Metaphysics 101 Part 10

(Part 10 of Ten)

(continued from Part 9 of Ten)

The unexamined life is not worth living.

—Socrates

When someone comments about a fine work of art, he is likely to say more about himself than the art he observes. When the artists to whom I refer in Part 9 of this article practice their art, their films say as much about the artists’ personal ethics as the story and characters in their films do. There are writers, directors, actors, and producers of films who, from time to time, are in a position that makes it possible for them to blend stories, real events, and characters that enable them to demonstrate that fine ethical behavior is possible under the worst of circumstances.

Often, a film, e.g., Training Day, depicts life at its ugliest, but the underlying ethic of the film is exquisitely beautiful. Critics who denigrate and ridicule the moral values of a film on the grounds that it doesn’t reflect reality reveal that they know little about ethics, art, and real life.

There are also millions of average people who quietly practice fine ethics. They practice the art of understanding, compassion, and of life itself on a daily basis. Ethics is an art in itself. Its elegant simplicity may be expressed in quiet acts, often wordlessly, and not necessarily acknowledged by others.

Along with film and theater art, literature deals directly with ethics. Advise and Consent and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are works of art that explicitly deal with human behavior. That is why viewers and readers are drawn to make value judgments about both the content and an artist(s) level of achievement. A significant part of their adjudication may be subjective even though the work of art may be objective. For example, a communist may find Advise and Consent ‘non-objective’ because of his subjective fidelity to the concept of communism. A slave owner might have found Uncle Tom’s Cabin ‘non-objective’ because of his subjective belief that some humans were born to serve others. After all, Aristotle and Plato agreed on that point despite their disagreement on just about everything else.

The Hidden Axiom

Before I ever read a word of philosophy I was in love with fine art, especially that of the performing arts. They spoke to me directly, loud and clear. They still do. I hear the tragic sense of life in Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony; the intense beauty of romantic love in Puccini’s La Boheme; the breadth of passion in Verdi’s Otello (Italian spelling). It’s all there in great music. It’s all there in Shakespeare. It’s all there in all the fine arts. They are life’s greatest expression.

Even though a symphony has no words, several of my friends define Rachmaninoff’s Second symphony as “a tragic sense of life” just as I do. Our separately discovered but identical description of the wordless symphony is not a coincidence. It is one of my many experiences with the arts that tell me art is at least as objective as E=MC2. I don’t believe that ethics and art require “naturalization papers” to be recognized as equals to Natural Science as a major branch of philosophy. Rising above nature does not disqualify ethics and art from being part of the whole truth about human existence: it enhances it.

Early in life I became aware that the deep issues of life are the same now as they were in antiquity. The forms they’ve taken in any society throughout history may appear different from generation to generation, but the essence of human dilemmas remains constant. That’s why philosophy was invented. Its branches successively sway in the winds of the relative and the absolute; its roots firmly grip the soil of the absolute.

The current dominance of relativism leaves less room for absolutes than ever. As breathtaking technology increasingly reveals the functions of brain matter, region-by-region, synapses-by-synapses, the study of ethics and esthetics are left to celebrities on television talk shows. In place of in-depth philosophic discussions about right and wrong (or good and evil) attention is paid on the conflict between the medial frontal gyrus and the posterior cingulate gyrus. The whole human being is lost to digital analysis.

Ironically, there seems to be greater concern about a cosmological end to humanity because of the death of the sun scheduled to occur about 4 1/2 billion years from now than there is concern about humankind’s potential self-destruction in the not too distant future.

There is more speculation about space travel that might take a sample of humanity to another planet or moon in the solar system to escape the cremation of earth and end of humanity than there is an effort to prevent some wandering meteor to finish the job that destroyed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Out of the stars came life. But stars don’t laugh, make music, or love. Humor, art, and love are notas scientists might put it’properties’ of hot stars or cold stones or neurological systems. It takes a sculptor to transform stone into a masterpiece like Michelangelo’s David. And our unrequited love for the stars is in itself testimony that animated stardust fundamentally differs from its physical origin. When I contemplate the origin of the universe and life, life is the greater mystery of the two. I love and am fascinated by cosmology and am in awe of the beauty of the stars, but I don’t look to the stars to understand life.

I have learned to separate what is relative from what is absolute; that free will enables us to shape our unique character whatever our DNA or environment (past or present) might be; that neither poverty nor wealth is what determines character or has a monopoly on what is good and what is evil and what is right or what is wrong; that there is a fundamental difference between arrogance and confidence; that the source of fine ethics and art may be complex, but the reason for them is not, nor are their fundamentals bound to a specific culture, race, ethnicity, and so on; that the development and practice of ethics should not be based on sacrifice to groups but rather on the comfort and peace that honesty and integrity provide an individual who simply and effortlessly lives the Golden Rule; and that the good life is a blend of knowledge, wisdom, and compassion.

I have learned to live life not as it is, but as it should be.

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Metaphysics 101 Part 9

(Part 9 of Ten)

(continued from Part 8 of Ten)

The widely held assumption that atheism and fine ethics are incompatible is a superstition, not a fact. However, if you are an atheist, don’t badger a person of faith.

—Mario Martone

For existentialists, existence is absolutely limited to subjective mental constructs. We cannot know other people at all. For determinists, existence is a cosmic puppet show. Our relationship to other people is determined by the dance of dendrites and synapses, not character. For full-time skeptics, existence probably doesn’t exist, and then again, it might. Other people might be real, and then again they might not. For other intellectual nihilists, existence is a senseless game without any purpose for those who live it. Other people are interchangeable, as in a dream.

Out of the Maze

Lists of philosophies are about as prolific as the philosophers to whom they refer, from Aristotilianism (Aristotle) to Objectivism (Ayn Rand) to Zoroastrianism (Zoroaster). Lists of philosophy terms and concepts are exponentially greater than those of the philosophers, scholars, and critics who create them.

In the world of philosophy, every concept has a counterpart either as its opposite or its mirror image where particulars may differ but its essence is identical. In that world, the lust for axioms is insatiable. It generates circular arguments even when self-evidence is crystal clear. In addition, philosophers generally have a proclivity to complicate the simplest of issues. (Here, I’m compelled to insert an axiom stated by another movie character—very different from Rose in the African Queen—who passionately retorts: “If I tell you a piece of fish stinks, I don’t have to tell you why, do I?”)

Philosophers are notorious for their insistence on axioms for just about everything. I’m not a philosopher, but I don’t feel a need to explain why slavery, theft, and sexual abuse are evil. I also agree with those who believe that the Golden Rule is the only rule of ethics necessary and from which all others may be derived, including environmental and animal concerns.

Philosophy purists often object to Ethics as a major branch of philosophy on the grounds that it is subjective. The objection is even stronger when applied to Esthetics. But subjectivity is part of human nature. Removing the factor of subjectivity from the human psyche in order to understand a human being is like removing his mind and heart in order to understand the dynamics of human life.

I also don’t think those two branches of philosophy are as ‘non-objective’ as most philosophers make them out to be. For example, when an individual has an aversion to being a slave or the victim of a sexual predator, her objections are every bit as objective as the right to kill someone in self-defense.

I’m fascinated by cosmology, but Esthetics has more to do with the study of humankind than all the other branches put together. ‘Esthetics’ is a word associated with ‘beauty,’ ‘taste,’ ‘art,’ and the appreciation of art. For the purposes of this article, I prefer to call Esthetics (fine) Art. Art is a prime example of what Rose means when she says we are meant to rise above nature. Even though we are made of stardust, we are more than that now. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Michelangelo’s Pietà, and Einstein’s equation E=MC2 came from themnot from ‘random’ stardust but from ineffable human creativity. All creative thought is art as distinct from mindless instinct. It comes from us, not the stars, although their beauty literally inspires artists.

Art is never a matter of chance. It is conceptual. It has a purpose. When someone randomly splatters paint on a canvas, he is engaged with the need to feel like an artist, even though he doesn’t have the talent to qualify as one. The results of his random splash may be beautiful, but like a beautiful sunset, splatter doesn’t qualify as a work of art even if it is beautiful.

Taste is unreliable as a primary factor in judging whether or not a painting, ballet, or novel qualifies as a work of art. A judge should consider the universality and purposes of a piece of art and not simply equate ‘new’ with ‘good’ or fame with authenticity.

Aristotle and Plato are prototypes of philosophers who preceded and succeeded them. Aristotle got art right, Plato was abysmally wrong about it. Ayn Rand, successor to Aristotle, also got it right.

[But I have a reservation about her judgment. In 1959 I invited her to see an off-Broadway, one-night production of The Crucible that I had directed. She declined my invitation because of Arthur Miller’s political views. Ironically, Mr. Miller’s play was implicitly in complete accord with the philosophy of Ayn Rand but she didn’t attend the performance because of his politics. I’m virtually certain that her decision was subjective even though she was overwhelmingly objective about art and philosophy.]

The performing art of film has a tremendous affect on millions of people. That is especially true of fine film art. If you seek the truth about the Nazi Holocaust, see Shindler’s List; for a window into American Congressional practice in the 50’s, see Advise and Consent; for the face of prejudice, A Time to Kill; for the meaning of integrity, A Man for All Seasons. There are also a few Hollywood directors and actors who make honest “morality” statements in as many films as possible. Denzel Washington is one of those artists. See Training Day, Hurricane Carter, and Philadelphia.

Artists do it better than philosophers.

(to be continued in Part 10 of Ten)

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Metaphysics 101 Part 8

(Part 8 of Ten)

(continued from Part 7 of Ten)

In Search of Ethics and Esthetics

Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.

–Rose Sayer, The African Queen

Rose instinctively knew that Ethics and Esthetics definitively distinguish human beings from all other species. Unlike Rose, most people don’t hold ethics or esthetics high on their list of items for contemplation. Yet, the fountain of everyday philosophy never runs dry. It gushes in the daily interaction of people whether or not they are aware of having a philosophy.

When ethics is discussed in academia as a topic in itself, it is generally denigrated as a collection of “handed down” precepts designed to control human behavior. Ignored is the fact that “handed down” precepts were once the original concepts of individuals who were the first to discover that human behavior need not be exclusively instinctual as it is with all other species. Consider the following.

Sophie’s Choice

The setting is a concentration camp. A sadistic Nazi commandant punishes a woman, the mother of two children, by forcing her to choose which of her children shall die. As we watch the climax of the film, we are subjectively compelled (along with Sophie) to make an unthinkable choice when the commandant orders Sophie to choose which of her children shall die so that the other may live.

In the privacy of a darkened theater we ask ourselves, “If I were Sophie, what objective moral choice would I make?” Our minds race for an answer although we don’t have to make that choice. However, Sophie must make that choice. She makes a random choice. Somehow we know she did what we would have done. Yet, long after we have seen the film and at length dispassionately but deeply search for an alternative answer, we still believe that the only choice must be a random one. But in her celluloid reality, Sophie’s agony is just beginning and her guilt inexorably leads her to suicide. Millions upon millions of people have suffered unearned guilt because of actions they have been compelled to take against their will.

Sophie’s ‘choice’ is as arbitrary as the flipping of a coin. Whatever else the film’s creators intended to project, Sophie was confronted with what appears to be a choice. But actually, Sophie had no choice. Her Nazi captor, did have a choice. The murder of her child was his choice, not Sophie’s. The commandant is morally responsible for the murder of an innocent child, not Sophie. Only free choices are subject to moral scrutiny. I submit that the title of the film is a contradiction in terms. Forced behavior is the opposite of free will. Free will and choice are corollaries. Neither can exist without the other.

There are three Ethics riddles that are popular in academic circles. Relativist university professors take delight in citing them to young students, usually as the introduction to a course on Ethics. Designed to baffle rather than enlighten students, the riddles are models for an ‘open-ended’ discussion at the end of which there are more questions than answers.

The Train Riddle

A Towerman is on duty in a tower that is stationed alongside a railroad crossing. Casually looking out of his workplace window he sees a car racing toward the barrier in an attempt to crash through it before an oncoming train collides with his car. Tires screech as the driver changes his mind and suddenly applies his brakes. Too late. The car collides into the barrier and stalls on the railroad track.

The Towerman realizes that if the oncoming train is not sidetracked immediately, it will collide with the car and kill all six of the car’s occupants. He has access to controls that can sidetrack the train, thereby saving the lives of six people. However, there is a man working on the sidetrack that will surely be killed if the Towerman diverts the train to the sidetrack. What should he do?

The Lifeboat Riddle

In the cold wet of a violent storm, six fishermen are faced with an unforgiving situation. Their boat is sinking and there is only one lifeboat that can sustain the weight of only five of the men. They know that the frigid water makes it impossible for them to take turns in and out of the lifeboat so that it can stay afloat. They also know that one of them must die so that five others may live. What should they do?

This riddle plays just as well as it does at sea when it is set at a coalmine disaster, a mountain cliffhanger, or a military battle.

The Transplant Riddle

There are six terminally ill people, each of whom can be cured by a healthy organ provided by the same perfectly healthy donor. The Chief Surgeon has the donor’s consent and full legal license to have each of the six patients be the recipient of the organ he or she needs to go on living. Should the Chief Surgeon arrange to have specialists cut and paste the donor’s organs?

The usual reaction to this riddle is visceral (pun intended). Yet, upon reflection, the riddle is perfectly compatible with the concept of an individual’s self-sacrifice for the sake of the group. Directly or obliquely, that concept is universally regarded and practiced as the essence of high ethical standards, whether religious or secular, where the source of religious ethics is God (e.g., Catholicism), and the source of secular ethics is society, a substitute for God (Collectivism).

Faith

Religious tenets are firmly entangled with faith. One individual might willingly adhere to a religious tenet based on faith, while another may adhere to that same tenet motivated only by fear of punishment in this life or in an afterlife, or both. Similarly, an individual may have faith in collectivism while another adheres to its mandates only because of the fear of imprisonment or death.

In a totalitarian theocracy like Iran, major religious and secular directives are one and the same and are mandated by God. In a totalitarian atheist state like North Korea, religious faith is not publicly tolerated and the State is God.

Altruism

A synonym for the word ‘altruism’ is ‘selflessness,’ a word that defines an act that benefits others without regard for one’s self. The opposite of selflessness is selfishness, which is as ethically unwarranted as selflessness.

However flawed by an overdose of non-provable hypotheses, the study of cosmology is in its infancy and will continue to fascinate and enlighten us with concrete fresh discoveries indefinitely. On the other hand, the arguments of Faith vs. Religion, although still emotionally heated, have played themselves out intellectually. The same is true of overall arguments pertaining to State Rights vs. individual Rights.

Given the geopolitical, technological, and environmental circumstances of our time, I sense an urgent need for a Global Code of Universal Ethics. The very survival of humankind depends on it.

(to be continued in Part 9 of Ten)

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Metaphysics 101 Part 7

(Part 7 of Ten)

(continued from Part 6 of Ten)

Shakespeare was an artist philosopher. As an artist, he had license to express a variety of philosophies through his plays and characters. He was free from the conceptual IEDs inherent in formal philosophy because his characters, not he, expressed ‘their’ philosophies but not necessarily Shakespeare’s philosophy. Explicitly or implicitly, Shakespeare was not responsible for his characters’ contradictions, as is the case with formal philosophers. He freely has his characters contradict themselves, let alone the philosophy of other characters. Formal philosophers do not have license to contradict themselves, but they very often do.

A quintessential dramatist, Shakespeare was able to implicitly express the concept of determinism through his characters in Romeo and Juliet. He also succinctly comments on the motivation of a prostitute (Bianca) in his Othello with three simple words: (she) sells her desires. He is neither saying that he, Shakespeare, believes in determinism, nor that Bianca “sells her desires”: it is Iago that ‘says’ that about Bianca, not Shakespeare. Formal philosophers, however, are obliged to speak for themselves.

The Big Five

Logic is often included as one of the five major branches of philosophy instead of Politics. But Aristotle himself viewed logic as a tool of philosophy, not a branch of it. Encouraged by the view of the philosopher who introduced the iconic syllogism to the world, I’ve chosen to replace Logic with Politics as one of the five major branches of philosophy. Others have done the same.

Philosophy is not immune to major sociological changes, hence its history of shifting branches and subdivisions. Cosmology and religion were one in antiquity. Now, cosmology is a subdivision of science, which is a subdivision of Metaphysics, which (as addressed in Part 6 of this ten-page article) is something of a misnomer anyway. It’s centuries too late to change the word “Metaphysics” to “Physics,” which is a better known synonym for ontology.

One of the modern divisions of major branches of philosophy reduces the five ‘traditional’ major branches to three: Metaphysics, Ethics, and Logic. I don’t believe that logic should be one of three major branches. Arguably, Logic listed as a major branch of philosophy, if not gratuitous, is almost as extraneous as listing Mathematics as a major branch of philosophy (although many cosmologists and mathematicians swear that Mathematics is God!) I’m sure that if their claim were to be verified, it would promote Mathematics to a major branch of philosophy. After all, that was pretty much the case at the time when logic was invented (vide Aristotle’s Organon). I would welcome just two major branches of philosophy: Metaphysics and Ethics. Philosophy is the contemplation of everything. Every subdivision I’ve encountered—and there is a plethora of them—easily fits under one or the other (if not both) of those two most important major divisions of philosophy. An informed and thorough philosophical discourse is facilitated by the free association and overlapping of divisions whenever necessary.

[Note: Before the last two paragraphs, I carefully avoided being abstruse. However, those paragraphs serve as an example of the kinds of challenges that are inherent in covering all bases when discussing philosophy.]

But I don’t intend to bash philosophers. The majority of celebrated philosophers, including Plato, have written isolated and respectful—even poetic—passages in their writing. I respect and admire those passages, especially those of antiquity, but respect and admiration do not necessarily translate to reverence. Philosophy qua philosophy is jammed with subdivisions of subdivisions, cluttered with counter arguments to counter arguments, and with tedious hair-splitting to the point of absurdity.

I’m obviously not a formal philosopher. So, having briefly addressed the obligatory major branches of philosophy, Metaphysics and Epistemology, I’ll now exercise my layman’s license to freely combine and overlap the three branches of philosophy that deal with what is generally defined as the “Humanities”: Politics, Aesthetics, and Ethics. And, as context dictates, I’ll not hesitate to blend more Metaphysical and Epistemological factors into the mix. Life and thought are too important to be regimented and stifled by formalized expression.

Expounding a system of governance from the top down, as is the common practice of political philosophers as well as average politicians, is a horse that has been beaten to death since antiquity. Even Karl Marx is recognized by many as a ‘political philosopher’ because (in complicity with Friedrich Engels) he repackaged Hegelian Dialectic(s)—a.k.a. Ideal Dialectics—into Dialectical Materialism to espouse Communism (italics mine).

A large number of philosophers before and after Hegel expressed their philosophy dialectically (a function of logic), but Hegel’s philosophy earned him the distinction of having his philosophy identified with the word ‘dialectic(s)’ itself. The famous catchwords for his philosophy are Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis, and his philosophy is generally identified as Hegelian Dialectic, as distinct from philosophy brands like Platonic Idealism or Kant’s Categorical Imperative, and a host of other brands. His philosophy is also distinguished as singularly abstruse in a world where convoluted arguments are the norm.

As I noted in Part 5 of this ten-part article, both Plato and Aristotle explicitly included slavery as a valid institution within ideal political structures. Political systems created by most philosophers, ancient and modern, from the top down on stone or scrolls or paper, implicitly and explicitly posit systems that in effect enslave individuals under the umbrella of secular or religious ‘moral duty.’ In that context, you may recall from Parts 5 and 6 of this article that the word ‘metaphysics’ is often (but incorrectly) described as “the world beyond physics.”

Religion has largely been one-and-the-same as ethics for billions of people through the centuries. Organized religions equate religious tenets and ethics, and circumstantially hold a religious tenet above that of a secular one if the tenets are in conflict or even slightly differ. Not by chance, there are many religious tenets that are identical to secular ones. For instance, “Thou shall not kill” is viable as a global political tenet with or without a religious base.

At the base of all political conflict is the perpetual and hotly contested issue of individualist vs. collectivist government. That issue is severely complicated by misinformation and disinformation about political systems. For example, on the surface of the conflict between the U.S.S.R and Germany during World War Two, millions of Germans and Russians suffered and died believing that they were fighting for diametrically opposed ideals, Communism and Nazism, whereas in fact they were each fighting for basically the same kind of government: the collectivist state. An overwhelming global majority still does not perceive that Socialism and Fascism are both forms of government that are unsuitable for quality life.

If we are to understand the geopolitical dynamics of nations, it is important to recognize the fundamental political similarities as well as differences amongst nations. It is equally important to recognize the enormous difference between states whose titles often contain the words “Republic” or “Democratic”sometimes both wordsin their national titles, and those states that are genuine republics whether or not their national titles declare that they are republics.

Ethics is a casualty in totalitarian states: unfairness to the individual is built into the laws of authoritarian states of all stripes. But even in genuine republics, closest to which is the United States, Ethics is a branch of philosophyor more precisely, a branch of lifethat defies codification.

Politics, by definition, is embedded in groups. The larger a group, the less possible its ethical integrity. Given the cacophony of everyday politics from the town house level to that of international geopolitics, an individual might best develop high ethical standards that are not based on group behavior but rather on universal ethics and esthetics, the “living” branches of philosophy.

(to be continued in Part 8 of Ten)

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Metaphysics 101 Part 6

(Part 6 of Ten)

(continued from Part 5 of Ten)

Disambiguation

[Note: A Greek philosopher, Andronicus of Rhodes, c. 70 B.C.E, coined the word “Metaphysics.” It literally means “after the Physics (written by Aristotle). It originally served as the title of Aristotle’s 13 treatises newly edited and arranged by Andronicus after those on physics and natural sciences written by Aristotle. Latin scholars misinterpreted the meaning of the word as “the science of what is beyond the physical.” That misinterpretation continues to this day. Although this article is titled, Metaphysics 101, it clearly maintains the distinction between physics and “the science of what is beyond the physical.”]

Epistemology

Closely related to Metaphysics, Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that examines the extent, limitations, and validity of knowledge: i.e., it is the study of how our brains process sensations, both naturally and with the exquisite enhancement of our senses provided by technology.

And here we have a major thread that runs through the history of philosophy from antiquity to the present: the denial that our senses are reliable sources for the brain to perceive reality. Immanuel Kant, plunged philosophy into the Dark Ages of Philosophy when he repackaged Platonic philosophy with a twist. He reinstated the senses as tools of cognition but limited them to the material world only (“phenomena”) and coined the word “noumena” (from the Greek, nous) as “the world beyond physics.” Like Plato, he posited that the noumenal world is unknowable; unlike Plato, he did not argue that the noumenal world actually exists but only that it might exist!

I have a fantasy inspired by philosophers who—like Plato and Kant—tell us that the ‘real’ world cannot be revealed to us by the senses. My fantasy begins in Plato’s ‘ideal’ or Kant’s ‘noumenal’ world, or more precisely, in this natural world (or universe) but with one major difference: In my fantasy, human beings are abstractions without senses. The fantasy continues with some sort of cosmic event, e.g., the earth enters a ‘Goldilocks Zone’ that suddenly provides the abstract human beings with senses. For the first time they are thrilled by the reality we take for granted. Plato’s shadows suddenly disappear in a blaze of sunlight, and humans—no longer abstractions, but flesh and blood—are overwhelmed by the excitement of color and sound and the feel of Aristotle’s earth, water, air, and fire. For the first time, they experience time and space. For the first time the tsunami of information roars into their minds in a knowable world.

In the middle of the 20th century Ayn Rand, an admirer of Aristotle, jolted the status quo of (Western) philosophy after centuries of Platonic/Kantian domination. She named her philosophy Objectivism and articulately described it in the form of a novel titled Atlas Shrugged. Not nearly as recognized as Plato and major Neo-Platonists, she seems to have had her philosophy publicized either too late or too soon to relegate Plato, Kant and their successors to the dustbin of philosophy. Instead, abstract universes have crept into the discipline of science.

Science

In 1927, the year of my birth, Georges Lemaitre proposed what became the Big Bang theory. Hubble elevated the theory of ‘island universes’ to billions of galaxies. Einstein had proved that space and time are not absolute. Despite the somewhat rattling discovery of a fourth dimension and the prospect of a universe that came out of ‘nothing,’ classic science remained intact, and still does.

At about that same time, the microcosmic world was found to differ radically from the macrocosmic world. This startling discovery should not be confused with the speculation of subatomic unknowable worlds. On the contrary, the classic macrocosmic domain and the modern domain of Quantum Physics, each in its own way, remains well within the parameters of valid and provable scientific disciplines.

Although Quantum Physics began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, its prominence has grown exponentially beginning in the middle of the twentieth century and is firmly established as a branch of science.

However, at about the beginning of this century and rapidly accelerating since the 60s there have been several cosmological theories that resemble flights of imagination rather than plausible hypotheses in the fledgling branch of (modern) cosmology. Admittedly, my skepticism stems from the fact that none of those theories can ever be proved even inferentially as the existence of dark matter is clearly inferred by the force of gravity.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t resist new ideas. In fact, my imagination is on steroids. But I temper imagination with logic, especially in contemplation of science. There is nothing—not even a hint—that infers an alternative universe, a parallel universe, or that multiple universes exist. Yet, string theory posits that there are 10500 potential constructs for alternate universes (and ten or possibly eleven dimensions instead of only the four with which we are familiar).

Popular buzz posits universes with radically different physical laws. The buzz includes a parallel universe that is separated from our observable universe by just a millimeter or two. The suggestions made about other universes are widely open-ended and are so popular that they are practically presented and accepted as facts even though there can never be proof that even one universe other than this one exists.

There is a powerful attitudinal cliché that condemns the word “never.” Those of us who use that word and other words like “always” and “absolutely” are accused of being “narrow-minded.” But the fact is that “Dark Energy” is accelerating the inflation of the universe to almost the speed of light. Here, please note that there is a fundamental difference between the accelerating speed of the universe’s rate of inflation and the speed of light within the universe.

Cosmic dynamics are such that light is like a dog chasing its tail, i.e., the light emitted by objects can’t keep up with the increasing distance between them that is created by the expanding universe. This means that eventually the light from the earliest objects in our universe (e.g., quasars) eventually will no longer reach us. How then, would light emitted from other universes (if they were to exist) ever reach our universe even if they could travel through whatever it would be that exists between universes?

A parallel universe is any of a hypothetical collection of undetectable universes that are like our known universe but have branched off from our universe due to a quantum-level event. As for the imagined parallel universe separated from our universe by just a millimeter or two, proof of its existence is obviously as forever inaccessible as that of alleged universes in a multiverse.

Our universe is not a “Parallel Universe Hologram,” neither are you, nor am I. We are not a strip of cosmic film. The cosmic film is something like those Hollywood films that are edited for variations in the storyline, e.g., in one version the hero dies at the end of the film, in another he lives. In one version of the film she catches the train, in another she’s ten seconds too late. The notion that we are abstractions is a convoluted inversion of Plato’s shadows where we are the shadows.

One argument for the existence of a multiverse is made by comparing it to a deck of cards. There is a finite number of all possible orders in which 52 cards may be shuffled. After that number is reached, duplicate card orders are inevitable. String theorists justify the notion of duplicate universes and individuals by the reduction (!) of possible universes to the finite number, 10500. All manner of speculations are included in this theory, including alternate universes wherein an individual makes a choice, his counterpart makes the opposite choice—and so on. I don’t know where determinism vs. free will fits in with that scenario or how synchronous timing would work for individuals in alternate universes. Open-ended theories have their glitches. They also have their loopholes.

Are there duplicate individuals who (as in a relay race) live for centuries because their lifetimes and deaths are so timed that they ‘live’ for centuries while others die within seconds after their one life? (Well, two lives.) And what is time anyway? Oh, excuse me, it seems that I’m crawling into Plato’s cave again!

In one more effort to avoid a philocosmological IED blowing up in my face and for the sake of argument, I waive my rarely used right to skepticism and (for the moment) I assume that there is an infinite multiverse and even accept the theory’s numerous implicit contradictions as absolutely true, but I still maintain that theories without the possibility of proof don’t—as Rick puts it in the film Casablana—“amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

I suspect that a considerable deal of modern cosmology is motivated by an insatiable appetite to diminish humanity, as if numbers have anything to do with the stature of humanity in the first place! On balance, cosmology has not diminished the human species; it has elevated it.

(to be continued in Part 7 of Ten)

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Metaphysics 101 Part 5

(Part 5 of Ten)

(continued from Part 4 of Ten)

Metaphysical thought

Metaphysical thought defies a definitive description of itself. It is unlike anything else in the Universe. Electromagnetism, unlike the other three universal forces, is an integral part of thought (see: Bets, Anyone?, December 7, 2011). In the article I’ve just cited, I suggest that electromagnetism may have the edge over gravity in our quest for TOE (the Theory of Everything). I don’t believe there is a ‘theory of everything,’ but if gravity is the body of the Universe, electromagnetism is its mind. I believe that it will be electromagnetism that leads us to some kind of unified theory (if ever) for the physics of the universe, not gravity alone.

Thought exists within that band of the universe we know as ‘life.’ Within a tiny but crowded strip of life on earth there have been and are millions of species. Ours is the only species that thinks about thought.

Metaphysics and epistemology are intimately associated. Both those subjects are major branches of philosophy along with politics, ethics, and esthetics. There are other branches, stems, and twigs depending on who is cataloging the divisions of philosophy, e.g., logic, which I think of as part of epistemology and other disciplines. I also think of logic not so much as a branch of philosophy as it is the lifeblood running through the veins of all branches of philosophy.

Radical Thought

Not too long after teething and having our diapers changed, many of us sense that all is not quite right in the world. Some of us just go with the flow or follow the drumbeat and passively let life just ‘happen’ to us. And then there are a few of us who are radical, i.e., we are compelled to understand the origin and roots of that cosmic tree of life. We also feel best when we swing high on the bough of ethics. More on that later.

Pruning that tree requires radical thought. The current use of the word “radical” is misleading because of the almost exclusive use of that word in its political sense. The word is borrowed from Latin and despite its negative connotation in current social media, it means “root.” As with trees, the roots of the tree are below the branches and topsoil. The roots are gnarled and have needed to be untangled since antiquity.

Classic Philosophy

It is my understanding that all formal philosophy is basically Aristotelian or Platonic. Although the philosophic positions of those ancient icons of philosophy are amply documented, those of Socrates and pre-Socratic philosophers are shrouded in the fog of antiquity. But judging by oral fragments of pre-Socratic philosophers, they were implicitly Platonic or Aristotelian. The same is true of the basic philosophic positions each of us explicitly or implicitly maintains.

Plato

The darkest corner of Plato’s cave is where its occupants are chained so that they can perceive only the shadows on the cave’s deepest wall but never the source of those shadows. All that humanity can know about the shadows is that they are ideal “Forms,” perfect and pure abstractions. Bottom line: The “real” world is unknowable through the senses.

Aristotle

Aristotle posited that our senses are portals through which knowledge is gathered by observation, then categorized and integrated via inductive reasoning. He also brilliantly invented the syllogism, the principal tool for deductive reasoning, a major tool of logic. He rejected Plato’s concept that our senses merely reveal shadows of reality. Bottom line: the world is knowable through the senses.

Plato and Aristotle set the precedent for a prime controversy that rages to this day. Plato’s world is dual; Aristotle’s world is singular. The ramifications of Plato’s dual world jolts epistemology; the world of Aristotle embraces it.

The revered philosophers disagreed about the fundamental essence of the world, but agreed about slavery: they both claimed that there are “natural” slaves and masters! Through the ages, they were not alone. Augustine and Aquinas (icons of the Middle Ages) preached that slavery is God’s punishment for sin; the ‘champion of freedom,’ John Locke, living in no less than the Age of Enlightenment, invested in the Afro-American slave trade. His personal ‘enlightenment’ didn’t go as far as enlightening him about the unspeakable horror of slavery. In fact he wrote a convoluted rationalization in favor of slavery—“a theory of slavery.”

I’ve selected these examples to highlight the need to judge the merits and shortcomings of philosophers without regard to their revered celebrity. I have found it liberating to separate what philosophers posit from who they areand further, to recognize which elements of their philosophy are illuminating and which are not. And, at the first hint of a fundamental flaw in a philosopher’s arguments, I take out Occam’s razor and snip!

Stay tuned. As Bette Davis jeered in the movie, All About Eve, “It gets better!”

(to be continued in Part 6 of Ten)

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Metaphysics 101 Part 4

(Part 4 of Ten)

(continued from Part 3 of Ten)

Cosmic Domino Effect

There can be no deeper issue than whether determinism or free will is the source of human thought. If my typing fingers are merely responding to the dictates of predetermined cerebral activity initiated by the dance of once superheated particles that began almost 14 billion years ago—particles that are currently in the form of a unique DNA-print of my brain cells—then, the text on this page is no more than an automatic microcosmic activity devoid of any meaning and is the antithesis of free thought.

At a macrocosmic level, the same is true. For example, suppose I “decide” to travel somewhere. Absolute determinism posits that it was particles (not I) that activated “my” decision to travel. Further, although I may believe I’m “free” to choose my destination, routes, methods of travel and time lines, determinism maintains that the dance of subatomic particles dictates all thoughts and action, including thoughts that arbitrarily leap out of the mind with no apparent motivation. Technically, determinism also posits that those particles had been activated by other particles that preceded them, and the particles that preceded those particles had similarly been affected by particles before them, and so on back to the creation of primordial particles eons ago. It follows that thought would be only part of a cosmic domino effect initiated at the Big Bang, along with the birth of time. In that world there would be no difference between inanimate and animate matter.

The overwhelming consensus in the scientific community is that time moves only in a forward direction even though there are no physical laws to prevent it from moving backwards. Time is calculated to have begun 10-43 seconds into the Big Bang. Hypothetically, if the temporal evolution of the universe were run backwards, physics as we know it ceases to exist beyond that infinitesimal fraction of a second. If absolute determinism is inseparable from that instant and therefore from the titanic primordial battle between matter and antimatter at the birth of the Universe to the present, then all metaphysical and epistemological speculation is meaningless and we are only puppets of the stars. Basically, astrology is a branch of determinism. In Shakespeare’s play, Romeo and Juliet, the central theme is tragic determinism. At the beginning of the play, its narrator (Chorus) states: A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life. At one of the play’s critical moments, Romeo cries out against inevitability: Then I defy you stars! That is his attempt at free will, but of course he fails.

[In acknowledgement of Shakespeare’s profound diversity of themes, I add that he also expresses the antithesis of determinism in Julius Caesar when he has Cassius say: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves, and in the same play has Caesar say: The cause is in my will!, an affirmation of free will.]

The inescapable corollary to the concept of determinism is that all thoughts and actions are predetermined whether or not a Supreme Being exists. In turn, the notion of predetermination precludes any validity to metaphysics, epistemology, and thought itself: Automatons do not think. By definition, determinism precludes free thought.

Free Thought and Truth

The very word truth is loaded with conceptual IEDs. For example, if we use the word “truth” in the context of metaphysics we are instantly in the minefield of axioms, paradoxes, and ironies. We are challenged by a glut of imperfect definitions, linguistic niceties, and circular, cliché arguments.

I remember a story that is probably true (note that the word “probably” shields me from a conceptual IED, at least for the moment). The story goes that in the course of a lecture on language and metaphysics, an expert linguist told his audience that there are many languages that include a grammatically correct double negative, but there is no language that has a double affirmative. At that point, a member of his audience interrupted with the words, Yeah…Yeah. Obviously, the lecturer had a larger concept in mind when he stepped on that perceived conceptual IED.

In a larger and significant context, metaphysical discussions often degenerate to word games. In that game, a better debater may ‘win’ a debate only because of her superior debating skills, but not necessarily because she is closer to truth than her opponent. Conversely, an inferior debater may ‘lose’ a debate only because of his inferior debating skills even though he may be closer to the truth than his opponent. If we engage in debates with our primary goal focused on ‘victory’ over our ‘opponent’ rather than focus on the search for truth, then we are not seriously seeking truth. A genuine search for truth is not a verbal olympic game.

In Search of Truth

Despite undergoing numerous evolutionary changes, dinosaurs remained mentally static for 150 million years. I’m sure that if that asteroid 65 million years ago hadn’t collided with the earth, dinosaurs would still be preoccupied with changing their armor from epoch to epoch. Insects preceded reptiles by millions of years, and they still haven’t risen above the donning of an infinite variety of wings and colors. Human’s appeared on earth barely two million years ago and suddenly (geologically speaking) metaphysical thought enters the stream of life. In the almost 14 billion years of its existence, the Universe has had a discrete number of colossal events. The advent of metaphysical thought is one of them.

(to be continued in Part 5 of Ten)

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