Archive for July, 2011

Several bullets to choose from regarding aliens

If other people have had a given experience, we can learn more about the world by taking that experience into account as if it were our own experience. For instance, many people have experienced cancer, and learned from this that having cancer sucks. We take these experiences into account by forming the belief that having cancer sucks. We do not need to experience cancer ourselves in order to form this belief.

Eliezer Yudkowsky discusses a related idea in Making History Available, where he argues that we should treat the events of history as if we had experienced them ourselves.

“The inverse error is to treat history as mere story, process it with the same part of your mind that handles the novels you read. You may say with your lips that it is ‘truth’, rather than ‘fiction’, but that doesn’t mean you are being moved as much as you should be. Many biases involve being insufficiently moved by dry, abstract information.”

We can extend Yudkwosky’s idea from history, to everything that happens to people not ourselves. It seems that we will gain a more accurate picture of the world if we treat others’ experiences as being of equal weight to our own experiences — if we are moved by others’ experiences like we are moved by our own. This seems impossible to achieve in practice, but it is an ideal to which we can aspire.

There exist numerous reports of subjective experiences of being abducted by aliens. The foregoing comments suggest that we ought to be moved by these experiences as if they were our own. Each of us ought to feel as if we ourselves have subjectively experienced being abducted by aliens. And this ought to factor into our decision to believe or disbelieve that aliens are in contact with humans. This line of reasoning leaves us with several options:

1. We can reject the principle that we ought to give others’ experiences the same weight as we give our own.

2. We can believe that aliens are in contact with humans.

3. We can pre-commit to the position, “if I ever subjectively experience being abducted by aliens, after that event I will still believe that aliens are not in contact with humans.”

4.. We can argue that to the reports of being abducted by aliens, there correspond no significant number of subjective experiences of being abducted by aliens.

Which of these bullets do we bite?

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Why philosophy appears to be useless

I just realized the reason that it seems like every philosophical idea is false or useless. When a philosopher comes up with an idea that’s true and useful, it gets picked up by humanity at large, people forget who came up with it, and it’s no longer considered philosophy.

Here are some things that philosophers invented, that are true and useful, and are no longer considered philosophy: systematic reasoning (the Greeks), the scientific method (Bacon), democracy (the Greeks), communism (Marx), much of basic music theory (Pythagoras), the concept of human rights (Paine, Mill, Hegel), and formal logic (Frege, Russell). We can see that most of these true and useful results are in the areas of epistemology, political theory, and ethics. It is interesting to note that I can think of nothing true and useful that has come out of metaphysics or ontology.

Philosophy seems to have a problem similar to the one that artificial intelligence has. In AI, whenever an accomplishment is made, people redefine the concept of “AI” so that what was just accomplished is no longer AI. Similarly, whenever philosophy accomplishes something true and useful, it ceases to be considered philosophy. This creates the illusion that philosophy has had no significant accomplishments.

That said, it seems to me that the vast majority of philosophical ideas fail to meet the “true and useful” criterion. Philosophy’s successes, while powerful, seem to be quite rare. This is perhaps due to the nature of philosophy. Since philosophy addresses such large problems, (a) it is very hard to make progress on the problems, and (b) when any progress is made, it is a fairly significant event. So perhaps philosophy has a bit of a “strike out or home run” dynamic, where the overwhelming majority of thinkers do not hit any home runs.

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Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus: Public domain translation

I wanted to write an analysis of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus for my book, but I couldn’t find a public domain translation. Here is a translation by me, from the Latin by Chrysogonus Polydorus, in 1541. I hereby commit it to the public domain. I apologize for the poor quality.

I wanted to write an analysis of the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus for my book, but I couldn’t find a public domain translation. Here is a translation, from the Latin by Chrysogonus Polydorus, in 1541. I hereby commit it to the public domain.

1. Truly, without error, certainly and most truly:
2. That which is below is as that which is above, and that which is above is as that which is below, towards the performance of the miracle of the one thing.
3. And as all things come from one, through the meditation of the one, so all things are born out of this one thing, through transformation.
4. Its father is the Sun. Its mother is the Moon.
5. The wind carried It in its belly. Its food is the earth.
6. The father of all consecrated things is this.
7. Its power is whole if it is turned into earth.
8. Separate earth from fire, subtle from coarse, lovingly, with great intelligence.
9. It ascends from earth into heaven, once more descends into earth, and receives the power of things above and things below.
10. Thus you may govern the glory of the whole world.
11. Thereby you may leave behind all obscurity.
12. This is the true power of all powers, because it conquers all subtle things, and penetrates all solid things.
13. Thus is the world created.
14. From this will be miraculous transformations, of which this is the method. Therefore I am named Hermes Trismegistus, having the three-part philosophy of the whole world.
15. My speech about the working of the Sun is finished.

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Logic and Intuition

There once was a little boy called Logic. Logic loved to stay in his room solving puzzles, doing math problems, and making plans. He was a voracious consumer of facts and trivia, and he would share whatever he had learned recently with whomever would listen.

Logic had a twin sister, whose name was Intuition. Logic and Intuition were as different as night and day. While Logic was holed up in his room, Intuition would be out socializing, making art, and having adventures. Intuition loved people, and jokes, and religion, all things which were too irrational for Logic. But the two twins shared a mutual deep appreciation for beauty.

Intuition regarded her brother as prudish and dull. Logic regarded his sister as completely insane. All the same, they were the closest of companions, because they needed each other; they could not function by themselves. If they were traveling, for instance, Logic would look at the map and plan out the route, while Intuition watched to make sure that Logic did not get hit by a car. So, though they did not always appreciate each other, they were inseparable and completely co-dependent.

Logic and Intuition had two teachers: Truth, and Falsehood. Truth and Falsehood were also twins. Truth was a man, and Falsehood was a woman. Predictably, everything that Truth said was true, and everything that Falsehood said was false.

Each student could understand only some of the things that their teachers had to say. Some of the things the teachers said were incomprehensible to Logic, but Intuition understood them immediately. Conversely, certain things that were grasped by Logic, flew right over Intuition’s head.

Logic would have very little of what Falsehood had to say. He saw that it did not fit together, and that it was not consistent with what he already knew. Plus, whenever he tried to verify something that Falsehood said, he wound up either disproving it or finding it to be unverifiable.

Intuition, on the other hand, believed a great deal of what Falsehood said. Falsehood would spin wild tales that appealed to Intuition’s feelings and imagination, and she would eagerly gobble them up. These tales got combined with Truth’s teachings in her head, so that Truth and Falsehood were inextricably mixed up in everything she said and thought.

Now, Logic and Intuition were Wisdom’s secretaries; they did odd jobs for him, assisting him in his quest for understanding. Wisdom knew that Logic’s knowledge was almost entirely Truth, and that Intuition’s knowledge was a mixture of Truth and Falsehood. Now, Wisdom loved Truth, and hated Falsehood. So it was a source of constant consternation to him that Intuition was so filled with Falsehood’s nonsense.

One day Wisdom thought of a solution to this problem. He tried using Logic alone, while never calling on Intuition. He reasoned that he could get closer to Truth by ignoring Intuition’s nonsense.

Wisdom eventually discovered that this course was no good. Though he had rid himself of Intuition’s falsehoods, he had also rid himself of Intuition’s truths, which as I said before, included many, many truths that Logic did not and never would understand.

The work that Logic did, without Intuition’s artistic touch, was correct but dry and lifeless. It was not of much use to Wisdom. What’s worse, there were many tasks that Logic simply left undone, because he did not know how to approach them. So Wisdom terminated his experiment, and welcomed back little Intuition with open arms.

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Love, Wisdom, and Unity

I am considering beginning a project to construct a mythological explication of the Ra material. The basic idea is to personify the central philosophical concepts of the Ra material as gods, and write stories illustrating various points about these concepts and their interactions. If this project goes far enough, I am thinking of writing a novel set in the universe of the Ra material, featuring interactions between humans, gods, and entities from other densities, again with the goal of illustrating the philosophical concepts. But that’s all dreaming. Anyway, here is a starting point for this proposed project, defining the characters for three of Ra’s foundational concepts.

Three of the Creator’s most treasured children, for whom the highest praise and worship rings throughout the four corners of creation, are called Love, Wisdom, and Unity.

Love is a young woman with fair skin, a medium build, brown hair, and green eyes. She wears a light, silken dress, and a golden cross on a chain dangles between her breasts. She lives in a cottage in the forest. Love is never alone; she always has companions about her. Sometimes she puts on a disguise and goes to visit people in the cities, hoping to brighten their days.

Love has many, many partners. She wishes that she could give herself to all beings. Whenever two people kiss each other out of true love, she is there, delighting in the experience with them. In every romance, she is the secret third participant. All beings love Love; that is, all beings except for the disciples of Power, who regard her as a sentimental fool. But Love loves even them.

Wisdom is an old man, strong and hardened in body by all that he has endured. He has blue eyes and a shaven head. He is extremely beautiful, in defiance of his age. He wears white robes, and has a yin-yang symbol tattooed on the back of his neck. He lives by himself in a cave, meditating on the mysteries of existence, and contacts the outside world mainly to share his revelations — that is, those that the world is capable of understanding.

Wisdom is the keeper of the Great Record of Creation, in which is contained careful documentation of everything that has ever happened. His ongoing project is to make sense of it all. He seeks to discern the order in apparent chaos, and to devise principles which will improve the creation and its processes. Whenever any being feels lost or confused, and in need of guidance, they consult Wisdom.

Love and Wisdom are married. They are metaphysical opposites, and this is the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of their partnership. It is a strength because, being so different, they find the most unimaginable depths of joy and beauty within each other. It is a weakness because it makes it hard for them to relate to each other. This has led Love and Wisdom to drift apart, so that their precious meetings are infrequent and brief. Love and Wisdom are estranged lovers, lost to each other, seeking to rediscover their missing half.

Wisdom is celibate, and so the two have consummated their marriage only once. From this act Love bore a child, whom they named Unity. The Creator dubbed Unity the greatest expression of his true nature, those of his children who was closest to himself.

Unity is a young child, androgynous, dressed in white robes, and with indigo-colored eyes. He wears a bindi on his forehead. Though on the surface Unity is youthful and filled with joy, if one looks into Unity’s eyes one can see great age, the experience of aeons, and the burdensome memory of unbearable suffering.

Nobody understands Unity. Wisdom has spent innumerable hours studying Unity, attempting to comprehend his nature, but to no avail. Meanwhile, the precocious Unity has blazed past his father, effortlessly solving problems that baffled Wisdom for years.

For her part, Love believes that she understands Unity, but in fact all that she understands of Unity is that of Unity which is her own self. She sees Unity as love, without fathoming Unity’s deeper nature.

Wherever Unity goes, he transforms the creation. Everything he touches becomes like himself. If he touches a rock, that rock becomes alive. If a diseased person touches him, they become well. Once a person who was so cured asked Unity how he had accomplished this feat. Unity responded that he had done nothing; that the person had been well all along.

Nobody can look at Unity for very long, because it seems as if everything were happening simultaneously in him. His facial expression conveys every possible emotion. Nobody can figure out what he is, and this is uncomfortable for most people, so he has few friends. But those friends he does have, treasure him as the greatest gift of the Creator.

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Modus Ponens

I mention several facts:

1. Christians believe that the Bible is the undistorted word of God, and therefore absolutely true. The Bible says that women who wear men’s clothing should be killed. Christians do not kill women who wear men’s clothing.

2. Some people believe that “all is one.” If all is one, then a chair is a table. People eat off of tables. Yet, people who believe that all is one do not eat off of chairs.

3. I met a man last night who believed in the validity of the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative states that one should always treat another not merely as a means, but as an end in themselves. This is inconsistent with, for instance, buying fast food, because buying fast food implies treating the people working at the fast food place as a means rather than as an end. He himself pointed this out, and admitted that it was impractical, but he still believed in the categorical imperative.

4. Thomas Jefferson believed that “all men are created equal.” Yet, he did not believe that he was equal to the slaves that he owned.

5. Buddhists believe that “all of life is suffering.” Yet, when in the midst of a happy and joyous occasion, if you asked them if they were suffering or not, they would say that they were not.

So it seems like people don’t follow out the logical implications of their beliefs. Our minds don’t consistently implement modus ponens. We believe “all men are created equal,” and “if all men are created equal, then I am equal to my slaves,” and yet we don’t believe, “I am equal to my slaves.”

One might interpret Jefferson’s beliefs by saying that the word “men,” as Thomas Jefferson intended it, did not include black men. However, I suggest that is trying too hard to make sense out of Jefferson’s beliefs. It seems to me more likely that Jefferson:

1. believed that all men are created equal;
2. believed that his male slaves were men;
3. believed that he was not equal to his slaves;
4. believed that equal things could not also be not equal;
5. and simply never connected these facts together in his mind.

The internally consistent version of Jefferson’s belief is, “all land-owning white males are created equal.” Yet, this might not have sounded quite right to Jefferson when written down in the Declaration of Independence. I suggest that it is not that “land-owning white male” was a synonym for “man” for Jefferson. For instance, if Jefferson was shown a man in debtor’s prison, and asked, “is that a man?”, we can expect that he would have said “yes.” And if we asked Jefferson “are all men created equal?”, we can expect that he would have said “yes.” I suggest that the best interpretation of these facts is that Jefferson simply hadn’t thought things through perfectly.

There are probably many cases where we would be quite surprised if we followed out all of the “if-then” statements that we could make from our beliefs. There are probably, for each of us, a few cases where we have built up a whole complex of thought and effort around a failure to follow through with some uncomfortable “if-then” statement. It’s actually very easy to avoid noticing obvious things.