Archive for December, 2011

Quit, Die, or Switch

Recently I switched to electronic cigarettes. There was an “oh shit” moment when I realized that in 20 years, e-cigarettes will have almost entirely replaced conventional cigarettes. The overriding reason for this is that e-cigarettes probably do not cause cancer, emphysema, etc. This means that a smoker essentially has three alternatives: quit, risk death, or switch to e-cigarettes. I realized that this is a device which will save many, many lives.

What is an e-cigarette?

An e-cigarette is a vaporizer which vaporizes a fluid, called “e-fluid,” to create an experience like smoking a cigarette. The e-fluid usually consists of glycerin and/or propylene glycol, nicotine, and artificial flavorings. Glycerin and propylene glycol are synthetic sugars. Except for nictonine, all of the ingredients of e-fluid are common food additives.

An e-cigarette consists of three things: a cartridge, an atomizer, and a rechargeable battery. These are joined into a device that looks like a cigarette. The cartridge is a container for e-fluid. The atomizer is a heating element which vaporizes the e-fluid. The battery powers the atomizer. Usually the cartridge and the atomizer are joined in one replaceable container called a “cartomizer.”

Some e-cigarettes use cartridges pre-filled with e-fluid, which have to be replaced when the e-fluid runs out. (Usually they say that one cartridge is equivalent to a pack of cigarettes.) Other e-cigarettes use empty cartridges, which you fill with separately sold e-fluid. In the latter case it is possible to use e-fluids which come in thousands of different flavors.

Why do we care?

E-cigarettes probably do not have the health risks that cigarettes have. This would mean that a person could smoke e-cigarettes for their whole life without incurring any health problems. This provides a third alternative to smokers. Smokers can quit, risk death, or switch to e-cigarettes.

Are e-cigarettes really safe?

Except for nicotine, all of the ingredients in e-fluid are common food additives. This means that they probably do not carry any health risks.

Nicotine is a toxin. But, it is only one of many toxic chemicals in cigarettes. Cigarette smoke contains over 4,000 chemicals, including 19 known carcinogens, some of which are radioactive carcinogens. It is generally believed that most of the negative health effects of cigarettes do not come from nicotine.

We do not know for sure that e-cigarettes are safe, and we will not know this until some good studies are published on the topic. The really conclusive studies probably will not exist for 50 years or so, since we will probably need to actually watch people smoke e-cigarettes for decades and see what happens to them, to know for sure.

But our existing knowledge is enough to say that e-cigarettes probably are safe. Perhaps the really interesting question is not, are e-cigarettes safe, but why are we inclined to assume that they are dangerous?

Notice that, in scientific terms, e-cigarettes have almost nothing to do with cigarettes. The similarity is a purely human one: they look similar and serve a similar function. They feel similar to us, though in reality they are not similar things.

The fact that they feel similar leads to a psychological phenomenon where we propagate our fear of cigarettes to e-cigarettes. This “transference of fear” is the sort of thing that would have been useful in our ancestral environment. If your friend gets bitten by a snake and dies, you will learn to fear any unfamilar snake. Perhaps if you had never seen a garden hose before, you might be afraid of it.

So we find a situation with e-cigarettes where our instincts tell us to fear them, and science tells us that there is little to fear.

How much do they cost?

To start smoking e-cigarettes, one has to buy a “starter kit,” containing a battery, a charger, cartomizers, etc. Then one periodically needs to buy new cartomizers and/or e-fluid.

The startup costs of e-cigarette smoking are higher than cigarettes, but the costs over time are lower. Starter kits range in cost from around ten dollars to over a hundred. Cartomizers typically cost two or three dollars.

Do they taste like cigarettes?

E-cigarettes do not taste like cigarettes, despite the efforts of manufacturers to make them as close as possible. This is the biggest complaint I hear from people about e-cigarettes. People don’t want to smoke an e-cigarette; they want to smoke a cigarette.

I think, however, that this is mostly a matter of what people are used to. When I first smoked an e-cigarette, I didn’t like it. But I got used to it. Now when I smoke cigarettes, I wish that I was smoking an e-cigarette. In other words, the phenomenon has been turned on its head. So I think that it is familiarity and habit that makes people want their smoke to taste like a cigarette.

What’s the catch?

Right now there is a glut of brands of e-cigarettes, all of which are startup companies, and all of which sell incompatible components. (The e-fluid is the exception: it is cross-compatible between all e-cigarettes.) I have personally had trouble getting ahold of replacement components for my e-cigarettes.

This is the sort of problem that one runs into by being an early adopter. It will go away over time. Within several years, all of the gas stations will carry e-cigarette components, and a set of brands will emerge as dominant.

So, smokers, I present you with your options: quit, die, or switch.

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Reason in Philosophy

Reason is one of the mental faculties of humans. We also have other mental faculties, such as our emotions, our intuitions, and our aesthetic senses.

I perceive a systematic bias in the Western intellectual climate towards reason. We are pro-reason, anti-emotions, and anti-intuitions. In our intellectual climate, people who show emotions are “biased;” people who use intuitions are “vague,” “unclear,” or “sloppy thinkers.”

The excessively rationalistic attitude is not only a feature of our intellectual climate; I think it is also a feature of individuals. I think that different individuals tend to use different mental faculties.

There are emotional people, who have rich and complicated emotional lives, who usually interpret situations in terms of feelings, and who rely on their feelings in making decisions.

There are intellectual people, who have rich and complicated intellectual lives, who usually interpret situations in terms of logic, and who rely on logic in making their decisions.

These divisions, of course, are not sharp or absolute. They point out a general pattern, a general feature of the landscape of possible psychologies, rather than a precise categorization.

When people rely on different mental faculties, they have different cares and interests, and they have different mental processes. They usually have difficulty understanding each other.

The rationalist is somebody who is entirely enamored with the intellect. They are so fascinated with reason and ideas that they mostly ignore everything else. And it is just this type of person who populates our intellectual climate, and just this type of person who is usually attracted to philosophy.

The rationalist tends to believe that reason is superior to emotions or intuitions. Emotions are irrational; intuitions are vague and unreliable.

It is essential to my position that these different mental faculties are on roughly equal footing: that there are whole dimensions of rich and valuable mental functioning outside of reason.

Emotions can contain as much richness, variety, depth, and interest as the intellect; and that the same is true of intuitions, aesthetics, etc. This is a plain fact to anybody who relies on these mental faculties a lot. It does not feel like a fact to the rationalist; but that is the very nature of his blindness.

To a great extent I count myself among the rationalists. It is much easier for me to find depth and richness in reason than in other things. But I am unbiased enough to recognize that I am biased. I am unbiased enough to be aware of a great deal of profundity standing outside reason. And I realize that I am missing out on further profundity like it.

I think that the best approach to philosophy involves the use of all of our various faculties: our reason, our emotions, our intuitions, our aesthetics. Such an approach necessarily sacrifices some reasonableness. The rationalist approach to philosophy optimizes heavily for reasonableness, and sacrifices emotional/intuitive/aesthetic sense. Since it is hard to optimize for all of these qualities simultaneously, optimizing for the other qualities will mean optimizing less for reasonableness.

I think that in the end I will wind up looking to a lot of people like I am anti-reason. I think that I am not anti-reason; rather, I think that the prevailing climate is so biased towards reason that moderation looks like bias against reason.

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Why I Believe What I Believe

Why do I believe the things I believe?

If we work strictly within the rationalist paradigm, and somebody asks us why we believe something, we will almost always have a snappy answer. Rationalists establish their beliefs by arguments; and so every belief has an argument to support it.

This is not true in my case. In almost every case, I cannot give an argument to support a philosophical view I hold. So why do I hold these views?

Most often the answer is, “this has to be true for the rest of my view to make sense.” All of my ideas hang together like parts in a machine. Change one thing, and everything else has to change too.

Nor does my philosophy exist in a bubble. It hangs together with the social zeitgeist, with my life experiences, and most particularly with my mystical experiences. The latter are inherently private, but they determine my philosophy in an essential way.

I think that this is a quality of philosophical ideas in general: they are not justified by tidy arguments, but rather hang as parts of a larger view. For instance, if a person was not acquainted with math and science, one could not give them a tidy argument to the effect that reductionism was true. One would first have to teach them a great deal of math and science, and then explain reductionism to them; at which point one would simply have to hope that the pieces came together for them.

And I think it is true of philosophies in general that their parts hang together and don’t make sense when taken in isolation. This is an example of how philosophy is shaped differently from fields of knowledge like mathematics, physics, and biology.

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Reductionism II

I said previously that objective reality is not a mathematical structure. The question arises, what then is the objective reality?

Rather than answering this question, I prefer to dissolve it. The subjective/objective distinction is a confusing one; so I prefer to say that it is a confusion.

By “objective reality,” we mean something which is forever beyond our experience. But we also mean something which, through our experience, we can know everything about. Appearances are all subjective; and objective reality is not an appearance. To take this perspective to the peak of its absurdity, we may consider the final appearance — the appearance which contains all possible knowledge of objective reality, which unites all possible appearances into one. We have to say that the final appearance is distinct from the objective reality. But what is the difference? We have, on the one hand, the experience of everything, and, on the other hand, everything. The two contain the same information; they are isomorphic; but one is visible and unreal, and the other is invisible and real. Why is the visible unreal, and the real invisible, if there is nothing about the real which cannot be rendered visible?

Let us dissolve the subjective/objective confusion. At a given moment, we see some things, and we do not see others. Right now I see a table; but if I turn my head to the left, I will no longer see a table. The table is still there, but I am not looking at it.

What about the distinction between the table and the appearance of the table? What about the fact that the table is made of molecules, whereas this fact isn’t expressed in my visual impression of the table? We resolve the problem in the same way. The molecules are there, but I can’t see them, in the same that way that when I look at a beach from inside an airplane, I can’t see the individual grains of sand.

We have no need for a distinction between subjective and objective. Reductionists need to postulate such a distinction in order to make sense of their philosophy that mathematical structure is all that really exists. They need to say that, for instance, the qualitative “redness” of red is a subjective illusion. But we do not say anything like this; for us, all of the features of our experience are equally real. The appearances are the reality.

The rationalist has become fascinated by a particular aspect of their experience: its mathematical structure. They have become so enamored with it that they want to say that it is everything. It is quite true that mathematical structure is everywhere; but it is not true that it is everything.

What about the lawfulness of the universe? Is it true that everything follows the laws of physics, without ever deviating from them to the slightest degree? It is imaginable that the world could fail to be a mathematical structure, and yet never violate the laws of physics.

Only there is some discomfort in saying this. It feels more right to say either that the world is a mathematical structure, or that it sometimes violates the laws of physics. The middle position feels awkward. And yet, it also feels awkward to say that the world does not follow the laws of physics; because it is clear that usually and for the most part, it does follow the laws of physics. What are we to do about this?

Let us recall that quantum physics is probabilistic. We cannot say, in a quantum physics experiment, exactly what we will observe in a given instant. We can only give statistical patterns that our observations follow. So at the lowest level, the universe does not strictly follow its laws. The “laws of physics” are more accurately called “trends of physics.”

We can expect this quality to propagate up to the larger levels of reality. We can expect atoms and molecules not to strictly follow the laws of chemistry, and organisms not to strictly follow the laws of biology.

As far as I know, this is consistent with experimental observations. As far as I know, experiments in chemistry are usually done with large numbers of atoms and molecules, and the observations are observations of the aggregate behavior of the substances involved. And, as far as I know, every experiment has some degree of experimental error. The usual assumption is that if the experiment were “perfectly performed,” there would be no experimental error; but what if this is wrong? What if the experimental error is a feature of reality?

As for biology, we don’t even have a set of rules which can predict in general the behavior of biological organisms. We don’t understand life.

We can re-interpret the laws of nature as trends of nature. They are not absolute rules, but patterns that things tend to conform to. But it makes little sense to say that there is a single, fixed set of laws, and things always randomly deviate a little bit from those laws without ever deviating radically from them.

But maybe we want to say that things do sometimes deviate radically from those laws.

Supernatural phenomena (telepathy, telekinesis, etc.) would be an example of this. We can also say that the behavior of the higher levels of reality is not reducible to the behavior of the lower levels: it follows additional laws. In particular we want to say this with living organisms: that living organisms follow laws that atoms do not follow.

We want to say this because of our intuition that living organisms are special: that they are somehow different from dead matter. Scientists have installed a bias against this intuition; but we want to take down this bias, and notice the obvious, that living organisms seem special.

We also want to say that humans follow laws that other living organisms do not follow. The same line of thinking justifies this. It is intuitively obvious that humans are special.

Many sets of laws can co-exist, because they fit within each others’ margins of error. Since every set of laws is fuzzy, they can avoid coming into conflict with each other. Note that not every possible combination of law-sets would do this; but we want to say that the laws of our universe do this.

For our view to be complete, we need to offer an answer to the question, why have rationalists not interpreted reality in this way? If reality is not really sharp and rigid, why have rationalists interpreted reality as being sharp and rigid?

I think that some people have an aesthetic taste for simple, precise, and rigid rules, and when they look at the universe, they are interested in finding this. I think that it is not the way the universe is, but the taste for simplicity, precision, and rigidity, that has led rationalists to see the universe’s laws as simple, precise, and rigid.

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Philosophy and Clarity

Philosophy is hard to understand. There is not a standard set of things one needs to know in order to “know philosophy,” in the same way that there is such a set of things for chemistry, biology, or math. This is due to the fact that philosophy is a field that is shaped basically differently from these other fields.

The difference is that philosophy is not a field of knowledge. It is about having a grasp of things in general, rather than about having a grasp of some specific things. This is not a different degree of challenge, but a different kind of challenge. If one had knowledge of every specific thing, this would not amount to a grasp of things in general.

Much of the difficulty of communicating about philosophy arises from language. Language is not an adequate tool for conveying philosophical ideas. This means that philosophical writing strongly tends towards the obscure. The greatest abilities of clear expression do not eliminate this problem completely.

That said, the challenge of thinking clearly about philosophy is a different one. And thinking clearly must come before communicating clearly. Philosophy does not have very many fundamental problems; and all of the problems are highly interconnected. So it is possible to have a clear and general grasp of philosophical issues.

Incidentally, if one has this understanding, then other philosophers will usually make sense. This suggests that the fundamental challenge is not speaking clearly, but thinking clearly. If one can think clearly about philosophy, then the language of philosophy will be intelligible.

Some of the challenges in thinking clearly about philosophy also seem to arise from language. Language is part of our mechanism of thought, and in philosophy, linguistic anomalies can result in cognitive anomalies. A person can easily be bewildered by a word.

This type of confusion comes in many forms, and Wittgenstein analyzed this phenomenon in detail in his later works. I will content myself with giving one example.

I once had a discussion with a friend where he wondered whether or not he existed. He had begun with the word “I,” and, without clarifying what “I” meant, he proceeded to ask whether or not he existed. He could not figure out whether or not he existed because he did not know what he was talking about.

For my own part, I no longer run into these confusions over language. I think the reason for this is that when I think about philosophy, I no longer think in words; I think in visualizations and abstract relationships.

I think that a clear grasp of philosophy is something that one must learn for oneself. The way to get it is to spend a lot of time thinking about philosophy. Everybody who does this will end up with a different angle on philosophy; they will have their own philosophical personality, so to speak. That is because the nature of philosophical problems is that they do not have logically tidy resolutions, like the problems of math and science.

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My ponderings on reductionism have led me to think that reductionism is mostly correct, and partially a confusion.

Reductionists think that there is an objective reality, which is a mathematical structure. We have subjective impressions (qualia) which give a sense of this objective reality. Consider, for instance, a table. I can see the table from various angles; I can touch it; and so forth. Each of these subjective impressions gives me partial information about the table. The table itself, on the other hand, is something that I will never experience. The appearance of the table is not the table; the table is not an experience.

The table is a mathematical structure. But if I think of the table’s mathematical structure, that thought once again is not the table. A thought of a mathematical structure is not the mathematical structure itself.

To solidify this conclusion, think of the number two. You may have spoken the word “two” in your mind; you may have imagined two dots next to each other; you may have visualized the printed character “2;” you may have thought something more abstract. All of these are thoughts of two; but none of them are two.

What is two itself? This depends on whether or not we think that two objectively exists. In the first case, where two objectively exists, two is beyond all appearances of two, in the same way that the table is beyond all appearances of the table. Two is not an experience. We can, so to speak, see two from different angles (the word, the two dots, etc.), but we cannot see the whole of two.

In the second case, if two does not objectively exist, then it is only a formality of our language, a concept with no tidy correspondence to reality. It is a confusion to ask what two is, in the same way that it is a confusion to ask what a hipster is, or what rudeness is.

Under reductionism, some set of mathematical structures has an objective existence. These structures are something that we will never experience, just as in the first case we never experience two.

So under reductionism, there is an objective reality of mathematical structure, and we have subjective experiences which are themselves unreal. Through these experiences we can know everything that there is to know about the objective reality; but we can never experience the objective reality itself.

That said, we can imagine a mind which was able to think a thought that contained all possible knowledge of reality. We cannot ourselves see a table from every angle simultaneously; but it is possible to imagine a mind which can see three-dimensional objects in an instant, in the same way that we can see two-dimensional objects in an instant. Similarly, we cannot ourselves think of the whole mathematical structure of a table in an instant; it is too large and complex. But we can imagine a mind which can do this.

So we can imagine a mind which can think everything at once, and perceive the entire structure of reality in an instant. Let us refer to this instantaneous perception of the whole of reality as the “final appearance.” Our metaphysics will give us a sense of what the final appearance would look like. For instance, under reductionism, the final appearance would be a thought of a vast and complicated mathematical structure.

Our concept of the final appearance is an inference based on all of the knowledge we have. We arrive at our concept of a table by looking at it, touching it, thinking about it, etc. By synthesizing these different experiences we conceptualize the “final appearance of the table,” which is our idea of what the table is. And we construct our idea of the final appearance of reality in the same way.

But reductionists throw out some of the information in constructing their final appearance. To see how, empty your mind of all thoughts and look at your hand. Here we have an appearance of a hand, which is just as valid as the appearance which is a thought of the hand’s mathematical structure.

Why should the final appearance of the hand be an appearance of a mathematical structure, and omit the purely qualitative visual impression of the hand? Why do we want to say that the mathematical structure has reality, while the visual impression does not?

Why do we want to say that the objective reality is a mathematical structure? We gain our concept of objective reality by aggregating appearances; but our appearances are not only appearances of mathematical structure, but also entirely different appearances. Why do we throw out the non-mathematical appearances in constructing our picture of reality, in constructing our final appearance?

If reductionism means simply that mathematical structure is everywhere, then reductionism is perfectly correct. But if reductionism means that mathematical structure is the only real thing, then I see no reason to believe that it is correct.


On the Soul

If we do not die with our bodies, then it must be true that there is some part of a person which survives their clinical death, which is distinct from the brain and body. This non-bodily part will be an objectively existing entity, much like the body or any other physical thing. What sort of entity is it? What can we say about it?

We will start by tabooing the word “physical,” and its complement “non-physical.” Intuitively we want to say that the brain and body are physical, whereas this non-bodily part is non-physical. But what does this imply? What is the difference between a physical entity and a non-physical entity? Rather than flopping around attempting to define “physical,” let us just throw this word out entirely. We can say whatever needs to be said using other words.

How are we to get a handle on this question of the non-bodily part? Perhaps in this case the simple approach is the most informative. Imagine having no body. What is left? We no longer see, hear, smell, touch, or taste. But we can still think, feel emotions, and imagine. So, using our simple approach, we will say that all of these are things that the non-bodily part can do.

Under this view, a thought is something happening in the non-bodily part. What is a thought like? The simplest thing would be to say that a thought has the same general characteristics as a physical thing (a table, a chair, etc.). The thought has an objective existence, and its properties include the sort of logical orderliness that physical things have.

It seems simplest to say that there is one kind of existence, which is possessed both by thoughts and chairs. Under this view, a thought is just as real and tangible as a chair. This is a plausible idea. Consider, for instance, the fact that one can imagine something so vividly that it is quite indistinguishable from, “feels just as real as,” one’s bodily sensorum. (You have never done this? Give it a try!) Consider also the fact that some philosophers and mathematicians are inclined to believe that mathematical objects have an objective existence.

Under this view, everything that is imagined is real. There is no intrinsic difference between imagination and physical reality (by which I mean the world which our bodily sensorum shows us). And yet it is obvious that there is something special about physical reality.

Physical reality has a solidity to it. Thoughts are all vague and fleeting, always spinning away into nothingness. One can’t get a grip on them. Physical reality, on the other hand, stays put. We can all see it very well, whereas our thoughts are rather mysterious unto us.

I can imagine a foreign scene so vividly that it feels just as real as physical reality. I can lose myself in that scene momentarily. But I am always pulled back to physical reality. Physical reality has a magnetism to it. Even if all of these experiences are equally real, physical reality seems to be privileged as the experience which I keep being pulled back to.

What accounts for physical reality’s privileged status? Clearly this privileged status is part of the architecture of our experience. It is how the software is written, as it were. Why is the software written this way?

Let us recall that, under our view, the “software” was “written” by God, to help us become enlightened in the most efficient way. It follows that the privileged status of physical reality helps us to become enlightened.

This is easy to believe. Imagine if all possibilities were open to us; imagine if we were totally free to create our reality with our own imagination. We would have a lot of fun; but we would rarely be challenged.

On the other hand, if a person is taken partially out of control of their experience, if they are subjected to the harsh demands of physical existence, if they cannot simply think a happier thought when faced with difficulty, then they will be much more challenged, and they will learn much faster.

Let us retrace the ground we have covered. Postulating life after death requires that we postulate the existence of a part of a person which is distinct from their brain and body. It makes sense to say that this non-bodily part is a thing which can think, feel emotions, and imagine. It has an objective existence which is like the objective existence of a physical thing such as a table or chair.

It follows that thoughts also have such an objective existence, and that everything that is imagined has the same kind of existence as the existence of physical reality. But physical reality is clearly privileged as the experience which we are continually pulled back to. This feature of our experience must have been designed by God to help us learn more quickly. It is easy to see how this is so, because existence in physical reality is much more challenging than an existence in which all possibilities are open and we can choose our experiences with total freedom.

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