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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“What was scattered gathers. What was gathered blows away.”*…


Process philosophy


One of the most ubiquitous assumptions in Western thinking is a metaphysics of substance. This way of seeing the world is so deeply embedded in the unthought wilderness at the back of our minds that it rarely occurs to us to even consider it. Whatever else we may come to blows about, we almost all feel justified in leaning on the idea that our world fundamentally consists of “things”, objects that exist, solid entities that have an identity, possess properties, fill space and so on. All of us, apart from one small minority that thinks differently: the valiant tradition of process philosophers.

Process philosophy holds that the world consists not of objects but of processes, that the fundamental mode of things is not being but doing, that the nature of a thing consists not in what it is but in what is does. Traditionally, we see events as being done by things; there are objects, and acts are predicated of them (the bird flies, the fish swims, the sun shines). Process philosophers see the doing as primary: not that the bird flies, but that there is one might say a “birding” which throughout a certain duration “is birding flying-ly”.

At this point many readers will begin reeling back with discomfort. Here we see that the very way our language structures our thinking makes it difficult to even comprehend a processual point of view. And the next step in this repulsion is to ask “why bother?”. After all, ostensibly there are such things as birds, and they do appear to fly, so why bother with such eccentric semi-nonsense as “birding flying-ly” when saying “the bird flies” perfectly communicates a perception of reality that nearly everyone can acknowledge without dispute?

Because if it is true, as process philosophers claim, that the way we habitually think and talk about our world merely biases us towards a certain way of conceptualising it, then this bias will spread outward beyond metaphysics to every other discipline that concerns the world (i.e. all of them). Process ontology is not merely a more eccentric way of describing the world, but a tool that helps us uncover truths and practice effective strategies we otherwise would never have envisaged…

Thinking differently: “A Cosmos of Flux: The Case for Process Philosophy.”

* Heraclitus


As we go with the flow, we might send adventurous birthday greetings to Gerald “Gerry” Malcolm Durrell; he was born on this date in 1925.  A British naturalist, zookeeper, conservationist, author, and television presenter, most of his work was rooted in his life as an animal collector and enthusiast… though he is probably most widely known for his autobiographical book My Family and Other Animals and its successors, Birds, Beasts, and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods... which have been made into television and radio mini-series many times, most recently as ITV’s/PBS’s The Durrells.




Written by LW

January 7, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana”*…




How does now unstick itself and become the past, and when does the future morph into the present? How do these states transition, one into another, so seamlessly?

How long is right now ?…

[Fascinating explorations of different explanations…]

Each theory of right now has one thing in common: It challenges the notion that the present is reliable and objective, or that it stretches out infinitely in front of us, even if we sometimes perceive it that way. This is an important reminder because the way we think about time affects the kinds of decisions we make.

We don’t just think about the past, present, or future, we think about ourselves in those places. (That’s the impetus behind something called Time Perspective Theory, which argues that there are six different ways people regard time, and it greatly influences your perspective on life.)

Studies have found that many people think about themselves in the future not as themselves, but as other people. When asked to imagine a birthday in the far off future, people are more likely to envision it from a third-person viewpoint. When we think about ourselves in 10 years, compared to right now, it activates similar parts of our brain that think about others, not ourselves.

Our instinct to place a lot of emphasis on the present, said Hal Hershfield, a psychologist at UCLA who has studied how perceptions of time relate to the choices people make. But if we could better relate to our future selves, we could be better off later on. Hershfield and his collaborators did a study that found that those who felt more similar to their future selves made more future-oriented decisions and had higher levels of well-being across a decade…

How long is right now?  As long as it took you to read that question?  Or shorter?  Or it might not exist at all…

* Anthony G. Oettinger


As we remember Ram Dass, we might recall that it was on this date in 1914 that Henry Ford announced that his company would cut its workday from nine hours to eight, and double workers’ wages to $5 per day.

Cited as the beginning of the “living wage” revolution, it is often suggested that Ford made the move so that his employees could afford the product that they were making.  But many historians argue that the real motivations were likelier an attempt to reduce employee turnover and to put economic pressure on competitors.  In any event, that’s what happened:  while Ford’s move was hugely unpopular among other automakers, they saw the increase in Ford’s productivity– and a significant increase in profit margin (from $30 million to $60 million in two years)– and (mostly) followed suit.


Assembly line at the Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park plant, ca. 1913



Written by LW

January 5, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Okay, so that was trolley problem version number seven. Chidi opted to run over five William Shakespeares instead of one Santa Claus.”*…


Trolley Problem


Imagine you are standing beside some tram tracks. In the distance, you spot a runaway trolley hurtling down the tracks towards five workers who cannot hear it coming. Even if they do spot it, they won’t be able to move out of the way in time.

As this disaster looms, you glance down and see a lever connected to the tracks. You realise that if you pull the lever, the tram will be diverted down a second set of tracks away from the five unsuspecting workers.

However, down this side track is one lone worker, just as oblivious as his colleagues.

So, would you pull the lever, leading to one death but saving five?

This is the crux of the classic thought experiment known as the trolley dilemma, developed by philosopher Philippa Foot in 1967 and adapted by Judith Jarvis Thomson in 1985.

The trolley dilemma allows us to think through the consequences of an action and consider whether its moral value is determined solely by its outcome.

The trolley dilemma has since proven itself to be a remarkably flexible tool for probing our moral intuitions, and has been adapted to apply to various other scenarios, such as war, torture, drones, abortion and euthanasia.

The trolley dilemma explored: would you kill one person to save five?

See also your correspondent’s favorite examination of the issue, from The Good Place:


Indeed, Michael “resolves” the dilemma in a way that would make today’s Almanac honoree (below) proud:


For an earlier look at The Trolley Problem on (Roughly) Daily, see “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”*…

[Image at top from Devine Lu Linvega (or @neauoire@merveilles.town)]

* Michael, The Good Place, Season Two, Episode Five: “The Trolley Problem”


As we muse on morality, we might spare a thought for John Bordley Rawls; he died on this date in 2002 (Spinoza’s birthday and the anniversary of Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of the Species).  A moral and political philosopher, Rawls argued for “justice as fairness,” recommending equal basic rights, equality of opportunity, and promoting the interests of the least advantaged members of society.  He made these social justice arguments using a thought experiment he called the “original position,” in which people select what kind of society they would choose to live under as if they did not know which social position they would personally occupy.

Rawls received both the Schock Prize for Logic and Philosophy and the National Humanities Medal in 1999, the latter presented by President Bill Clinton, in recognition of the way in which Rawls’ work “helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.”  He is widely considered the most important political philosopher of the 20th century– with the unusual distinction among contemporary political philosophers of being frequently cited by the courts of law in the United States and Canada and referenced by practicing politicians in the United States and the UK.

A concept central to the “original position” approach to moral dilemmas is Rawls’ notion of a “veil of ignorance“: we decide the outcome without knowing which character we “are” in the situation… an approach that leads to Michael to his conclusion in The Good Place.  The “Golden Rule” strikes again!  [see also “The Unselfish Trolley Problem“]

220px-john_rawls source


“Men of broader intellect know that there is no sharp distinction betwixt the real and the unreal”*…



Colored cubes — known as “Tesseracts” — as depicted in the frontispiece to Hinton’s The Fourth Dimension (1904)


During the period we now call the fin de siècle, worlds collided. Ideas were being killed off as much as being born. And in a sort of Hegelian logic of thesis/antithesis/synthesis, the most interesting ones arose as the offspring of wildly different parents. In particular, the last gasp of Victorian spirituality infused cutting-edge science with a certain sense of old-school mysticism. Theosophy was all the rage; Huysmans dragged Satan into modern Paris; and eccentric poets and scholars met in the British Museum Reading Room under the aegis of the Golden Dawn for a cup of tea and a spot of demonology. As a result of all this, certain commonly-accepted scientific terms we use today came out of quite weird and wonderful ideas being developed at the turn of the century. Such is the case with space, which fascinated mathematicians, philosophers, and artists with its unfathomable possibilities…

In April 1904, C. H. Hinton published The Fourth Dimension, a popular maths book based on concepts he had been developing since 1880 that sought to establish an additional spatial dimension to the three we know and love. This was not understood to be time as we’re so used to thinking of the fourth dimension nowadays; that idea came a bit later. Hinton was talking about an actual spatial dimension, a new geometry, physically existing, and even possible to see and experience; something that linked us all together and would result in a “New Era of Thought.”…

Hinton’s ideas gradually pervaded the cultural milieu over the next thirty years or so — prominently filtering down to the Cubists and Duchamp. The arts were affected by two distinct interpretations of higher dimensionality: on the one hand, the idea as a spatial, geometric concept is readily apparent in early Cubism’s attempts to visualise all sides of an object at once, while on the other hand, it becomes a kind of all-encompassing mystical codeword used to justify avant-garde experimentation. “This painting doesn’t make sense? Ah, well, it does in the fourth dimension…” It becomes part of a language for artists exploring new ideas and new spaces…

By the late 1920s, Einsteinian Space-Time had more or less replaced the spatial fourth dimension in the minds of the public. It was a cold yet elegant concept that ruthlessly killed off the more romantic idea of strange dimensions and impossible directions. What had once been the playground of spiritualists and artists was all too convincingly explained. As hard science continued to rise in the early decades of the twentieth century, the fin-de-siècle’s more outré ideas continued to decline. Only the Surrealists continued to make reference to it, as an act of rebellion and vindication of the absurd. The idea of a real higher dimension linking us together as One sounded all a bit too dreamy, a bit too old-fashioned for a new century that was picking up speed, especially when such vague and multifarious explanations were trumped by the special theory of relativity. Hinton was as much hyperspace philosopher as scientist and hoped humanity would create a more peaceful and selfless society if only we recognised the unifying implications of the fourth dimension. Instead, the idea was banished to the realms of New Age con-artists, reappearing these days updated and repackaged as the fifth dimension. Its shadow side, however, proved hopelessly alluring to fantasy writers who have seen beyond the veil, and bring back visions of horror from an eldritch land outside of time and space that will haunt our nightmares with its terrible geometry, where tentacles and abominations truly horrible sleep beneath the Pacific Ocean waiting to bring darkness to our world… But still we muddle on through.

Hyperspace, tesseracts, ghosts, and colorful cubesJon Crabb, Editor, British Library Publishing, on the work of Charles Howard Hinton and the cultural history of higher dimensions: “Notes on the Fourth Dimension.”

[TotH to MK]

* H.P. Lovecraft, The Tomb


As we get high(er), we might recall that it was on this date in 1946 that Al Gross went public with his invention of the walkie talkie.  Gross had developed it as a top secret project during World War II; he went on to develop the circuitry that opened the way to personal pocket paging systems, CB radio, and patented precursors of the cell phone and the cordless phone.  Sadly for him, his patents expired before they became commercially viable.  ”Otherwise,” Gross said, after winning the M.I.T. lifetime achievement award, ”I’d be as rich as Bill Gates.”

While Gross himself is almost unknown to the general public, he did achieve one-step-removed notoriety in 1948 when he “gifted” his friend Chester Gould the concept of miniaturized radio transceivers, which Gross had just patented.  Gould put it to use as the two-way wrist radio in his comic strip Dick Tracy.

200px-ALGROS2 source


Written by LW

November 20, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind”*…


mind internet


Imagine that a person’s brain could be scanned in great detail and recreated in a computer simulation. The person’s mind and memories, emotions and personality would be duplicated. In effect, a new and equally valid version of that person would now exist, in a potentially immortal, digital form. This futuristic possibility is called mind uploading. The science of the brain and of consciousness increasingly suggests that mind uploading is possible – there are no laws of physics to prevent it. The technology is likely to be far in our future; it may be centuries before the details are fully worked out – and yet given how much interest and effort is already directed towards that goal, mind uploading seems inevitable. Of course we can’t be certain how it might affect our culture but as the technology of simulation and artificial neural networks shapes up, we can guess what that mind uploading future might be like.

Suppose one day you go into an uploading clinic to have your brain scanned. Let’s be generous and pretend the technology works perfectly. It’s been tested and debugged. It captures all your synapses in sufficient detail to recreate your unique mind. It gives that mind a standard-issue, virtual body that’s reasonably comfortable, with your face and voice attached, in a virtual environment like a high-quality video game. Let’s pretend all of this has come true.

Who is that second you?

Princeton neuroscientist, psychologist, and philosopher Michael Graziano explores: “What happens if your mind lives forever on the internet?

* Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance


As we ponder presence, we might spare a thought for William “Willy” A. Higinbotham; he died on this date in 1994.  A physicist who was a member of the team that developed the first atomic bomb, he later became a leader in the nuclear non-proliferation movement.

But Higinbotham may be better remembered as the creator of Tennis for Two— the first interactive analog computer game, one of the first electronic games to use a graphical display, and the first to be created as entertainment (as opposed to as a demonstration of a computer’s capabilities).  He built it for the 1958 visitor day at Brookhaven National Laboratory.

It used a small analogue computer with ten direct-connected operational amplifiers and output a side view of the curved flight of the tennis ball on an oscilloscope only five inches in diameter. Each player had a control knob and a button.


The 1958 Tennis for Two exhibit



Written by LW

November 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

“One must not think slightingly of the paradoxical”*…



The Building of the Argo, by Antoon Derkinderen, c. 1901. Rijksmuseum.


The thought problem known as the ship of Theseus first appears in Plutarch’s Lives, a series of biographies written in the first century. In one vignette, Theseus, founder-hero of Athens, returns victorious from Crete on a ship that the Athenians went on to preserve.

They took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, insomuch that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same…

Of course, the conundrum of how things change and stay the same has been with us a lot longer than Plutarch. Plato, and even pre-Socratics like Heraclitus, dealt in similar questions. “You can’t step in the same river twice,” a sentiment found on inspirational Instagram accounts, is often attributed to Heraclitus. His actual words—“Upon those who step into the same rivers, different and again different waters flow”—might not be the best Instagram fodder but, figuratively at least, provided the waters that the ship of Theseus later sailed.

Two thousand years later the ship is still bobbing along, though some of its parts have been replaced. Now known colloquially as Theseus’ paradox, in the U.S. the idea sometimes appears as “Washington’s ax.” While not as ancient as the six-thousand-year-old stone ax discovered last year at George Washington’s estate, the age-old question remains: If Washington’s ax were to have its handle and blade replaced, would it still be the same ax? The same has been asked of a motley assortment of items around the world. In Hungary, for example, there is a similar fable involving the statesman Kossuth Lajos’ knife, while in France it’s called Jeannot’s knife.

This knife, that knife, Washington’s ax—there’s even a “Lincoln’s ax.” We don’t know where these stories originated. They likely arose spontaneously and had nothing to do with the ancient Greeks and their philosophical conundrums. The only thing uniting these bits of folklore is that the same question was asked: Does a thing remain the same after all its parts are replaced? In the millennia since the ship of Theseus set sail, some notions that bear its name have less in common with the original than do the fables of random axes and knives, while other frames for this same question threaten to replace the original entirely.

One such version of this idea is attributed to Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, proffering his sock as an example. An exhibit called Locke’s Socks at Pace University’s now-defunct Museum of Philosophy serves to demonstrate. On one wall, six socks were hung: the first a cotton sports sock, the last made only of patches. A museum guide, according to a New York Times write-up, asked a room full of schoolchildren, “Assume the six socks represent a person’s sock over time. Can we say that a sock which is finally all patches, with none of the original material, is the same sock?”

The question could be asked of Theseus’ paradox itself. Can it be said that a paradox about a ship remains the same if the ship is replaced with a knife or a sock? Have we lost anything from Theseus’ paradox if instead we start calling it “the Locke’s Sock paradox”?…

Is a paradox still the same after its parts have been replaced?  A consideration: “Restoring the Ship of Theseus.”

* Soren Kierkegaard


As we contemplate change, we might spare a reasoned thought for the Enlightenment giant (and sock darner) John Locke; the physician and philosopher died on this date in 1704.  An intellectual descendant of Francis Bacon, Locke was among the first empiricists. He spent over 20 years developing the ideas he published in his most significant work, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), an analysis of the nature of human reason which promoted experimentation as the basis of knowledge.  Locke established “primary qualities” (e.g., solidity, extension, number) as distinct from “secondary qualities” (sensuous attributes like color or sound). He recognized that science is made possible when the primary qualities, as apprehended, create ideas that faithfully represent reality.

Locke is, of course, also well-remembered as a key developer (with Hobbes, and later Rousseau) of the concept of the Social Contract.  Locke’s theory of “natural rights” influenced Voltaire and Rosseau– and formed the intellectual basis of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

220px-John_Locke source



Written by LW

October 28, 2019 at 1:01 am

“All that is solid melts into air”*…




Ideas replaced with feelings. A radical relativism that implies truth is unknowable. Politicians who revel in lying openly, shamelessly, as if being caught out is the point of politics. The notion of the people and the many redefined ceaselessly, words unmoored from meaning, ideas of the future dissolving into nasty nostalgias with enemies everywhere, conspiracy replacing ideology, facts equated to fibs, discussion collapsing into mutual accusations, where every argument is just another smear campaign, all information warfare … and the sense that everything under one’s feet is constantly moving, inherently unstable, liquid …

Almost a decade ago I left Russia because I was exhausted by living in a system where, to quote myself invoking Hannah Arendt, “nothing is true and everything is possible.” Those were still relatively vegetarian days in Moscow — before the invasion of Ukraine — but it was already a world where terms like liberal or democracy were used to mean their opposite, where paranoia was increasingly replacing reasoned argument, and where spectacle had pushed out sense. You were left with only gut feelings to lead your way through the fog of disinformation. I returned to the thing once known as “the West,” living in London and often working in the United States, because, in the words of my naïve self, I wanted to live in a world where “words have meaning,” where facts were not dismissed as “just information war.” Russia seemed a country unable to come to terms with the loss of the Cold War, or with any of the traumas of the 20th century. It was ultimately, I thought, a sideshow, a curio pickled in its own agonies. Russians stressed this themselves: in Western Europe, America, things are “normalno” they would tell me. If you have the chance, that is where you send your wives, children, money … to “normalnost.”

Back in the West, however, I soon noticed things that reminded me of Moscow…

Peter Pomerantsev in an essay from his new book, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality: “Normalnost.”

Pair with his essay “The Info War of All Against All” and this review of his book.

[image above: source]

* Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto


As we get down with Diogenes, we might expect little or no help from today’s birthday boy, Henri-Louis Bergson; he was born on this date in 1859.  A philosopher especially influential in the first half of the 20th Century, Bergson convinced many of the primacy of immediate experience and intuition over rationalism and science for the understanding reality…. many, but not the likes of Wittgenstein, Russell, Moore, and Santayana, who thought that he willfully misunderstood the scientific method in order to justify his “projection of subjectivity onto the physical world.”  Still, in 1927 Bergson won the Nobel Prize (in Literature); and in 1930, received France’s highest honor, the Grand-Croix de la Legion d’honneur.

Bergson’s influence waned mightily later in the century.  To the extent that there’s been a bit of a resurgence of interest, it’s largely the result, in philosophical circles, of Gilles Deleuze’s appropriation of Bergson’s concept of “mulitplicity” and his treatment of duration, which Deleuze used in his critique of Hegel’s dialectic, and in the religious and spiritualist studies communities, of Bergson’s seeming embrace of the concept of an overriding/underlying consciousness in which humans participate.




Written by LW

October 18, 2019 at 1:01 am

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