Philosophy Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory

 

Creation

Posts Tagged ‘Protologism’

Dec 2 2008

We live in a time of great uncertainty, and learning how to deal with that is perhaps the greatest challenge we face. It sounds like a dramatic cliché, but like many clichés there is much to it. What uncertainties are we facing that previous generations did not face? The rich affluent West face an abundance of material and life-style choices never seen before, and like Barry Schwartz points out instead of making us happier it often creates frustration. The happiest we can ever hope to get is whatever the marketing promises and whenever we have made a choice the options we sacrificed are more than ever before. Our high expectations create disappointment, and the amount of choices create doubts about whether we made the best choice.

The whole notion of having major choices to make about how to live life is in many ways a novelty. Previous generations largely inherited their role in society from their parents, and their faith was not optional even for the most sophisicated philosphers and scientists. Christianity has been obligatory for most Westerners and now more and more people wake up to the fact that Christianity was merely a fairy tale with 2000 years of state sponsored marketing behind it. Any myth with that propaganda power behind it is bound to penetrate the core of our being and we are still rubbing our eyes at the breakfast table, grasping for the coffee that will make us leave that dream behind.

Another related source of uncertainty that is a complete novelty in the history of mankind is the interchange of cultures that is an inevitable consequence of globalisation and indeed proper general education. It is harder for us to cling to our native values when we are being challenged by other religious, political and cultural values. When we are faced with contrasting alternatives we are forced to ask ourselves why what we have is superior.

This doubt in our own superiority over other cultures and our unique position in the universe has been dealt further blows by the so called “masters of suspicion“: Copernicus, Darwin, Freud, Nietzsche and Marx who each have deprived us of some consoling myth or other. We are no longer at the centre of the universe, not essentially different from other animals, not the masters of ourselves, and religion is an opium to keep us from seeing reality.

Having deprived us of the cushy religious certainties science would ironically pull the rug underneath itself. Discoveries in quantum physics made almost 100 years ago were so contradictory to our habits of thinking that we still have not been able to make sense of them. The Uncertainty Principle presented us not only with a logical puzzle and counter-intuitive empirical results but also an epistemological fence previously undiscovered – there was a sign post saying “you can know this but nothing more.” That Newtonian physics could be challenged at all left a deep doubt in the entire project of Modernity with it’s belief in science and technology as the panacea for all human problems. If we cannot find a foundation for our knowledge, an Archimedean point on which to base all knowledge, how is science superior to religion or any fashionable myth that may capture the popular imagination for a time but will inevitably be replaced? If inside science there can be conflicting paradigms with an apparent equal claim on the truth, how can science itself claim authority over other traditional belief systems?

This is why I think we live if times of unprecedented uncertainty, and that causes grave anxiety. I suggest that there are two dominating ways of coping with this anxiety, and they are two sides of the same coin. The first is classic denial erupting into irrational authoritarianism, and the other is a hands-off, laissez faire, post-modern relativism that either accepts NO authority or claims ALL authorities to be equal – “I have my truth you have yours”. We are very aware of the danger that ideological and religious certainties can cause and how they can serve those in power. By demonising an enemy one can consolidate a people, unite them under God and send soldiers to die “ad majorem gloriam”, but while the relativist “solution” is healthier and an admirable effort in diplomacy I’m convinced it is not ultimately a cure for the anxiety. It is a natural reaction to the horrors of totalitarian power abuse by the Church, the State and even Science, to fall into the attitude that we cannot know anything and that any guess is as good as any other, but we know that that is not really true. That we cannot have absolute certainty does not mean we cannot tell better from worse. It does not mean our approximations cannot be good enough for most practical purposes. I think the relativist rebellion against authority is based on the exact same erroneous notion of what human knowledge is. The assumption is that unless the knowledge is somehow final and definite it is not knowledge at all, and ironically by rejecting ALL authority the relativist placebo is trying to find a new certainty in the opposite extreme. Instead of clearing away delusions it seems to offer everyone an epistemological holiday to be delusional, each one in their own favourite way.

Many have pointed out that paradoxically, by trying to distribute equal authority to all, the relativist is still saving a special position for that particular doctrine. In a world full of people that do not believe that truth is relative, he who holds that view is granting himself more authority than the others. In so doing he is performatively proving himself wrong. This is pretty much how Socrates sliced Protagoras doctrine that “man is the measure of everything” to pieces in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus 400BC.

Many relativists see the historian of science Thomas Kuhn as this (paradoxical) authority that has shown that science is just another type of religion. They think that his paradigm concept is the scientific equivalent of the church denominations, and like you have Protestants and Catcholics, you have String theorists and Multiverse physicists. Ironically Kuhn himself rejects these accusations of him being a relativist when writing “scientific development is, like biological, a unidirectional and irreversible process. Later scientific theories are better than earlier ones for solving puzzles in the often quite different environments to which they are applied. That is not a relativist’s position, and it displays the sense in which I am a convinced believer in scientific progress.”

Another irony is that while relativism may be motivated by a noble striving towards tolerance and diversity, if there is no neutral evidence based court in which to settle questions about truth there is nothing stopping totalitarian political powers to declare truth to be whatever serves their purposes. While the motivation is diplomatic tolerance it backfires and paves way for abusive authoritarianism, which is what Bertrand Russell argumented in the essay “The Ancestry of Fascism.”

Zen

Both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty.

Hence both the absolutist position and the relativist position are unsuccessful efforts of coping with uncertainty. This leaves the mind very frustrated as uncertainty is an essentially emotional problem. This can be seen in how people live. Gradually as we grow older we try to eliminate as much uncertainty and risk as possible. The more we accumulate the busier we are struggling not to loose it. The mind wants to eliminate any type of uncertainty double-quick. The clever old Buddhists called this the grasping mind.

While it is true that on an absolute and ultimate level we cannot know anything for sure, on a practical level we must still make choices based on our best guesses. While some of those guesses could for all practical purposes be considered ”true” the real question is why we feel such a need to convince ourselves that we are right? Why are we so hopeless at dealing with risk when in reality probabilities is all life has to offer? Essentially the Western world has never learnt how not to know. I say Western, not because it is an exclusively Occidental problem, but because Eastern philosophers such as Nagarjuna were well aware of the limits of thought way back when Christian hypocrites were simply paying lip-service to doubting Thomas.

Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge?

Another reason why we are so bad at not knowing is because what could be called “anepistemology” is a missing subject in our school curriculum. Anepistemology  would be the study of what we cannot know. Is it an absurd idea to have a course in unknowledge? Can you imagine a teacher sharing with the class everything they don’t know and things they have doubts about? Hard to picture, but I actually did a course in Quantum Physics and the Limits of Knowledge at Uni in Gothenburg when I was 19. That one course was perhaps the best I got from my five year philosophy studies.

The following small list of things we cannot know may serve as a starting point:

  • The future
  • Others’ motives
  • Our own motives
  • What, if anything, we are supposed to do on this planet
  • The answers to the big mysteries of the Universe
  • What it is like to be another being
  • How much there is to know and what proportion of that we actually know
  • Which of the ideas we now hold to be true that future generations will use as examples of our simple-mindedness

These some of the things we know that we cannot know with any high degree of certainty, yet every day we pretend we do. The role of education in this respect would be to teach about the limits of human knowledge and show that it is OK not to know. It is important to learn to make choices with insufficient information without reverting to false certainties. The future is not going to be any less uncertain and learning to take risks will be an even more important skill.

I also believe the practice of meditation can play an important role. One of the effects of meditation on the mind is the creation of a larger “inner space” in which opposing ideas can co-exist without creating a civil war. By observing ideas as if they were clouds passing by in one’s “inner sky” one can extract that emotional identification that can make one blinded by passion. A mind that feels safe and happy in the silence can navigate through the practical problems of every day life more efficiently. If uncertainty and fallibility is the starting point, the ground and context of every decision, one doesn’t need to fool oneself with false certainties nor despondently abstain from choosing. Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

Accepting the unknown is not being ignorant. It is being sincere.

For a related Psychosynthesis exercise check out this article on disidentification.

PS. Google inadvertently just told me more stuff we don’t seem to know. I use the define:xxx function but before I typed what I was looking for it suggested some common searches people have done lately. Interesting that socialism, philosophy and pragmatic are among the top 10!

General ignorance

Intellectual sincerity

Oct 30 2008

Protologism is a unique word, not only because it is new, but because it is probably the only word that for a limited time is an example of itself. Protologism is itself a protologism – it is autological – but as opposed to autological words like “noun” or “polysyllabic” it will not remain autological for long. Like a quantum particle that changes as a result of being observed, the fact that I use the word has the curious effect of ever so slightly changing not what it means, but what it is. The fact that you are learning about the concept protologism again contributes to the process by which it is no longer itself a protologism.

What on earth am I talking about?!

Protologisms are new concepts that are suggested by someone to be adopted by society. It is a word made up of proto, as in prototype, proton etc meaning first, and logos, meaning word or law. They should be distinguished from neologisms which are words that have already been adopted by at least a group of people for at least some time, eg. to google or chatear [Esp]. At the other end paleologisms are ancient words that have been with us for centuries. Protoloogism as a concept has been proposed by the authors of wiktionary, but has yet to be widely circulated.

I think it is a brilliant concept for a brilliant thing. Coming up with new words is one of the best cures for the common illness of thinking one understands something just because one has a word for it. Truth is that using old familiar words often blinds us from seeing new things. Protologisms can give us a jamais-vu experience (seeing old things in new ways, never seen before, itself a neologism).

Here some of the wiktionary protologism contenders:

  • aaaabuse: The act of trying to use unusual naming conventions to get your entry placed ahead of everyone else’s. Cf. the George Lopez episode where Angie states that she had her wedding planning business put in the phonebook as Aaaaangie’s Wedding Planning. “I knew I’d get more business if I came before Triple A Weddings!”
  • a: The fear of short words, not to be confused with hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia, the fear of long words.
  • wonkalicious: Expression of delight on the flavour of a food that looks disgusting.

Some are less promising than others I guess, but I think everyone should make up words, as many as possible. I suppose that makes me a linguistic liberal, or simply a pro-protologist – one for the list?

Oct 30 2008

Sarah Jane, a mother of three with a stable if not exciting marriage to a lawyer, is staring at a text message from a rather dashing young journalist by the name of Laurence. They met at a party at a common friends house and she let herself flirt and insinuate she was up for play. When they ran into each other at the local supermarket she felt a thrill at the mere thought of a secret adventure and that is when she gave him her number. As her heart is beating and her eyes re-reading the message in that old black and gray Nokia font for the fifth time she takes a deep breath and decides to ignore the invitation. It is not a choice based in what her feelings are yearning for now, she knows that right now her skin would come alive as if back from the dead, but she knows that if she makes this choice it will lead her up to another choice. She may change due to the choice she could make now. She might change into someone that is prepared to loose that which she now holds the most precious – her marriage, her family and her reputation. It is not a mere choice based in her wish, it is a pre-emptive choice protecting herself from a future choice by her potential self.

A lot of choices in life are like Sarah Jane’s. You might want to stay away from a crowd of earlier wild friends once you find yourself studying for a degree or in a stable relationship. You might avoid reading a book you suspect might challenge your faith or opinions, not because you think the opposing ideas are false – rather the contrary. You are attached to your ideas and prefer to keep them whether or not they are true, so you pre-emptively avoid scrutiny.

The difference between a normal choice and a pre-emptive choice is that the latter is aimed at preventing yourself from making another choice. It is an act of will against developing another will. You currently do not want what you suspect you might come to desire, and now you do not want to be such a person.

pre-emptive: made so as to deter an anticipated unpleasant situation

UPDATE: 8 FEB. 2012

After having listened to a wonderful podcast from Little Atoms featuring the neuroscientist David Eagleman I have come to learn that there is actually a concept in decision making theory that captures this idea, and that is goes all the way back to Homer. It is called a Ulysses contract. “The term refers to the pact that Ulysses (Greek name “Ὀδυσσεύς”, Odysseus) made with his men as they approached the Sirens. Ulysses wanted to hear the Sirens’ song although he knew that doing so would render him incapable of rational thought. He put wax in his men’s ears so that they could not hear, and had them tie him to the mast so that he could not jump into the sea. He ordered them not to change course under any circumstances, and to keep their swords upon him to attack him if he should break free of his bonds.

Upon hearing the Sirens’ song, Ulysses was driven temporarily insane and struggled with all of his might to break free so that he might join the Sirens, which would have meant his death.”