18 October, 2004

A Lack of Substance (or: From Flaky to Wiki)

I just finished my calculus midterm.

What I like most about take-home exams is that while taking the test you can listen to OCR songs and play games of chess and scrabble at the same time. Plus, if you get stuck on a problem, you can always sleep on it and try again the following day. I think that whenever I finally get a job teaching mathematics, I'm going to primarily give take-home exams. It just seems better to me.

Y'know, it's a very scary thought to think of me teaching. Not two years ago, I was what CHL called a Rand-head, though I denied it at the time. And it is only in the past week that I have started reading things like Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. (Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry on this book is only a paragraph long... Perhaps I should try getting off my ass and actually doing something constructive for once by writing about it.) I know that perhaps it seems strange to others that I would comment on this, but it is a big deal to me. I am not well trained, and it bothers me.

Now I know that others will probably groan at this point. I know that Russ would say: "What do you want to be trained for? Training is brain-washing." Just the other day, I spoke of philosophers needing to know the now almost universally defunct Aristotle in front of Matt, and his immediate knee-jerk reaction was wonder at why anyone should study a historical philosophy that has little relevance to what is commonly believed in today. So why should I worry about my training? After all, I am at least somewhat adequate at argument, and I know enough in my own fields to be moderately aware of what is going on.

But... It's just not enough.

It seems like most everything I've done in my life has been pretty damned half-assed. I dropped out of school, opting instead for a GED. I never worked in any job for longer than a few months at the most. Every essay I've written has been decidedly subpar, and every argument I've been in has resulted in little-to-no difference in the minds of those I argued against.

It's not that I'm not intelligent; I've seen the world around me, and I realize my own proficiency when it comes to mathematics, physics, or philosophy. But... I'm just not... reliable.

This semester, I signed up for an English class that looked interesting, just as an elective course. But I've missed five classes so far, and missed reading two of the books on the syllabus for the class. Even in my most advanced math class, I recently got a note from my professor telling me that I had already missed one class, and that if I was absent again, he would have to drop me. His statement hit pretty hard, since I am, after all, his favorite student -- but he's right: I need to be responsible.

About a year ago, I wrote a primer on the MTGN forums concerning the virtue of skeptical thinking. I cited Carl Sagan's Demon Haunted World and Robert Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary as references, but... ::sigh:: I've always felt particularly crappy about the primer I wrote. As I was writing it, I kept thinking to myself over and over again: "Why am I bothering to write this? There are literally dozens of essays on exactly this same topic, the best two of which I'm citing here, but why bother writing an essay when I could just link to these better writers instead?"

Now, when I look back on it, I shudder. The essay is badly written and hard to follow. Those aren't exactly the best qualities for a primer to have. It is by no means concise, let alone elegant. I used bad word choices. I used "e.g." where I should have put "i.e.". I added no new information that Sagan, Carroll, et al had already spoken adequately on. It was a worthless, useless essay, unless it might have caused someone to see the citations given and actually follow up on them. (Yeah, right.)

But I still remember the day I wrote it. I was browsing the forums, watching my peers write the most disturbing and horribly thought out posts and actually trying to pass off the incoherence as argument. And I just happened to have come across Sagan's Demon Haunted World earlier that day by Dr. Allin, and I decided to try and get out Sagan's message to my fellow forum readers.

It seems virtuous enough when I put it like that, except I left out one thing. When I wrote the essay, I did so thinking that I was doing a service, since surely none of the others had read the book before. Only the next day, I come to find out that CHL and others had already read the book, and it hit me: I know virtually nothing that others do not know more of.

My dad recently asked me to do some more work on his website, yet I haven't even started on it. I tried writing javascript code for a banner and couldn't get it to work. For a banner. I'm talking intro-level scripting here, and I couldn't get it to work.

It's enough to make one feel rather worthless.

None of this would really be that big a deal, except these are the fields that I am actually intent upon knowing about. Just the other day, David asked me some random question on Lorentz fields, fully expecting that I would know the answer right away -- and I certainly should have! -- but I could not even remember where the name Lorentz came from. I could not place the name of a Nobel-prize winning theoretical physicist, who got his prize for correctly predicting the electron! For someone who insists that one of his fields is physics, this kind of thing should be a piece of cake, but instead I had to do a google search in order to answer David's question.


To accomplish nothing substantive is extremely disappointing to me. I still remember the old middle school days when Emp and I 'proved' 2=1, though we divided by zero, and when we 'proved' all triangles were isosceles, though we misused the visual geometry when we should have looked to the actual axioms instead. But these are extreme examples. I can remember when I first read Euclid's Elements, proving on my own the propositions before reading Euclid's proof. Or when I worked on raw data from particle interactions to see if I could reproduce some of the old Fermilab results. Doing stuff back then was enjoyable, even if only because it felt like I was actually doing something. I think the main cause of my depression between middle school and my college years was my lack of doing anything at all. ::sigh:: So many years wasted...

I would like to actually do something substantive. I feel like I'm on a roll after finishing this calculus midterm; I think I'm actually going to try and write a Wikipedia article on Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica. And I'm not going to do this half-assed, either. I'm going to do the research necessary to write a well thought out article, covering as many aspects as possible on the topic.

Wish me luck.

05 October, 2004

St. Joseph's Chapel (or: Reason vs. Doctrine: A Schizophrenic Debate)

What a beautiful chapel we have on campus. The marble floors and the vaulted ceilings are nothing when put up against European standards, but the flamboyant tresses and angelic figures make up an impressive facade next to the other buildings in olde towne Mobile, Alabama, much as Hamlet shines next to the crap of modern writers, despite its best speech using four opening lines with four feminine endings and including the stutter in blank verse: "WhethER 'tis noblER in the mind to suffER".

Still, seeing as how I live in the heart of darkness itself, the feeling of standing alone in the chapel late at night while everyone else is fast asleep is breathtaking. The limit of my architectural knowledge lies at the National Cathedral in D.C., and from what I understand, this is next to nothing in comparison to the town houses of Europe (not counting the cathedral in Milan -- ugh). So it is certainly understandable when I am awestruck by its (relative) magnificence; that, and then there's also the fact that my tuition went toward paying for this bloated two-dimensional pickwick-paper-like thing. One would almost expect me to be disgusted by the extravagance, but if I were disgusted by all that should disgust me, I'd never do anything with my life except exude disgusted... er, disgust.

Anyway, when it's late at night and the catholic masses lie dormant, the chapel is a good place to be. The new pipe organ (to be constructed in Germany, no less) has not yet arrived, but in the meantime a small organ resides in its place, along with a grand piano of dubious tuning. (It seems the middle 'C' on the organ differs from the grand by quite a wide margin.) Playing in front of an audience never did suit me entirely well, but when the whole of the college is nowhere near, I do not mind a little harmless ivory-tickling every now and then. And though the architectural style of the chapel is quite atrocious (even more so considering its recent restoration), the completely accidental harmonics of the inner structure is quite impressive. (At least it is for a Mobile-area native like myself; every concert I've gone to has used the historic-yet-harmonically-dissonant Saenger Theatre.)

But what impresses me even more is how easily my mood may change whenever I visit the chapel. It is as though the chapel itself acts as a conduit of sorts, allowing the progression of my mood to travel more freely in either direction. Generally, I admit, the chapel has a calming effect, reminding me that peaceful contemplation has been regarded as a virtue by many in the world, and that I should not worry so at the state of drunken stupors rampaging across campus each and every weekend. But occasionally I will be standing there, aghast at the horrors done in the name of religion, and I will feel that much more intensely adamant that the world harbors none who would understand the never-spoken-of eleventh virtue as a means between the extremes of hedonism and an overly charitable philosophy.

So it does not surprise me so much as one might think it should when, on a recent visit to St. Joseph's chapel, I paced the floors arguing incessantly with an incorporeal vision of God himself, trying to get a common consensus of what is.

Now I imagine that most who read this will pass off my odd quirks such as speaking aloud to a non-existent deity as indicative of insanity, or at least stupidity. But personally, I find that my private antics are helpful toward coming to determinations within my own mind. Not two years previous to this, I considered myself quite enamored with objectivism, and though none could adequately argue me to anything more than a standstill on the matter, I maintained a modicum of decency clothed in self-consistency. Many of my friends at the time (including Revolution1916, CoolHandLuke, Highroller, Harm'sWay, & ChildOfBabylon) considered my objectivist views to be (how should I put it?) quite questionable, yet, strangely enough, their respect for my focus on debate over dogmatism kept them at my throat without hating my guts (at least I hope they didn't hate me). And now, as a self-proclaimed liberal and practicing vegetarian, I seem to have come full circle à la Vico (too bad literature cannot yet say the same). The exegesis of this modification of base "first-cause" value system is directly delineated by one thing, and one thing only: argument. It is through argument that I have come to follow, understand, or even acknowledge any major system of thought. Without argument, I would be no more than least of my contemporaries. And so it is that my "odd quirks" are important to who I am as a person -- not by their 'quirkiness', but by their predilection toward argument.

The argument in question is one hinted at by my reading of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It is written by one Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher of admitted importance, though due to relevance or ridiculousness I have not yet been able to determine. The argument flowed as follows:

I stated unequivocally in the presence of God's own residence the fact that certainty of scientific structures is completely different (i.e., a difference in kind, rather than in degree) than the absurdity of certainty in any religious belief. Of course, a counter was immediately (and forcibly) given:

"If a man is told to believe that the doubt of Thomas is wrong, his immediate thoughts and reactions are exactly the same as they would be if he were told that the light would come on once a particular switch were flipped. The minds of two different people in these two situations would be similar in kind, though perhaps not in degree, since the immediate reaction is based on emotional attachment alone. But even after a period of thought on the matter, continued belief in their respective propositions would rely upon observation, and not upon any tyrannical decree of thought. While it may be true that each side has its own oddballs who may believe Thomas is wrong to doubt even after repeated highly regarded theses that doubt is necessary for theological belief to hold true, or that the light switch should continue to work even during the wrath of a tornado downs the power station, strictly competent adherents to both sides may agree that the continued belief in any proposition should rest entirely upon constant observation."

The specific examples of the argument were given to me as I walked beside the walls of the chapel; Thomas was brought up when I saw the fourteenth station of the cross, and remembered the admonition given him for doubting the resurrection, and a light switch was brought up when I noticed the switches on the back of the altar, invisible to the parishioners who always sit in front of it.

"But," I countered after a moment, "a believer in a doctrine of God employs faith; a believer in science employs reason."

"Not so; as you yourself said, they both are 'believers', and the reason we give that name to both is because they share the property of employing belief, reason-based or otherwise."

"Fine, but a reason-based belief is clearly superior to a doctrine-based belief."


"Because reason is not dogmatic, but it is..."

"What? What is it?"

I stumbled here, almost tripping over myself. I was too deeply immersed in thought to be able to continue my pacing.

"What were you going to say? Were you about to say that reason is self-evident? And if so, wouldn't that mean it were also dogmatic?"

The worst part about arguing with someone who is not there is that you feel really stupid when the nonexistent being beats you in an argument. "Then must we admit that reason-based belief is no different in kind from doctrine-based belief?"

I waited for a response, as I always do. But strangely, every time I am trounced in an argument and concede to the opposing side, the speaker for the opposition disappears, unable (or at least unwilling) to return again. I have often thought that my inner psyche, torn though it must be to think of such delusions, has some kind of reason for torturing me like this. Then again, what does it say about me when I always wait for a final word from a speaker who not only was never there, but then refuses to speak to me after I am persuaded to the speaker's side? Obviously, I am mentally ill in some fashion of the phrase. Of course, the whole of this paragraph is nothing but conclusions made by applying logical rules to propositions already asserted to be true -- in other words, reasoned thought. So my very justification for believing what I do doesn't even hold against the weight of its own elucidations. Reason itself seems to be quite suicidal, reducing its own importance to that of blind belief.

I am reminded of the judicial department of the United States of America. The Constitution does not specifically allow for the judicial branch to declare laws to be unconstitutional -- this would violate the separation of powers between the legislative and judicial branches of government. Yet in Marbury v. Madison (1803), judicial review was established by admitting that the court had no jurisdiction over the matter in the first place. By limiting its own power to rule, the Supreme Court magnified its power tremendously. Could reason be taking a similar route to increased importance?

(I realize the way that I stated the previous sentence would imply an Aristotelian final cause of reason "doing" this for a particular purpose, but what I mean to say is grounded more on whether reason-based belief might be understood as "more important" by relegating itself to equal importance with doctrine-based belief.)

If reason is no longer a special method with regard to determination of belief, then it behooves us to notice what about reason differentiates it from other bases for belief. Clearly, when we speak of doctrinal belief, our continued belief in a doctrine comes from "jibing" what the belief says and what we feel to be true. However, when we speak of reasoned belief, our continued belief in a proposition comes from "jibing" what the belief says and what the rules of logic (which we feel to be true) says about that proposition's consistency. In both cases, belief is implemented, and neither case immediately seems superior to the other. But a difference between them does exist, and that difference is most clearly illustrated by showing that reasoned belief comes not through what we feel is true, but from what logical rules say can be true in addition to what we "feel". And since the logical rules are merely relations between "things" that determine truth or falsity, reasoned belief relies upon a relation of what is said compared to other things that are said. For truth and falsity can only be determined through comparisons to other truths and falsities, and they rely upon one another, each not making sense without the other.

Therefore, reasoned belief is uniquely determined as a comparative belief with other propositions. Whereas doctrinal belief can never be said to be ultimately true nor false, reasoned belief can -- not because what is talked about really is true or false (blind belief must still be maintained), but because what is talked about is considered true when placed in a universe containing other statements "verifying" its truthfulness. In this way, the word "truth" is relegated to merely signifying "not contradictory with other true propositions" -- yet even then, the definition of truth becomes circular, since the concept of contradictory statements depends entirely upon concepts which require the concept of "truth" to be understood. It is a hodgepodge of relationary statements that depend upon one another in order to even exist, much like Google's PageRank system of deciding which website to list first for a particular search.

So what does all of this mean? That reasoned belief is "better" than doctrinal belief, despite only by degree and not in kind? That I should stop visiting the chapel late at night when I should be studying for a test? That I write the worst LiveJournal updates logically possible whilst using the most pedantic ink-horn terminology available? Or maybe all of the above. (Except the first one. I'm not sure that I fully showed how it can be considered "better".)

::sigh:: I'm lucky that I already have a girlfriend. Because if I didn't, I have absolutely no idea as to how I would ever get one.