Friday, April 25, 2014

Essay on Plato, Descartes, and The Matrix

This is an essay I wrote for my philosophy class last week.  I took a more informal approach than my professor wanted, and my grade suffered for it.  However, I think it's appropriate for my blog.

In all honesty I think this part of philosophy is one of the main reasons many people dislike philosophy in general.  Imagine you're an ordinary student attending an ordinary college and you bump into a doctoral student who's sitting at the college coffee shop and you strike up a conversation.  This student is doing some sort of doctoral work in epistemology and is working on skepticism.  What student would enjoy being grilled with such questions as, "How do you know that's true?"  And, even after giving what a regular person would accept as a common sense answer to that question.  The philosopher asks, "Well, how do you know that's true?"  The student gives another different explanation of justification, to which the philosopher asks again, "How do you know that's true?"  After only a few times most regular people would give up, shaking his or her head walking away from such conversations wondering why some people are so wrong in the head.  Here's another tack.  When I asked my wife some questions about justification and epistemology, after pressing the idea a bit she finally gave up and responded, "people need to think less and go to the beach more."  (We live on a sub-tropical island in the South Pacific.)  Epistemology, especially justification and skepticism can eventually devolve into an infinite regress.  Now, these questions may make for interesting movie ideas like The Matrix and Inception, but it's more akin to irritating to an ordinary non-philosopher.  So, let's talk about three different approaches to skepticism and how/why justification is such a hard topic.

First, and oldest of these three is Plato's cave analogy from Book VII of The Republic.  During this book-long conversation Plato brings up an allegory of people that are chained in a cave and the only things they can see are shadows that are cast along the wall.  An interesting side note, different philosophers see this allegory differently.  I noticed this as I had just listened to The Republic audiobook and then heard a philosophy lecture.  The professor giving the lecture seemed to twist the idea and the people making the shadows into the villains.  The point as I understand Plato's meaning in the allegory is not we should be necessarily be skeptical of reality.  It seems more about how philosophers are the only ones that really explore the depths of reality and it's our responsibility to go back into the cave and teach those people what we've seen.  Yes, every part of The Republic is full of depth and meaning, but the people stuck in the cave and their misunderstanding of reality is not, in my opinion, the point of the allegory. (Plato, Book VII)

Then in chronological order, we come to Descartes' Meditations on First Philosophy.  Specifically, Meditation I paragraph 2 stood out to me.  I think this bit is key,  “ … it will not be necessary for me to show that the whole of these are false--a point, perhaps, which I shall never reach …" and this, "… it will be sufficient to justify the rejection of the whole if I shall find in each some ground for doubt."  Though it may seem like it and indeed people often take Descartes for a supreme skeptic, he is not setting out to cause people to doubt he’s merely searching for the only thing that he can really know for sure, without a doubt.  In this search for what can be known with epistemological certainty he says, we'll never reach the point where he could show everything to be false, nor does everything have to have some doubt, just the foundational ideas.  If the foundation is dubious the whole edifice can be considered faulty.  However, in the end, Descartes finds a foundation: I doubt, which is thinking, therefore I exist.  So despite all the doubting and tearing down of the edifice of knowledge, Descartes found the foundation and we can start from there. (Descartes, 1641)

Now we come to the 1999 pop culture treatment of skepticism.  Though not as deep as Descartes’ or Plato’s treatment of not being sure of what anyone knows, it’s still an interesting portrayal of skepticism.  How would it feel to be hooked up to some kind of super-computer?  It seems like it’d be impossible to know unless there were some way to break out.  There has to be someone there with the red pill offering answers to all our questions.  Despite the implausibility of a select few having the unexplainable ability to twist the matrix to their desires, including Neo’s (Keanu Reeves’ character) ability to twist reality and give himself god-like powers in the computer-world that is somehow controlling everyone else’s thoughts.  Though the movie does paint a rather interesting dystopian picture of what it would look like for computers to control everyone’s mind, it seems completely implausible to me.  Though of course, that’s just what the mind-controlling supercomputer would want me to think. (Wachowski, "The Matrix", 1999)

So, how can we escape these epistemological puzzles?  How can we prove that we’re not all in a deep Inception-like dream, or Plato’s cave, or haunted by Descartes’ evil demon? (Descartes, 1641, p. I 12)  Well, short answer is, we can’t.  Well, not enough that we could dispel all doubt and forever put to rest any metaphysical skepticism.  One challenge would be to ask the skeptic how one can live with complete doubt of everything at all times.  Also, the self-refutation of the claim that we’re in a computer, that doesn’t need proof that we’re in a computer.  In other words, prove to me that we are just brains in a vat or disembodied thoughts swimming through an intricate computer SIM world.  However, to me the best test for the metaphysical skeptic is to change something with your mind.  I’m not asking for a miracle.  I’m just saying that if all we consist of are brains floating around in a vats, we should be able, at least a small amount, to manipulate the world around us with only our minds.  I understand that to do so in front of a group of people would seem impossible because not only would one have to change their own mind’s perception of a thing, but everyone else’s as well at the same time.  However, in the privacy of one’s own room or even just one’s own mind, one should be able to change something simple.  Like the bending spoon scene in The Matrix, everyone, with practice should be able to convince oneself that “there is no spoon” and make it appear however he or she wanted.

Despite the character Cypher’s opinion that deception is better than the truth, I’m going to have to side with (well Morpheus and) Plato that it is much better to seek the truth and when one has at least caught a glimpse of it, pass it along so that everyone tries to unhook from the matrix or break the chains binding them in the cave.  Though we can never get to that point, it’s better to live as if that isn’t the case and seek out knowledge than to slog on or stick one’s head in the sand doubting that we even have heads.  Much like Professor Kreeft says of Aquinas building a huge philosophy on a single small foundational point. (Kreeft, 2009)  We can rest on Descartes’ cogito ergo sum and build our epistemology from there.  Even if we’re just brains in vats, at least we’re somebodies.  Even without a body, our minds still exist.  If this is some elaborate dream someday we’ll wake up.  We should build our noetic structure a bit like this dome:

(Geodome, 2004) and have the foundation, though shaky it may seem, if rooted deeply in the foundation that no matter what parts of the dome are doubted the pile upon which it rests is immovable.

Once we’ve established that foundation let us add some depth to the foundation by placing it in God.  That’s not to say that we cannot or should not take the existence of God on faith.  But, if one is driving down the road looking at street signs one cannot live as if every one of them is a lie.  And there are so many signs that point to the existence of God.  So, though I may have, like everyone else, started life taking all knowledge through the evidence of authority; I have since grown up and matured and thought through my philosophy quite a bit.  I have come to a point where the foundation is firmly fixed on my own existence and that existence only makes sense with the existence of God.  On that foundation I build my beliefs.  If someone were to prove to me without a doubt that JFK was assassinated by conspiracy with two shooters; my geodesic dome of knowledge wouldn’t fall apart.  In fact I see this as a kind of synthesis of foundationalism and coherentism.  I really only hold one (or two) basic belief as my central belief.  This is how the coherentism system gets started, with at least one or two foundational beliefs upon which other are built.  My foundation doesn’t depend on my senses.  If anything, my foundation can be said to be the only possible guaranteed a priori knowledge, that is, that I exist.  If I don’t exist and I don’t know that I exist, how can I be asking myself if I exist?  Sure, it might be that my body doesn’t exist and my senses are all untrustworthy, but I most certainly exist and I can use deduction, induction, blind faith, gut feelings, and whatever I want to justify any belief above the foundation.  Each different justification has its own level of importance in the structure that is my belief system.  I can’t escape the question, “how do you know?” any more than any other thinking person, but I can justify what I know in many different ways and the more I defend something the more difficult it is to take it away.

If only everyone could hang out in places like this.

Descartes, R. (1641). Meditations on first philosophy. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue.
Geodome -- Geodesic design software. (2004, November 11). Geodome -- Geodesic design software. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from
Kreeft, P. (2009). The philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Prince Frederick, MD: Recorded Books.
Plato, The Republic, “The Allegory of the Cave” Book VII, 514A1-518D8.
Wachowski, A. (Director). (1999). The Matrix [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros. Pictures :.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Long Time no Writing

I've been busy so let me give a bit of background before I get into what I've been thinking about lately.

I went to Korea to study Korean at Kyunghee University (경회대학), and I had a great time.  I made new friends, ate good food, and got to practice Korean quite a bit.  My wife and kids came to visit Korea for a week after my class was finished and I got to be their tour-guide/interpreter.  It was tons of fun!  We went to a bunch of places, but where I felt I did the best job as guide/interpreter was at the planetarium/kids museum in Namsan Park (남산공원) I basically translated the entire planetarium show for my boys and I felt like I only missed a few things.  My wife loved the fabric market in Dongdaemun (동대문시장) though that was one of the hardest parts for me as an interpreter, because there are so many specialized terms for various types of fabrics and they're different dependant on what you're using it to make.  Fortunately Michelle can just tell by feel and look which fabrics she wanted, and I just had to help with prices and amounts.

After returning from that month-long trip I get back to work and I'm the busiest I've ever been with work.  As many of you know I work for the US Air Force and I fly on an airplane to do my job.  Well, we have multiple planes here now and we don't have nearly enough people to cover all the positions in all the planes so I've been flying much more than I've ever flown before (with the exception of being deployed to the Middle-east a few years back.  On top of being super busy with work I restarted online classes and I'm taking Theology 202 and Philosophy 201 through Liberty U Online.  It's a bit disappointing so far because Philosophy is one of my favorite topics and while I feel like I have a good grasp of the concepts taught so far (it's only an intro to Philosophy class), I have the lowest grade I've ever had in any of my online courses.  The thing that bothers me about the class (it's also true of my current Theology class) is that they don't seem to be really trying to test whether I understand the material through the quizzes.  Rather they seem to be testing whether or not I read the assigned chapters.  For example, there was a question on a recent quiz that asked very specifically what a particular text says is important in a certain situation.  All the possible selections were logical and would have worked in the particular situation but the answer was specifically what that author said.  One could (in fact my coworker said something to this effect) that the reading is the material to be tested and that's what the quiz is getting at.

To me it's more important to encourage critical thinking, not test to see if students can parrot back what an author has said on such and such a subject.  I'm glad that there's more than just the quizzes in the class (there are a few essays).  I feel that, in both theology and philosophy, as long as one can give reasonable defenses and logical support for one's statements they've learned the material.  The point of theology is to understand the different belief systems surrounding humans trying to understand God as He has revealed Himself.  So if a student can come up with a commonsense, logical and biblical defense for a particular belief then that student has succeeded in theology.  Same with philosophy though one can remove the biblical component.  That's not to say one cannot apply biblical beliefs to the study of philosophy and vice versa, rather that philosophical answers that contain biblical arguments are not considered basic philosophical arguments.  That's the philosophy of religion or theology, depending on what the presenter is arguing.

Which brings me to yesterday.  I had to work and this particular time I was teamed up with a coworker that completely disagrees with me in almost every aspect of life.  After some random(ish) conversation about our recent exploits we started talking about philosophy.  I opened up with attempting to quote this section of one of the texts for my philosophy class, from Hasker's Metaphysics; Constructing a World View and I hope the exact same can be said of me:
". . . [I am] a Christian who loves philosophy and would like to consider himself a philosopher; he is a philosopher who loves Jesus Christ and want to be known as a disciple. A Christian first, a philosopher second—but neither one at the expense of the other. The insights I have gained from my Christian faith and experience prove to be of immense value as I do my philosophy, even though I cannot appeal to biblical authority as the basis for a philosophical argument. And the results of philosophical study enhance Christian understanding in many different ways—some of them already hinted at, others yet to be shown."
I think every Christian interested in philosophy should be able to say something just like that!  Well, I wasn't able to capture the words of the quote, but I talked about the basic idea that I want to be a philosopher and a Christian and that neither one detracts from the other.  One of the things we touched on was not using biblical authority/quotes to make philosophical arguments.  He basically didn't seem to believe that so we launched into a long conversation about the beginning of the universe, meaning of life, source for morality, and other philosophical interests.

It seemed that he accepts Big Bang cosmology for what it is, and that chains of events cannot cause themselves, but insisted that the universe is actually eternal, we just can't see beyond that beginning.  So, we have an immeasurable, invisible, impersonal properties of physics that led to the Big Bang.  He gave the analogy that time and space is a wave that we're surfing on, we can look back and see the top of the wave but we can't see the other side, but we know it's there.  He claims that theism is irrational because theist postulate that God was the one that started the series of events called the universe at the Big Bang.  Implying that it's more reasonable to assume that there was just something before the Big Bang that caused it, we just cannot see or measure anything that might have happened before the Big Bang.  This is even though I defined the whole of the universe as a closed system encompassing all that actually exists, past present and future.  Basically, the way I understand his argument is pure materialism forcing him to ignore the evidence of the Big Bang and postulate that that must not actually have been the beginning.

He did does seem to understand that his position is a position of faith.  But, it doesn't make sense to me that he could consider his position to be the more logical.  We both arrive at the same beginning, and that something had to start the beginning but rather than accept that it must be something outside the something that exists, a timeless limitless being that started all the somethings, he insists that it's not really the beginning that there's an invisible immeasurable something before the beginning that became what we call the initial singularity from which the Big Bang originated.  I tried to use multiple tactics that show that that argument is enough to reach the conclusion that there is something out there that started all this, then when one takes that as an acceptable premise, the other arguments for God point to other characteristics.  That initial premise will only allow that that something is incredibly powerful (at least in the concept of power that we have), and that it must be limitless by all physical essences.  For example this entity must be timeless/eternal, because time is a function of the physical universe and this something is outside the physical universe.  There are other points but he refused to budge on the assertion that before the Big Bang was not really the beginning, that the universe is eternal.

I did "win" one point!  He asked what one had to do to be saved.  I don't know his full religious educational background except that he was once a Mormon.  He seemed genuinely surprised when I told him that one doesn't have to do anything to be saved.  I presented to "ABC" method of describing "attaining" salvation.  That is, Admit you've sinned (makes sense, since if you refuse that you don't need saving and wouldn't be asking these questions in the first place), Believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross to pay the penalty for your sins, and Choose to accept that payment for the penalty of your sins.  I hope this was able to dispel the common notion that Christianity is about doing certain things.

I've already shared this photo once but I really like this cafe (and apparently the previous gif was bothersome)