Talons Philosophy

An Open Online Highschool Philosophy Course

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Finding Beauty in a Flaming Charlie Brown Christmas Tree

To begin I think it is important to state my own definition of an aesthetic experience. I believe that an aesthetic experience can be positive or negative, lasts for a limited amount of time, and is markedly different from everyday experiences. There are three criteria for an experience to be aesthetic, the first being an emotional connection to the experience. If an experience is able to elicit strong emotions associated with pleasure or disgust and a feeling of personal connection within someone, I believe it becomes vivid and aesthetic. Secondly, a high degree of mindfulness is necessary during the experience. I agree with the definition of mindfulness as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations.” The final criterion is a sense of novelty or rarity surrounding the experience, more specifically, an experience that is either new, or familiar but rare. When an experience is new there is a higher level of concentration associated with it and you are more in the moment. When an experience is familiar but rare there is a strong emotion and connection but it still requires concentration.

In terms of how aesthetics fits with other areas of philosophy, I believe it fits very well with both metaphysics and epistemology, especially the inquiries that I chose to pursue for these topics. In metaphysics I looked into the self and concluded that the self is a product of our life experiences, in epistemology I looked into memories and how they are created and become knowledge. I believe that the aesthetic experience is a major contributor to our memories which in turn contribute to our knowledge which makes us who we are and builds up the self. The more diverse a range of aesthetic experiences we collect, the more complex and intricate the self becomes.

My aesthetic experiences over the holidays led me to develop my third piece of criteria, that an aesthetic experience should have a sense of novelty or rarity. A few examples of new aesthetic experiences I had include meeting my baby cousin for the first time, watching Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and taking a foam rolling class. Although this collection is very diverse, each experience required a state of mindfulness, provoked emotions or sensations, and was pleasing. In each case, I feel as though I gained new knowledge and made connections to previous knowledge resulting in a contribution to the bundle of my “self”.

In terms of familiar but rare experiences, I found that all of mine were either traditions or culturally specific. This led me to believe that our culture plays a significant role in shaping our perception of aesthetics. Our opinions regarding fashion, food, music and even physical attractiveness can be influenced by our culture and upbringing. For example, my family has many German Christmas traditions including getting a scraggly uncultured Christmas tree, putting real candles on it and lighting them. While some people might not find beauty in a flaming Charlie Brown Christmas tree, it is aesthetically appealing to me because of the connections to my family and culture and past happy memories that it represents.

I also took part in celebrating Hogmanay or Scottish New Year by playing Auld Lang Syne on the pipes at 4:00pm on December 31st for a crowd of already inebriated people at the local legion. Bagpipes are a very polarizing instrument, you either love them or hate them, but I have found that the reasons people appreciate them are far deeper than the sound they produce. Bagpipes represent Scottish culture, are played at funerals and weddings, have strong ties to the military. When the pipes are played they rouse feelings of patriotism, grief, and joy. The majority of people who dislike them are judging them on their sound alone, they haven’t had experiences that led them to connect with the music on a personal level.

On a basic level aesthetics is about keeping us alive, as a species there are somethings that we all find pleasurable or disgusting and these instincts are linked directly to survival and procreation. However, these instincts constitute only a basic level of aesthetics. When it comes to an individual finding something aesthetically pleasing or revolting, I believe it comes down to a combination of nature and nurture or biology and experience. Beyond basic survival, aesthetics becomes very individualized and personal, the specifics of what people find attractive or repulsive depends on the thousands of prior experiences they have collected in their life up to that point.

When it comes to the opinions of other scholars of aesthetics, I agree with Leath and his point that the only universal defining characteristic of aesthetic experiences is concentration. My criteria of mindfulness is very similar to concentration in the sense that it requires being consciously present in the moment and aware of your own feelings and sensations. I also agree with Fromm when he says “if one is concentrated, it matters little what one is doing; the important, as well as the unimportant things assume a new dimension of reality, because they have one’s full attention.” I believe that by practicing mindfulness it is possible to begin to find beauty or aesthetic value in everyday objects and routines and gain more pleasure from life.

I don’t agree with Bullough on his point that emotional detachment and distance are essential for an aesthetic experience or with Kant’s idea that art should be judged autonomously. I think that the emotions provoked by a piece of art, poem, or play make it more vivid and profound for the person experiencing it, they create a personal connection with the viewer and cause them to leave with a deeper understanding of the piece as well as themselves. Art is meant to be provocative or communicate a deeper message, in many cases it is meant to be perceived and interpreted differently by different people.

I agree with Descartes ideas that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that beauty pleases. I think that the reasons for a person to regard an experience or piece of art as aesthetic or beautiful are as complex as the person themselves and depend greatly on said person’s previous experiences. For this reason, I think it is narrow-minded of Hume to believe that taste is universal, especially when he was the one to develop the bundle theory with premise that the self is a unique and constantly evolving collection of impressions and sensations.

In conclusion, seeking out a diverse range of aesthetic experiences especially new ones is key to building one’s “self” and having an enjoyable, full life. I believe that this can refer to the external stimuli of the experience itself or to the way in which we perceive it, for example approaching everyday experiences with mindfulness.

 

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Attention: Millennials May Not Be Self-Obsessed Robots – Katie Crompton

We’ve all heard the stereotypes of millennials. That we are vain slaves for social media who only find joy in amounts of followers we have or likes we get, but guess what, we are humans too! I know, crazy right? It’s these stereotypes that sparked the idea for this project. For my aesthetic experience, I decided to explore how my generation defines beauty and how the presence of social media has changed that definition. I have always been fascinated by beauty standards and how different people define beauty and I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to explore this concept while also using my creative side and taking a series of portraits that attempt to portray that idea.

The Process

The first step to this project was getting people on board. By doing this I made this survey (feel free to fill it out if you feel like it and have some time to kill) and sent it to multiple Facebook groups (mainly to theatre kids because we don’t shy away from opportunities to be in front of a camera) and asked people to fill it out. The most important question on the survey was “what is the first word that comes to mind when someone says the word, ‘beauty?” The word they chose would ultimately be painted on their face for the photos. I ended up getting 25 responses to the survey and 12 people split between 2 days who were available to take part in a photo shoot. I had a backdrop and lights set up and an array of baked goods I used as payment and bribery. I’m very proud of the finished product. The photos have not been retouched as I feel like it would create a barrier and defeat the purpose of this project. Anyway, here is a slide show of the finished photos!!

(There’s no sound because I’m boring and didn’t have time…yay)

The Outcome

From doing this project, I have come to the conclusion that my generation generally views beauty as something completely unrelated to someone’s physical appearance. Words like individual, compassion, internal, unique, and kindness were extremely prevalent. These are the words of some people who chose to give some additional comments regarding beauty at the end of the survey:

“Learning to believe you are beautiful is more important than getting told you are beautiful.” – Hira Lalani

“I am a firm believer that beauty begins at the heart, for traits such as compassion and kindness truly reveal one’s beauty and take precedence over physical appearance.” – Waleed Hakeem

“Beauty isn’t something you can necessarily see through the means of Instagram or Snapchat; beauty defines a person as a whole – not just their appearance.” – Claire Lundin

Though there was the common theme of beauty not solely being a physical thing, physical beauty still seems to be something of great importance. When asked “on a scale of 1-10, how important is physical appearance to you?”, 28% of people said 6 and another 28% said 7. Though physical beauty may not be the most important thing to our generation, it still has a fairly large impact on our daily lives. Then social media comes into the picture. One of the questions on the survey was, “on a scale of 1-10, how much do you care about how many likes you get/followers you have?” If we go with the stereotypes, the average answers would expectedly be anywhere from an 8 to a 10. In actuality, the majority of people (24%) said 4, hence the introduction. Social media has become a gigantic part of every day life, but that doesn’t mean it has made us more narcissistic. It has changed society a great deal, but not necessarily in the terrible, revolutionary way that older generations may see it.

Okay, how the heck does this relate to philosophy?

Because I am dealing with a large group of people, it’s impossible to say my whole generation’s view is just like *insert philosophers name here*, and the majority of the answers that I got on the survey don’t really connect to any particular philosopher we have talked about anyway. If we’re to generalize how this generation sees beauty from my findings, we could say that we believe that internal beauty is much more valuable than physical beauty, but this isn’t really what the philosophers we have studied talk about. They mainly talk about art and beauty in the physical sense. There is one particular question that creates a connection to a couple of the philosophers we have talked about. As i stated before, the most important question in the survey is “what is the first word that comes to mind when someone says the word, “beauty?”, which is why this is the one that I wanted to have a visual representation of. Even though 25 people filled out this survey, there was only one word that was repeated. The vast majority of people all had a different answer. This supports Descartes ideas of beauty being in the eye of the beholder and this quote from Hume found on this page on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty. One person may even perceive deformity, where another is sensible of beauty; and every individual ought to acquiesce in his own sentiment, without pretending to regulate those of others.” (Hume 1757, 136)

All in all, this project showed me how beauty is subjective and that it comes from the heart (I know, super cheesy, but it’s my truth). If you have kind and welcoming personality, you will be seen as beautiful by many. Also, millennials are 100% not robots.

Worldle representing all the words people said came to their mind when they thought of beauty

 

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If you practiced yodeling enough you could probably do it in your sleep-Benedict Mendes

So, for this midterm I had no idea what I wanted to do at first, but after the first free writing session I came up with a proposition.

Knowledge can be presented in practiced actions that do not require thought

I came up with this because when I thought of really knowing something, I thought of being familiar with an action or a subject. When one is extremely familiar with an action they can reproduce it at any time without effort or even thinking of it, save the momentary “I am going to do this action” thought. In a sense, to me knowledge it at it’s most valuable when it can be reproduced without thought, because of experience and familiarity with it. The premises preceding this proposition make things a little more clear.

If knowledge is defined by being familiar with a subject

and

If knowledge in the mind can be separate from knowledge in the body

then

Knowledge can be presented in practiced actions that do not require thought

 

The truth of the premises is debatable, as both premises are subjective to the reader or writer, but to me these premises are true and they are what I base my opinion of knowledge on.

 

For the first premise, the reason I define knowledge as being familiar with a subject is that the definition of experience is pretty much being really familiar with something. For example, an experienced chef will be able to tell you how to make dishes in certain ways and how to bring out certain flavours because they themselves have gone through these processes hundreds, even thousands of times. Because they have experience with it they are able to easily produce dishes with their gained knowledge.

 

The second premise basically is talking about the difference between conceptual knowledge and applied knowledge. Reading a manual on how to set up an IKEA chair is different than actually physically setting up the chair, that’s the idea that this premise draws from.

 

And of course, the conclusion. If my premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. Basically, what I’m saying is that once you become familiar enough with something, especially an action, you can replicate it without thinking, and it is in that action that the most valuable knowledge lies. This means that something like muscle memory, when your body physically remembers certain actions, is more valuable than knowledge of how to do an action.  For example, I am a musician and I play piano. When I learn a song I learn it slowly, I have to think about each and every note I hit and constantly use the sheet music for reference. As I get more and more familiar with the song I can start to go faster, and when I’m going faster I can’t rely on the sheet music as much, I have to simply know where some notes are. Eventually I can memorize the song and play it anytime that I sit down at the piano, this is because I have ingrained every key hit, every note into my body and I can replicate it without hesitation. Even when I’m playing a song I have memorized completely, I can think about something else while my body continues the action. Even if I make a mistake, I know the song so well that I can register it and remember to correct it in the future. It is at this point that knowledge is at it’s best and most valuable. Being able to reproduce a song without thinking means I have to know every little detail, every rhythm, every note, every key, I have to have a lot of experience with the song. Because of this, I have more knowledge of the song than someone who does not have as much experience with it but is able to look at the sheet music. Of course, the mind is part of the process of learning the song and transferring what I see on the page to the actions in my hands, but once I know the notes and keys I no longer have to rely on the mind to monitor my actions as I perform them. When the body no longer has to rely on the mind to replicate an action is when you know you have basically the best knowledge possible of that thing or action.

 

This argument lines up a little bit with the thinking of Kant with his mindset of “All knowledge comes from experience” and the belief that the physical world is real. It opposes Descartes because if there is no physical world then the actions I perform would not matter, and therefore would have no place in knowledge. It’s based a lot more empirically than it is rationally, because really an action is about the feel of it. The experience of how your body moves and how it performs the action is more important than the concept of what the action does, it’s using your senses to judge how you’re performing the action rather than the mind and reason.

 

In conclusion the entire argument is a little bit like a more complicated version of “practice makes perfect”, it’s all about repeated exposure to an action or a subject. The longer you practice an action for the easier it will get until you can do it without needing to think, your mind can think about something else while your body does the thing. It is in this that the most valuable knowledge lies.

 

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Free Will, Determinism, and Destiny – Lyle Hendriks

Is free will real?

    1. Are events determined by ‘destiny’?
    2. Is every event just a result of statistical probability, the past, and laws?
    3. Is any choice our own?

This morning, I made a choice on what to wear. It probably won’t change my day much, but what if I did decide to wear something else? If I were to be fall in love with someone that I had instant chemistry with because they liked something I was wearing, some might say that it was ‘destiny’ that I wore that outfit on that day. However, when I was getting dressed in the morning, I had the choice to wear anything I wanted. Was destiny controlling me?

I aim to look at free will, and the agents that hope and claim to have it. In my series of blog posts, I’ll be focusing on human agents. I have done some reading on the subject that was pretty dense and hard to understand – let me try to condense a couple things I found interesting. One theory that gives an interesting idea to the philosophy of free will is called ‘Casual Determinism’. The very short version of this complicated theory is that if humans had perfect knowledge of every event in the past, and perfect knowledge of every law that affects events (physics, evolution, etc), and had perfect, infallible logical reasoning, then they could predict the future. This seems like a stretch, and personally I disagree with this theory. It doesn’t account for some things that I see to be unpredictable, especially the human aspect of life. Humans are unpredictable, motivated by intangible constructs like greed, sex, narcissism, jealousy, anger, and others. Even if you have perfect knowledge of what every person has done in the past, mental health issues could come up that totally change who they are and how they act.

The other theory I found interesting is called the ‘Reasons-Responsive View of the Will’. This can be explained with a quote:

“A reasons-responsive view of the will says that Allison’s volition to walk her dog is free if, had she had certain reasons for not walking her dog, she would not have decided to walk her dog. Imagine what would have happened had Allison turned on the television after waking from her nap and learned of the blizzard before deciding to walk her dog. Had she known of the blizzard, she would have had a good reason for deciding not to walk her dog.”

-Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

What this means for human agents having free will is that they can always choose whether to do or to not do something, which leads to new yes or no choices. With my example of what I chose to wear today, Reasons-Response View of the WIll says that I have the choice to put on the clothes I am wearing, or to not choose them. Then I look at the next option in my closet, say yes or no, and then the next if necessary, etc. I think that this is a pretty close match to my own views on free will. I don’t believe that humans have a destiny, simply a dichotomous tree that begins at birth and ends at death, with billions of unexplored pathways, and one fulfilled to completion.

This has been a very interesting introduction to an extremely complex topic. Although a lot of the reading that I have done so far is dense and difficult to understand, it offers many different viewpoints to one question: “Do humans have free will?” Find out next time (probably not but I need to keep my readerbase up)!

 

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Descartes’ Meditations: is there any wiggle room? Ft. his ‘cogito’ (II, I think therefore I am) and his ontology (III, god is real because I conceive it so)

Descartes impacted skepticism (with reference to metaphysics) with the subtle grace of the meteorite that (admittedly allegedly) knocked down the dinosaurs’ door.

The smirk

Skepticism: “the philosophical position that one should refrain from making truth claims, and avoid the postulation of final truths.” (thanks, philosophybasics.com!)

If the breadth of human knowledge and reasoning is a forest, Descartes was enthralled by the idea that he must find which trees cannot be cut down, before he ascends up the branches to look for ultimate truth. To check each tree is a monumental undertaking, so Descartes chose a simpler way: burn the forest down. The trees left standing after the cleansing would be the only pillars for his quest.

Through three arguments, Descartes (as we learned in recent class discussions) threw out all knowledge.

His first, the sense argument, creates doubt in our empirical observations by proving that our senses deceive us.

His second, the dream argument, shakes even the most concrete assumptions we make of reality – if this life is a waking dream then perhaps the world doesn’t exist at all.

His third, the evil demon argument, attacks the final bastion of human knowledge remaining, our reasoning. Even seemingly cohesive systems of logic such as mathematics could actually be false ideas planted inside of our heads by a deceiver.

Eventually, Descartes ends up arriving at ‘cogito ergo sum,‘ which we know to translate to ‘I think, therefore I am.’ His one, unalienable truth is that as long as a thing ponders its own existence, then it exists.

T

Pourchista, in class, mentioned that Descartes is comforting – personally, I am still grappling with the stark void that Descartes presents. Indeed, that struggle is going to be the basis of my metaphysical inquiry. Over the next two weeks, I will be attacking Descartes’ arguments individually, looking for gaps. Then, I’ll be attacking his ‘cogito’, and lastly his ontological argument, which I will hint at the very bottom of this post.

It is incredibly improbable I will find any gaps or holes that I can exploit in the logic of Rene Descartes. He has been forged from the relentless pressure of countless human scholars, historians, thinkers and critics for hundreds of years. However, I am confident that the exploration of his work will yield a greater understanding of his thought, and perhaps bring me a little closer to Pourchista’s level.

Thanks for reading this far, since you made it Descartes has an infuriatingly simple conundrum for you to smash your head against: God exists!

  1. I have an idea of supremely perfect being, i.e. a being having all perfections.
  2. Necessary existence is a perfection.
  3. Therefore, a supremely perfect being exists.

This is rooted in Descartes philosophical viewpoint that a thing must spring forth from something else that contains the totality of it. Ideas are included in that statement. Therefore, the very fact that one can perceive and conceptualize an all-powerful, perfect God, means that it must exist. Where else would the idea spring from if not from its own existence?

I love hating Descartes. See you next time.

 

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The End of the World Means Nothing (or: a lively unicorn debate)

Take a moment to look around you. You’re probably in your home, at school, maybe out in a coffee shop. There may even be people around you. Now imagine that just like that,

there is nothing.

(Sound effect courtesy of David Keller)

Now, the idea of nothing is vague. I’ll assume you imagined a large black space. A void, if you will. If you didn’t, go ahead and explode everything still left mentally until you have a large black void. I’ll wait a moment.

The concept of capital ‘N’ Nothing in philosophy was first discussed by Parmenides, who said that nothing could not exist because to be able to talk about something, it had to exist. Even though Parmenides’ theory on nothing has mostly been discredited or altered to make more sense, I liked it, if only because the concept assumes that ideas are things.

To explain, think of a unicorn.

 

You probably thought of something along the lines of this:

Rob Boudon, Unicorn - Full Speed

Rob Boudon, Unicorn – Full Speed ((A real photograph of an imaginary unicorn))

Obviously, unicorns don’t exist, yet you still imagined one. Parmenides said

For never shall this prevail, that things that are not are.

which, frankly, is more confusing than it has any right to be, but I digress. Parmenides meant that when you discuss something (unicorns), you aren’t actually talking about it—you are discussing the idea or concept of it. If a unicorn cannot be, then what must be is your thoughts, or the idea of a unicorn.

This is a roundabout way of saying that ideas are things. While they may not be tangible, they still are, in the same way that you are and a rhinoceros is and Pepsi Salty Watermelon is.

But Jess!, my imaginary version of you is saying. What about the concept earlier? When you discussed the fact that there was nothing!

Well, if you’re still somehow juggling thinking of unicorns, asking me questions, and thoughts on the void, you’ll remember that our concept of nothing was just a black void. If you’ve been keeping track, though (and even I have only barely been able to, so kudos) you may be thinking:

  1. Black is still a thing.
  2. The idea of void is something, because we just decided that ideas are things.

Well, voice in my head/audience, you’ve come to the crux of the issue. To me, nothing is a concept that we cannot fathom, if only because we cannot imagine it. Personally, even the idea that there is nothing is kind of absurd to me, if only because of the following thought, which I’ll walk through:

VOID.

As the caption clearly states, this is our void. Let’s label it!

SELF-EXPLANATORY VOID.

So this is our nothing, but if we assume that ideas are things, then would facts and concepts not also be things? As in, the very concept that there is nothing?

A CONCEPT.

So if our lonely little concept, the very concept that there is nothing, is something, then doesn’t that mean that our nothing is now something?

SOMETHING (?)

So even if we assume that everything around us is real, then what remains is still that stubborn little concept. Descartes thoughts on nothing were that, instead of beginning with something, as we did earlier, we start with nothing and allow what can be proven to fill the void. The concept of solipsism assumes that you can only be sure that you exist, and everything else is unproven.

So if we do assume that there is at least something, then what does that mean?

It means that nothing is an impossibility. Even in the complete absence of something, there still remains the concept that there is something. So if the world were to end, right here and right now, and it somehow took everything along with it, that would mean absolutely, positively nothing something.

 

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I Know That I Don’t Know…I Think (Emily)

I confess, I am feeling slightly daunted by everyone’s posts. Everyone has these huge long posts about what they believe or know or drew in class.

As for me, I’m not usually very good at thinking on the spot. So, I’m normally not too involved in heated class discussions. I usually let stuff bounce around in my head for a while before I can argue about it or even know what I think about it.

Philosophy, however, seems determined to trump me. At the beginning of the year, we were told to think about what our personal philosophy on everything was. I had absolutely no clue then. Now, I’m probably even less sure. And with epistemology, I am still so confused as to what everything is that I have no idea what I think or know. Don’t even get me started on condensing it into a belief statement or personal philosophy.

Like so many people have said before, the more I think, the more confused I get. Two steps forwards, eighteen and a half steps back. Philosophy is clear as mud.

Still, I suppose there are things that I think I know, even if I don’t know what I think.

First of all, Descartes. After that project about him during Metaphysics, I looked a lot at “I think, therefore, I am.” To me, that is True. You can’t think things or experience things without first existing and, if you ask me, Hume can say whatever he wants but I don’t see a way to think or feel without existing. So, I can incorporate that I know I exist (because I know I am thinking about existence) into that chamber of my brain for what I Know and Believe about the world.

Secondly, Van Orman Quine. I also took part in a project about him, so I (sort of) know his ideas and I generally agree, at least with his thoughts on vague language. We don’t have words to accurately describe anything, so it can be hard to argue or even talk about anything, because words can never accurately describe anything, and everyone has their own (slightly different) definition for everything. So, I can also incorporate that I can’t really talk properly with anyone else about what I Know or Believe, because it will always be slightly distorted.

Third, everything. Everyone has these nice little triangles, but I envision a completely different diagram. (I really don’t know what kind of shape it could take, but I’ll work on that) I think that opinion and belief, while classified right at the bottom of the triangles, belong elsewhere. Maybe in a weird blob shape off to the side. Who knows. But I think that opinion and/or belief could be right up there with Knowledge or Truth – because they are True to you, otherwise they would not be your belief or opinion (They are falsifiable, but while you believe them, they are True to you). So if we could do some diagram involving them being in Truth for you but at the bottom for everyone else? Who knows.

So: I know that I exist. I can’t discuss anything clearly or properly with anyone, even possibly myself. And belief and opinion can be truth. Sometimes.

My diagram might end up looking like this.

 

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Epistemological Ecology – Mr. J

Learning Never Stops

There is a certain pleasure in being allowed to start things off in a class like #Philosophy12; while others may garner the satisfaction that comes from rising to the challenge of the various assignments and syntheses of ideas, as classroom facilitator my critical tasks have thus far revolved around the outset of the unit. Having hopefully created the conditions for individual and collective learning, I focus my energy around supporting the group’s thinking, whether in daily activities, viewing or reading materials, or engaging in class discussions about the direction and intentions of the unit or task at hand.

I get to learn a lot, just in seeing how the various branches of inquiry manage to reveal the topics at hand, and the perspectives that bring them to our classroom.

But I haven’t yet taken the opportunity to engage directly with the tasks myself, and I was taken with an idea for Epistemology: to state and support a personal proposition about the nature of knowledge, learning, and the justifications we use to frame these ideas. Within the context of the opening class structure, the unit presented a natural opportunity to turn the teaching of the course into a personal engagement with the material. If I could demonstrate an example of the type of learning I would like to see, would the allowance of the space and opportunity for participants to engage with their own individual creation of knowledge bring about an authentic expression of social constructivism?

“All knowledge begins with experience.”

The starting point for my own epistemological proposition centers around a view of our reason as an evolving structure of knowing that shifts with the acquisition of new knowledge (gained through experience). I have more or less directly swiped this from Immanuel Kant, but I have seen these ideas reflected in the foundations of the post-modern era, constructivism, as well as a frequent touchstone in the class’ conversations about knowledge and knowing. A certain amount of our work in the unit was bound to retread at least some of the contribution he has brought to the field, I figure.

But I am nevertheless grounded in the idea that the structure against which our experience of the world is interpreted – our ability to reason – evolves with our experiencing of the world; as it does our sense of what can be known changes in kind, eliciting further questions, and creating new un-knowing. Jonathan said it well in his first of two Epistemology posts: “As we accumulate knowledge over time, I also believe that we develop abilities to gain these different types of knowledge too.

The sage former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld summarized part of this arc memorably in February, 2002:

“[T]here are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don’t know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don’t know.”

“…the limitation of all possible speculative cognition to the mere objects of experience, follows as a necessary result.”

There is something of the snake-eating-its-own-tail that then arises in the compulsion to expand our notions of knowing against an ever-expanding experiential plain. “Essentially, we have proven that no piece of knowledge, whether of reason or of reality, is reliable,” Liam writes in his exploration of Descartes’ Evil Genius theory:”

Really, a more unhelpful and useless conclusion has never been reached. True knowledge, it seems, is nowhere to be found – and because of that, we must accept the flawed, unreliable knowledge that we have and make do with it.

The Double Bind

As I began to explore in my initial post and reflections, the contradiction of pursuing a knowledge that evades alongside our mastery over it reminded me of the concept of the Double Bind, introduced to me a few weeks ago by Gardner Campbell at the Open Education conference in Vancouver. According to wikipedia, 

double bind is an emotionally distressing dilemma in communication in which an individual (or group) receives two or more conflicting messages, in which one message negates the other. This creates a situation in which a successful response to one message results in a failed response to the other (and vice versa), so that the person will be automatically wrong regardless of response.

While the acquisition of knowledge may not be an eitheror scenario as described in the double bind, what I found valuable about Gardner’s characterization of the dilemma was the idea that the double bind can serve as a kind or prison, but also create the conditions for an expansion of awareness (or, cognition) that is the process of meaningful learning I hope some of #philosophy12 is providing for its participants. Again from Wikipedia:

One solution to a double bind is to place the problem in a larger context […] the double bind is contextualized and understood as an impossible no-win scenario so that ways around it can be found.

For my own part, the attempt to characterize and justify my own beliefs about knowledge has been vexing in the manner Bateson predicted as one of the responses to the double bind, wherein objective truth “cannot be reliably known, so all [truth] is treated as trivial or ridiculous.” It is admittedly difficult to engage faithfully in a process that seems fruitless from the outset, and for this I am glad to have waded into this experiment alongside the #Philosophy12 class.

Because it is a confrontation with the double bind that a new paradigm, either for each of us personally or together as a society, and isn’t this what I should be doing as a teacher?

Bateson outlines a Hierarchy of Learning in which Learning III (third in a series of IV) represents an ability to develop a “meta contextual perspective, imagining and shifting contexts of understanding.” Learning III puts the individual into a moment of learning with risk, where “questions become explosive,” Gardner says, as the potential to begin again at the base of the pyramid Jonathan outlines here is something that we are not often keen to explore, but central to the learning process.

And I think that perhaps this is both the source and the solution to the double bind offered in our own rational and experiential development. Learning IV – which would be the change enacted to progress beyond Learning III – Bateson notes, “probably does not occur in any adult living organism on this earth.”

Naturally: once we have solved the initial double bind and reached beyond our present understanding, we are greeted with new incongruities to decipher.

And yet..?

And yet we continue to engage in this process. We continue to yearn for a greater understanding, even while that understanding becomes obscured in the new questions it raises.

“It may be,” Gardner says, “that the evolution of the species represents the emergence of the possibility of Learning IV, as we think together.”

Leaving me again with echos of Kant:

it is plain that the hope of a future life arises from the feeling, which exists in the breast of every man, that the temporal is inadequate to meet and satisfy the demands of his nature.

 

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The Original Evil Genius

“Cogito ergo sum”

“I think, therefore I am” stands as one of the most well known statements in the history of philosophy, representing, to its creator, the sole truth we can be sure of. In reaching his epoch-breaking conclusion, Descartes followed every path available to try to disprove it. As the one statement that he believed humanity could prove, no matter what, he had to ensure that it stood to the utmost scrutiny. While putting it to the test, he abandoned the realm of what we might call realistic and hypothesized a few extraordinarily, on the surface, ridiculous ideas.

No, not this evil genius

One of these theories, representing the furthest extent of Descartes’ theorizing, was the Evil Genius theory. It essentially posited the existence of some being that deceives us in all things, forging an entire world that is nothing but an illusion designed to trick us into accepting it as reality. The idea struck me, and I decided, though it does not represent my true beliefs about epistemology(not at the outset of this post, at any rate), to do some theorizing myself and examine and understand what the basis of such an idea would be, if any.

Firstly, we must realize that the ‘reality’ we perceive is unknowable – whether or not there is some objective reality, there is absolutely no way of knowing that. All information about the outside world must, at some point, come through our senses and be processed by our brain, whereby any hope of reliability is obliterated. Thus, it is entirely plausible that everything we experience is simply an illusion implanted into us by some deceiving evil genius – true or not, we would have no way of knowing.

We must not, however, confuse our terms of external realities – everything is external. Our bodies are external. Our brains are external. No piece of information that is based in any external stimuli or information can assure us of its reliability, and thus, even our own knowledge of ourselves is subject to skepticism – how can we be sure of even our own bodies when all we know of them is relayed as signals, via our nerves, to our brain and then to our mind? Every action we take and every sensation we feel could very well be the product of some false stimuli fed to us by this Evil Genius.

“But…what then?” I hear you say. “Doesn’t that mean everything could be part of that illusion? How could anything be real?” These are the same questions Descartes asked himself. But – and this is exactly how he reached his final conclusion – he reasoned that even accepting everything we know of the world and everything we know of reality as nothing but illusion, there still must be something to perceive that illusion. To deceive, something must be being deceived – and thus we must all, on some level, no matter how base or primal or fundamental, exist.

But – and here I depart from Descartes`axiom – that prompted another question: what about reason? We can accept that all knowledge of things outside our minds is subject to unreliability, given the potential for illusion, but what about ideas and knowledge that are derived entirely within our own minds? Are these, too, subject to questioning and skepticism?

I see several answers to this question. Firstly, no – reason and logic are by definition flawless, and pure logic in a field like mathematics is only flawed to the extent that the logic is compromised by the logician. Secondly, yes – this evil genius we speak of must also have the power to twist thought and logic, thus making even reason unreliable. And thirdly, an answer purely from my own interpretation, both yes and no – reason and logic are flawless, but their foundations may be quite the opposite, evil genius or not.

Reason is, at its heart, a construction of building blocks, an endless chain of cause and effect, of premise and conclusion, that leads from one idea to another. Done properly, reason can form an unassailable edifice of thought upon which any attack would break. But while the walls reason erect may be strong, we must consider what it is built upon.

Just try taking out the bottom piece. I dare you.

Reason is, of course, dependent on the assumptions we make and the conclusions we can prove, and to a very large extent strives to limit the former while expanding the latter. But at a certain point, there had to be a jump from nothing to something – there had to be a first premise, a first assumption, and a first idea. Without any logic leading to it, it would be unquestionable – how can you argue against a conclusion created out of thin air when you have no other conclusion to compare it to? This first thought, unreliable as we might find it today were it to be identified, would have to lay a foundation for all successive thought to be build upon. The obvious problems this raises are compounded even further once one realizes that this first thought would likely be an inference made on the basis of experience and reality – and thus, the Evil Genius worms his way into our very way of thinking.

What, then, have we established with the exploration of this idea? Firstly, anything that depends on the senses or processing into the mind from the outside world is unreliable, subject as we are to illusion and deception. Secondly, reason too must be questioned, as the possibility remains that some evil genius would be able to manipulate our logical processes just as easily as he would manipulate external realities. And thirdly, even if the above is not true, reason is still to be questioned because of the first, fundamental assumption or conclusion all else must be based on.

While Descartes’ basic idea – I think, therefore I am – still holds in the face of all that(something must be being deceived, even in the face of all this deception), we have to wonder what exactly the point of all this is. Essentially, we have proven that no piece of knowledge, whether of reason or of reality, is reliable. Really, a more unhelpful and useless conclusion has never been reached. True knowledge, it seems, is nowhere to be found – and because of that, we must accept the flawed, unreliable knowledge that we have and make do with it. Reality itself may be questionable, but so long as we exist within some reality -and Descartes established that we do – we are forever bound to exist within that framework, true or not. Let us not be so caught up in matters of absolute truth and reality. When we can trust nothing as true, we must accept what we have, though forever vigilant against the flaws in that knowing. Be careful about what you believe – the Evil Genius is out there.

Follow me on Twitter: @Liamthesaint

 

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Epistemology- Starting to unravel

In my first assignment I briefly touched upon on Socrates idea that all he knew was that he knew nothing. I tend to agree with him in the sense that I believe there is so much knowledge out there, new things being discovered and even things that we can only truly understand by going through them, that we will never be “all-knowing.”

In my English class we just finished reading the play “Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller. In one of our class discussions we talked about how each decision that we make leads our live in a certain direction, but it also closes all the other “parallel lives” that we could have had. I thought it was a sad way to look at it. Most of us make the best decisions we can at the time they come to us, sometimes we are not even aware that we are making a decision that will have a big impact.

I view knowledge in a similar way. It is all around us, but it is up to us to choose what we absorb and keep and what is thrown to the back of our minds and eventually fades. However how exactly we did that I didn’t know. In my psychology class we were taught that there is no known limit to how much information our brain can hold. I thought them how unfair it was then, that I had such difficulty remembering all the different names of the parts of our brain for the unit test. It was not something I wanted on the back of my mind, yet that is where it seemed to keep going.

As I kept reading I discovered that we need to “exercise” the connections to that knowledge for it to be easy to access, otherwise we may need something to spark it. Which why I think so many people like multiple choice questions, because they provide that spark that reminds us of the knowledge that we have forgotten that we have. It also made sense then those things that we do every day, knowledge passed to us by our parents such as table manners is in such frequent use and the connections must be so fast that we don’t even realize we are thinking about it. Yet it seemed a waste how much knowledge I may have and simply not be aware of it anymore.

In the midst of that thought how many things I learned when I was little that I do not remember. That lead to me think about Locke’s blank slate, and Plato/Descartes innate ideas. At first I thought blank slate made more sense, as you experience different events it adds to your knowledge. The only part that threw me off was when I thought about instincts. When babies are born they know to look for their mother’s nipples, as well as even have basic attempts to swim when under water, and know to not breathe in the water. Can that not be considered knowledge? They also know to try and copy what they see around them. No one has told them that they should do so. Babies copy facial expressions, eventually sounds. Some parts of us such as our heartbeat we cannot control but to look for a mother’s nipple as soon as we are born, to me seems much more complex.

Still, I do not think I have reached my final conclusion on this matter but something that I have come now to believe is that even though perhaps we may not be born with much knowledge, I think we are at least born with the bases to extend it.

As my father said at the dinner table “We build upon what is already there.” That is how humans further their knowledge, we take what our ancestors discovered and build upon it.

 
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