Could Star Trek’s Mr. Spock Really Exist?

(About a 5 minute read)

Like most sensible people, I am firmly convinced that around 2,400 years ago in Athens, Greece, Plato invented Mr. Spock.

Of course, I do not believe that Plato invented all the details of Mr. Spock right down to his curiously arched eyebrows and pointy ears.  So far as I know, those details were worked out by Gene Roddenberry, Leonard Nimoy, and their band.  But the essential notion that a hyper-rational person would have few or no emotions — that was Plato.

In Plato’s view, emotions and thought were clearly distinct, and the only connection between the two was that emotions could mess with thought.  That is, while emotions could cause us to reason poorly, they had little or no positive impact on reasoning.  Apparently, Plato was the first to come up with those ideas — ideas which went on to become commonplace assumptions of Western thought.  And Roddenberry, etc seized on those assumptions to create Mr. Spock.

Of course, there are some rather obvious ways in which Plato was right.  Most likely everyone has had some experience with their emotions overwhelming their capacity for reason.  Every child is cautioned not to act in anger or other strong emotional state, least they do something irrational.  And many of us — perhaps even most of us — know that we tend to be more gullible when listening to someone present their views with a great deal of passion than when listening to someone present their views coldly.  “I don’t think Snerkleson is quite right in his views, but he’s so passionate about them that he must honestly see some merit to them.  Maybe there’s at least some truth to what he says about dog turds replacing petroleum as the fuel of the future.”  There are clearly ways emotions can interfere with thought, as Plato knew.

As it happens, though, the notion that emotions only have a negative impact on thought is not borne out by the evidence.

In the early 1990s, a man — who has come to be known as “Elliot” — was referred to Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, by his doctors.  Elliot had applied for disability assistance despite the fact that, “[f]or all the world to see, Elliot was an intelligent, skilled, and able-bodied man who ought to come to this senses and return to work”.  His doctors wanted Damasio to find out if Elliot had a “real disease”.

Damasio found that Elliot tested well when given an IQ test and other measures of intelligence.  His long-term memory, short-term memory, language skills, perception, and handiness with math were unquestionably sound. He was not stupid. He was not ignorant.  Yet, when Damasio started digging into Elliot’s past job performance, he found that Elliot had often behaved as if he was indeed stupid and ignorant.

For instance, Elliot had at least once spent half a day trying to figure out how to categorize his documents.  Should he categorize them by size, date, subject, or some other rule?  Elliot couldn’t decide.  Moreover, he had been fired for leaving work incomplete or in need of correction.   And when Damasio studied what had happened to Elliot after his job loss, he found the same pattern of poor decision-making and incompetence.  Elliot had gotten divorced, then entered into a second marriage that quickly ended in another divorce.  He had then made some highly questionable investments that brought about his bankruptcy.  He couldn’t make plans for a few hours in advance, let alone months or years. Unable to live on his own, he was staying with a sibling. His life was in ruin.

When Damasio looked at Elliot’s medical history, he found that the turning point for Elliot had come about when he developed a brain tumor.   Before the tumor, Elliot had been highly successful in his business field.  He was even a role model for the junior executives.  And he had had a strong, thriving marriage.  Although the brain tumor had been successfully removed,  Elliot had suffered damage to some of the frontal lobe tissues of his brain having to do with the processing of emotions.

Damasio began testing Elliot for his emotional responses to things.  In test after test, Elliot showed little or no emotional response to anything.  He was, Damasio concluded, cognitively unaware of his own emotions.  Then Damasio had a revelation.  “I began to think that the cold-bloodedness of Elliot’s reasoning prevented him from assigning different values to different options,” Damasio wrote.

Damasio went on from Elliot to look at other case studies of people who had suffered brain injuries preventing them from being cognitively aware of their emotional states.  He found the same pattern over and over:  When emotions were impaired, so was decision-making.

The findings of Damasio and other scientists have largely revolutionized how scientists view the relationship between emotion and thought.  It now seems that emotions are, among other things, the means by which we sort out information: The relevant from the irrelevant, the high-priority from the low-priority, the valuable from the worthless.

And Mr. Spock?  Well, a real life Mr. Spock might spend hours trying to figure out whether to set his phaser to stun or kill.  Without emotions, decision-making becomes extraordinarily problematic.

Late Night Thoughts: Ice Cream, Reasoning, Robots, Wisdom, and More

(About a 6 minute read) 

The other day I woke up feeling pretty much under the weather.  I stumbled onto my blog bleary-eyed and somehow deleted a whole post while trying to fix a mistake in grammar.  After that, I spilled half a pound of coffee beans on the floor while getting almost not a one of them into my grinder.  Not yet recognizing that it wasn’t my day, I wrote 500 words for a blog post before realizing I wasn’t making any sense even by my lax standards.  This time the delete was intentional.  A sane man would have gone back to bed at that point.  Naturally, I didn’t.

Instead, I somehow got it into my head to catch up on what’s going on in politics.  I was still catatonic when the paramedics found me two days later After reading three or four articles the thought occurred to me that any sensible and informed person these days must feel a whole lot like I felt that morning: Our hopes and intentions are so far out of line with the bizarre reality of the times.  It almost seems as if the feeling, “This isn’t my day”, has become expanded to include most of the world.

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It is sometimes said that a difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals are more concerned with humanity than they are with individuals, while conservatives are more concerned with individuals than they are with humanity.  As Dostoevsky put it in The Brothers Karamazov,  “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular”.

It seems to me that — regardless of whether one is a liberal or a conservative — those two extremes are both inadequate in and of themselves.  The liberal position leads to treating the people one knows like dogs, the conservative position leads to treating the people one doesn’t know like dogs.

Now, the older I get the more I expect to find such “twists” in life.  That is, I have come to largely agree with Immanuel Kant:  “Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.”

What could our human nature not accomplish if our human nature did not stand in our way?

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I recently came across an article stating that eating ice cream for breakfast improves brain performance.  I immediately began dancing around my cottage for half an hour in gratitude to whatever deity or deities had arranged the world such than eating ice cream could be thought of as a duty.

Even since, I have been eating ice cream for breakfast, but alas!  With no discernible results.

Still, this is not something to be lightly dismissed.  One has a duty, you know.  I must redouble my efforts.  Obviously, the problem is I have not been eating enough ice cream to see any results yet.  Obviously.

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I think it was W. Edwards Deming who used to begin his graduate seminars with an experiment.  He would place a large glass jar full of marbles in front of the class, which typically numbered about thirty students.  Then he would ask the students to guess how many marbles were in the jar.

Their individual answers were typically wildly off the mark — either way too high, or way too low.  And yet — consistently in class after class — when their answers were averaged, the result was within 5% of the actual number of marbles.   As a group, the students were always more accurate than most of them were as individuals.

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It seems to me quite possible that how people reason might be almost as subject to fashion as how people dress.

The rules for what constitutes good reasoning might not change much, but certainly what constitutes “acceptable” reasoning can change quite a bit.   By “acceptable” I mean what a majority — or at least a large minority — of us think is good reasoning.

I suspect many of us don’t learn how to reason from a competent instructor so much as from media figures such as talk show hosts and their often questionable guests.  Even advertisements teach a form of reasoning.  It might not often be a sound form of reasoning, but it’s a form nonetheless.  It would make an interesting study to see if the popularity of certain kinds of arguments changed from one decade to the next.

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It seems possible that robots will at some point become sophisticated enough that someone will start making “lovebots”.  That is, artificial lovers.   At which point one wonders when sex education classes will become as hands-on as instruction in tennis or driving?

I have no idea whether such a thing will become commonplace in public education, but I can certainly foresee special academies for it — private schools that use robots to teach love making.

Then again, I think it’s only a matter of time before genetics advances to the point that we have pets with glow in the dark fur.  I am, quite obviously, bonkers.

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Is chocolate also good brain food?  Might be.   Better eat some just to be on the safe side.  Is duty.

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According to Barry Lopez, the Inuit word for “wise person” literally translates as, “one who makes wisdom visible [through their behavior]”.   If we in the West had a corresponding translation for “wise person” it would doubtlessly be something along the lines of, “one who speaks wisely”, for we typically assume that someone who says wise things is actually wise.

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Often enough, great intelligence, or great wisdom, is shown less by what someone says or does than by what they do not say or do.

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An inability to laugh at oneself can be as creepy as showing up in a clown costume at a funeral.

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We so often blame our emotions for the bad behavior of our psychological self.  We say, for instance, that our anger at Smith got out of hand.  But before there was our anger, there was our ego’s perception that Smith slighted us.   Without that perception, we would not have been angry at Smith in the first place.

The Gifts of AL Remington

(About a 4 minute read)

It was difficult to beat Al. I think I only did it once. Or, maybe, I didn’t. Maybe I just came close. He was strongest in the endgame.

If you let him get that far — and it was hard not to — he had you beat.

Al said he learned chess when he was in the army, stationed in Greenland, with nothing else to do but his job and learn chess. By the time I met him, he was in his 60s, still enthusiastic about the game, and the man to beat at the Coffee Shop. He was a gentle man, reserved, modest, but exuding an air of dignity and confidence, much like a good father or grandfather. In his 60s, he drove a dark blue Cadillac on wet days and rode a Harley when the sun was out.

One day I discovered the Coffee Shop didn’t purchase the chess sets it had on hand. It was Al who did that. He would search garage sales for abandoned sets, buy them, and bring them to the Shop. He had to do that over and over again because people would loose pieces. But he didn’t mind. It was his hobby.

I think it must have been Al who got “everyone” — at least a third of the regular customers — playing chess. There were always two or three games going back then. Half the regular customers were kids and most of the kids were taught the game by Al. That is, someone else would usually teach them the basic moves — then Al would teach them the art.

Not just the art of chess, but other things too. He taught kids how to win graciously, how to loose without animosity, how to be fair (he’d spot the less skilled players a piece or two), and even how to keep a poker face. He never lost his temper, he was always encouraging, and he taught values. For instance: There wasn’t a kid at the Coffee Shop Al disdained to play, nor one he disrespected.

Several of the adults who hung out at the Shop were uncertain characters, but not Al. One man, Tim, was only there to proselytize the kids for Christ and had no other point in befriending them. Another man, Jeff, in his mid-thirties, was obsessed with getting laid by teens. A third man, who called himself Attila, dressed immaculately, neatly trimmed his white beard, and pretended to have wealth and connections. He would come every day to the Shop with his son, who he’d named Khan, and who was 15 and had lost his spirit. Attila would speak about Khan as if Khan wasn’t present and sitting right next to him: I’ve never in my life heard a more verbally abusive father. Unlike those characters, Al cared for the kids.

Al never told you he liked kids, but he did. He’d surely raised enough of them: Four biological children, two or three adopted children, and a number of foster children. I figure teaching them chess was Al’s way of raising up the Coffee Shop kids. He spoke to me several times of his belief that playing chess developed good, solid thinking skills. But he never quite said he considered himself on a mission to help the Coffee Shop kids. Saying something like that wasn’t Al’s style.

Al died at his home a couple years ago at age 72. I read his obituary to discover he was a minister. He hadn’t spoken of that; had never proselytized me; nor — so far as I know — had he proselytized any of the kids. I guess that wasn’t his style, either. Instead, he just served others.

Nowadays, I drop by the Coffee Shop once or twice a month. The kids Al and I knew have grown up and moved on. No one today plays chess. The adults sit with adults and the kids sit with kids. Maybe that’s the way people feel it should be.

I was reminded of Al earlier today by a comment Ordinary Girl left on another post. She mentioned how adults stay away from kids for fear of being thought creepy. That got me to thinking of how Al, born in 1933, belonged to another generation — one that had a stronger sense of community and wasn’t so set against mixing the ages. Yet, I wonder how kids are supposed to grow up with few adults in their lives?

Are they supposed these days to learn what they need to be a functional adult from Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and advertising? It seems to me we too often leave kids these days to be raised by the media.

Somethings we can only learn from another person. Things we cannot learn from a book, a movie, the television, popular music, or a video game. Somethings we must learn through our interactions with others. And some of those things that can only be learned through our interactions with others are very important. I discovered when I hung out with teens that many teens had what struck me then as a thirst to hang out with adults. I suspect they needed encouragement, insight into themselves, support, and affirmation, among other things. Those are not things we easily get from a book or movie.

Yet, it’s not a one-way street. I believe there can be tremendous benefits for an adult to having kids in his or her life. For one thing, watching a new generation grow up, seeing it go through the same things you once went through, can give you an invaluable perspective on life and a profound acceptance of your own aging.

I’ve come to believe any society which separates the generations will sooner or later pay a price for it. It even seems to me unnatural. I doubt any previous society has headed as far in that direction as ours. And, to me, it is all part of the larger break down of genuine community. It seems our societies are becoming increasingly fragmented, and I am unsure where that will eventually leave us. I rather hope Al’s generation is not the last to mix ages.


Note: Al was a grand- or great grandnephew of Frederic Remington, the painter.

The Wisdom of Uncertainty

(About a 9 minute read)

Charlie’s father, Benjamin, wanted Charlie to grow up fully capable of thinking calmly and rationally while under stress.  To make sure that Charlie actually did mature into a man able to think with great clarity while under stress,  Benjamin decided to play cards with his young son at least once a week.

Benjamin reasoned that Charlie would learn logical reasoning from “counting his opponent’s hand”; that is, from employing logic to discern which cards his opponent held.  It is said that, when Benjamin told Charlie of his plans, eight year old Charlie was overjoyed that his father wanted to devote time just to him, and to him alone.

Little was Charlie prepared for the reality of those card games.

Benjamin, you see, had not told Charlie of his fiendish plans to turn their card games into hell on earth for his young son in order to teach him, not just logical reasoning, but logical reasoning while under stress.  When Charlie showed up to play, he soon discovered that his farther had purchased an all-too-generous supply of the strongest, most vile, most stinking cigars he could find on the market.

“Concentrate, Boy! Concentrate!  You must concentrate!”  Benjamin would say while every few minutes blowing smoke directly into Charlies’ face.  And it didn’t end there, either, for Benjamin made a point of keeping Charlie up way past his bedtime, until Charlie would simply collapse, and could no longer be shaken awake.*

Naturally, Charles Sanders Peirce grew up to become a traveling “No Smoking on Our Premises” sign painter perhaps America’s greatest philosopher and logician, an innovator in mathematics, statistics, philosophy, research methodology, and various sciences.

Doubt and Belief

In 1877, the magazine, Popular Science Monthly, published a short article by Peirce entitled, “The Fixation of Belief”.  Two months later, the same magazine published, “Snoring, and How to Stop it”.  That article was by Wyeth, though, and had nothing to do with Peirce or his ideas.   However, in 1878, the magazine got around to publishing, “How to Make Our Ideas Clear”, which was by Peirce.   Together, the two articles by him laid the initial foundation for what became the philosophical school of American Pragmatism.

In the first article, Peirce took a close look at the psychology of belief.  Now, the opposite of belief is doubt, and Peirce was just as aware as any of us that doubt is typically an emotionally uncomfortable state to be in.  He argued that, because doubt was uncomfortable, we humans naturally try to escape from it into belief — a much more emotionally comfortable state for us.   And we seek not only a belief, but a firm belief.

Peirce next argued that it was misleading to say our species seeks truth, when in reality we are content with any belief that we are able to firmly hold, whether it’s true or not.

That, of course, was too large of a lump for many people to swallow.  The common wisdom of the day was that humans — at least some of us — nobly pursued not merely a firm belief, but a true belief.  Yet, there stood the appalling Peirce, stubbornly insisting that we seek to escape doubt, instead of seek to find truth.

Two Reasons to Value Uncertainty

Whether or not we humans ever seek truth might be an open question for many of us, but I think it’s pretty evident that (1) doubt is usually an emotionally uncomfortable state, and that (2) we usually try to escape from it into a belief, the firmer the better.   Most of us seem to enjoy doubt or uncertainty about as much as we would enjoy a vigorous sandpaper massage.  Few of us see it as the 14th century monk, Kenko, did, who wrote, “Uncertainty is the most precious thing in life”.

Moreover, I think Peirce was also right that, when we have a firm belief about something, we tend to stop challenging it.  For instance, I was once of the firm  belief that solipsism was logically unassailable.  I arrived at that view decades ago, and for decades I looked no further into it.

To be sure, I did derive some ideas from it during those decades.  And while some people might consider those ideas to be “further explorations of solipsism”, I myself don’t because none of those alleged “further explorations” challenged the basic notion of solipsism.

Only recently did I delve into it again.  And that was mainly by stumbling my way into taking a fresh look at it.  It wasn’t something I would have done had it not been for a series of special circumstances.  Having taken a second look, however, I have come to doubt that solipsism is logically unassailable.

I have yet to fully evaluate solipsism so it is possible that I might yet return to a belief that it is logically unassailable.  However, if I do, it will be a much more fully informed belief than the one I had before.  The thing is, when we think we know something, we usually stop looking into it — really looking into it — and that sometimes means we stop short of any great insight.

Thus, it seems to me that one of the ways in which uncertainty can be “precious” is by motivating us look deeper, which is not always a bad thing.  Everyone of us, I’ll wager, harbors a whole lot of beliefs — and not always intellectual beliefs — that ought for our own sake to be given a good shaking now and then.  Even if we end up retaining the belief, we are likely to come back with a richer, more accurate understanding of it.

A second way uncertainty might be valuable to us is in “keeping us young and flexible”, so to speak.

Back in early March, I wrote a post explaining how our firmly held beliefs about who and what we are can lead us into limiting and restricting ourselves such that “we become one of those nearly ossified people who — perhaps even by an early age — has more or less ceased to develop and grow in any significant degree or way”.   This can have a devastating effect on the quality of our lives.   As the saying goes, “Some people die at 25, but are buried at 75”.

How Best to Become Uncertain

Yet, how can one overcome such ossification?

As you might by now suspect, I believe it is best to overcome it by uncertainty.  Yet, that is not often an easy thing to do.   An attempt to create doubt about our beliefs through some sort of contrived and artificial speculation that they might be false seems to me as likely to produce real results as burning a match three feet from an ice cube is likely to thaw it.   What is needed more than mere speculation is a genuine reality check.

There seem to me at least two ways of checking a belief against reality.  Basically, to either do it yourself, or to get help.  Doing it yourself is the least effective of the two ways, in large part because each of us is prone to error — and even delusion.  If one must rely on this route, it’s probably a good idea to do things like keep a daily journal in which you note any events or other things that challenge the beliefs you wish to genuinely question.

But perhaps the best reality checkers for us are our friends or trusted other people.  Among “trusted other people”, I am including books, articles, podcasts, and so forth by authors you trust, in addition to people you might actually have some form of contact with.   [Note to frequent Café Philos  commentator Teresums: The category of “friends”, however, does not include your imaginary friend, Wildfire, the Rainbow Colored Unicorn.]  Other people, though just as prone to error and delusion as ourselves, often are not prone to precisely the same errors and delusions.  Hence, they might see things we don’t (and vice versa).

Truth is Often Hesitant, Uncertain

Peirce was extraordinarily prolific, but published only a fraction of his ideas and insights during his lifetime.  For instance,  on at least one occasion, he created a whole multi-variable logic, then tossed his papers on it into a desk drawer, and apparently forgot about them — leaving his work to be re-invented decades after his death by other logicians.

To put it a little simplistically, a multi-variable logic is a logic that goes beyond just the binary values of “true” and “false” to include a potentially infinite number of other values.  Think of those others as varying states of uncertainty, as “maybes”.   For there are times when, instead of seeing things as either true or false, it is best to see them as, say: true, maybe true, maybe false, and false.  In fact, I think that’s the case with most things in life.

So often, the deeper you get into something, the more obvious it becomes to you that the truth of it is uncertain.  There are almost always far more ways in which any notion we might have about reality — including the reality of ourselves — can be wrong than there are ways in which it can be right.  Add to that other facts, such as we don’t know everything (hence, most anything is possible), we are born with innate cognitive biases that tend to skew our thinking, and sometimes we just goof up even under the best of conditions.  The list could go on and on.  In the end, one is so often wisest when one treats the truth as uncertain.

Glorious Summary and Rousing Call to Action!

Two of possibly many ways in which uncertainty can benefit us are by motivating us to probe for ever deeper insights into things, and by helping to prevent or overcome the natural human tendency to become emotionally and mentally inflexible, closed off to new ideas, ways of doing things, and life adventures.  Of course, there are also  downsides to uncertainty.

Besides the fact that uncertainty can be emotionally uncomfortable, it can also cause us to hesitate to act when we very much need to act.  That can be a huge issue at times, but rather than address it here, I am going to save any discussion of it for another post.

At the moment, however, you yourself should not be hesitant to donate vitally needed dollars to Uncle Sunstone’s Emergency Shelter for Wayward Dancing Girls.   Uncle Sunstone’s Shelter is a non-registered charitable organization focused like a laser on gorgeous women who tragically cannot afford clothing beyond a g-string or two.  Your generous donation will go towards buying those unfortunate women the clothes they need to hang out at Uncle Sunstone’s cottage.  Clothes like French maid’s outfits, sheer nightgowns, skimpy bathing suites, chicken outfits, and other dignified evening wear.  Simply call 1-888-CELEBRATE and please have your credit card handy!  Act now!


  • Most of the story of Peirce’s father, but not all of it, was told to me by my professor, William Davenport, who as a graduate student, was one of just three such students allowed to study Peirce’s collected, but unpublished papers.  Davenport said his version of the story came from Peirce’s writings, but I don’t recall now whether from his published or unpublished writings.

Scandalous! The Shocking Truth About Objects!

(About a 9 minute read)

It will surprise few of my familiar readers that, when I was but a tender child, my devoted mother would lullaby me to sleep by softly chanting over and over again four sweet questions:

What is truth?
What is belief?
What is knowledge?
What is justification?

Eventually, I was to discover at the age of seven, in one the most significant revelations of my life (second only to the understandably puzzling revelation that my first wife desired for us to indulge in sexual congress on our very wedding night!), that my mother’s four questions were the four foundational questions of epistemology.

Perhaps you can imagine the ecstatic, blissful joy I felt upon it being further revealed that the four questions could actually be studied, pursued with zeal, and that there might be answers to them!  Altogether, it was one of the happiest moments of my life.

Soon afterwards, my happiness was made nearly complete by my very first ever discovery in philosophy: Namely, that objects do not exist.

To be sure, I was reinventing the wheel, for the notion had long been known to philosophers and scientists.  Yet, the discovery encouraged me to write my first academic article, which was published in the even then strangely unpopular, Journal of Philosophical Investigations for Children, Ages 3 to 11.  I was off!  Off to becoming the epistemologist and logician that I am today!

I now wish your indulgence as I guide you on a wonderful trip down memory lane to revisit my “old haunt”, the scandalous problem of the object!

Exposed! The Sordid, Hidden Nature of Objects!

We should in all propriety begin with a definition: An object is anything that exists as an independent or discrete physical reality.

Now, perhaps nothing seems more obvious to us than that objects do exist. For instance, my copy of Gettier’s Almanac appears to physically exist independently of the desk it graces.  So why should I think Gettier’s Almanac is not an object?

Dear Reader, the astonishing fact is that claiming objects exist entails dreadful conclusions.  Simply dreadful conclusions!  I must strongly advise you to have your smelling salts at hand as we proceed with our revelations! Philosophy is not for the mild of heart!

The True Nature of Physical Reality Revealed!

Barring such implausible notions as that we are all disembodied consciousnesses, I believe the physical world is real, and that it exists apart from our minds.  Moreover, it appears to be made up in part of fundamental units of highly concentrated energy — call them what you will, “strings”, “quarks”, or even “atomic particles” — which when arranged in various ways, produce the material world that we empirically experience.

Purely for the sake of our convenience, we conceive of the various arrangements of those fundamental units as “objects”.  But the fact we conceive of them so, does not make them so.  For objects do not exist as physical entities, but only as concepts in our own minds.  And that, dear reader, has several implications, a few of which are actually quite stimulating even to very worldly minds, such as my own.

Objects Discredited by the Change Problem!

The notion that objects do not exist has ancient roots.  Around 500 B.C., Heraclitus had the imposing insight to observe, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”.  Thus Heraclitus raised what I call, “The change problem”.

The change problem is, as the name implies, the fact that objects tend to change over time and circumstance.  Heraclitus’ river, for instance, is in a constant state of flux — as is virtually everything else, albeit quite often at a slower pace.  But if that is so, then how is it possible to define something as an object?  Constant physical change raises the issue of what it means to say an object “physically exists”.

For instance, a high mountain over time is worn down by the elements until it becomes a mere hill, or even flat land.  So, precisely what can we mean when we call the mountain an object?  Do we mean the mountain as it was a million years ago?  A half million years ago?  Today?  And if today, do we mean today at 10:59 AM, or today at 3:23 PM?

There is basically only one way in which we can rationally claim all of those different mountains are in reality one and the same mountain.  That is to assert that, the mountain possesses some essential nature that has remained constant and unvarying though-out all the physical changes that the mountain has undergone.  But we must ask,  what could be the nature of that essential nature?  For it certainly cannot be something physical.

Frankly, the problem has driven some philosophers into raving madness.  That is, into scandalously metaphysical speculations!  The poor, depraved creatures have ended up imagining the mountain remains the same mountain by virtue of its possessing an indemonstrable metaphysical essence.  That is, an essence or nature “beyond the physical”.  But how can they possibly justify such an appalling delusion?  There is, in my opinion, simply no good argument for that distastefully speculative notion.  Simply none.

I shall not, however, digress into the reasons I am convinced, absolutely convinced, most days of the week that there is no justification for the metaphysical speculations of my poor, depraved colleagues.  We — by which I mean you and I, dear reader — have already put ourselves at sufficient risk of a coronary arrest from the sheer excitement of discussing the steamy topic of how the concept of the object so frequently seduces us humans.  Thus, I will reserve the alluring topic of metaphysical speculations for another day.

In sum, we cannot say that the mountain exists as an object in reality, but only as a concept in our own minds, without resorting to wild metaphysical speculations.  And what applies to the mountain, applies to all alleged objects.  They exist only as concepts, but not as physical realities.

Objects Compromised by the Boundary Problem!

The “boundary problem”, as I call it, is a philosophical dagger plunged by the passionate force of logic straight into the very heart of the notion objects physically exist independent of other objects.

To illustrate, first suppose you had a pile of sand.  Allow such a pile of sand to stand in for objects.  All objects.  Now, further suppose you were to diminish the pile by removing just one grain of sand at a time until no sand at all was left.  At which point in the process does your pile of sand cease to exist as an object?

You see, dear reader, if the pile of sand is actually an object — that is, something that exists as an independent physical reality, rather than as a mere concept of the mind — then there must necessarily be a precise boundary between when it is a pile of sand, and when it is no longer a pile of sand.  Were we to say, “There is no precise boundary, but it is still an object”,  we would be indulging ourselves in the terrifying sin of self-contradiction!  For then, we would be arguing that one object can merge into another object while yet remaining independent of the object it is merging into.  Frightful!

And the very same problem — the boundary problem — applies not just to our pile of sand, but to all objects.  When, for instance, does a shirt become not a shirt if we start picking away at it, one molecule at a time?

Shocking as it might be to us, we must now come to the full realization that we have been shamelessly seduced by our own imaginations into believing that physical reality is promiscuously strewn with objects.  In truth, those “objects” are nothing more than wanton concepts in our mind.

A Most Titillating Implication!

No doubt the natural excitements of the discussion have so far been just as robust and numerous for you, dear reader, as they have for me.  Perhaps you are even thinking, “Too much!  Far too much fun!”.  But I must ask you to stick with me for only a few words longer, for I now aim to briefly expose an astonishing implication of all that has gone before.

 You see, if objects are merely concepts, then it follows that scientists can not actually study them as physical realities.  But this logically raises the question of how can scientists, when studying physical realities, distinguish one physical reality from another?

The question is a large one, too large to explore here in this one post.  I propose, however, to explore it in a future post to be published on this same blog.  For now, it is time to bring to a close what, doubtlessly for some of my readers, has been a day of strenuous excitements!

My High School Math Teacher was a Space Alien!

(About a 7 minute read)

Often, when I think of the people in my life who have most deeply — some might say “most traumatically” — impressed me as smart in some ways and stupid in others, I think of my high school math teacher, Mr. B.

No one — not even I — questioned Mr. B’s competence as a mathematician.  I will submit, however, that Mr. B, despite his smarts in math, was twenty years ahead of his time in some kinds of stupid.

I had Mr. B as a teacher in the early 1970s.  William F. Buckley was alive, and Buckley was frequently a very smart man.  He also had the clout to be the intellectual guardian of the Republican Party.  That is, if he decided someone or some group was too stupid to fit in as a Republican, Buckley would use his considerable influence to exile them from the Party.  The Republicans have no one like him today. Today,. the crazies have become the Party.

The John Birch Society was one of the groups Buckley succeeded in kicking out of the Party.  The “Birchers” believed — in the way stupid people fanatically believe things — all sorts of nonsense.  For instance, they thought Dwight D. Eisenhower was a willing tool of the Soviet Union and a deliberate traitor to America.  Buckley thought the Birchers were in danger of sliding into fascism.  Perhaps he was right.

My math teacher subscribed to the John Birch Society, and perhaps to other Radical Right organizations as well. We knew whenever he had received in the mail another one of their newsletters — he would put aside teaching mathematics for the day and instead lecture us on themes that were rarely enough heard in the early 1970s outside of certain circles.

I can still recall a few of his more memorable pronouncements: “Pollution never killed anyone”.  “Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Communist out to destroy America. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”  “The Soviets will invade us any year now. Maybe any day now.”  “Women don’t need equal rights.  Men do!  Women are smarter than men.”  “Negroes are shameless whiners. They haven’t been discriminated against since the end of the Civil War.”

I am a strong believer in the notion that, although everyone has a right to his or her opinions, not all opinions are created equal.  Some opinions are forged of sound logic and a weight of evidence.  Some other opinions are forged of logical fallacies and nonsense.  Many people believe that differences of opinion never reflect differences of intellect.  I’m not so sure.  It seems to me some opinions are so stupid their owners, if not merely ignorant, must be stupid.  But then I’m no psychologist, so maybe I’m wrong about that.

Yet, it is simply true that — often enough — the same one of us who is so stupid as to believe the Theory of Evolution is a conspiracy of the world’s 500,000 biologists, is nevertheless a brilliant (or at least competent) engineer.  How can we account for that?

Mr. B once said something that I think is about half true: “No matter how good you get at math, you will never cease to make mistakes. But if you practice, you will catch your mistakes as you make them, and then correct them yourself, instead of needing someone else to correct them for you.”

I think it sometimes happens that way.  But I also think very few — if any — of us ever get so good that we catch and correct every one of our own mistakes, whether in math or in any other field.  We will always need the help of others.  Indeed, it seems one reason the sciences have been so successful at establishing reliable facts and producing predictive theories is because they employ methods of inquiry that encourage people to correct each other’s mistakes.  That is, science is a profoundly cooperative endeavor.

Buckley once described some of the notions of the John Birch society as “paranoid and idiotic”.  To some extent, those two things go together.  A “paranoid” person is typically unwilling to accept anyone correcting his ideas.  Quite often, the result is his ideas drift into idiocy.  That’s to say, it seems one of the best ways to become stupid is to systematically reject or ignore the efforts of others to correct us when we are wrong.

But why are we humans so often wrong in the first place?

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with a rather interesting theory that could go far to explain why our species of great ape seems prone to cognitive errors.  It’s called “The Argumentative Theory”, and it is well worth reading up on.

The gist of it is that our ability to reason evolved — not to figure out what is true or false — but to (1) evaluate arguments intended to persuade us to do something, and (2) to persuade others to do what we want them to do.  Consequently, our ability to think logically and evidentially is imperfect — one might even say, “somewhat remedial”.

Part of the evidence for the Argumentative Theory is our species built in cognitive biases.  By “built in”, I mean that the biases seem hereditary.  The fact our thinking is inherently biased is strong evidence our thinking evolved for some other function than to merely figure out what is true or false.  Mercier and Sperber would say that function was to persuade people by arguments and to evaluate their efforts to persuade us by arguments.

Regardless of whether the function of reason is to discern reality or to win arguments, the fact our species is so prone to cognitive error might go far in explaining how it happens that the same person can be smart in some ways and stupid in others.  That is, perhaps we are smartest — or at least, we tend to act smartest — when we have some corrective feedback.

That feedback might come in the form of ourselves “checking our work” — as when we check a mathematical solution.  It might come in the form of  whether we achieve our intended outcome — as when we fix a car so that it runs again.  Or the corrective feedback might come in the form of constructive criticism from  well trusted others.

Perhaps the less corrective feedback we have, the more likely we are to adopt stupid opinions.  Or, in other words, we should not expect our own reason alone to take us where we want to go.  Rather, we should expect our reason plus some form of corrective feedback to take us there.

I think my high school math teacher, if he were alive to read this essay, would be appalled by my suggestion that — no matter how good we get — we are still wise to listen to the critiques of others.  It seems to me Mr. B cared so little to hear the opinions of others that he might as well have been a space alien orbiting his own little planet and all but totally out of touch with earth.  He seemed to think he was his own sufficient critic.  And perhaps his lack of concern for the input of others explains why he found it so easy to harbor so many “paranoid and idiotic” notions.  Notions that, in a sense, were more stupid than he was.

The Shocking Truth About Truth!

(About a 10 minute read)

What is truth?  That question is certain to excite the latent epistemologist in all of us.  Consequently, I would be remiss were I not to inform you, my beloved readers, that the material we are to cover today may periodically induce you to reach for your smelling salts, such is the very nature of epistemology.

As myself not only an epistemologist, but a worldly epistemologist, I cannot properly tell you how appalled I am by the most common answers that I have heard made to the question, “What is truth?”

At the risk of causing you momentary heart palpitations, I would like to quote here an alarming exchange that I discovered on the internet!  On the internet and, I might add, in plain view of impressionable, young children who could thus have their tender, budding notions of logic warped forever by such a savagely circular exchange:

First Person: “I only know the truth according to me…my truth.”

Second Person: “How are you defining ‘truth’?”

First:  “The quality or state of being true.”

Second:  “Ok. And what makes something true?”

First:  “The quality of being true.”

Second: “What makes somethings have that quality and somethings not have that quality?”

First:  “It either does or doesn’t.”

Of course, the good news here is that the First Person in that exchange still has something left to look forward to in life, something as tangibly exciting as a first kiss, a massive job promotion, or the birth of a grandchild.  Namely, they have The Correspondence Theory of Truth to look forward to!

I myself believe it’s a safe wager that those scurrilous wags who say, “Epistemologists are stuffy and no fun”, have never yet partied with an epistemologist holding forth on the topic of The Correspondence Theory.  Why, at the last party I was invited to, back in ’86, I so enthralled my audience with the Theory that they fell one by one into blissful sleep, just as if I’d sung them the sweetest lullaby.  Even my wife later remarked how “creatively” I’d returned the best man’s toast on our wedding day!

Of all the theories of truth (and there are five major ones), the Correspondence Theory is both the oldest and most popular.  It dates in some form or another all the way back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, roughly 2,400 years ago.   The gist of it is that the truth or falsity of a statement is determined only by how it relates to a reality, and that a statement is true if it corresponds (i.e. describes) a reality, and false if it does not.

For example:  Were I to say to you, “The scholar is sipping wine”,  that statement would be true if it were indeed the case that there was a scholar sipping wine.  And the statement would be false if that were not the case.

Now, the key take-away here is that the word “truth” is not synonymous with the word “reality”, but rather describes a quality of the relationship between a statement and a reality.  This is very much like the relationship of a map to its terrain.

A map is said to be accurate or true to the extent that it corresponds to a  terrain.   But we do not think of a map as being the same thing as its terrain.  Just so, we should not think of truth as being the same thing as reality.  To do so would, among other atrocities, make the word “truth” a mere redundancy.  Perhaps more importantly, it would tend in practice to close off any attempt to answer the question, “How do we know something is true?”

As it turns out, that question — “How do we know something is true?” — is far from suitable for bedtime reading.  One desires then only to be gently lulled to sleep by some fast-paced action/adventure or steamy romance novel, and a heart-pounding foray into the finer points of epistemology is the very last thing one needs!  The wise reader will thus be forewarned to grip their desk or chair in preparation for my next revelation!

How do we know something is true depends on, among other things, what we mean by “reality”.

Suppose we were to take the ghastly tack of defining “reality” in such a way that it could not — even in theory — be fully known to us!  Let us say, for instance, that at this very moment there exists an undetectable leprechaun singing inaudibly beneath my windowsill.  What on earth could I possibly mean by saying, “I know it to be true”?  You would be quite justified in asking, “How?”

For if the leprechaun is indeed undetectable, and if his singing is indeed inaudible, then there would seem to be no basis at all for my claim that he exists.  Of course, there is always the possibility, however remote, that he exists — if only because there is always the possibility that we might someday come up with a method of detecting him.  But we can no more claim that we are certain to come up with such a method as we can claim that we know today he exists.

Moreover, suppose I cannot even give a purely logical argument for why my leprechaun exists.  For it is possible for something to be known — not through empirical observation — but through logic alone.  For instance, 2 + 6 = 8 can be known through logic alone.  It can also be known through observation, but that does nothing to change the fact it can be known through logic alone.

If I can give you neither empirical evidence nor pure logic to support my claim that my leprechaun exists, then what can I possibly mean if I were to say, “The truth or falsity of my claim rests on its relationship to reality”?

It should be quite obvious to us now that The Correspondence Theory of Truth depends on “reality” being something discernible, if only in theory.

It can be discernible through pure logic, or it can be discernible through empirical observation, or through a combination of empirical observation and logical reasoning, but for The Correspondence Theory to make any sense at all, the “reality” it refers to must be discernible.

Now, despite being an artist, a creative genius, a mystic, a visionary, and a madman, William Blake had his limits: He was also a poet.  Perhaps for that reason alone, Blake tragically failed to leave us with a decently well-formulated epistemology.  Hence, precisely what he meant by, “A fool sees not the same tree that a wise man sees.”, has ever since his death been scandalously open to promiscuous interpretation.

Did Blake mean to imply by it that truth is different for different people?  That the tree the fool sees is just as legitimate as the tree the wise man sees?

I think not!

We can logically believe that only if we believe that the tree can be two separate, but epistemologically equal, things.  To illustrate, suppose the fool sees the tree as “yellow”, the wise person sees the tree as “blue”, and neither sees the tree as the other.  Can the tree be both discernibly yellow and discernibly blue at the same time?  Apart from some interpretations of quantum mechanics, they cannot.

Not, that is, if the fool and the wise person are using the same exact method of discernment or inquiry.  For it is possible that they could both arrive at legitimate differences of opinion if they were using different means of inquiry.

Many of my beloved readers might now be reaching wildly for the smelling salts, for I am admittedly come close to positing that the truth can be legitimately different for different people!  But I daresay “Epistemology is not for the faint of heart! To boldly go where no sane groom epistemologist has gone before is but the bread and butter of my days! I am a man of passions, huge, towering passions! It means practically nothing to me to toss out the possibility that truth might be legitimately different for different people.   To toss it out and then — properly qualify it!”

To my thinking, the most perfected description of a reality would be an operational definition of the method of inquiry used to establish the reality.   By an “operational definition” I mean a step by step description of the process one uses to discover or arrive at the reality.   For instance, the operational definition of the cake I made last Wednesday would be the step by step recipe I used in creating it.  Or, the operational definition of “oxygen” may be described as the specific tests and measures one uses to recognize its presence.

So, for example, were I to say, “There is a cake on my table”, then the most perfect way for me to define the reality would be for me to offer every possible operational definition of what I mean by there is a cake on my table:  “I see a cylindrical object on my table.  The frosting tastes sweet when I lick it.  The body appears light and airy when I cut into it.”  And so forth.

Put differently, the most perfected — if seldom the best — way to describe a reality is to describe it in terms of the operations used as a method of inquiry into its existence.  For when we do so, we make precisely clear what we truly mean by the reality.

For instance, were I to say, “I lost my virginity at the age of 16”, you would know very little for certain about the profound experience I had.  That is, the extraordinary reality I am referring to.  But were I to truthfully add, “I lost my virginity at the age of 16 by reading a biology textbook”, you would at once know how remarkably worldly I was even at such a young age.  Thus we can see how specifying the method of inquiry can properly qualify, and much further define, the reality being discussed.

I would submit then that, apart from quantum mechanics, reality is most likely the same for everyone, provided that “everyone” is using exactly the same method of inquiry under the same or similar conditions [(and is qualified to assess the results of their inquiry) an offer not good where the truth is prohibited by law, such as within the city limits of Washington D.C.].

We have now reached a point where we may safely hazard a summary of all that has gone before.  First, we found that “truth”, according to the oldest and most popular theory, is a matter of the relationship between a statement and the reality it refers to.  Next, we had an exciting romp through the notion that there are two kinds of knowledge — knowledge that requires no experience to know it is true, and knowledge that requires experience to know it is true.   Next, in a truly climatic moment, we discovered that some method of discernment or inquiry is logically implied in any meaningful claim that something is true. Finally, in the afterglow of our blissful romp, we experienced the epiphany that a poet — of all people! — was undoubtedly right about something.  Exactly what though, we’re not sure, given his appalling failure to leave us with an extant epistemology.   That’s the trouble with poets, you know; why they don’t properly footnote their truth claims must remain one of life’s greatest mysteries.


For a much more thorough discussion of these topics, see my lively little book,  How Do We Know It’s True that “the Eggs and Ham are Green”?: Conversational Breakfast Table Gambits in Truth Theory for the Layman.  Tokyo: Taikutsuna Publishing House, 2004.  Print.