July 17, 2013

TYE: A Yangist Breakfast

Hazelnut-chocolate spread on raisin bread, or bananas and peanut butter?  These two breakfasts reflect something very irritating for me.  Every day I am forced to compromise on one of my two deepest human desires -- the robustness and longevity of my body, and my indulgence in sensual pleasures.  In openly treasuring both, regardless of its perceived "shallowness" by "deeper" thinkers, I feel I identify well with the Yangist conception of treasuring the body.

It's obvious why Yang Zhu advised treasuring the body in both of these sometimes opposing senses.  Healthy bodies imply longevity, and longevity implies more time in which to savor and indulge myself in this only life I have.  But, in the words of Bill Maher, "Fun costs you."  The great many pleasant things on Earth, ingested, imbibed, or immersed, may eventually kill me, if some freak event doesn't kill me first.

Hence I have my breakfasts of contradictions.  Sure, fruit and bread have plenty of vitamins, fiber, carbohydrates and protein, and they psychologically help me feel that I'm actively choosing to eat healthfully; but a thin dallop of peanut butter spread on every bite of three bananas, or thin divots of hazelnut-chocolate spread spackled on all ten slices of bread, eaten in one sitting, undresses that pretense where it matters -- in my guts, in my blood.  I live to serve my taste buds, the pleasure centers in my brain to which they connect.  I need all of the mechanisms which serve them to run for a long time.  I have to make a tradeoff.  If living for a century means eating kale every day, I'd rather be dead.

This regular compromise of pleasure for survival, and vice versa, is not a unique dilemma.  What's unique for me, as a Yangist, is that I see it to be the only dilemma in life that deserves my concern.  I have a brain structures that crave certain stimuli, and I can use other regions of that very brain to feed those cravings and preserve the means that are necessary to do so.  I know my self to be my body and the actions of that body which compose the narrative of my life.  As those parts of me change, so do I, so to try to escape the workings of my brain is not any more sensible than trying to flee from my own heartbeat.  Any such effort would at best fetishize some self-external abstraction or ideal.  There's no workaround for human nature.

In the ideal situation, one which is rare, but occasionally achieved, technological innovations or knowledge eliminate my need to compromise my desires.  Maybe someone in the future will make delicious, healthful, and cheap peanut butter, allowing for my truly "guilt-free" breakfast.  Maybe a scientific discovery will uncover that I've unknowingly eaten my way to immortality one sweet, salty jar at a time.  Until then, though, I'm stuck with the painful truth -- Nutrition Facts.

In most situations, I've found that the following meditation has worked in helping me evaluate the directions that I've taken in my life.  Whenever I have a moment to reflect on my present situation, I imagine my life being taken away from me very suddenly.  I imagine a sniper shooting a bullet through my skull, plunging to my death as the building where I sleep topples in the sudden jolt of an earthquake, being stabbed to death in my bed, having a sudden heart attack or aneurysm, having my skull crushed in various freak accidents and psychopathic homicides...you name it!  While I imagine suddenly dying in these often gruesome ways, I invariably ask myself these questions, often assuming that I'm dead already:
  1. Is this really how you wanted to spend the last instant of your life?
    • In almost all instances, the answer is, "No."  I want to spend my last moments of my life laying with the person I love most, my eyes lazily gazing on her, her looking back understandingly at me, understanding that I'm at peace with her there, sharing perfect silence.
  2. What feasible thing would you rather have been doing before dying right now?
    •  Very often, the answers that I give to this question really provide a sense of direction and ambition to my life as a whole.  For me, it clarifies what my truest motivations and interests in my life are.
  3. Can you reasonably pursue that alternative now or very soon, conceding that you haven't died just yet?
    • If I can, then I'll go about doing just that, assuming that I don't get distracted.  I also happen to meditate in this manner frequently enough that I often can find the time to pursue the things that matter to me at those times.
I could die happily enough with some delicious food in my mouth.  And the perhaps nominal effort to prolong my life with the healthier palettes for my savory spreads gives that extra psychological comfort that I crave.  Either way, an imagined bullet through my brain hasn't changed my mind, and I don't bet that a real one will.

Unfortunately, that's the best that I can offer myself.  Beyond that, I just try to satisfy my impulses within the constraints of my budget.  At least my favorite breakfasts are cheap!

May 12, 2013

From "A Yangist's Musings" to "The Yangist Experience"

I'm changing the title of my blog to signal a change in the approach that I'll take to focus this stuff more on Yangism, while still remaining consistent with all of the cutthroat analytical anti-philosophy and reduction of any encountered "philosophical problems" to non-philosophical arenas.

My opinions on how life is best lived, and their justificatory grounds, align most closely with surviving Yangist material, but my anti-philosophy (or, as an epithet, positivistic tendencies) bars me from approaching the topic in any way which is typical to academic philosophy, and it doesn't allow me much freedom to discuss what I feel is most important about any doctrine -- an understanding how living by a certain code, moral, or ethos really impacts a person, as opposed arguing on the supposed pros and cons of the hypothetical adoption of one.

One potential route which will resolve these problems will be to turn away from an analysis of what texts say and how they jive with other ethical precepts, etc., in abstraction, and instead focus on concrete instances of my own life (or those of other living Yangists who happen to find this blog) in which being a Yangist proves to be advantageous or disadvantageous.  Instead of thinking of my (meta)ethics as theoretical fields of philosophical debate, I'm going to consider relevant effects that people who might consider adopting it might think are directly relevant to them.  I'm using myself as a lab rat in my own experimentation, offering data points that might guide people to adopt or avoid this lifestyle.

Now, without a few checks against myself, this self-reporting on life according to a position with which I strongly agree could dissolve into polemical diarrhea, so in the interests of checking myself against that, I'm going to stick to a few guidelines in the interest of giving an even-handed view of what it's like to be a Yangist.
  1. I'm only going to discuss autobiographical bits about myself wherein I attribute my behaviors to following or attempting to follow a claim that Yang Zhu advises.  That is, I'm not going to describe how I act in ways which coincidentally correspond with Yangist claims.  I'm going to describe how I act, think, feel because the Yangist position advises it, or because I justify it explicitly on Yangist grounds, even if other reasons tell me not to do so.
  2. I'm going to evenly distribute claims to advantages and disadvantages in my life, or even write more about the disadvantages of my Yangist life than about the advantages of it.  I do this to actively curb cognitive biases in which I would be more prone to positively assess behaviors that result from advisement with which I mostly agree (i.e. avoid whitewashing).
  3. I may describe how I act in ways which do not meet Yangist suggestions, but will not comment on whether not acting according to Yangist proposal is advantageous or disadvantageous.  Instead, I will outline a plan to adhere to a given Yangist proposal (within the scope of the law of my place of residence), execute it for a few weeks or months, and then comment on the results afterwards.
I think that these guidelines should keep this effort descriptive, a statement of results that have followed from years of actually conforming aspects of my life to Yangism, or of living according to beliefs which Yangism pretty clearly advises (and after the fact, defending my practice on Yangist grounds).  In these forthcoming expositions, I leave the normative or prescriptive questions to my modest readership.

March 17, 2013

Some Might Call Me a "Metaethical Pluralist"

In January, 2011, I published a blog post which provided a means of dismantling normative ethics and paving a way for a strictly empirical program to deal with the problems therein.

I usually turn away from a subject whenever I've worked through it, so I left it be, linking back to it and making small revisions whenever it seemed appropriate.

About one year or so later, a friend mentioned a LessWrong.com article which argued something quite similar, and which did so six months after I published mine.  Since I remembered some decent hits coming from that work, my knee-jerk reaction was to accuse that LessWrong blogger of plagiarism, which I finally bothered to do, jokingly, in my response to the problems that I found with his article.
 What was more interesting, the LessWrong article links to an article that Richard Joyce, a bigger big shot in metaethics, wrote at the same time when I was writing my blog post here:

Joyce's essay appears to agree with me in many areas:
  1. Denying that a thing exists as we previously conceived it does not amount to a total denial that such a thing exists.  My only contention there is that there are better ways of demonstrating that than he does by discussing Ramsey sentences (ibid. 4~5), since in my estimation, Russellian descriptivists have pretty much nailed the process of reference down (because there can be multiple sufficient conditions [or descriptive paths] which isolate referents with a common label).
  2. The question of ethics's use is an empirical question.
    "One interesting and possibly surprising consequence of conceptualizing the problem in this manner is that it makes the debate between the moral naturalist and the moral error theorist at bottom an empirical debate."
    -- ibid. 5
  3. There's no inference or evidence from which one can claim that doubts or non-moral reductions in ethical values results in the breakdown of peaceful cooperation among humans (ibid. 13).  In fact, I would argue the exact opposite.  In far more historical cases, the people who could justify or ignore harming others, abiding then-claimed absolute moral principles, and approaching then-claimed absolute ideals were less self-critical ethical realists.
He would probably disagree with me in some areas, though, since I'm a fallibilist about how we might premise people's wants and motives when we prescribe behavior to others, but am not an error theorist.  But that's a diversion for another day.

November 12, 2012

A Yangist's Thought Experiments: 1: Murder, Suicide, Misery

Now and again, I daydream a nightmare.  These nightmares, after enough reflection, have instructed my ethical and metaethical positions quite succinctly, but almost always reaffirm or just slightly alter the positions which I most often defend.  However, I'd like to know how other people react to these nightmarish scenarios and whether they're inclined to conclude the same conclusions from the same thought experiments.

I'll be retelling the scenario as I thought it in an actual nightmare that I had.  I've adjusted some tertiary details.  If there is already an analogous trolley-car version of this thought experiment, please let me know.

You may complete your thought experiment here if the frame doesn't load correctly, and I'll update this blog with thoughtful responses.  If you answer these questions in your own blog or website, please forward the link to me in this blog's comments section.

Favorite Response:

I received a handful of responses in recent weeks.

My favorite response came on 12/9/2012 at 6:20:25.  He answered, "I cannot answer the question," and for the following reason:
"The situation ant the question is too unreal to have a real answer. It is impossible to imagine what I would do in such a situation."

I fully agree.  In fact, it's how I feel about most ethical thought experiments.

Also, Yangist texts do not clearly indicate that one response is more correct than another is.  This is why I call it a Yangist's thought experiment, and not a Yangist thought experiment.

October 28, 2012

An Alternative Zhuangist Rejection of Evil Daos

Donald Sturgeon, another Chinese philosopher and a cool dude who developed an online "e-text system" for easy research of Chinese classics, recently discussed how, in light of Zhuangzi's rather extreme epistemological and metaethical relativism, Zhuangist adherents can adequately criticize other schemes/commitments by which people evaluate, and then perform their actions (Daos [], for Sturgeon and many other philosophers).

[Autobiographical aside:]
It was my consideration of these exact types of problems that made me move away from working in Chinese philosophy exclusively (as I started reading this stuff at thirteen, and made such criticisms about five years into my reflection on it) and helped me embrace Yangism without concern for Daoist disapproval.

Sturgeon's proposed Zhuangist criticism says: "The Zhuangist criticism of the [evildoer] is not so much that he is wrong, but that he is stupid" when the evildoer adopts a Dao to which the evildoer would reply inconsistently from his present stance if his Dao were the common practice in a life which differs from his own.

I offer my criticism of Sturgeon's perspectival account in the comments section.  The most relevant portion of that criticism is here:
“Commitments which do not hold true in the Daos of maximally many people are intellectually misguided.”. Call that P. The Nazi baby-killer can then respond, “P does not hold true in the Daos of maximally many people.” It would follow that P is intellectually misguided.

I think this shows that Sturgeon's version of an adequate Zhuangist criticism against evildoers' Daos is Zhuangist-refuting.

I add here that Sturgeon's version is infinitely regressive, and so knowing whether a commitment holds for maximally many perspectives is problematic.  It doesn't seem clear that we should consider counterfactual perspectives (B) and compare them from our current perspectives (A), but that we should not consider more deeply counterfactual perspectives (C) and compare them against every counterfactual perspective to that perspective (B), and so on, thus creating uncountably infinitely many perspectives from which to evaluate any Dao.

I think that the assumption which contributes to these problems is the idea that somehow the philosophy of the Zhuangzi has to avoid committed and unchanging stances from which to claim that a Zhuangist is right and that his opponents are wrong.  In fact, Zhuangists take plenty of time to tell people exactly why they're wrong.  Nevertheless, I think that Sturgeon is half-right.  Zhuangists criticize that we should consider alternative perspectives when we adopt the commitments which make our Daos.  However, the Zhuangzi is always showing that some alternative perspectives actually reveal hidden losses, and that we should commit ourselves to a Dao that has the greatest payoff in practice.

Zhuangzi's criticism can be comparative, and it doesn't have to refute itself, saying instead, "If, in a situation S, someone has two commitments X' and X'', and if commitment X' brings a lower loss in S than X'' has in S, and assuming equal payoffs for X' and X'', X' dominates X'', and we should commit to X' in S."

While I would love to cite every passage of the Zhuangzi to make this case, I think the clearest example of this line of reasoning comes in the story of Cook Ding.  The Zhuangzi states through Wen Hui that Cook Ding's method is the wiser of other butchers', and if we consider the situation from dominant strategies, it's easy to understand the reasoning for Wen Hui's applauding Cook Ding's perspective.
  • Cook Ding's situation S is butchering an ox.
  • Assume X' to be for Cook Ding to perceive the ox as a spatially proximal combination of spatially separate parts.
  • Assume X'' to be for Cook Ding to perceive the ox as a fully connected whole.
  • The loss from of X'' is the price of one cleaver every month or every year, plus extra maintenance costs.
  • The loss from X' is the price of one cleaver for at least nineteen years, without any extra maintenance costs.
  • We can assume that the payoffs for X' and X'' are equal (the same amount of butchered ox meat).
From this, it follows that X' dominates X'' in S, so we should commit to X' in S.

Some may notice that I've drifted in my usage of commitment as I've made this economic analogy.  It appears that strategies of game theory more adequately describe the "commitments to Daos" that Sturgeon, others, and I had been discussing.  If we approximate Zhuangzi's basis for criticism or adulation to the ways which the dismal science uses, we allow for plenty of situational contexts from which we can consider all of the varying strategies which we might employ and incorporate into our Daos.  Zhuangzi's work could comment that we often employ strategies, but don't weigh them intelligently against other strategies, and sometimes don't even have a clear notion of a game from which to compare strategies, because we haven't indicated any losses or payoffs.

Zhuangists can offer direct, game-theoretic criticisms against evildoers' strategies toward certain payoffs (or adopting a commitment to a Dao which affords a certain lifestyle), and they can do so constructively, by comparing the evil strategies to better strategies, whether we're making use of warped trees and hollow gourds, training horses for dressage, or butchering oxen.  The Dao of Infanticidal Thrill-Killing or some other widely detested way of life needn't be wrong because it violates some stuffy orthodoxies.  Zhuangists (and Yangists, too) can intellectually criticize that it's far from an optimal strategy if, for instance, the baby-killer considers that his living longer is a sort of payoff.  Some evildoers will not consider the costs of their acts, but Zhuangists need not reason them out of their Daos any more than we need to reason dogs out of busy traffic; Zhuangists can find another use for them, since Zhuangists can apply counterfactual perspectival breadth to forge a Dao which approaches equilibrium.

August 29, 2012

Philosophical Amputations: 3: Normative Lexicography

I'm going to risk some redundancy for another attempt to hack at some of the sophistry that philosophers exploit.  Like my other charges, I'm going to prod at philosophers' linguistic fallacies which they use to enable philosophical discourse.  Unlike them, I want to poke at a problem that laypeople who actually meet and talk with philosophers experience -- philosophers' assumption that people don't "really" know what they mean by what they say.

The issue that I'm going to raise here often arises in what philosophers call "philosophical interest."  It's come up more and more in lieu of the pursuit of truth, such that what passes for philosophy instead is a sort of talk about how other philosophically trained people will be interested in engaging an argument that another philosopher writes.

In some studies, this kind of talk can work fine, because experts in other fields have an already defined and narrow field of inquiry from which other studies are likely to be very distal to the ones that they themselves study.  Anatomists and sociologists, for instance, work in partly overlapping areas.  The former studies interactions within a single human body, while the latter studies interactions among human bodies.  It's clear that their studies inform each other in many respects, as certain anatomical facts comprehensively explain certain facts about human socialization, and vice versa.  However, those revealed facts from the anatomist are not so "sociologically interesting" in the sense that they don't directly relate to the experiments that sociologists undertake or to the causal relationships that they're usually trying to find.

But how do philosophers invent most of the questions and problems that then become "philosophically interesting?"  And more, how can non-philosophers then separate the wheat from the chaff?   Philosophy prides itself on being the amorphous profession, one in which its methods of inquiry can fit any discipline and provide productive criticism and alternative perspectives from certain data.  Being "philosophically interesting" can't be probing at that aforementioned kind of difference.  That previous sentence is misleading.  The difference is still about a narrow sub-domain of our empirical knowledge, but what exactly the "interesting" content is is not obvious.

Philosophers, however, occasionally blurt out the "interesting" domain of study and the vanity of the methods that they apply when seeking to understand that domain, as Peter Millican does at the end of his introductory lecture on epistemology:

While I agree with a portion of what Millican says (that we're not setting God's-eye standards for determinations of knowledge), there is a problem that would have avoided the whole issue right at the start if they had caught it as laymen do, and it may perhaps enlighten Millican here and other philosophers not to chase their own tails and then recommend a move that everyone else does as a matter of everyday practice.

At this point, a typical example, one that laymen experience when they deal with philosophers, will offer more explanatory force.  In it, we can imagine a layman (LM) making claims to knowledge who confronts a skeptic (SK), who sucks the layman into his rhetorical game:

LM: "I know that I have a hand, that there is no rational solution to the square root of 2, and that I will still be alive for the next nanosecond, etc."
SK: "Well, how do you really know those things?  Maybe you're a brain in a vat, and that it's not really your hand.  Maybe we just don't have the right mathematics, and it's incorrect to say that the square root of 2 is non-rational.  Maybe lightning just struck you, and you've just died."

This ought to tell us that the "philosophically interesting" content of their discourse is the lexicons of human languages (in Millican's video above, the use of the headword know).

But once the skeptic has outlined the domain of his investigation, he has already succumbed to two unique fallacies by pursuing his method of criticism.  The first fallacy is a forced category shift from which no layperson wants or needs to follow.  Skeptics (and philosophers, too) play this game by forcibly contrasting what was the framework or narrative from which the non-academic masses provide meanings to their terms to some other framework or narrative where the terms were never intended to be used.  Consider the following: What if I'm living in a dream world, and then a mad scientist puts my imaginary brain into a vat?  Does that mean that I'm thrust into a deeper illusion than I just was when I was living under the previous illusion?  Don't even attempt to answer the question!  If you're tempted to address that question, you're already playing into the philosopher's bigger mistake.

This bigger mistake, I think, is the most insulting part of the philosophical attitude (and I think the part that turns most people away from it).  Rather than accepting what regular people mean in circumstances when they use terms, and investigate from there, they attempt to form a more "philosophically interesting" narrative assumes that the regular person was proposing a sort of universal definition which must apply in all situations.

This, too, marks the drastic separation between the laity and philosophers.  Regular people are only offering a loose descriptive lexicography of their senses of words as they mean it when they say it, to have a message which is clear enough for practical uses.  Philosophers wrongly assume that our descriptive lexicon is on trial, that we're supposed to subject our linguistic habits to some sort of normative lexicography, and where the meaning that a layman gave for a certain term or proposition was supposedly a statement about how we should use the term in any imaginable situation.  This means that laypeople can disarm most philosophers with a single sentence: "If that's what I meant by the phrase, I would have used a different one."  Further philosophical challenges amount to semantic mavenism (in the very sense that Stephen Pinker dismisses "grammar mavenism"), which assumes that specialists are going to enforce a "correct" account of a meaning of a term that no regular people use in the situations that the "mavens" prescribe.

The fallacies of normative lexicography break down into a number of different false assumptions:
  • It is false that a single grapheme, phoneme, or related x-eme of a language must correspond to exactly one all-inclusive sense or subscribe to just one universal definiens.  The syntactic elements of natural languages inject and surject into our semantics, but they do not biject it!
  • It is false that meanings for terms come from conformity of an x-eme to the truths of the world.  Meaningfulness is a matter of consensus among users of a language, and the illustrations that said language provides under a particular framework or narrative.
  • The idea that we're attempting to propose some supreme, unalienable, objective fact about the world when we're conveying a message is mistaken, and further (and philosophers should know this!), logically impossible (because of the infinite regress of ambiguity).  The framework or narrative by which we provide meaning to our sentences is confined to life as we comprehend ourselves living it.
  • It is false that we could get a better grasp of the extralinguistic world by probing at the mere linguistic conventions of a community.  We can aim for consistency in interpretation.  We can aim for factuality in statements.  But those issues come after we've conveyed an already meaningful message.

Limiting ourselves to descriptive lexicography does not beget incommensurable lexicons, as some philosophers suggest, because descriptive lexicography is plenty to keep people from saying, "Red bananas read newspapers," in English to mean, "I went to the supermarket yesterday," in English, too, without careful ad hoc qualification that they would have to concede upright in order to be understood.  With such concessions, the problem over incommensurable lexicons disappears as soon as the interlocutors interpreted said meanings to each other.  (That's also what allows English speakers to understand, "Let's bury the hatchet," to mean, "Let's reconcile our mutual opposition.")

I think the most convincing evidence of the vanity in the practice of normative lexicography is that philosophers, themselves, suddenly play the roles of descriptive lexicographers as soon as someone normatively challenges what they mean by what they say when they talk about "philosophy."  "No, no!" such a philosopher says, "That's not what I or we mean when we use the word philosophy.  If that's what I meant by that phrase, I would have used a different one."

But more, we don't really need a normative lexicography to challenge people's claims about the world, because if we clarify that people's seemingly separate meanings translate into something with which we agree, then the disagreement ends there.  But, if it doesn't, then the basis for the claim isn't going to be the vocabulary, or imaginary tales in which we have no reason to assume that our everyday lexicon should apply, but some separate fact which informs those claims.  But once we're discussing what the facts beyond the terminology that we use to convey those facts are, admitting pro tem a world beyond ourselves, the tools of our investigation switch from philosophy to science.  We shift the discussion from the coherence of the rhetoric to the facts of the matter, and philosophical interest drops out.

April 30, 2012

A Joke on Theories of Reference

A man walks into a bar.  A causal theorist of language is the bartender that night.  The man approaches the bartender in search of a woman.

Man: "I heard that I could get some play around here.  Who's the sluttiest girl in this place?"
Bartender (C): "If you're looking for some action, you should talk to Fiona."
Man: "Who's Fiona?"
Bartender (C): "Fiona names that which was so-named in this world, but could be differently named in some other possible world, and so anything I tell you about her would only be contingent and secondary to her direct reference."
Man: "Thanks a lot, dick!"

Clearly pissed off, the man curses the bartender and leaves, but returns the next night.  A descriptive theorist of language is the bartender that night.  The man approaches the bartender in search of a woman.

Man: "I heard that I could get some play around here.  Who's the sluttiest girl in this place?"
Bartender (D): "If you're looking for some action, you should talk to Fiona."
Man: "Who's Fiona?"
Bartender: "She's the woman with the six teeth and the eye patch at the end of the bar."
Man: "Thanks!
Bartender (D): "You're welcome."
Man: "You know, the bartender last night wasn't nearly as straightforward with me."
Bartender (D): "That's just how he gets his goat off!  He's always trying to jerk a flaccid designator into a rigid one."

  1. If you don't know what a referent for something is, you learn what it is by a description of it, not by masturbating possible worlds semantics.