A Snapshot

Map of The InternetIn general, I am inclined to share Socrates‘ dislike of books. Wisdom is participation in a dynamic process, it is not a static state that can be attained once and for all. However, a book is unchanging. Socrates said of words in a book that they “seem to talk to you as if they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you just the same thing forever.” From this perspective, the mutability of electronic media and the possibilities for ongoing collaboration offered by the Internet can be quite exciting. It was always my hope that this blog would be more of a dialogue than a sermon.

Nevertheless, at times I like to try to capture a snapshot of my thoughts.

  • I think it is impossible to speak about the world itself. We project our own frames of reference onto the world and then speak about them instead. It’s a bit like a digital sampling of an analog signal. (Actually, that analogy can be stretched quite far if one considers the notions of accuracy and validity.) As the Discordians say, reality is the original Rorschach test.
  • No-one is sure who first said it, but I consider the inscription over the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi to be of the utmost importance: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (although I know at least one person who reads this blog might prefer the usual Latin translation: nosce te ipsum.) Perhaps surprisingly, following that imperative is an active endeavour that causes change rather than just a passive collection of information; and that is why I consider it so important.
  • Many employers attempt to entice applicants by claiming that they offer a good “work/life balance”. I don’t want that: I don’t want my work to be so alien to my life that they must be balanced. However, neither do I want to be defined by my work. I want my work to be a meaningful part of my life. I want my work to be part of who I am but not all of who I am. Nobody talks about having a good “hobby/life balance” – one’s pastimes are part of one’s life.
  • Money represents potential. It has no value in itself but it allows one to act. To be rich is to have the means to do more. Of course, potential is itself directionless – suicide is as inherently likely as deification. When considering the desire to acquire wealth, one must always ask “what for?” In my experience, if there is a need then the means to service that need can be acquired; if there is no need then an obsession with acquisition will do more harm than good. See Fehu and Naudhiz.
  • I’m very grateful to Apotropos for the link to Derrida’s essay for UNESCO:

    With this citation I wanted to suggest that the right to philosophy may require from now on a distinction among several registers of debt, between a finite debt and an infinite debt, between debt and duty, between a certain erasure and a certain reaffirmation of debt – and sometimes a certain erasure in the name of reaffirmation.

    And to Afagddu for his comments on loyalty:

    I see loyalty as a way of preserving a relationship with the things you positively identify with… Honour is a way of extending a protective element over that positive identification by absorbing what we’re loyal to into ourselves and treating it as if it’s a part of us.
    Amongst other things, of course.

  • As the Cthulhu cultist said, “Never summon anything bigger than your head.”
Published in: on November 14, 2006 at 12:01 am  Comments (2)  

Philosophies and Technologies

SunriseAs you may have noticed, I am currently unable to keep up my earlier rate of three posts per week. That rather optimistic rate soon became impossible when I returned to London after the summer and found myself swamped with work. However, I will continue to post when I can.

This post is a just a short note, written at sunrise, but it is about something that I think is important and sometimes overlooked.

Technologies change the way we think. Certain technologies encourage us to think in certain ways when we use them. This is summed up in the proverb “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” but the effect can also be much more subtle.

Similarly, certain philosophies enhance or retard the development of certain technologies. I use the word ‘philosophy’ here to mean a way of thinking, or worldview, rather than merely some abstract theory. I dislike the modern tendency to consider philosophy to be a purely academic intellectual pursuit – a real philosophy should change the way you act – but that’s an argument for another time. My point today is simply that different cultures, with different emphases in their worldviews, will develop different technologies.

A good example of this is the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment gave birth to modern science. The particular worldview that developed out of Protestantism was especially favourable to the goals of science and the development of the scientific method. Similarly, the dominance of science in the West today encourages people to think in a certain way, which is often termed Modernism.

But the point that I think is often overlooked is that, regardless of the genesis of a technology or a philosophy, once established they are independent. For example, it is perfectly possible to conceive of a culture that is Modernist but has no significant scientific development. Although such a culture would rapidly produce scientists, there is no contradiction in supposing that it might at one time exist without them. Indeed, this is in fact the state of most people in Europe today. How many Europeans actually have a good understanding of science? How many even understand what the scientific method is? Yet they live with Modernist worldviews.

Perhaps most importantly, the converse is also true. Science does not need Modernism to progress. I do not know whether or not such a worldview was necessary for science, as we understand it today, to become established as a discipline (who knows what would have happened without the spread of Christianity into Europe?) but it is clear to me that science does not now depend on Modernism for its survival or development. Indeed, I might even go so far as to say that Modernism is now detrimental to science, as it tends to prevent a clear understanding of the scientific process.

If this point is not kept in mind then some poor judgments may be made. There are some people who, it seems to me, cling to Modernism largely because they don’t want to give up the benefits of modern science. Equally, there are some people whose desire to free themselves from Modernism impels them to reject science as well. I think both classes of people are mistaken. They are both, to end with another proverbial expression, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Published in: on November 14, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (1)  

Bonfire Night

BonfireOn the 5th of November 1605, a group of Catholics conspired to blow up the Houses of Parliament when King James I was inside. King James I was Protestant and the conspirators wanted to kill him and replace him with a Catholic monarch. There had already been a number of Catholic plots against King James I – notably the Bye Plot and the Main Plot two years earlier – but this was by far the most daring.

The plot was conceived and organised by Robert Catesby (who had already been fined for his part in a plot against the earlier Protestant monarch Elizabeth I) along with some other prominent English Catholics of the time. The explosives themselves were prepared by Guy Fawkes, an English soldier. At midnight on the 5th of November, a Justice of the Peace named Thomas Knyvet searched the cellars under the House of Lords and found Guy Fawkes with a watch, slow matches, touchpaper and 36 barrels of gunpowder. He never denied his intentions, openly declaring his plan to kill the king and destroy parliament. The next day he was taken to the Tower of London to be interrogated. King James I wrote:

The gentler tortours are to be first used unto him, et sic per gradus ad maiora tenditur [and thus by increase to the worst], and so God speed your goode worke.

After a few days of torture, Guy Fawkes revealed the details of his plot and the names of his co-conspirators. On the 31st of January 1606, he was taken to the Old Palace Yard in Westminster, where, along with some of the others involved in the plot, he was hanged, drawn and quartered.

Every year, the United Kingdom still commemorates the thwarting of this Catholic plot against the king. We set up bonfires on which we burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes (we also used to burn effigies of the Pope but most people don’t do that any more) and we set off fireworks. For the last three hours or so, I have been listening to continual explosions and watching the sky over London light up in reds, blues and greens. Although bits of the celebrations have been banned or restricted recently, usually because they have been deemed too dangerous or politically incorrect, I am happy that the core of the tradition still continues.

Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!
I see no reason why gunpowder and treason
should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
to blow up the King and the Parliament.
Three score barrels of powder below,
poor old England to overthrow:
By God’s providence he was catch’d
with a dark lantern and burning match.

A penny loaf to feed the Pope.
A farthing o’ cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down.
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar.
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head.
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.

Holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
Hip hip hoorah!

Published in: on November 5, 2006 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)