Final Sample

I’ll finish out the last bit. By this point, you should be able to tell if this is something you’d be interested in, and find useful. Please let me know in the comments.


Is Captain Picard Bald? One reason “underpants gnome metaphysics” appeals, of course, is that Hegel et al had a point. Classical logic has some huge gaps, as the Classical Greeks — i.e. the guys who developed it in the first place — well knew. Consider the famous “Achilles” paradox of Zeno of Elea (c. 490–430 BC). Achilles and a tortoise are running a race. The tortoise gets a ten foot head start. Can Achilles catch up?

In reality, of course, Achilles blows by the tortoise, but consider it from the “logical” perspective. In order for Achilles to catch the tortoise, he has to cut the distance in half. Now he’s five feet away. But to bridge that gap, he has to cut the remaining distance in half. Which he does, and now he’s 2.5 feet away. To bridge that gap, he has to halve the remaining distance again, and now he’s 1.25 feet away, then 0.625 feet away, then 0.3125 feet away, and so on, out to infinity. According to “logic,” at least, Achilles never catches up.

The “Achilles” paradox, I’m told, is important in the development of the mathematical concept of the limit of a function, but that’s not why we’re interested. The point, for our purposes, is, as philosopher David Stove put it, “The logicians’ net is too coarse-meshed to catch the fish that matter.” If logic can’t even tell us how Achilles can beat a tortoise in a foot race, what good is it?

Consider an equally puzzling Ancient Greek problem, the sorites paradox. How many grains of sand make a heap? Or, since this is the Internet, how many hairs must Jean-Luc Picard, the best captain of the starship Enterprise, lose before he’s considered bald?

It seems silly — given that it involves Star Trek, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be silly — but there are important metaphysical issues behind it. In reality, of course, “heap” and “bald” are what Potter Stewart said pornography is: You’ll know it when you see it. No one is going to fail to dig for the pirate’s treasure because he can’t be sure those 3,239 grains of sand constitute the “heap” of sand it’s buried under, and no one is going to fail to recognize Captain Picard as “the bald captain” because even though he has 3,239 less hairs than Captain Kirk, he’s not completely follicle-impaired. But consider: As the online Encyclopedia Britannica puts it,

One grain of sand does not constitute a heap; if n grains of sand do not constitute a heap, then neither do n + 1 grains of sand; therefore, no matter how many grains of sand are put together, they never constitute a heap.

Or, obviously, the reverse, when it comes to Jean-Luc’s dome — if he’s not “bald” after losing one hair, then he’s not bald after losing n+1 hairs, therefore he’s not bald, even after losing all his hair, right? In fact, if we combine this with the Achilles, we’ll see that he can never lose all his hair… right?

Again, this is silly… but it’s also deadly serious, because just as, out in the real world, Achilles blows past the tortoise in three steps (or whatever), there really are bald people, heaps of sand, etc. In other words, even if the universe is fundamentally logical, there are big, obvious, seemingly insurmountable problems with our ability to express that fundamental logic. This is true even in math, where, I’m told, the basic term of calculus, the integral, effectively has you dividing by zero… which is logically impossible. It works, obviously, but it’s just as obvious that we’re missing something big and important about the relationship of “reality” and “logic.”

Hegel’s “dialectic” is an attempt to address this kind of thing. “Heaps” of sand, “baldness”… these aren’t just definitional problems, because even if you slap an arbitrary definition on them (“one heap” = exactly 3,239 grains of sand”) the underlying issues remain (what’s so special about that 3,239th grain? and what do you call a collection of 3,238 grains? etc.). In Hegel’s terms, these are “contradictions” which must “overcome themselves” (aufheben).

We’re not willing to say that it’s the 3,239th grain of sand, specifically, which makes a collection of sand grains a heap, but we’re all willing to admit that there are grains of sand, and there are heaps of sand, and some amount of grains of sand, somehow, becomes a heap. (There are such things as hairs, and if you lose enough of them, you’re bald, and so forth). However it works out in “logic,” out in the real world, it seems, there’s a point at which quantity becomes quality.

Again, this seems very silly when talking about sand and starship captains, but there are important real world consequences to this stuff. The same personality type that finds “dialectic” so fascinating, for instance, seems also to be addicted to quantity-for-quantity’s-sake. Not all kommissars were as ruthless as Comrade Stalin, who famously said “quantity has a quality all its own” when it comes to throwing Red Army divisions into battle in human wave attacks, but everyone who was anyone in a socialist system seemed to have a porn star’s attitude toward pretty much everything: bigger, longer, wider, deeper, more.

The Soviets used to drive Western intelligence analysts nuts by, for example, insisting on a 500% increase in concrete production in the new Five Year Plan. What were they going to use it for? Tank traps? Nuclear reactors? It didn’t matter. Potential uses were irrelevant. The point was, quite simply, more. This was equally true of National Socialists. There’s a great passage in Robert Harris’s fun alternate-history novel Fatherland where the protagonist hears a tour guide’s speech about the Fuhrer’s grandiose new Berlin, based on the actual models and drawings Hitler and Speer dreamed up during those long nights in the bunker. The victory arch is so many feet wider than the Arc de Triomphe, the new Reichstag uses so many cubic feet of concrete more than the second-biggest building in the world (and is so large that it has its own weather), and so on. There’s no point to this but quantity-for-quantity’s-sake. More… just more.

And that’s just architecture. You can, if you’re so inclined, derive atheism from dialectic, and Marxists did. You can pretty easily find something like The Fundamentals of Marxist-Leninist Philosophy for free online, since Moscow flooded the globe with it back in the bad old days, for the edification of fraternal socialist comrades worldwide. Here you’ll discover the Marxist definition of consciousness: “a property of highly organized matter.” Since “matter” is self-organizing — of course it is, comrade, of course it is, it’s science — then a sufficient accumulation of matter in a certain configuration produces, dialectically, human life and everything in it. QED, and so much for your Magic Sky Fairy.

And from “consciousness,” as we’ve seen, flows everything else. How one squares the materialist definition of “consciousness” — “a property of highly organized matter” — with Marx’s thing about “social being” determining consciousness is an exercise I’ll leave to the reader, and do you see what I’m getting at? However you make it work out “logically,” the fact that you can do it at all — the very fact of your attempting it — will teach you something very important about the Marxist personality. Marxist metaphysics is wrong, comically so, but understanding the irresistible attraction Marxist metaphysics has to a certain kind of person is vitally important for understanding this sick sad world in which we find ourselves…

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17 thoughts on “Final Sample

  1. AvatarMBlanc46

    The ancient “paradoxes” are amusing to play with, but they aren’t of much deep significance. A bit more maths than the Greeks had, and Bob’s your uncle. The only paradox that is really fatal is the Liar type, paradoxes of self-reference. If you wind up with one of those in your system, you might as well go home. Which is just what Frege did. Russell cobbled up some ad hoc rules to keep it out, but that made his (and Whitehead’s) system much less appealing. But even if you had a consistent and complete system (which as Godel [sorry, no umlaut] showed, you can’t), your conclusions are still no better than your premises. And where are the premises going to come from? That’s the rub. In the particular sciences, practitioners operate with previously accepted propositions, which change from time to time. But are there any ultimate premises? Is there an infinite regress, or do you wind up going round in circles trying to find them? Those alternatives are what dialect tries to avoid. That’s what Socrates keeps looking for, essential definitions that can serve as the basis of all further discussion. Flash forward almost two millennia, and Descartes tries to ground all knowledge on the cogito. He thought that he could get beyond the cogito to the world, but a lot of folks were of the opinion that he was stuck in solipsism. Various Rationalists and Empiricists took various tacks to provide a firm foundation, but all are open to serious objections. Kant made a monumental attempt to nail things down—about as good a job as can be done, in my view, and still, at base, if not in detail, underlying much of Anglo-American analytical philosophy—but not without its weak spots. So the German Idealists, Hegel in particular, kept the show on the road. Hegel apparently thought that the unknowableness of the Thing-in-Itself in Kant was insufferable, and made another attempt to start again, from the ground up. I’ve made several attempts to read The Phenomenology of Mind, but I’ve never even been able to get through the famous Introduction. I did take a summer quarter course on The Science of Logic (the “larger logic”) and found a lot of interesting ideas in it. His dialectic of Being and Nothing in the first section is a delightful piece of argument, for example. But I’ve never been able to grasp his thought as a whole, partially through failure to understand it, and partly from Kantian scruples that it must be nowt but speculation, albeit perhaps fruitful speculation. Marx, in the standard view, stood Hegelian idealism “on its head” and made a materialism of it. But still dialectical. The dialectic of the commodity early on ( it’s been decades since I’ve read it, so I can’t give an exact reference) is marvelous. But I have the same Kantian scruples about Marx as I have about Hegel. At the end of the day, it’s an incredible system, but just a fantasy. However, people are prone to fantasies, so I’m not expecting it to go away soon, especially as folks think that it can further their material interests.

    1. SeverianSeverian Post author

      There it is, and that’s why this is a “study guide” – I haven’t read Kant since undergrad, and I have no intention of going back now!!! This is the quick and dirty version, for those interested in the more or less straight line of “how we got here” (and aren’t willing to plow through 1000+ pages of Main Currents of Marxism).

  2. Avatarurbando

    “Study guide” – exactly. The Ur texts are available for anyone who wishes to examine in detail. This is more like Severian’s Notes; a Dialectics Digest for those who wish to get up to speed quickly. I’m not about to read Kant for even the first time, so for me the study guide would be a valuable and useful document.

  3. Avatarmrpknuckle

    When I was in grad school, lo those many three decades ago, we use to say, after way too many beers, Hegel is the only Western philosopher yet to be refuted.

    Marx, as the good Prof. Severian points out, committed his life’s work as a philosophe to refuting Hegel and failed — miserably, amateurishly, catastrophically. Which begs the question for our side: Why is it that losers always seem to win in the end? (See defeated Germany rules the EUSSR; Nuevo Soviets now rule Amerika.)

    Prof. Severian has kindly thrown Hegel under the bus and into a ditch — but that’s no reason not to study Hegel and work hard to understand his admittedly inscrutable texts.

    For the youngin’ among us, to wet you whistle, here’s Hegel in a nutshell: To be free, you need take responsibility for your intentions, your actions, and, critically, the results of your intentions and actions.

    Wetted-whistle aside, if you’ve never read Hegel, best not to venture in without a map. Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life is a superlative work of scholarship and an excellent, albeit challenging, entry to catching the Hegelian Geist bug.

    1. SeverianSeverian Post author

      Thanks for the rec on Hegel. I should say that Hegel is NOT just mini-Marx, any more than Zeno was just the guy who thought Achilles was slower than a turtle. But for a brief guide to the origins of Marxism….

  4. AvatarSome Guy

    I’d be interested in this. I get the secret squirrel stuff you were writing about in the first post. I’m reading a book by bukovsky now since you mentioned him the other day and I can see that this is where things are heading. Hopefully present trends don’t continue but we already are at the show trial by media and mob phase, and president harris just might make it official.

  5. Avatartoastedposts

    Not sure why the lack of hard category boundaries in the real world constitute a problem with logic, instead of people applying logic. Zeno’s paradox wasn’t a paradox for long to Isaac Newton. In terms of chasing limits all the way to zero – in practice you only need for them to be “small enough” that certain properties of what you are adding up are true. (Actually, in physics there are a few unsolved problems that arise from the fact that you *can’t* take a limit seriously: renormalization problems, which AFAICT are just self-energy and point-singularity problems in disguise)

    In classification problems, we usually handle this stuff with logistic-type-functions: Smooth functions of the parameter that gradually vary from 0 to 1. 3998 grains of sand is slightly more “heap-like” than 3997. Eventually you get “heap, 99.95% confidence”, or “not-heap: 35% confidence”.

    Neural network algorithms depend internally on these “soft-values” and a hard-category judgement call is made only on the final output.

    1. Avatartoastedposts

      PS: It sounds like MBlanc is more of a formalist than I am: I’m an engineer. Applied math all the way.

      I do like having a clear idea of what I’m doing, but apparently my threshhold for regarding my concepts as adequate different than the formalists: To them nothing less than being able to have some inanimate logical machine process their system from premises to conclusions (very like some symbol-parsing program) is adequate. For me, establishing a correspondance between “logical idealization A” and “thing in the world B” is enough. One thing that seemed apparent in grad school was that we were doing different things than the formalists when we did math.

      1. SeverianSeverian Post author

        To them nothing less than being able to have some inanimate logical machine process their system from premises to conclusions (very like some symbol-parsing program) is adequate. For me, establishing a correspondance between “logical idealization A” and “thing in the world B” is enough.

        And that right there is why not too many engineers are Marxists.

        Note that I’m NOT saying “no engineers are political liberals” or “there were no engineers in the Soviet Union” or something like that; obviously there are/were a lot of both. Rather, I’m saying that Marxism is, above all, a personality type.

        I used to write a lot about the non-STEM smart guy. Marx was one of those. So was Lenin. In fact, find a Commie of note that wasn’t smart-without-math. Here are the pre-dictator careers of big league commies, just off the top of my head: Philosophy professor (Marx). Philosophy student (Lenin). Seminarian (Stalin). Med student (Che Guevara). Law student (Castro). “Student” (Mao Zedong). With the ironic exception of Engels, whose dad actually owned a factory and made young Friedrich his foreman for a time, very few of these guys ever earned a dime… and the few who did, worked airy-fairy jobs like “tutor” and “journalist.”

        Exaggerating a bit for effect: After the Industrial Revolution, the only kind of “smart” that mattered involved math. But there are lots of kids who are desperate to see themselves as “smart” who can’t do math. These kids go into radical politics, precisely because Marxism (etc.) provides them with that “inanimate logical machine [to] process their system from premises to conclusions.” That’s what Marxism IS. It’s beautiful, perfect, and it will never be less than beautiful and perfect, because it will never touch the grubby, nasty “real world” at any point (and hence is superior, in their minds, to engineering, because engineers get their hands dirty… or, at least, build stuff for guys who get their hands dirty).

        Going a step further, to “very like some symbol-parsing program.” You’ve just nailed the reason why the most radical radicals, all across the West, are in Literature (and Law) departments. You can refute Marx’s economics, easily. You can refute Marxian metaphysics. But you have to use words to do both of those things, and the PoMo radicals are here to tell you that words don’t mean what they mean, or their meanings change arbitrarily, or there’s no such thing as words, because everything is a social construction. You can’t win an argument with someone who doesn’t believe in logic… and so they win by default. (That’s going to be some future part of the study guide).

      2. AvatarMBlanc46

        To the extent that I was a mathematician, I was a pure mathematician. One course in differential equations was enough. Algebra and topology are where you really see what’s going on. Even there, of course, you’re constrained by the definitions and the axioms. In philosophy, trying to figure out what the definitions and the axioms are is the problem.

    2. SeverianSeverian Post author

      As I noted somewhere in the post, it’s not a problem with logic, it’s a problem with the language we use to describe logic.

      But that *language* problem gave us dialectic, which gave us Marxism, and the combo of Marx and the language problem will give us Postmodernism, which gives us now.

  6. AvatarDeaconBlues

    Definitely interested and it looks like it will be useful. I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about why people and their systems actually work the way they do (not as our overlords in media and government really, really want us to believe they do). Is Marxism the root of our modern malaise, or is it just used as an ideological tool to obtain power…for its own sake? It’s hard to see through the obfuscation at times. I think this project could help understand these things better. Heck, even the comments to just this post reveal a lot.

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