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…Loading Likes...