“What is truth?”

Philosophy asks questions in pursuit of truths – a principle that is also the driving-force of science.  Divisions arise over which questions are potentially answerable; although answers don’t stem the flow of questions, nor does a recognised truth come with a full-stop, as if to put our questions to rest – as if the truth is definable by its defiance of contradiction.  In fact, reality greets us with an avalanche of contradictions: the earth is and isn’t solid, the universe is and isn’t infinite, gravity is and isn’t a force, life is and isn’t just chemical activity, we are and are not merely stardust, a thought is and is not the same thing as a brain process, causes do and do not explain effects, change is and is not more of the same, the present does and does not shape the future, the governing constants and absolutes do and do not control what happens next.  Furthermore, change proves to be more fundamental than any ruling truth.  It means that the truth-content of our answers doesn’t negate the fact that change can be radical, that there can be wholly different answers in different contexts, that those contexts stand out as different dimensions of existence which we partially understand as energy, matter, life, consciousness and thought.  And doesn’t life show us that the facts can defy reason?  Indeed, there is more to existence than we can reduce to the axioms of our logical explanations.  Then if there is to be a resolution that applies to everyone, might it not be this: don’t dismiss ‘the impossible’ simply because it contradicts your aspirations to countenance possibility on your terms – don’t dismiss as impossible the truth that changes to become more than it was.

Mike Laidler

Once upon a time

What gives us the idea that there must be ‘a beginning’ that is the beginning of everything – that everything had an absolute beginning ‘once upon a time’?  Isn’t it patently obvious that beginnings are context-specific?  Then are we thinking of some kind of generalised capacity or potential for things ‘to be’– a pre-universe which we understand in the context of what ‘comes to be’ by supposing some kind of cause that pre-exists everything else?  But that opens up the idea of another kind of causality in another kind of reality.  The problem is that we can’t reconcile our idea of everything ‘as caused’ with the existence of a preceding uncaused cause.  It would seem that existence as a whole is bigger than all the causes we can place ‘in existence’.  Also, ideas about the cause of the universe amount to theories that go beyond the empirical evidence.  And doesn’t our capacity for contemplating the nature of existence necessitate the existence of a thinker in addition to the natural causes under consideration – suggesting a nascent context of a different order?  Or do we think that nothing really changes – that an unchanging core of existence explains all: that all things are really one thing, that nature contains the blueprint of itself, in itself, for itself – because the potential was ‘there’ all along?

Is a definitive cause an explanatory myth?  Could ‘once upon a time’ be the stuff of a scientific fairy tale in which everything is explicable in terms of a singular beginning as something else?  Doesn’t the reality of change reveal a succession of beginnings that are distinguishable by their specific differences from the way things were?  Or is our perception of change an illusion?  Some say that the universe was already alive in its primordial state, so that when primitive life ‘appeared’ and subsequently evolved it was really nothing new.  And does the evidence not show that life equates to the material properties of a pre-existing nature, therefore it isn’t all that different after all?  But why then would we contemplate the event of life as a special case, possibly with its own unique beginning on this planet, if we are of the mind that everything shares a universal beginning in the same fundamental properties?  Perhaps there is more to existence than our linear logic can make of it in retrospect, in thinking from effect to cause?  Alternatively, the observable divergences and convergences could be joint aspects of a non-linear continuity that encompasses life, us and everything else – so it is no co-incidence that ‘the beginning of everything’ remains as problematical today for the scientific mind as it was for the ancients – because origins aren’t everything.

Mike Laidler

 

Ghosts of the past and future

It is said that where there is a will there is a way, but where does the will get us without a way?  That is, how can ‘the will’ make a real difference in a universe where matter is seen to be more real than morality – in which the future is not an open book or the past a closed chapter?  Then what can be so special about our lives in ‘the now’ to make the present seem more real than the past and future?  It would seem that we judge reality, including ourselves, on the basis of appearances in a universe that changes around the unchanging.  And in our lives the past can be seen to be more real than the future inasmuch as we know it existed.  Indeed, spectres of the past can be seen to haunt the present in a sea of consequences.  But where might it all lead?

In our rationalised reality of the present, in a universe that doesn’t need a moral compass, there are no benevolent or malevolent states of nature and no errant influences emanating from an insidious past.  Be that as it may, our descendants might not look kindly upon the decadence of our selfish consumerism, especially if they have to live with its crippling legacies manifesting in forms of environmental or economic collapse.  Then might the spectre of the future be beckoning us now, to indulge less, not more, for the sake of the unborn?  Or do we suppose that science will somehow cure our blindness and save humanity from its excesses?  Meanwhile, Nobel prizes continue to be dished out to economists who extol the virtues of macro-economic growth as the mainstay of our wealth which, so it is believed, can also pass on and consequently ameliorate our debt to posterity.

Mike Laidler

 

Magical thinking

Facts are never simply ‘the facts’, except that’s how we prefer to picture them.  Indeed, ‘the world of facts’ becomes an extension of our selective perceptions, referred to as ‘the evidence’, in a reality framed by our recognitions and understandings.  And even though reality is constantly slapping us in the face, the ‘objective facts’, so-called, can neither tell us what to think nor show us how to draw conclusions.  That’s because ‘the truth’ is a product of our thinking in a parallel universe – in which the idea is fundamental.  To that extent, all thinking is magical thinking.  Even in the hard core sciences, thoughts about ‘the way things are’ rely upon ideas that are developed into theories and supported by beliefs as they get pitched against rival interpretations.  So whether we happen to believe or disbelieve, we are utilising beliefs.  But there is one thing for sure: the manner of our beliefs and the contents of our theories continue to change whilst, lo and behold, the facts continue to pour in.

Mike Laidler

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Countenances

Salvationist: “My wife and children are in heaven and though I believe we will meet again I can’t understand God’s purpose in leaving me here knowing that I suffer so much because of their absence.” 

Atheist: “I sympathise with your loss, but your belief that there is a divine purpose to life is preventing you from coming to terms with reality.  Even if there remains a part of you that can’t get over your bereavement and doesn’t want to forget, life requires you to carry on and move forward – to allow your wounds to heal naturally beneath their scars.” 

Apologist:  “Be careful what you wish for.  Tales of myth, magic and manipulation, from time immemorial, serve to remind us that our attempts control destiny, by fair means our foul, can invite tragedies that are far worse than any we are trying to avert.  Perhaps this is the best of all possible worlds.  And who are we to reject God for doing nothing, as if we could do better given the power to cancel all pain and suffering?”

Cosmogonist: “Take heart, it is possible that we live in a ‘multiverse’ whereby alternative, potentially infinite, versions of reality exist in parallel.  So there could be multiple versions of you existing in diverse ‘elsewheres’ – because the possibilities can take different turns at innumerable junctures.  It may be only in this ‘here and now’ that your loved ones have departed.  Yet there will be others in which you have an entirely different life and relationships, with or without children.  In some versions you are happy in others you are sad, for different reasons, whilst your beliefs and disbelief’s might be many and various.  And the message from quantum physics is: nothing is impossible.”

Scientist:  “Nature is everything – and we know what it is because it is all-inclusive.  We need to stick to the facts instead of trying to conjure scenarios that exist only in the imagination – and, therefore, don’t really exist.  One day science will explain everything; in the meantime, it has given us a life of leisure and luxury that is better and longer than anything our forebears could have dreamed of.  In addition, advances in medicine and therapy have moved forward in leaps and bounds to alleviate our suffering.”

Sage: “We are cleaved of a truth that is bigger than us and united in the being of which we are all lesser examples.  But death and decay show that everything we presume to own of life is not really ours.  Meanwhile, everything we take upon ourselves in the name of ‘the self’ encumbers us with consequences we cannot avoid.  Indeed, the claim to possession invites the spectre of loss.  Moreover, the comfort we seek from one another merely intensifies the prospect – as we subsume the question of life and death to one of gain and loss.  Yet no one else can restore you to the greater truth that you have willingly surrendered to your experiences of separation.”

Existentialist: “Belief and disbelief are two sides of the same coin – squandered upon the vain circumspections of our presumptions to categorise the truth.”

Realist: “We are obliged to live life prospectively whilst understanding it retrospectively.  Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know, but our ability to acknowledge that fact enables us to adjust our expectations accordingly rather than trying to make the world fit into our preconceived ideas and ideals or conform to our summary prescriptions of right and wrong.  So we must find a balance between fact and belief that works in the present – and even if looking ‘on the bright side’ can turn out to be wrong, it may still, on balance, prove to be the most sustainable way of proceeding.”

Moralist: “Even if we can’t change our circumstances we can always change ourselves.  And though we cannot know what the future holds in store, it’s enough to know that we are doing the right thing by one another.  At the very least, we have a duty to keep trying.”

Humanist: “Human experience and rational thinking need to work towards finding a positive meaning to this life without the expectation of supernatural assistance, revealed knowledge or divine redemption.  We can waste our lives in the belief that another life awaits us.”

Psychologist: “The self that you take to be the recognisable continuum of your being is but a psychological device for creating a recognisable continuum.  Born into different circumstances you would have acquired different memories, understandings and attachments – in effect, you would function as a different person.  It is the emotional investment in a particular identity, with all its accompanying affinities and affiliations, which galvanises your mission to navigate a world of joys and sorrows as you experience the grit and glory of life through all your triumphs and tragedies.  All things considered, life is never more wonderful or daunting than when it pushes you to the limit – to actualise your latent potentials.”

Mike Laidler

Where are we?

Evidently, we owe our existence to the presence of a smallish planet orbiting a medium size sun in a named galaxy, the Milky Way, existing among many billions of unnamed counterparts.  But that knowledge isn’t sufficient for us to recognise ourselves or place the universe in existence.  Indeed, the sheer insurmountability of the problem has encouraged us to adopt an alternative approach, by acknowledging that everything exists ‘in  nature’, which we identify as the ‘all encompassing fact of existence’ – as if we can become familiar with the bigger picture by generalising from the details.

However, this introduces another problem.  Whereas everything in existence can be represented as a feature of a micro reality, sometimes called the atomic flux, that’s not where we find the reality of things that transpire.  In short, we are alive and dynamic in a different way.  Nevertheless we presume to gain explanatory depth by tracing our existence back to causes operating at successively lower levels – and our ‘findings’ are taken to be all the more robust when there is nothing else to be found.  But the upshot is not realistic, namely that the atoms are living our lives for us.  Something else is happening.  Something else exists that can’t be found at that level.

So the observation that there must be somewhere for existence ‘to be’ doesn’t prove that everything condenses into its causes in a ‘first place’ – even when there is nothing else to see at that point.  And this paradoxical fact carries on up the scale to include the fact of our thinking – seen as located in the brain ‘because there is nowhere else for it to be’.  But we could ‘see’ our thoughts long before we sought to ‘find’ them objectively.  And our scientific explanations are as much the result of our thinking.  Therefore, the ‘discovery’ that the brain is thinking for us doesn’t do justice to our awareness of the fact or the place of sentience within the very real phenomena of change.  In fact, only a misplaced awareness would deem to identify itself as a mere superficiality that makes no real difference.

Mike Laidler

Links:     ‘Mindless Replicants’: A ‘Point of View’ by Will Self:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b6pjh5

‘Science Stories’: The ‘uncanny valley’ of AI: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06vy2jd/episodes/downloads

 

Questioning intelligence (QI)

Does intelligence amount to an amount of something in our heads?

What manner of intelligence knows itself as an IQ score?

Are there features of intelligence that we haven’t thought about because we lack the intelligence?

What makes us think that intelligence is the driver of thought?

Does the intellect recognise itself by satisfying its own expectations?

Are the ‘intelligentsia’ best placed to know what intelligence is?

Is intelligence the antidote to stupidity?  Is it sensible to conclude that intelligence makes us sensible?

Does intelligence evolve by making gains – to become more than it was?

Does the idea of intelligence colour our minds with the notion that some colours are better than others?

Is high culture the guardian of high intelligence, or the optimum medium for its cultivation?

Is IQ the diamond standard of the mind – prized and shaped for its showiness, but artificially over-stated, over-valued and rarefied?

Is everything about IQ so good that anything leading to its reduction has to be bad?

Can species-differences in intelligence be understood in terms of quantifiable differences?

Will the cause of intelligence explain its effects?

What kind of intelligence needs to affirm itself with proof of its prowess?

Is a measure of intelligence the measure of our understanding?

Is reason the bastion of the intellect, enabling us to tell good from bad and discover the right thing to do by weighing the evidence?  Then does a higher intellect give us a higher morality?

Are we at liberty to make ourselves more or less intelligent?

Mike Laidler

Postscript

“The IQ scores of young people have begun to fall … it’s a decline equivalent to at least 7 points per generation.

“Is it because people are on their laptops … need to write stuff down to be a bit cleverer?”

“Is it possible that the nature of intelligence is changing in the digital age and cannot be captured with traditional IQ tests?”

Links   https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b5qn7p

https://streamable.com/3pcsq (Sky news)

https://www.the times.co.uk