Thursday, May 26, 2011
This Sunday we are certainly discussing an important issue in philosophy
and maybe a few other disciplines for good measure. What is an idea?
The subject is an old issue in philosophy dating back to early times of
Greek philosophy and maybe even that is not early enough. No matter how
old this problem is, I don't seriously believe we are about to solve it
some day soon. But in the meantime let's try on Sunday at 6:30pm at the
The important request is that we should be most grateful if late comers
would buy and pay for their drinks before they join us at the table. Now
that was a great idea!
See you Sunday,
What is an idea?
I am tempted to think that the concept of an idea in philosophy has been
somewhat a Jack of all trade and a master of none. I mean that the
history of what is an idea is long and varied. Changing and flipping as
the fashion of the time dictated.
So at the beginning, we have to start somewhere, we have Plato's notion
of ideas being perfect and unchangeable. The Forms existed in the
universe of metaphysics but have epistemological implications for us.
And our epistemological notion is nothing near the perfection ideas of
what the forms are.
Hume considered that ideas where vague reconstructions of perceptions
that are based on experience. Locke and Hume more or less agreed on the
point of experience.
In more modern times, Dawkins compares, at least some ideas, as having
the same kind of properties as genes; that is they can evolve and
survive in the same way that genes evolve and survive in the biological
world. Religious beliefs can be sort of memes.
Ideas, as I have already said, seem to be imprecise concepts and we try
to understand what they are by the language and mental tools we have at
a given time. However, one thing is clear, despite Plato's slight
objection, ideas reside in the realm of the mental. Of course today we
know at least that ideas reside in the brain.
But what is exactly residing in the brain? On the one hand, it cannot be
just the neurons or collection of neurons that give rise to the idea
since the neurons that gave rise to the idea must have been in the brain
before the conception of the idea. So there is a bit of a paradox here,
the same neurons (figuratively speaking) but yesterday they were not the
idea we have today. Something must have happened. This is analogous to
walls, before a wall can be constructed the bricks must first exist.
However, the bricks themselves on the back or a lorry do not make a
wall. And the wall won't exist no matter how much we mix and match the
bricks. Something else must take place.
Even in common use the notion of an idea is just as vague. Ideas can be
opinions, convictions, principles, but in all cases ideas are mental
activates. At least we all agree that ideas are mental events, to use
the vernacular, or brain events to be precise.
This makes ideas clearly fall in the domain of epistemology, and for
those who are punctilious about these things, by virtue of being brain
events this also makes ideas fall in the realm of the physical – that
is, metaphysical instead of epistemological.
Today we do not find this duality so contradictory since today we accept
that information, as far as we are concerned, must be represented in a
physical form. Clearly there is a dual relationship between ideas as
epistemological events and ideas as metaphysical events.
Once again we should not find this strange, since we have had a
manifestation of this phenomenon since writing has been invented. The
meaning of a written concept, such as –the white cat- does not exist in
the physical words (that you about to see) – the white cat. The physical
words do not include in them the meaning of what they say; this is not
to be mixed up with autologous and heterologous words, this is about
properties and not meaning (English is an autologous word because it is
written in English). Ironically the meaning of words resides in our
brain as language speakers of English. The metaphorical similarity with
genes is not lost here. The genes (plus the extras) that make up the
liver in us do not have liverness in them.
So what are ideas? Ideas belong to a set of mental/brain events some of
which we would identify as intuition, knowledge, hunches, thinking,
imagination, reasoning, and beliefs, to mention the most obvious. So
from what is an idea? Cannot really be investigated without at the same
time investigating what are ideas for?
So instead of asking what are ideas? we also have to ask what are ideas
for? I am of course, not trying to shirk away fro the original question
itself, since even if we can associate an idea with a specific number of
neurons, and we can see them with some FMRI machine, we still have the
issue of joint duality between meaning (what the idea represents) and
physical manifestation of the idea (neurons and whatever other physical
elements are at play).
Furthermore, by enquiring what are ideas for, helps us investigate
another issue, which I think helps us clarify the subject. The issue is
how do we achieve the meaning of ideas (does it make sense?) since these
surely sprout in our private brain? If language, according to
Wittgenstein, cannot be private, can ideas be private? After all ideas
must make sense over time in the same way that language must make sense
over time if, that is our language has to have any meaning at all. How
do we know that yesterday's idea that the cat needs to go to the vet, is
today the same idea?
Hence, the function question about asking what ideas are for. But first
let's have a look at what ideas are not. On the one hand we have
believes that are mental events of what is true or false ( the cow
cannot jump over the moon). On the other hand we have imagination that
seems to be some sort of quasi random generator of representations of
the world based on quasi real world concepts (the cow jumps over the
moon). I would places ideas as mental events that represent in us what
we think and believe is possible in the real world ( the cow can be put
in a spaceship and send it around the moon and back).
If ideas are mental events of what is ontologically possible, then surly
the function of ideas is to represent in our brain the world as it
should be (maybe even ought to be). A kind of plan a bricklayer would
use to build a wall. The plan is not the wall, loose bricks are not the
wall, but a wall are the bricks (plus the extras) that follows the shape
of a plan. Now, we cannot put bricks in the plan, it is made of paper,
nor do architects have brain bricks also made of clay, maybe like play
bricks. What the architect, the bricklayer, the plan and the client have
in common is the versatility of shapes. And the wall must conform to
this shape which also conforms to the shape in the brain of the others
and the shape on paper. Somehow the brain is able to squeeze the mental
juice out of the metaphorical physical orange in the brain.
Of course, shapes of walls and ideas of a cow on a spaceship are some
kind of a gold standard that the real wall and the cow is a space ship
are just practical reorientations. Maybe Plato had a point about ideas
being imprecise representations of the perfect Forms (Forms should not
be confused with shapes). Its like saying all roads lead to Rome, but
somehow Plato found himself in New York.
The big caveat here is the assumption that all things being equal. The
meaning-over-time test of ideas, I mention above, is heavily dependent
on the need that our memory had not materially deteriorated since
yesterday. And an even bigger assumption is the need that the our brain
today is functioning in the same correct way as it did yesterday. And
maybe the biggest assumption of all is that our brain is a normal
healthy brain. If our brain is not functioning properly how can we tell
if our ideas are representations of the world out there or maybe simply
false beliefs or random events of the imagination?
But what trumps ideas over other mental events such as false beliefs or
imagination is that it should be possible to represent ideas in real
life. We can actually can put a cow in a space ship and send it round
the moon. But no amount of jumping will get a cow over the moon.
On the other hand some ideas seems as good as done, but at the very last
minute when we compare idea with reality it all falls down. For example,
what is the status of an idea that a politician will be elected in the
polls if they materially reduced the salary of a few million people?
Some ideas are simply not reproducible in the ontological world, even
they seem good at the time. Or as Dawkins might say, some genes are hell
bent in unnaturally deselecting themselves.
from Lawrence, this Sunday meeting: what is an idea?
Thursday, May 19, 2011
This Sunday we are discussing: Democracy without political parties.
Politics is always fair game in philosophy during election time or
economic crisis. In the few paragraphs I wrote on the subject I try to
highlight some issues associated with the relationship between political
parties and democracy.
In the meantime Miguel has sent me this message:
Por si fuera de interés, te informo de la siguiente conferencia en la
Academia de Ciencias:
TOMANDO RIESGOS INTELIGENTEMENTE
26/05/2011 19:00 h - David Ríos Insua (Académico de Número de la R.A.C.)
Finally, enjoy your democratic rights if you live in Spain,
Democracy without political parties
At the heart of this issue is the question: can all the people be
pleased all the time?
At least in today's society, political parties function as group
interests for the control of political power and wealth of the nation.
And as we know these are imposed on us by the fact that wealth is scarce
and therefore resources have to be shared and divided.
And political power is so absolute that in a civilised society this has
to be employed with checks and balances.
Thus democracy is a function of justice and fairness and political
parties are a function of wealth distribution.
Of course, democracies can in one sense function without political
parties. Maybe because the wealth of a nation is so huge and the
population so small that we can please all the people all of the time.
In fact given enough wealth each citizen can have a villa and a sports
car and the rest life can offer without the need of political parties or
Indeed, in theory, we can replace political parties and still find an
equitable way of distributing wealth. Of course, there are always
practical questions to deal with such as what criteria do we use, which
mathematical model reflects the best equitable situation and so on.
Conceptually I don't see any major issues although the practical issues
might be endless.
But if we can create and distribute wealth equitably and everyone is
happy with their equitable share, would we still need democracy?
As I just said, democracy is more a means to control power than to
distribute wealth. One of the functions of power is precisely to protect
the very members of society from those who wish it harm. Thus the
democratic process might be required to choose the methods of how to
protect the nation rather than how much resources should be made
available to protect the nation.
Democracy might also be required as a methodology to choose those people
we need to oversee the equitable principle of wealth creation and
distribution. It goes without saying that by wealth creation I mean the
traditional meaning of business and commerce, and not plundering other
countries. And distribution I have more in mind of fair and reasonable
remuneration for work rather than a physical division of money from a
But where, in a democracy, do we derive the idea of an equitable and
fair process (of wealth creation and distribution and power exercise)?
Today's idea of democracy is partially based on the concept of wealth
creation and distribution. Some argue that justice is to share wealth in
such a way that everyone has access to a dignified life. Others argue
that the state should not interfere with the private activities of
individuals in their quest to create wealth.
For example, there are some who argue that we should reduce spending on
defence in order to spend the money on more urgent social needs. But
this thinking supposes that wealth (or money) is scare to the extent
that we do not have enough money for both. But if we had enough wealth
for both then there wouldn't be a need to choose between social issues
On the other hand there are those who argue, for example, that more
should be spent on defence (it could be anything) in order to protect
ourselves against invaders. These people might fall into the trap that
we might spend so much on defence that we might have nothing left to
defend or worth defending.
Whatever democracy might be, it is certainly a means of keeping away
from extremes. But democracy strong enough to keep politicians on the
straight and narrow?
from Lawrence, this Sunday meeting, Democracy without political parties
Thursday, May 12, 2011
This Sunday we are again meeting at the Centro Segoviano, last Sunday we
had a good meeting.
This brings me to the topic of our meeting: Assumptions. These are
certainly curious epistemological events in our brain. Some might say
that they are induction in disguise, but in my short essay I go beyond
The success of human beings stems from our ability to process and
achieve both quantitative and qualitative information and knowledge. Of
course, brains of all biological creatures can achieve this in their own
However, humans can both collectively and individually learn and access
information and knowledge from other people. This ability to share new
experiences, information and knowledge means that we are in a constant
state of change and improvement.
0f course, change and improvement does not mean that what we are doing
is good. Nor that these are, overall, better. What this means is that
things become different over time and sometimes they become better, most
times it is just a grind.
However, the problem is that no matter how powerful the brain is, the
chances are that we physically cannot process all the relevant
information in real time that will help us to take one course of action
and not another. Those who have tried to book a hotel on the internet
for their holiday will know what I mean. It is just impossible to
consult all the possible sites and consider all the possible offers,
hence the aggregators even if the information is the same. And that
without calculating the probability of the weather being nice when we
arrive at our destination, the chances that our plane will arrive and a
few thousand other things.
One way of dealing with this is to pay more attention to new information
and accept as given information that has proven its worth over time (see
information theory). It makes no sense to calculate the probability of a
plane arriving at our destination, but it makes a lot of sense to check
if our hotel is near public transport or the beach as the case may be.
Assumption are these events or information that we accept as given and
therefore do not need to question them or investigate them. It is
reasonable to assume that the plane will arrive at our destination, but
not reasonable to assume that the luggage will arrive with us. Hence, it
is good advice to always carry a pair of undies in our pocket when
Assumptions are an epistemological issue and not a metaphysical one.
Assumptions are not things or events in the world out there, but events
and state of affairs in our brains.
The problem with assumptions is that they are so powerful and so useful
that at face value they seem reasonable and important for our life and
progress. But when assumptions fail they fail really badly. That
assumptions have risks is therefore in no doubt, but for us what is
relevant is what underpins our assumptions.
A question then arises, do we assess the risks associated with
assumptions consciously or unconsciously? Indeed, do we assess the risks
associated with assumptions?
Since assumptions are really based on past occurrences of the events or
the information we are assuming we can conclude that failed assumptions
are really a failure of a pattern or induction from repeating itself.
Again, we might be mistaken in thinking that a pattern is similar to a
previous one, when it is not, or simply a pattern was indeed similar to
past events but something interfered with it.
In both cases it is an epistemological failure, but the nature of the
information is very different. In the first case, we mistakenly think
that a pattern was similar to past patterns; maybe it is even a
cognitive problem. We miss read the situation and by implication gave
the situation the wrong meaning or understanding.
For example, if I buy a cheap ticket to a far away destination from one
of the low cost airlines, then it should not come as a surprise if the
plane on the day does not arrive at my destination. Low cost carries
have been known to change their schedule on what seems to passengers a
whim or a frivolity. This, I would argue is a foreseeable risk and
therefore a case of acting erroneously. A plane ride with a low cost
airline is not really a plane ride at all, but maybe a bet on some
However, if I bought a standard economy ticket with a reputable airline
but on the day there was a volcanic explosion and planes had to be
diverted, then flying on this day would have been one of those
assumptions that maybe we had some of information about the volcano but
really impractical to assess the risk of it exploding on the day of our
trip. Hence, something interfered with established patterns.
Since assumptions have an associated risk factor attached to them, how
we assess the risks affects what assumptions we make. But, is it
reasonable to argue that we have to assess the risks associated with
assumptions? And wouldn't this be counterproductive since the point
about assumptions is not to spend time considering them?
And since many of our assumptions backfire, does this imply an element
of unnecessary risk taking about our epistemological state of mind,
maybe even recklessness on our part. Or are assumptions so necessary for
our life to function that they are just as good as being made
unconsciously and maybe even a determined feature of biology.
Maybe what matters is not that assumptions are necessary, but that not
all assumptions are worth making. The crux of the issue is which are
these assumptions are not worth making? And isn't that a risk laden
strategy anyway, since all assumptions have a risk to begin with?
Of course, we do not make assumptions in a vacuum. Many of the
assumptions we make involve other people and the cooperation of other
people. If our plane is to arrive safely this implies that the pilot, or
in today's high tech planes, the IT engineer, are not drunk or careless.
This introduces a curious moral issue. Assumptions are no doubt things
we do purely for our own convenience and most probably our benefit. But
if our assumptions imply other people doing things correctly then surely
this means that our personal convenience imposes moral and even, in some
cases, legal duties and obligations on others.
It might be argued that rules, regulations, conventions and agreements
are precisely tools and strategies we employ so that people are obliged
to do their duty without us having to assess the risks associated with
all the assumptions we make. But even this argument has its drawback: an
obligation or a duty is not a fact in reality, it is promised but not
But do we have moral obligations when we make any assumptions?
Take the case of the low cost airlines as an example. We know that some,
if not all of them, tend not to always prioritise the comfort or good
experience of their passenger. They certainly get you to your
destination safely, they have no choice, but this assumes that they have
a plane available, it will take off heading for your destination, your
flight wasn't overbooked or you won't be bumped off, or your holiday
money wasn't gobbled up on some spurious irregularity in your luggage.
Etc, etc. Of course, these things also happen with regular airline, but
in that case you would be justified if you hit the roof and beyond. I
have no experience flying with these airline and I am only using these
as an example based on reliable information, such a s court reports. I
could in fact have used the fast food industry for my example. End of
So, knowing that low cost airline are more likely to make life more
difficult for passengers than say reputable airline, do we have some
moral duty not to create business for these airlines, or any company
that regularly mistreats its customers? Our assumption that a low cost
airlines will still get us safely to our destination, seems to reinforce
the belief that passenger do not care about being mistreated. So our
assumptions played a role in making others to be mistreated or
exploited. Some might argue that being mistreated by these low cost
airlines is part of the fun and people travel with them at their own peril.
But the same goes for goods made by slave labour, child labour or
companies that discriminate against minority groups. If people still buy
goods made by slave labour then the slave master might feel justified in
thinking that employing slave labour is ok. Except in this case our
assumption that buying cheap goods is good for us, implies a serious
imposition on others. Maybe these type of assumptions have a double
jeopardy moral implication: bad things done to workers and an
opportunity for the mater to employ slave labour.
Returning to the theme that assumptions are based on patterns, we must
concede that regularity is a very powerful attraction and the
convenience of assumptions are also a powerful attraction. The
advantages of regularity are well known by us and can easily be
identified, maybe in the same way that ancient Greek sailors saw
advantages in following the call of the sirens on the high seas. Indeed
are assumptions the equivalent of the call of the sirens and therefore
the cause of our downfall?
from Lawrence, this Sunday meeting, at the CENTRO SEGOVIANO + Assumptions
Thursday, May 05, 2011
Our meeting at the Centro Segoviano went very well last Sunday. In fact
we felt so comfortable that we finished right at 9pm a few minutes
before closing time of the centre. We were also told that this coming
Sunday we might be able to use the Tertulia room.
Hence, this Sunday we are meeting at 6:30pm at the Centro Segoviano look
out for the Clamores neon sign;
In the meantime our topic for Sunday is: Human Identity. In other words
what makes us human beings as opposed to another biological mass?
Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to finish off an essay, but I
did manage to write a few ideas before life caught up with me.
- At the biological level human identity is a causal effect of our
genome and dna.
- A special characteristic of human identity is that we depend for our
existence on learning from our experience.
- And even learning does not seem to be a sufficient condition for human
identity. But rather what matters for us is that we learn to be better.
It not enough that we find a solution to a problem but we strive to find
a better solution to a problem.
- Thus we learn to be better and continue to learn to be better, because
we know that to survive we have to adapt and change.
- Not all other biological systems might adapt the way we do. For
example, migrating birds might know how to cross continents but they don't
seem to know how to avoid hunters.
- Other biological systems might be more clever at adapting for example
bacteria and microbes. However it is questionable whether bacteria
survive and adapt because they intentionally seek a solution to survive
or because they can reproduce in such large numbers that natural
selection plus change still create enough survivors in a short period of
time; by human standards of time.
- Thus human identity implies a system that either individually or
collectively or both try to intentionally find a solution to stay
biologically alive. In other words humans are the only biological
systems (as far as I know) that also employ knowledge and intentional to
cope with the conditions of their immediate environment. As opposed to
waiting for natural selection and chance to do their work over eons of
time. It is much quicker to train dentists than to wait to develop
denture like sharks or elephants. In other words, we take shortcuts in
- Another characteristic of human identity is that humans do things that
are not of immediate survival application. We might have hunted for food
like most other carnivores, but we have learnt to cook our catch. Today
we don't hunt our food but grow it and process and elaborate it before
we actually eat it. Today we eat food in restaurants, use sophisticated
kitchens at home and prepare sauces to change the taste of foods.
- Our identity is versatile enough that is can be conveyed, transmitted
and established through various forms and media: Language, art,
structures, technology and Facebook.
from Lawrence, this Sunday meeting, at the CENTRO SEGOVIANO + Human Identity