Back to the Foothills

January 27th, 2012

I’ve discovered that keeping a single blog is enough of a challenge; and in any event this blog wasn’t for random philosophical musings, but for my project of working through the Compendium Theologiae, which I’ve no immediate plans to revive.

However, I am starting to do more philosophy blogging over at my main blog, The View from the Foothills. Consequently, those few of you who still have this blog on your feed readers and who were kind enough to encourage me in past years might want to look over there instead.


Fools Rush In

December 6th, 2009

I rashly sent a note off to Bill Vallicella of the Maverick Philosopher blog yesterday; and evidently he found it stimulating. I am playing out of my league, here; but his response to my note is on his blog. (I have to thank him for his courtesy to a philosophical newbie.)

Study Notes

December 5th, 2009

Today I read Copleston’s History of Philosophy on Heraclitus, and the sixth chapter of Aristotle’s Physics with Aquinas’ commentary. I’m going to need to re-read both of these, so I’ll keep my comments brief.

Heraclitus surprised me. Copleston spends a fair amount of time on him, and frankly he sounds a lot more like a mystic than a philosopher. He says that Fire is the “ur-stuff” of which everything else is made, but he seems to say this almost on metaphorical rather than physical grounds.

As for Aristotle, I was surprised. Usually I find Thomas’ commentary more understandable that Aristotle’s text, but this time it was the other way around. (Of course, I might be fooling myself.) In any event, it appears that my conjecture was correct. When Aristotle talks of three principles, a pair of contraries and a substrate, he’s not say that everything we see derives from a single pair of contraries and a single substrate–not everything need be Fire. Instead, he’s saying that in every coming-to-be, there’s something that comes to be, the subject to which it happens, and its opposite.

Three Principles

November 28th, 2009

When Aristotle says in Chapter 6 of the Physics that there must be three principles, a pair of contraries and something underlying, is he saying that these same three things are the principles of everything that is; or is he saying that when anything comes to be, there must be three principles involved: something underlying the change, what the thing was, and what it now is? The specific three things might then be different in each specific case, but there are always three.

And if it’s latter, which makes much more sense to me, how do these three principles relate to the four causes?

Study Notes

November 28th, 2009

I was off to study again today. I finished off Chapter 6 of the Physics, for now, without much additional enlightenment.

I can understand the need for contraries. I see a white thing; and it becomes a black thing. It was white, and now it’s black. These are contraries. To change means to be different, to be now A and then not-A. So far, so good. And I can see why you need something underlying A and not-A that remains through the change. (At least, I think I do; I might be fooling myself.)

But I don’t really understand the relationship between contrarieties and genera, or why there can only be a single primary contrariety in a genus, or how one pair of contraries can necessarily reduce to another pair, or how all things that are can be generated from one kind of “stuff” and one pair of contraries. That seems too simple.

Can anyone help me out with this?

In addition, I read Copleston’s chapter on the Pythagoreans, who are interesting to me on two grounds. First, unlike the Miletians, they had the notion of an immortal soul and believed in transmigration of souls. This appears to be an innovation in Greek thought. I’ll also note that it’s not completely clear just what they thought the soul was, only that it was what gave the person identity and that it was more important than the body. Second, they described the universe in terms of Number and Geometry. They attached mystical significance to particular numbers; but they seemed to be inspired in this by the amazing ways you can use numbers to describe what is. They were especially taken with the relationship between lengths of harp strings and the tones they produce. Apparently they mostly thought of numbers geometrically; for example, the number 9 is a square number, and thus can be thought of as filling an area.


Study Notes

November 27th, 2009

This evening I continued briefly with Copleston’s History of Philosophy, and with Anaximenes, the final member of the Melitian School. He abandoned Anaximander’s notion of the Indeterminate Boundless, claiming instead that the primary element is air, and that all other matter is generated from air by rarefaction (producing fire) or condensation (producing water, and then solids). Copleston notes that this is essentially a reduction of all quality to quantity: all matter is one kind of thing, varying as it is proportionally more or less dense. He also points out that while the Miletians were in some sense materialists, insofar as they conceived of nothing beyond the physical world, they were not materialists in the modern sense—that would require a rejection of the distinction between matter and spirit, a distinction that hadn’t as yet even been clearly formulated.

Study Notes

November 27th, 2009

I’ve not been blogging Aquinas much, recently, but that doesn’t mean that I haven’t been studying. Some study sessions yield insights that move me to blog, and others don’t; but I’d like to record what I’ve been doing in any event. So from now on I plan to leave a few words hear about what I’ve been studying, even if I have nothing very profound to say about it.

I’ve been working slowly through the first book of Aristotle’s Physics, which I think is the most challenging work I’ve ever seriously tried to get to grips with. I’m doing so with the aid of Aquinas’ commentary on the Physics; Dumb Ox Books has a nice paperback edition of it. It’s broken into “lectures”; each lecture consists of a passage from the Physics followed by Aquinas’ commentary. This is a nice format, as it means I can spend time reading and reflecting on Aristotle’s words…and then, and only then, go and see what Thomas has to say. Aristotle is extremely terse, and Thomas is very good at providing background and drawing out hidden assumptions.

Today I began looking at Lecture 11, which looks at Book I, chapter 6 of the Physics. Here Aristotle continues a discussion of the “principles” of the things we see around us: there are many things in this world, but there must be something underlying them. What is this underlying stuff? Is there one principle or many? And if many, how many? Some have said there there One principle; others have said two principles which are contraries; others have said there are many or even infinite principles.

Aristotle has already shown that there can’t simply be one principle of natural beings; here he argues (using probable arguments rather than demonstrations) that there are three: a primary contrariety (a pair of contraries, with their intermediate states), and some kind of substrate, something that can change.

He frequently makes the argument that in a single genus there can be but one primary contrariety; all other contrarieties in that genus must be reducible to the primary. And after some reflection, this seems to be to be a matter of definition; you’ve got some basic kind of thing, and in each genus you slice it up in some particular way. That’s the primary contrariety.

A genus is made up of species (which are frequently genera in their own right), and each species is distinct from the others. The species in a genus are in fact contraries; in mathematical terms I’d refer to them as disjoint sets. But Aristotle seems to be assuming more than that: that the primary contrariety is defined by a pair of opposites, as though all species in the genus must by definition be positioned along a spectrum from the one to the other. Is this necessarily the case? And if so, why? Is this a necessary corollary of essentialism?

I’m not yet done with Lecture 11; some of Aristotle’s comments toward the end of the chapter are extremely opaque to me, and I’ve not yet worked my way through all of Aquinas’ comments on them.

When I’d ground to a halt on the Physics, I moved on to something a little lighter for the rest of my study time: Frederick Copleston’s History of Philosophy, which I just recently discovered. I’ve just started reading the first volume, on Greek and Roman philosophy, and as I expected I’m finding it a great adjunct to the Physics. Different people learn in different ways; what’s working for me is to delve deeply into one thing (the Physics) while reading widely but shallowly in the same general vicinity. In this way I see the same topics approached from different directions, in different words, and one author often states clearly what another author states elliptically or obscurely. More than that, you can’t study everything in depth; reading widely provides needed context.

At present, Copleston is discussing the Ionian school of philosophers; so far I’ve read about Thales and Anaximander. Thales was the first we know of to discover the principle that Copleston terms “Unity in Differences”: that underlying all of the many things we see around us, there must be some principle that they all share. Thales though that it was Water, which as Copleston remarks has more plausibility than you might think: Water evaporates, thus seeming to change into Air, and freezes, thus become solid and in some sense Earth.

Anaximander goes beyond this, making the point, in fact, that Aristotle serendipitously makes in the passage of the Physics I was studying today. There must be contraries: things change from this to that. But there must be something underlying this that doesn’t change. It can’t be Water or Fire, for these are contraries. Anaximander called this underlying primitive “stuff” the Boundless Infinite.

All for now.

Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide

October 26th, 2009

I’ve just posted a tolerably brief and shallow review of Edward Feser’s new book, Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide over at the Foothills. Nutshell version: I liked it.

Software and the Philosophy of Mind

October 24th, 2009

Some ideas I was pondering over lunch today, whilst reading Edward Feser’s Beginner’s Guide to Aquinas. I was at the chapter on Psychology, reading about the immateriality of concepts and the consequent immateriality of the intellect. And I got to thinking about software, because, hey, that’s what I do.

On a materialist account of mind, the brain is something like a computer, and the mind is something like software running on that computer. This is the fundamental principle for folks pursuing Strong AI: we know, they say, that it’s possible; all that’s left is to work out the engineering details. But anyway, I took what I know about software, and started trying to apply it to the mind, on the assumption (yes, I’m playing Devil’s Advocate, here) that the brain is a computer and the mind is simply the software running on it.

In this view, a concept must be something represented in the brain, say in the form of neuronal firing patterns. As such, it’s effectively data: either a program executed directly upon the brain’s hardware, or data operated upon by some program that executes directly upon the brain’s hardware.

Now let’s switch gears, and consider a statement written in a programming language—Tcl, say.

    set pi 3.14159
  • The efficient cause of the statement is the programmer. That would be me.
  • The material cause of the statement is the source code, entered in a file on a computer or written on paper: a sequence of characters.
  • The formal cause of the statement is its syntax: that which dictates how the characters are arranged to be valid Tcl code.
  • The final cause of the statement is its semantics: what it’s supposed to do.

Feser points out that the efficient cause and the final cause are always linked. In this case, the link is obvious. I wrote the line of code because I wanted the final cause: in this case, to assign the value 3.14159 to the variable “pi”.

Now, what gives the statement its semantics? There are two answers to that question.

First, the semantics are defined by the program that executes the statement: the Tcl interpreter. When the interpreter reads executes the statement set pi 3.14159, it does something like the following:

  • The first word of the statement is the command, set.
  • The first argument to set is a variable name.
  • Create the variable if it does not exist.
  • The second argument to set is a value.
  • Assign the value to the variable, replacing any previous value.

Second, I do. I want to express that the value 3.14159 should be assigned to the variable “pi”, and that statement means that operation to me. In other words, Tcl is an intelligible language whether a program that interprets exists or not.

But consider the Tcl interpreter again. It gives the statement its meaning, its semantics. But how does it do this? The Tcl interpreter is itself a computer program. The set command is defined as a function in a programming language called C. Each statement in the function is written in the C language, and has its own semantics; the collection of the statements implement the semantics given above.

The efficient cause of the set is another programmer (a man named John Ousterhout, as it happens); and the semantics are what he intended, but also the semantics of the C language.

The thing to note, here, is that a statement in a programming language, or an entire program, has semantics—meaning—only in the context of an interpreter: the Tcl interpreter, the C compiler, the microprocessor, the mind of the programmer.

One could continue to trace the semantics back along a number of branches. The Tcl interpreter is written in C, but the C code is compiled into machine language; at run time, the machine language is interpreted by the microprocessor. And the machine language has semantics. The C code is given its semantics by the C compiler, which is also a C program that compiles to machine code. There are programs interpreting programs interpreting programs, all of them ultimately running on a piece of hardware; and each program and the hardware itself were all designed and implemented by a human being.

In short, program semantics ultimately come from people.

The efficient cause of the semantics of a program is the programmer who wrote.

The final cause of the semantics is what the programmer wants the program to do.

Now, let’s switch back to the mind, once again from the materialist point of view. A concept is like a statement in a programming language. It has some representation: neuronal firings instead of a bit pattern. And it has meaning, or it isn’t a concept. It has semantics.

So where did the semantics come from?

As we’ve seen in the case of a computer program, the semantics ultimately comes from the programmer—and, though I haven’t developed the idea above, the end user. That is, from people. So the semantics of the program in my head must come from people. That is, from outside.

And yet, the concepts in my head clearly have meaning to me. It’s absurd to think that they don’t.

I’m not sure where to go from here, but it certainly strikes me as absurd that a program can give itself meaning, which implies that I am not a program.

Counting Coup and the Virtue of Courage

September 6th, 2009

Life’s Private Book has a post on the changes in the lives of the Crow indians as they moved onto the reservation, when their traditional way of life no longer made any sense. He contrasts the Crow notion of courage with Aristotle’s…and explains why Western civilian has been able to survive so much change. Fascinating.