Posts Tagged ‘Internet’


November 30, 2010

“I am lying to you now.”

That’s a self-referential statement, and a paradox. [“Paradoxical Truth“]

Russell is about to discover, in the second half of Logicomix— which is itself also self-referential, it tells us in a footnote– the paradoxical trouble self-reference can make for his and Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica project of re-establishing mathematics on a foundation of transparently-demonstrated logic.

Simplicity (a la Occam) and “artificial stupidity” are Russell’s guides, in this project. A non-mathematician may have difficulty detecting either.

Turtles all the way down” is easier to grasp: they’re standing on no discernible foundation. Perhaps they don’t need one, and neither do we? But Russell and Whitehead are not ready to admit that. Wittgenstein seems to be trending that way in his own thought, but he’ll need some battlefield seasoning before he’s ready to draw out and point at (though not quite say) what is staring him– us– in the face, about doubt and certainty.

The map analogy is key. The Greek tragedian Aeschylus, with his “Oresteia,”  suggests to Apostolos the reflection that we must beware confusing our maps (be they verbal, mathematical, or logical) with the real terrain we constantly “pass over.”

Young Wittgenstein tells Russell (at their first meeting) “we can only know for sure the results of logical operations.” Empirical facts don’t measure up. Mathematical reality doesn’t either: it has no “independent existence.”

Much like Hume before him in the British tradition, Russell seems usually capable of closing the door on such inconvenient conclusions and finding reality enough in everyday encounters. He finds  “redemption” from the terrors of mortality, for instance, in other-directed compassion and love.

Nearly losing Evelyn Whitehead, and helping Eric Whitehead face the prospect of her death, gave him “a newfound sense of responsibility” and “showed me a way out of  my despair.” Eric, tragically, would become one of the casualites of the mockingly mislabeled War to end all Wars.

What “immunized” Russell against nationalistic war-mongering? Logic, he claims; sane and (implicitly) skeptical, experientially-derived common sense, I’d say. War taught him to be wary of words. Eventually it would teach Wittgenstein to trust them less, too. His claim to have solved all of philosophy’s problems was insistently not a claim to have said it all.

Russell’s abhorrence of irrationalism (as exemplified by Dada-ist absurdity)  in the wake of the war was mirrored by the mockery he felt in Wittgenstein’s seeming reduction of logic to a set of tautologies. There are Nietzschean overtones, too. The absence of order threatened nihilism.

Still, he was a hero to the Vienna Circle despite his self-ascribed “failure”– even if there must  “always be unanswered questions.” Wittgenstein was sure the Circle misunderstood him about what was “truly important”: religion, metaphysics, ethics, personal meaning.  Moritz Schlick‘s tragic end punctuated his point.

Russell’s long career was, as he notes, a trip from doubt to certainty and home again, as he woke at last from “Leibniz’s dream.” Definitely a “cautionary tale” for our time, too. “No royal road to truth,” indeed. But the road has to pass through experience, and through what we’ve already learned about getting around. The trouble with Zeno’s paradoxical challenge to the possibility of motion, for example, is that it ignores the two legs (and the road!)  Zeno walked in on.

Christos draws the moral of Russell’s and Wittgenstein’s convergence: “answers to really important questions are to be contemplated ‘beyond words’…” Paradox in language just shows that language won’t let us say everything. I’m glad about that. As William James said: “what an awful universe it would be if everything could be converted to words words words!”

And, Christos teases us with  “our prime hope for peace, democracy, and freedom”– the Internet?!

Has he been reading Bill McKibben, too?

NOTE TO STUDENTS: Last class is a week from today. Essays are due then, as well as your three favorite journal entries. We’ll begin final presentations Thursday (or today, if you want to volunteer).

Don’t fear the reaper

May 15, 2009

You might not expect The Book of Dead Philosophers to be funny and amusing and inspiring, but that’s what Simon Critchley has accomplished in this compendium of how “190 or so dead philosophers” got that way. I’ll save a recounting of some of the more startling and less well-known shufflings-off for another day, though I am especially and sympathetically struck by poor Montaigne‘s loss of speech at the end, he who had written that the most horrible death would be to die without the power of speech. (Nowadays, no doubt, many of us would say the worst would be to die without Internet access.)

But for now I simply note and endorse Critchley’s conclusion: accepting our mortality is the condition for courage and endurance in place of the despair that so many seekers of immortality (either in an imagined heaven or on a bio-technologically transformed Earth) must suffer. Most, including most Christians, “are actually leading quietly desperate atheist lives bounded by a desire for longevity and a terror of annihilation.” It is possible to lead an open and affirming atheist life, but only after looking the reaper square in the eyes and not flinching. I’m working on it. (Monty Python helps.)

“It is only in relation to the acceptance of self-loss that there might be a self to gain.”

woody and reaperI don’t want to achieve immortality through my work or through my children, said Woody Allen, but through not dying.  That’s desperation.