RE: virus: existence / representation

carlw (
Wed, 24 Mar 1999 13:21:44 -0600

I am time pressed, so I am only addressing the points I see as most critical right now. And no references - I'll leave it as an "exercise for the student". I have performed brutal and massive snippage in order to try to hit the subject. Unfortunately, from having a fair amount of time on my hands last year, the company I was with has gone down the tubes, and cleaning up the mess has severely impacted the amount of time I can devote to non-work communications. It also means that I have had to indulge in time-triage to attempt to decide where to spend non-working time. I have rephrased this letter a bunch of times to make it sound less supercilious or sarcastic, because I really don't mean it to be that way, I fear that I may have failed to fix it completely, but those are not my intention.

If there is interest expressed on the list for continuing this thread, I will do my utmost to get more involved with it again, but when I started posting to the virus list, my intention was not to get into "flamefests" but to try to help disseminate some awareness of the classical tools in this field and how to use them effectively.

To quote from some of the CoV pages "Virus is a collection of mutually-supporting ideas (a meme-complex) encompassing philosophy, science, technology, politics, and religion. The core ideas are based on evolution and memetics because one of the primary design goals was survivability through adaptation (religions die, not because they grow old, but because they become obsolete). If a new religion is designed around the premise of continuously integrating better (more accurate, more useful) concepts while ensuring the survival of its believers, it could conceivably achieve true immortality." and "Reason" is given as a "Virian Virtue".

In order to deal reasonably with ideas like "philosophy, science, technology, politics, and religion" we need the right tools to do so. "Empathy" and "Vision" can only be stretched to a point. Beyond that if you wish to communicate you had best share a language. This seemed to me to be missing from most of the discussions held here. If I succeeded in interesting one or two people on the list, I did what I had hoped. The subject is certainly non trivial - I was simply trying to get a discussion going at a "summer school level" of epistemological competence (never mind 101 level). Having become a little involved in some discussion on and off the list, it now seems to me that we need several levels at once, ranging from what I was attempting, all the way up to discussions worthy of a full fledged post grad philosophy course. I am certainly not qualified to deliver the latter. As I have said before, I am a scientist/engineer and the closest I ever got to "real" philosophy was a thorough grounding in logic (lambda/predicate calculus) (postgraduate computer science/engineering) and experience of lecturing (under and post grad level) on the philosophy of science (somewhat dated, although I do try to follow developments). I was hoping that there would be people on the list more competent than I in philosophy, who would also chip in and where I could learn too. It seems to me as if there are not such people, or they are not interested in becoming involved, or that they are simply not interested in pursuing this class of discussion here. Feedback welcome. If there is interest in continuing but no real expertise available, I will try to muddle through and help others as I learn for myself. My current feeling is that there is simply too much of a gap between the rational and "religious" mind-views for this kind of discussion to have any general value in this forum. Unfortunately the bulk of the philosophy based discussions I have found on the net are at far to advanced a level to be accessible to most non-philosophers, or they have focused too much on a particular philosophy to be generally useful, or they have been swamped by "wannabee" philosophers. If anybody here knows of a list that is interesting, perhaps they would send me a URL.

I joined CoV's virus list as I suspect many others did, for a variety of reasons. I am interested in learning more on the philosophic side; I was fascinated by the stated intention of the CoV especially to see if "rationality" and "faith" could be made less hostile to each other; I was tired of the atheist oriented discussion groups tendencies to disintegrate into cliques spending most of their time unraveling ontological arguments and denigrating "religious" people, and hoped that this group might be different. Finally I am involved with a large number of people who seem to be smart in some ways, and yet have become heavily involved in what seems to me to be a very successful (for the group) memetic cult (The Transcendental Meditation movement), but which seems to be very destructive to its members. I have been studying this movement (from the inside) for 4 years and had hoped to discover parallels between the thoughts on CoV and their relative successes (2.5 million adherents claimed, and a purse of billions); as well as an explanation of their failure to be even more successful at disseminating themselves, after reaching what I would have guessed would be enough of a mass to act as a self-breeding meme-infection-pool.

> -----Original Message-----
> From:
> []On Behalf
> Of
> Sent: Tuesday, March 23, 1999 7:08 PM
> To:
> Subject: Re: virus: existence / representation
<huge snip>

> So how do you make a start? Before you can begin with
> epistemology, you need
> to grasp a few points from metaphysics. Metaphysics studies the most
> fundamental nature of the universe (which we will show
> exists in a little
> while), what is true of everything by virtue of its
> existing. Metaphysics
> boils down to a collection of axioms that define the realm
> of knowledge;
> thus, it is the starting point in a study of epistemology. >>
> Hmmm -- how strange. A suggestion that we ignore questions
> of ontology,
> proceed epistemologically, and start by grasping a few points from
> metaphysics, an ontological proposition to begin with if I
> ever heard one. I
> guess the desire to escape the taint of anything remotely as
> subjective or
> phenomenological as ontology, justifies the use of such word
> games. Basically
> lets use the most stable propositions that ontology has to
> offer and pretend
> that they aren't ontological.
Definitions from The New Hamlyn Dictionary

metaphysics = that branch of philosophy which treats of first principles, including the science of being (ontology), the origin and structure of the universe (cosmology) and the theory of knowledge (epistemology)

Cosmology = the branch of metaphysics which concerns itself the origin and general structure of the universe, it's parts, elements and laws, especially with such characteristics as space, time, causality.

epistemology = the branch of metaphysics which investigates the origins, nature, methods, and limits of knowledge.

ontology = the branch of metaphysics which investigates the nature of being and the categories (first princples) involved.

To start off I simply drew a rough map indicating where I thought it might be profitable to apply effort, and attempted to provide enough background to the members on the list who don't (yet) appear to have the tools and definitions needed to approach the subject competently.

In order to discuss any subject, one should attempt to make the initial assumptions explicit and place them outside of the area of discussion. While it can be argued, as you have attempted and I would not entirely deny, that the discussion of axioms is ontological or contains an ontological aspect, I would suggest that in the field of logic, they are simply precursors to meaningful discussion. As you said, we transform "the most stable propositions that ontology has to offer" into an axiomatic system. If we later discover inconsistencies in the system, we can go back and re-evaluate the "goodness" of our axioms. In my opinion, epistemology can validly inherit attributes from metaphysics which were derived from its other branches, without needing to "prove" those attributes. If this were not so, then ontology could not exist as it is dependent on epistemology to manage its investigations. And as you observe, epistemology requires some ontological basis. It might help to visualize the stability of metaphysics as a whole as being like an Escher drawing where each branch depends on the others to support it, while in turn providing a firm basis for the other disciplines. It may look strange when viewed as a whole, where the circularity is apparent, but each discipline is in fact well founded on the other disciplines. Of course, contradictions do develop from time to time, and these have been handled by isolating them within a particular discipline until the necessary adjustments have been made to the balance of the edifice.

axiom n, 1 a recognized truth; 2 an established and universally accepted principle or rule; 3 a proposition which is assumed without proof for the sake of studying the consequences that flow from it. (The New Hamlyn Dictionary).

If you don't like the axioms I suggested, which you have indicated fail to qualify under 2 (your opposition prevents them from being "universally accepted"), although I would suggest they are still valid under 3, please feel free to do the necessary research and propose others. (Not meant to be sarcastic).

> I would agree that ontology unhinged from questions about
> epistemology goes
> nowhere fast, other than philospical meta-masturbatory
> musings, floating
> abstractions, and supernatural conjecture. But I would
> suggest that ontology
> and epistemology properly yoked, are about the way that most
> people proceed,
> even without knowing the words for such things. Indeed, I
> think this is about
> what you are suggesting yourself, even after suggesting that
> you are not (in
> different words).
See above.

> >>Axiom of existence. Existence is the fundamental,
> unquestionable fact. It's
> the self-evident starting point beyond which it is not
> correct to venture.
> Questions such as "Why is existence here?" and "Why is it
> this way instead
> of that?" are self-contradictory; they lead to an explanation
> in terms of
> non-existence, which is nothing (thus we are lead to such
> absurdities as
> "nothing precedes beingness"). Existence is our starting point.<<
> If by existence you mean "that I have a starting point", that
> may be true, but
> does not invoke any concept of "existence". I have a
> starting point. As best
> I can recall it was sometime when I was about 1 and 1/2 years
> old (or did I
> decide that later?) in an apartment that I later learned (or
> decided?) was in
> Alexandria, Virginia, in the year that I later learned (or
> decided?) was about
> 1970. Is that the particular starting point that you had in
> mind? If not, I
> think that a concept of "existence" is in order. Of course I put the
> parenthesis in because that is not what I really think of as
> existence, but
> without a concept to invoke, that is the only self-evident
> thing that I can
> point to.

If you are asserting that you don't have existence, then you can't join into a discussion. If you are saying that you cannot discuss a "thing" (including yourself) as having existence without being able to point to its instantiation from a personal knowledge, then I would suggest that there is not much of a future for discussion within your system. Many thoughts and things which have existence derive their existence from loci outside of your space-time perspective. This is precisely the kind of discussion that I felt was least useful and was attempting to avoid. I don't want to sound like a "Randist", but if you don't think it can be avoided, please take over. It is definitely outside of my areas of competence. I will watch with interest and participate where I can.

To call analysis of systems to determine whether they are rational given the foundational axioms of that system a "rationalization process" seems ludicrous to me, and missing the pragmatic aspect of the scientific method. It is axiomatic (:-) ) that the scientific method simply takes the best "rules" that we have found, makes them axiomatic and uses them as a foundation for further thinking, without "knowing" whether the axioms are valid or not. The test of a scientific axiomatic base is not its theoretical or ontological "validity", it is whether the systems we construct using those axioms are internally consistent and "useful"; in other words, are they free from internal contradiction, do they match our perception of the universe and do they allow us to make predictions about this universe? When they fail one of these tests, we reformulate our thinking and try again. Changing the base axioms is an immense step, as it means we should ideally re-examine all of our previous work in order to establish that it is still valid under the new axioms. So we try to make the (needed) axiomatic platforms as small as possible, and use only well established things as axioms. This previously led me to say that the universe, as I defined it "containing all things real and imaginary", must exist and have existence in order for set theory to be valid. If you are going to attempt to remove that existence, then you need to define a new set theory which does not requisite a universe and which still allows us to make the predictions and analysis which we achieve with the existing systems. I am not saying this cannot be done, and if you manage it, it is almost certainly worth a PhD at any reputable university, just that it is an immense task and not one that is likely to be achieved on this mail-list. Neither, I fear, will it do much to advance the aims of the CoV.

As a starting point, I would appreciate it if you would attempt to make your axioms explicit. If you have no axioms, I would like you to explain how you intend to erect a rational system. If you can sustain your statement (if I understood you correctly) that you can rationally criticize the axioms of a system from within that system, then I obviously should give up Logics; Betrand Russell and all those other philosophers and logicians, who thought that they had "proved the need for meta systems" for "axiomatic analysis", were dead wrong and shouldn't have wasted so much of their lives on the subject. Maybe it is I who am limited, I just cannot visualize how it would work.

<huge snip of intelligent discussion and criticism which deserves a formal response that I just can't afford the time for right now>

> I continue to not be entirely sure what Objectivists mean
> when they talk about
> their "axioms" - whether they propose to be describing an
> actual formal system
> that encompasses all of existence OR are just saying that
> they aren't in
> practice questioning the obviously reasonable assumptions.
> If it is the
> latter, I accept them too, but do not generally use the word
> "axiom" that way.
> If it is the former, I remain deeply skeptical. That's
> entirely too religious
> for me. And if it is that they are not in principle
> subjectable to rational
> criticism, then I just have to say "no" to faith.
> Never the less, they seem to progress from these points in
> very reasonable, if
> occasionally quirky fashion, so I am tempted to call myself
> an "Objectivist"
> of sorts, but when I bring this up with many of them, I seem
> to often get a
> fairly vicious treatment. Is it possible to be a pancritical
> rationalist
> objectivist?
> I think it is, but most self-proclaimed "objectivists" that I
> have had the
> opportunity to speak with on these matters have gotten very
> indignant with me
> on these matters. So it leaves me wondering, "what am I
> seeing that they
> aren't? And does seeing it make me a non-objectivist?"
> Certainly I don't
> recall a burning bush, or hearing the voice of a "God"
> thingy, but some seem
> to treat me as if I were claiming such a thing.

I think that many so called "objectivists" base their thinking on a superficial understanding of Ayn Rand's work (superficial as that was), so they possibly cannot answer you themselves. The resulting lack of ability to express their ideas coupled with a lack of foundational certainty, leads them to an "aggressive defensiveness" which has brought "objectivism" into a measure of disrepute. It is my experience that people who really understand a subject are able to communicate that understanding with clarity and do not feel the need to become defensive about their subject.

Speaking for myself, I think of myself as a pragmatic pancritical rationalist objectivist (sophist too, sometimes - that also has many possible meanings and uses :-) ), and regarding your question above, take the position that an axiom cannot be questioned within the system in which it is applied. This does not preclude us from questioning those axioms outside of the system, but it is best to partition that kind of questioning from your use of them. In other words, take and use whatever systems are "useful", be aware of their underlying assumptions, but don't become obsessive about attempting to "prove" your axioms, as this will seldom result in anything as useful as the invocation of those axioms to derive other things. Remember what I said about reason? That it allowed us to temper our skepticism enough to function. Axioms are useful to support reason.

I use "my axioms" in an attempt to describe "an actual formal system that encompasses" my perception of "all of existence", recognizing that I am unlikely to be completely successful, and that my choice of axioms may well color my perceptions, but not attempting to criticize my axioms within that system. When I cannot make my descriptions conform to my perceptions of reality, then the time has come to step outside the system created by the use of that set of axioms, and examine the foundational axioms of "my system" as a seperate issue, in the light of the contradiction.

To give a concrete example, I suspect that dowsing can sometimes indicate "something". It does not fit into my engineering axioms, and formal studies have shown that when it is used for water or mineral location, that random drilling has a higher success rate than dowsing for bore site locating. I tried dowsing. It did not work for me. Then a friend of mine (a respected academic, and once head of a prestigious department of mining engineering) who could dowse, said he would teach me. He gave me the dowsing rods to hold and then walked with me with his hand on my shoulder. Suddenly I started to dowse, the rods swinging and dipping quite merrily. Since then, I have been able to dowse. I have also "passed on" this "ability" all the while feeling acutely embarrassed and rather silly. Still it worked exactly as it did when he "passed" the "ability(?)" to me.

So I have held dowsing rods and felt the huge amount of force they seem to exert and which I would say is not generated by myself. I have used (and persuaded others to try) them in a number of interference investigations prior to using more conventional tools, and the written test results in over 20 field investigations matched more formal tests in determining field orientation, yielding a result pointing to or from the source to within 15 degrees for electric fields and at 90 degrees to the source (again +/- 15 degrees) for magnetic fields. As the probability of this happening by chance would be below 20%, it seems that there is "something" happening. I know that the ES-EM field magnitudes we were dealing with could not possibly create the degree of pressure experienced. So despite my sensory experience, and putting aside the possibility of a new "force" (very unlikely), I am fairly sure that there is some form of somatic effect involved. How have I resolved my conflicts on this topic? I have put the question aside until I can fit strain gauges to the handles of dowsing rods. If they register a force, then I will need to design a series of experiments which will be designed to determine what kind of force it is that is involved. Otherwise it must mean that my original hypothesis - that there is some effect of these fields on myself is correct, and I will design a series of (proper double blind) experiments to attempt to determine what the effect on myself is.

Am I uncomfortable with the thought of performing this research? Yes! I would not dream of mentioning it to my academic colleagues, for fear of having my reputation torn to shreds. There have been too many scientists and engineers who have destroyed their reputations through getting involved in "parascience" fields - and I am as aware as the next person that most "parascience" is in fact pseudoscience and psychobabble. Am I curious about these phenomena? Yes, again. Do I allow the fact that I know that I have experienced something which is "unusual" interfere with my scientific objectivity? No. I simply put this area on one side until I am able to perform experiments to learn more about it. I do however keep my eyes open for any other "curiosities" which might throw light on this very strange phenomena.

Do I expect this to overthrow my axioms in this area? Strong force, weak force, electrostatics, magnetism and gravity, inverse square law and the fact that all effects are measurable, are probably directly involved. It is possible, but I would estimate that the probability is small. Something like the possibility of being killed by a stray asteroid. We know that the chance exists. We know that it does happen to people every year. We don't however, take any precautions against it happening, because our experience tells us that the probability of it happening to us personally is so small as to not make it worthwhile.

> Anyhow, I will see if I can glean any more thoughts from your lesson.
> Actually, in a quick reread, not too bad. The criticisms I
> offer, despite the
> length of my ramblings, cover only a fraction of your
> content, most of which I
> did not find objectionable, though some of that which is
> still being digested.
> -Jake

It was meant to be more accessible than the "standard" philosophic works I have read, and this (and my own lack of expertise in general philosophy) has undoubtedly lead to my glossing over things that are important. It certainly was not intended as a final word on anything. More a tool for opening discussion along lines that I believe would be profitable, and generating awareness that others have passed down this road before. If CoV ever plans to be more than an idea, it will need to address formal philosophy and provide a platform for discourse on rational belief systems. I suspect that this is one of the reasons that the Roman Catholic Church, arguably the world's most successful memetic institution, devotes so much time and effort to these very areas.
I will argue that CoV needs a "school of memetic didactics" and that if this is going to be performed on the Internet, that this will need to be based to a large extent on pragmatically taking what is useful to the CoV from philosophy. The scientific world has done this for centuries and I thought that providing a view into some thinking from the scientific side of the fence would possibly be useful. I am glad that bits of it are "not too bad".