Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Appeal to Authority

Suppose that you suddenly meet God. You are whisked away from your saddle on your horse or from your seat at your desk where you were reading your books or painting your watercolors or plotting your revenge or doing your whatever, and (let’s imagine a traditional Christian scenario, familiar to many Westerners and, thanks to Hollywood film and television, familiar to many non-Westerners) you are now standing in a vast white cloudy space before an enormous ivory throne upon which giant male God lounges regally and erectly, wearing a long gleaming white robe and long white hair and a long white beard with white mustaches. (God is barefoot. We don’t care what skin pigmentation God has. If you prefer, say that his is the same as yours.)

God proceeds to tell you, without moving his lips, in his booming voice that seems to echo right inside your head, the true nature of existence. He tells you that you live in a physical universe with matter and minds and everything is as you perceive it to be. Do you then have certain knowledge that your senses perceive true reality? What if God tells you that the universe you perceive is an electronic simulation, that in fact your consciousness is the only consciousness that exists and that he himself is but a representative manifestation of the simulator? Do you then know for certain that you are the only consciousness in existence, that all other seemingly conscious entities are unthinking sprites? What if God tells you that you are bleeding to death in a bathtub, and that in the last instant of your life, you have imagined a whole alternate life for yourself, with years and years of imagined events and imagined people, a life that led to you riding on horseback before being whisked away to meet him, and that you are even now only imagining him? Are you then certain that your life is a dream?

Whatever the god tells you is irrelevant; all scenarios (a Boltzmann brain floating in space, a brain in a vat, an immaterial mind trapped by Descartes’ demon, an electronic mind in the virtual reality of a simulated universe, a housecat hallucinating as you starve to death in an abandoned house, a human dreaming in the instant your neck is breaking at the end of a rope, a figment of someone else’s dream, a butterfly’s dream, exactly as you currently believe yourself to be, something unthinkable) are equally uncertain, because the existence of the god himself is uncertain, even when confronted with sensory and extra-sensory perceptions of the god-creature. The entirety of what is knowable by your consciousness is that your consciousness exists in this present moment.

For an answer to the question of what is the nature of existence, there can be no appeal to authority, because the existence of any authority (any god, any oracle, any wise man, any philosopher, any theorist, any scientist, any prophet, any truth-possessor, any writer, any demon) is and can only be uncertain. The nature of existence, whatever it may be, is unknowable. This is acatalepsy, or knowledgelessness. This is the inescapable state of any consciousness:

Boltzmann Brain, the Baataristic Crisis, Skepticism, and the Bundle Theory

This recent New York Times article and the cosmological debate it recounts touch upon humanity’s coming philosophical crises, the Baataristic Crisis, though I believe that the crises is less likely to be brought about by theoretical advances in cosmology than by the development of virtual reality that is indistinguishable from presently perceived reality.

If the writer was a brain floating in space and believing that it was a human named Dennis Overbye on earth, the floating brain’s thoughts would be identical to the thoughts of a human named Dennis Overbye on earth. How can any distinguishing be made between the two? None can be made. The writer believes that he is a human on earth (as he appears to himself to be), but there is no evidence to support this belief. It is possible that the writer is a brain floating in space. . . but that is not the point that I wish to make; that point was made by the cosmologists. The point that I wish to make is that the writer does not and cannot know whether he is a brain floating in space. Any insistence that he is a human on earth is only that: an unsubstantiated insistence, and a dismissal or incomprehension of the intractable problem of epistemological certainty. In exactly the same way, any insistence that he is a brain floating in space would be only that: an unsubstantiated insistence and dismissal or incomprehension of the problem of certainty. The facts that differing configurations of reality are theoretically possible, and that certain knowledge of any configuration of reality is impossible, form the foundations of Skepticism.

On the first page of the article, the writer uses the word “skepticism,” but in only a casual way, meaning “resistance to existential or philosophical challenge.” The philosophical school of Skepticism might identify the cosmologists’ theoretical scenarios as challenges to perceived reality. Creating and considering such challenges, as thought experiments and theoretical possibilities, fall under the classic purview of Skepticism.

The phrase “the cosmic equivalent of an egg unscrambling” may be implying that this is an absurd event, when rather, in fact, “eggs unscramble” regularly at microscopic levels. There is no arrow of time at microscopic levels, because microscopic elements arrange and re-arrange themselves constantly into repeating patterns. At microscopic levels, time moving forward and time moving backward are indistinguishable: the T-symmetry is symmetrical. Boltzmann correctly described a universe of infinite temporal existence: such a universe would exhibit time symmetry -- that is, eggs would regularly unscramble, just as they do at microscopic levels.

“If some atoms in another universe stick together briefly to look, talk and think exactly like you, is it really you?” As human technology advances, such challenges to personal identity accumulate, and humanity is led closer to Buddha’s No-Self view, which can also be called the Bundle Theory of Personhood. If (as rational and scientific thinkers are inclined to believe, because it de-necessitates traditional, non-rational notions of supernatural, divine, or spiritual essences) consciousnesses arise from particular configurations of physical matter, then the Bundle Theory has logical appeal. If any specific configuration of matter can be duplicated, and if “you” are a result of the configuration of matter that is your brain, then “you” can be duplicated. Would the duplicate be “really you”? It would be identical to you. So which one is “really you”? The Bundle Theory explains that there is no “you.” There is a bundle of thoughts and emotions that appear to be you, but there is nothing unique about this “you,” nothing about this “you” that cannot be duplicated. Further, as Derek Parfit has reported of neuro-psychological observations, it appears that “you” can be dismantled into your component pieces (component perceptions, component memories, component thoughts). If “you” can be dismantled, then where did “you” go? The Bundle Theory explains that “you” were never there in the first place. (Incidental to this discussion, if and how consciousness might arise from physical matter are concerns that become more relevant as human technology moves toward the creation of non-organic brains. David Chalmers has written in this area.)

The writer and the final interviewee quoted in the article seem to be using “reincarnation” with a sort of spiritual understanding, as if a future duplication of the arrangement of physical matter that once accounted for your consciousness would create a consciousness possessing some kind of supernatural connection to your previous self: here they seem to be betraying a belief in a unique “soul” or “spirit.” Rationally, there is no need for a spiritual or supernatural connection between any two consciousnesses arising from identical configurations of matter. The Bundle Theory, again, accounts for this by logically denying any connection between your current consciousness and any other consciousness, including your consciousness of ten years ago, a year ago, a thousand years ago, a multitude of universes ago, a moment ago, tomorrow, twenty years from now, a moment from now, or a multitude of universes from now.

The final sentence of the text in the graphic is flawed: if existence is a Boltzmann brain, then there is no “we” or “our past” -- if existence is a Boltzmann brain, then this universe is a perception/creation of only one consciousness. . .

To coin a useful word; to expand the scope of thought


“Point,” “hope,” “fear,” “rest,” and “life”—none tangible things, all abstract ideas, “life” the most abstract of all, for its attributes cannot be identified except in the absence of those attributes.

“Knowledge”—also intangible, abstract. But has a writer coined a word if every reader, upon first encountering the freshly minted word, knows exactly what it means? Or, rather, is immediate comprehension a test of the value of a new word? If “knowledgelessness” is truly a new word, then dictionaries can begin listing it, and cite The Steppe (2007) as its first usage in print. But I feel that “knowledgelessness” is not much of a new word, for the fact that its construction (from an abstract noun joined to two suffixes in a standard grammatical manner) is routine and readily understood. (Homologs continue floating into my mind as I write this: mercilessness, recklessness, listlessness, worthlessness, facelessness, joylessness...)

“Acatalepsy” or “acatalepsia” might have sufficed in place of “knowledgelessness,” but those words carry connotations of formal and ancient philosophy, whereas “knowledgelessness” is serenely and attractively accessible to a casual reader. Further, and more importantly, “knowledgelessness” is more precise in its meaning than those old Greek words, and its meaning must be precise for its juxtaposition with “unknowability” to correlate properly with the mantra of Baatar/Baatarism: “I do not know, and I cannot know.”

(The entire preceding argument applies equally to “unknowability,” which, as a partner to “knowledgelessness,” also first appears in the aguulga of The Steppe, with likewise flowing homologs: unaccountability, uncontrollability, incontestability, inconceivability, indomitability, indemonstrability, incommutability, irresistibility, irreconcilability...)

More interesting to me than “knowledgelessness” or “unknowability” as new words introduced into English by The Steppe are the loan words from Mongolian, for instance “aguulga,” a loan word with particular value because it is used to mean not merely the “table of contents” of a book, but the “subject matter” of a book: what the book is about, what matters of life and thought the book deals with.

Most significant to the English language, and to philosophical thought in general, is The Steppe’s introduction/coining of “ukhaan,” which can be used a simple synonym for “consciousness,” but also (and these usages are beyond the word’s original usage) “the lone consciousness of certain existence,” as well as “the seemingly material universe composed of immaterial thoughts that exists within the consciousness,” and which is, in fact, “the only knowable universe.”

impossibility of answers to any question whatsoever

"One of Melville's favorite devices is to argue a point effectively in one chapter, undercut it with an equally effective and opposite argument in the next, then to present other arguments at various points between. A related technique is his use of traditional systems for ordering knowledge - ostensibly to clarify, present information, or advance an argument - but actually as a means of demonstrating the limitations of the system and, by extension, the impossibility of mere earthly beings coming up with categorical answers to any question whatsoever. Ishmael's ability to exist within this limitation makes possible his salvation. Ahab's inability to do so destroys him."

Who2 Biography: Herman Melville

great solitude

“A foolish thought: why do I think it? Is it that I live so lonesome, and know nothing?”

—Herman Melville, “The Piazza,” 1856

Friday, January 25, 2008

Happy Burns Night: Where is Scotland?

The discussion page of Wikipedia’s article on Robert Burns:

"As per the Wikipedia:Manual of Style currency convention, I've changed the reference to '$36,000' to 'US$36,000'. If I am in error (if the purchase was made in AUS or CDN), please correct my edit. Although Euros might seem logical since Burns is Scottish, I guess the currency referred to in the article should be whatever the buyer paid in. Forgive me for being too lazy to look through the source material to find the answer myself.--Anchoress 09:46, 25 January 2006 (UTC)

"--Euros are European. Since Burns is Scottish, pounds would seem to be more logical than euros. -- Derek Ross Talk 16:09, 25 January 2006 (UTC)

"----Scotland is in Europe, though not yet in the Euro zone. Dollars are fine in the article. Guinnog 16:13, 25 January 2006 (UTC)

"------Scotland is in Britain. Europe is across the North Sea. Dollars are fine in the article. -- Derek Ross Talk 18:46, 26 January 2006 (UTC)

"--------Scotland is in Britain. Europe is across the North Sea. And America is across the Atlantic. So why are dollars fine in the article? As it's about a British writer why would we impose an American currency? Yallery Brown 10:53, 8 May 2006 (UTC)

"----------Scotland isn't 'in' Britain, it is part of it - it is also part of Europe. Dollars, however, make no sense - it should either be pounds or euro's. WP:MOSNUM suggests that pounds would be the most sensible outcome. SFC9394 11:02, 8 May 2006 (UTC)

"You are all missing the point completely. As it stands there is an unreferenced statement 'Copies of this edition are now extremely rare, and as much as US$36,000 has been paid for one' in the article. Either this should have a reference added, or it should be removed. If there was a reference then it is simple to determine the actual currency used in the transaction and then use that. /wangi 11:11, 8 May 2006 (UTC)"

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

2008 International Snow Sculpture Championships in Colorado, Breckenridge

"We were pleased to see Cool Jazz, our prize-winning work from 2007, featured on the town's poster for the 2008 event."

--Stan Wagon, Macalester College mathematics professor, Team Minnesota


"Why does man create?

"Is it man's purpose on Earth to express himself, to bring form to thought, and to discover meaning in experience?

"Or is it just something to do when he's bored?"

--Bill Watterson

Before the Information Age

According to this 1940 article by the dinosaur hunter of Mongolia, Roy Chapman Andrews, the American Museum of Natural History functioned as a proto-Google, with one-third of its staff-hours allocated to answering questions from the public – 25,000 questions in 1939. (Google is presently handling thousands of queries per second, billions of queries per year.)

"Natural History, October 1940

"Museum Quiz

"By Roy Chapman Andrews
Director, The American Museum of Natural History

"A list of the questions asked the staff of the American Museum of Natural History shows that when a person is uncertain where else to get information about a subject, whether or not it pertains to natural history, he gives the question to us. We are a center for the most amazing number and kinds of inquiries, more than half of them technical, most of them serious, but some so extraordinary that we can only suspect the mentality of the people who ask them.

"At least a third of the staff members’ time is devoted to answering questions that come by letter, telephone and personal visit. We don’t mind it, for it is a part of our job as a public institution....

"'True or false' questions which come to the Museum would be grand for a radio quiz. Some of them are: 'Do bears suffer with arthritis?' (Yes.) 'Is it true that a herd of Lilliputian horses, the size of police dogs, exist in the Grand Canyon of Arizona?' (No.)"

Copernicus: "Changing the course of human intellectual endeavor? Yeah, that's just a hobby of mine."

"From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"Nicolaus Copernicus (February 19, 1473 – May 24, 1543) was the first astronomer to formulate a scientifically based heliocentric cosmology that displaced the Earth from the center of the universe. His epochal book, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres), is often regarded as the starting point of modern astronomy and the defining epiphany that began the Scientific Revolution.

"Although Greek, Indian and Muslim savants had published heliocentric hypotheses centuries before Copernicus, his publication of a scientific theory of heliocentrism, demonstrating that the motions of celestial objects can be explained without putting the Earth at rest in the center of the universe, stimulated further scientific investigations, and became a landmark in the history of modern science that is known as the Copernican Revolution.

"Among the great polymaths of the Renaissance, Copernicus was a mathematician, astronomer, physician, classical scholar, translator, Catholic cleric, jurist, governor, military leader, diplomat and economist. Amid his extensive responsibilities, astronomy figured as little more than an avocation — yet it was in that field that he made his mark upon the world."

"History of philosophy in Poland": Copernicus and others

"From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

"The history of philosophy in Poland parallels the evolution of philosophy in Europe generally. Polish philosophy drew upon the broader currents of European philosophy, and in turn contributed to their growth. Among the most momentous Polish contributions were made in the 13th century by the Scholastic philosopher and scientist Witelo; and in the 16th century, by the Renaissance polymath Nicolaus Copernicus.

"Subsequently the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth partook in the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment, which for the multi-ethnic Commonwealth ended not long after the partitions and political annihilation that would last for the next 123 years, until the collapse of the three partitioning empires in World War I.

"The period of Messianism, between the November 1830 and January 1863 Uprisings, reflected European Romantic and Idealist trends, as well as a Polish yearning for political resurrection. It was a period of maximalist metaphysical systems.

"The collapse of the January 1863 Uprising prompted an agonizing reappraisal of Poland's situation. Poles gave up their earlier practice of 'measuring their resources by their aspirations,' and buckled down to hard work and study. '[A] Positivist,' wrote the novelist Bolesław Prus' friend, Julian Ochorowicz, was 'anyone who bases assertions on verifiable evidence; who does not express himself categorically about doubtful things, and does not speak at all about those that are inaccessible.'

"The 20th century brought a new quickening to Polish philosophy. There was growing interest in western philosophical currents. Rigorously trained Polish philosophers made substantial contributions to specialized fields—to psychology, the history of philosophy, the theory of knowledge, and especially mathematical logic. Jan Łukasiewicz gained world fame with his concept of many-valued logic and his 'Polish notation.' Alfred Tarski's work in truth theory won him world renown.

"After World War II, for over four decades, world-class Polish philosophers and historians of philosophy such as Władysław Tatarkiewicz continued their work, often in the face of adversities occasioned by the dominance of a politically enforced official philosophy. The phenomenologist Roman Ingarden did influential work in esthetics and in a Husserl-style metaphysics; his student Karol Wojtyła acquired a unique influence on the world stage as Pope John Paul II."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


"The collection of the folk-lore of the different peoples of the world should not be neglected, for it is of great value. It is the entire stock of wisdom accumulated by the unlettered masses of mankind in all ages. Like language, it is the product neither of one mind nor a given number of minds, but of all the various groups which together form humanity. Like language, it is property bequeathed by anonymous ancestors or predecessors. As there is no nation, tribe, or group of persons without language, there is none without folk-lore, which in a broad sense is the fruit of the intellectual activity of men before they are modified by what is called education, and represents their religion, philosophy, and literature..."

--Jeremiah Curtin, A Journey in Southern Siberia: The Mongols, Their Religion and Their Myths, 1909

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Center for Central Asian Literatures in Translation

“CCALT, the Center for Central Asian Literatures in Translation, aims to provide high-quality English translations of various forms of literature from throughout the Central Asian region. In an effort to promote the availability and understanding of what has thus far been an underrepresented region, CCALT aims to make English editions of works from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Tuva, Uzbekistan and Xinjiang available online.”

Franco-Mongol alliance

“From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

“The factual accuracy of this article is disputed.

“Many attempts were made towards forming a Franco-Mongol alliance between the mid-1200s and the early 1300s, starting around the time of the Seventh Crusade. Historians note that in hindsight, an alliance between the Mongols and the Franks often appears a logical choice. The Mongols were already very sympathetic to Christianity as many Mongols were Nestorian Christians. The Europeans were open to the idea of assistance coming from the East, due to the longrunning legend of a mythical Prester John, an Eastern king in a magical kingdom who many believed would arrive someday to help with the fight in the Holy Land. The Mongols and the Franks also shared a common enemy in the Muslims. There were numerous exchanges of letters, gifts and emissaries between the Mongols and the Europeans as well as offers for varying types of cooperation. However, despite many attempts, there was never any successful military collaboration. Modern historians also debate whether or not such an alliance, if it had been successful, would have been effective in shifting the balance of power in the region, and/or whether or not it would have been a wise choice on the part of the Europeans. Traditionally, the Mongols tended to see outside parties as either subjects, or enemies, with little room in the middle for something such as an ally.”

to fire it

Burn whatever cannot be burned with ordinary fire
With the fire of wisdom

--Ishdanzangwangjil, “The Sutra of Fire”

mind-body interaction

“One way to deal with the problem of mind-body interaction is to claim that it is only apparent, not real. The mind and the body seem to interact with one another, but that’s because mental processes and physical processes run parallel to each other. According to parallelism, the correlation between mental and physical events is not the result of a causal interaction between the two.

“Some parallelists believe that God produces the correlation by constantly intervening in our affairs. A decision to raise one’s arm, for example, is an occasion for God to cause certain nerve cells to fire. Similarly, getting kicked in the shins is an occasion for God to create a feeling of pain in our minds. This view, known as occasionalism, solves the problem of mind-body interaction, but at the price of introducing yet another entity into the picture, namely, God. Unfortunately, the price seems to be rather high, for divine intervention is just as mysterious as mind-body interaction.”

--Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn, Doing Philosophy: An Introduction through Thought Experiments, Second Edition, 2003

“I start to complain that there’s no rain”

The genres under which Yahoo! Music lists the 1992 single “No Rain” by Blind Melon:

Hard Rock
Soft Rock
Mainstream Rock
Alternative Rock
Adult Alternative
Jam Bands
Big Hits Of The '90s
1990s Alternative

a synonym

An elegant synonym for "clusterfuck" and which also means "rough seas": welter.

5. a confused mass; a jumble or muddle
7. a rolling, tossing, or tumbling about, as or as if by the sea, waves, or wind" Unabridged (v 1.1)

Sunday, January 06, 2008

from: *A Very Big White Elephant: New Voices in Mongolian Poetry*

But, at the end, one thing:
In this struggle, you will never be victorious.
You will never win. And that’s because
There’s nothing good in anything.

--D.Enkhboldbaatar, “…(emphatikos)”

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Happy New Year, Yes

There is this song that I've been hearing for the last month or more, which must currently be the most popular song in Mongolia. I finally googled the only lyrics of it I could understand: "happy new year" and "might as well lay down and die." Holy batcrap, it's by ABBA, and it's from 1980. Wow, the lyrics are awesome:

No more champagne
And the fireworks are through
Here we are, me and you
Feeling lost and feeling blue
It's the end of the party
And the morning seems so grey
So unlike yesterday
Now's the time for us to say...

Happy new year
Happy new year
May we all have a vision now and then
Of a world where every neighbour is a friend
Happy new year
Happy new year
May we all have our hopes, our will to try
If we don't we might as well lay down and die
You and I

Sometimes I see
How the brave new world arrives
And I see how it thrives
In the ashes of our lives
Oh yes, man is a fool
And he thinks he'll be okay
Dragging on, feet of clay
Never knowing he's astray
Keeps on going anyway...

Seems to me now
That the dreams we had before
Are all dead, nothing more
Than confetti on the floor
It's the end of a decade
In another ten years time
Who can say what we'll find
What lies waiting down the line
In the end of '89...

Happy new year
Happy new year
May we all have a vision now and then
Of a world where every neighbour is a friend
Happy new year
Happy new year
May we all have our hopes, our will to try
If we don't we might as well lay down and die
You and I

Caca Sacrada


"Where have you posted your family tree so that we can verify your claim that you are descended from Christ?

"Nowhere. Out of respect for the privacy of my living relatives and to avoid having my home turned into a shrine, I will not make my family tree available to the public.

"So do you think you're worthy of worship since you descend by blood from the Savior of the World?

"It should be easy for anyone to imagine that certain parts of Grandpappy were 100% human, not a smidgen of the divine in them whatsoever. His toenails for example. Probably just like yours or mine. In fact, all of His waste products, if we want to get right down to it, probably had no sacred value whatsoever.

"I think your site is the best and I wonder how you got to be so awesome?

"I appreciate the sentiment, but let's consider what's really being said here. The truth is you don't really know me outside of what you can put together about me based upon the content of my website. I think we both know that this is not enough information for you to judge whether or not I am, on the whole, awesome. Now, if you like this site, then it appeals to YOUR sense of humor or makes points that YOU essentially agree with or both. So by saying it's the best and that I'm awesome, aren't you really saying that you're the best and that you're awesome? Of course, given that you find me amusing and essentially agree with everything I say, I'm inclined to agree that you are, in fact, totally awesome."

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

the smell

“The girl had taken a Ph.D. in philosophy and this left Mrs. Hopewell at a complete loss. You could say, ‘My daughter is a nurse,’ or ‘My daughter is a schoolteacher,’ or even, ‘My daughter is a chemical engineer.’ You could not say, ‘My daughter is a philosopher.’ That was something that had ended with the Greeks and Romans. All day Joy sat on her neck in a deep chair, reading. Sometimes she went for walks but she didn’t like dogs or cats or birds or flowers or nature or nice young men. She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.”

--Flannery O’Connor, “Good Country People”