Wednesday, December 28, 2011

#13 - Christmas, Pets and Avatar.

Our society is experiencing mass-scale cognitive dissonance. I think it might be a combination of adoration for my grandparents dogs, re-watching Avatar and reading an extensive amount of Peter Singer that lead me to this - perhaps melodramatic - conclusion. I visited my grandparents for christmas and told them that I had recently become a vegetarian. As usual I was met with the usual mixture of bewilderment and disbelief - like the idea is so foreign that it is unthinkable. I repeated my usual explanatory spiel (it's not about the sanctity of animal life, just about suffering, uncertainty of origins of supermarket meat, etc) and tried to move on, to downplay the whole situation. This was difficult, however, amidst christmas ham and turkey where avoiding meat is akin to refusing to open presents. Nevertheless my grandparents catered for my dietary choices and for that I am grateful.

Throughout the day my grandparents commented on how much they love their dog and how special their dog is to them, you know, the usual stuff. They expressed a love for the dog that (on mere observation) seemed similar to the love a parent expresses towards a child. Furthermore I have no doubts that if their dog were to fall ill they would willingly incur significant financial loss to ensure the dogs wellbeing.

Later on the day we watched James Cameron's Avatar. Apart from being just a generally enjoyable film it is interesting in the way that it subtly (perhaps inadvertently) challenges social norms. Specifically I am referring to the way in which the viewer is positioned to overcome speciesism and feel empathy towards the Na'ri race rather than the human race. This is in stark contrast with reality in which Anthropocentrism is predominant (or at least widespread). The dramatic power of the movie relies upon viewers feeling a sense of disgust towards the humans' flagrant dismissal of the well-being of the Na'ri race. The Na'ri race have an entirely different set of priorities and DNA (if the acronym 'DNA' even applies here) to the human race yet they share our capacity for emotional and physical suffering. . . Perhaps you see the parallels I am drawing here? . . . If only the Na'ri race were more anatomically different to human beings than they are portrayed (rather than essentially just being blue copies of ourselves with tails) and were unable to speak the movie could well have been a parable-like animal rights documentary. The movie appeals to a sense of empathy in the viewer that surpasses arbitrary concerns of race and species. The almost obligatory quote to use here is Bentham when he states: ' The question is not, can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But, can they suffer?' and it seems as if this sentiment is instinctly shared by many people (as evidenced by their reactions to Avatar) whether they explicitly acknowledge it or not. People express these same feelings when they save their pets from burning buildings or when they decide to become vegetarian. It is a feeling that comes naturally and frequently but it's effects are usually rather limited.

It seems odd that the potential exploitation and suffering of the fictional Na'ri race arouses such a passionate response from viewers yet our real equivilant of this - the factory farming of animals for human consumption - is met with a disproportionate lack of concern.

As mentioned earlier I tend to feel sheepish and overwhelmed at the incredulity people express towards my vegetarian eating choices. I am now beginning to mirror this reaction towards meat-eaters. All matters of morality aside the vegetarian can appeal to a strong sense of consistency when pampering a pet or showing emotional responses to movies like Avatar. The meat eater is in a more difficult position and must choose to defend one of several equally counter-intuitive positions to retain credibility. The meat-eater must either;

A) Admit that they would subject their pets to factory farming conditions; OR
B) Claim that there is a relevant difference between their pets (and the Na'ri race) and factory farmed animals that allows for their differing treatment.

If neither of these concessions can be made the meat-eaters position is untenable, inconsistent, and a prime example of cognitive dissonance.

As vegetarians (in my admittedly short experience) are often thought of as being self righteous I think that the criticism of inconsistency directed at meat-eaters is far more fair than claiming that they lack empathy or compassion. Clearly meat-eaters are as equally compassionate as vegetarians, it is simply that many meant-eaters (whether they are aware of it or not) are holding conflicting sentiments, or 'cognitive dissonance' if you like. Many people are unaware of this dissonance and I see it as nothing less than a respectful service to the individual in question to have this hidden affliction pointed out. Likewise I would welcome criticisms that would help me refine my position on the matter. If these people are aware of, and accept that there are, inconsistencies in their position yet they refuse to change their ways they could be claimed to be suffering from what Kant called 'akrasia' or simply 'weakness of the will'. In my experiences, however, this is rarely the case and most people are simply apathetic. Regardless that is a rant for another time.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

#12 - More Parmenides

Ok, so I said my next post would be about Zeno's Paradoxes. . . It's not. It's more Parmenides. Actually it's the assignment I recently submitted on Parmenides. I didn't really get to explain myself too much because it's only a mid-semester essay and there was a wordcound of 1500 I had to abide by. Also the topic choices were all fairly dull. Hopefully I'll have something more exciting for the final essay, which will probably be on Aristotle's ethics.
Parmenides and Being
Parmenides is one of the original 'armchair philosophers', a rationalist who believed that through sheer power of thought one could overcome the toughest of philosophical problems. Parmenides is most notable for his enquiries into the nature of what is (or perhaps more importantly what is not) in his work 'On Nature'. It is arguably through this work that we gain two very important logical principals; the law of excluded middle and the law of non-contradiction. We do, however, also gain some less commonly accepted conclusions - The revelation that nothing changes, nothing moves, and everything is made up of one unified block of being. These claims certainly require some explanation and I will attempt to do so presently by investigating Parmenides' premises, Parmenides' conclusions, and the general coherency of his overall argument. I will attempt to translate Parmenides' arguments into logical notation and will finally put the formula to the test through the use of a thought experiment.

Parmenides begins his poetic prose by conjuring to mind the scenario in which he approaches a goddess in a chariot. The goddess informs Parmenides that there are two main ways of enquiry, enquires about what is (also called the 'path or persuasion') and enquiries about what is not. Of these two routes it is only the first that is truthful and valuable says the goddess. The justification for this is simple; to attempt to think or speak of something that is not is impossible because to even bring it to mind necessarily implies it's existence. To think or speak one must think or speak about something. As soon as one finds themselves thinking about that something it must necessarily exist. Thus Parmenides puts forth that the very notion of something 'not being' is contradictory.

Before moving on to the conclusions Parmenides draws from this argument it would be of use to clarify some key details of his argument. Firstly, when Parmenides refers to what is and what is not it must be understood that Parmenides is writing in a language that does not require an accompanying subject to give meaning to these seemingly fragmental phrases. Given this fact it is acceptable interpret the phrase it is as applying to anything at all and the phrase is not as referring to nothing.
Secondly, it may be noted that Parmenides equates the thoughts of things with the existence of the actual thing - or more precisely he doesn't recognise any differentiation between the physical and mental realms at all. This position is explicitly stated in section 3n when Parmenides claims:

                The same thing is there for thinking of and for being. (Parmenides. 3n)

 This worldview was not uncommon for the time and is known as monism. Monism refers to the view that the world is comprised of a single type of stuff, be this physical stuff, mental stuff, or otherwise. Philosophers who support the notion that everything is comprised of physical stuff are often called materialists (or advocates of physicalism), those who support the view that everything is made up of mental projections (for lack of space for a better description) are called idealists, and those who support the view that the world is made up of something else that is neither mental or physical are sometimes referred to as 'neutral monists'. (Palmer) Although the term came much later I would be tempted to call Parmenides a neutral monist as he believed that everything was made up of 'being'. I will further discuss the implications of my interpretation of Parmenides as a neutral monist later.
Returning now to Parmenides argument; Parmenides concluded that because it is nonsensical to speak of something not being things that exist must be eternal and unchanging. The reasoning behind this is that if something were to begin to exist (or cease existing) it would have to move from being nothing into being something (or vica versa). This transition would require meaningful discussion about something coming from nothing, a process that Parmenides finds problematic. Parmenides asserts that nothing comes from nothing ('ex nihilo nihil fit') and hence concludes that existing things must always have existed. Another consequence of taking Parmenides theories about what is and is not to their logical conclusions is a denial of time as we currently understand it. Time arguably involves change so without change there must be no time. This can be understood by imagining a world in which two consecutive world states are identical in every way. Would you be tempted to say that time had stopped for those moments? - I suspect that Parmenides would. The fact that we understand the events of the past, present, and future in different ways and perceive time as passing is simply an indication of the limitations of our human condition and does nothing towards proving that the passing of time is a real phenomenon. The only way to approach these sorts of problems is through rigorous logical reasoning (and not empirical observation) says Parmenides, and coins this type of enquiry as 'The path of persuasion'.
I will now attempt to formalise Parmenides argument and test it against a thought experiment that will expose it's difficulties.
First of all let's look at Parmenides’ premises as they appear most clearly. These seem to be:

P1)         Whatever can be spoken or thought of necessarily is. (Parmenides, Section 6n)
P2)         The Other: that it is not and it necessarily must not be. That, I point out to you, is a path              wholly unthinkable, for neither could you know what-is-not (for that is impossible), nor could             you point it out. (Parmenides, Section 2n, #2)
When interpreted as follows:
x = it is. (and it's negation accordingly 'it is not')
y = it can be thought and/or spoken about.
Parmenides premises become:
P1)  y x
P2) ~y  ~x
These two premises actually lead to the conclusion that (y x). The transition from y x and  ~y  ~x  to (y x) is shown to be valid in Appendix A.  
Given the interpretations outlined above consider the following thought experiment:
It is the year 2100. Unbeknownst to the citizens of earth there is a substance in the centre of the earth that is completely unlike any other substance every examined. It is neither solid, nor liquid, nor gas, nor is it similar or comparable to anything ever observed. Understandably no sentient being ever mentions this substance because it would be impossible to do so with the current knowledge that the citizens of earth have about what can and does exist. However in the year 2200 this mystery substance is discovered and labelled 'Mysterium'. From 2200 onwards people regularly think and talk about Mysterium.
Let us refer to 'mysterium' as it.
In 2100 it is not thought and or spoken about. Therefore, according to P2, it is not.
In 2200 it is thought and spoken about. Therefore, according to P1, it is.
However this seems to contradict Parmenides conclusions that things do not come into being. What was not in 2100 ('mysterium') is in 2200. This conflicts with Parmenides account of being when he explicitly states :

                Thus it must completely be or be not. (Allen, Fragment 8)

 So either my thought experiment is misrepresentative or there is a flaw in Parmenides' argument. I will now try and explain why, given the same premises, Parmenides and I reach different conclusions.

The problem is somewhat similar to the one that George Berkeley faced when he realized that things could essentially pop in and out of existence depending on whether a sentient being perceived it. Berkeley solved this problem by appealing to the omnipresent nature of God who prevents things from constantly coming in and out of existence by always perceiving them. Parmenides could potentially make a similar argument and say that the 'mysterium' had indeed existed the whole time and God had perceived it. There is, however, not sufficient evidence to suggest that Parmenides had this type of solution in mind and the application of Occam's Razor would dictate that such a clause be omitted.
The question therefore remains: What is the status of objects that escape our epistemological grasp?
When a dualist position is adopted the solution is easy: Simply explain that the 'mysterium' had probably always existed but we just hadn't perceived it. For the monist the problem is far more difficult. Due to word-length constraints I cannot elaborate very much upon this point however if my arguments are flawed it would probably be due to mis-representing Parmenides as a strict monist. I do believe, however, that this claim is not without evidence and therefore holdfast that the above thought experiment poses a problem with Parmenides' theory.


Reference List

Allen, R.E. 1966. 'The Eleatics'. Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle. New York: The Free Press. pp. 44-49.

Palmer, John, "Parmenides", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Parmenides, On Nature, (

Russell, Bertrand. The History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1945.

Stubenberg, Leopold, "Neutral Monism", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

y x
~y  ~x
y x
                  0 1 0     
    10 1 10
                  1 0 0
    01 1 10
                  0 1 1           
    10 0 01
                  1 1 1        
    01 1 01

(y x),  ( ~y  ~x)  (y x)
The argument form above is valid because in every case in which the premises are both true the conclusion is also true.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

#10 - Parmenides

I'm doing a Summer Semester at Uni on Greek Philosophy. So far I'm finding it quite enjoyable. Today we looked at Parmenides and I experienced the same blissful confusion that I experienced when I first read Descartes. It's a strange feeling, when the conclusion seems bizarre and you're sure that there is a problem with the premises somewhere but it's just so hard to find. Here's what I mean:

(NOTE: A lot of what I'm writing here is paraphrased lecture notes. So some credit should go to William Grey for teaching this stuff to me)

Parmenides makes the following claim:

1) Anything inquired into either exists or doesn't exist.
2) We can know nothing of what does not exist because it is impossible to think about what does not exist.
3) Only things that exist can be thought of.
4) Anything that can be thought about and can exist must exist, for it can exist and nothing (i.e. what does not
exist) cannot exist.
5) Therefore, in reference to premise one only the first alternative is possible: if something can
be thought about it actually exists.

The first thing that must be cleared up is that Parmenides is a monist - he believed that the world is made up on only one type of matter. Modern philosophy tends to like to split things up a bit more and determine between a physical and a mental world and such. Not so for Parmenides.

The temptation when faced with the above argument is to attack premise 3 and say "I'm thinking about a unicorn crossed with an echidna and THAT doesn't exist.". This argument only really works when one defines real as meaning something like 'exists in the empirically observable world'. For Parmenides the things that you think about or imagine are just as 'real' as the things that you see and smell so the animal you described is certainly real. We tend to have enormous confidence in calling our everyday experiences 'real' and describing people who experience hallucinations as having an experience that is less real. In some ways we really are being terribly overconfident in making this claim, Nick Bostrom argues that it is, in fact, more likely than not that we are living in a simulated computer experiment. In any case it's not unimaginable that in the future all of our now private mental events may become empircally observable hense breaking down the real/unreal barrier.


Parmenides come to a few unsettling conclusions...

A) Suppose that something came into existence.
B) Then there was a time when it did not exist.
C) So we are committed to talking about what (at some time) does not exist.
D) But we cannot talk about what does not exist.
E) So it makes no sense to talk of something beginning to exist.

The same argument works to say that it makes no sense to say that things ever cease to exist.

All pretty interesting stuff I thought. I've got a few criticisms and ideas about Parmenides theories but I'll let them ferment in my mind a bit before I try and express them here. I think next week we'll be looking at Zeno's paradoxes so I might make a post about that too. Fun fun. :)