Sunday, December 06, 2009

Sartre and the Meaning of Life

“Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”
- Jean-Paul Sartre
I would agree with Sartre, except on his point that being eternal is an illusion. Life has no meaning if you have no understanding, as Sartre apparently did not, that you are part of the eternal.

Of course our mortal bodies inevitably perish, and our consciousness with them, but we live on in other ways – in our children, in the memories of those who knew us, and in our contributions to humanity. But in a larger sense, we are the eternal. This is what gives our life what meaning it has.

Eastern philosophy tells us life is a swirling brook. We individuals are like the small eddies and whirlpools that form around certain rocks and fallen trees in the brook. We come and go in a moment, and then come back again, yet somehow each new instance follows a recognizable pattern, is recognizable as one of us. The brook itself is recognizably a brook, the mountain from which it flows is recognizably a mountain, which is itself on land flowing to a sea on what is recognizably a planet.

The swirls and eddies come and go but are indistinguishable from the eternal. They are an expression of the eternal. Contrary to M. Sartre, humanity is an expression of the eternal, and our meaning is indistinguishable from the meaning of it all.

And from this insight comes theories of God. God the creator, God the omniscient, God the omnipresent, God the holy spirit that flows through us all. God that gives meaning to our lives.

The childish notion of God as a bearded elder on a mountaintop, the architect who draws up the blueprints of our lives, is a projection of our own image onto the heavens. We are that creature who makes a plan and creates. As Karl Marx said,
“A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.”
— (Capital, Vol. I, Chap. 7, Pt. 1)
Our capacity to visualize is certainly one of the defining features of humanity. But it comes at a price. We live in a world of symbols that continually encroach on reality, and sometimes become more real to us than reality itself. We have Santa Claus, we have ghosts, we have first-person video games, we have sports fantasy leagues, we have our avatars, and all of these are expressions of and symbols of ourselves and of humanity. And we have God.

Of course, humanity is in the midst of outgrowing its superstitious and primitive concepts of God as some sort of all-powerful father-figure with a flowing white beard. Humanity has looked out into the vastness of space and seen a great universe that cares little for our conceits. That an omnipotent, curiously human-like being has personally created all the complexities of the universe and has a carefully mapped-out plan for each and every one of us is a childish fantasy. This is the concept of God it is right to deny.

But it is an unjustifiable conceptual leap to go from pointing out what should be obvious – that there is no Zeus on the mountaintop taking care of us – to saying that because there is no great CEO in the sky who has given our life meaning, it must be the case that our lives have no meaning at all.

Those evolutionists who say there is no purpose to it all confuse me. They claim to be men and women of science. They claim special insight into the development of species. And yet in their zeal to deny God they remain wilfully blind to the obvious – that every living creature is imbued with great purpose, indeed is defined by it.

I will take up the issue of the real meaning of life in a later post. Suffice it to say for the moment that the meaning of life is not to be found on a mountaintop, but in our actual day-to-day experience of life as it is lived by humanity. If your life had no meaning, you would not get out of bed and go to work, you would not chase sexual partners, you would not eat, you would not help a friend. The purpose of life is to flourish as an individual and as a member of a species that lives on a planet that also has to flourish as a condition of our survival.

There are some religious folk who recognize that an anthropomorphic God is indefensible. They try to evade the question by simply saying that God is the universal – He is everything around us, He lives in all things, He is the earth and the heavens, etc. If God is indistinguishable from the natural world, then it seems clear that God, whom we cannot see, is a symbol for the natural world that we can see. In which case, why worship the symbol when we should be worshipping the reality?

As Joseph Campbell said, and here I am paraphrasing, those who take religion literally are like diners at a restaurant who try to eat the pictures off the menu. They are missing the real feast.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Will the Sun Rise Tomorrow?

How do we know that the sun will rise tomorrow?

Bertrand Russell, in Chapter VI of his 1912 book The Problems of Philosophy, asks this question of us, as a way of introducing what philosophy has called “the problem of induction”.

No one has yet seen the sun rise tomorrow. However, we suppose that it will, based on what we have always seen in the past. Predicting what will happen with things we haven’t witnessed on the basis of things we have is called “induction”.

As likely as it seems that the sun will rise in the morning, what we know of astrophysics tells us that a comet may hit the earth tonight and knock it off its orbit before our first cup of coffee on the morrow. We cannot know the future as concerns the sun, nor indeed can we conclusively know anything about anything else for which we have no already existing empirical evidence.

It is extremely valuable to always be aware of this unfortunate reality, for it reminds us that even the most rigorous science is fallible. In effect, induction is a kind of informed guesswork, and we are wise to approach all claims based on induction with a measure of skepticism.

Is guesswork a sufficient proof of anything? Can we use it as a guide to our actions in the future? This is the problem of induction.

Saying that we can never be absolutely certain is a useful observation; to say that we can never be reasonably sure is not.

Russell does not explicitly state that one can never use past experience as a guide to future experience; only that to do so one must use what Russell calls, rather grandly, the “principle of induction” This principle is best summarized by Russell himself. We cannot expect certainty about that which we have not yet directly observed; therefore “…probability is all we ought to seek.” (Russell, p. 66)

Human beings are active, agentic creatures, pushed and pulled about by all manner of internal and external motivations, who seek knowledge not for its own sake, but because knowledge serves as a guide to action. Knowledge is a tool a person uses to accomplish a task. Knowledge must be useful and usable to qualify as knowledge. Knowledge which has no use is, by definition, useless; we often describe it as “useless information”.

This formulation can help us distinguish between knowledge and information. Knowledge has an immediately discernable use-value. Information that has no recognizable use-value is not regarded as genuine knowledge, and our brains don’t for the most part retain such information.

Human knowledge therefore relies on induction, for if knowledge is something to be used, it must be reasoned through induction that it can be used in some unknown and unreliable future. When we walk from point A to point B by putting one foot in front of the other, we induce that since our last step found solid ground, so our next step will fall on solid ground. Of course in our millions of steps there come times when this innate knowledge proves fallible.

In order to determine the usefulness of anything, we must use our powers of induction. We have had experience of this cause and that effect; we predict that a similar cause in similar circumstances will produce a similar effect.

Thus the concepts of inference, prediction, and induction inhere in the concept of knowledge. Knowledge is a hypothesis about the unexamined on the basis of the examined. The previously examined is no more than information, unless one can use it to predict the future. The sun rose yesterday. So what? A conclusion from induction – say, that the sun will also rise tomorrow – is a hypothesis on which one can base useful action, however certain we are that such knowledge will ultimately prove unreliable. Anyone who claimed to know no more about the sun than that it rose yesterday cannot claim to truly have knowledge of the sun.

This important point needs to be restated. Knowledge is inseparable from the intention of the knower. Knowledge is not a dry thing that lives on a shelf in a library. Knowledge is inseparable from the act.

Induction differs from deduction simply in that the conclusions of an inductive argument are never certain. At best, induction can point to a reasonable probability, such the probability that the sun will rise in the morning. Deduction can point to certainty, but only through a sort of sleight of hand.

Here is an example of a deductive argument:

1. All mammals suckle their young.

2. Foxes are mammals

3. Therefore, foxes suckle their young.

On the face of it, this seems a bulletproof argument, until we remember that the whole thing hinges on our definition of “mammal”. Part of what defines an animal as a mammal is that it suckles its young. Thus a deductive argument brings nothing new to the table – it merely allows us to make something more obvious.

It is only induction that allows us to make the great leaps in knowledge of which humanity is so rightly proud. Our intelligence as a species is really our powers of induction. Intelligence can be regarded as the ability to predict the future from the past – and Jeff Hawkins does so in his book, On Intelligence.

Knowledge is a guide to action based on probability. All projections for the future are of course based on an analysis of the past. All knowledge is therefore empirical. Probability is in fact an empirical principle. It has been repeatedly proven on the basis of empirical evidence that given a sufficient sampling it is possible to predict, with a reasonable degree of certainty, that the future will resemble the past. Of course, one needs a large enough sampling, and one needs to allow for a greater or lesser margin of error. Saying that probability theory is based on empirical research does not mean its predictions are deductively conclusive or constitute certain proof.

The best probability theory can offer is a prediction that given certain circumstances a given course of events will occur within a range of frequency – most of the time. And in this topsy-turvy world, perhaps, in the words of Russell, “…probability is all we ought to seek.”

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Michael Jackson Lives!

There is indeed life after death, and the disembodied spirit of Michael Jackson (among other notables) lives on among us.

But let me make clear at the outset that I don’t subscribe to any of the various species of dualism, which suggest that the mind is immaterial, and that there is some insubstantial spirit which, having a separate existence from the body, persists after death. Michael Jackson lives, like his colleague in song Madonna, in a material world.

I am quite convinced by Gilbert Ryle’s arguments against the “Ghost in the Machine” (Ryle, 1949) – and by the way, Searle’s homunculus in the Chinese Room (Searle, 1982) appears to be just another ghost in the machine – and I do consider the mind to be just what the brain does.

As Ryle points out, there is no reliable evidence of any non-material non-substance associated with our minds, and plenty of evidence that our minds and our bodies are inextricably connected. Furthermore, as a matter of common sense, in daily life we don’t treat others as if they were separate from their bodies.

U. T. Place (Place, 1956) makes the interesting argument that when we see a cloud we immediately recognize it as such. But when we are immersed in the cloud, it seems to us to be not a cloud but a fog or mist, and on closer examination, it appears to be a mass of tiny droplets of water in suspension. In fact the cloud is simultaneously all of these things, without ceasing to be any of them, and there is no need to regard the cloud, the fog, the mist, and the droplets in suspension as qualitatively different, separate, or mutually exclusive.

Place’s example of lightning also provides a flash of insight. We can see lighting in action, we can speculate on the internal physics of lightning, but we may have to be content with never being able to actually get inside lightning and examine what is going on in there up close, as we can with a cloud.

Similarly, we may have to be content with never being able to directly witness the millions, possibly billions, of simultaneous electro-bio-chemical interactions that take place at speeds of hundredths of a second within a single thought – let alone the body signals accompanying a brain state. For this reason alone we are unlikely to reproduce human intelligence exactly with a machine. And if we did, the machine would have to bear such a strong resemblance to a human being as to lead one to wonder what advantage building such a machine could confer.

But we certainly can reproduce aspects of the human mind with machines, aspects such as reasoning, calculation, and speech. One important example I’d like to look at more closely is memory.

One of the clearest distinctions between human beings and other animals is that human beings are alone in our capacity to store memories outside of our own physical bodies. We store our memories and our knowledge, things we rightfully consider to be a part of our minds, on external physical media, such as photographs, computer disks, books, and the Internet.

Recognition of this uniquely human capability can lead us to two conclusions. First, that memory is not immaterial but a physical mechanism, and therefore that the brain might be characterized as a type of physical media. We know that specific memories (and indeed many mental functions) reside in specific locations in the brain from the fact that they can be destroyed by trauma to those locations. This alone suggests that the mind is irredeemably physical.

Second, that the line dividing human life from the material world is becoming harder to draw as science progresses. We know that in addition to external material and mechanical aids to life, such as eyeglasses and canes, not to mention clothing and housing and food, we now also create internal material aids to life, such as medications, heart pacers, stents, dialysis implants, indeed whole organ donations from other human beings.

We also know that some 90% of the cells in our bodies (not 90% of our mass – bacteria are very tiny) are actually microbes with an independent life – or I should say semi-independent, since they are dependent for life on us as we are on them.[1]

All of which validates Einstein’s famous quote:

"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, "Universe," a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest -- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. “

But who is that “someone” we are referring to when we speak of ourselves, or of a person like Michael Jackson? Our identity is surely a product of our own experience, but it is also a product of our heredity.

Turing writes of what makes an adult human mind (Turing, p.364). He notes three components: 1) the initial state of the mind, say at birth, which includes hereditary material; 2) education; and 3) experience.

Turing takes care to distinguish between education and experience, a distinction which I consider unimportant for the purposes of this discussion. The University of Experience is where one achieves the most advanced degrees.

Turing recognizes that heredity and what we sometimes call “instinct” are in fact a form of learning, a learning on the species level that informs our thoughts and our minds from birth. Heredity is how we pass on that species-learning, a small part of which is also the learning of our own individual lifetimes.

Michael Jackson’s children have inherited something from him, have been influenced by their time with him, and most certainly have been influenced by and will continue to be influenced by his images and music long after he’s gone. It can be truthfully said that some of Michael Jackson will live on in his children, and in his children’s children to the Nth generation.

As well as inborn instinct, our selves are formed by our experiences, including our educational experiences. But these experiences are dominated by social interaction with the rest of humanity, in the first instance with our parents and family. In fact there can be no doubt that a great deal of what we consider to be our selves we owe to the family and the culture we find ourselves in. It is no exaggeration to say that we are to a considerable degree a product of a human culture and to a considerable degree a representation of that culture.

We can illustrate this by pointing to those unfortunate cases of children who are raised in cages or locked rooms or orphanages where they have little or no interaction with other human beings. Such children invariably grow up with limited language skills and limited cognitive skills. In fact we may say that through isolation such children have been denied a not-inconsequential portion of what it means to be a fully actualized human being, and after a certain age may never regain it.

The implications of this are quite significant, for it means that a considerable part of our own minds, including language, the very stuff of thought, is in fact a reflection of the greater social mind and all the memory, knowledge, and experience of our larger cultural environment. Our selfhood, often thought to be our private property, turns out to be inseparable from a larger humanity.

The reverse is equally true. Our selfhood, and indeed our very minds, belong not only to us but to a larger humanity, to which we contribute daily. This contribution takes the form of our daily work, our contributions to Wikipedia and the Internet, our interpersonal roles as teachers and friends. For some of us, such as Michael Jackson, our contribution takes the form of unforgettable music and images.

In fact we have two overlapping selves, one a private self, and the other a social. We are on the one hand a single body with a mind of its own, and on the other a single cell in the great body Hobbes referred to as Leviathan:

“For by art is created that great Leviathan called a Commonwealth, or State, in Latin civitas, which is but an artificial man; though of greater stature and strength than the natural…” (Hobbes, p. 115)

Michael Jackson’s mortal flesh may have passed on, but his spirit very much lives with us still. It has been disembodied by the circumstances of his bodily death, but his spirit has been absorbed into our greater self, the collective human mind.

What is “spirit”? It appears like the cloud of U. T. Place, which from a distance appears to be fluffy and white, but up close is seen to be a mass of tiny individual particles in suspension. “Spirit” up close can be seen to be composed of the individual memories of multitudes of people, and the spirit of Michael Jackson is the collective human experience of his time with us.

Gilbert Ryle’s example of “team spirit” (Ryle, 1949) is especially useful in making this point. He asks us to imagine a foreigner watching a cricket game, and saying that he sees all the players, but where can he see the team spirit? The answer is that it lies in the minds of the team, it operates collectively on the team and each of its members, and it evidences itself in both their individual and collective behaviours.

To conclude: our “spirits” are the contributions we have made to the collective consciousness of humanity, and in that sense our spirits live on, ghost-like, after our deaths. Our spirits are also captured in some sense in the genetic material we pass on to our children, reincarnated if you will, and that too is a lasting contribution to humanity.

But both kinds of contribution are registered on physical media of one sort or another, be it photographs, DNA, the printed word, or the memories of living human beings. Thus is the spiritual and the material seen to be one and the same.


Armstrong, D. M. (1970). The Nature of Mind.

Einstein, Albert. (1950). Out of My Later Years. New York, Gramercy Publishing Co.

Hobbes, Thomas. (1651). Leviathan.

Ryle, Gilbert. (1949). The Concept of Mind.

Searle, John. (1982). The Myth of the Computer.

Turing, A.M. (1950). Computing Machinery and Intelligence. Mind, New Series, Vol. 59, No. 236. (Oct., 1950), pp. 433-460.

[1] See Olivia Judson in the New York Times, retrieved from the Internet August 16, 2009 at

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Is belief in the external world a hypothesis?

In the first three chapters of his book, The Problems of Philosophy, Bertrand Russell makes the case that we cannot know for certain whether there is actually a real world outside of and independent of our perception of it. Is belief in the external world a hypothesis?

Understand first that a hypothesis is a sort of educated guess. It is a conjecture, an idea, a reasonable suspicion, to be proven valid only by experience, and by experiment, experience’s substitute teacher. Yet even a valid hypothesis is not a certainty.

That a real world exists is a sound hypothesis, with much evidence to hand in support – but it remains a hypothesis. Russell argues that we cannot ever know or prove the independent existence of reality to a level of absolute certainty. I think he’s right, and I’ll go one better by saying that while we can know things well enough to suit our purposes, I don’t think we can ever know anything for certain.

Russell argues, for instance, that we can only know our own sense-data for certain. However, the existence of such phenomenon as “phantom limb syndrome”, wherein amputees feel distinct sensations from missing limbs, proves that even our own sense-data are suspect. I find Russell’s arguments shaky throughout, but due to constraints of time and space, I will try to address only a few select issues in this post.

Russell spends time discussing tables and the properties thereof, using them as an example of something real and commonplace that we take for granted. He argues that:

1. Our understanding of such a thing as a table comes not directly, but through sense data.
2. Sense data are not identical to the table itself.
3. What we know is therefore not the table in and of itself, but sense data
4. Sense data are unreliable and superficial representations of physical objects
5. Therefore the real table, and by extension, the real world is not truly known to us.

Although I agree that the existence of the external world is a hypothesis, Russell’s argument for this conclusion hinges on a common but fallacious assumption about knowledge, namely that knowledge is data. That the data we do have about a physical object may be incomplete or inaccurate does not negate our knowledge of that object.

The assumption that data is knowledge can be easily refuted, as anyone who has worked in the world of computers can attest. Computers can amass vast quantities of data and store it in databases. Is this knowledge? If it were, we would not have a separate word, “data”. But data is not completely separate from knowledge – it has the potential to inform knowledge.

The telephone company records every second that every cellphone customer spends connected to their network, and stores that carefully in company databases. Look at this data closely and you will discover that it’s a jumble of ones and zeros. Look at sense data closely – and science has – and you will discover it’s a jumble of bio-chemical and electro-chemical reactions. Is this knowledge?

Not yet – it has a long way still to go. First this data has to be organized into meaningful elements and components. It has to be put into a formation that is intelligible to the human mind. It is the job of the modern Information Technology (IT) department, and the computer programs they develop, to turn data into information – to put data “in formation” – so that it can be interpreted by a human being. Out of a mountain of data comes a series of reports, prepared by computer programs. Now the data has been turned into information. But is it knowledge yet? If mere data does not constitute knowledge on its own, does information?

Not yet – it still has a way to go. When I connect to the Internet, I can connect to billions of pages of information. The Internet is a galaxy of information, and I have access to all of it. But does having all the world’s information at my disposal, however well organized and well “in-formed” it is, mean I have all the world’s knowledge?

Of course not. Knowledge is more than data and more than information. If it were not, we would not have a separate word for it. But what is that secret sauce that turns a sandwich into a banquet?

When management at the phone company reviews the dozens of reports produced by the IT department, they don’t do so to admire the quality of the paper or the readability of the typeface or the logic of the categorization of the information. They review those reports in search of something actionable. They ignore information that can’t be used, however well “in-formed” it is, because information that can’t be used is by definition useless. And can we describe useless information as genuine knowledge? Of course not. For information to be regarded as knowledge, it must be useful for something; it must have a use-value. What good is information if you don’t know what to do with it? Knowledge is information that is usable. Knowledge is information with a use-value.

And here we can return to Russell’s arguments about sense data. Science has shown that our senses receive signals from the environment, some of which may indicate the presence of a physical object such as a table. Of course, our experience of the table is not immediate, but is mediated, meaning it comes to us through various media, among them light waves and sound waves, which tell us of the existence of the table.

Russell and many of his critics seem to agree that if our perception of the table is not immediate, it is invalid. Why this should be so is quite unclear, for surely we can perceive the table through various media, and can do so reasonably reliably.

This data is received by our sensory organs as a blooming, buzzing confusion. Our minds seek to arrange or formulate this data into some sort of meaningful, recognizable pattern. (This is why we sometimes see castles in passing clouds or a face on the moon.) This activity is analogous to the activities of the IT department at the phone company, when it turns mountains of data about cellphone use into meaningful information.

As Jeff Hawkins points out in his recent book, On Intelligence, our minds then engage in an extremely rapid process of comparing this sense-data to previously learned patterns, looking for something relevant. Our minds may be able to match patterns of incoming sense-data to previous experience, and if they do, the sense-data is translated into meaningful information.

This is a table, on the table is a cup and a pen and paper. There are two chairs, the floor is hard, and there’s a scent of flowers in the air, and the temperature is slightly cool. All this information is assembled from sense-data, given formation through pattern-matching and language, and then ever so briefly reviewed by the mind to determine how useful it is.

If on entering the room a colleague throws you a tennis ball, everything you have perceived, consciously or unconsciously, falls away, discarded by your brain as just so much useless information. Your brain focuses on the task at hand, catching or avoiding the throw. The sense-data that your mind translated into information about the ball has now become useful knowledge. Thus intelligence moves from data to information to knowledge.

No analogy is perfect and the analogy between our minds and computer and information processing technology is full of holes. But the parallels are sufficient to suggest that we may have created electronic information processing on the model of our own mental processing.

So what was missing in Russell’s account of the table? The use-value! How can we claim to any knowledge of such a thing as a table without understanding its use, its purpose, its telos? The moment we introduce the property of usefulness and purpose to a physical object, we possess the key to knowledge of it, because the concept of utility itself includes the concept of the relation of the physical object to humanity.

The very word “table” is a human construct, a symbol intended to convey the use of a physical object to other human beings. Its use as a word contains the implication that humanity has a relationship not only to tables, but to the physical world. This object before us is something that is reasonably flat and stable, so one can put a cup or dish on it without spilling, write a legible note on its surface, etc. It can have four legs, three legs, no legs, or it can be a stump or a flat rock. If we focus on data about the table – its color, how many legs it has, the material of which it is constructed, how its surface looks under a microscope, etc. – and ignore its use, as Russell and other writers appear to do, we will never really know or understand the table or the qualities of tableness.

There are numerous attributes of any particular table that are more or less irrelevant to its use-value as a table, and indeed to its status as a representative of the class of tables. These qualities fall mainly under the heading of “Useless Information”, and should therefore not be the yardstick by which we measure our knowledge of such a thing as a table. To do so, as it seems Russell and his critics have done, is to miss the point.

We don’t have all the data about a table or any other physical object, and indeed can never have it. Furthermore, because our perception of the table is not immediate, it is subject to any number of distortions internal and external to the perceiver. For these reasons and others, the existence of the external world remains a hypothesis. It is nevertheless a fairly sound hypothesis and a reliable guide to action – and that’s good enough.

One can only know the physical world insofar as one knows the use to which one seeks to put it. Our understanding of physical objects is inextricably linked to our intentions towards them, and the failure to recognize this can only result in the sorts of philosophical absurdities Russell warns us never to be frightened of…


Russell, Bertrand (1997). The Problems of Philosophy. New York, Oxford University Press.
Hawkins, Jeff (2004). On Intelligence. New York, Henry Holt and Company.