Monday, January 07, 2008

A Question of Philisophical Angst

This has been driving me nuts, and honestly, since I'm still recovering from having my gallbladder removed, I'm not sure I have the strength to start this discussion. But I will anyway.

I've been reading "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (Robert M. Pirsig) and, like all good books, it agitated me. There was a bit somewhere near the middle (chapter 11 or 12) where he's discussing Kant and Hume....I was going to take you along with me on the journey that was the evolving thought process which led to this burning question, but I have decided not to. Honestly, it will just confuse things. Trust me that there was a beginning point from which this sprang, and there is a direction in which it is going, hopefully ending somewhere around the idea of formulating a logic proof for G-d's existence. Never mind though.

The question which I am trying to put to you, my fellow bloggers - and I am very very much depending on you all to answer it, bc I need some help here - is this: What is the a priori abstract conception of an idea? You know, kind of like Plato's Ideal chair. Kind of.

In an attepmt at clarification; the idea being that there is this abstract concept of an ideal chair floating out there in the universe, and every physical chair in this world is a representation of that ideal, resembling it as closely as it can. So - there's this abstract ideal floating in the universe that is the ideal "Idea". What is this? What does that mean?

47 Comments:

Blogger Halfnutcase said...

it means that plato was a foolish, foolish man.

4:41 AM  
Blogger Nemo said...

This certainly goes beyond my rabbinical expertise :).

Hope you are feeling better already!

6:33 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Is your question trying to understand Plato's Theory of Forms? Or is a general question of ontology?

8:36 AM  
Blogger Miri said...

Nemo-
It gets a little better every day, but it's still slowish.

e-kvetcher-
it's the latter. I'm not really a fan of Plato's theory of forms, but I was trying to make a comparison. According to Pirsig, Kant views the a priori intuitive concept as reality, and the sensory input of the physical world is merely a confirmation of that reality. Like i said, there was a whole thought process to this. But basically what I'm asking is this: if an idea is something as real as a chair, but it's the intuitive abstract concept which is the reality as opposed to the actual physical thing itself, then what is the abstract intuitive concept of an idea?

1:35 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

OK. I get what you're asking. I don't know tha answer, but if I were to guess, I would say that since neither an idea is already not something that can be confirmed by sensory input, both an idea and the concept on an Idea are reality according to Kant.

I don't put much stock in this kind of philosophical mindfuck, if you pardon my French. I don't think it leads to anything useful, IMHO.

By the way, how bad is gallbladder surgery? Did you have it done laperoscopically or did they cut you open?

1:59 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

laperoscopically. it's not that bad, really. the first couple days of recovery were pretty painful, but there is a noticable progression every day, and thank G-d, i should be off the painkillers in another day or two.

there is a point to this, but I wasn't going to explain it until I had the full thing worked out, and this point is crucial in that process.

so you're saying that you think an idea is the same thing as it's abstract conception? but something feels wrong about that. it essentially says that ideas don't have the same level of reality as chairs. also, you can, theoretically, write an idea down on paper and then see it, and then it can be confirmed by sensory input. I know I'm splitting hairs a bit, but I feel like that should make a difference somehow...

2:10 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

I think vocabulary is part of your problem.

Reality is a bad word to use, unless you really take pains (no bladder pun intended) to define it rigidly.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

I can't think of any other word that describes what I'm trying to say. what do you think it means?

5:38 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

I just mean the words "reality" to me must imply some type of existence in the physical Universe, either through being matter/energy or something which can have an effect on matter or energy.

In this definition, an idea is not "reality"

7:13 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

so you think ideas are not "something which can have an effect on matter or energy?" I thought that's what they were supposed to do.

11:22 PM  
Blogger הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3:03 AM  
Blogger הצעיר שלמה בן רפאל לבית שריקי ס"ט said...

damn it yo, I want to be a philosopher too! f--k it yo, I gotta' switch my major!..

3:05 AM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Wouldn't the idea of an idea be just as much of an idea as the original idea? In which case, both have equal reality without implying that either are unreal.

Wow. isn't it funny to think that those words actually contain at least some meaning in context, when they look like random gobbleygook?

6:45 AM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

at the risk of getting hit tobie, its

gobbldygook

6:52 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Miri,
so you think ideas are not "something which can have an effect on matter or energy?"

In my definition, there is a set of electro-chemical impulses that exist in your brain. These represent some version of an "idea". So in that way, you are right.

However, notice that I said "some version". I am not convinced that if you have some "idea" you could convey it to me in such a way that I would be able to conceptualize it identically in my brain. There is a good chance that I will get it 99.9% if it is a simple idea, and much less than that if it's a complicated idea, but never 100%.

Tobie,

I think you and I are saying the same thing. An idea of an idea is still an idea.

7:20 AM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

Assuming Plato's ideas themselves have any validity, the "ideal idea" is an abstraction on an abstraction. The transcendent characteristic form by which we recognize X as an idea is the idea of an idea.

2:09 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Orthoprax-
so then, if the abstract conception of the ideal chair is in fact the reality of the chair, is the abstract conception of the ideal idea (the idea of an idea) the reality of an idea? ie, the fact of an idea is its own reality?

(does this actually make any sense? I feel like this keeps coming to "I think therefor I am" and then missing it by centimeters.)

5:25 PM  
Blogger Halfnutcase said...

that's what it feels like to me miri.

And I'm really down on philosophy for philosophy's sake.

5:37 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"so then, if the abstract conception of the ideal chair is in fact the reality of the chair, is the abstract conception of the ideal idea (the idea of an idea) the reality of an idea? ie, the fact of an idea is its own reality?"

The "ideal idea" would only describe its true form, not the validity of any given idea. There would also be an "ideal math" but any given theorum could be mistaken.

The ideal of a chair is perfect, but any given physical world object we might recognize as a chair may not be worthy of sitting.

It is the concept that is idealized in Form, not any specific manifestation.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"The "ideal idea" would only describe its true form,"

"It is the concept that is idealized in Form, not any specific manifestation."

Exactly. So, the concept idealized in form would be....what?

7:43 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"Exactly. So, the concept idealized in form would be....what?"

It's undefinable. What's the Form of the color brown? "Brown." What's the Form of "idea"? Idea.

Forms are the truth of the thing-in-itself and you cannot define them through other objects.

The closest you can come is by conceiving the true characteristics of "idea" - what you conceive may approximate the true Form.

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Miri,
I hope your feeling better from your gallblader removal, and you are feeling happy that it wasn't your regular bladder that they removed. That could be awkward.

Anyway, about Plato's theory of ideas. I think that Plato is really trying to deal with the problem of generalizations. For example, if you see three horses, you can recognize a fourth one as a horse, even though it differs somehow from the first three. What your mind does is it finds what the "essence" of horse is, and then it ignores the details. Then it can recognize a horse, even if the details are different.
Somehow, that "horse essence" is more real than any physical horse, because it won't die or rot or get sick or lose a leg. This horse is somehow eternal and unchanging, and all the other horses that you see, you will compare it to the one in your mind, the general horse.
It doesn't actually exist anywhere outside the minds of people and God, but it is still important and affects reality.
A person who understands the essence of chairhood, for instance (which is "a thing that is comfortable to sit on"), can make a chair out of any material, and in any number of shapes, because he's got an idea of "chair" in his head. All the chairs that he makes, will somehow be the idea of chair, as he manages to manifest it in matter.
The idea of chairhood is eternal, even long after the chair that he made has rotted away.

I hope that helps,
Moshe

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"The closest you can come is by conceiving the true characteristics of "idea" - what you conceive may approximate the true Form.
"

This may be the closest thing to what I've been trying to figure out...but does that mean that Form is essentially a working definition?

Moshe-
Thanks, I am getting better slowly. I did mention the bladder thing to the surgeon before I went in; he understood my concerns fully, and thank G-d, he did a lovely job of removing the correct organ.
"The idea of chairhood is eternal, even long after the chair that he made has rotted away.
"

So then, what is the idea of "ideahood?" Is it merely, as Orthoprax suggests, a definition?

10:32 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"This may be the closest thing to what I've been trying to figure out...but does that mean that Form is essentially a working definition?"

No, human conception and the true form are not necessarily the same. But since we can only engage forms with the mind, our conceptions are the closest we can come to the reality.

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Miri said...

Orthoprax-
So, as I understood it, Pirsig interpreted Kant to be saying that True Form is natural human conception, thus True Form is reality. Or...something kind of like that.

3:37 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"So, as I understood it, Pirsig interpreted Kant to be saying that True Form is natural human conception, thus True Form is reality. Or...something kind of like that."

I think we're skipping around a little here. Plato and Kant are not the same, though they have their similarities here. But certainly Kant did not recognize noumenal reality to be the product of human thought.

Kant argued that we have an a priori knowledge base founded on the way our very brains are built and how our minds work, but that knowledge of things-in-themselves is essentially impossible. So I don't know much about Pirsig, but Kant definitely did not think that humans could perceive things-in-themselves.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Orthoprax-
Interesting. I only brought in Plato to make a comparison, bc I didn't think the phrase "a priori abstract conception" was clear enough. The thing is, I haven't actually read the Kant that Pirsig is referring to, (Critique of Pure Reason)I've only read Pirsig's version of it. He paraphrases:

"We sense objects in a certain way because of our applications of a priori intuitions such as space and time...The a priori concepts have their origins in human nature, so that they're neither caused by the sensed objects nor bring them into being, but provide a kind of screening function for what sense data we will accept...What we think of as reality is a continuous synthesis of elements from a fixed hierarchy of a priori concepts and the ever changing data of the senses." (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, chapter 11.)

But here he's basically referring to perception of the physical world. I was trying to extrapolate this theory of reality and perception to include things that aren't of the physical world. I'm not entirely sure yet that it's possible, but I would like to think it is. hence, all of the above.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"But here he's basically referring to perception of the physical world. I was trying to extrapolate this theory of reality and perception to include things that aren't of the physical world. I'm not entirely sure yet that it's possible, but I would like to think it is. hence, all of the above."

Actually this is *precisely* what Kant was arguing against. Since our reasoning and mechanisms of perception are founded in phenomenon, we simply cannot form any knowledge of noumenal reality. There is an insurmountable wall of physical perception between our minds and the-way-things-really-are.

As Kant realized though, while this closes the door on metaphysical knowledge, it throws wide open the possibility of reasonable faith.

8:19 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

well, sure; both justifying and disproving Hume, I suppose.

here's the thing. Within the text which I was quoting, that isn't what kant seems to be saying. Now it's possible that Pirsig misread Kant. Not having actually read Kant himself yet, I can't quite judge. I might also be misreading Pirsig, but he seems to be saying that Hume only believes in sensory data as a basis for the perception of reality, and Kant doesn't. Pirsig describes the conflict between Hume and Kant thusly:

"Hume has been saying...If I hold my head to the left and look down at the handle grips and front wheel...I get one pattern of sense data. If I move my head to the right I get another slightly different pattern of sense data. The two views are different....If there's no logical basis for substance then there's no logical basis for concluding that what's produced these two different views is the same motorcycle....Kant...says that we have in our minds an a priori motorcycle which has continuity in time and space and is capable of changing appearances as one moves one's head and is therefore not contradicted by the sense data one is receiving."

9:46 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

Yes, that is also what Kant says. Since the way our minds are constructed we have Categories of thought pre-existing - synthetic a priori - before we ever perceive our first sensory datum.

But Kant does not propose an ideal motorcycle like Plato might, but that we have, what he calls Categories, that link our perceptions through space and time, etc.

The difference between Hume and Kant is not about nouminal knowledge - there they both agree, but with phenomenal knowledge where Hume's claim of ignorance went further than Kant's. Hume argued that empirically you could not justify things like belief in causality and therefore the whole effort of science was in philosophical straits.

Kant said that we can justify belief in causality because it is a synthetic a priori knowledge and so science was saved. But it only justifies knowledge claims for the apparent phenomena and cannot justify claims of knowledge of the nouminal realm because knowledge requires human experience and humans cannot experience the nouminal directly.

11:16 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

I'd like to clarify my last paragraph since I used "knowledge" in diferent ways which could be confusing. Synthetic a priori knowledge are true, but only as naked concepts without context. It requires empirical experience to structure those concepts in meaningful ways.

So since we only experience phenomena and not noumena, we can only claim knowledge of phenomena.

11:27 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

ok, I think I get that. Does this mean that you consider the "a priori concept" of an idea to be in the nouminal realm? I feel like there must be some way in which the concept of an idea is experienced via phenomena...although possibly that's only once it's been expressed/fulfilled in physical reality. I'm not sure though if that's the same thing as the idea itself or a product of an idea, which is at least one step further removed.

Can thought process be considered phenomena? I mean, can brain activity be considered sensory input? what about inspiration that comes from something outside oneself?

11:37 AM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"Does this mean that you consider the "a priori concept" of an idea to be in the nouminal realm?"

This isn't what I think, but what Kant says. He doesn't propose that the Categories are noumenal, but merely products of how our minds work.

"Can thought process be considered phenomena? I mean, can brain activity be considered sensory input? what about inspiration that comes from something outside oneself?"

Brain activity can be considered sensory input, sure. It's the mind as a perceiver and creator of understanding that maps out existence as we know it. Inspiration is either founded in the a priori synthetic or something we figured out after analytical reason or experience.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Orthoprax-
If brain activity can be considered sensory input then I think there might be grounds for comparison between an idea and a chair, even though an idea doesn't exist as such in the physical realm.

"Inspiration is either founded in the a priori synthetic or something we figured out after analytical reason or experience."

No it isn't. The very nature of inspiration is that a)it comes from outside of us and b)it bursts forth spontaneously, frequently independent of any kind of reasoning. Unless I've misunderstood you.

4:25 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"If brain activity can be considered sensory input then I think there might be grounds for comparison between an idea and a chair, even though an idea doesn't exist as such in the physical realm."

One point about Kant's idealism is that the human experience has no direct relation to what is real. We are permanently blocked access to knowledge about reality as-it-really-is.

Our knowledge is contained within three classes. The a priori synthetic which was endowed to us by the way our minds work, internal reasoning based on these endowed categories that elicit further conclusions, and judgements of our perceptions through these categories that give us knowledge about phenomena. That's it.

So any given "idea" is either spinning around the categories or telling us about ordering our perceptions. There is no source that can inform us directly about the noumenon.

"No it isn't. The very nature of inspiration is that a)it comes from outside of us and b)it bursts forth spontaneously, frequently independent of any kind of reasoning."

That may be your belief, but the only ideas that can come from "outside us" are the a priori synthetic ideas that I mentioned. Everything else is the product of human cognition, being conscious of its own reasoning or not.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"So any given "idea" is either spinning around the categories or telling us about ordering our perceptions. There is no source that can inform us directly about the noumenon."

That's fine. Ok, wait, I'm getting confused. The "Thing-in-itself" concept of a chair and the "thing in itself" concept of an idea both belong in the noumenal realm, bc the noumenal realm is the realm of "thing-in-itself,", right? This doesn't change th fact that an "idea" and a "chair" also exist in the phenomenal realm, right?

Another point of confusion: First you say
"The a priori synthetic ... was endowed to us by the way our minds work," which seems to say that the synthetic a priori functions internally - which makes sense when opposed with
"judgements of our perceptions through these categories that give us knowledge about phenomena" which sounds like response to external stimuli.
But then you say
"the only ideas that can come from "outside us" are the a priori synthetic ideas that I mentioned."
Which now sounds like the synthetic a priori functions via response to external stimuli.

Is the synthetic a priori something that is internal or external?

12:11 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"That's fine. Ok, wait, I'm getting confused. The "Thing-in-itself" concept of a chair and the "thing in itself" concept of an idea both belong in the noumenal realm, bc the noumenal realm is the realm of "thing-in-itself,", right? This doesn't change th fact that an "idea" and a "chair" also exist in the phenomenal realm, right?"

The phenomenal realm is simply that realm which we perceive. You're mixing up Kant and Plato here though because Kant makes no claims about what the noumenal realm is like. What we perceive as a chair may have no real source in noumena.

We definitely can perceive a chair and we have a perception of ideas, though in a different sense. "How the brain works?" is a phenomological question and "ideas" in all likelihood have phenomological expression.

"Is the synthetic a priori something that is internal or external?"

It precedes reason and in that sense is external to our minds. It's like you're asking about the basic operating system of a computer. For the "mind program" running on that computer, is the operating system internal or external? Depends how you look at identity and whether you identify the rest of the computer's hardwear with the mind program.

The synthetic a priori truths are external to us. The endowment of them to us comes with the development of our brains - our unconscious minds. Our conscious mind come along afterwards. Does "mind" = "brain"? I don't think so and so I would consider the synthetic a priori coming externally to our minds. I was a little sloppy with the term "mind" before.

4:58 PM  
Anonymous Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"It precedes reason and in that sense is external to our minds."

Wouldn't that make it internal? as something which exists in constructs within our heads before the processes of reason coalesce?
(you lost me with the rest of the metaphor; I don't speak computer, unfortunately.)

"The synthetic a priori truths are external to us. The endowment of them to us comes with the development of our brains - our unconscious minds. Our conscious mind come along afterwards."

So does it come along with reason or before reason? if it comes along with reason, there's an argument to be made that it's external; if it comes before reason, there's an argument to be made that it is internal.

Essentially what you have said is that the synthetic a priori appears inside our brains at a certain point in time. Unless that happens along with processes of reasoning, how is that in any way external?

5:20 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"Wouldn't that make it internal? as something which exists in constructs within our heads before the processes of reason coalesce?"

Yes, it exists within our heads, but my point was that "in our heads" doesn't necessarily mean "in our minds" or "in us."

If it came from your spleen would it be internal?

"if it comes before reason, there's an argument to be made that it is internal."

How so? In any case, Kant would say that it definitely comes before reason.

"Unless that happens along with processes of reasoning, how is that in any way external?"

I think we're having a communication issue with the words "external" and "internal." Besides which, I don't see why this is a point of concern either way.

The point is just that these are things that we don't make up anymore than we control our genetic code. It's "internal" to us in that kind of sense, but founded externally all the same.

8:31 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

To go a little further with the DNA analogy, the genetic code is what built our brain and it therefore has direct effect on how we think, but is that code within us as a reasoning being, i.e. is it in our mind?

Pretend that DNA has no relevance after the initial neurological construction and that "I" am defined by my mind - do you see how the code is external to me?

8:36 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"Yes, it exists within our heads, but my point was that "in our heads" doesn't necessarily mean "in our minds" or "in us."

So, you're seperating physical genetic make-up from the "mind" - which is what, the "soul?" When you say "I," is that what you mean? Because if not, I don't know what the "I" would be beyond Kant's three categories.

"If it came from your spleen would it be internal?"

Of course. What makes you think it doesn't, anyway?

"I think we're having a communication issue with the words "external" and "internal." "

Yes. By "internal" I mean something which sort of exists within people universally, independent of external stimuli. That's what I originally understood the term "a priori" to mean, although I'm not sure that that's correct.

"...is that code within us as a reasoning being, i.e. is it in our mind?"

yes. Of course. Why wouldn't it be?

11:04 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"So, you're seperating physical genetic make-up from the "mind" - which is what, the "soul?" When you say "I," is that what you mean? Because if not, I don't know what the "I" would be beyond Kant's three categories."

Not the soul per se, but the subject as perceiver. The thing that perceives. The thing that is aware and orders reality. That is "I" as distinguished from "not-I."

"Of course. What makes you think it doesn't, anyway?"

If you lose your spleen are you losing a part of your mind? No. Your body is not "you." In fact, you can only perceive your spleen - it is very clearly external to the observing "I."

"Yes. By "internal" I mean something which sort of exists within people universally, independent of external stimuli."

I was using it to mean internal to the mind, truly independent of external stimuli. A stomach ache is an external stimulus - not internal.

"That's what I originally understood the term "a priori" to mean, although I'm not sure that that's correct."

"A priori" just means "before experience." For Kant, it refers to knowledge before experience. Knowledge about your own body comes after experience.

"yes. Of course. Why wouldn't it be?"

No, it isn't! Not anymore than the guy who put together your computer is inside it.

11:35 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"I was using it to mean internal to the mind, truly independent of external stimuli. A stomach ache is an external stimulus - not internal."
you win the spleen point, but what I meant by internal is inside the mind.

"A priori" just means "before experience." For Kant, it refers to knowledge before experience."

yes, that's what I meant.

"No, it isn't! Not anymore than the guy who put together your computer is inside it."

I don't think that comparing DNA to a computer programmer is an apt metaphor. It's more like the DNA is the program. I'm pretty sure DNA never sat down with calculators and graph paper and said "Hey, let's make man."

This all relates back to the initial idea bc if the idea of a chair and the idea of an idea are both similarly intuitive concepts, and comparable in terms of external stimuli then they should have about the same level of reality. Which is kind of what I was trying to get to. I think.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"I don't think that comparing DNA to a computer programmer is an apt metaphor. It's more like the DNA is the program. I'm pretty sure DNA never sat down with calculators and graph paper and said "Hey, let's make man.""

DNA is the program that built the physical connections. DNA does not control your mind.

"This all relates back to the initial idea bc if the idea of a chair and the idea of an idea are both similarly intuitive concepts, and comparable in terms of external stimuli then they should have about the same level of reality. Which is kind of what I was trying to get to. I think."

I would say that Kant's view is that the idea of an idea is an analytic judgement and the idea of a chair is a synthetic judgement. You don't need external perception to think about the idea of an idea.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Orthoprax-
"DNA does not control your mind."

I was not aware that anything did. That isn't the same thing as saying that DNA is inside my mind.

"You don't need external perception to think about the idea of an idea."

Except I thought we already agreed that brain activity can be considered external stimuli.

10:09 PM  
Blogger Orthoprax said...

Miri,

"I was not aware that anything did. That isn't the same thing as saying that DNA is inside my mind."

The categories control how you think. DNA is not inside your mind, it's just the blueprints for physical construction.

If you put actual blueprints on the floor and based on it you build a log cabin around the blueprints, is the blueprints inside the cabin? Yes, in a physical sense, but not in the philosophical sense of looking at the cabin as a distinct object. You can remove the blueprints from the cabin and the cabin does not change.

"Except I thought we already agreed that brain activity can be considered external stimuli."

In a certain sense, but if we're taking mental activity as a pure field of operation then just thinking about "an idea" would have no external stimulus.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Miri said...

Orthoprax-
I do not have the energy to argue about why the DNA metaphor isn't working. It's not working.

" but if we're taking mental activity as a pure field of operation then just thinking about "an idea" would have no external stimulus."

then in what scenario was brain activity considered external stimuli?

11:46 PM  

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