Return of sophism + Rise & fall of logic + Cosmic inquiries

The Return of Sophism

EXCERPT: [...] If [Scottie Nell] Hughes takes the truth to be relative to the groups (divided by their feelings towards Trump), then she is a relativist. In this case, each group has its own truth that is made true by the belief of the group. If she holds truth to be dependent on the individual, then she would be a subjectivist. In this case, each person has her own truth, but she might happen to have a truth that others also accept.

While some might think that this view of truth in politics is something new, it is ancient and dates back at least to the sophists of ancient Greece. The sophists presented themselves as pragmatic and practical—for a fee, they would train a person to sway the masses to gain influence and power.

[...] Skepticism often proved to be a gateway drug to relativism—if we cannot know what is true, then it seems sensible that truth is relative. [...] the question remained about what a person should do in a world without truth and ethics. The sophists offered an answer.

Since searching for truth or goodness would be pointless, the sophists adopted a practical approach. They marketed their ideas to make money and offered, in return, the promise of success. Some of the sophists did accept that there were objective aspects of reality [...] They all rejected the idea that what philosophers call matters of value (such as ethics, politics, and economics) are objective, instead embracing relativism or subjectivism.

Being practical, they did recognize that many of the masses professed to believe in moral (and religious) values and they were aware that violating these norms could prove problematic when seeking success. Some taught their students to act in accord with the professed values of society. Others, as exemplified by Glaucon’s argument for the unjust man in the Ring of Gyges story of the Republic, taught their students to operate under the mask of morality and social values while achieving success by any means necessary. These views had a clear impact on lying. [...]

[...Trump's...] approach is utterly consistent with sophism [...] It would also explain why Trump does not bother with research or evidence—these assume there is a truth that can be found and supported.

There are, of course, some classic problems for relativism and sophism. Through Socrates, Plato waged a systematic war on relativism and sophism [...] relativism requires a group to define the truth. But, there is no way principled way to keep the definition of what counts as a group of believers from sliding to there being a “group” of one, which is subjectivism. [...] then there is no truth at all—we end up with nihilism. One obvious impact of nihilism is that the sophists’ claim that success matters is not true—there is no truth. Another important point is that relativism about truth seems self-refuting: it being true requires that it be false. This argument seems rather too easy and clever by far...

The rise and fall of logic

EXCERPT: [...] In fact, much of the scholastic achievement got lost, and the logic taught in this period (the one Kant was referring to) was for the most part rudimentary. To be sure, the decline of scholastic logic didn’t happen at once [...] However, generally speaking, scholastic logic became less and less prominent after the end of the Middle Ages [...]

There were many causes of the decline of scholastic logic. Perhaps the most famous was the damning criticism by Renaissance authors such as Lorenzo Valla. These thinkers deplored the lack of applicability of scholastic logic. Valla, for example, saw syllogisms – arguments composed of two premises and one conclusion, all of which are of the form ‘Some/All/No A is (not) B’, whose premises necessitate the truth of the conclusion – as an artificial type of reasoning, useless for orators on account of being too far removed from natural ways of speaking and arguing. They harshly criticised the ugly, cumbersome, artificial and overly technical Latin of scholastic authors, and defended a return to the classical Latin of Cicero and Vergil. For the most part, these critics did not belong to the university system, where scholasticism was still the norm in the 15th century. Instead, they tended to be civil servants, and were thus involved in politics, administration and civic life in general. They were much more interested in rhetoric and persuasion than in logic and demonstration.

Another reason logic gradually lost its prominence in the modern period was the abandonment of predominantly dialectical modes of intellectual enquiry. A passage by René Descartes – yes, the fellow who built a whole philosophical system while sitting on his own by the fireplace in a dressing gown – represents this shift in a particularly poignant way. Speaking of how the education of a young pupil should proceed, in Principles of Philosophy (1644) he writes:

Quote:After that, he should study logic. I do not mean the logic of the Schools, for this is strictly speaking nothing but a dialectic which teaches ways of expounding to others what one already knows or even of holding forth without judgment about things one does not know. Such logic corrupts good sense rather than increasing it. I mean instead the kind of logic which teaches us to direct our reason with a view to discovering the truths of which we are ignorant.

Descartes hits the nail on the head when he claims that the logic of the Schools (scholastic logic) is not really a logic of discovery. Its chief purpose is justification and exposition, which makes sense particularly against the background of dialectical practices, where interlocutors explain and debate what they themselves already know. Indeed, for much of the history of logic, both in ancient Greece and in the Latin medieval tradition, ‘dialectic’ and ‘logic’ were taken to be synonymous.

Up to Descartes’s time, the chief application of logical theories was to teach students to perform well in debates and disputations, and to theorise on the logical properties of what follows from what, insofar as this is an essential component of such argumentative practices. It’s true that not everyone conceived of logic in this way: Thomas Aquinas, for example, held that logic is about ‘second intentions’, roughly what we call second-order concepts, or concepts of concepts. But as late as in the 16th century, the Spanish theologian Domingo de Soto could write with confidence that ‘dialectic is the art or science of disputing’....

A Philosophical Critique of the Big Bang Theory, in Four Minutes

EXCERPT: [...] Here’s my bigger point. We all start with framework assumptions. Science starts with framework assumptions. Those assumptions might be reasonable, but they can also be questioned. And one place where cosmology intersects with philosophy and the other humanities and sciences is in trying to assess those framework assumptions, rather than simply leaving them unexamined or taking them on faith....

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Extraterrestrial Microbes and Being Alone in the Universe

EXCERPT: [...] To be not alone, I’m thinking, means having some sort of companion. Someone who will recognize you socially. Intelligent life. Or at least a dog. We might be excited to discover microbes because hey, it's life! But what’s so exciting about life per se? [...] Now suppose that instead of finding life we found a robot -- an intelligent, social robot, like C3P0 from Star Wars or Data from Star Trek. Not alive, by standard biological definitions, if it doesn’t belong to a reproducing species.

Finding life would be cool.

But finding C3P0 would be a better cure for loneliness....

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Is Most of the Intelligence in the Universe Non-Conscious AI?

EXCERPT: [...] I share with Schneider a high degree of uncertainty about what the best theory of consciousness is. Perhaps it will turn out that consciousness depends crucially on some biological facts about us that aren't likely to be replicated in systems made of very different materials (see John Searle and Ned Block for concerns). But to the extent there's any general consensus or best guess about the science of consciousness, I believe it suggests hope rather than pessimism about the consciousness of large superintelligent AI systems....

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