Nikolai Berdyaev: the Primacy of Freedom

Nikolai Berdyaev: the Primacy of Freedom

For the Russian philosopher Berdyaev, freedom is absolutely fundamental. And freedom is connected with subjectivity and Spirit, rather than the objective (measurable) external world.

All attempts to locate meaning and value in things outside the human soul are doomed to fail. Thinking of the universe as an organism, for instance, seems like an improvement over thinking of it as a dead mechanism. It turns the cosmos into a living entity with a purpose, but it also means thinking of people as mere cells in this organism to be subordinated to the larger whole. Nationalism turns the nation into a false idol to be worshipped. Neither “history,” nor “progress,” nor “the human race,” nor Platonic Forms are particularly significant or even real. They are hypostatizations and abstractions. For Berdyaev, the concrete individual personality is the full locus of reality and value. Anything else renders the personality a meaningless nothing to be used as a means to some other end.

Kant, who also saw human beings as ends in themselves, pointed out that freedom must be a fundamental aspect of human subjectivity because love exists.[1] This is known directly from experience. Each one of us has loved and been the recipient of love. Love cannot exist without freedom. We should let the datum of love determine our theories and speculations about ultimate existence. If love is possible, and we know it is, then freedom exists.

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AI and the Dehumanization of Man

AI and the Dehumanization of Man

Strong Artificial Intelligence is the idea that computers can one day be constructed that have the abilities of the human mind. The contrast is with narrow AI which is already with us – that is the notion that computers can be made that can do one thing very well, such as the Watson computer that won in Jeopardy, or Deep Blue that bet Kasparov in chess.

Strong AI, artificial general intelligence, would mean that a robot fitted with a computer brain could move around in the world as competently as a human.  As F. H. George commented to the editor of Philosophy, 32 (1957), 168-169: “finite automata are capable of exhibiting, at least in principle, all the behaviour that human beings are capable of exhibiting, including the ability to act as poets or creative artists and even to wink at a girl and mean it.”[1] This reference to a wink itself has a poetic touch to it that captures a sense of genuine humanity.

Strong and narrow AI is the difference between an idiot savant who can do one thing incredibly well, such as recognizing prime numbers of incredible length,[2] reading two pages of a book simultaneously with over 90% recall like Kim Peek, and someone with enough nous to handle the wide range of tasks that any normal human being has to face; engaging in a lengthy conversation one minute and enjoying a work of fiction the next. Continue reading

Sam Harris: the Unconverted

Having lived through the Russian Revolution and seen its results two powerful writers wrote brilliant critiques of the entire mode of thought associated with it. Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote WE, a dystopian futuristic novel where the One State had achieved “happiness” by reducing its members to nameless drones. Free will, religion and imagination have been banished and societal problems have been “solved” via extreme rationalism and mathematical equations. Zamyatin’s novel was the progenitor of Brave New World and 1984 but published in 1922. It was immediately banned. Nikolai Berdyaev, with the help of Dostoevsky’s amazing prescience in novels like The Possessed, also understood the dire consequences of the revolution, finding himself exiled about the time of WE’s publication. Two brilliant assertions Berdyaev made, among others, was that without the idea of God there can be no idea of man and every highest good other than God leads murderously to treating men as means to achieving the hoped-for goal – “happiness” included.

Sam Harris rose to fame as one of the self-proclaimed Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens being the other three) AKA as the New Atheists. Embracing the horsemen moniker seems like wearing your nihilism rather too evidently on your sleeve, but Harris was only too happy about it.

Harris has a significant following. He is a determinist, with all the logical paradoxes such a position engenders, and embraces a hyper-rationalism. He has hopes to save the world through “rational” debate and ridding the world of religion. He has found himself in trouble with his liberal brethren by being openly critical of Islam and being willing to talk to Charles Murray of The Bell Curve fame.

Tom Bertonneau recently commented to me that Christianity is engaging in a new revelation; namely the effects of its withdrawal from large sectors of the Western world resulting in the current frenzy of scapegoating and a pervasive dreary nihilism hopefully leading to its future re-embracement. The Russians had a foretaste with the banning of religion after the revolution and the various utopian fantasies that invariably seek to replace Christianity giving writers like Berdyaev and Zamyatin particular perspicuity. These two writers brilliantly anticipated all the main rhetorical and intellectual stances of Sam Harris and others like him, and point out their logical and real-world consequences long before Harris was ever born.

The following article, kindly published by The Sydney Traditionalist, – Sam Harris; the Unconverted outlines the way Berdyaev and Zamyatin anticipate and critique Harris and his ilk.

Chaos and Order; the right and left hemispheres

Chaos and Order; the right and left hemispheres

In The Master and His Emissary, Iain McGilchrist writes that a creature like a bird needs two types of consciousness simultaneously. It needs to be able to focus on something specific, such as pecking at food, while it also needs to keep an eye out for predators which requires a more general awareness of environment.

These are quite different activities. The Left Hemisphere (LH) is adapted for a narrow focus. The Right Hemisphere (RH) for the broad. The brains of human beings have the same division of function.

The LH governs the right side of the body, the RH, the left side. With birds, the left eye (RH) looks for predators, the right eye (LH) focuses on food and specifics. Since danger can take many forms and is unpredictable, the RH has to be very open-minded. Continue reading

Gödel’s Theorem (revised)

Kurt Gödel[1] was a Platonist,[2] logician and mathematician who developed the intention of making a profound and lasting impact on philosophical mathematics. His next task was to think of something! Amazingly, at the age of twenty five, he achieved his goal, publishing his incompleteness theorem.

Godel and Einstein

Kurt Gödel and Einstein

A good friend of Albert Einstein’s, Einstein once said that late in life when his own work was not amounting to much, the only reason he bothered going to his office at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton was for the pleasure of walking home with Gödel.

John von Neumann wrote: “Kurt Gödel’s achievement in modern logic is singular and monumental – indeed it is more than a monument, it is a landmark which will remain visible far in space and time. … The subject of logic has certainly completely changed its nature and possibilities with Gödel’s achievement.”[3]

While at university, Gödel attended a seminar run by David Hilbert who posed the problem of completeness: Are the axioms of a formal system sufficient to derive every statement that is true in all models of the system? Continue reading

The Halting Problem – there is, definitively, more to thinking than computation

Alan Turing

Alan Turing

Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem[1] was inspired by David Hilbert’s question “Are the axioms of a formal system sufficient to derive every statement that is true in all models of the system?” Hilbert played the same role regarding Alan Turing’s proof of the halting problem. Hilbert had asked: “Is there some mechanical procedure [an algorithm] for answering all mathematical problems, belonging to some broad, but well-defined class?”[2] In German this is called Entscheidungsproblem – the decision problem.[3]

Turing found that he could answer this question by framing it in terms of a Turing machine[4] – could there be a program that could determine whether any other arbitrary computer program and input would eventually stop or just loop forever? This was called the halting problem.

“Alan Turing proved in 1936 that a general algorithm to solve the halting problem for all possible program-input pairs cannot exist.”[5]

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Apparitions of the Gods

Gods 01 Muses by Andreas Mantegna (1496)

The Muses (1496) by Andreas Mantegna (1431 – 1503)

“The dove – the rood – the loaf – the wine.”

Men know the gods because they have seen or intuited them, but not all men have seen or intuited the gods, and some men are incapable of seeing or intuiting them.  The gods, moreover, sometimes disguise themselves so as to test men, or they appear in and as omens and auguries, which the dull of mind and the wicked of heart invariably either miss entirely through their mental obtuseness or, through self-serving prejudice, blatantly misread.

I. The gods appear in and as their attributes, which again only those who have vested themselves in the proper lore and the requisite discipline can correctly interpret. Who would see the gods must enjoy a gift of pre-attunement, even before he bows under the discipline and engraves the lore in his heart that will let him see them. Such a man is called a poet.  The ancient Boeotian teller of the gods, Hesiod, whom scholars assign to the late Eighth Century or early Seventh Century BC, bears a name that means simply “The” (he or hos) “Poet” (aiodos), suggesting that the Boeotians, or at least those of them in the vicinity of Mt. Helicon, recognized his special talent and accorded him the status owing thereto.  That status may claim itself paramount because the community must communicate with the gods, just as the gods must communicate with the community, and an efficient go-between nicely serves the requirement both ways.  One misthinking modern school argues through Hesiod’s name that any particular poet is a non-existence, as though no one could write a poem, as though poems constituted themselves, authorless, and as though therefore no one really ever saw Hesiod’s gods or heard them speak.  This thesis of a literary fantasy amounts, however, merely to another kind of noetic obtuseness.  Someone wrote Hesiod’s poems, obviously, and if Hesiod were the invention of that someone then that someone nevertheless would have seen Hesiod’s gods – through his invention, as it were, and taking Hesiod’s name, but equally in a vision such that the seeing must guarantee its own authenticity and such that He remains The Poet.

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Our Dreams of the Implicate Order

On the walk from my office to the train a week ago last Monday, I reflected on the fact that I had all day been curiously alive to moments from my past. In part this was due to the fact that it was my birthday, and people from every era of my life were reaching out to wish my happiness. But other factors were at work, too. I ran into a blog post that linked to a recording of Allegri’s Miserere Mei – one of the most sublime works ever written – and vividly remembered singing it as a boy, and so enacting Heaven. A story I had told my little granddaughter the day before, about the time when I was only four, and went camping with my Dad, and woke up unable to find my way out of the mummy sleeping bag, so that I tried to stand up and get his help, in the process falling down the steps out of the open forest shelter (and almost into the fire he had started), made me chuckle again. So did the memory of her reaction: “Silly Poppy!” I began to remember lots and lots of things from long and not so long ago – some of them tagged (oops!) for later use in the confessional – and suddenly as I walked the moments all crowded in upon me at once. Not in a chaos or a hurry, but as it were quietly, softly.

It was no stampede. Rather, it was a stately pavane.

Suddenly I staggered, thunderstruck by a completely unexpected notion: what if those moments *really were* immediately present to this one? What if I could feel that moment of suffocated terror in the mummy bag as if it were still happening? Clearly, I could: all that I had to do, in order to make that happen, was simply attend to it carefully enough, and without distraction. It might take a few moments of concentration, but if I wanted to I could, I knew, bring back any moment I wanted with as much clarity and intensity as I wished.

Then – this was the strike of the thunder – I thought: “That’s what dreams are like; and it is the way things really are; for, in Eternity, and to Eternity, everything (whether actual or not) is all at once together.”

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Upstate Consolation University Celebrates First Graduating Class in New Degree Program


College Graduate in Educationally Mismatched Job

“Higher education is not about knowledge or skills,” says Upstate Consolation University Executive Deputy Chancellor of the Committee on Investor Communications Marl Flaybiter from behind the large mahogany desk in his office overlooking West Campus’s scenic Green Parking Lot; “no – higher education is about respect.”  A few years ago, on being appointed to his incumbency, Flaybiter began noticing how little respect graduating degree-holders from UCU were receiving when they entered the job market and presented their credentials to prospective employers.  While escorting potential investors around Uppchoock-on-the-Lake, the small, northerly city where his institution is located, Flaybiter observed that many of the service personnel in the local coffee bars and chain restaurants were recent UCU graduates.

Flaybiter counts off the many types of prestigious UCU-granted degrees held by these disrespectfully under-employed new alumni: “At least three of those kids – bright kids – had come out of our Social Justice and Sustainability Programs; five or six had bachelor’s or bachelorette’s degrees in Women’s Studies, and others came from Adventure Education, Puppet Arts, Safe Space Organizing, Slut-March Planning, and Critical White-Privilege Sciences.”  Flaybiter pauses to shake his head sorrowfully.  “I just couldn’t bear to see those kids – I mean, those young people – so shamefully disrespected by having to work as baristas, cashiers, waiters, and waitresses while living in their parents’ basements and going to work in their pajamas.”  As Flaybiter sees it, “The mismatch between the education and the job is, well, a tragedy, not just for the kids, and not just for the pajamas, but for the community.”

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