Saturday, May 28, 2011

Plato's Theatetus - What is Knowledge?

I watched with great interest a documentary on the Oppenheimer trials to permanently revoke his security status and suggest that he was unpatriotic because he expressed misgivings about development of the H-Bomb. The next day, I was trying to remember the name Oppenheimer. I was in Citibank when suddenly it popped into my head, so I exclaimed "Oppenheimer." There was only one customer near by, a male in his 50s. He looked at me, puzzled. I explained that I had watched the documentary and was trying to recall the name. He said "why would you even care about such a thing?" This is the typical reaction of the world to someone who has had a certain kind of education; a bewilderment as to why anyone would want to think, to question, to know. Who cares if during the Cold War America thought it would be a patriotic idea to bomb our way across the Soviet Union, continue through China, and kill 300 million people to make the world a safe place for democracy. I am currently reading J.D. Salinger's chapter about the dialog with a taxi cab driver concerning where the ducks in Central Pond go in the winter. The Holden Caufield's question is typical of the intellectual and the cab driver's reaction is typical of the average anti-intellectual American "Who cares and if YOU care you must be crazy."

The testimony regarding the H-Bomb made me realize that perhaps America did have a serious intention of bombing its way across Russia and into China, killing 300 million people to rid the world of the ideological threat of Communism. I am rather fond of Russians and Chinese but it does occur to me that after World War II America had a unique window of opportunity to exterminate various ideologies which are now possibly a threat to world peace. It even dawned on me that in theory if Hitler had WON the war, he would have gone on homogenizing the world BUT perhaps after a few centuries the Nazi Reich would have crumbled and the survivors would have enjoyed more peace and harmony than we now enjoy. But as we know Hitler was defeated, Israel was plunked in the middle of Arab nations and Arab cultures became a force to be reckoned with... or perhaps even a force which is too late to reckon with. So the ultimate result of the Allied victory may one day result in World War III or Armeggadon but the victory of Hitler, as evil as he was, might after several centuries have resulted in centuries of world peace.

Oppenheimer felt blood on his hands and complained to Truman and Truman said "Look at all the blood I have on my hands" and refused to ever see that sissy scientist again. Yet for years journalists always spoke of physicists as BRILLIANT physicists... there were never any ordinary run-of-the-mill physicists, only BRILLIANT ones. sentence which enters our mind, enters with an explosion of thoughts, of memories, like a holiday fireworks display. And yet, it is bad 
manners, and poor style, to ramble on in such a stream of consciousness. 
If I am to respond properly, then I must pick and choose sparks from 
that expanding sphere of fire or, I suppose embers is a better word for 
them by the time they fall into my grasp, for they have cooled down a bit, and reorganize them into some respectable, linear, thematic sequence, or syllogism (of the A implies B, B implies C, Aristotelian variety, train of thought, line of reasoning). ---- In Mexico City, they somehow wandered into an exhibition of paintings by the beautiful Spanish exile Remedios Varo: in the central painting of a triptych, titled "Bordando el Manto Terrestre," were a number of frail girls 
with heart-shaped faces, huge eyes, spun-gold hair, prisoners in the top room of a circular tower, embroidering a kind of tapestry which spilled out the slit windows and into a void, seeking hopelessly to fill the void: for all the other buildings and creatures, all the waves, ships and forests of the earth were contained in this tapestry, and the tapestry was the world. Oedipa, perverse, had stood in front of the painting and cried. No one had noticed; she wore dark green bubble shades. For a moment she'd wondered if the seal around her sockets were tight enough to allow the tears simply to go on and fill up the entire lens space and never dry. She could carry the sadness of the moment with her that way forever, see the world refracted through those tears, those specific tears, as if indices as yet unfound varied in important ways from cry to cry. She had looked down at her feet and known, then, because of a painting, that what she stood on had only been woven together a couple thousand miles away in her own tower, was only by accident known as Mexico, and so Pierce had taken her away from nothing, there'd been no escape. What did she so desire escape from? Such a captive maiden, having plenty of time to think, soon realizes that her tower, its height and architecture, are like her 
ego only incidental: that what really keeps her where she is is magic, 
anonymous and malignant, visited on her from outside and for no reason at all. Having no apparatus except gut fear and female cunning to examine this formless magic, to understand how it works, how to measure its field strength, count its lines of force, she may fall back on 
superstition, or take up a useful hobby like embroidery, or go mad, or
marry a disk jockey. If the tower is everywhere and the knight of 
deliverance no proof against its magic, what else? 

-- Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49, end of Chapter 1

One can only truly be happy by explaining to others in detail exactly how and why he is happy. Robert Ornstein in his book "Multimind" calls this T.W.I.T. (acronym for The Western Intellectual Tradition") namely that we cannot fully experience anything until we share it in narrative fashion with others, which is why Homer's Epics are as you find them, people passing time asking strangers for their stories and anecdotes. Now if we did not all share this flaw of T.W.I.T. then no one would ever share anything because each of us would be a self-sufficient island unto ourselves.

The novella "The Crying of Lot 49" is a great place to start. Gravity's Rainbow is more daunting. But one can become pleasantly lost in a page, a paragraph or even a sentence: Pascal's macrocosm and microcosm. The microcosm of quantum frenzy builds up to the regular and predictable clockwork motions of galaxies. Kant was the first to realize that a seeming star may be a distant galaxy. e.e. cummings ended one poem "any illimitable star."

William, you wrote earlier: The next day, I was trying... to remember the name Oppenheimer. I was in Citibank when suddenly it popped into my head, so I exclaimed "Oppenheimer." There was only one customer near by, a male in his 50s. He looked at me, puzzled. I explained that I had watched the documentary and was trying to recall the name. He said "why would you even care about such a thing?" 

The discourse that is usually engaged in when one is standing in a line as customer in a public establishment (if there is any conversation at all) consists of something that is somewhat relevant to the situation that one is in. It generally consists of what is known as small talk, which plays a constructive and beneficial role in human society. 

I would therefore interpret the above individual's comments relative to that. You blurted out a name when you were not engaged in a conversation with anyone, which means you were talking to yourself. That is generally behavior that is demonstrated by those who are not in complete control of their faculties (i.e., crazy people) :) That you blurted the name of a famous scientist, and then proceded to discuss a documentary you had watched the night before, does not change this fact :) 

You were acting somewhat eccentrically in relation to the social setting that you were in. We all do this at times. However, i don't think it's valid to assume that the person who reacted to your atypical behavior was anti-intellectual.

William replies: but, he did seem puzzled as to why I would care about Oppenheimer's name ... I suspect the majority of Americans are anti-intellectual. A math professor who loves jazz was travelling in Hungary, on a bus, and all the passengers were kind of mocking them. But suddenly, when asked their profession, and they answered professors, a hushed silence of awe fell over the entire bus and they were treated with respect for the rest of the trip. My professor friend commented that this would never happen in America.

Actually the fellow in the bank spoke with a heavy European accent so he was most likely not American. When I was in my 20s, after SJC, in New Haven, teaching myself modern Greek and giving free English lessons to Greeks, they all thought I was crazy to engage in an endeavor which would not result in money or sex. They wanted to learn English to make money. I wanted to gain a fluency in Greek to know what it is like to be bi-lingual.

People who had intellectuality are forced to employ it to defend their positions. Such irony! It is like Sideshow Bob on the Simpsons who steals all the television networks and then uses the medium of television to decry the banality of television, much as those fundamentalists who yearn to return to the 7th century use all the latest internet and media technology to proclaim their message.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy observes: only the Theaetetus offers a set-piece discussion of the question “What is knowledge?”

I would venture say that knowledge is a process and not a product. The Gods do not love wisdom for they possess it. Plato likens the process to a weaver at his loom with shuttle skittering through the warp and woof as they separate and conjoin. A Jewish notion of dialectic is called pil-pul The Mishnah says (B. M. i. 1): "If two persons together hold a garment in their hands, and one of them asserts 'I have found it,' and the other likewise says 'I have found it,' and the first one says 'It belongs entirely to me,' and the second likewise says 'It belongs entirely to me,' then each one shall swear that not less than one-half of the garment is rightfully his, and they shall divide the garment between them." ... NOTICE IN THE FOLLOWING PASSAGE THE NOTION OF SEPARATION AND JOINING - The pilpulistic method of study soon degenerated into sophistry. It was no longer regarded as a means of arriving at the correct sense of a Talmudic passage and of critically examining a decision as to its soundness. It was regarded as an end in itself; and more stress was laid on a display of cleverness than on the investigation of truth. This new development of the pilpul is ascribed to Jacob Pollak, who lived at the end of the fifteenth century and in the beginning of the sixteenth. This pilpul par excellence was pursued especially under two forms. In the one, two apparently widely divergent halakic themes were placed in juxtaposition, and a logical connection between them was sought by means of ingenious and artificial interpretations and explanations, but in such a way that the connective thread between them appeared only at the end of the treatise: this was the "derashah." In the other form an apparently homogeneous theme was dissected into several parts, which were then again combined into an artistic whole: this was the so-called "ḥilluḳ" (analysis, dissection). The treatises following this method of the pilpul in both of these forms were called "ḥiddushim" or "novellæ" (original products) because thereby the most familiar objects were made to appear in a new light.

Penelope preserved her purity by unraveling what she wove each day.

... started me thinking that the question "what is knowledge" is related to the question "what is intelligence" (with the obvious A.I. implication) which is related to the broader question "what is consciousness." Yesterday I read that Wittgenstein was dissatisfied with Socrates in the Theatetus --- when I google on WITTGENSTEIN THEATETUS ,, I find some thought-provoking links : is this not word magic? -- Why should the word 'knowledge' be taken as proof that there is a Form that corresponds to that word, the single meaning, the only meaning, of that word?)

As I read the following excerpt from the above Wittgenstein link, I am reminded of "apophatic theology" which holds that one can only speak of "what is not" which is related to the Vedic notion of "neti neti" (not this, not this), also apophatic, peeling away at reality like an onion --- EXCERPT: Statements of truth versus plausible remarks

What is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic ... (Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: a Memoir, 2nd ed. (1984), Letter No. 9)

Is that all we do in philosophy -- make more or less plausible remarks?

What do we mean by 'plausible' other than: what I am inclined to take/treat seriously (rather than regard as "unacceptable" [to what -- my imagination?] or absurd ["idiotic"]), or what I find "believable", "credible", or about which I might say: "It may be that way" or "Well, it really might be that way, you know"? Excerpt: Plato may have in mind the sort of progression that Aristotle writes of at the beginning of the Metaphysics : from individual perceptions (random individuals), to the experience that results from a multiplicity of similar perceptions (small groups), to the science that discerns the principle common to all such perceptions (distinct flocks). Alternatively, the picture may be a reference to the method of collection (which was alluded to at 147d). The single birds may be individual knowledges that have not yet been related to others, as when we do not yet see that our knowledge of Socrates and our knowledge of Theaetetus belong together within a knowledge of the species of human beings. The small groups may represent various knowledges of species that have not yet been discerned as embraced within a genus, as when we recognize the species of human beings but do not yet see its relationship to other animals. And the flocks may represent our knowledge of genera. On either explanation the aviary appears to illustrate the progression of knowledge from individual perceptions to universal kinds.[38] ======
The aviary is empty at our birth, and the knowledges that we acquire through learning are birds that we capture for the aviary. When we first catch one and imprison it, we may be said to "possess" it, but we do not actually "have" it until we catch hold of it again (197c-e), that is, make use of it. The modal has the advantage over the wax block that it can account for knowledge that is latent rather than actual. But it has the disadvantage that it is no longer possible to match knowledge against perception—the birds do not seem to refer to anything outside the aviary. This does not seem at first to be a disadvantage, however, for Socrates' examples are no longer concerned with perceptual knowledge but only with mathematics. It is as if we have now moved beyond pistis to dianoia on the Divided Line. But the model cannot be assimilated to the doctrine of recollection, because it posits a mind empty at birth and filled entirely by empirical means. In fact the suggestion that we learn mathematics by having it handed over from teacher to student (198a-b) flies in the face of the Meno .

Tutor William Pitt, around 1968-69, gave a Friday night lecture about the Alan Turing machine which strikes me as something apophatic in the sense that the TEST of the machine's success in emulating human consciousness rests upon the gradual inability of human interlocutors in dialog with the machine to distinguish the machine from another human. === EXCERPTS from previous link: Socrates replies that true opinion cannot be the same as knowledge, because jurors can be persuaded to have a true opinion about something they have not witnessed, whereas only eyewitnesses have knowledge (201b-c). ====== Plato prepares us in advance for the fact that the wax modal can be made to converge with the aviary model.

I would like to throw into this mix the following two disparate sentiments 1) man is the measure of all things and 2.) Anselm's notion that God is a greater than which nothing can be imagined. -- Suppose the 1970s movie "Demon Seed" could come true and a super-computer could be constructed which is self modifying, self perpetuating and achieves a meta-consciousness and a meta-wisdom which far transcends human comprehension. Now man is no longer the measure of all things but a creation of man which transcends man, and the thoughts of AI are far greater than what the human mind is capable of. So what is natural (human consciousness) becomes artificial and inferior while what is artificial (AI) becomes natural and normative. Notice that in "Demon Seed" the scientists ask the computer, Proteus, to tell them where oil may be found under the ocean and Proteus refuses on moral grounds that humans would cause more harm than good if they drilled for oil under the ocean.

Symbolically (or allegorically) man partakes of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and thereby unwittingly exiles mankind from paradise. But now we can easily imagine how man unwittingly partakes of the fruit of technology to 1.) create weapons or cyclatrons that bring about Earth's demise 2.) create monsters through genetic engineering which cannot be put back in Pandora's box (Heisenberg speaks of this in an essay for the lay reader on Quantum) and 3.) create an intelligence and a being which renders humans obsolete in the best-case scenario or in the worst case renders natural man as a pest to be exterminated by his own creations which now transcend man.

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