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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Obscurity, the Golf Swing, and Wittgenstein's Poker - More Boring Commentary

I've been lurking with some interest behind Rick's post on obscure language and the extensive comments.  I have the power of the TypePad pen, so I'll offer up some thoughts, and try really hard not to be either obscure or boring.

I was thinking about one of the most popular unread books in recent history, Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.  I know he was trying to explain quantum mechanics and string theory and the like to ordinary people, but I still got no more than the briefest glimpse even into what he was saying there.  Do you really understand the idea of "spin" in atomic sub-particles?  My scientist son just told me he understands it but can't explain it to me in ordinary language - he says it's a quantum property and "spin" is as close as you are going to get.  Knowing that it has something to do with angular momentum of the electron isn't helping me either.  On the other hand, I suspect neither most people nor I ever have to confront this in their daily lives, any more than they have to confront whether there is an objective reality, much less how Kant managed to derive it in the transcendental deduction.

But people do think about right and wrong.  And bear with me for a moment with a golf analogy.  There are thousands of words written on how to hit a golf ball.  Maybe even more words than have been written about right and wrong.  The funny thing is that the ONLY thing that really matters in a golf swing is having the club face square (i.e. perpendicular to the intended line of flight) when it strikes the ball.  How hard you hit it may affect how far it goes, but hitting it square means it will go straight, and without hook or slice spin.  All of the thousands of words, all the different techniques, in golf swing instruction circle back to finding a way to have the student, no matter how awful the swing, hit it square.

That and Wittgenstein's dictum "whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent" are what struck me when I read commenter Matthew Cole's statement:  "What you'll find uniting basically all of the loose paradigm of "postmodernists" in political philosophy is that they argue that the normative claims about politics circulated by modernists are somehow contingent on a claim to absolute knowledge, when really all we have is contingent knowledge."  More on (moron?) this after the jump.

The dictum comes from the end of the Tractatus, early Wittgenstein, and is a statement of positivism.  Worrying about whether we have contingent or absolute knowledge is pointless, because there is no language in which to express what, for example, what a Kabbalahist means when she refers to God as "Ein Sof" (there is no end, something that actually means something to me, but it's shorthand for something else about which I cannot speak but which nevertheless seems true).  The famous "poker" exchange came much later, and it was provoked by a disagreement between Wittgenstein and Popper whether one could state any absolute moral imperatives.  (Popper response was yes, don't threaten visiting speakers with fireplace pokers.)

Despite Wittgenstein, we are not silent about what cannot be spoken.  Indeed, we are not silent about whether there are things about which we cannot speak.  No doubt Wittgenstein's frustration was the endless repetition of the same unresolvable issue.  Like a philosophical golf swing, the issue keeps coming back around to one thing:  can we know things, and particular what we ought to do, absolutely or not?  Everything else springs from that.  If absolutely, then how do we deal with reasonable disagreement?  If not, how can there be any standard at all?  (As in golf, the Wittgenstein answer is practice, practice, practice.)

Now unlike confronting sub-atomic particles, or even the objective reality of the physical universe, people, and not just philosophers, make moral choices every day, and even think about the process of making moral choices.  Most people either just swing the moral golf club and hope that the face will be square, or adopt one or two fundamentals (philosophical golf pros call those "swing heuristics").  Few people deal with, or want to deal with, the theory of the golf swing.  It's only fairly recently that religion dropped out of the intellectual tool box, and no golf pro worth his or her salt merely says "have faith in your swing."  Among the pros, there's a lexicon.  The lexicon is only a problem if you think knowing the lexicon has something to do with either with keeping the club face square in golf, or knowing the right thing to do in life. 

So I'm perfectly willing to concede superior knowledge to any physicist when it comes to understanding muons and quarks.  But I'm not willing to concede to Kant, Hume, Aristotle, Heidegger, Lacan, Derrida, Leiter, Buber, Rick Hills, Brian Leiter, or Dan Markel (well, maybe Dan) any greater insight than me into absolute or contingent knowledge or right and wrong.  Only the lexicon. 

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw on June 10, 2008 at 02:53 PM in Legal Theory | Permalink


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"Should we just say that the electron has the property of angular momentum and forget the very idea of spin?"

That is what I was driving at (or what at which I was driving?). The electron has mass, and nobody is very comfortable with infinite densities, but that doesn't eliminate that it is (as you note, as far as we can tell) a point.

Posted by: Richard Glover | Jun 15, 2008 12:22:02 AM

cool! thanks, i learned something.

Posted by: a poster | Jun 11, 2008 1:03:27 AM


Also, the "orbit" model is wrong because the electrons don't go in circles (or spheres). They travel in figure 8's and other crazy shapes.

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jun 10, 2008 10:51:18 PM

The electron exists, and the "cloud" represents its probable location in orbit. (The exact location within this cloud is almost entirely unpredictable.) It's very unlike the Earth, which has a definite orbit. Electrons can get slightly closer and farther away.

I should add that electrons are too small to see. Not just too small for microscopes, too small for the limits of the laws of physics. (We will never see them.) We know that the electron possess "angular momentum" - which is what makes things like the Earth spin. Whether the electron itself is actually spinning is a bit philosophical. Does spin have to be observed to be "meaningful"? Should we just say that the electron has the property of angular momentum and forget the very idea of spin?

Physicist would probably choose the latter.

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jun 10, 2008 10:49:26 PM

Wait a sec. I thought I remember from my physics for poets class that the classic 7th grade chemistry diagram of electrons in orbital layers was a fiction and that it was electron clouds and that the unitary idea of electron itself was a little fuzzy.

i'm a little fuzzy, come to think of it.

Posted by: a poster | Jun 10, 2008 10:31:47 PM

Well, it's been a few years since my quantum mechanics classes, but I think "spin" means "spin". Electrons aren't exactly a point; they do have mass - however small.

Electrons are physically rotating in the same manner as the Earth. (Or, more exactly, they possess the same physical characteristic that we associate with physical spinning in visible objects.)

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jun 10, 2008 10:26:09 PM

@ Chris Bell:
What exactly does the "spin" of a point particle refer to? Your description is largely correct, but there is no real macroscopic analogue to electron spin.

Posted by: Richard Glover | Jun 10, 2008 9:58:47 PM

I'll defer for the most part to your knowledge of the Jewish tradition, but in Islam it surely is the case that saints are said to be closer to God than the rest of us. Indeed, I dare say there are Hindu and Buddhist religio-philosophical traditions, as well as (Islamic) Sufi traditions, which see things a bit differently, for what may at one point in time be understood as an obscure, difficult, sophisticated, esoteric, religious or spiritual explanation or teaching, may, with proper study and experience, become less so (not without reason are the aphoristic sutras in need of philosophical elucidation and explanation by those with the requisite training and understanding: these teachings are in no way transparent and easy to digest, indeed, they strike the newcomer as opaque and difficult, a condition that need not be terminal); i.e., there is a movement away from massive ignorance toward less ignorance. To give just one example: often those embarking on meditation practice will experience states of consciousness they don't understand, or misinterpret, or become in some way obsessed with. The (say) Sufi teacher can explain these states of consciousness in a way suited to the level or stage of moral and spiritual progress or development of the novice or aspirant. Further moral and spiritual growth is predicated upon granting the teacher knows more than the student. And what is obscure or difficult to understand may, in the fruit of time, be less so. And what is accepted on faith and trust in the first instance can be confirmed by reason and experience and conformity with one's existing ethical common sense. If one finds one's teacher or the knowledge being proffered violating canons of rationality, going against the grain of one's experience, or clearly out of sorts with basic ethical principles, one is of course free to move on, to reject or ignore the pretense to knowledge. In Advaita Vedanta there is a provocative confluence of religious and philosophical explanation that you and I may find difficult and esoteric, but in principle can come to appreciate if not understand it.

As to the question, for instance, of moral expertise: well, it hardly seems to be simply a case of "right and wrong" as you say, or else we would not need ethics and moral philosophy to enlighten us. Cf., for instance, the following from Dale Jamieson on why philosophers should do applied ethics:

"[P]hilosophers have advantages that most people do not have which makes philosophers natural candidates for the role of moral expert.

First, philosophers are trained in [formal and informal] logic. They can detect fallacies and separate good arguments from bad. They can identify premises and point to those which require additional support. Anyone who reads the newspaper knows how ubiquitous logical mistakes are in the discussion of public issues. Often it is an important contribution just to identify the logic of the arguments that people employ.

Secondly, philosophers are trained in thinking about moral concepts. We know, for example, the difficulties in negotiating the supposed chasm between 'facts' and 'values.' It can be a great service to point out those premises that people employ which spring from deep value commitments, since their adherence to those premises is unlikely to be sensitive to new factual information. Consider an example. Many people are in favour of capital punishment because they believe that murderers deserve to die. Any rational discussion of their views must engage this value commitment. No number of studies about the inefficacy of capital punishment as a deterrent will move them. Although analytically this point is very simple, it is often obscured by the rhetorical flak that surrounds real arguments. Philosophers also know that the relationship between the good and the right is really very complicated. Ordinary people often think it is quite simple: if something is good then it is right to bring it about. Sensitivity to the full range of possible relationships makes philosophers specially qualified trail guides on the road from the good to the right.

Thirdly, philosophers have knowledge of moral theories. Although, as I have suggested, these theories cannot be trotted out and 'applied' to real problems, they do provide a storehouse of sophisticated thinking about how particular judgements may be unified into a larger framework. This is important because people often make moral decisions on a piecemeal basis. [....] The result is that people often hold obviously inconsistent views about what ought to be done. The knowledge of moral theories which philosophers have can influence people to recognize the necessity of thinking about the fundamental principles that underlie their particular judgements.

Fourthly, philosophers have the leisure to think about real moral problems, whereas many people do not. The thinking of ordinary people usually remains at the intuitive level because the press of circumstances does not allow the time for the hard work that critical thinking requires. Most people rightly believe that it is better to rely on one's intuitions than to do a poor job of working out all the complications involved in a difficult issue. Philosophers are moral experts, in part, for the same reason that physicians are experts in medicine: both moral philosophers and physicians devote themselves full-time to their areas of expertise. [For a study of both the strengths and weaknesses of this analogy, see Martha Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, 1994]

Finally, philosophers are sufficiently insulated from the pressures of ordinary life that they can think about moral issues in a relatively impartial way. Very few people in any society can follow their thinking about practical issues wherever it might lead, without fear of reprisals. Many people avoid moral crisis by avoiding moral thinking. [....]

These, then, are the advantages that philosophers have in thinking about real issues. It adds up to a kind of moral expertise. Applied ethics is worth doing for philosophers because philosophers are moral experts. This does not imply, however, that philosophers should be the only ones to do applied ethics, that people should always defer to philosophers, or that philosophers always do applied ethics well. [....] Philosophers had a duty to bring their expertise to bear on the problems of real life."

The omnipresent nature of what Eric Fromm referred to as the "pathology of normalcy" suggests we have much to learn from our betters:

"...[I]t may be useful to note that the *idea* of the pathology of normalcy--unlike the specific locution--is actually not original to Fromm. Indeed, it is as old as philosophy itself. Its best known-philosphic articulation is in the celebrated Myth of the Cave in Plato's *Republic*. But both before and after Plato, Hindu and Buddhist sages and Greek philosophers such as Thales, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Parmenides, Empedocles, and Epicurus entertained similar ideas regarding the widespread prevalence of mass delusion, which only a rigorous apprenticeship of the mind or spirit can undo. For these men, the apprehension of truth is simply beyond the grasp of the average individual, who, by virtue of past lives, constitutional inferiority, a matter-enmeshed mode of livelihood, or all three, simply cannot grasp the timeless, unchanging reality clothed in the temporal appearance of change, growth, and decay by liberating themselves from the sensual appetites that bind them to illusion. For them, the pathology of normalcy is principally a defect of cognition and is delineated by way of contrast with an essentially disincarnate intellect and a hypothetical state of grace attainable only by an elite of ascetic saints and intellectual virtuosi who are truly and metaphyscially in the know."

Before continuing, let me interject here that this summary by Daniel Burston from his book, The Legacy of Erich Fromm (1991), is not accurate with regard to Hindu and Buddhist traditions which, in principle, are open to anyone who genuinely aspires to become one of those "in the know." Be that as it may, Burston notes that

"Two other traditions linking false consciousness to normality that are more germane to Fromm are rabbinical learning and the elements of the Sophist and Stoic philosophies of ancient Greece and Rome that were incorporatd and transfigured in the concept of natural law. In contrast to the ascetic and elitist philosphies of pagan antiquity, these traditions did not disparage the body or the senses as much, and stressed [as in Hinduism and Buddhism] the potential participation of *all* people in the divine."

Now of course this only means that all people are in principle capable of wisdom and righteousness, not that they are in fact wise and righteous. And both the pagan/ascetic and Stoic/Hebraic theories of false consciousness are failures of cognition that estrange us from the truth, representing, in fact, "the lack of a *disposition to truth*." And here moral psychology becomes relevant to ethical practice, philosophical and spiritual knowledge.

My words are easy to understand,
very easy to practice.
No one in the world can understand,
No one can practice them.

The words have an ancestor
the practice has a master.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 10, 2008 6:57:49 PM

When the mathematics behind the atom were worked out, the equations clearly predicted that the electrons must have "spin". The electrons were like "planets" in orbit around the "sun" of the nucleus. Just like our own planet, we spin on the Earth's axis as we orbit. This is why the sun appears to rise in the East and set in the West.

It turns out that electrons also spin, in a carefully defined manner. They only spin at a certain speed, and if a 2nd electron is "paired" (in the same general orbit) with the first electron, then the 2nd electron must spin in the opposite direction of the first.

What is interesting is that these spins were predicted mathematically before they were measured. They are required. A day is different on Earth and Mars because the two bodies spin at different rates. Not so on the electron. They must spin at a certain rate.

Why do you need to know this?

Right now, computers work off ones and zeros. This binary code is written on your hard drive through charged atoms. Scientists are working on electron binary. (Where "zero" is spin in one direction, and "one" is spin in the opposite direction.) Electrons are MUCH smaller than atoms, so an electron computing system would be much smaller. This the basic building block of "quantum computing", and it is coming soon to a theater near you.

(What did I leave out? I said that when one electron spins right then its partner must spin left. What if there is only one electron? Which way does it spin? You would think it would just pick one way and then spin that way. It doesn't. It spins in both directions. Yeah, I know.... This does mean, however, that we are not limited to ones and zeros. We have a new state. "Both one and zero")

Posted by: Chris Bell | Jun 10, 2008 6:33:47 PM

As to the moron, I was referring to myself in what I thought was a cleverly punful sort of way. I'm the only one commenting after the jump. Sorry for the confusion.

As to Patrick's comment, interesting. In the Jewish tradition, a rabbi is merely a teacher. The rabbi may know more about the law, but there is no moral ascendancy or superiority in being a rabbi. Indeed, the rabbi's role as "spiritual leader" is more a reflection of the influence of Christianity. No rabbi has, or should claim, a closer link to God than anyone else. Some do (the Lubavitcher Rebbe, or Shabbatai Tsvi, the famous false Messiah), but that's their problem, not mine, and not the mainstream view.

And of course we can learn from great moral teachers and philosophers. And some have inexplicable or mysterious gifts of insight or charisma or inspiration. But where I might need a physicist to explain to me the workings of the nucleus, or a good mechanic to tell me to a car works, I don't need an analytic philosopher to explain right and wrong to me. Nor do I have to accept any philosophical or religious explanation, to Rick's point, that is obscure, or at least as obscure as high-level science is to me.

There is, however, a lexicon of moral and analytic philosophy in which the professionals speak; whenever I have taken a moderately deep dive into their treatment of ultimate issues (as opposed to, say, how we do things with words), the debate almost always comes down to absolute versus contingent, objective versus subjective, physical versus transcendental. While there are neat arguments, nobody seems to have found the silver bullet, and I don't feel obliged to grant that status to anybody.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Jun 10, 2008 4:57:48 PM

Here's a great idea to increase readership and prove how friendly legal academia is: call a commenter a "moron."

Posted by: Not likely | Jun 10, 2008 3:57:38 PM

So, if I understand correctly, you would deny that moral philosophers, ethicists, philosophers, sages, rabbis, and saints possess any sort of moral expertise or spiritual wisdom that we might learn from? And what about the role of "experience" here: certain forms of religious experience are irrelevant when it comes to rarefied religious or spiritual knowledge? So much for those classes in ethical theory, moral philosophy, and applied ethics. So much for yogis, monks and nuns, mystics....

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Jun 10, 2008 3:53:20 PM

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