The original Hawks and Handsaws

In my very first entry to this blog, when discussing what led me to start Hawks and Handsaws, I mentioned that I had made a previous attempt at blogging once upon a time.

Some years ago, I actually did start a blog under an anonymous identity, and wrote a total of three posts for an entirely empty room before losing interest. After that, I pretty much gave up on the idea.

Since apparently I’ve declared summer of 2018 to be Blast From The Past Summer, displaying a good bit of my philosophy-related university writing on here for us all to look back on, I figure why not explain a little more about that first attempt at blogging and put up some of what I wrote there as well.  After all, there are a few people out there reading what I write now, which is a few more readers than I had back during my first attempt.

It was summer of 2008 when I first decided to finally take a crack at blogging.  I was still a cocky university student, both ready to take on the world with my raw mathematical talent and convinced that, despite having no formal background beyond a single BS Philosophy 101 course, I had something to say to the world about philosophy and ethics and how to reason rationally if only I could find the right words and the right platform.  (By the way, if you’re ever looking to get rid of an alarmingly headstrong confidence at any academic discipline — in my case, it was mainly in math — with the benefit of experience I can recommend graduate school as a remedy, followed by testing oneself as a researcher in the “real world” if grad school doesn’t do the trick.)  I had a vision of a series of essays I could write that would develop my philosophical positions more or less from scratch.  Before getting too bogged down in that, I wanted to quickly move into picking apart the way I saw real-world things and why others saw them and talked about them as they did, which boils down to analyzing biases and argumentation  and so on — in other words, I was interested in one of the main focuses of the online rationalist movement (then just forming, unbeknowst to me, and which I wouldn’t discover for another six years).

I knew I preferred to be anonymous and not to link my online presence with my real-life (or social media) self, so I decided that the name of one of my conlangs, Liskantope, would be a good handle to use.  I then had to come up with a name for the blog.  The name I chose was… Hawks and Handsaws.  That’s right, the blog you’re reading now is really Hawks and Handsaws 2.0.  I remember that I had considered some title alluding to Socrates’ conception of the gadfly, but in the end I’d gone with an allusion to a line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet instead, if for no other reason than that it seemed snappier.  (From Google searching, I’ve noticed that there are a couple of other blogs out there with that name, but from past 2008.)

(So maybe the proper way to tell this story is that I had a short-lived attempt back a decade ago at writing essays for a blog called Hawks and Handsaws, and then, after having grown somewhat and found motivation to start a fresh attempt at the start of 2016, the best name I could come up with for this new blog was… Hawks and Handsaws.  Yeah, titles and names don’t come that easily to me.  Or, maybe my preferred explanation is that the name I came up with the first time around was just that awesome.)

For many years after I gave up on the original Hawks and Handsaws, I didn’t look back at it.  I’ve only dug up and reread my three posts there quite recently, and I’m glad to say they’re not as embarrassing as I’d assumed they were and even have content that’s relevant to the thread of thoughts I’ve put down here and compliments it pretty well.  The first post, dated July 13th, is a bit embarrassing and mostly doesn’t feel relevant anyway (introductory posts tend to be awkward — just look at the first thing I wrote for this blog, or maybe don’t), so I’m not going to reproduce it in full here.

It does make me smile that in my introduction I wrote, “this is not about preaching to an audience. It’s about displaying snapshots of a work in progress, the progress of my political and philosophical convictions.  It’s also about interacting with others to further this progress.”  Another passage that I like — in part because it describes a lot of my worldview today (though perhaps with slightly less nuance) in words about as eloquent as I could come up with now, is the following:

How does our universe run, and what is it actually made of? More importantly, how do we go about finding out? The older I get, the more strongly I feel that we must analyze the world around us in terms of the most basic patterns, which are reflections of simple, mindless forces that govern everything else. The complex is explained in terms of the simple, and at the very pinnacle of the complexity that we are able to analyze is human-like intelligence, emotion, and love. The cosmos is not made of purpose or intention; rather, it is made of mindless laws that govern everything else, and this is a justifiable worldview because the only reliable way we have of analyzing the cosmos is though the concept of such laws. The fact that many people analyze it otherwise is a reflection of the human fallacy of seeing everything in human-like terms. All human beings are wired with the same ultimate aspiration. I feel that the most vital way to ease our conflicts and help make the world a better place is remove focus from blame and retribution, to realize that determinism and free will are two aspects of one and the same thing, and to react to other people’s actions in a more rational manner. Half of this probably sounds like common sense, while the other half may sound completely contrary to it, but I hope to discuss all of these ideas properly in the future.

I concluded by explaining, implicitly but more clearly than I ever have on this blog, the real meaning behind a name like Hawks and Handsaws, by saying, “I’ve heard it said that philosophy is about finding similarities in seemingly different things, and differences in seemingly similar things” (to my irritation, at the moment I don’t know of anyone well-known who came up with this, but I do remember an acquaintance I had at the time saying it) and ending by quoting the relevant line from Hamlet (Act II Scene II):

I am mad but north-north-west; when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

In other words, the ultimate goal of my intellectual explorations, both in what I wrote a decade ago and in what I’ve written here much more recently, is that I want to know a hawk from a handsaw.  I want to be able to see clearly, from a bird’s-eye view, the space of existing beliefs, arguments, explanations, biases, etc., and I aim to see them as sharply as possible so that I can categorize them according to their commonalities while still distinguishing their differences.  The tagline to this blog, “seeking to better understand similarities which underlie differences”, refers to one aspect of this which reflects my primary focus on analyzing disagreements (“differences”), which I didn’t seem to give such primary importance to but did intend to strive for in the original Hawks and Handsaws.

Anyway, as for the second and third posts on the old blog, intended to lay the beginnings of a philosophical groundwork for myself, I think I will paste them here (original writing in blue again) and comment as I did for the other old essays I’ve put up here recently.  So here goes.


My second post on the original Hawks and Handsaws was called “A Logical Argument for Logic (or is it?)”, dated July 20th, 2008.  I think it explains itself pretty well.  Looking back at it, despite my tone mildly indicating that I’m proposing something original, I realize I’m not  really saying anything here that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, and I’m not aware of this view having ever been met with substantial disagreement.  I see no need to comment on it further, even though I think it’s a nicely enough written argument to deserve to be reproduced here.

In writing posts for this blog, you might notice me employing a certain type of rhetoric known as “logical argument”, and I would hate to be attacked for this practice by skeptics who claim that the very laws of logic themselves are suspect. Actually, I have to admit, they would have a point. After all, I’ve never actually seen a watertight argument which effectively supports the notions of logic and reason. But I want to claim right now, before I post anything else, that I have every right to assume that logic itself is valid.

My defense of logic takes the form of two main points: first, it would be impossible to “prove” it in the first place, and second, it is assumed implicitly by anyone when explaining why they believe what they believe.

My point about “proving logic” should be fairly obvious. What is a proof? A form of logical argument, of course. So, in supposedly proving logic, one is assuming that the rules of logic are indeed secure in the first place, and is essentially begging the question (assuming what one is trying to prove). Now perhaps I am wrong about this particular rule, that begging the question is an invalid form of argument. Maybe begging the question is perfectly valid. In that case, the laws of logic that we know and love and which I have supposedly proven would contradict this proposition that begging the question is valid (since in fact, it is not), and we have a serious problem.

Look at it from the flip side: suppose I try to argue that logic is not valid, or, to be safer, that the rules of logic are not necessarily true. Then I’m also in trouble, for the obvious reason that I just assumed that they are true in order to “prove” that they are not necessarily. (This idea is similar to the argument against total relativism: the statement “There are no absolutes” seems in itself to be an absolute statement.)

The point I’m trying to make above is that the fact that I can’t prove rationality doesn’t necessarily mean that I shouldn’t assume it, since rationality by its very nature cannot be in any way proven. It just seems to work, and if it seems essential enough, then what I’ve argued above delicately suggests that maybe we should consider treating it as definitely valid.

Now for my other main point: not only do I feel dependent on logic and reason as support for what I believe, but everybody seems unable to refrain from using it when defending what they believe. I don’t think any of us can exactly explain why this is, but the point is that we all feel compelled to be at least somewhat reasonable if we don’t want to be taken to be insane. I guess what I’m saying in this paragraph might easily be misunderstood. I’m not claiming that every explanation that anybody makes for their beliefs or behavior is rational; obviously, we’re all irrational from time to time. But at least, when somebody proposes an irrational argument for something, they are attempting to make an argument and assuming that there’s such a thing as a “logical argument” which is necessary for defending themselves. Even when somebody says, “I believe in such-and-such, just because”, when prompted to explain themselves, you’ll hear something like, “Well, you know, just because it’s so apparent from looking at the world around me”, which implies that there is a logical motivation behind his or her beliefs. Or, take the worst-case scenario: “I realize that there’s no logical reason to believe such-and-such; I just believe it because it’s convenient to me because of X.” Well, then that person is still assuming some notion of rationality in saying the “I just believe it because” part.

I feel that I’m making a similar observation to that of C. S. Lewis at the beginning of Mere Christianity, when he argues that we humans obviously all feel bound by some Moral Law, even though we don’t necessarily follow it. Analogously, I am claiming that we all feel bound by some Law of Reason, even though we sometimes don’t follow it (hence, argue or behave irrationally). Furthermore, although some of the finer points of this so-called Law of Reason are disputed among us, the basic ideas are universally agreed upon when we sit down to intellectually think about them: for instance, the idea that if P implies Q, then not-Q implies not-P. Now some ideas in the arena of logic are controversial: for instance, the idea that elements can be chosen out of an uncountably infinite number of sets (the infamous Axiom of Choice which is found in theoretical mathematics), but the basic ideas that are used for argumentation are generally agreed upon, even if we often fail to employ them properly.

It may seem like a bit of a waste of time to have spent so much space explaining something such as why I intend to rely on rational argumentation whenever I make a claim, since it seems so obvious that I would anyway, and why would anybody attack me for assuming rationality to be valid? However, I’ve found in the past that there are some types of people who do find it useful to call it into question. One such type is the complete skeptic, who says, “You admit that there’s no watertight support for logic itself, so you shouldn’t assume logic, or anything else for that matter.” To this type of skeptic, I would first point out that his/her claim was itself a logical argument, and I next say, get a life![1] If you embrace absolute skepticism, then your journey is over; there is nothing you will ever be able to discover, because everything is infinitely uncertain to you. At some point, we have to choose to assume something if we want any sort of compass to guide our actions and analysis of the world.

But then, there are those people who say something along the lines of, “Aha! So you admit that you take something on faith… then you might as well assume something else a priori, such as, for instance, that God exists.” To them I point out that reason itself dictates that one should have “faith” (meaning an absolutely certain belief in something without rational support) in as few things as possible, and that absolutely everyone, from the complete skeptic to the religious fundamentalist to the strong agnostic, implicitly assumes the rules of logic. In fact, the claim in quotes at the beginning of this paragraph itself takes the form of a logical argument, just like the claim of the complete skeptic did. All the people who claim that they have faith in the existence of a God, or in the fact that there is something beyond the material world in which we live, or in an afterlife, or that there are extraterrestrials elsewhere in the universe, or even that the moon is made of green cheese, ALSO (whether they explicitly admit it or not) have faith that the rules of logic are valid! So this thing that I have chosen to take on faith is something that we all take on faith anyway, because we are more or less dependent on it if we want to engage in any kind of intellectual thought at all.

Thus, we can reexamine the title I gave to this blog post and say that I have not technically put forth “a logical argument for logic” in the strictest sense, since in fact, I’ve pointed out that it’s impossible to actually prove logic by means of logic.[2] However, I have put forth a logical defense as to why I have chosen to “believe in” logic, if you will.

I have complete, absolute, unwavering faith in rationality itself. And I also have complete, absolute, unwavering faith in… probably nothing else.

 

[1] Well obviously I could have been a bit kinder here — just because someone is a complete skeptic while wearing their philosopher robes doesn’t mean don’t believe in anything in practice; it just means their philosophical journey will be a very boring one.

[2] In other words, I assumed axioms of logic to prove a meta-statement in logic.  This is essentially the kind of thing that is done in foundations of mathematics all the time, which I think contributes to my not having much patience for the subject.


Now for my third and final post on the original blog.  This one, although again containing nothing that hasn’t been expressed by tons of other people and in much better words, does in my opinion leave more food for thought.  It also came out exactly ten years ago today: July 30th, 2008.

I wanted to go ahead and start writing about issues that are less dry and abstract, but I feel that I really do have to justify the basis for the assumptions I make about the empirical world as well as the world of abstract logic. I will probably have to refer to these assumptions again and again.

The sad fact is that the assumptions I justified in my last post, A Logical Argument for Logic (or is it?), really are somewhat disappointing in how much they tell me about the world in which I live. As a matter of fact, they tell me nothing at all, or at least nothing at all about the world outside of abstract ideas, the empirical world. The fact that logical reasoning is valid may justify mathematics (or may not, depending on whether or not math is really entirely based on logic, as has been debated[3]), but it doesn’t justify any other academic subject, nor any fact about my life that I take for granted, including the notion that other people exist or that I am indeed sitting right now in a chair in front of a computer. Clearly, something has to be done about this, if I want to attain any kind of knowledge about the universe or find any purpose in life.

Pretty much everybody at some point, once they’ve thought deeply enough, realizes that it is surprisingly difficult to justify even the most common-sense thing about one’s everyday life, even to prove to oneself that one is not “a brain in a vat”. Where people seem to differ is in how to justify everything we assume about the empirical world. As with the issue of logical reasoning, there will always be skeptics who say that we simply can’t justify anything empirical, so why even try? Well, good for them, they can go ahead and be mathematicians and believe in nothing else, but their quest for knowledge will have to end right there. If I want to have anything empirical to believe in, however, I had better choose something else to “have faith in”.

I think the first and most obvious thing, which I really can’t help believing in, is that I do have some sort of sensory experience. I am avoiding defining this because it’s a deep metaphysical issue that I don’t want to go into (remember that I don’t actually study philosophy), but I’m hoping that anyone reading this will know exactly what I mean. Right now, for instance, I have the impression of light in front of me and a certain rattling sound that is obviously correlated with words appearing on the screen. Now doesn’t actually mean that there is anything in front of me or any sound; actually, I haven’t defined “light” and “sound” in any sort of objective manner, only subjectively, in that I have these certain sensory perceptions of them. I could easily be nothing but a spark of consciousness in a universe where nothing else exists, having this sensory experience. But note that I don’t allow the option of myself not existing. I claim that I myself do exist in some sense, by a tautology involving the very definition of “exist”.

Of course, I wave my hands over the very deep and abstract metaphysics that philosophy professors would probably use to make this all clearer, and hope that the reader knows intuitively what I’m talking about. But I think anyone would; I think that more or less everyone holds the assumption of their own subjective experience as the basis for at least many of their beliefs[4].

The more controversial question is of where to go next. So far, I have a bunch of sensory perceptions which don’t necessarily mean anything in particular, and give me no rationale for deciding anything or even believing anything in my life. When I think of how to draw conclusions from these perceptions, I can only come up with one coherent answer: to assume that sensory imput follows patterns. Or more explicitly, certain types of events repeat themselves.

The “types of events” vaguely mentioned above are specifically associations between two or more sensations. For instance, the sensation of seeing very bright light is accompanied by a certain type of pain[5]. Or, to give another example, the sensation of letting an object go from my hand is accompanied by the sight of it falling down, followed by a some type of sound. I conclude that the next time I drop something, it too will travel downwards in my field of vision before abruptly stopping while emitting noise. It’s as simple as that. And yet, it’s all I feel the need to assume to eventually derive all the conclusions I’ve come up with about the universe.

Now, at the end of the last post concerning logical argument, I claimed that the only belief I hold with absolute, unwavering faith is my belief in logic itself, so what is the nature of my belief in patterns in the empirical world? Well, it is also faith, but of a slightly different kind. I can imagine an internally valid (albeit boring) belief system without it. I can imagine being able to at least think coherently without it. I can imagine doubting that there is any order at all to the sensory images I perceive. But I still, in a sense, believe in it without the slightest shred of proof or evidence. As with the rules of logic, though, just because I have no way of proving it to be true doesn’t mean that I can’t rationally defend my choice to have faith in it!

First of all, as with the validity of logic itself, I feel that everybody assumes it (other than the extreme skeptic), regardless of whatever else they choose to assume or not to assume. I don’t feel the need to justify this point any further.

Secondly, it seems to be the only algorithm for making sense of my own personal sensory imput that is even coherent. Here is my attempt to explain it in a vague, badly-written way (and please, if you’re not in the mood, just go ahead and skip this paragraph): I perceive an empirical “event” involving a conjunction of two sensory impressions, for instance, let’s say it involves the image of my dropping an object and the image of it falling to the ground. Now what empirical fact can I infer from this? What will happen next time in conjunction with the sensation of dropping an object? I have to choose something that I already have a concept of, something that I’ve already experienced. And it’s not much of a well-defined algorithm if I just randomly choose among the set of sensations I’ve already experienced. What I choose, therefore, has to have something to do with the particular sensation I experienced before when I dropped an object. It seems obvious at this point that for the simplest algorithm, we say that I have to infer that exact same sensation I experienced before (that of the object falling down), but suppose I invented something different? Maybe I could infer the opposite of what happened before, in this case, that the object will “fall up” instead. Well, apart from anything else, that algorithm has the obvious problem of there not always being an “opposite” to every sensory perception; for instance, what is the “opposite” of seeing a flash of red? Or, for a better-defined algorithm, let’s say that I assume the negation of what happened before. That is, the next time I drop an object, I will not get the impression of it falling. Well then, what happens the third time I drop something? Again, I stress that the most obviously simple algorithm is to assume the same thing that happened before.

The assumption that I describe above seems, to my understanding, to be the basis of what the is officially known as “empirical induction”, which in turn seems to be the basis of the scientific method. Or, at least, I prefer to call it “scientific methodology”, as “scientific method” seems to often be used for a concept much more specific, involving a question, hypothesis, and so on. Meanwhile, “scientific methodology” will be used by me to refer to a much more general logical algorithm for obtaining knowledge which I claim, rather closed-mindedly, according to some[6], to be the only valid algorithm for obtaining empirical knowledge. The ins and outs of exactly how to use this “algorithm” based on the simple axiom that “things follow patterns” is something I find extremely interesting, which has implications for the nature of science, naturalism, and even specific scientific controversies. But that’s something I can talk about later.

For now, I want to say that I hope to write about things at least a little bit more down-to-earth soon, and then I can forge some kind of contact with other bloggers and have a bit of dialog. Right now, nobody is reading this blog to my knowledge, which is fine with me when all it contains at the moment is long-winded rants on philosophical issues too deeply metaphysical for me to be able to write about properly. I will try to change this as soon as possible.

 

[3] I really can’t remember what debate I was referring to here, and I’d be curious to know.

[4] In other words, Decartes’ “I think, therefore I am”.  I’m not sure why I didn’t mention that quote (or the corresponding groundbreaking essay, which I know I’d read) here.  It seems I really was so determined not to include citations of anyone else, even when it came to one of history’s foremost philosopher-mathematicians and his contribution of perhaps the very most famous philosophical utterance.  Arrogant college kid.

[5] In the context of the full paragraph, this sentence makes me do a double-take: it’s as though I was saying that bright lights are generally accompanied by sensations of pain.  Clearly I was being sloppy in my writing here, but I’m a little unclear on what example I was going for here or if I was just imagining a hypothetical universe in which bright lights generally come with pain.

[6] Who are these “some”?  I have a feeling I was gesturing somehow at creationists (whom I saw as my main intellectual opponents during my university years), or at least the “Supernatural creation stories can be scientific!” type rather than the “Neither Intelligent Design nor evolutionism fits the definition of sciences!” type.

 

So… the view expressed in this essay was a lot more controversial than for the last one.  I was essentially defending scientism, and using a Humean view of natural law and cause-and-effect in order to do so.  I remember being well aware of (though not well-read on) Hume’s views of this at the time, but again I seem to have made the decision to keep existing philosophical thinkers and literature out of my philosophical ramblings.

This time I did come up with some arguments that I don’t know that I’ve ever seen elsewhere, in particular that scientific induction is the way to go because it’s the most elegant algorithm imaginable and that’s pretty much the only quality we can go for when deciding on axiomatic beliefs.  I’m especially intrigued by my argument against “anti-induction”, which I hadn’t remembered making, on the basis of “what happens the third time I drop something?” — I suppose you can wind up deciding that X will be accompanied by Y every other time X occurs, but even that is clearly going against the spirit of Occam’s Razor.

I still hold a similar overall view of how to build my philosophical belief system from the ground up.  My plan at the time for a sequence of blog mini-essays, which reflects a rough structure of ideas I still adhere to, went something like this:

  1. The rules of deductive logic should be assumed axiomatically.
  2. The rules of inductive logic, and along with them a general scientism, should be assumed axiomatically.
  3. Due to the assumption from (2) that scientific induction must be universally applied, the notions of the supernatural and pf libertarian free will are both meaningless.
  4. Everything that we’re tempted to label as supernatural should instead be investigated on the assumption that it’s something natural and thus fitting into some scientific model.  (There might be several essays’ worth of applications of this idea to various aspects of religious belief.)
  5. Everything that we’re tempted to label as libertarian free will can still be viewed within a deterministic framework in a way that still captures the essence of freedom, motivating a compatibilist definition of “free will”.
  6. Now we can start talking about what defines Right and Wrong, and I would probably defend utilitarianism as the best system for this by a similar justification as what I used for defending scientific induction in (2).  (But here’s where the game gets very tricky.  I’m not sure I was fully up for the challenge either then or now.)

Anyway.  The old posts that I pasted here only got me through step (2) of the above, and unfortunately, my resolution to “write things that are a bit more down-to-earth soon”, “as soon as possible”, was never fulfilled.  I gave up on the idea of keeping up a blog pretty soon after publishing that last post, faced with a move and then classes starting again, and in the coming months and years as my mathematical studies turned from a fun challenge into a major brain-energy-consuming endeavor for me, I gave up thinking much about pure philosophy altogether.  It’s nice to look back on all of this from the perspective of having found myself able to return to writing down my intellectual ideas along a more exciting trajectory and in a far more rewarding environment than I imagined ten years ago.

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