Thursday, June 30, 2005

The Chuang-Tzu

So I've been thinking about how the Stoic concept of the "Logos" (reason infusing the universe), the Taoist "Li" (organic pattern), and modern complex systems theory are addressing only slightly different aspects of the same concept. My goal is to integrate Complexity into a larger philosophy, in which it will play a similar role that Logos and Li play in Stoicism and Taoism.

In doing so, I was left wondering how all of these realizations about Complexity are supposed to affect our daily lives and how we approach life. I have some good ideas, but I thought a good way to investigate this would be to see exactly how the Logos and Li is supposed to affect practitioners' lives. Since the concepts are so similar, then the way they fit into their philosophies must also be similar to how Complexity should fit into mine.

I have a pretty good idea about Logos, but I had no idea how the Li was supposed to affect a Taoist's life. Fortunately, a poster called Vajradhara over at the Comparative Religion Forums answered my question on this, by directing me to the Chuang-Tzu. This is a Taoist writing which is meant to address how knowledge of the Li affects our lives.

I've only just begun reading this translation, but I think it will be quite helpful.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

What is Chaos?

Here is an excellent and brief explanation of Chaos Theory that I just discovered...


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Complex Systems Diagram

I found a nice diagram of a Complex System, along with an ok article on Complex Systems over at Wikipedia...

Thursday, June 23, 2005

All Revved Up And Nothing To Think

In hearing about the sentencing of Edgar Ray Killen for the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Michael Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman, something occurred to me. There are an awful lot of news stories out there that make you feel strongly, but you don't know exactly what to feel, or who to feel it for.

In so many cases, we don't really get to know everything we should to make an informed judgment. Even if we were in the court, there would be a question as to whether or not certain bits of information should or shouldn't have been presented. So, whether or not juries even make informed judgments is a matter of debate, much less we folks sitting at home hearing only highlights.

If you ask me what should happen to racists and murderers I'm quite clear on the matter. But what was presented in court? Did the evidence really support the sentence? It certainly could have. Or, it could have been a case of an overzealous system trying to cleanse itself of a shameful past so much that it's willing to overlook "minor details" regarding due process and proof. I really have no idea and both scenarios evoke strong feelings.

And, no matter how much I read in the news stories, most of them just don't give me the raw data I need. I know who was charged, what they're alleged to have done, who cried, what they looked like, and what all the different people involved have to say about it in sound bites. But where is the list of all the evidence and arguments presented in court in two columns (defense and prosecution) for me to evaluate? Sure, I might be able to investigate this, but the general public isn't going to do that or hear about it most of the time - isn't that why we have a press?

Certainly, I'm not in the jury so what I think hardly matters to the case. But these sorts of stories immediately give you strong feelings about racism, justice, civil rights, due process, and more. If our opinions aren't important enough to include the relevant facts in a news report, then one has to wonder why we need to hear about these things at all? So that we can be as emotionally stirred about our under-informed opinions as possible?

Here we are with another story that, by its very nature, is emotionally charged. We're not one bit short on opinions, emotions, and convictions - only facts. Is this a case of the media informing the public or inflaming the public?

By the way: If you've got an opinion about this particular case and want to settle my confusion by telling me 'how it is' don't bother - that's really beside the point of this post, which is that the media doesn't give enough of the important facts in most emotionally charged cases. I'm not looking for others' lists of facts on this one example.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Congress Tries to Make Itself Look Useful

What do you do when you're a Congress that's too ineffective to pass meaningful legislation and too ideological to reach agreement on important issues? You pass whatever "feel good" ridiculous nonsense you can. Nonsense which, at best, is completely meaningless and, at worst, an obscene restriction on individual liberty.

I was naive enough to think that all of the flag-burning ban talk had finally died a well-deserved death. Apparently, it is back in the House of Representatives with H.J. Res 10. Unfortunately, it looks like it actually has a chance of passing in the Senate as well this time. It seems the proponents of this monstrosity are trying to take advantage of the post 9/11 patriotism with vulgar emotional appeals proclaiming to speak for the people who died on that day. If they were really patriotic then they would stop trying to figuratively burn the flag with this garbage. What's worse is that this isn't some random legislation, but an actual amendment (the type of thing we've only had to do 27 times in the history of the nation, which has generally taken place to expand liberty, not restrict it). Can Congress think of nothing better to spend their time on?

Here's an article talking about this:

And here's a place where you can contact your representatives and tell them to stop playing around and get to work:

Conway's Game of Life

One of the things complex systems theorists have come to understand is that the complex patterns we see in nature arise out of several components acting by a fairly simple set of rules. Conway's Game of Life is a program which illustrates this point (usually using just three rules, which I believe is standard although other rule-sets exist). Grasping this and other concepts about Complexity is key to understanding how a complex and intricate universe can emerge from such simple components.

After opening up the program at the address below, click on several squares in various patterns and then hit the "go" button. You may be surprised to see how complex the interactions can get!


On Guard Against Ourselves

Dr. Keith Seddon has recently posted an interesting quote from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, from Handbook 48...

[1] The condition and character of the uneducated person is this: they neverlook for benefit or harm to come from themselves, but from external things.The condition and character of the philosopher is this: they look for everybenefit and harm to come from themselves. [2] The signs that someone ismaking progress are these: they blame no one, they praise no one, they findfault with no one, they accuse no one, they never say anything of themselvesas though they amount to something or know anything. When they are impededor hindered, they blame themselves. If someone praises them, they laughinwardly at the person who praises them, and if anyone censures them, theymake no defence. They go about as if they were sick, cautious not to disturbwhat is healing before they are fully recovered. [3] They have ridthemselves of all desires, and have transferred their aversion to only thosethings contrary to nature that are in our power. They have no strongpreferences in regard to anything. If they appear foolish or ignorant, theydo not care. In a word, they keep guard over themselves as though they aretheir own enemy lying in wait.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Philosophy Radio

I found the most wonderful site the other day. It's a collection of radio programs on various philosophy subjects. I've already listened to a few and plane to listen to more. The site can be found at...


In particular, I would recommend the discussion on "The Origins of Virtue" which covers some of the logical basis of why many of our concepts of virtue and behavior toward such developed.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Beyond Empiricism?

Recently I had a very interesting conversation with several people about Empiricism, started by Nigel on the International Stoic Forum. I've just edited the entire thing into one document, which can be read on my philosophy site, or by clicking here. Comments welcome.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Rick on Empiricism

One again, Rick on the Stoic Forum has impressed me with his eloquence. In his latest message, Rick explains what the Positivist Empirical approach is. I would agree with every word exactly as he wrote, so I'll simply place the link...

Rick's Response on Empiricism

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

An Eloquent Response on Atoms

In response to my thoughts on Atoms a person named Rick, who goes by the name Reb_el on the International Stoics Forum, eloquently wrote the following...

"The human ego is always trying to define, demarcate and distinguish itself, and in doing so it sets itself erroneously and arrogantly apart from the rest of the ever changing reality; apart from the shifting universe from which it sprang and back into which is will fold. The ego fears its own impermanence (among many other things), and will clutch at straws to deny its transience."

Thanks Rick.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Atoms Aren't So Bad

Someone said to me a few days ago that it made them uncomfortable to think that our brains are just a bunch of atoms. I wondered, "why is that so bad?"

I've never really heard the argument for why it would be so terrible to be made out of atoms. After all, we have to be made out of something. Atoms seem like an okay thing to be made out of to me. The only issue would seem to be our mortality (given the ability of atomic structures to be disrupted) - but somehow the obsession over what we're made out of seems to transcend even concerns of mortality, which seems strange.

It seems like so many people in our world are searching for a kind of understanding of existence that would indicate a hazy sort of universe where nothing is fully definable, and the human will and mind is some sort of power that exists self-evidently and independently in that haze; caused by nothing and beholden to nothing. This seems quite bizarre to me and I really doubt that such an understanding is the only one that a human being can have a happy meaningful life within.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Life & Death Are Not Opposites

It just occurred to me last night that life and death are not actually opposites. Life is a complex system, meaning that it is made up of several diverse components which are interacting at the borderline between complete order and complete chaos. There are many types of complex systems and biological complex systems (i.e. life) are one type.

Linguistics and the common use of certain words in English are stacked against me here so you'll have to get past that to see what I'm saying. What I mean is that death is one half of the continual life process - a component of it.

Of course, on the scale of the ecology, this is obvious. Living things must die so that others can be born and live - thus the process functions. A chicken had to die for me yesterday, as did the wheat plants my cereal was made out of.

But more than that, within a single healthy organism you have the continual death of millions of cells on a regular basis. This allows for their replacement by new cells and the organism as a whole functions.

So, death is but one part of the overall function. In terms of ancient philosophy it might be called destruction or disorder. Opposite to that would be another activity which might be called order or creation. But this order/creation is not life.

To explain I will first take the example of a mud puddle. Here you have all sorts of elements, materials, etc. all swirling together. However the entire body is based on disorder and is not living. Opposite to that are something like crystals forming, where you have order and creation, but very little destruction or disorder inherent in the system. Thus crystals are not living either. So, pure creation/order does not lead to life. Life is the process of balance between these activities.

What we call death would seem at first glance to be the cessation of this balance, thus showing that life and death are indeed opposites. However, when it comes to organisms, death results in the system becoming more disordered. This is not merely a stopping of the balance, but in this process one side "wins out". That side of the balance is actually death.

Furthermore, that one side of the life process (disorder/death) is inherent within a single living organism, and necessary to its functioning. Therefore, life and death cannot be opposites.

What seems to have happened here is a crude happenstance of the English language which has lead to a word for the balanced process (life) and a word for the disorder/chaotic element within that process (death) but no commonly used word for the opposite of the disorder/chaos/death element. There is also no commonly used word for the lack of a life process, which does not speak only of the disorder/chaos side of life. For example, one wouldn't call a mud puddle or a crystal "dead", but rather simply "not living". Using the word "dead" implies that it was once alive - that there was once a balance between two elements and the death-side of that won out.

So death is a part of life and even essential to it. Of course, none of this is really new, but I just realized how our use of language mingled with these concepts to give us a somewhat distorted view. Furthermore, it seems even more obvious to me now, that when we curse death or wish for life without death, what we are doing is irrational. We are cursing a part of the very process we are trying to preserve, and a part that if absent would end that process. In doing so, we are trying to make ourselves into inert crystals, captured in perfect order for all time - and this, of course, is not life. When considering the true nature of life and death as an element of life, it seems that our desires concerning death are as foolish and contradictory as trying to open a door by pulling on the knob, and pushing the door with our foot at the same time.