Saturday, December 3, 2011
Friday, December 2, 2011
Wednesday, November 30, 2011
Mathematical problems have right or wrong, correct or incorrect, answers as a result of mathematics being a formalized structure of definite abstract rules. Within a system, such as basic arithmetic, we can define “2”, “3”, “5”, “+”, and “=” in such a manner as to create a context wherein “2 + 3 = 5” is correct. In saying that this is correct, what we mean is that it follows the rules. We could construct a different system of rules wherein “2 + 3 = 5” is incorrect if we modify the definitions of those symbols. The meanings of the symbols, and the rules by which the symbols are arranged, result from people, because people are the ones who made this shit up in the first place.
There is no inherent metaphysical relation between the goofy-ass symbol of “2” and some intrinsic meaning within the fundamental structure of reality; mathematics is not a manifestation or mirroring of reality. It is a tool, constructed by human beings, for getting along in reality. One never encounters the perfectly mirrored ontological referent for “two”, “2”, “II” out there in “the world”, but rather one understands the various things into which one bumps in terms of that abstract symbolic representation of a concept.
I realize this is a problematic notion for some, as they maintain that 2 is, supposedly, easily found in situations of grouping. So, think of it this way: Have you ever encountered a triangle in reality? Have you ever encountered a slice of pizza, a corn kernel, or even a component of a bridge that was a triangle? I contend that you have not. They might be vaguely triangular, or kinda approximately triangular, but one never bumps into actual triangles. Because, at the very least, triangles only exist in 2-dimensional Euclidean space, and you’ve never been there.
The meanings of mathematical statements are found in a realm of abstraction; triangles occur in 2-dimensional Euclidean space. We apply these abstract notions to reality, but the reality to which these symbols are applied is neither abstract, clear, nor distinct; we do not live our everyday lives in 2-dimensional Euclidean space. Life is very messy, mathematical abstractions are very neat and tidy, and so we understand reality in terms of our abstractions in an effort to simplify the vague generalities of reality with which our minds have difficulty coping.
We good? Alright. Now, let’s talk about ethics and morality.
You might be surprised to learn that ethical and moral norms are akin to the norms of mathematics: They are abstractions that are not found in reality, but rather are applied to reality by persons. In the same way that we never bump into a triangle, we never bump into good. Rather, we apply our abstract notion of good to vague situations that seem to kinda jive with our conception, or definition, of goodness. Similarly, we never bump into wrong, but find ourselves in vague situations to which we apply the label “wrong”.
We define the moral “wrong”, or bad, in the same way that we define “triangle”. We conceive of an abstract realm of definite clarity and posit ethical and moral norms within that realm. So, we get “killing is wrong” or “infidelity is immoral” or “lying is bad” up and running in our realm of abstraction, then attempt to live our lives by applying these abstractions to our everyday existence. Everything works fine, for about two seconds, and then we find ourselves in Nazi Germany, hiding jews in our attic, only to be confronted by a stormtrooper at our door who asks, “Are there any jews in your attic?”
Gosh, wouldn’t you know it? Our clearly defined rule of “lying is bad” just doesn’t fucking work anymore because life is far more vague, messy, and ambiguous than the ideal realm within which we fabricated the childishly simplistic rule! Unless, of course, you contend that the correct action is to tell the Nazi the truth.
In the same way that life is not the sort of thing that contains triangles, life is not the sort of thing that contains absolute, clear, discrete instances of moral rightness or wrongness, ethical correctness or incorrectness. These are notions that arise from a realm of abstraction, a realm of mental conceptions.
There are times when these abstract terms may be utilized within life: A 2nd grader can write “2 + 3 = 5” and the teacher can write, “correct” without encountering any sort of ontological or epistemological dilemma. A pupil may tell an instructor, “Cheating is wrong!” and receive a preferable grade. But when we go beyond the naivety of the classroom and find ourselves mucking about in the vagaries of reality we find that our simplistic arithmetic understandings of reality do not jive with our experience.
Two cups of popcorn plus two cups of milk does not equal four cups of popcorn-milk.
Saying, “Yes, there are jews in my attic.” to a Nazi is not morally praiseworthy.
Shit be complicated.
Human beings construct abstract conceptual tools to get along in the world. But we have to remember that there is a distinction to be made between the abstract concept and the world. There is a distinction to be made between a triangle and a slice of pizza. There is a distinction to be made between our conceptions of moral and ethical norms and the everyday situations within which we find ourselves while living our lives.
This is why, when confronted with a decision between multiple options, there is no inherently “wrong” decision. One can define option-A or option-B as the “wrong” option, but that wrongness is not found in reality. Reality is not the sort of thing that has wrong decisions; “wrong” is something that occurs in our mind, in our conceptual toolbag of abstractions.
Just like a triangle.
It’s easy, and comforting, to pretend that life is a realm of black and white, of definite right and wrong, correct and incorrect. But when we progress beyond the mentality of a six year old, and perceive reality as it actually is, we begin to understand that our moral and ethical norms are akin to our mathematical tools: They are shit we made up. We constructed math because we wanted reality to be knowable, controllable, and so we subjected reality to a system of abstraction that is easily understood. We constructed morality and ethics because we’re terrified of the fact that you can smash my skull with a rock while I sleep, and I can smash your skull with a rock while you sleep. So, best to construct a moral rule that renders “skull smashing” to be wrong and really, really, hope that no one ever questions why they follow it.
This is not to say that morality and ethics are stupid or useless. Rather, I’m trying to communicate the idea that morality and ethics are like mathematics: They are ideals that help us deal with reality, rather than mirror reality. They are tools for our mucking about in our lives. Sometimes different situations require different tools. Sometimes we’re dealing with Euclidean triangles. Sometimes we’re dealing with non-Euclidean triangles. And sometimes we’re dealing with slices of pizza. We employ different abstract tools in different situations. So, it makes sense that we would employ different abstract rules for morality and ethics in different situations.
Lying is neither right nor wrong, correct nor incorrect, good nor bad. Lying is the act of knowingly deceiving another. The moral or ethical value of a lie depends upon the moral or ethical ruleset by which that lie is assessed and the context within that ruleset is employed. Are you deceiving a Nazi? Are you deceiving a friend? Are you deceiving a stranger? In each of these cases deception occurs, but in none of these cases did a good, bad, moral right, or ethical wrong occur. Because good, bad, moral right, or ethical wrong are labels we apply to actions when we subject those actions to our ethical or moral rulesets.
And since we made all of this shit up in the first place, we can change it at our leisure.
Which, by the way, is a truth that Jeff Winger discovered as a child: