Sunday, February 10, 2013

The search for a pure language

I just read a long but fascinating article on a modern-day constructed language, Ithkuil, on the New Yorker website.

Its inventor, John Quijada, is quoted as saying that his “greater goal” was “to attempt the creation of what human beings, left to their own devices, would never create naturally, but rather only by conscious intellectual effort: an idealized language whose aim is the highest possible degree of logic, efficiency, detail, and accuracy in cognitive expression via spoken human language, while minimizing the ambiguity... and overall arbitrariness that is seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language.”

Like Quijada, I too have dreamt of a ‘philosophically pure’ language. But for a language to be actually used by real people, in real situations, it needs to be more ‘human’ and, I suppose, less ‘pure’. I think that’s why Esperanto, despite many setbacks, has survived over 125 years. It seems not even Quijada can speak his own language off-the-cuff; the required precision means that he has to carefully analyse every nuance of meaning and follow branches of a giant ‘semantic tree’ to arrive at the perfect sentence (or word). So, while it might be useful as a bridge language for machine translation, Ithkuil is not one that could realistically be used directly by people. (Incidentally, even though Esperanto is not philosophically pure like Ithkuil, Google decided to make it one of 65 languages it supports, because its regularity plus its large body of translated texts make it an ideal candidate for use as a bridge language.)

Speaking of Esperanto, one quote from this article I find particularly interesting:
“Like every other attempt to undo the tragedy of Babel, Esperanto was ultimately a failure. And yet, by some estimates, Esperanto still has more speakers than six thousand of the languages spoken around the world today, including approximately a thousand native speakers (among them George Soros) who learned it as their first language.”
That seems like a strange idea of ‘failure’ to me! Maybe the author assumes that a universal language is a failure if it is not used by everyone, or at least the vast majority of the world’s population, every day. But Esperanto was never intended to replace ethnic languages, but rather to be used as a neutral, common language, if required.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Great Climate Change Debate

There is no shortage of people stating with confidence that climate change is real and that, unless we act quickly and decisively, the world is headed for a disaster from which we cannot recover. On the other hand, it is not at all hard to find those who resist that view, either sceptically (claiming that the evidence is inconclusive) or categorically (claiming that there is no real evidence at all). And the interesting thing is that both sides seem to be able to find scientists who support them. So, what are we to believe and, more importantly, what are we to do?

Many people approach the argument by piling up evidence, in the form of scientific articles, or even to quote statistics in the form of the numbers of articles or scientists on each side, as if the matter could be decided simply by taking a vote. Of course the qualifications and reputation of each writer or speaker presenting evidence, and drawing conclusions from that evidence, are crucial to deciding how much attention we should pay. But even that is hard to determine. Usually all we have to go by is that person’s “celebrity status” (think David Suzuki, Al Gore or Tim Flannery). Furthermore, in many cases our position is largely determined before we examine any evidence or arguments, based on broader political and ideological beliefs.

So, perhaps the solution is for all of us to take university courses in climatology and then reserve our judgements until we reach at least doctoral level and are able to examine – and understand – the evidence on our own. Alternatively, we could use basic critical reasoning skills, combined with whatever information and understanding is available to us now.

Firstly, we need to state the issue clearly and precisely. The question is not “Is climate change real?” Rather, “Is human activity making a noticeable, and detrimental, effect on the earth’s climate?” If the climate were indeed changing but it turned out that it was part of a the same natural cycle that caused the last ice age, then, while it would be unfortunate, there would be no need to drastically change our behaviour with respect to carbon emissions.

Pascal’s wager
The 18th century French philosopher, Blaise Pascal, made an interesting contribution to the philosophical debate of the time about the existence of God. He looked, not at the evidence, but the consequences of believing, or not believing. Pascal presented four possibilities, based on whether or not God existed and whether or not one believed. If God existed and you didn’t believe in Him, then you would be punished with eternal damnation. If God existed and you did believe, then you would be rewarded with eternal life in heaven. If you believed in “God” but it turned out that no such being existed, your piety would have been “wasted”, but on the other hand, there would be neither reward nor damnation after death. Finally, if you were an atheist and it turned out you were right (i.e. there was no God), you would have simply lived your life for yourself and death would be final, as expected.

So, in a similar vein, let us assume for the sake of the argument, that support for both sides of the debate are equal, that there is a 50% chance that human activity does (or does not) cause climate change. That gives us the following four possibilities:

ActionA. If human activity causes climate changeB. If human activity doesn't cause climate change
1. Do nothingGlobal disasterNo change
2. Do something
(reduce CO2 emissions, etc.)
(Hopefully) disaster averted,or reducedPollution reduced
Some unnecessary spending
Some unnecessary fear

Thus, even if climatologists were more or less equally divided in their opinions, even if the evidence were truly inconclusive (not just the normal , scientific less-than-100% certainty), the relative consequences would be massively unequal. The two negatives, indicated in cells A1 and B2 above, are: nothing less than catastrophic on the one hand, and uncomfortable and inconvenient on the other.

I think the choice is clear.

Monday, February 2, 2009

If it be your will, by Leonard Cohen, sung by The Webb Sisters

If it be your will, that I speak no more
And my voice be still, as it was before
I will speak no more, I shall abide until
I am spoken for, if it be your will

If it be your will, that a voice be true
From this broken hill, I will sing to you
From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will, to let me sing

From this broken hill
All your praises they shall ring
If it be your will, to let me sing

If it be your will, if there is a choice
Let the rivers fill, let the hills rejoice
Let your mercy spill
On all these burning hearts in Hell
If it be your will, to make us well

And draw us near and bind us tight
All your children here, in their rags of light
In our rags of light, all dressed to kill
And end this night, if it be your will
If it be your will

Sunday, February 3, 2008

An argument for the existence of 'the soul'

By "soul", I mean something beyond the body that is nevertheless an essential part of "me".

I will use the method Reductio ad absurdum (Latin: "reduction to the absurd"), where I assume the opposite of what I am trying to prove, hoping to derive an absurd outcome, and then conclude that the original assumption must have been false.
  1. Assumption: I am merely an organised collection of material "stuff" (atoms, molecules, cells, ...).
  2. Therefore, what I call "my thoughts" must be merely sequences of electrochemical changes in my brain.
  3. All beliefs are thoughts.
  4. Therefore, a belief is a sequence of electrochemical changes in the brain.
  5. These electrochemical changes are caused by external events in the past (plus a certain amount of quantum randomness).
  6. Therefore, my beliefs (including my original assumption) are no more connected to the actual truth about the universe than the fizzing of an antacid tablet in a glass of water!
  7. This is absurd. [As CS Lewis wrote: 'You cannot have a proof that no proofs matter.' (Meditations in a toolshed)]
  8. Therefore, there is something more to "me" than my physical body, which we may identify as "the soul".

Why would God demand repentance?

Question: Why would God demand that we repent to get into heaven?

Answer: God doesn't demand repentance. Repentance is the name for the changing of one's direction, from rebelling against (or ignoring) God to honouring, loving and wanting to be with God. Heaven is the state of being with God.

Thoughts and questions from some old notebooks: Faith

To believe something requires more than evidence and the weighing up of evidence; it requires a leap of faith. As St Augustine wrote: "Understanding is the reward of faith. Therefore, seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand." (On the gospel of St John XXIX)

Existence (i.e. that I exist, or anything at all exists) is a mystery. In fact, each of us personally is a mystery, as complex as the night sky.

The things that really matter are all one thing, and that "thing" is, by definition, elusive and unnameable, yet is the source of all joy (and the object of all longing). This is the "scent of heaven".

There are at least two kind of desire: desire for the nameable and desire for the unnameable. Desire for the nameable, while it may be fulfilled in this life, leads ultimately to dissatisfaction and despair.
Desire for the unnameable, while it cannot be fulfilled in this life (by definition), leads to joy.
As Thomas Moore wrote: "Earthly pleasures are an invitation to eternal delights." (Care of the Soul)

Mythical truth is truer than literal fact.

God is not impersonal, but superpersonal. God is not asexual, but supersexual; our maleness and femaleness are hints of God's character.

If the past can be reconstructed in principle from the present then everything is completely determined - even the thoughts of those who assert that the past can be reconstructed from the present. This is the fatal flaw of absolute determinism.

Despite what people say they believe, everyone acts as though they believe in free will (at least for themselves).