Concept Exchange Society


Wednesday, December 10, 1997 6:30 pm

At Glenn Johnston's House.

Presentation: Whoever wishes

Philosophy Expo

Pre-Meeting Notice:

Everyone who wishes bring a philosophy.

Of whatever you like:
the nature of the universe,
auto repair,
philosophylessness . . .
Give it in summary - say a three minute synopsis with aphorisms to encapsulate the essentials.

In each philosophy we will find pregnant words (key concepts) on which they depend. These we will gather into a list so as to explore their meanings by 'informed discussion' at future meetings. By 'informed discussion' I mean with reference to what acknowledged great thinkers have said on the matter. Goethe, Russell, Groucho, Frege, Lao Tzu, Voltaire, Shakespeare ...

We will devote some discussion to methods of becoming informed. The painless methods!

Whole areas of philosophy are based on the meaning of words. Ontology concerns the meaning of the words 'to be'. Epistemology concerns the meaning of the words 'to know'. We might ask, what is the nature of 'evidence'. Of spirituality. Of belief. Of desire. Of meaningful. Of play. Of laughter. And what constraints on our beliefs does scientific understanding impose?

Oh, what fun!


Present: Roberto, Don, Curtis, Glenn, Rachel, Meredyth, Jeff, Andrea and Marvin

Nobody brought a prepared philosophy. But when people of good will gather together to exchange concepts the human condition is laid bare. In such a gathering people say what they think. They reveal how their minds work. Philosophy emerges.

Curtis began with a reading of quotes from H. L. Mencken on progress.
Mencken's major thesis is this: "The great masses ... are ignorant, . . .dishonest . . .cowardly . . and ignoble". Progress takes place only in spite of them.

MEREDYTH: People are sheep. They succumb to advertising.

We assure ourselves that we belong with Mencken, not with the masses!
Doesn't everyone?

'Progress' is a pregnant word.
DON asks, "Are people better off now, on average in the world, than they were 300 years ago?"
He inquires after 'progress'.

MEREDYTH: No. Air stinks. Pollution

CURTIS: But there was terrible air pollution in the 18th and 19th century from mining, tanning hides and burning coal everywhere.

Meredyth rethinks her position.

We vote. All say YES except Rachel and Glenn. Rachel says NO. Glenn is not sure.

ROBERTO: The good old days are now.

CURTIS: There is so much material available. Libraries.

Rachel changes vote to YES.

Glenn mourns past pleasures: loss of wilderness, of space, loss of quality in food - fresh ripe tomatos, tasty fruit, fresh prawns, halibut. . . He cannot vote YES; he cannot vote NO.

Like 'progress', 'better off' are pregnant words.

Marvin introduces book "Without Miracles" by Gary Cziko (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1995) He gives its thesis as this: What appears miraculous - life, consciousness, thought - can be understood as manifestations of natural law.

(In fact this characterization of Cziko's book is too broad. A synthesis of book cover and Introduction reveals Cziko's assertion to be more restricted. That all novel forms of adaptive complexity - the fit of organism to environment, whether single-celled organisms or scientific theories, - emerge from a Darwinian evolutionary process. They may appear miraculous but they are not. See last paragraph of Chapter 1, page 9.)

But this idea - of scientific explanation to dispell the miraculous - incites considerable passion.

MEREDYTH: "Who would want to live without miracles?"

MARVIN: Those who want to know how things work; the truth.

RACHEL: The truth is sexy.

JEFF: Does science countenance that there are questions that cannot be answered?

MEREDYTH: Science cannot explain 'synchronicity'; a sequence of improbable events in a short period of time.

She gives an example from her life. She did caligraphy for a book called "Ahymza" by YogiChen. She saw the work as a great gift from a master and gave YogiChen her prayer shawl as a gift of appreciation. This left her without one. That very night a friend visited her and made a gift to her of a prayer shawl. In it was a label bearing the name Ahymza - the very title of the book! "How can you explain that?", says Meredyth.

GLENN: It's exactly the subject matter of the book by John Paulos called, "Innumeracy" (Hill and Wang, N.Y. 1988). Its thesis is that illiteracy in mathematics - faulty reasoning - makes many things appear to be miraculous which are not.

MEREDYTH: "How do you explain rosaries turning into gold. It's happening all the time."

GLENN: See "Beyond Numeracy" by John Allen Paulos, Knopf, N.Y. 1991.

Glenn produces copies of both books.

MEREDYTH: Contrary to Cziko there are miracles! Synchronicity events are miraculous. Miracles take people to an ineffable place.

Glenn brings out his dictionary. Ineffable = indescribable, incapable of being expressed in words.

MARVIN: How then, are miracles to be 'explained'?

MEREDYTH: YogiChen said, "God did it."

Meredyth assures us that she does not believe in God.

DON: Does science need to answer such questions?

By this he meant that the answers science provides on such matters are statistical. Science isn't expected to explain why a particular toss of a coin turns up heads - only that heads will appear on half the tosses. Science doesn't concern itself with Meredyth's prayer shawls, only with the probability of apparently improbable events. Don was recasting Glenn's viewpoint on the underlying mathematics. But Don's phraseology must convey a different meaning to Meredyth: Saying that 'science doesn't need to answer such questions' sounds like insufferable arrogance. To deprecate the question is to confess impotence on answering it!

GLENN: 100 marbles. Throw them. One of them will go farthest with certainty. Predict which one. If number three goes farthest is that a miracle?

MEREDYTH: No. That kind of improbability is not a miracle.

MEREDYTH: In India there is a statue of a bull that keeps growing. It is getting bigger with time!

GLENN: That's a lot of bull.


DON: Miracles are in the eyes of the beholder. Not objective.

GLENN: We operate our lives on the basis that there are no miracles.

MEREDYTH: "A little boy sat on a white rug writing. He spilled ink blemishing the rug. He bowed his head and prayed to God, "If you clean this up I'll worship you for the rest of my life". He raised his head and the rug was clean.

She tells the story with far more eloquence in her eyes than in her words. Her eyes plead with us: "Feel with me the magic spirituality of these events". Her explanation? It is evidence of the miraculous; of the wholeness of the universe, of the all-pervading spirit that inhabits us all. That we are all in intimate spiritual contact reveals itself in the miraculous.

Meredyth might call her explanation,"the operation of natural law". So miracles don't contravene natural law.
For Meredyth miracles are instances of natural law!

The discussion was about 'explanation'.
Explanation is a subjective phenomenon. Like art, its measure is what satisfies. An explanation is either satisfactory or unsatisfactory. If successful it satisfies. How does it satisfy? By connecting. By fit. Explanation consists in seeing a connection between what is being explained and your world view. You accept the explanation if you perceive a fit with all the rest of your experience. In this way ever more phenomena contribute to a single world view. A world view that evolves as each new explanation is embraced.

But that is precisely the essence of reductionism; that all explanations of reported phenomena be reducible to some small group of elemental processes or mechanisms. Scientists take physics as elemental since physics enunciates the basis laws that govern chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy . . .all the sciences. So they seek reduction to the physical.

But religion or spiritual belief is also reductionist! The discussion illustrated it. One God. The ineffable oneness or wholeness of everything. It allows the universe to be an extended womb. There is an overall spirit that looks out for us. That dispenses ultimate justice. The world is not such a cold and lonely place. The alternative to this belief is to live in a cold and lonely place! "Who would want to live without miracles?"

There are those who cannot be satisfied by such a view. Explanation in terms of imponderables - ineffables - are without the possibility of demonstrative proof i.e. of scientific proof. Those who are satisfied with imponderables live full and sweet lives. Lives of magic not available to those who are unsatisfied. But there will always be those who are unsatisfied. They pursue the details of the grand design. People who believe they know the 'essence of nature' think the pursuit worthless. But science has vanquished much ignorance. It will vanquish more. It is vanquishing the miraculous.

Origin of the Miraculous
by Marvin Chester

Probable events are those
which come as no surprise
But strings of most unlikely things
conspire so they arise

If there are many ways
for a thing to come to be
Then it will surely happen,
high probability

But 'one' is a small fraction
of the many ways at hand
So for any 'one' to happen
is miraculously grand

The lottery's a gamble
but some number gets the prize
The miracle would be for Kate
to win before she dies.

And Kate does win. With pride rejoices.
Says it's her due. She made good choices

But when misfortune touches Kate
"Unjust", she moans, "my cruel fate."
Indignantly she asks, "Why me?"
"There's someone else it ought to be."

There is no great surprise
in what happens every day
What is quite original
is it happens just that way.

The curious way it happens
Is reported as the news.
Interminable miracles
Are the fabric of our views.

December 1997
Marvin Chester

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© m chester 1997 Occidental CA