On beliefs in mostly a roundabout way
Enlightenment narrows the space for belief. Belief is an odd word. We use the same word for two different, but related, concepts. When I say I believe that Paris is the capital of France, or that 2 plus 2 is 4, or that rust is iron oxide, I am saying something different from saying that I believe in a god, or that life has a purpose, or that I will have an afterlife.
The first set of beliefs are conventions that you can know or not know, but you cannot challenge. You cannot have a true belief that Toulouse is the capital of France (if you are sane) unless you simply do not know properly what France is. But of course you do know that--no one who reads this is that lacking in knowledge, or at least I wouldn't have thought so--but doubtless for each of you we could find something that is true by convention but you do not know it.
And it should be clear that this kind of belief does not involve a judgement. To be clear, consider the difference between saying I believe that Medoc comes from southeast France, from the Bordeaux region, and saying I believe that Medoc is the world's finest wine. (I think also that it is hard to describe it as a lie if you are wrong in the first case, because you would not ordinarily lie about facts by convention, and if you are wrong, you would not be assumed to be lying, just mistaken; but in the second case, it is easy to lie, and you may be assumed to be some of the time, because you can easily misrepresent your beliefs of this type. But am I lying if I say that Medoc is the world's finest wine? I do not actually hold that belief--I don't have an opinion. Am I lying if you agree and not if you don't? We often believe that people are lying simply because what they believe is different from what we believe. Indeed, you can lie about the former type of belief more readily when your correspondent doesn't know the truth, and your lie should correspondingly be more believable: if you do not know where Medoc is, I can likely tell you that it is in Burgundy and you have no reason not to believe it. What generally stops us from doing this is the likelihood of your being unmisled.)
But increasing the set of beliefs of the first kind tends to leave you unable to have the second kind. The world, when explicable, becomes mundane, and the space in which beliefs in the intangible can live is narrowed. In a sense, you stop caring whether there is more to it: the solution you have is complete in itself and the world becomes manageable.
I don't know where I was going with that. My point is quite small though: as you learn more about how things work, you have less space for fantasies about how things work.
So if I know that I am a purely physical being, and can explain the appearance of a self purely mechanically, I no longer have space in my worldview for an eternal life.
Which is a pisser.
But on the other hand, I sometimes think to myself, well, you don't do anything much with your life now, so what use would more of it be? And I have a clear insight that this is true of any one of us: our achievements will be dust given the right timeframe. This seems to me to excuse lack of purpose or ambition. Purpose is ridiculous in a huge universe, and ambition meaningless in a life with a limit that is so short.
I was thinking today about Searle's Chinese room. I disagree with Searle that semantics is separate from syntax, as it happens. I believe "understanding", in the sense he is using it, is an epiphenomenon of the processing of information by syntactical rules, not something that exists as a thing in itself.
In other words, you understand Chinese because you can do certain sorts of mental processing, not because there is a property of understanding Chinese that is somehow an overlay on that processing.
I am interested in Searle's Chinese gym answer to Churchland's connectionist attack on his thought experiment.
Imagine, if you will, a Chinese gymnasium, with many monolingual English speakers working in parallel, producing output indistinguishable from that of native Chinese speakers: each follows their own (more limited) set of instructions in English. Still, Searle insists, obviously, none of these individuals understands; and neither does the whole company of them collectively. It's intuitively utterly obvious, Searle maintains, that no one and nothing in the revised "Chinese gym" experiment understands a word of Chinese either individually or collectively. Both individually and collectively, nothing is being done in the Chinese gym except meaningless syntactic manipulations from which intentionality and consequently meaningful thought could not conceivably arise.
I am not clear though why the human brain should be considered to be any different from the Chinese gym. The instructions that neurons follow are like the instructions in English that the people in the gym receive, and their outputs are like the sentences of Chinese that Searle's Chinese room produces. The neurons do not understand the process.
Searle wants an explanation for the understanding that a Chinese speaker has of Chinese. But he is making the assumption that the Chinese speaker does understand Chinese without plainly explaining what understanding it is and how it differs from simply being able to produce it by following certain rules.
Why does that explanation lack? Because Searle assumes it. He assumes that there just is a mind that just does think, and that thinking does not need to be defined in this case (well, we all know what it feels like, at least, so we know it as a phenomenon).
I've never been much convinced by arguments that piles of stones and cardboard tubes cannot think, because I do not see how a pile of stones and a cardboard tube are sufficiently different from a bunch of neurons that one can say the latter is capable of something the former is not just because of some special factor one has that the other doesn't. (By special factor, I mean not some ordinary factor such as being organic, because I think Searle and his kin would claim that a machine made out of hydrocarbons could not think either.)
In other words, I am not a dualist.
Eastern religions see enlightenment as the extinction of the self. You wake up to reality (which is unitary) and realise it has no space for the self. Science is proving Eastern thought right in that respect.
But it is, imo, massively wrong in many other respects. Most religions address a couple of fundamental questions: how did I get here and why should I live in a particular way? (The second question is not so much, what is a good life? although that is a precursor to it.) It seems that you could pretty much define any metaphysics as a religion so long as it answers those questions. The formal aspects of religion are in many ways just frills.
But without ego, it's hard to see why I should live in any particular way, or why how you got here is a particularly difficult question.
If we extinguish the self, it's hard to see why we need to escape becoming. If I am not, I did not ever become and will not become again.
(Before I receive a spanking from someone who understands Buddhism, please be clear that I understand how these contradictions are resolved; but I reject the resolution.)
Partly, of course, you need a theory of afterlife to provide a motivation for moral behaviour. We have motivation on a mundane level for cooperative behaviour (and this is arguably sufficient for a moral code, particularly if it is reinforced with a range of punitive behaviours that can be expected from others) but we do not have a motivation for being good as an aim in itself.
There is for sure a contradiction between nonself and becoming, and I don't think the analogy of a candle lighting another candle explains it away. I think that in the development of Eastern thought, it's likely that the concept of a continuing self must once have been established but was abandoned. We feel like we are not extinguishable, that we are something separate from the material world, separate even from our own bodies (even if you are not a dualist, the horse and jockey metaphor likely works for you, because it feels somewhat right).
We all have many beliefs that we believe to be of the first type but we do not know the evidence for them. I am not sure whether they are a third type of belief. I suppose they are. The first are nearly all "beliefs by convention": 2 + 2 is 4 because that is what those symbols are. I do not know whether 2 + 2 = 4 is the same thing as "two rocks plus two rocks are four rocks" but I think it is at least possible that it isn't. (I have been reading about number theory and it's quite striking that some of the fundamental numbers are not readily expressible in our number system: by which I mean they are not "closable". Pi is almost ineffable! You can describe its effects; you can explain methods of deriving it; but you cannot say what it, itself, is. It's just pi. And by "closable", I mean that you cannot describe it in finite terms by our number system: the description of pi cannot be smaller than our universe, even though pi can be contained by it. The same is true of e and i. Maybe they have a kind of meaning for mathematicians that they do not for me; I do not know what to make of their oddness, their "unclosability" (I am not sure whether there is any difference between that and "irrationality"). Anyway, number theory resembles a bag of clever tricks to make numbers work more than it does a description of anything "real". Anyone who has looked into how quite simple theorems were proved will know what I mean.)
I mean something like the big bang. I was talking to A today about the big bang, and she asked, as people are wont to do, how something could come out of nothing. Now, I know that something did not come out of nothing, because there wasn't even nothing, but I don't know what that means.
I believe it was like that but I don't know why you would believe it was like that.
I'm not in general fond of belief by trust (although it's a necessary outcome of the specialisation of knowledge that is a necessary outcome of the sheer volume of stuff we know) but I do not know how I would be able to acquire, or having acquired, understand, the evidence. I mean, I can go to Paris and verify that it is the capital of France, or I can take the view that it is because everyone says so (a sort of "black swan" theory of Paris' being the capital of France: a black swan disproves "swans are white" and someone's saying that Toulouse is the capital of France may not be a disproof but at least provides some evidence, however tiny, that Paris might not be--which allows the meaning of "is capital of" to be extended sufficiently to be useful in both "Paris is the capital of France" and "Jerusalem is the capital of Israel").
I think that if music has meaning then it disproves Searle.
I think you can view music as being absolute, but we interpret it as having meaning by some mechanism that does not belong in music, or you can view it as having meaning within itself.
Is it clear that numbers are the same? I think it should be. Either they are meaningful because their meaning lies within them and the processes that elaborate them, or they are meaningful because we apply an external semantics to them.
I do not think that music has meaning but I think Searle is still wrong.
There is no contradiction in this section and I defy anyone to find one. If you think there is one, you are simply unable to understand that disproofs are not limited by the nonexistence of any particular disproof (although that does not mean that they cannot be limited--although in general, they are unlimited: in other words, you can't prove a thing true because you do not know whether there really are no black swans, only that none of the previous swans was in fact black, even though some were claimed to be). In other words, even if I can't disprove Searle this way, it doesn't mean he cannot be disproved in another way. This truth is precisely what creationists rely on, and why they cannot be dismissed finally. It's also why PZ Myers is an idiot, I'm sorry to say, and Dawkins too. Each of them is correct that there are no black swans in evidence but each makes the mistake of thinking that this proves there are no black swans. God can create a black swan at any point that he wishes though, and there is nothing PZ can do to prove that wrong. That is simply an axiom of reason, painful though it may be to accept fully. God can exist: I do not believe that the belief space for God will ever be sufficiently small, even if it does seem small enough right now.