Beauty


When contemplating the property beauty, as with knowledge, it turns out to be very difficult to provide an uncontentious analysis. Because of its many different conceptions and dimensions, the full value of beauty is surprisingly hard to capture. To that end, below is a list of quotations to help sketch a definition of the property beauty.

“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
– Confucius

“The voice of beauty speaks softly; it creeps only into the most fully awakened souls.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

“Beauty awakens the soul to act.”
– Dante Alighieri

“Beauty is not caused. It is.”
– Emily Dickinson

“Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
But you are eternity and you are the mirror.”
– Khalil Gibran

“Whatever the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth whether it existed before or not.”
– John Keats

“There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.”
– Edgar Allan Poe

“Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”
– David Hume

“Beauty is a form of Genius – is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in the dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it.”
– Oscar Wilde

“Beauty, to me, is about being comfortable in your own skin. That, or a kick-ass red lipstick.”
– Gwyneth Paltrow

“Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”
– Anne Frank

See more: Approximations

How to Derive an Ought from an Is


The 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume famously argued that no description of the way the world is (facts) can tell us how the world ought to be (values). Hume’€™s argument was actually directed against religious apologists who sought to deduce morality from the existence of God.

Ironically, however, Hume’s reasoning has since become one of the primary causes why some people – mainly of religious persuasion – fail to link morality to human knowledge. In fact, Hume may well have been wrong in his reasoning, since there is strong logical evidence to suggest one can indeed derive an ought from an is.

Alexander Stoddart’s statue of David Hume dressed as a classical thinker

Axiom 1: There are behaviours, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which potentially lead to the worst possible misery for everyone. There are also behaviours, intentions, cultural practices, etc. which do not, and which, in fact, lead to states of well-being for many sentient creatures, to the degree that well-being is possible in this universe.

Axiom 2: While it may often be difficult in practice, distinguishing between these two sets is possible in principle.

Axiom 3: Our values are ways of thinking about this domain of possibilities. If we value liberty, privacy, benevolence, dignity, freedom of expression, honesty, good manners, the right to own property, etc.—we value these things only in so far as we judge them to be part of the second set of factors conducive to (someone else’s) well-being.

Axiom 4: Values, therefore, are (explicit or implicit) judgements about how the universe works and are themselves facts about our universe (i.e. states of the human brain).

Axiom 5: It is possible to be confused or mistaken about how the universe works. It is, therefore, possible to have the wrong values (i.e. values which lead toward, rather than away from, the worst possible misery for everyone).

Axiom 6: Given that the well-being of humans and animals must depend on states of the world and on states of their brains, and science represents our most systematic means of understanding these states, science can potentially help us avoid the worst possible misery for everyone.

On David Hume and Miracles


“He says if something appears to have happened that is not consistent with the laws of nature (the laws of nature have been suspended), there are two contingencies: either that the laws of nature have been suspended (in your favour) or that you’re under a misapprehension. Which is the likeliest?

It’s always likeliest that you’re always under a misapprehension. And if you’re hearing about this from someone who claims to have seen it, and you were getting it second hand, the odds that it’s a misapprehension that’s being spread are exponential increased. So if I heard voices telling me to do something and that this was on behalf of a deity, I would check myself in.”

Christopher Hitchens

Turtles All The Way Down


A jocular expression of the infinite regress problem in cosmology posed by the unmoved mover paradox – a philosophical concept described by Aristotle as a primary cause or mover of all the motion in the universe. As is implicit in the name, the unmoved mover is not moved by any prior action. Aristotle argues, in Book 8 of the Physics Book 12 of the Metaphysics: “there must be an immortal, unchanging being, ultimately responsible for all wholeness and orderliness in the sensible world.”

“Turtles all the way down” is a phrase that was popularized by Stephen Hawking in 1988. The turtle metaphor in the anecdote represents a popular notion of a so-called primitive cosmological myth, the flat earth supported on the back of a World Turtle. A person who believes the Earth rests on a giant turtle can thereby also deny the existence of the universe.

A Florida Box Turtle or Terrapene Carolina Bauri

A comparable metaphor describing the circular cause and consequence for the same problem is the chicken and egg problem – which came first? Another metaphor addressing the problem of this infinite regression (as the turtles would imply), albeit not in a cosmological context, is Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – a phrase coined by the Roman poet Juvenus which is often translated as “Who watches the watchmen?” The same problem in epistemology is known as the Münchhausen Trilemma.

The Trilemma was named after Baron Münchhausen, who allegedly pulled himself (and the horse he was sitting on) out of a swamp by his own hair. This Trilemma is a philosophical term coined to stress the purported impossibility to prove any truth even in the fields of logic and mathematics. If we ask of any knowledge: “How do I know that it’s true?”, we may provide proof; yet that same question can be asked of the proof, and any subsequent proof. The Münchhausen Trilemma is that we have only three options when providing proof in this situation:

  • The circular argument, in which theory and proof support each other (i.e. we repeat ourselves at some point) “Only an untrustworthy person would run for office. The fact that politicians are untrustworthy is proof of this.”
  • The regressive argument, in which each proof requires a further proof ad infinitum (i.e. we just keep giving proofs, presumably forever) “A is proven by B, which is proven C, which proven by D etcetera ad infinitum.”
  • The axiomatic argument, which rests on accepted precepts (i.e. we reach some bedrock assumption or certainty) “A. Baron Münchhausen exists, B. Baron Münchhausen has got hairs on his head etcetera.”

The first two methods of reasoning are fundamentally weak, and because the Greek sceptics advocated deep questioning of all accepted values and refused to accept (unconditional axiomatic) proofs of the third sort. The trilemma, then, is the decision among these three equally unsatisfying options.

Back to turtles. The most widely known version of the Turtles All The Way Down story appears in Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which starts:

A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the centre of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”

Hawking’s suggested connection to Russell may be due to Russell’s 1927 lecture Why I Am Not a Christian. In it, while discounting the First Cause argument intended to be a proof of God’s existence, Russell comments (with an argument not relevant to modern Hindu beliefs):

If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.”

There is an allusion to the story in David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (published in 1779):

How can we satisfy ourselves without going on in infinitum? And, after all, what satisfaction is there in that infinite progression? Let us remember the story of the Indian philosopher and his elephant. It was never more applicable than to the present subject. If the material world rests upon a similar ideal world, this ideal world must rest upon some other; and so on, without end. It were better, therefore, never to look beyond the present material world.

Philosophical allusion to the story goes back at least as far as John Locke. In his 1690 tract An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke compares one who would say that properties inhere in “substance” to the Indian who said the world was on an elephant which was on a tortoise “but being again pressed to know what gave support to the broad-backed tortoise, replied — something, he knew not what.”

The fact is the world does not rest on elephants, turtles or any other animal for that matter. However, the reasoning and philosophical attempts to prove a possibility of there being a giant tortoise on which the earth can rest are fascinating. Just as fascinating as the cultures out of which these beliefs have emerged.

To quote comedian Rich Hall: “This is why America has a space program.”

See other: Admin’s Choice Posts

Is–ought Problem


In 1739 Hume discusses the problem in book III, part I, section I of his work, A Treatise of Human Nature:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.

David Hume

For thousands of years philosophers and thinkers have asked the questions such as “What should I do?”, “What should be my purpose?”, “What is the meaning of life?”. Even after all this time, people still ask these questions, and do not come up with self satisfying answers. David Hume recognized that one cannot deduce what one ought to do from what is.

For example, you cannot deduce that your hair should look neat and clean from the observation “I have thick dark brown hair.”. So how can one ever make a statement proclaiming what one should do?

Indeed, it is true that it cannot be deduced what one ought to do from merely what is. “Should” is a declaration that it is best for a thing to act or be some way in order to achieve a particular goal. There is always a goal, frequently implied. Your mother may have told you “You should brush your teeth after breakfast and before bed time.”. You asker her “Why?”, and she replied “So that your teeth don’t rot away.”. You asked “Why?” again, and she said “So you look healthy and can digest food properly.”. You asked “Why?” again, and she replied “So people will enjoy looking at you and making friends with you, and so that you don’t die early from malnutrition.”. You asked “Why?” again, and she was stumped, and replied “Because mother says so, now brush your teeth or I’m going to have daddy make you.”. Weren’t you smart, if there is no basis reason to brush your teeth, then how can she be correct in making you brush your teeth before going to bed? Before being able to decide what one should do, one first needs a goal.

There is no universal goal. It is not satisfactory to include what one ought to do in your definition of what one is. Rand tried to do this with her concept of a “proper man”. There is no goal prescribed by properties of the universe. No scientist will ever deduce what one should do from discovering the properties of elemental components of the universe. Nor will a religious person ever satisfactorily discover a worthwhile goal from some proposed God. Lacking evidence, a religious person accepts a proposed God’s moral commands. They then frequently claim that a non-believer lacks morality. But their reason for acceptance of the moral commands are baseless: still the same problem.

How do we come about acquiring a goal, one’s first goal, one’s primary goal, and have a satisfactory logically valid reason for having it? It is impossible, unless you finally accept that your first goal is baseless. The meaning of life only exists as chosen by the individual. “The meaning of life”, your goals, are chosen by you. One’s only defence to someone’s criticism is “These are the goals chosen and that is how it is.”.

So in this way, one can have goals. Once can then build a collection of behaviours and actions to perform and avoid in various contexts in order to accomplish one’s goals. This collection is one’s morals.

Many individuals have morals that guide each of them to perform actions that are mutually beneficial. Rand’s morals to act in one’s own rational self interest is an excellent example. Given that one’s goal is to live a healthy happy life long term:

Through specialization comes increased productivity. Alone, an individual must do everything required to survive, gathering food, water, and maintaining one’s shelter, leaving little room for specialization. In a free market economic system the products of one’s labour can be exchanged for what one desires. One can specialize in growing corn, and produce incredible saleable value in the free market, then purchase more items and services than one could create and perform by oneself. Hence producers and traders have generally mutually beneficial relationships.