?

Log in

No account? Create an account
Descartes's visit to Semeiotics - Transience Divine
September 18th, 2010
11:43 am

[Link]

Previous Entry Share Next Entry
Descartes's visit to Semeiotics
First, are you'all interested in hearing about some of the quantitative results I encounter in classes? For example, in Environmental Science, we got a very simple demonstration of why the mean temperature of the earth is what it is. And in Micro, we learned that you cannot ever treat a group as a single individual (as is very often done), but as a result, you can mathematically calculate the number of individual decision-makers in a household from data (for example, households act like they have two decision-makers in Istanbul, but only one in rural Turkey). I can write them up, if you want.

E. V. Daniels's class on semeiotic anthropology never fails to involve an flood of ideas. For Thursday, we read Descartes's Meditations, for reasons that weren't immediately obvious. Below are a couple of the ideas that came out, plus a short argument from my response paper.

E. invited Descartes apparently to attack him, and to compare him to the Greek Skeptics, in whose footsteps Descartes claims to be following. Descartes claims to use doubt to uncover certainty, but that was the opposite of the Skeptics. For them, there were things in the world that were fundamentally unknowable. No matter how much you debate them, you'll be confronted with a state of isothenia, or equal-plausibility. The solution for a good life (ataraxia or peace of mind) in the face of these doubts was epoche, or the suspension of judgments.

E. likened this to the cultural embrace of incompleteness in southern Asia. He gave several anecdotal examples, each of which I think is interesting in its own way:

  • In building houses, you always start on the walls before finishing the last of the foundation, and the roof before finishing the last of the walls.

  • In buying lentils, you are expected to argue about the fairness of the scale, and in response you get an extra handful-- designed to be unmeasurable.

  • At weddings, you would never give an evenly measured gift (like 100 rupees). It is inauspicious. So you give 101 or some such.

  • Even for the finest rugs, there will be a mark (a stamp) to blemish them, because it would be conceited to make something that claimed to be perfect.

  • One never pays one's servants fully. Either one leaves a little out or gives a little loan, because to pay them fully would be to close the relationship.

In other words, exactitude is a Western pathology. The East and the ancients recognized that the world is complicated, irrational, and context determines truth.

Descartes's legacy was to replace this with the scientific method, and the supremacy of number. In Aristotle, the Greeks left the world mysterious by postulating incomprehensibility. It is this mysteriousness that Weber referred to when he said that "asceticism descended like a frost on the life of 'Merrie old England'."-- the great disenchantment of the world.

My response paper discussed a number of issues, but I thought my rebuttal of the ontological argument for the existence of God was the most interesting. (Which is not to say that there isn't a God, just that we will always be in a state if isothenia regarding it.)

My objection to Descartes proof of God is not to the ontological argument as such, for if you had an idea of a truly perfect being, then it is entirely plausible that it would only be possible by virtue of its granting it. My objection is that you do not have such an idea, but rather the idea of a very limited being, and that if I were to test the boundaries of this idea, I would find a number of limits, assumptions, and arbitrary characteristics in your "perfect idea", that you might even object to if I were to try to expand your idea beyond them. Here are two examples of these limits. First, that God is all-knowing, when knowledge is very possibly not an applicable concept for an entity which has no brain. Second, that I, James R., am God Himself, and that I have constructed this moment and manifested myself within it to educate you about the limits of the ontological argument. Even if you are open to these possibilities, I claim that it would take livetimes of work and superhuman intellectual capacities to develop even as perfect an idea of God as to allow another person's "perfect" idea of it.

(5 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments
 
[User Picture]
From:siderea
Date:September 18th, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
(Link)
I can write them up, if you want.

Oh, yes, please. Sounds fascinating.

One never pays one's servants fully. Either one leaves a little out or gives a little loan, because to pay them fully would be to close the relationship.

In other words, exactitude is a Western pathology.


That is an astonishing pair of sentences. The use of shorting or advancing employes as a way of compelling them to continue "the relationship" -- to work for you against their will -- is a venerable form of oppression in the West. It is the basis of indentured servitude, the company town, and sharecropping. The difference is in the West, we typically think economic defacto slvery is a moral wrong not a moral good, which is why, for instance failure to pay wages promptly in MA is not just tortious, but an actual crime for which one can go to jail.

I'll point out one could have inexactitude without oppression if instead of the superior determining the short or advance of the subordinate, the model of the lentils was applied, and the employee was customarily expected to argue for a bonus, and the employer customarily to acquiesce. (Though there is a problem with the lentil system too.) ETA: I believe this is called "tipping" in the West. ;)

Descartes's legacy was to replace this with the scientific method, and the supremacy of number.

Why is Descartes being blamed for this? See the marvellous Measure of Reality by Crosby; he argues thoroughly that the mentality of quantization hit Europe ~1200 to 1400 CE.

Edited at 2010-09-18 04:56 pm (UTC)
[User Picture]
From:jrising
Date:September 19th, 2010 03:00 am (UTC)
(Link)
The western ideal is based on having a contract, and laws to protect you say, "Even if you have an unwritten contract, or thought you did based on reasonable expectations, that contract will be enforced." But I'm not certain that contracts are very good ways to protect rights and expectations. They can work, but to claim that they are the cause of any less oppression or defacto slavery is a question for empirical research. I don't believe there was oppression or economic slavery in my example. When Flame had a dress made for her in India, she was told to underpay the first time, and overpay the second, and that the goal was to make sure that she properly paid the person, or otherwise brought in additional business for her, by the time the dress was done. I can't argue that there isn't more opportunity to short-change someone in a contractless system, but if short-changing them is the goal, contracts don't seem much of a barrier to people in power.

Why is Descartes being blamed for this? See the marvellous Measure of Reality by Crosby; he argues thoroughly that the mentality of quantization hit Europe ~1200 to 1400 CE.

Ooh, fascinating. This is a transition I'm very interested in-- thank you for the pointer! One of the reasons, though, that Descartes is blamed is because he invented analytic geometry (a pretty strong basis of any *relational* number-reducing), and because of how he improved on Bacon's scientific method with the addition of math.
[User Picture]
From:siderea
Date:September 19th, 2010 03:34 am (UTC)
(Link)
But I'm not certain that contracts are very good ways to protect rights and expectations.

OK, I'm open to that argument. Skeptical, but open.

They can work, but to claim that they are the cause of any less oppression or defacto slavery is a question for empirical research.

...hmmm. What kind of empirical research did you have in mind?

When Flame had a dress made for her in India, she was told to underpay the first time, and overpay the second, and that the goal was to make sure that she properly paid the person, or otherwise brought in additional business for her, by the time the dress was done.

Ooh, I like specific examples. Can you elaborate a bit? When you say, she was told to underpay the first time, what does that mean? What was the context? That is, was she told by the dressmaker "that will be $5.95" and she put $4 on the table? Or does the vendor not prompt the buyer to pay, and the buyer is to initiate the transaction? Was this one installment payment of several, or completely distinct purchases? Is there haggling or argument, ritualize or real, or does the buyer unilaterally decide how much to pay?
[User Picture]
From:jrising
Date:September 19th, 2010 02:52 pm (UTC)
(Link)
What kind of empirical research did you have in mind?

Roughly, we want to know if people get screwed over more or less by contracts vs. "understandings". Of course, defining these and measuring them, and accounting for other aspects of culture and east-west wealth differences is all very difficult but here's a possibility: Look just at small businesses in the US where both contracts and understandings are used. For each business relationship, have the business-owner rate if over the life of the relationship the business-owner was screwed or not, and whether it was based on contracts or not. Then compare: P(screwed given contract) = P(screwed AND contract) / P(contract) vs. P(screwed given not-contract) = P(screwed AND not-contract) / P(not-contract). There might be a Bayesian calculation in there too.

Ooh, I like specific examples. Can you elaborate a bit?

Sure. So, realize first that another person who knew the customs better was also there to help Flame. Flame and the dressmaker discussed what the dress would be, and then Flame asked how much it would cost. The woman said, 100 rupees, and Flame agreed and they picked out fabric (Flame doesn't know if by custom she should have asked the price or agreed at that point). When the dress was ready, they went back, but the woman helping Flame told her to only give 60 rupees. Flame didn't think that was right, and the woman helping said, "Well, you're going to get another dress made, right?" Flame said that she probably wasn't going to, so the woman suggested a compromise of 80 rupees. So she gave 80, and the dressmaker waddled her head (in that Indian fashion), and then asked if Flame wanted her to make a purse with the extra fabric. So Flame agreed and came back in two more days. Flame asked how much it cost, and the dressmaker didn't answer. So Flame gave the woman the extra 20 rupees from the dress plus more, and the dressmaker seemed happy.
[User Picture]
From:siderea
Date:September 19th, 2010 03:40 am (UTC)
(Link)
because of how he improved on Bacon's scientific method with the addition of math.

Huh. Now that you mention it, it never occurred to me to wonder how and when science and math initially hooked up. (You mean you can have peanut butter without chocolate?)
My Website Powered by LiveJournal.com