Arrived back in Balliol this afternoon, and College is cold and dark. The only people here are the porter and I, or so it feels, my room on top of the lodge, together guarding the frontier between the dark and empty quadrangles and the rest of the world outside. It’s very often cold here of course but it is strange to see Balliol so dark. I have seen the lights on in one tutor’s room and in one room which could belong to a tutor or a student, but other than that all the lights that are usually on all the time, aren’t on, which is striking. The various lantern-like things that ring the quad are shining out haphazardly, but every staircase is black, the SCR is dark, and all is very quiet. In the front quad it’s striking to see the library so dark, it’s usually a constant reminder that Studying Could Be Taking Place.
It’s as if the garden quadrangle is taking a deep breath along with me ready for the term ahead. I’m the only one here, let’s use that to get a head start on myself.
Last night I went to bed at around midnight and woke up at around 1:30 only to spend the next hour and a half trying to get back to sleep all the while tormented by a strange phenomenon that I have experienced, to my memory, only once before. I woke up with some kind of illogical problem, if you like, that is, a logic problem or puzzle perverted by the unconscious mind, as in dreams, into something that was not actually a problem to be solved, being entirely nonsensical. But my mind would not give it up. I was thinking of two slice-of-a-pie shapes, one labelled with a zero and the other with a one, and I was trying to fit one inside the other, and there was some problem with this because in the shape these slices were taken from (not a circle), the two pieces weren’t adjacent. I think that there was another ‘problem’ enmeshed with this too that came up later, replacing this first one.
When I write these blog posts or think of the idea to write them, I find myself gushing with ideas of clever and/or apparently true things I might say. I don’t know how many of these are good, and certainly there are times in posts entirely about, rather than merely inspired by, my own life, when I run away with myself and thus end up saying lots of things about the future that will never end up actually coming true. So I’m apprehensive about this post. I do not wish to speak prematurely, and I do not wish to damage progress by writing about it, which can happen as psychologists think that we use up some of our determination in telling others about our determination. Nor do I wish to suggest that I am not aware that there is far further to go than this post might suggest I think there is. My proposed antidote to this is to suppress my gushing flow of sentences and just note down a few things. The whole point of having a blog like this is to write what I’m thinking right now so that’s what I’ll do.
I am filled with hope for my future that I have not felt for a long time because I have had two successful days of work that I have not had for so long, and it seems to me that all I need to do to achieve the serenity I desire is to just keep doing this, more groundedly, if I can do this for the next six months, my degree is certainly sorted out.
I have been reading Plato and Aristotle intensively for the past two days or so and in between sessions of doing so I’ve spent some time reading about Ancient Philosophy on the Stanford Encyclopedia, a resource many fellow philosophy students swear by but one which I have not used much at all myself, preferring to rely on the content of my reading lists.
I had begun to think recently that my interests in philosophy lie more in the direction of epistemology and metaphysics, knowledge and reality: how we ought to think about learning and knowledge, and how we ought to view the fundamental structure of what is. This was reinforced by how much harder I find it to study ethics than to study theoretical philosophy (a useful term for this sort of stuff, adding in things like the philosophy of language).
But the platonic Socrates has been encouraging me to reassess these priorities. Nevermind that the question ‘how should I live?’ is only interesting within a certain set of ways of looking at the whole project of ethics, and uninteresting in others: it seems to me to be almost self-evident that for a rational being this question must be pursued.
I should blog more about the philosophy I’m studying and the related thoughts I’m having, not worrying about them being unpolished, for looking back on such scraps is intensely valuable.
I recently linked to a blog I discovered which distressed me because the author seemed to start with self-improvement and end up with the claim that part of bettering oneself is learning how to persuade drunken women to sleep with you. Last week I spent some time pursuing the things this blog linked to, uncovering an online community with something like these beliefs. Here is a stringing together of some information about said community, some thoughts of mine, and a sort-of application. It is even less polished than usual, for I do not intend to refer to any of these sites or my notes when writing, because I really need to stop blogging and go to bed. I should say that I think I’ve come across this stuff before. But this is the first time I have tried to understand the people involved and assess some aspects of it.
In a recent daily Day9 made some suggestions for SC2-years’ resolutions, and I’ve decided to take one or two on, not as New Years’ resolutions but just as interesting things to try. Already after just five games they are making things a lot more fun. Here’s my personal combination of the suggestions:
Lots of people have heard of ‘polyphasic sleep’ even if not by that name—it’s when you sleep for a total of three or four hours a day by spreading it out into naps, the aim being nothing more than spending less time sleeping. Apparently commandos are trained to switch to schemes like this if they are stuck in the worst of situations, and need more time to make progress.
Clearly polyphasic sleep isn’t at all practical for the rest of us though for the simple reason that other people don’t do it. In order for it to work you have to stick to the schedule, or you will be severely sleep deprived, so that means you suddenly have immovable chunks of your schedule: you absolutely cannot meet someone or visit somewhere between 3 and 4:30pm, for example. And all that extra time you’re awake in the night is only useful for working on your own; it’s going to be very dependent on your profession as to whether that’s suitable.
This afternoon I came across ‘biphasic sleep’ where you nap at a regular time in the evening, and then go to bed later and get up earlier, so for example you sleep 7:30pm-9pm and then 1:30am-6am. People say that it improves sleep quality and, again, it cuts down the amount of time you have to spend sleeping for the same effect, but it’s a compromise with the rest of the world: there’s only one part of the day that you are unavailable for, and it’s not part of the standard ‘working day,’ so the worst that could happen is that you miss early evening social activities—but these tend to be followed by late evening social activities, so it’s cool.
I like this idea a lot, and perhaps come the long vac this summer I will try it out; not practical until then.
Nothing is more usual in philosophy, and even in common life, than to talk of the combat of passion and reason, to give the preference to reason, and assert that men are only so far virtuous as they conform themselves to its dictates. Every rational creature, tis said, is oblig’d to regulate his actions by reason; and if any other motive or principle challenge the direction of his conduct, he ought to oppose it, till it be entirely subdu’d, or at least brought to a conformity with that superior principle. On this method of thinking the greatest part of moral philosophy, antient [sic] and modern, seems to be founded’ nor is there an ampler field, as well for metaphysical arguments, as popular declamations, than this suppos’d pre-eminence of reason above passion. The eternity, invariableness, and divine origin of the former have been display’d to the best advantage: The blindness, unconstancy and deceitfulness of the latter have been as strongly insisted on. In order to show the fallacy of all this philosophy, I shall endeavour to prove first, that reason alone can never be a motive to any action of the will; and secondly, that it can never oppose passion in the direction of the will. —Hume, Treatise, bk. 2, pt. 3, §3, ¶1
Something frustrating happened this week. Friend bought StarCraft II, great, but there was no serial number in the box, not so great. Blizzard wanted a picture of the receipt and the box for proof of purchase before supplying a replacement key, fine, friend has no camera, so I take a shot using mine. To get photo onto computer need to open back of phone and put card in, turn phone back on and copy it to card, then take card out again, couldn’t open phone, threw it hard at the floor to ‘loosen’ it, phone now won’t turn on, so have broken phone and failed to achieve sorting serial number. Place order for new phone, friend refuses to ask someone else and places order for cable to connect his phone to his computer.
After obnoxious Windows Phone stuff on my computer as friend does not have his own computer in Oxford, acquire photos. Blizzard then refuse to give key. I write a very assertive message for my friend in his trouble ticket and they cave and upgrade his account.
Meanwhile my phone has still not arrived. Turns out it got posted to SilentFlame, Balliol College not Sean Whitton, Balliol College. V. frustrating. Now finally have phone.
New phone is decidedly less annoying than previous one (though even more basic, no camera or memory card capacity or MP3 playing capabilities) so I am going to make another attempt to actually get good at responding to texts and calls, as good as I am with e-mails. Old phone frequently gave me no indication I was being called until immediately after the other person gave up, and also it would randomly turn off. Hopefully new one will not.
Just spent an hour typing numbers into the phone; now to head back to the library.
I find it easy to fall into this trap when things are going well; I’ll stop making the most of opportunities because I think it’s fine and then it’s hard to get back to where you were.
The core of my Emacs setup revolving around Org-mode, plus my Emacs-styled web browser Conkeror, do not change their configuration very often at all, so time is not wasted on that, and yet they make the stuff I actually do go very smoothly as they are setup carefully to make that happen. The problem is that the rest of my computing setup isn’t quite so slick. There is stuff lumped into Emacs that makes it throw random errors and refuse to do things and to load slowly; it now takes upwards of thirty seconds to open my diary on my laptop, for example, and another 30 seconds to switch to view a day other than today. Solving these issues tends to be mini-projects: I’ll sit down for three or four hours and get things fixed.
My new environment is setup and it’s so horrible. I’ve got everything I need working so far as I can tell but there are places where colours are not what I am used to and the Gnus->mutt transition is a HUGE step down. Urgh. Bitstream Vera within Emacs is being hinted all wrong, and it almost hurts my eyes.
What’s worse are the three tasks that remain: sort out my Mutt address book (have no idea how to do that right now), massively strip down Emacs, and then duplicate this setup on my laptop.
But this is the point. I’m using this as an opportunity to reshape my habits. I’m robbing myself of a certain degree of efficiency which will make me uncomfortable here and remind me that I probably shouldn’t be at the computer as much as I am. For the next week or so my laptop will remain on CRUX so I won’t have to suffer this discomfort all the time.
Very little to say about Maths. Only doing Set Theory. Have been to a couple of lectures, skipped one or two others, and spent about three hours in total over last night and this morning doing the first rather easy problem sheet, so that’s a quarter of the term’s Maths signed off six days in advance of the deadline.
My own philosophical sympathies and antipathies are easily stated. I believe one should trust problems over solutions, intuition over arguments, and pluralistic discord over systematic harmony. Simplicity and elegance are never reasons to think that a philosophical theory is true: on the contrary, they are usually grounds for thinking it false. Given a knockdown argument for an intuitively unacceptable conclusion, one should assume there is probably something wrong with the argument that one cannot detect—though it is also possible that the source of the intuition has been misidentified. … What ties these views about philosophical practice together is the assumption that to create understanding, philosophy must convince. That means that it must produce or destroy belief, rather than merely provide us with a consistent set of things to say. And belief, unlike utterance, should not be under the control of the will, however motivated. It should be involuntary. —T. Nagel, Mortal Questions, pp. xx–xi
Just quoted Nagel in a post on here as I have done before. When I read Nagel I always get the sense that something very deep is being investigated: this is both the feeling of depth and importance and also the intellectual realisation that what is being discussed here, if taken seriously, is going to have implications across philosophy.
The thoughts in the preface to Mortal Questions that I just quoted are driving me away from my pyrrhonism. There is the suggestion there that it is a foolish hunger for belief that backfires into the claim that there aren’t any answers to be had: more patience is called for.
Wikipedia’s characterisation of pyrrhonism is very nice:
According to them, even the statement that nothing can be known is dogmatic. They thus attempted to make their skepticism universal, and to escape the reproach of basing it upon a fresh dogmatism. Mental imperturbability (ataraxia) was the result to be attained by cultivating such a frame of mind. As in Stoicism and Epicureanism, the happiness or satisfaction of the individual was the goal of life, and all three philosophies placed it in tranquility or indifference. According to the Pyrrhonists, it is our opinions or unwarranted judgments about things which turn them into desires, painful effort, and disappointment. From all this a person is delivered who abstains from judging one state to be preferable to another. But, as complete inactivity would have been synonymous with death, the skeptic, while retaining his consciousness of the complete uncertainty enveloping every step, might follow custom (or nature) in the ordinary affairs of life. source
Plato was uneasy because he knew and feared the strength and the moral appeal of the forces he tried to break. He did not dare to challenge them, but tried to win them over for his own purposes. Whether we witness in Plato’s writings a cynical or conscious attempt to employ the moral sentiments of the new humanitarianism for his own purposes, or whether we witness rather a tragic attempt to persuade his own better conscience of the evils of individualism, we shall never know. My personal impression is that the latter is the case, and that this inner conflict is the main secret of Plato’s fascination. I think that Plato was moved to the depths of his soul by the new ideas, and especially by the great individualist Socrates and his martyrdom. And I think that he fought against this influence upon himself as well as upon others with all the might of his unequalled intelligence, though not always openly. This explains also why from time to time, amid all his totalitarianism, we find some humanitarian ideas. And it explains why it was possible for philosophers to represent Plato as a humanitarian. —K.R. Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies, 2nd ed., vol. 1, ch. 6, p. 109