A Candle in the Dark

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Archive for October 2006

Ancient Greek Philosophy

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Dabbling in Philosophy

During my humanities course, I came across many different philosophers and various systems of philosophy which, in a sense, intrigued me. So I began wondering, what is the significance of it?

Philosophy can be defined as the “system of beliefs accepted as authoritative by some group or school, the rational investigation of questions about existence and knowledge and ethics”1

In other words, with the advent of the scientific method, philosophy is usually opiniated, unverifiable, meaningless and vague mumbo-jumbo put forward by individuals who wish to appear smart (sartre!). That sounds very harsh, but I’ll explain why I think so later. Neverthless, philosophy gives an interesting insight into how humans try to make sense of it all.

Before we begin discussing the various systems of philosophy, I’ll point out that each form of philosophy usually tries to answer questions like,
-What is the goal of human life?
-What is knowledge?

I’ll share what conclusions I’ve drawn from my dabblings later on. Anyway, In my quest to understand, I started at the beginning of western philosophy, which is the ancient Greek (Hellenistic) philosophy. There are many systems of beliefs, so I’ll discuss only the major ones here.

(i) Sophism
Sophism comes from the greek work sophistes. In greek history, sophists were a a type of thinkers who used to sell “wisdom”, often for a very high fee. This technique was referred to as sophism. The sophists used to teach whatever subject which was in demand, such as rhetoric, debate and grammar. While initially respected, the sophists were soon frowned upon for the practice of taking money to disseminate knowledge. The tendency of the sophists to argue for the sake of arguing, and to attempt to prove any position regardless of knowledge of the subject led to them gradually lost respect. Even in Greece, there was a certain antagonism towards sophists.2

Nowadays, sophism refers to a confusing and intentionally illogical argument to obfuscate a point, often using flowery language.

(ii) Platonism
Platonism refers to ideas, believed to be endorsed by the greek philosopher, Plato who lived during the 4th century BC. Platonism deals with the existence of abstract objects, which don’t have physical or mental manifestation and don’t exist in space or time.

Then, what are such objects? According to platonism, objects like numbers and proposition are abstract objects. For example, platonism contends that numbers exist irrespective of individual thoughts, and don’t exist in space or time.

Over the years, there have been a number of arguments against Platonism (*predictably, because it’s so abstract*) which challenges the ideas of platonism.

(iii) Stoicism
Stoicism was one of the most popular forms of philosophy among the educated classes in the Greek and Roman empires. Stoicism comes from the greek word stoa, which refers to the painted porch in Athens where it was taught by Zeno.

The an important idea in Stoicism was that knowledge can be obtained through the senses alone. The Stoics (those who practised Stoicism), claimed that, initially the mind is empty and blank and knowledge is inscribed into the mind through our physical senses. They contended that, all knowledge is merely an impression through our senses, and as a result, the truth (ie, whether our knowledge is true) does not depends on concepts, but only on an individuals sensations. (*Whew, that was abstract!*). As a consequence, they claimed that there is no universal criterion of truth.

This stoic logic led to many interesting consequences. It’s really fascinating to read about the beliefs, values and ethics of the stoics, as it gives an insight into how the men of greece tried to make sense of the world. Finally, a major theme in stoicism is freeing the mind of anguish, suffering and passion, to follow reason and “live according to nature”. So, in stoicism, virtue and morality are a consequence of rational actions.

In modern language, a stoic refers to person who isn’t affected by emotions, such as joy or sadness.

(iv) Hedonism
Hedonism comes from the greek word hēdonē, which means pleasure. The basic idea behind hedonism is fairly straight forward (A pleasant change!). Hedonism claims that all our actions are motivated by either pleasure, or pain. In the words of the english philosopher Jeremy Bentham,

“Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain, and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do”

There are various schools of thought in Hedonism itself which expands this idea to various social systems such as economy, rationalise the ethical and moral consequences of such actions, and tries to relate them to concepts such as utilitarianism (ie, how to make a large number of the population happy).

(v) Epicureanism
Epicureanism refers to the teachings of the greek philosopher Epicurus, who lived in the 3rd century BC. Analagous to Hedonism, Epicureanism belive that the goal of human is happiness, and the absence of pain.

Interestingly, Epicurus formulated a complete system of the world. He believed in the idea proposed by his teacher’s teacher Democritus, that all physical objects are made up of small discrete, solid and indivisible particles (not exactly atoms as we know it today, but similar) and empty spaces or voids. As a consequence, Epicurus was also able to put forward an elaborate (and incorrect) theory of why objects fall to the earth. Epicureanism also goes on to hypothesise on the nature of the “soul”, and how society is shaped.

In religion, Epicureanism proposes that gods, while they exist, do not interfere with human affairs. In the absence of the punishment of the gods, Epicureanism justifies morality by claiming that unjust actions and crimes will lead to a lack of tranquility which will affect happiness

In modern usage, an epicure is a person with refined taste, devoted to sensuous pleasure and luxurious living.

External resources:
Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
MIT OpenCourseWare: Linguistics and Philosophy

Written by parseval

October 24, 2006 at 2:21 pm

Posted in philosophy

Ergo Proxy

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Ergo Proxy

For all those of you who watch anime, I recently came across this fantastic series which I highly recommened. Ergo Proxy is a dark, futuristic, science fiction based anime. The visuals are stunningly rendered using digital cell animation and 3D computer modelling.

The story is based in a futuristic city known as Romdeau. The city itself is a typical Asimovian domed city, with it’s human inhabitants existing along with their robot servants (called as autoraves). The plot centers around the sudden appearence of mysterious creatures, called Proxies, and the spread of the Cogito virus. The virus (probably named after the phrase by Descartes) infects the autoraves and enables them to “think”, with the consequence being that the robot obtain “free will”. (You can pretty much guess what this leads to!)

The plot is sophisticated and takes many twists, and although slightly confusing at times, has many subtle (sometimes obscure) philosophical and historical themes. There are references to various individuals from diverse fields such as Alan Turing, the French poet Joë Bousquet, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the post-strucuralist philosopher Julia Kristeva, and even John Millais and his painting Ophelia, on which an entire episode is based. The influence of Greek and Aztec mythology in some of the episodes is also evident.

If you have time to kill and want to watch something interesting, I think you should give Ergo Proxy a try. It’s very enjoyable and refreshing to watch.

External links:
Review of Ergo Proxy – Some spoilers

Written by parseval

October 21, 2006 at 10:12 pm

Posted in anime

Grameen Bank

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Grameen Bank

Continuing the Nobel theme, the Peace prize was recently awarded to the Grameen Bank and it’s founder Muhammad Yunus 1. I think this is one decision which the Nobel comittee have got spot on. The Grameen Bank movement entirely deserves this recognition and must be applauded for it’s innovative and effective method to fight poverty and create economic and social development.

For those of you who haven’t heard of the Grameen Bank (which planet are you from?), it’s an organization which was founded in Bangladesh by Muhammad Yunus. Yunus got his Ph.D. in economics from Vanderbilt University in 1969, and after a brief stint in Tennessee State University moved back to Bangladesh. During the famine of 1974, he noticed that even small loans could play an important role to uplift impoverished farmers. At that time, traditional banks did not issue loans to poor people, because of the high risk of non repayment. In 1976, Yunus founded the Grameen bank to issue loans, even very small ones, to poor people such as beggars or fisher women.

To tackle the issue of repayment, the Grameen bank organized the poor into small groups. Each group elects an accountant who keeps track of the daily payments, the accounts of individual members, and issues loans. The group as a whole, then deposits the money at a local bank. Trust is formed within the members due to the nature of the small close-knit community, where each poor person can relate to other members. Every such group also has it’s own set of rules which dictates how much each member can borrow, etc.

This system has an important advantage over other schemes, because, even small amounts of the daily earnings can be saved by a group member, rather than being spent on alcohol or other such consumables. Also, the loans issued by the Grameen bank are interest free, and the repayment time can be very long. These loans can also be used to manufacture and sell low-cost products, invest in equipment such as fishing nets, or even used for personal reasons like weddings. There’s also an interesting trend which shows how money issued to women brings much more benefit to the family. As a consequence, over 97% of it’s members are women!

The Grameen Bank is amazingly efficient in fighting poverty. The bank has loaned out more than 5 billion USD, with a repayment rate of over

While the Indian Government is spending large amounts of money annually to fight poverty with no visible effects, the Grameen Bank sets an example on how to effectively and efficiently break the cycle of poverty.

Related external links

Grameen Bank at a glance
What is Microcredit? – Muhammed Yunus
Grameen Bank – wikipedia
Ten Indicators to Assess Poverty level – Muhammed Yunus

Written by parseval

October 16, 2006 at 9:48 am

Posted in economics, nobel prize

Physics Nobel

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It’s that month of the year when we honour the men and women who represent the pinnacle of human achievement, marvel at their magnificence, applaud their brilliance and … enough with the eloquence. To get to the point, it’s Nobel Prize time!

The Nobel Prize in physics for 2006 was awarded to two Americans, John C. Mather and George F. Smoot “for their discovery of the black body form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation.”

What did they do to get the nobel? Their work helped in providing very strong experimental evidence which supports the hot big-bang model of the universe. Mather and Smoot were involved in analysing the data of the COBE satellite, which was placed on orbit on November 18, 1989

The picture to the left shows the cosmic microwave background spectrum, carefully measured by the FIRAS instrument on the COBE satellite. In fact, this is the most accurately measured spectrum in nature. The error bars are so small, they can’t be drawn on the graph! Also, the data points can’t be seen, because they fit the theoretical curve so perfectly!

Now, the Cosmic microwave background (CMB) is a consequence of the big bang theory. In the beginning, the universe was a hot plasma full of high energy protons, baryons and what not. It was so dense, that even photons couldn’t travel through. As the universe expanded and coooled, the protons and electrons combined to form neutral atoms, and the photons (ie, light) was able to travel freely. So, the theory says that the radiation emitted at that point, was that of a perfect black body from a spherical surface. Look at the graph of intensity vs wavenumber again. It shows that the experimental data collected by COBE, matches absolutely perfectly with the black body graph.

The ansiotropic effects (property of being directionally dependent) of the CMB were predicted by the theory due to scattering at the surface. This was also succesfully measured by the COBE satellite.

Per Carlson, the chairman of the Nobel committee for physics, said

It is one of the greatest discoveries of the century. I would call it the greatest. It increases our knowledge of our place in the universe.

Written by parseval

October 3, 2006 at 5:40 pm

Posted in nobel prize, physics

Detainee bill

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What’s the fundamental right that we expect when arrested? Obviously, it’s the right to challenge our detention and an opportunity to prove our innocence. Habeas corpus is the legal mechanism that gives people the right to ask courts to review their imprisonment and establish innocence or guilt. Yet, the US senate recently approved the detainee bill, which gives the authority to detain non-citizens indefinitely and without any charges being placed.

Now, Section 9 of the US constitution states that

The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it.

Is the situation in the US so grave, that the senate strikes down constitutional privileges with such impertinence? This action, which is fueled by irrational paranoia, is so barbaric that it strikes at the very heart of the freedom, democracy and liberty which symbolizes America.

It isn’t that hard to imagine innocent civilians (like Maher Arar), picked up from Iraq or Afganistan as a suspected enemy combatant, shipped to a secret CIA prison in Egypt, Syria, Eastern Europe or Jordan, tortured physically and psychologically, threatened with electrocution and then indefinitely locked away from their family and loved ones without a chance to prove their innocence! Not that many Americans would care. How many American citizens are going to be detained as enemy combatants?

The Democratic senator Chris Dodd has some strong words,

This longstanding tradition of our country about to be abandoned here is one of the great, great mistakes that I think history will record

Disturbingly, there was another instance in history when civil liberties of citizens were restricted. In 1933, the Reichstag Fire Decree issued in Nazi Germany read

Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom [ habeas corpus ], freedom of opinion, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications, and warrants for house searches, orders for confiscation as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

Though the parallels are thankfully very limited, it’s a disturbing trend to witness.

Written by parseval

October 1, 2006 at 10:17 am

Posted in bush, politics