The Horror Of Stuff: On Speaking Unspeakables

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: Objects in a scene as detected by an AI system. Image credit: wikimedia commons, MTheiler, CC BY-SA 4.0

The world we inhabit is a world of objects. Wherever we look, we find that it comes to us already disarticulated into cleanly differentiable chunks, individuated by certain properties: the mug on the desk is made of ceramic, the desk of wood; it is white, the desk black; and so on. By some means, these properties serve to circumscribe the object they belong to, wrapping it up into a neatly tied-up parcel of reality. No additional work needs to be done cutting up the world at its joints into individual objects.

Moreover, this fact typically doesn’t strike us as puzzling: objects seem entirely non-mysterious things. I could describe this coffee mug to you, and, if I include sufficient detail, you could fashion an identical one. The same procedure could be repeated for every object in my office, indeed, for the entire office itself.

Certainly: there may be edge cases. Where I see one cloud, you might see two. When the mug is glued to the desk, they don’t seem to become one object; but certain sorts of fastening, such as assembling various electronic components into a computer, seem to beget novel objects over and above mere collections of parts. Still: there are various ways out of these troubles. The computer can be described as various sorts of parts and their arrangement; the cloud by its shape.

Objects seem eminently describable sorts of things. There seems to be no residual mystery beyond an exhaustive specification of their properties. But not everything is so amenable to description, as speakable as objects seem to be. Read more »

The Choke-Hold Of Law: Freedom In A Physical World

by Jochen Szangolies

Figure 1: The dizziness of freedom.

There seems to be a peculiar kind of compulsion among the philosophically minded to return, time and again, to the issue of free will. It’s like a sore on the gums of philosophy—one that might heal if only we could stop worrying it with our collective tongues. Such a wide-spread affliction surely deserves a fitting name: I propose Morsicatio Libertatum (ML), the uncontrollable urge to chew on freedom.

With the implicit irony duly appreciated, I am no exception to this rule: bouts of ML seize me, on occasion, while taking a shower, while walking through the woods, while pondering what to have for dinner. If I differ in any way from the typical afflicted, then it’s because deep down, I am not at all convinced that the issue really matters all that much. In most discussions of the problem of freedom, each camp seems so invested in their position that they consider a contravening argument not just erroneous, but nearly a point of moral offense. But ultimately, wherever the chips may fall, we can do nothing but live our lives as we do: whether by fate’s preordainment or by our own choices.

After all, it’s not like we consider things only worthwhile if their completion is, in some sense, up to us: the last chapter of the novel you’re reading, the last scene of the film you’re watching was completed long before you ever turned the first page or switched on the TV. Yet, there may be considerable enjoyment in witnessing its unfolding. Even more obviously, the tracks the rollercoaster rides are right there, for you to see—but that doesn’t take away the thrill.

But still, my aim here is not to examine the psychology of arguing over free will (as rewarding a topic as that might prove). Rather, I am writing due to a particularly fierce recent bout of ML, brought on by finding myself suspended 100m above the ground, climbing through the steel trusses of Germany’s highest railway bridge, and wondering whether I’d gotten myself into this, of if I could blame the boundary conditions of the universe. Thus, perhaps this essay should best be considered therapeutic (then again, perhaps that’s true of all philosophy). Read more »

Removing the Blades from Hume’s Guillotine

by Tauriq Moosa

David-Hume-Scotland-17111776-289536 Hume’s Guillotine: “One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. This thesis, which comes from a famous passage in Hume's Treatise [says]: there is a class of statements of fact which is logically distinct from a class of statements of value. No set of statements of fact by themselves entails any statement of value. Put in more contemporary terminology, no set of descriptive statements can entail an evaluative statement without the addition of at least one evaluative premise. To believe otherwise is to commit what has been called the naturalistic fallacy.”

– John Searle, ‘How to Derive an “Ought” from an “Is”’, The Philosophical Review, 1964

Beware, people. This is a long piece. Even I’m uncertain about it. Here we go then.


Major ethicists like Immanuel Kant and indeed – to an extent – Thomas Aquinas sought to establish a rational basis for deriving moral considerations. Why rationality above other justifications? Consider: one and one is two. This is a statement that appears to hold true regardless of the state of the world, whether we’re dreaming or awake (as Descartes famously pointed out in his Meditations), whether we’re in pain, and so on. However there is an implicit assumption being made here, too: that if we do agree that one and one is two, we who agree to this statement are rational agents; that is, beings who accept the constraints and rules of logic and rationality.

This appears to only beg the question: Why should anyone accept that one and one is two? (This problem so vexed the young Bertrand Russell, that he nearly mentally destroyed himself as an adult trying to establish conclusively that one and one is two.) As Sam Harris has said, how do you convince a person not interested in rationality to use rationality? As soon as you start making rational arguments, you’ve already lost.

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