All Your Philosophical Problems are Belong to Us: Wittgenstein Shows Philosophy the Door

So, I’ve been a bit obsessed with Wittgenstein lately.  Once you understand the guy’s arguments, though, it’s pretty hard to shake them.  There are no philosophical problems, we find, only empirical, aesthetic/moral (not moral philosophy, mind you), and logical ones.

The gist of his thinking is that the meaning of most words are determined by human behavior.  Some words are not.  We are tempted into believe that words that are determined by human behavior are like those words that are not.  Take, for example, the classic “is my color red the same as your color red” problem.  He shows us that the phrase “my color red” is nonsense, as in it doesn’t mean anything, like the word shnibble.  The concept is simply not something that we can speak about, as “my experience of the color red” has no shared referant to ground the communication.  We fall victim to the illusion because the grammar of the word “red” is like the word “chair,” but, alas, common grammar means nothing for our purposes.  For more, check the Mark Alford website (a physicist whose website I have been reading compulsively in a desparate attempt to understand quantum mechanics) out or this alternately annoying and hilarious (as per the usual) David Foster Wallace essay.
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Born Under the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Despite the fact that I grew up a few miles from NASA’s Space & Rocket Center in Alabama, I knew appallingly little about Neil Armstong before learning of his death yesterday afternoon, apart from what every grade school student hears. But even so, his death has weighed on me in a way other celebrity deaths have not.

I’ve since discovered that Armstrong was an incredibly smart, lucid, humble man, who — in addition to being the first person on the fucking moon — was a professor of astrophysics and just an exceedingly nice human being by all accounts. For starters, this was his self-description:

I am, and ever will be, a white-socks, pocket-protector, nerdy engineer—born under the second law of thermodynamics, steeped in the steam tables, in love with free-body diagrams, transformed by Laplace, and propelled by compressible flow. As an engineer, I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.

And this video (via Ryan Cooper) of him describing the terrain of the moon and how distances appeared distorted is absolutely surreal and delightful.


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Going Back to the Start

I spent most of my childhood thinking I would end working up as some sort of scientist. This was the source of my motivation to learn most days. It was a conceit that led me to take the MCAT even when I had little interest in ever becoming a doctor. But more importantly, it was an interest that fueled my curiosity in philosophy, in nature, in myself, in other people. Nothing gave as full and unflinching a look at human origins and motivations and, in contrast to the preoccupations of our lives, the scale and overwhelming indifference of the universe. Read the rest of this entry »