Pre-Socratics Journal, Part 6: Empedocles

The ancient Greek philosopher Empedocles devised an intriguing model for the universe. He held it to have been a unity dominated by two fundamental organizing principles: Love and Strife. No “problem of evil” for the thinker Empedocles.

Empedocles, like the other pre-Socratics, did discourse on “scientific” subjects at times in terms of utter nonsense: he held that oxen with the faces of men could be born, for instance, but it was his idea that Love (Aphrodite) makes one out of many–a repeated phrase with him–that caught my attention. I couldn’t help thinking of the motto of the United States, but unfortunately, E pluribus unum doesn’t seem to have been derived from Empedocles. Imagine how different American and world history would have been if the phrase had been linked to Empedocles and his Aphrodite principle from the very beginning!

Another point of interest occurred for me when I read this beautiful line from a fragment in Plutarch:

Earth makes night by standing in the way of the light.

At that point, I was reminded of Parmenides, who wrote of the moon, “shining [with] another’s light.”

On an entirely separate note, I found Aristotle’s characterization of Empedocles’ thoughts on perception fascinating. Aristotle says of him that he “says that the soul is composed of all the elements and that each of them actually is a soul. He says:

‘For by earth we see earth, by water water,
by ether bright ether, and by fire destructive fire,
Love by Love and Strive by dismal Strife’.”

When I read this, I was reminded of two Star Trek: The Next Generation incidents in which characters embrace the idea of a multiplicity within. The first is a beautiful ancient ceramic doll containing many smaller dolls in The Chase, an artefact greatly treasured by Captain Picard, while the other took place in a moment when Lwaxana Troi tells little Alexander that each person has “many little people” inside of him/herself.

Finally, I note that Empedocles believed in metempsychosis, about more of which in the next post.

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Pre-Socratics Journal, Part 5: Melissus and Zeno

My personal reading has been held back for far too long by my getting stuck in the pre-Socratics. Today, since I had the day off work, I decided to make short work of the Penguin book I’m reading, and I nearly finished it.

Melissus
I have little to say, and basically found the chapter useless. The major point of interest was two-fold: first, he was said to have largely agreed with Parmenides, with whom I had trouble at a very basic level of trying to understand what he was saying. Second, he damned the world of sense perception, a fact made very obvious thanks to the efforts of Simplicius.

Zeno
Zeno was far more interesting, thanks to his famous paradoxes. Unfortunately, Zeno, like most of the other pre-Socratics, survives only in quotations, paraphrases, and even rebuttals from other philosophers. Aristotle didn’t think much of him, but Aristotle was instrumental in preserving Zeno and a few of his famous forty paradoxes. My favourite is the one that says nothing moves, because in order to get from A to B, first, one must get to half-way between A and B. But before one gets to that point, one must go half of the distance from A to that new half-way point, and so on, ad nauseam. My Penguin guide says that some scholars suspect Zeno of being an intellectual nihilist, which would be really lovely and fascinating if true.

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I just watched “Star Trek into Darkness”…

…And I loved it. In general, since The Next Generation, the movies have been beautiful to look at, but somehow shallower than most of the episodes. Seeing Captain Picard, for instance, running around with a big Uzi or driving a convertible jeep (as in Nemesis) doesn’t do anything for me, and it demeans him. The characters of James Kirk and Spock, other other hand, come off as full and intelligent in Star Trek into Darkness.

So why do I like STID? Essentially, it got the Star Trek: The Next Generation penchant for developing a storyline around philosophical and moral issues fundamentally right. It also met and surpassed the expectation for excitement. James Kirk may still be the playboy of the galaxy–we see him getting out a bed with two absolutely gorgeous women–but he has in STID a serious side.

The opening scene has him at is best-intentioned and most impulsive: breaking the Prime Directive, as well as risking his First Officer’s life to save from extinction a culture “that had barely invented the wheel,” as his mentor and senior Starfleet officer complains. Shortly after this, Kirk and other senior commanding officers are attacked by a rogue Section 31 officer named John Harrison, a “super-being” who was employed by Section 31 to arm Starfleet for future attacks from an apparently hostile Klingon Empire. Kirk’s mentor, along with most others in the room, are killed by Harrison, and in a fit of vengeance, Kirk vows to pursue him and kill him–his exact orders, as it turns out.

The orders are given by the head of Section 31, which is the Federation equivalent of the CIA, and a unit where murky debates over ethics can have far-reaching implications–as in a number of Deep Space Nine episodes, in which Section 31 participates in torture and even attempted genocide in an effort to save the embattled Federation.

In contrast to the machinations of Section 31 stands the young idealistic Spock, who points out that hunting down a Federation citizen and assassinating him is contrary to Federation Law and to ordinary ethics. Spock’s quietly stubborn ways win over the young Kirk, who decides to violate his orders and capture Harrison, who turns out to be none other than Khan Noonien Singh himself. In the process, the warped leader of Section 31, who had intended to have both Khan and Kirk and all the Enterprise crew destroyed, is himself killed by Khan. Khan then takes possession of the Section 31 combat ship and promises to release Kirk, who is now his prisoner, if Spock (who is commanding the Enterprise) will give him back his 72 crew members who have been frozen in stasis and placed in torpedoes since before the beginning of the movie. Spock tricks Khan into accepting the torpedoes, which detonate after Khan fires on the Enterprise. (“Vulcans do not lie,” Spock tells Khan, “the torpedoes are yours.” But Spocks’s respect for sentient life is highlighted in this episode when we find out, via “Bones,” that all 72 “human popsicles” are safely stowed on board the Enterprise, still in stasis! )

Ethics and morality are deeply personal, though. After Kirk appears to have died rescuing the Enterprise from a still-ravaging Khan, Spock goes after him in an uncharacteristic act of vengeance, with tears in his eyes and blood in his heart. Spock and Khan are only saved when the beautiful and wholly enchanting Dr. Leah Marcus beams down to where they are locked in a life-and-death struggle and informs Spock that Kirk can be saved by Khan’s blood–if Khan is captured alive.

But the ethics of saving a loved one’s life are not allowed at any cost. At the beginning of the movie, Khan manipulates a fellow Section 31 officer into committing a suicide bombing that takes many lives in order to save his own daughter from a rare disease. The building he is in explodes, with many dying, within sight of his now healthy daughter’s window. In a world in which terrorism and even suicide bombing are rife, the ethics of this scene could be parsed very fruitfully. Similar comments could be of Kirk’s decision to spare Khan in a world in which CIA drones hunt down Islamist terrorist and destroy them–which isn’t to say that I’m necessarily opposed to this practice. But it’s a practice fraught with moral problems, which should be approached carefully and seriously.

Today, governments of western democracies have moved away from the traditions of the Enterprise captains, Kirk and Picard, and are much closer towards the policies of the shadowy officers of Section 31. Whether the enemy is Islamic terrorism, Klingons, or Cardassians, the question remains: if we save ourselves in this way, what have we become? It’s a question that more than one Starfleet captain would have a perceptive answer for.

Addendum: I really enjoyed the performance of Zachary Quinto as Spock. I had been afraid that no one would be able to do Leonard Nimoy’s Spock justice, but Quinto did–a fact more than evident where he meets his aged other self (played by Nimoy) in a brief scene. Chris Pine’s rendition of Captain Kirk was at least as worthy as William Shatner’s, while Benedict Cumberbatch’s ambiguous portrayal of Khan, a man who not only hates, but genuinely loves–was positively mesmerizing–and not only because of his highly acclaimed, darkly resonant voice.

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Today I finally biked the entirety of the PoCo Trail

PoCo Trail South Side

And so, on this very day in history, while in the latter half of his thirties, this born-and-raised-in-Port-Coquitlam-fellow finally biked the entirety of the PoCo Trail. I’ve been on every part of the Trail many times–some parts many dozens of times–but I’d never biked the entirety of it in one day before; there are so many distracting exit points!

The above picture was really the only one I took today; I was in a hurry, and all I had with me was my cellphone camera, which I hate. Having said that, the clouds were so beautiful today, and it was perfect for a ride!

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Pre-Socratics Journal, Part 3: “Shining with Another’s Light”: My Problem with Parmenides

It has been a very long time since I last blogged about the Pre-Socratic philosophers. Far too long. I was held back for a long time by life, general sleepiness, and also by an emotional hang-up regarding the current pre-Socratic in question: Parmenides. In a word, I felt I could not really understand him, but I was convinced that I ought to, and that intellectual benefit would follow understanding.

Only one work attributed to Parmenides has survived from antiquity, and it has survived only in long, though fragmentary quotations. It was divided into two parts: “The Way of Truth”–nearly all of which is preserved–and “The Way of Opinion,” which is preserved only in fragments. The Penguin Classics book I’m reading has this to say about it:

Parmenides’ poem is a bizarre production. The second half of it is confessedly ‘deceitful'; but then, why write it? The first half is not intended to be deceitful, but the views it expresses are paradoxical in the extreme. Moreover, Parmenides is not a friendly writer: his meaning is never plain at first glance, and several lines of his poem are obscure to the point of unintelligibility. None the less [sic], Parmenides had, through the medium of Plato, an unrivalled influence on the course of Western philosophy.

I’ll be honest: the poem did not much interest me, and I felt I couldn’t really master it, anyway. My problem revolved around just two particular parts of it, both preserved as quotations by other ancient writers:

Parmenides was the first to declare that the earth is spherical and lies in the middle [of the universe] (Diogenes Laertius).

This comes in the part of the chapter in the volume I’m reading devoted to “The Way of Opinion.” Incidentally, I wonder if the phrase “middle of the universe” might just mean “amid the heavens,” rather than “in the centre of the universe” in the Ptolemaic understanding.

A heart-breakingly-beautiful phrase occurs–apparently–in the section on the “Way of Opinion”–it describes the moon:

night-shining, wandering about the earth, another’s light.

This quotation is preserved in Plutarch, who paraphrases and quotes Parmenides in regards to the moon, which “goes alone about in need of another’s light, as Parmenides says, ‘always gazing at the rays of the sun.'”

So the question is, is Parmenides parodying some intellectual idea of the moon as a reflector of the sun’s rays (but then, how could he be the “first” to say such things?), or is he actually putting this view forward seriously? It’s in the supposedly “deceitful” section on “opinion.” (Or at least, it is presented that way.) I put this question to a Classics email listerv I belong to, and received these two responses from academics:

For Parmenides, the truth is that “Being is”–eternal, one, intelligible, unchanging. Opinion is where we spend our time, and exalted opinions like the sphericity of the earth are not to sneeze at.

A second scholar wrote as follows:

If I understand this stuff (which I may not: in grad school I enjoyed reading the proem to Parmenides’ epic, but Monist philosophy leaves me cold generally–or feeling like a fly trapped in amber, to be more precise), my guess is that anything relating to phenomena would be from the second half of the poem, describing the cosmos of δοξὰς … βροτείας (fr. 8.51f). And that’s where Diels lists the Plutarchian fragments.

What Parmenides was actually arguing in his work is subject to some dispute. But if he was (as he seems to be) a strictish Monist, he wouldn’t believe that the moon actually rotates around the earth, or that it gets its light from the sun, or any of that, because it implies that motion and change exist. In Eleatic Monism, everything is one; there is no motion or change; time is an illusion (and “lunch-time doubly so” in the words of a philosophical classic). But we can also try to understand the world of appearances at face value; hence the cosmological section.

Anyway, that’s my read of it.

The trouble is, first, I found the line about the moon to be among the most beautiful lines of poetry in the world. Second, I want Parmenides to be putting forward this view seriously, because then that would be a sign of his prescient modernity.

I suppose I don’t need Parmenides to be serious if I just want to find an ancient antecedent to modern science; after all, there is still Eratosthenes, who more or less accurately calculated the circumference of the Earth (no small feat, especially more than one and a half millennia before Galileo’s telescope!). But it’s the poetry of that line about the moon that I so desperately love. I want it to have been his sincere idea of what the universe looked like.

So much for Parmenides and the moon.

On another note, I found this line rather interesting:

What can be said and thought of must be; for it can be, and nothing cannot.

This is supposedly from the Way of Truth, which is a tad disappointing, because it reminds me of Anselm’s Ontological argument for the existence of God–an argument that always struck me as particularly weak, even when I was a theist convinced that one could “prove” the existence of the patriarchal god of fundamentalist Christianity.

Finally, I present a bit of humour:

[Simplicius, on Parmenides:]I am compelled to write at length on this point because people now are largely ignorant of the ancient writings.

That last was written 1500 years ago!

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Thinking of Heraclitus

Gold creek water and foam

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Leaves and Sunlight

Leaves and Sunlight

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Anatomy of a Lego Project

Galaxy Traveler whole front view

For the last two weeks or so, my son and I have been building Lego. He’s lucky, because he not only has all my own old Lego from my childhood, but the Lego of my friend Andrey, who donated his from the same time period, and then a number of used vintage space Lego sets I bought on eBay years ago. A few days ago, he asked me to make him a really big spaceship, so I complied. Presenting, then, the Galaxy Traveler!

Galxaxy Traveler I

The next picture shows the opposite angle of the ship:

Galaxy Traveler whole

The Galaxy Traveler actually has the ability to separate into a number of discrete parts. The main part of the Galaxy Traveler (aka, “the Traveler”) has disengaged from the rest of the ship in the next photo:

The Partner and the Stationary separate from the Traveler

The next photo shows all three of the major component parts, from left to right: the Partner ship, the Stationary (a portable base equipped with high-powered communications equipment), and the Traveler itself:

The Partner separates from the Stationary

The photograph below shows the inside of the Stationary, which can connect either to the Partner, or the smaller Traveler, or both:

Reclining in the Stationary

The Partner is equipped with a very small vehicle, the Rover…

The Rover leaves the Partner

…while the smaller Traveler has its own secret: a docking bay containing…

The Traveler opened up

…a small one-man ship called the Solo!

And the Solo comes out!

The next several shots show the cockpits of, respectively, the Partner and the Traveler:

Cockpit of the Partner

Cockpit of the Traveler

What can I say? It was fun!

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Well done, Ontario!

Today the most populous province in Canada sent the minority Liberal Party, run under their shiny new, and LGBT member Kathleen Wynne–to majority government status. I am delighted! As most of the best writers in the Globe and Mail knew–except the official editorial board members themselves–this was an election that had see the provincial–in both meanings–Tories under their satanic leadership shown the door in no uncertain terms; too much was riding on this election for the Tories to have been elected under Tim Hudak. I’m very glad he’s resigning; Ontario will be the better off for it.

I’d like to flesh out just what I meant by the word “satanic” above. Essentially, Tim Hudak threatened, or rather, promised to cut 100,000 public service sector jobs. He then said that he would create over a million jobs, net. However, he counted each job created multiple times–one for every year over a series of years–but did not count the 100,000 public sector jobs cut more than once. He made other significant errors, too; for instance, a certain number of jobs would be created anyway, even without his plan. Economists had a field day taking apart his claims. From the third-linked article above:

First, Mr. Hudak’s determination to deny the undeniable raised questions about his character when confronted with tough situations. Imagine a truly important scandal: perhaps one involving risks to public safety, or malfeasance of some kind – things that can’t be brushed off as “matters of opinion.” (Math is not actually an opinion, anyway.) Will obfuscation and denial define his response to other challenges?

Second, the debate over the numbers inspired analysts to take a closer look at the assumptions behind the PC plan, not just its math, and this raised deeper worries about the intellectual and political pedigree of the Conservative platform. There were two separate consulting reports misreported by the Tories in their jobs tally. One was from the Conference Board of Canada, on the effect of corporate and personal tax cuts; it was unconvincing, but inoffensive.

The other report, however, became hotly controversial – and for good reason. It was prepared by a U.S. consultant Benjamin Zycher, who has worked for many far-right causes (some funded by the Koch brothers of Tea Party fame), has strongly advocated so-called “right-to-work” laws for Ontario, and has expressed startling opinions on subjects ranging from environmentalism to how Michelle Obama received her Princeton degree.

Mr. Zycher’s report for the PCs has been thoroughly criticized by several economists for shoddy methodology, data errors, and more. But it’s the underlying philosophical assumptions of his work for the PCs that should raise the loudest alarms. His economic model of “deregulation” is actually based on Ontario mimicking the fiscal policies and labour laws of places like Mississippi and Arkansas – and then asserting that this will make Ontario richer. (Of course, Ontario is already far richer than those places.) The mere fact the PCs would hire this man to flesh out their electoral platform is another indication of how far right they have aimed. [Original hyperlinks not included; see the link above for the original article itself.]

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Gold Creek near Maple Ridge, BC

Gold Creek near Maple Ridge, BC

A few weeks ago, I and my family went to Gold Creek, where I took these pictures. I don’t have really much to say, except that it is a lovely, if dangerous spot. I believe that some acquaintances of my parents were killed on the falls many years ago. There was also a fatality there last year. For some reason, there is little warning, apart from one sign.

Gold Creek's Lower Falls near Maple Ridge, BC, II

Gold Creek's Lower Falls near Maple Ridge, BC

Gold Creek beautiful green water

Gold Creek's Lower Falls

Gold Creek couple

I must say that I loved the couple, and especially the girl in the image above. She was very poetic.

Gold creek water and foam

Gold Creek beautiful green water

Gold Creek Lower Falls through the trees

Gold Creek through the trees

Mountains from Gold Creek in Maple Ridge, BC

Gold Creek's clear water and stones, near Maple Ridge, BC

Trees and path near Gold Creek

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