History of Philosophy – Lesson 7: The Skepticism of the Sophists

“Gorgias, who was the perfect example of a 20th century skeptic transplanted into ancient Greece […] maintained three basic propositions: one, nothing exists; two, if anything existed, you couldn’t know it; three, if you could know it, you couldn’t communicate it. Now that is what you call skepticism.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 7.
(I don’t like modern art. But if we look hard, there might be something to learn from it. The steel sculpture “Protagoras”, by Charles Ginnever, could well be considered the concretization of a philosophic idea. The sculpture changes shape as viewers move around it, the play of light and shadow on its triangular forms giving life to the massive structure. “The senses deceive” I’d say is the message. But, now, try to imagine someone jumping from this malformed idea (because it’s not the senses that are wrong, but the concepts we generate from them) to the conclusion that nothing exists. Perhaps some of the federal judges working at the Burger building, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where “Protagoras” is installed, would like it to vanish. But to assert it never existed would be a bit farfetched. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what sophists like Protagoras and Gorgias did.)

The sophists have been branded throughout history as greedy and imoral teachers, but that’s polemics for a history course, or one on Plato and his obsession with them. Leonard Peikoff focuses instead on the ideas they put forth — even if their main idea is the negation of all ideas.

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O.P.A.R. – Commentary: Voltaire’s Stance

“The agnostic treats arbitrary claims as matters properly open to consideration, discussion, evaluation. He allows that it is “possible” that these claims are “true,” thereby applying cognitive descriptions to verbiage that is at war with cognition. He demands proof of a negative: it’s up to you, he declares, to show that there are no demons, or that your sex life is not a result of your previous incarnation as a pharaoh of ancient Egypt.”
Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 170.
(There might be aliens on the dark side of the moon. Who knows? Claims devoid of any evidence should be disregarded. It doesn’t matter what you feel about it. Take your stance based on your assessment of reality and say what you know. You know there isn’t any alien civilization on the dark side of the moon, don’t you? Or are you going to tell me you are an agnostic with respect to that too?)

“Yo no creo en brujas, pero que las hay, las hay”. That summarizes the agnostic’s creed. This is no attitude at all. It is sitting on the fence. It is renouncing the responsibility of judging, of choosing your path, of building and then standing behind your own convictions. In a word, it is evasion. I used to say I was an agnostic. No. Let’s take a stance. Let’s have the guts to say it. Let’s be bold for once. I am not an agnostic anymore. I am an atheist.

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O.P.A.R. – Chapter 5: Reason

“Objectivism is not against emotions, but emotionalism. Ayn Rand’s concern is not to uphold stoicism or abet repression, but to identify a division of mental labor. There is nothing wrong with feeling that follows from an act of thought; this is the natural and proper human pattern. There is everything wrong with feeling that seeks to replace thought, by usurping its function.”
Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 162.
(Do you really think you should kill a cockroach and pity the cats on the streets? Do you really think you do so because you have reasoned through all the facts? You kill a cockroach because it evokes a bad feeling. Nothing more. What else do you kill — or let die — based on your feelings? In the end, it’s all about philosophy — or the lack of it.)

“Follow Reason”. If objectivity is adhering to reality, reason is the faculty of man that allows him to do so. It is the faculty that processes data coming from reality — percepts — into the human form of cognition — concepts — through the human method of cognition — logic. Yet man would rather be guided by his feelings than by reason. And then he wonders why the world is as it is.

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Bound to the Wood

The “Shield of the Trinity” or Scutum Fidei (Latin for “shield of faith”).

Clement (150 – 215) and Origen (184 – 253) were the great exponents of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, the “Fathers of the Church” who initiated the Patristic period and were enormously influential in the formation of Christian doctrine and in the attempt of synthesis with the greco-roman philosophy.

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The Impossible Synthesis

Altarpiece of the Church Fathers”, by Michael Pacher (c. 1483).

Bertrand Russell, in his “History of Western Philosophy”, introduces the second part of the book by saying that the Middle Ages is the history of “growth and decay” of the Catholic synthesis. He knows so well what is being synthesized that he forgets to say it. But now, as I reread portions of the book, I know that the synthesis sought was between faith and reason. My “Medieval Philosophy” teacher thinks that it has been successful. I, for one, can not imagine where he got that idea from.

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Teachers All Around

The Great Books of the Western World — “Teachers all around”.

I have always heard about Aristotle, Plato, Dante, Spinoza and Kant, but I had never thought that “normal” people should read them. They lay in History, and whatever they had contributed to society was already embedded in our everyday lives, having already influenced whoever did whatever had to be done to create the technological era we live in and the chaotic pseudo-civilised society we live in. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t have to study Pythagoras — all I needed to know was how to calculate the hypotenuse. In fact, all we need now is to press the correct button in a calculator or to use the right command in any commonplace programming language. I have always been a practical man. I do stuff. I don’t sit at home engrossed in armchair thinking. Why should I read such complex arcane books? Moreover, I knew I wouldn’t understand much even if I tried.

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The Belligerent Fool

The belligerent fool.
(“Call of duty ghost.” / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Right from the beginning of my “scientific career”, I carried alongside another profession as a State Civil Police Officer. I’ve always had an adventurous spirit and I wanted to do some good to society. Since I had never been inclined for charity work, I thought that I could do some good by shooting bad people instead. Here, in Rio, I knew that wouldn’t be too difficult.

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The Uneducated Man

The uneducated man.
(“Portrait of Aristotle”, by Eric Gaba / CC BY-SA 2.5 / Derivative work)

It is hard to pinpoint exactly how I got to Philosophy, even though it all began just a few years ago. Things weren’t good in the company (again) and I was consumed by unidentified feelings of anxiety (as always), so I finally took the courage, quit my scientific job and became just a policeman. I couldn’t keep living a life of lies, pretending I was internally what I appeared to be externally. All I knew was that I needed answers for questions I could hardly formulate.

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History of Philosophy – Lesson 6: Atomism and the Death of Mind

“If there’s no such thing as a mind capable of observing evidence and reasoning according to the laws of logic, then every man’s conclusions express nothing but blind mechanistic reactions. Each man is then a machine — he’s a physical puppet guided by the laws of motion. […] He’s a little billiard ball system, in effect, rattling and quivering by mechanistic necessity.”
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 6.
(Materialism implies determinism, which, in turn, denies the mind. I wonder how a mind could have had the idea of denying itself. Original source of the image: Min Then.)

The Pythagoreans attempted to solve the problem raised by Heraclitus and Parmenides by postulating two worlds: one in constant flux, this world; and one eternal and immutable, the world of number. The Atomists attempted a very different reconciliation. In the process, they made possible the birth of modern science. They also caused the destruction of the mind.

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O.P.A.R. – Commentary: Floating Abstractions Eventually Fall

“All knowledge is interconnected. To cut off a single field — any field — from the rest of cognition is to drop the vast context which makes that field possible and which anchors it to reality. The ultimate result, as with any failure of integration, is floating abstractions and self-contradiction.”
Leonard Peikoff, “O.P.A.R.”, page 127.
(The Hindenburg disaster. This is just a visual metaphor for a floating abstraction: when the context is dropped and reality sets in, concepts become a dangerous thing.)

Earlier when I talked about epistemological evasion I mentioned our mental laziness, how we avoid the effort to think correctly because it hurts. The problem is that if we really go through each idea thoroughly, we become responsible for it when we use it, and that is something we hate. This may sound offensive, but I have no doubt that this is the case with the vast majority of us, during the vast majority of our waking time. Of course, I include myself in this team of evaders.

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