Monday, 30 December 2013

Ancient Aliens

I love watching Ancient Aliens on the History Channel. The producers and the regular commentators featured in the show can and do connect everything with the "ancient astronaut theory" - nazis, 2012, medical knowledge of the ancients, Einstein, the mummy found in the Alps, etc. etc. - everything under the sun, really, and do it with all earnestness and straight-face. Irregardless that the world didn't end on December 21, 2012 as they claimed it would, they just soldier on like real troopers connecting gaudiness with historical facts. - what do you do for a living?; oh, I dabble in this and that...

Some of the commentators like peppering their statements with scientific-sounding words like "vortex", "inter-dimensional", "inter-dimensional vortices", "stars", "star-gates", "inter-dimensional star-gates". There was a commercial campaign recently featuring a travel-booking app that claimed once the data is entered an "auto-magical" process whirls and dings, and out comes an answer. Yeah, right...

I found this website recently that sort of deflated my enthusiasm for Ancient Aliens:

Killjoys. Buzzkills. Now I can't enjoy replying "yes" to the narrations of Ancient Aliens which consist of almost purely rhetorical, leading questions without feeling a bit cruel. Like Harper's cpc, the Ford nation, creationists, we shouldn't let real and hard-won conventional wisdom and science get in the way of self-indulgent fantasies and lies if it allows us to shirk rationality and responsibilities to self and good society.


Saturday, 28 December 2013

Contrasting Russellian ethics with Aristotlian ethics

I think the human brain is hard-wired to mathematical structures. I don't mean that human beings are natural mathematicians as most of the structuring is infrastructural (ie, subconscious). In fact, most people seem averse to maths of any kind. As a linguist, I'm constantly blown away by the mathematical structures that determine and inform not only the grammars of language but also the phonology and allomorphy in ways that are at once systematic and utterly subconscious.

There are mathematical prodigies to be sure, and Bertrand Russell was certainly one of them. But there is something of a tragic figure in Russell. He and Whitehead had published the Principia Mathematica - a three-volume work on the foundations of mathematics recast in set-theoretic language - when an upstart by the name of Gödel came along about twenty years later with a devastating proof called Gödel's incompleteness theorem. But, like all mathematics deemed great, the Russell-Whitehead project was far from being a waste of time and treasure. Besides inspiring maths that came after it, it defined in modern terms much of the working language (axioms) of maths.

I'm a fan of Russell. But that doesn't preclude a critical treatment of his work because even the stuff (from 20-20 hindsight) that he clearly got wrong is worth examining because even errors of a brilliant mind such as his give birth to insights worth keeping in the corpus of human achievement. I think this is perfectly acceptable in a fallibilistic worldview which treats human knowledge not as absolute but as an evolutionary process.

I mentioned Russellian ethics earlier in this blog and tried to forward an argument why normative ethics wouldn't work because of the legalistic-algorithmic frameworks in which they're couched. This is a very mathematical way of treating ethical questions (not surprising coming from a mathematically-trained mind par excellence) but when it comes to wishes and expectations of human beings and the human condition the variables and boundaries are not as clear-cut as solving for x and/or y.

Aristotle distinguished two types of knowledge: sophia and phronesis. He said that sophia (where we get our "philosophy") is a field in which the young excel because techne (mechanical and intellectual skill) does not require experience but mastery in logic and allowable forms of reasoning; whereas phronesis is a field that only maturity can master because prudentia (prudence) requires experience and knowledge and awareness of human nature. Phronesis is often translated as "practical knowledge" to distinguish it from "technical knowledge".

To quote Aristotle: "...although the young may be experts in geometry and mathematics and similar branches of knowledge [sophoi], we do not consider that a young man can have Prudence [phronimos]. The reason is that Prudence [phronesis] includes a knowledge of particular facts, and this is derived from experience, which a young man does not a possess; for experience is the fruit of years." (Nicomachean Ethics 1142a, Rackham translation)

The notion of phronesis is again evoked if not explicitly stated here (the author of the entry is talking about motivations of desire as per Aristotle's metaphysics):

...continent people [ie, persons having the capacity for self-restraint], unlike those who are completely and virtuously moderate, have depraved desires but do not, precisely because they are continent, ever act upon them (De Anima iii 9 433a6–8; cf. Nicomachean Ethics i 13, 1102b26). So their desires are insufficient for action. Consequently, he concludes, desire alone, considered as a single faculty, cannot explain purposive action, at least not completely. (

further down (given that not all people are virtuous and moderate):

In some way, he concludes, practical reason and imagination have indispensable roles to play as well. (ibid)

Aristotle's notions of sophia and phronesis are closer to Inuit Qaujimaningit (IQ or Inuit Knowledge) distinction between skill and wisdom - though they are never explicitly stated as such being as they are regarded as different (perhaps even unrelated) forms of human skill/capacity given that IQ bothers little with "metaphysics" as such - than Russell's decidedly "scientific" ethics.

In a tone of tongue-in-cheek that only familiarity breeds, an Inuit elder in a documentary interview was recorded to say that Qallunaat were once regarded as "gods" with all their power and technology; another one wondered how can a race of people so knowledgeable in the science of medicine be apparently oblivious to the human need for familial contact - capable as they are to spend years away from home and family with no apparent negative side-effects of emotional duress. There is no naivety here though but an honestly humorous/bemused observation. The subtleties of the IQ-trained mind is as august and real as any philosophy.

Russell was very much a product of his age where the reach of science seemed utterly boundless and the optimism that this apparent fact spawned in the West. But, as the many forays of Russell's polymathy indicate, there is always a danger of illusory power of novelty yet unproven in the social and ecological realms (in their most general sense). This does not take anything away from such people as Russell for without their contributions no human advancement is possible.


Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Einsteinian at heart

I'm a believer in Christ. I'm not a fundamentalist and conservatism of any type is abhorrent to me. I'm painfully aware of my sinful nature so fundamentalism and conservatism are natural enemies of my belief in the grace and mercy that the cross represents for me. G*d is a wonder and mystery.

But I'm also a scientist (a student and lover of language). I guess I'm an Einsteinian. I love not only his scientific works but also his philosophical, pedagogical and political commentaries.

My aippakuluk gave me a book (more a tome, really) today, a biography of Einstein. Einstein once said of Princeton that it is a pipe not yet smoked - this book, this gift is like that. I'm really looking forward to reading it. I've already skimmed through the book.

Walter Isaacson, the writer of the book on Einstein, writes:

A popular feel for scientific endeavours should, if possible, be restored given the needs of the twenty-first century. This does not mean that every literature major should take watered-down physics course or that a corporate lawyer should stay abreast of quantum mechanics. Rather, it means that an appreciation for the methods of science is a useful asset for a responsible citizenry.[...] In addition, an appreciation for the glories of science is a joyful trait for a good society. It helps us remain in touch with the childlike capacity for wonder, about such things as falling apples and elevators, that characterizes Einstein and other great theoretical physicists.[...] That is why studying Einstein can be worthwhile. Science is inspiring and noble, and its pursuit an enchanting mission, as the sagas of its heroes reminds us. (Isaacson, Simon & Schuster, 2007, p. 6)

Being a huge proponent of liberal arts education, I think appreciation of science is a worthy goal, but so is classical literature, and critical analysis of current events. This is why I was a bit taken aback by a quote of Einstein on the same page:

"In teaching history there should be extensive discussion of personalities who benefited mankind through independence of character and judgement." (ibid)

I once read an account of the trial of G*d in one of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany which had a real affect on my views of G*d and religion (especially the Jewish faith), and which made me an admirer of Talmud/Torah scholarship. I don't remember much of the details of the arguments forwarded in this trial, but the gist of it was that a human being's capacity for freewill (the image of G*d) and the attendant notion of personal responsibility vindicates G*d and validates faith in Him.

Isaacson goes on to quote Einstein on the next page which again puts me back to homeostasis:

His success came from questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marvelling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him, and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary condition for a creative society. "It is important to foster individuality," he said, "for only the individual can produce the new ideas."[...] This outlook made Einstein a rebel with a reverence for the harmony of nature, one who had just the right blend of imagination and wisdom to transform our understanding of the universe. (ibid, p. 7)

It is not enough just to rebel against and challenge conventional wisdom for audacity's sake; this comes later in an education (and I don't mean here just classroom education but the active seeking of knowledge and reflection on history where attempts at advancements can be analysed). I believe this was also Einstein's philosophy.

It is a rare being that attains immortality by achievement. Einstein was clearly that, not only in science, but what has always been most instructive to me is, that even when he turned down offers for further fame in other areas of human endeavour he lefts us with thoughtful advice and wise and kind admonishment.

I make him out not to be a saint but only point out a coherent philosophical outlook that these rare beings have in common - something divine, something humble.


Saturday, 21 December 2013

Uncritical nationalism is linguistic voodoo

What makes Shakespeare great? What makes Dante great?

As my last blog entry suggests, I'm not a huge fan of Mark Abley types - you know the type: they're liable to say something like "this is an untranslatable word" then proceed to translate it. There is something contrived, stiff and Harper-ish about them because the "insight" is amateurishly handled and/or just plain wrong to begin with. Mark Abley would make a perfect writer for the History Channel. But what makes Shakespeare great, or - for that matter - what makes a Newton or a Riemann great?

It is not the creation of something new but a way of seeing something in a novel way. For the master of the sonnet it was the iambic pentameter - a constraint to test the limits of linguistic creativity. I highly doubt many of us could identify the cadence and rhythm of the iambic pentameter in our naïve state though all of us would be able to perceive, if not appreciate, the aesthetic quality of it - there definitely is a style afoot...

It was the same with Newton and his fluxions and fluents* to calculate the tides and orbitals with infinitesimals and limits. Ditto for Riemann: he used an old Euler formula but his innovation was to use the imaginary unit as an exponent to correct the errors in the prime counting function...for all cases, the elements were already there needing only fresh insights to naturally fall into place. Perhaps the semiosis was realized upon later reflection but the coherence and consistency was always there to be discovered.

*ironically, Newton's nemesis, Leibnitz' notations and terminology won out where we now have derivatives and such in calculus...

As a commentator of language and ideas it is my belief that uncritical linguistic voodoo and haphazardly juxtaposed over-romanticization of language (any language) is a killer of languages (at work in both the dominant and colonialized languages). I've always tried to demonstrate, by way of thought experiments mostly, that Inuktitut is just as effective in conveying ideas of the modern world as - say - English.

I know for a fact that the morphological structure of Inuktitut is better than English in many ways though in terms of grammatico-lexical flexibility and adaptability English is pretty fine. This is especially so for non-agglutinated terms (bare, stand-alone terms, that is - paradoxically, the more foreign the origin the better, it seems). I suspect that perfect conditions of linguistic efficacy (for modern English) have to do with both the grammatical structure of the language and the accidental choice of a phonemic writing system (ie, [f] is spelt variously as "ph", "gh", "f" etc.) that allow such adaptability. That English...I'm so jealous.

The symbolic notational systems of science and maths are not language-specific. In fact, the openness to arbitrary labelling of concepts and ideas in science make it not language-specific. What matters is that the taxonomical scheme has internal consistency and logic in order for this to work. The beauty of semiological spaces is that, once perceived, the logic of the terminology systems tend to fall into place regardless of what people like Harper, Abley and the like say.


Friday, 20 December 2013

A ferkakta travelogue

My aippakuluk brought home a book by a Mark Abley called, Spoken Here: Travels among Threatened Languages (2003, Random House Canada). I would not recommend this book to anyone interested in linguistics because it's not about linguistics - it's more an indictment on the pervasiveness of the English language using (ironically) English to belittle English by an English-speaking journalist.

I was looking forward to a good read when I was shown the book. Hmm...the first few pages read like a badly written novel...ok. So, I looked at the back hoping to find an index (there is an index). I looked up Inuit (it's there, along with Eskimos).

The problem as I see it is that the writer assumes there is an objective standard on which different languages (including English) may be measured and judged. There is no such principle in the scientific study of languages which is, in fact, founded upon the principle that any language may be translated into another language (meaning-based translation allows that if only to convey meaning and not the accoutrements - there are minimal levels of conveyance in analysis, after all, that allow us to see something of a coherence in our observations). Not to say that Abley is an analyst.

There is a section on Yiddish (look up "ferkakta" as in Wolowitz' mother say she doesn't want the ferkakta computer giving her a virus) where he just starts peppering the section with Yiddish (he does that). Right...

I've spent a majority of my working career thinking about the nature of language; it is a beautiful mystery to me: something familiar yet mysterious where the consistent nature is adumbrated at its roots but whose rolling out is nonlinear and oftentimes unpredictable but utterly rational if put under close scrutiny. I think this is how mathematical proofs work as well, why they are often considered "beautiful" and "elegant". All languages, including English, have this abstract beauty.

The thing about languages is that grammatical structures are what are called "information-rich" structures - there is always more than is obvious.

There is none of that insight in Abley. In fact, he is so intent on something illusory that he never even finds his voice. His book reads like a cut and paste job and one can tell that he spent his grant/advance on other things and writing up was merely an after-thought.


Friday, 29 November 2013

Aufklärung 2.0

Bertrand Russell (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) is one of those rare birds that belong not only to one flock but is at home in many. He is a man of the renaissance born centuries after, long-lived (his productive adult life spanned World War I to the Vietnam War!), and made academic contributions to almost every field of human endeavour. His pictures always have a mischievous, Mona Lisa smile.

I first came across his name in reading about set theory (the theory of infinite arithmetic) but he was a polyglot: philosopher, logician, mathematician, historian and social critic. He is famous in this set theoretic context for finding a paradox called - interestingly enough - , Russell's Paradox. It is popularly called "the barber of Seville" (the barber shaves all the men who do not shave themselves; who shaves the barber?). I think I've mentioned this paradox somewhere in this blog which I tried to "solve" linguistically (ie, the notion of a noun is not just proper names, things, ideas and places, but may also be a purely (unspecific) grammatical slot that holds the grammaticality of Aristotelian logic, say).

But it is his philosophical view that the "age of enlightenment" was "...was a phase in a progressive development, which began in antiquity, and that reason and challenges to the established order were constant ideals throughout that time" ( that I want to talk about here.

There is an almost linguistic approach of Russell - the "wrong" kind as far as I'm concerned because it is distinctly Saussurean - in all that he does, which is not really surprising given that he made great contributions to mathematics and logic. For eg, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (which is a great source of synopses and introductory information to philosophy and philosophers):

...that moral judgments are neither true nor false, since their role is not to state facts or to describe the way the world is, but to express emotions, desires or even commands. This (despite some waverings) was Russell's dominant view for the rest of his life, though it took him twenty-two years to develop a well worked-out version of the theory. He tended to call it subjectivism or ‘the subjectivity of moral values’ though it is nowadays known as non-cognitivism, expressivism or emotivism. He came to think that, despite their indicative appearance, moral judgments — at least judgments about what is good or bad in itself — are really in the optative mood. (A sentence is in the optative mood if it expresses a wish or a desire.) What ‘X is good’ means is ‘Would that everyone desired X!’. It therefore expresses, but does not describe, the speaker's state of mind, specifically his or her desires, and as such can be neither truth nor false, anymore than ‘Oh to be in England now that April's here!’ If I say ‘Oh to be in England now that April's here!’, you can infer that I desire to be in England now that April's here (since absent an intention to mislead, it is not the sort of thing I would say unless I desired to be in England and thought that April was here). But I am not stating that I desire to be in England, since I am not stating anything at all (except perhaps that April is here). (

What is called "optative mood" in the above quote is now called "subjunctive mood", which Wikipedia says, in relation to the "indicative/declarative mood":

The subjunctive is a grammatical mood found in many languages. Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as wish, emotion, possibility, judgment, opinion, necessity, or action that has not yet occurred – the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language. The subjunctive is an irrealis mood (one that does not refer directly to what is necessarily real) – it is often contrasted with the indicative, which is a realis mood.

All fine and well, I suppose. It's just that, to me, a linguistics/algorithmic logical approach, especially to moral philosophy, is a doomed enterprise - doubly so since one is also at the same time trying to come up with general principles of moralistic perspective and behaviour. It is precisely that normative/legalistic statements are rarely practical let alone informative that this whole enterprise is doomed (tragic, really, because I like Russell). Morality, as the Aristotelian principle of "phronesis" states, is really about dealing with particular and unique situations that call upon one to decide on how to act:

Phronesis is concerned with particulars, because it is concerned with how to act in particular situations. One can learn the principles of action, but applying them in the real world, in situations one could not have foreseen, requires experience of the world.(

Judeo-Christian principles are more like exercises in phronesis in that they're, at their cores, based on the notion of free will, of experiencing humanity and the "teachable moments" it affords:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Evil is not evil because G*d says so; it is because the consequences of our decisions are unavoidable (in reality). Ie, in my own experience, I have come to realize that in potentia I have in me both the possibility for right and wrong action. The thing is, in morality, the notion of personal responsibility is existential and inherent and cannot be done away with by algorithmic logic/normative measures alone. It is said that there are no laws against agape, kindness and charity.


Saturday, 23 November 2013

Strogatz's Joy of x

I bought a book recently called, The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity, by Steven Strogatz (First Mariner Books, edition 2013). I think it's a great introduction to mathematical ideas and I highly recommend it.

It is a very visual treatment of mathematics (if I may use the term, "visual"). It is very much in the tradition of Riemann, whom, it is said, believed that geometric demonstrations were key to understanding the equations and their implications (Riemann helped create differential geometry whose ideas Einstein used heavily in his relativity theories - Einstein, himself was a highly visual person).

Strogatz is masterful in his historical development pedagogy and his demonstrations are intuitive precisely because he marries equations so well with illustrations. I've never quite thought about the method of exhaustion tied to the name of Archimedes as Strogatz has done it: he lays out quarter sections of a circle into a scalloped shape, first into four, then 8ths, 16ths, etc., 'til he finally achieves a regular rectangle with r height and πr base - brilliant.

And this is not the only instance where he makes mathematical demonstrations come alive. He does a similar thing with a demonstration that all angles of a triangle equal 180 degrees by appealing to the existence of a parallel line. Everything is logically laid out so when he comes to calculus the ideas he speaks about earlier are recalled and retooled for other purposes.

Where I'd take issue is his treatment of "closed rings" (ie, how different types of numbers are called into existence by the requirements of arithmetical operations: natural numbers, integers, algebraic numbers, transcendental numbers, imaginary numbers) though he adumbrates how these types of numbers arise in talking about the fundamental operations of arithmetic and the rise of imaginary numbers. There are other books like this available so I'd grant him this.

I have always wished that Nunavut schools would use the narrative (historical development pedagogy) as a basic teaching tool. This book is another important case why we need such a thing for this type of teaching and learning introduces the notion of mortals discovering and creating mathematics from a problem-solving perspective rather than suggesting this seemingly otherworldly subject as having come from heaven already fully formed and without the need for human contribution.


Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Ford factor

I don't quite know how to write this entry with sensitivity and compassion it requires in the context in which I want to discourse on the subject. So, I'll just write as I go along.

The slow-motion train wreck that is Rob Ford of Toronto may be something new to most of mainstream Canada but in power relations that define the very nature of aboriginal communities the Rob Ford saga is strangely something familiar if extreme and pathetic.

It is said that all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Without painting anything in broad-strokes (heaven forbid that all is black and white and two dimensional) if the legal system allows it and one can get away with questionable technicalities of power relations it is a certainty that some abuse is bound to happen. That is not to say that there are no people who see the temptations and choose not to act thusly - in fact, abuse of this type only requires one willing to go over the line and it is often only one that acts thusly. Take Rob Ford (or someone in power who's willing to overlook the consequences in the interest of the few) and the legal and ethical quagmire that the Toronto city council now finds itself in.

My aippakuluk bought me a copy of Joe Clark's book, How We Lead: Canada in a century of Change (2013, Random House Canada). There used to be a notion of noblesse oblige (roughly speaking, the notion that those in power (or have the power to influence) have a certain obligation to act within ethical (if not legal) constraints to act honorably and responsibly in the exercise of that power). Clark talks about this notion quite a bit though (as yet) never having mention it explicitly.

It is my understanding that Clark does not hide his disdain for Harper's approach to governance. Methinks it is the very absence of noblesse oblige that irks many statesmen/women like Clark and many others in the laity like me (ie, those who keep track of politics). It is not just Harper but the whole infected right wing movement including Ford that spurns not only the foundational noblesse oblige but aggressively dismisses the notion of "conventional wisdom".

"Elites" and "liberal media" catch phrases form a huge piece of the right wing narrative; the only problem is (for those opposed to the right wing mentality) the inherent ambiguities and all-purpose uses of such terms, and, depending on the context, the Supreme Court of Canada; the whole Senate; the public watchdog/regulatory functions of public governments; informative and thoughtful media all fall into these labels. When a ruling government declares open season on all the long-standing institutions of a democratic society such as Canada the only way to maintain a semblance of rational discourse is what the French call faux amis "false friends" where seemingly equivalent concepts which seem to logically follow in a given slogan and/or talking points actually imply or mean something entirely different under scrutiny. Doublespeak.

For eg, the repeal of "Navigable Waters Protection Act" affects not only public health and safety but also affects waters that occur in disputed and settled territories in aboriginal land claims areas, and have bearing on species deemed of interest and/or at risk. Going by people in the know this particular repeal is heavily favoured towards the interests of the oil and resource extraction industries and makes it now possible to completely forego "meaningful" consultation with affected community and aboriginal groups if such consultation stands in the way of the amorphous national economic interests.

With the Rob Ford train wreck, the ostensibly "strong" law and order Harper gov't's lack of public statements has been weighed and measured and found sorely wanting - though the PMO and CPC has since put out a public statement that CPC is against drug-use while in public office and drinking and driving with some mention of Trudeau for good measure though no mention of Ford is to be found anywhere. In fact, the higher ranking cpcers have gone out of their way to make it absolutely clear that they won't pass judgement on Ford. Wow.


Saturday, 2 November 2013

Creativity and "education"

During the last Nunavut territorial elections campaign there was a young Inuk man who said that education was the most pressing issue as far as he was concerned, that without the practice of getting homework (K to junior highs school) Inuit students struggle unnecessarily when they get to the secondary levels. I tend to agree with him, but I'd go a step further and say that it's not just getting homework to do that is a problem; it is lack of engagement (and sense of achievement) that is the problem.

When I worked as a policy analyst for an Inuit organization I was often invited to participate in symposia and workshops on Inuit education and curriculum development exercises. I enjoyed every single invitation because I not only got to engage with Inuit elders but really smart teachers (both Inuit and non-Inuit) - I mean, besides being given the opportunity to discuss and explore technical considerations.

It was during that time I got to thinking about the notion of "education" - philosophical, technical, theoretical dimensions of pedagogy, and what the layman would assume education to be. Often I was struck by the "consumer product" regard of "getting" an education (ie, getting a diploma at the completion of going to school). To me this is an ersatz version of education, very bureaucratic, very Piaget.

In fact, I consider Jean Piaget along with Benjamin Spock as the demon duo of Disney's Hercules, Pain and Panic. I know less of Spock but I blame him for the misinterpretation and misapplication of Dewey's theories on education (specifically, student-centered pedagogy), and I consider Piaget the anti-Vygotsky of the humanities' cosmology (a hint that I'm an advocate for liberal arts education). (here is a link to Vygotsky's version of child development that a good introduction:

I'm also informed in my views on education by Northrop Frye, especially a collection of his essays and speeches called, On Education (1988). Frye said that:

The university can best fulfill its revolutionary function by digging in its heels and doing its traditional job in its traditionally retrograde, obscurantist, and reactionary way. It must continue to confront society with the imaginations of great poets, the visions of great thinkers, the discipline of scientific method, and the wisdom of the ages, until enough people in the democracies realize that a way of life, like life itself, must be lost before it can be gained. (On Education, The Critical Discipline, p. 37)

-In the course of writing this blog entry I also came up with this excellent link on education: that I think is worth checking out.

More than historical development pedagogy (as Frye advocates immediately above). more than socio-cultural approaches to education (as Vygotsky says we need), I think we need to celebrate that uniquely human ability to create. I'm not just talking about drawing pictures, writing essays, etc. but something more.

When I was asked by an educator what I meant about mathematics, I said that we should focus on the mechanics of arithmetic only from K to grade 3 but after that algebra and creative problem solving (working thru and formulating possible questions and solutions - ie, the conceptual emphasis that go beyond the textbook) should form the basis of the curriculum.

In Marcus du Sautoy's book, The Music of the Primes (2003), he describes a man named Wilhelm von Humboldt:

In 1809 Wilhelm von Humboldt became the education minister for the north German state of Prussia. In a letter to Goethe in 1816 he wrote, 'I have busied myself here with science a great deal, but I have deeply felt the power of antiquity has always wielded over me. The new disgusts me...' Humboldt favoured a movement away from science [the practical, the utilitarian] as a means to an end, and a return to a more classical tradition of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. (p. 59)

This view is contrasted with the "Republican arithmetic" of Napoleon's utilitarian philosophy of education serving the needs of the state:

Humboldt's drive from teaching science as a practical tool to the more aesthetic notion of knowledge for its own sake had filtered down to Schmalfuss's classroom. The teacher steered Riemann's reading away from mathematical texts full of formulas and rules that were aimed at feeding the demands of a growing industrial world, and guided him towards the classics of Euclid, Archimedes and Apollonius. With their geometry, the ancient Greeks sought to understand the abstract structure of points and lines, and they were not hung up on the particular formulas behind the geometry. (ibid, p. 61)

As most people of my ilk are stereo-typically fascinated by trains, I too have a deep fascination with gothic cathedrals and bridges. But it is less the engineering (though it is that to be sure) but the aesthetic geometries and combinations of abstract shapes that hold their magical sway. I've always been fascinated by structures - whether linguistics, maths, physical structures, orthographical conventions, rhetorical devices, etc. - for there I see the divine that which drives me yet onwards to seek knowledge further and test my ability to comprehend. This aesthetic appreciation has always served me well for it is the key (as I've figured out) to critical thinking and the ability to formulate original insight.


Saturday, 26 October 2013


Finn and Jake from Adventure Time say, "Algebraic", when they're impressed with someone or something - sort of like "cool" only mathematical (ie, righteously-so).

I think Inuit (or an uncanny number of us) are algebraic in our thinking processes. Much of the Inuit inventions have an undeniable geometric quality about them but the quality is informed (intuited) by the physical laws that our ancestors have had to contend with and/or exploit in order to survive. The harpoon head, the igloo, the qajaq, etc. in their basic forms are difficult to improve upon. Algebraic.

In his book, The Music of the Primes, Marcus du Sautoy (2003) describes "Gauss's austere personality in his later years" (p.75) that resonates to some degree with older Inuit I knew in my youth. But this "austere personality" has nothing to do with being "severe" nor anything negative and rather more to do with venerable-old-monk quality...I don't know quite how to describe it; it just is. People who've lived lives as a calling, I think, tend to attain old-age like this.

There is something that Lao Tsu said, "To attain knowledge, add things everyday. To attain wisdom, remove things every day” that I think applies to what Inuit of old tried to attain in old age that gives this "austere" quality that Finn and Jake would call "Algebraic": Gathering knowledge is youth (adding things) while contemplating meaning (and ridding oneself of superfluous things) is old age (ie, cultivating maturity).

Going by my experience, I'd say that maturity is not something that comes on its own as one ages. Becoming algebraic - in the deeper sense, removing the unnecessary things - is a deliberate choice that one fails in time and again but do not give up trying. When we catch glimpses of it, it is truly "algebraic".


Saturday, 19 October 2013

PARDES: an interpreter's toolkit

Of the many impressions I leave people whom I've met, the one impression I'd hope stick is that I'm a reader, a connoisseur of ideas. Clearly (if one would indulge me), I'm not a casual reader: as a lover of books I think the notion of a library is a self-defeating concept because the very idea of "returning" a book I've read and enjoyed is morally reprehensible to me...

Nothing is ever simple, but to a person of letters a book is (ideally) a record, a testament of humanity's glimpse into the divine so rarely manifest in our everyday experience. The oldest "books" aren't merely for entertainment purposes but contrary-wise intended to edify us (the readers, the audience) morally, philosophically, and scientifically (ie, to impart technical knowledge and/or insights). In fact, it is only when printing became economical that books for entertainment became possible.

There is, in the Jewish tradition, a formalized method of interpretation called, PARDES - an acronym for a four-fold system of interpreting the Holy scriptures and its commentaries:

(after making a basic distinction between "open-ended" and "closed" interpretation) Traditional Jewish generally relies on closed questions to focus on the literal reading of the text and open-ended questions to explore various types of implications derived from the text. Thus the plain, historical meaning (called the p'sat) is used as a baseline for other ways of interpretation, which traditionally include the alluded meaning (ie, remez), the moral or homiletical meaning (ie, d'rash), and the esoteric (ie, sod). This four-fold system is sometimes called "Pardes" a general principle, the extended meaning of the text will never contradict the plain meaning. (

As an interpreter/translator of text, there is an additional concept that I think is worth mentioning and illustrating here: namely, whether a "positive" or "negative" construction is more effective in conveying an idea.

CS Lewis, one of the Christian writers I have admire a long time, puts the practical issue thus:

I would prefer to combat the ‘I’m special’ feeling not by the thought ‘I’m no more special than anyone else’ but by the feeling ‘Everyone is as special as me.’ In one way there is no difference, I grant, for both remove the speciality. But there is a difference in another way. The first might lead you to think, ‘I’m only one of the crowd like anyone else’. But the second leads to the truth that there isn’t any crowd. No one is like anyone else. (The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, Volume III)

Of course, this is not intended to be some sort of prescribed way of reading or translating a given text. As John J. Parsons makes the distinction immediately in the article first quoted here: "An effective teacher [or reader] understands when to ask 'closed questions' and when to ask 'open-ended questions" a proficient reader (or learning how to be a proficient reader) has this background understanding that reading is not just a mechanical process but an engagement in comprehension, a process of meditation.

This way of doing things is not limited to reading and writing but touches upon everything that has to do with "problem-solving", being able to play around with ideas and principles to obtain original insights. It is the difference between accepting what is told and attaining an "aha!" moment.

I think I've mentioned this before: my best friend once remarked how loopy quantum physics really is in that it "allows" stuff to be both particle-like and wave-like at the same time. And my response was: without this fact, we'd live in a world without colour because the stuff around us is made of particulate stuff and we can perceive colour (wave lengths) at the same time.

Psalm 19 contains one of my favourite passages in the Bible because it speaks most succinctly of the participatory nature of Creation and the infinite wisdom (and righteous coolness) of G*d:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
    no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.

I know I repeat many things here...


Monday, 14 October 2013

Semiotics of "Post-Modern" Angst

In my last posting I mentioned something about the "aesthetics" of maturely-developed orthographies (such as English - though my readings of Umberto Eco would suggest to me that there is an angst pervading the whole of the "Western" culture). I suggested that the orthography of English is a historical documentation of the evolution of the language.

Now, it has just occurred to me (and I haven't really thought this out) that perhaps, in some small but significant way, part of the "post-modern" angst and the reaction of intolerance to intellectualism and the resultant hyper-partisan (however artificial) distinctions may be a subconscious repulsion to how "scientific/philosophical" ideas are couched in "foreign" -sounding and -looking words.

In such a text-based society as the western world it would hardly be surprising that the inarticulable sense of dread of losing personal and societal control would solicit such a reaction. The methods and processes of neologisms in scientific discourse coupled with the ever-increasing apparent meaninglessness of sloganeering of the so-called free market economy and hyper-partisan politics...the utter and complete alienation and lashing out/imperative to self-harm is logically inevitable.

This alienation is nothing new to colonialized peoples but to see the giving up and resignation en masse of trying to understand the language when its one's own...scary. Subtlety and the ability to think not only metaphorically but also in abstract terms is lost.

Perhaps in thinking about the typical trend of widening gaps between formal religious/social structures and personal experience prompted the great Anglican mystic Thomas Traherne (1636-1674) to observe:

By this you may see who are the rude and barbarous Indians: For verily there is no savage nation under the cope of Heaven, that is more absurdly barbarous than the Christian World. They that go naked and drink water and live upon roots are like Adam, or Angels in comparison of us. (Traherne, Centuries of Meditations: Third Century, sect. 12)


Saturday, 12 October 2013

Orthography vs Phonology

Ever since the Linguistics bug bit me many years ago the contemplation of the tension between "orthography" and "phonology" has always fascinated me. I think it does for every linguist (great and small). Of the many things I can no longer remember of my time at Memorial U of Newfoundland one thing that I do clearly remember is that this issue was posed by the Phonology prof and I think it was in the context of whether it'd make better sense to change the English spelling system into the International Phonetic Alphabet (what linguists use to document and talk about language).

Though, over time, I've come to appreciate the more subtle aspects of such a question (and have acquired a better grasp of the vocabulary and historical context to present my philosophical positions on the issue) my position has, surprisingly, changed little - well, 'surprising' to me in any case.

Taking cue from the brilliant lectures I enjoyed in the Historical Linguistics course I remember immediately jumping into the group discussion in the Phonology course with the confidence only fools are afforded. The Historical Linguistics course was the closest I ever got to philology and I was fortunate indeed to have such an able student of Old English for a professor who taught me to appreciate the historical significance of written sources as documentations of and witnesses to language change.

My aippakuluk came back from her Toronto trip with an old Penguin Books publication titled, Linguistics, by David Crystal (1971) whose writing on the subject of "orthography" vs "phonology" is typical of how linguists frame the issue: the beginning of the present century [1900s], much of the attention was taken up with the devising of appropriate techniques for the transcription of speech. This emphasis was also to be found, independently motivated, in America, where...the focus of interest was to make sure a detailed description of the dying Amerindian tribes - particularly of their languages...A phonetic transcription is no more than an attempt to make a permanent and unambiguous record of what goes on in our speech. The point which has to be emphasized is that to get such a record, we have to devise a fresh technique: our usual alphabets, which we use for everyday writing, are insufficient to do this task precisely. After all, there are only 26 basic letters in our English alphabet, but there are over forty basic sounds...We all know how English tries to get round this problem: it uses the same letter or letters for different sounds, as in the many ways in which the ough combination can be pronounced; and it gives the same sound all sorts of different spellings - the same /i/ appears in sit, women, village, busy and enough, for example. This method is both uneconomical (two or more letters for one sound), and, more importantly, highly ambiguous: we cannot predict all the time from seeing a group of letters how a word will be pronounced. English is particularly difficult in this respect, as we can see from groups of words like bough, bow (of a ship, or of a head) and bow (the weapon or the knot), where the second sounds like the first, but looks like the third. Many other languages show a much better correspondence between sounds and letters, such as Finnish or Spanish, and some, of course, like Irish Gaelic, have a much worse relationship. (p. 168)

True enough in what he says about the spelling system (orthography) of English being 'uneconomical' and 'ambiguous' (sometimes, and in some contexts), and that different writing systems of different languages have their relative strengths and weaknesses. But this analysis ignores the fact that there is a system, a real convention that works because it has developed over time as a standard of spelling and pronunciation. Whether this be by accident or design is largely immaterial precisely because it is a system of standards or agreed-upon conventional notations that account for not only efficacy, but, more importantly, aesthetics.

Now, that the abstract notion of 'aesthetics' would come into play in a writing system is a subtle thing indeed - here, I'm not talking about the form of the script (ie, syllabics vs Chinese ideographs vs latin script), but the ough combination of letters that are pronounced differently for different words and the bough, bow and bow examples that the good doctor speaks of in the above quote - but this 'supra-segmental' aspect of a given script allows for sight-reading and proficiency in the 'phonemic' systems (such as English and Hebrew for that matter) in direct contrast to the syllabic systems (such as Inuktitut or Japanese) which are truly a bit harder to master than the phonemic systems because the combination of both consonant and vowel values are 'built into' a given symbol in a phonetic system.

Many users of the Inuktitut syllabic system master 'sight-reading' and are able readers but the contrast lies in that there truly is a one-to-one relationship between symbol and sound in a phonetic system whereas in a phonemic system the context and the more abstract notion of aesthetics (and etymological, or word origin) value plays into how the /f/ sound in English is spelt 'f'', 'ph' and 'gh'.

In the Hebrew script this notion of aesthetics is even more dramatic because (outside the nichodot notation) the vowel values are not usually specified and the different ways of indicating the same sound with different symbols is purely aesthetic (for ease of differentiation of meaningful words by contrast in the script) rather than an indication of the word origin as what has motivated the evolution of the English spelling system, say, the way it has.

-Interestingly enough, the Normands that subjugated the anglo-saxons introduced the latin script that is presently used in the English-speaking world, and this historical fact determines the spelling of the gh combinations in present day English.


Sunday, 1 September 2013

Kierkegaard: Works of Love

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-40)

Sometimes I think that Kierkegaard (1813-1855) was a real asshole (for a good synopsis, check this out: He certainly had the "trickster" quality about him. The way I try and understand him is that he said that his writings were "the art of taking away".

When I started reading about existentialism, I started out with Sartre, and only found out later that it was Kierkegaard who helped initiate the discourse (which further, to me, confirmed Kierkegaard's class of assholeship). Sartre's Either/Or is heavy, dense reading (and I wouldn't recommend him), but what I took away from it all these years ago is the passage about a flooding and destruction of life in Bangladesh being merely a redistribution of matter. Perhaps he didn't say it that way but that's what I remember most of Sartre.

In his Works of Love (1847) I begin to see what Kierkegaard meant in claiming this "art of taking away" as "[h]e used irony, parody, satire, humor, and deconstructive techniques in order to make conventionally accepted forms of knowledge and value untenable." ( Part of this formidable intellectual arsenal, was his use of contrast and comparison to great effect in Works of Love.

In Matthew 11: 28-30, the Christ says: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

This promise forms the foundation of Kierkegaard's insight in Works of Love:

The objection is often made against Christianity—though in different manners and moods, with various passions and purposes—that it displaces erotic love and friendship. Then, again, men have wanted to defend Christianity and to that end appealed to its doctrine that one ought to love God with his whole heart and his neighbour as himself. When the argument is carried on in this manner, it is quite indifferent whether one agrees or disagrees, just as a fight with air and an agreement with air are equally meaningless. (Kierkegaard, Works of Love: some Christian reflections in the form of discourses. Translated by Howard and Edna Hong, Harper&Row, p.58)

Kierkegaard says that erotic love and friendship are forms of self-love (or, passionate preferences). As altruistic as these forms of love may be, there is, ultimately, an expectation of reciprocity of some sort. In terms of erotic love, there really is no guarantee that one will ever meet "one's true love" and, if found by those fortunate enough, there is no guarantee that it'll even last. "The beloved and the friend are therefore called, remarkably and significantly enough, the other-self, the other-I..."(ibid, p. 66)

Just a paragraph earlier, Kierkegaard warns that if we think the distinction between "pagan" notions of love and Christian notions of "neighbourly" love center around "passionate preference" (ie, differences in tenderness and fidelity), we are mistaken. Love, after all, is a human thing. Christians feel as much for erotic love and friendship as non-believers. The differences lay rather in perspective.

Taking cue from Christ's words in Matthew 22: 37-40, with a childlike simplicity Kierkegaard says that the difference is that, in Christianity, everyone is rightfully our neighbour, and that we have the opportunity to love our neighbour the moment we meet anyone in the course of our days. He uses a wonderful image of the devotee first locking himself in to pray and be close to God, then, going out the door meeting his neighbour.

As someone with a scientific/philosophical bent, I cannot deny the sweet irony inherent in scientific inquiry that we are to approach it in the spirit of objectivity and clinical regard when the more we study some phenomenon the more easily we are taken up by the subject of our inquiry. There are the opening lines in Psalm 19 that I've always found to be true in my study of linguistics:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.

Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.

They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.

Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

I've not read even the most "atheistic" scientist immune to the wonder of their study. But I've read many "Christian" fundamentalists who have a certain violence and intolerant hatred in their tone for anyone who would hold alternative views than they. I doubt God even cares whether we believe in the so-called "creationism" or if we believe in evolution because if He cared He'd be beholden to time and revision. God is, in fact, transcendent of all things created for He is the author and sovereign of all that exists.

No matter how vast the span of time it took to produce you and me, we exist: we have lives, histories, pains and joys, etc. and, by all accounts, unique beings. Our mythologies are less important than our ability to want self-improvement if we but be honest with ourselves. We are someone else's neighbour as much as they are ours:

While most commentators regard Kierkegaard's view to be that sin is what separates human beings absolutely from God, thereby lending weight to the view that Kierkegaard endorses a particularly dour version of Christianity, a more defensible interpretation is that it is the transcendent God's capacity to forgive the unforgivable that marks the absolute difference. Our struggle to accept divine forgiveness can become mired in despair, including the second-order despair over the impossibility of forgiveness of our sins and the demonic despair of defiance in which we refuse to accept forgiveness. On the other hand, faith in divine forgiveness can manifest in joy, at the realization that for God anything is possible, including our “rebirth” as spiritual selves with “eternal validity”. (


Sunday, 25 August 2013

The land of Ooo

I'm a nerd.

I'm not saying this in a self-deprecating manner; I'm comfortable in my nerdy skin. It wasn't always like this, but growing up has a way of making things ok.

One of my nerdy qualities is that I love cartoons: SpongeBob Squarepants; Kung-fu Panda; Jimmy Neutron; Planet much as I like The Simpsons, American Dad, Futurama, and I'm reassessing my liking The Family Guy. My most recent discovery is a show called, Adventure Time with Finn and Jake.

Adventure Time is a strange, wonderful, quirky world, and not at all your typical cartoon. It has a dark, foreboding undertow (a post-apocalyptic world) that does not overwhelm the light-hearted innocence and coolness of the two main characters: Finn the human (Jeremy Shada) and Jake the dog (John DiMaggio - of the Futurama fame).

The whole series is peppered with flashbacks of the characters (both major and minor). For example, the Ice King's character used to be an antiquarian named Simon Petrikov. The storyline goes something like he used to be in love his fiancée Betty but then he came across a magical crown that slowly took over him and his priorities. His subjects are penguins and he has a penguin sidekick named Gunter.

In one of the flashbacks, as he becomes more and more the Ice King and less and less his original form, we find that in order to protect a little girl named Marceline from the post-apocalyptic zombies after the Mushroom War he had to rely more and more on the magical crown but at the cost of his sanity and humanity.

[Pendleton] Ward described the show as a "dark comedy"; he said "dark comedies are my favorite, because I love that feeling – being happy and scared at the same time. It's my favorite way to feel – when I'm on the edge of my seat but I'm happy, that sense of conflicting emotions. And there's a lot of that in the show, I think." (

The whole thing is brilliant.

There is also the music being as Finn, Marceline and Jake are musically inclined and liable to break out into music at any moment.

I've always been fascinated by the Greenlandic culture. It has a distance for me that makes it an almost magical wonder. It has an easy eloquence about it being as the Inuit language is strong, and, more importantly, culturally relevant in a way that it has kept the linguistic traditions in the modern world that other Inuit cultures are currently struggling with. It also has music (of every kind).

Adventure Time has that quality (for me).


Ergativity in Inuit Language

The Inuit language has a somewhat strange ("strange" to non-native speakers anyhow) grammatical feature called an "ergative" marker. First, I'll quote the Wikipedia entry on what ergativity means then try and explain as best as I can myself:

An ergative–absolutive language (or simply an ergative language) is a language in which the single argument ("subject") of an intransitive verb behaves like the object of a transitive verb, and differently from the agent ("subject") of a transitive verb. For instance, instead of saying "I moved her" and "she moved", speakers of an ergative language would say the equivalent of "I moved her" and "her moved". (

The question of "transitivity" is of primary importance in talking about "ergativity". The difference between 1) "I see" and 2) "I see him" is that 1 is "intransitive" (ie, grammatically complete without a direct object), and 2 is "transitive" (ie, specifies both the subject "I" and direct object "him"). The great subtlety is that the difference between the two phrases is not so much in the nouns but the verbs – though "to see" with respect to the two phrases in English seems, for all intents and purposes, unaltered by its grammatical function.

In the Inuit language, grammatical differences that have to do with "transitivity" are specified by its morpho-syntactic structure through the ergative markers. I say "markers" in the plural because most if not all the linguistics papers on the Inuit language that I've read seem to speak only of the pronominal endings (such as [-tara/-jara]; [-tait/-jait]; [-tanga/-janga]) but I noticed in thinking about Inuktitut that it seems possible to denote ergativity without having to mark it pronominally.

There is a particle in Inuktitut that seems to function like an ergative marker but nonetheless requires a direct object to complete its grammaticality (though strictly speaking, ergativity has to do with intransitive constructs). This particle is the [-si-] morpheme, as in:

kapisijuq "he stabs (someone)"

which is distinct from

kapijuq "he stabs (himself)"

This "complication" may have to do with the fact that some ergative languages have an additional grammatical function having to do with "active-stative" distinctions. Rather than trying to explain what "active-stative" means, let me just refer you to this Wikipedia entry (

I'm actually not joking. After going through all that complicated technical language in the entry above, the most important point has to do with this statement therein:

If the language has morphological case, then the arguments of a transitive verb are marked using the agentive case for the subject and the patientive case for the object, while the argument of an intransitive verb may be marked as either.

Clear as mud? Then, you're in good company (including yours truly, to be honest). But I think I can actually follow my own argument here, being a native speaker of Inuktitut with some technical serviceability in linguistics. But I also realize the trap I've willingly fallen into (namely, that abstract theoretical arguments have that frustrating aspect of seeming to want to count the number of angels dancing on the tip of a needle). At the risk of appearing snobbish I actually enjoyed falling into this trap, willingly.

Granted, the line of reasoning here is subtle but not all "aha!" moments translate well outside the subjective experience. I may not look it, but I'm actually as "happy as pig in...".


Saturday, 24 August 2013

What is Real?

My aippakuluk bought a copy of the August 2013 issue of Scientific American, and in it is a very interesting article called, Quantum Physics: what is real?

Personally, my present reading is that, since the discovery of the Higgs boson, string theorists (which according to Lee Smolin makes up most of the physicist community) have been somewhat jolted back to reality (whatever "reality" is) and are beginning to question whether the Standard Model of particle physics was always a more productive theoretical framework after all than the superstring varieties.

I would like to liken the ever-multiplying string models (taking cue from GH Hardy) to 'ugly mathematics' for the simple reason that the whole discourse has never seemed to grasp the (dare I say?) wisdom of the Occam's Razor - says the Wikipedia entry on Occam's Razor:

It states that among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. In other words, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.('s_razor)

The entry goes on to say: "The razor states that one should proceed to simpler theories until simplicity can be traded for greater explanatory power. The simplest available theory need not be most accurate."

As a fallibilist (turns out I was this all along), or someone who believes that human knowledge is "liable to err"—being as we ourselves are limited and what we can know is subject to revision—I've always been a subscriber to Occam's Razor. You know...the type of realization that comes where once it was only an inkling then you comes across a statement that give the proper language to that once-only-an-inkling? I find that as I mature as a reader and writer these types of epiphanies are coming clearer and, even, spiritual (which I think I've always had those "aha!" moments if rare these).

Anyhoo...the article I started talking about: some (if not most) physics philosophers have always felt that our notions of "particles" and "fields" are rather inadequate descriptors because they give us the impression that we're talking about things we've actually experienced as "particles" and "fields" when actually these technical/mathematical entities have little if nothing in common with our experience. Fine.

One day, my best friend made a comment that he finds it astounding that something could be both a "particle" and a "wave" at the same time. After a split-second of reflection, I replied that we actually experience it everyday, and precisely because it is such a commonplace thing we completely overlook the fact that we see in colour in everyday things (colour, they say, is a wave).

The article says that these two categories of the physical phenomena blur together. But then says something immediately after that which I find very interesting and insightful if unconsciously stated: "Quantum field theory assigns [emphasis mine] a field to each type of elementary particle, so there is an electron field as surely as there is an electron. At the same time, the force fields are quantized rather than continuous, which gives rise to particles such as the photon." (Scientific American, August 2013, p. 42)

In other words, when we talk of physics we are not actually talking about (well, maybe in some tenuous way yet to be demonstrated convincing to all) particles and fields but the mathematical values assigned to what is being measured. This is different than saying these "assigned" values are actually what we think we observe. The phenomena, after all, are not the actual chosen artefacts of our discourse—ie, "particles" and "fields".

I've always been struck by our notions of "number"—there is something deeper than our differentiation of "oneness" from "twoness", for example, than what we actually think. Though we actually "know" there is a quantitative difference between "one" and "two" there is a subtle "slipperiness" about our notion of number. And, this is reflected in our discourse: we can say that there is a difference between "cardinal" and "ordinal" numbers, or that these "integers" belong to a bigger class of number called the "reals" (as per the closed ring theory of arithmetic).

In other words, though we distinguish 1 from 2 they are actually artefacts of our discourse and, being abstract entities, one doesn't actually take up more space nor energy than the other. In fact, the amorphous notion of the infinite takes up no more space than zero does.

Just to be absolutely clear: I'm not what is called in mathematicians a "formalist". I don't actually believe that reality and our notions of number are just rules to manipulate and arrange into pleasing forms. I am, as I said, a fallibilist (of the pragmatist persuasion). Though I tend to treat human knowledge and the language we use as being subject to change and modification I think its fundamental object is something real and immutable (I like calling it "the mind/creation of God").

However we chose to label ourselves epistemologically, there is no denying that our pursuit of knowledge is motivated and inspired by something "real" and "objective" no matter how we regard it. In fact, how we regard reality is immaterial for our perspective/perception is merely a tool—without detracting anything from what we perceive in the first instance.

There is something wonderful in Kierkegaard's writings that I think capture most succinctly what I'm driving at here. It is his notions of the "absurd" and "irony" in light of pursuit of knowledge. To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Kierkegaard's rhetorical play with the inverse Christian dialectic was designed not to make the word of God easier to assimilate, but to establish more clearly the absolute distance that separates human beings from God. This was in order to emphasize that human beings are absolutely reliant on God's grace for salvation. While most commentators regard Kierkegaard's view to be that sin is what separates human beings absolutely from God, thereby lending weight to the view that Kierkegaard endorses a particularly dour version of Christianity, a more defensible interpretation is that it is the transcendent God's capacity to forgive the unforgivable that marks the absolute difference. Our struggle to accept divine forgiveness can become mired in despair, including the second-order despair over the impossibility of forgiveness of our sins and the demonic despair of defiance in which we refuse to accept forgiveness. On the other hand, faith in divine forgiveness can manifest in joy, at the realization that for God anything is possible, including our “rebirth” as spiritual selves with “eternal validity”. (

Earlier, the above article says that Kierkegaard's insight into the Christian "inverse dialectic" demands that we find hope in hopelessness, strength in weakness, and peace in adversity (and, finding joyfulness in the dour, if I may add)—this view, by the way, is perfectly in line with Paul's theology and, indeed, the Christ's Himself. And earlier still the author points out that Kierkegaard's whole project was to "take away from" rather than "add to" human knowledge (which he views as so much brush and bramble, overgrowth of weeds, to be pruned 'til clarity is yet again achieved). Very Taoist, if I may point out.

This type of philosophical outlook is about perspective (ie, the saving grace in Christ's gospel) that invariably and inevitably leads to humility and sense of peace if nothing else precisely because they draw our attention away from the self into our notions of portion and proportion ("know before whom you stand"), which, the sages say, is enough. This is my chosen meditation. The dynamical living relationship between God and human is the thing—ie, not the rewards and punishments but the authenticity of the relationship God invites us to explore.

This is basically what the Scientific American article says: that we should perhaps view the physical phenomena as not so much about things/objects but as how the values we can measure are at their cores relational. This, to me, is good because ultimately there is nothing satisfying about regarding reality as a thing; the satisfaction comes from perceiving relations and interconnections.


Sunday, 18 August 2013

Not X but Y

Though I'm not a mathematician I'm a lover of mathematical ideas; though I'm not a philosopher I'm a lover of philosophical ideas; though I could not rightly claim that I'm a talented musician I'm a lover of music; though I'm not a religious nor even a saintly person I'm a lover of Christ and the spiritual/ethical insights of the prophets as written in the Tanakh (the "old testament").

Though I'm neither assimilated nor of European descent, I consider all human achievements of the Western world my own heritage (as much as my own cultural heritage) documented and preserved and being expanded for my edification and general benefit. Everything from Aesop's fables to the American Constitution...these are things that bring eudemonia and ideals/principles for me to strive for. In fact, I consider myself a culmination/product of Inuit, Judeo-Christian and Western synthesis. I'm proud of being born an Inuk (singl. of Inuit), and am a great lover of my language and cultural/social insights.

As a Christian apologist I am no defender of human history and find much of the so-called fundamentalist attitude of every stripe tending to the simple, the lazy and the utterly unsatisfying.

When I started focussing on philosophy I was deeply impressed with Spinoza's format of first presenting a proposition then walking through a reasoned argument to support his propositions. In fact, I wanted a similar format for the presentation of Inuit Qaujimajangit (Inuit Knowledge or IQ) principles but ultimately decided against it for the simple virtue that such a presentation might be interpreted in the end as precluding input from my fellow Inuit, and I didn't want that especially for Inuit (past, present and future) who are more capable and knowledgeable than I. I wanted the discourse on IQ to be organic and democratic.

One of the Christian preachers I enjoy listening to, Charles Price, writes in today's devotional (

There is a well-known argument that says God cannot be both sovereign and loving at the same time for the reason that if He is loving and all-powerful, then the very existence of suffering and tragedy indicates that He is not loving. And if God is loving, then He’s obviously not sovereign, because He seems unable to overcome all the evil and suffering in this world. So what is meant by the sovereignty of God?

1 John 5:19 says, “We know that we are children of God and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one.” Three times Jesus spoke of Satan as ‘the prince of this world’ and the Bible tells again and again of people acting in disobedience and rebellion against God. The difficulty is that if God rules sovereignly over our disobedience and sovereignly rules His judgment for our disobedience, what does that say about the integrity of God? It’s a problematic position, but God is never the author of evil and, in His sovereignty, created human beings with a free will.

Using Spinoza's approach, we could state first the principle of "free will" to Price's wonderful devotional above and proceed from there to one of Spinoza's more controversial arguments that make people question whether he was an atheist, pantheist or heretic, and "prove" the transcendent nature of God:

Encapsulated at the start in his Treatise on the Improvement of the Understanding (Tractatus de intellectus emendatione) is the core of Spinoza's ethical philosophy, what he held to be the true and final good. Spinoza held good and evil to be relative concepts, claiming that nothing is intrinsically good or bad except relative to a particularity. Things that had classically been seen as good or evil, Spinoza argued, were simply good or bad for humans. Spinoza believes in a deterministic universe in which "All things in nature proceed from certain [definite] necessity and with the utmost perfection." Nothing happens by chance in Spinoza's world, and nothing is contingent. (

It is the "utmost perfection" of God's Creation and the relativity of "good" and "evil" that I want to focus on here. Given the utmost perfection of Creation, God's transcendence is assured and the relativity of good and evil "proves" His sovereignty and the notion of our free will at the same time. The utmost perfection of Creation and our choices that generate either good or evil results implies that the "prince of this world" (ie, Satan) himself may have free reign on the physical realm but he is not himself the source of it but is only a "creature" like us free to use the created world for good or ill and subject to the divine judgement precisely because of that free will.

Since the consequences of our own actions result in both/either good and/or bad, ethics become an important principle to address these consequences. Since we are created in the image of God we are ultimately responsible for the free choices we make "relative to the particularity" of our choices (and understanding) - and why the necessity of our Saviour and divine grace and mercy that personify Him are utterly important for the sheer immensity of the weight of being ultimately responsibility for our actions and choices.

The Creator-creation-us relationship is in the same fashion that our technology is neither good nor bad (by nature) and requires something else to be realized: namely, our ethics and reflection. The use of guns in our culture has been a real blessing but only insofar as we have chosen to use the technology using our cultural values and attitudes towards nature. Inuit realized long ago that the Arctic environment necessitates our "diet of souls", and the best of Inuit culture/mindset is really about an un-pre-determined lesson in ethical behaviour/relationship with what nature has to offer us.

This mindset, like our relationship with God and Jesus, is a fragile thing indeed - and not because the divine is flawed but we ourselves are necessarily flawed in our limited understanding of the consequences of how we go about addressing our needs. It is - at its core - a power relationship, and like all power relationships, requiring our personal deliberation and examination of our ethical choices and methods to be a just and merciful one.

To close this off I want to quote again the Wikipedia entry on Spinoza:

Given Spinoza's insistence on a completely ordered world where "necessity" reigns, Good and Evil have no absolute meaning. The world as it exists looks imperfect only because of our limited perception.


Saturday, 17 August 2013

David vs Roger

I'm a huge Pink Floyd fan. I love everything about the Floyd - the music, the writing, the aesthetics, etc. Most people who are fans of Pink Floyd, I would surmise, when asked who makes the band would probably answer that Roger Waters did most of the song-writing so he makes Pink Floyd. No doubt about it: Waters wrote many of the classics.

But I would say that the center actually is David Gilmour post Syd Barrett.

There is an episode in The Big Bang Theory where the Sheldon character realizes that he is not and never was the center of the group. Now, Sheldon has a big ego that is directly inverse proportional to his social graces. Like Waters, he thinks that everything that he thinks about or says is an "acquired taste", and, as such, excellent by virtue of it requiring a long-winded explanation to be understood (best if he does the explaining).

The Leonard character (Sheldon's long-suffering room-mate) is a bit more easy-going. He knows that the different characters together make the group work. He just has the creative spontaneity and comfortableness in his skin to allow others to contribute. Where Sheldon is a mono-cultural field Leonard is a pasture.

The chemistry works.

Where Waters' writing has a tendency towards cold and dark interiority, Gilmour's writing tends to substantive literary use of psychological states. Waters has always been stuck on insanity and navel-gazing; Gilmour (with the help of his wife) looks at the effects and consequences of life lived in a relationship.

Even their choice of words for album titles are different: The Wall; The Division Bell.

The Wall is a place of loneliness and alienation; The Division Bell is a reference to the bells of British parliamentary tradition that ring when the members are called in to vote on an issue.

There is a song in the Momentary Lapse of Reason album where Gilmour's first fruits of lyric writing after Waters tried to break up the band shine through brilliantly: Sorrow, says Gilmour, was a poem before he wrote the music for it. It is said that he "appropriated" the opening lines of Sorrow from John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, but in my own ignorance (though Steinbeck is one of the authors I greatly admire) I've always thought the lyrics a prophetic allusion to the first Gulf War (written about 4 years before Hussein invaded Kuwait):

The sweet smell of a great sorrow lies over the land
Plumes of smoke rise and merge into the leaden sky:
A man lies and dreams of green fields and rivers,
But awakes to a morning with no reason for waking
He's haunted by the memory of a lost paradise
In his youth or a dream, he can't be precise
He's chained forever to a world that's departed
It's not enough, it's not enough
His blood has frozen & curdled with fright
His knees have trembled & given way in the night
His hand has weakened at the moment of truth
His step has faltered
One world, one soul
Time pass, the river rolls
It's not enough it's not enough
His hand has faltered
.... .... ......
And he talks to the river of lost love and dedication
And silent replies that swirl invitation
Flow dark and troubled to an oily sea
A grim intimation of what is to be
There's an unceasing wind that blows through this night
And there's dust in my eyes, that blinds my sight
And silence that speaks so much louder that words,
Of promises broken

The lyrical treatment is human; contemplative of human experience, the inarticulable longing we all feel for the idealized past brought about by the vertigo-inducing uncertainty of the present and the as-yet unrealized possibilities and hope of the future (Tom Joad doesn't know what he's going to in the end of The Grapes of Wrath but he feels he has to go into that uncertainty in light of certain continued persecution - and to protect his family):

The differences between Waters and Gilmour is also best captured in a quote (also from The Grapes of Wrath):

This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning—from "I" to "we". If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate causes from results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into "I", and cuts you off forever from the "we". (Chapter 14, p. 158)

Like, wow.


Sunday, 11 August 2013


These words, according to a preacher who I enjoy listening to, were found written by a patient in an insane asylum:

Could we with ink the ocean fill
And were the skies of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill
And every man a scribe by trade
Then to write the love of God above
Would drain the oceans dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole
Though stretched from sky to sky

"Fallibilism" is a hallmark of pragmatist philosophy. Fallibilism, as I know it, is a principle that says that human knowledge is limited and temporal and, because of this, liable to err. It is a philosophical version of the great Kurt Gödel's number theoretic insight that any finite axiomatic system (or set of logic statements that define an arithmetic system) is, by nature, incomplete.

Neither epistemological version (mathematical or philosophical) say that it is pointless to explore and discourse on what human beings can know (in fact, both are confirmations of the tremendous power of logic constraints in their ability to generate insights (statements) not immediately obvious nor predictable even by the authors).

For eg, Einstein's theories of relativity are a set of mathematical equations that, as it turns out, imply and capture the mechanics of physical phenomena that were unknown at the time of his constructing them - black-holes, the expansion of the universe, etc. and these are embedded within the mathematics and roll out naturally within the given possible solutions to the equations. There is no jerry-rigging, no adding of provisos or whatnots after the facts are discovered. These solutions are inherent in the system, neither known nor predicted by Einstein...mathematics has a way of doing this; this is its divine quality, as if mathematics done well was the very language of God himself.

At the other end of the spectrum, the world of the very small - also initiated by Einstein's special theory of relativity - is quantum physics. A hugely successful mathematical description of the mechanics of the atom generating such things as the periodic table of elements which, by logic, allowed even the prediction of elements unknown at the time.

There really are limits to these theories (as with all human knowledge). There is no way of reconciling the mathematics of the continuous (general theory of relativity) with the discreet (quantum physics) given our current understanding of maths. The greatest minds have tried and failed up to this point. But, they've discovered wonderful things also in the process of attempting it. Dirac, for eg, came up with an equation of the electron that, by all accounts of these greatest minds, "gives more than is humanly possible". His equations predicted the existence of anti-particles...

None of these powerful theories say anything about the human condition. Einstein, the greatest of them that constructed these theories, said this:

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.

and this:

The important thing is not to stop questioning; curiosity has its own reason for existing.

Einstein's fame is not limited to just his scientific discoveries, but touch upon his political views, his admonishments to use technology and scientific knowledge with practical wisdom (phronesis) and not just by ego-wishes and questions of economic gain (ie, with ethical and moral reflection guiding our uses of them) captured most succinctly in this quote:

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.

God, and the divine nature of creation, were never discounted by him as mere superstitions. In fact, he has much to say about God and spirituality: "Only a life lived for others is a life worthwhile."

Now, why did I quote an insane person at the beginning of this entry? It is to capture that infinite "mystery" Einstein talks about and that which informs and forms his apparent humbleness. This, to me, is the very essence of the principle of fallibilism.


Sunday, 4 August 2013

"The most human human"

There is an episode in the Doctor Who series called, The Shakespeare Code, where the Doctor claims that Shakespeare is "the most human human there's ever been". Granted, I'm a huge fan of Shakespeare, especially his sonnets and the phrases/terms he's coined, and I'll give the Doctor that. But I also think that every culture has its Shakespeare by the simple virtue that the human language has something divine in it (ie, the very nature of the human language is a creative phenomenon).

For instance, I've been blown away many times by Inuit who speak the Inuit language well, and these people have never written a book nor spoken from a lectern in front of an audience; let alone that these people never even went to school. Nonetheless, eloquence is not the sole purview of the English-speaking world by any stretch of the imagination (modern Inuktitut spoken well has roughly the same structural elegance as Elizabethan English that Shakespeare spoke - I should know, I'm into linguistics).

There is also another writer that I'd consider "the most human human there's ever been" that would certainly give Shakespeare a run for his money, and just given the nature of a Christian culture in which Shakespeare grew up, he's most likely been hugely influenced by even if only subconsciously. This writer been accredited to have written the Book of Psalms, King David.

Even if he's not the sole author of the book there is a quality about the writing that suggest he would have written the great majority of the book. Where Shakespeare's preferred subject matter tends to politics, youth/old age and young love/foibles; King David's tends to the real psychological states we're all bound to feel in the course of our lives (even within a span of a single day): angst, joy, numbness, doubt, spiritual rapture, vengeance, forgiveness, etc. -all of which translates unreasonably well-intact through cultures and time.

Given that the Jewish culture seems unusually blessed with human genius, this David was a polymath: a great warrior and military tactician, musician, poet, philosopher, prophet, a penitent sinner, a great ruler of the unite kingdom of Israel, the very template of the Messiah to the Jews, but not immune to self-indulgence and debauchery - none of which he hides in his writings. In a word: he is the most human human that ever lived.

In fact, his whole life reads like a Shakespearean play:

Jonathan and Saul are killed in battle with the Philistines at Mount Gilboa. David mourns their deaths, especially that of Jonathan, his friend. He goes up to Hebron, where he is anointed king over Judah. In the north, Saul's son Ish-Bosheth becomes king of the tribes of Israel. War ensues between Ish-Bosheth and David, until Ish-Bosheth is murdered. The assassins bring the head of Ish-Bosheth to David hoping for a reward, but David executes them for their crime against the Lord's anointed. Yet with the death of the son of Saul, the elders of Israel come to Hebron and David, who is 30 years old, is anointed King over Israel and Judah. (

continues the Wikipedia entry:

David conquered the Jebusite fortress of Jerusalem, and made it his capital. "Hiram king of Tyre sent messengers to David, and cedar trees, also carpenters and masons who built David a house." David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, intending to build a temple, but God, speaking through the prophet Nathan, announced that the temple would be built at a future date by one of David's sons (Solomon). God made a covenant with David, promising that He will establish the house of David : "Your throne shall be established forever."


David commits adultery with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite. Bathsheba becomes pregnant. David sends for Uriah, who is with the Israelite army at the siege of Rabbah, so that he may lie with his wife and conceal the identity of the child's father. Uriah refuses to do so while his companions are in the field of battle and David sends him back to Joab, the commander, with a message instructing him to abandon Uriah on the battlefield, "that he may be struck down, and die." David marries Bathsheba and she bears his child, "but the thing that David had done displeased the Lord." The prophet Nathan confronts David, saying: "Why have you despised the word of God, to do what is evil in his sight? You have smitten Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife." Nathan presents three punishments from God for this sin. First, that the "sword shall never depart from your house" (2 Samuel 12:10); second, that "Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel" (2 Samuel 12:12); and finally, that "the son born to you will die" (2 Samuel 12:14).

David repents, yet God "struck the [David's] child ... and it became sick ... [And] on the seventh day the child died." David leaves his lamentations, dresses himself, goes to the House of the Lord and worships, and then returns home to eat. His servants ask why he wept when the baby was alive, but ends his mourning when the child dies. David replies: "While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let the child live.' But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me."

see: most human human?..and finally:

When David has become old and bedridden, Adonijah, his eldest surviving son and natural heir, declares himself king and worthy to marry Abishag. Bathsheba, David's favorite wife, and Nathan the prophet go to David and procure his agreement that Solomon, Bathsheba's son, should sit on the throne. Thus, the plans of Adonijah collapse, and Solomon becomes king.

It is to Solomon that David gives his final instructions, including his promise that the line of Solomon and David will inherit the throne of Judah forever, and his request that Solomon kill his oldest enemies on his behalf.

David dies and is buried in the City of David, having ruled forty years over Israel, seven in Hebron and thirty-three in Jerusalem.

It is throughout all this the constant semiology of his spiritual interpretation of his experiences that give me cause to think that he wrote most if not all the Psalms. There is something of the human genius (in both the prophets and the Christ Himself as in all fields of human endeavour) that is at once the "other" and the "self" that makes, to me, the question of whether Judeo-Christian faith is a mere "superstition" immaterial. It is a personal choice informed by personal experience and reflection. Given the choice between meaning and meaninglessness, I choose meaning.