A Daily Diatribe by a Pompous Git

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Monday 7 April 2003

The Git had hoped to put fingers to keyboard over the weekend, but it's that time of year in the southern hemisphere. The recent rain on warm ground has produced a flush of grass that needed cutting and weeds in the garden that needed slaying. Hopefully, the grass-cutting will be the second last before winter slows down growth to a crawl. We had hoped there would be time to fell some trees to cut up for firewood, but if we do that now, it won't be dry by the time we need it. Rather than purchasing firewood cut to length, we are purchasing whole logs at considerably lower cost.

While it's officially autumn and in fact quite autumnal now, we don't have very defined seasons here. Summer slowly fades into autumn with days that are cooler than many winter days and some warmer than many summer days. The clearest indication of the change of seasons is day length. It is now quite dark at the beginning and the end of days...

It seems many Americans are confused about the war their taxes are paying for. The Bagdad Online Access Centre has been inundated with sympathetic emails. Here's a story about Bagdad's inhabitants, their opposition to the war and something else bound to irritate many Americans:

Bagdad residents are united in another opinion -- that they wouldn’t live anywhere else. "You won't find a much better place to live than Bagdad," Gordon said.

The Git finds it endlessly amusing that Americans seem to believe that the inhabitants of the rest of the world desperately want to live in America. While it's true that American incomes are higher and cars and other toys are cheaper there. Many, perhaps even most of us, couldn't give a fuck. There's more to life than money and watching your armies invade other countries on TV...

Thought for the day:

We in the "developed" world seem to have many auditory strategies that insulate us from the presence of silence, simplicity, and solitude. When I return to Western culture after time in desert, mountain or forest, I discover how we have filled our world with a multiplicity of noises, a symphony of forgetfulness that keeps our won thoughts and realizations, feelings and intuitions out of audible range.

Joan Halifax

Current Listening:

Marc Bolan -- The Beginning of Doves


Wednesday 9 April 2003

This morning, the very pretty and extremely talented Adrienne sang Happy Birthday to The Git. Even more flattering was being summoned to Dr Whiteman's office to pick up my history essay. The Git had some trepidations about the result, Jeremy Whiteman is a notoriously hard marker, but instead of an expected bare pass, he gave the essay an A+. The summons was so the good doctor could discuss the possibility of The Git part-majoring in History, a thought that had been exercising my mind since dropping Journalism earlier this year. Further good news was attaining 100% for a short philosophy quiz this morning. The Git now has high hopes of an excellent mark for his first philosophy essay due on Monday.

The Git's birthday presents consisted in a new watch, since the current watch has decided to stop when The Git works up a sweat, and pork for dinner, accompanied by a salad and a bottle of chardonnay. The salad is a mixture of different sorts of lettuce leaves -- smooth, ribbed, frilly and wrinkled, red and green sorts -- slivers of raw carrot, diced tomatoes, shredded sweet basil and rocket (aka arugula). The dressing is a drizzle of olive oil and spicy vinegar from the garlic pickle jar. SWMBO has hers sans dressing out of respect for her ill-fated gall bladder. Now that The Git knows, SWMBO has had but one attack of pain from the gall stones and that a very mild one. No news yet about the proposed removal of the offending organ.

Yesterday saw Stan the plumber make good on his promise to replace the 3/4" pipe bringing cold water from the water cylinder to the stove as per the stove manufacturer's recommendations. He was reluctant to do the same with the pressure relief pipe, though and merely extended its height by a metre, or so. An hour or so after Stan left, the pressure relief began dripping again, only now it's much louder as the drips are falling a greater distance. My friend Dennis said: "Now you understand Chinese water torture!" On the other hand, we can now run the stove without fear of inducing the extremely distracting and presumably damaging noises from the stove's water jacket. Hopefully we can lure Stan back to replace the 5/8" pressure relief with the specified one inch.

Most of the rest of yesterday was spent sorting rubbish in the cottage shed for carting to the rubbish tip. Next Tuesday will see us renovating some of the cottage and a final tip run with what I figure I can discard from the old office there.


One of Informal's thoughts today regarded our differing attitude toward digestion and mind. We worry very much about mind after death, but give absolutely no thought to that other complex system we rely so heavily on: digestion. The Git speculated Jungianly that perhaps mankind has a digestive system in common and that our perception of having individual digestive systems is merely an illusion. It's great fun having Informal as a friend as only a handful of The Git's friends have ever shared his passion for supposedly silly thoughts.

Thought for the day:

Australia is not so much a multicultural society as a horticultural one. It is populated mostly by vegetables.

The Pompous Git

Current Listening:

Sid Barrett -- The Madcap Laughs


Friday 11 April 2003

Regular readers of The Diatribe will know that The Git usually arises from his bed in what most people think of as the wee hours -- around 3-4 am. The Git believes that the term arises from the intense urge to wee that arises around this time. By the time Friday afternoon's Geology Prac. starts at 3pm, he is fairly exhausted. Today was no exception. The most notable aspect of what we are studying at the moment, igneous rocks, is that it's hard to believe how many sorts there are. Many appear to be very similar to each other, but have very different names. Dolerite and basalt for instance. Some appear quite distinct, but share the same name. Creating a map in imagination to enable the sensible location of all these terms is quite overwhelming.

The Git was holding a specimen in one hand, a hand lens with the other and thinking, "if only I could scratch one of those little black fuckers with my pocket knife, I could figure out if it's biotite, or amphibole". Putting the specimen on the bench in order to attempt this, meant that the light was no longer grazing the surface of the rock crystals. In fact, The Git's head ensured there was insufficient light to see any detail whatsoever. Our instructor must have seen the look on The Git's face and surmised its cause. "You do realise that the prac exam is open book, don't you?" she said. Mysteriously, this created an intense urge to wee. Intense relief one supposes.


Some people say the strangest things:

American historian, Robert Kagan: "as good children of the Enlightenment, [Americans] still believe in the perfectibility of man, and they retain hope for the perfectibility of the world... Americans... will defend the townspeople, whether the townspeople want them to or not."

Donald Kagan: "You saw the movie, High Noon? ... We're Gary Cooper".

George W Bush: "How do I respond when I see that in some Islamic countries there is vitriolic hatred for America? I'll tell you how I respond: I'm amazed. I just can't believe it because I know how good we are."

George W Bush: "At some point we may be the only ones left... that's OK with me. We are America." 

Thomas Donnelly: "the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein".

Thomas Donnelly: "[Race-specific biological weapons] may transform biological warfare from the realm of terror to a politically useful tool."

Jonah Goldman: "The United States needs to go to war with Iraq because it needs to go to war with someone in the region and Iraq makes the most sense." 

Jonah Goldman: "Every ten years or so the United States needs to pick up some crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show we mean business."

Richard Perle: "[Egyptian President] Mubarak is no great shakes. Surely we can do better than Mubarak."

Richard Perle: "All this talk about how first we are going to do Afghanistan, then we will do Iraq ... this is entirely the wrong way to go about it. If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely and we don't try to piece together clever diplomacy but just wage total war ... our children will sing great songs about us years from now."

Robert Kagan: "America did not change on September 11. It only became more itself. ... America's 'isolationist' tradition is ... a myth. Expansion of American territory and influence has been the inescapable reality of American history."

George W. Bush: "We will export death and violence to the four corners of the world in defense of our great nation."

His Holiness Pope John Paul II: "War ... is always a defeat for humanity ... as if military victories could be the solution..."

My thanks to Antonia Feitz for the quotes.

Thought for the day:

No one can disgrace us but ourselves.

J. G. Holland

Current Listening:

Sly and the Family Stone -- There's a Riot Goin' On


Saturday 12 April 2003

Draft of The Git's first Philosophy essay:

Can I know whether there is anything beyond my own mind and thoughts?

This essay sets out to briefly describe Descartes' philosophy and the shortcomings found in his Meditations. Using Descartes' method, I then set out to demonstrate that while it is reasonable to assume there is a world outside our own thoughts, it is not amenable to proof beyond all doubt as Descartes believed.

René Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, founded the rational method of philosophical research. He used laws derived from his successes in mathematics and science that he believed reason must follow in order to reach reasonably certain philosophical conclusions.

Descartes wrote: "Archimedes, that he might transport the entire globe from the place it occupied to another, demanded only a point that was firm and immovable; so also, I shall be entitled to entertain the highest expectations, if I am fortunate enough to discover only one thing that is certain and indubitable." Descartes was convinced that he could deduce all truth from a single fundamental principle, the fulcrum in Archimedes thought experiment. The tool Descartes used in his search for that fulcrum was universal methodical doubt. He began with the impressions he found in his mind.

"In order to seek truth, it is necessary once in the course of our life, to doubt, as far as possible, of all things... We ought also to consider as false all that is doubtful." Using his method, Descartes applied universal doubt to "all things," emptying his mind completely of all orthodox views, preconceptions and convictions without exception. He allowed nothing to remain -- including the apparently clear and self-evident. He even rejected the simplest arithmetical and geometrical problems: "How do I know that I am not also deceived each time I add together two and three, or number the sides of a square, or form some judgment still more simple, if more simple indeed can be imagined? ... As I desired to give my attention solely to the search after truth, I thought... that I ought to reject as absolutely false all in regard to which I could suppose the least ground for doubt, in order to ascertain whether after that there remained aught in my belief that was wholly indubitable."

Descartes found only one indubitable fact, since one cannot doubt without thinking: "Cogito, ergo sum" -- I think, therefore I am. He had his fulcrum. All that remained was to find a lever. Descartes had arrived at a most precarious position. Methodical doubt had enabled him to reject all orthodoxy, a position likely to enrage the keepers of that orthodoxy. Worse, methodical doubt had left him without the usual philosophers' tools of trade. He appears to have surmised that the one thing that could get him out of the hole he had dug was to prove the existence of God.

From the fact of his own existence, Descartes deduced God's existence by reasoning that:

This was his a priori or ontological argument. Descartes then attempted to prove God's existence a posteriori, using an argument from causality:

Having proved God's existence, Descartes proceeds to show that He created Man. He asserts God cannot be a deceiver or He would not be infinitely perfect. Therefore, He would not have given man defective powers of knowledge. Man's mental faculties can therefore be trusted, "provided we separate what there is clear and distinct in the knowledge from what is obscure and confused." We can reject any doubts about the world, perception and thought with the proviso that what we think is "clear and distinct".

If Descartes had followed his principle of universal doubt, he could not have deduced the existence of God from his idea of God. Indeed, he would have needed to reject the idea of God as "entirely false" beforehand. Additionally, Descartes uses reason to deduce the idea of God, but deduces the trustworthiness of his reason as a consequence of the existence of God. Assuming beforehand what one is attempting to prove is a logical fallacy. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that Descartes' postulated "evil demon" could place an idea "clear and distinct" yet nevertheless false into one's mind.

In order to answer the question: "Can I know whether there is anything beyond my own mind and thoughts?" I use Descartes four laws of rational method.

1. The first was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt.

I must assume that my mind and thoughts exist. The only alternative is to declare that my mind and thoughts do not exist and that contradicts my experience. I must also be able to know things, since knowledge is definable as a collection of thoughts.

2. The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution.

The question concerns four items: my mind; thoughts; knowledge; anything. The first three were dealt with under the first law of rational method, so that leaves the latter -- anything -- as needing to be established. Alternatively, if I can locate my mind, thoughts and knowledge in a particular locus, then perhaps that might be obviously separate from another locus or loci.

3. The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence.

My mind and thoughts travel around with my body, thus my body appears to be the locus of my mind. In my travels, I come into contact with other bodies that, via the medium of speech and written word, communicate ideas that appear to arise from experiences those bodies have had, but not experienced by me. These facts would appear to indicate that my mind and body are separate and distinct from other minds and bodies. Most of these other bodies appear satisfied to share my assumption that we are separate and distinct beings with our own minds and thoughts.

4. And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.

There is one very serious objection to this chain of deduction. I might be hallucinating -- in Descartes' terminology, being deceived by an evil demon. I agree with Descartes that the easy way out is to postulate a perfect God, but like Descartes, I am unable to come up with a satisfactory proof for His existence.

The major problem manifest here is the assumption that because we have a logical method for proving certain aspects of what we perceive as reality, that the method can then be used universally to prove any aspect of reality. Imagine that God/The Universe is a fig pudding and that we are the figs in the pudding (figments of reality as it were). The proof of the pudding being in the eating, we would need to possess a rather larger digestive system than we are in fact equipped with in order to digest such a large meal.

An illustration of this difficulty, taken from Stewart and Cohen, is Langton's Ant. Langton's Ant is a variant of Conway's Cellular Life and inhabits a simple universe controlled by simple rules. If the Ant occupies a yellow cell it makes a 90° turn to the left, when on a grey cell, it makes a 90° turn to the right. As the Ant moves to the next cell, the current cell changes to the opposite colour.

The result is a quite complicated and apparently chaotic motion... but after about ten thousand moves the ant locks into a cycle of 104 moves which causes it to build a broad diagonal "highway". What's more, the ant seems to always build the highway (though nobody has been able to prove this yet)

While the rules Langton's Ant follows are simple, causal, and predictable, the pattern of behaviour clearly is not. If a complete description of the Ant's relationship to its Universe is extraordinarily difficult, if not downright impossible, then what chance is there for such a description in our own much larger and complex Universe?


The Git has referred to Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen's ideas before. New readers may find the following interesting:

I am a biologist. While teaching biology, especially reproductive and evolutionary biology, at the University of Birmingham I promoted, and taught, a Philosophy of Science course: Bacon, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos with asides to Waddington, Lysenko, and warnings about naive DNA preformationism. Our best students enjoyed even this amateur approach, but were unfamiliar with many of the classical Physics examples like Michelson-Morley or even Newton v. Einstein. These classical examples do not translate into Biology at all well; the quasi-biological ones are worse: black-versus-white swans becomes a simple problem of taxonomy, not an issue of disproof. The interesting issues were, I thought, common to biological science and physical science, and I felt that my teaching (for Popper, mostly from Conjectures and Refutations, 1963a) was inadequately based because the students didn't seem to take the physics examples into their biology. Now I believe that there are real problems within this transfer; further, I believe that the biological arguments must spread back into physics and raise questions about the classical physics examples themselves, about naive disproof arguments in science generally.

Full Story

Thought for the day:

In short, the history of thought, of knowledge, of philosophy, of literature seems to be seeking, and discovering, more and more discontinuities, whereas history itself appears to be abandoning the irruption of events in favour of stable structures.

Michel Foucault

Current Listening:

Pink Floyd -- More

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© Jonathan Sturm 2003