Saturday, August 9, 2014

Similarity, Identity, and Nonexistent Dill Pickles

    
     At the time of writing this I am almost finished reading F. H. Bradley's metaphysics text Appearance and Reality. Less than twenty pages to go—woohoo! It has taken about six months to wade through the thing; mainly because it's rather heavy and hard to read, with lots of deep, strange ideas, and so after five or ten pages it becomes necessary to put the book down and digest what one has managed to swallow. But also, while I was in Rangoon, after reading all but the 70-page-long Appendix, I took a break and read some science fiction. Then after coming here to Migadawun Monastery I became sick as the proverbial dog, and reading dense philosophy books just doesn't work out so well when one is nursing the flu. Plus sometimes I just haven't felt like reading. But I'm getting there, little by gradual.
     Anyway, in Bradley's Appendix (his supplement to the second edition of A & R), he tackles the rather psychological issue of Similarity and Identity, their nature, and their relation to one another. I gather from his long Note on the subject that this particular issue was somewhat controversial in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, at least at places like Oxbridge. Some people actually got worked up over it.
     Bradley claims that identity is primary, and that mere similarity MUST be derived from it secondarily; and he declares himself mystified at how any rational person could possibly suppose otherwise. He maintains that if two objects are considered to be similar, it is because they MUST have some quality, or group of qualities, in common—i.e., they share the same quality, and in that limited respect they are identical. Two objects or entities simply cannot be similar without sharing an identical quality. Two red spheres are similar because they share what is apprehended as the same redness and roundness. Without this perceived sameness, there could be no similarity, because there would be no respect in which they were similar. Obvious, right? He even ventures to suggest that anyone who denies this primacy of identity suffers from "intellectual bankruptcy." Resemblance without some identity serving as its foundation is monstrous superstition. 
     On the other hand, I apparently am intellectually bankrupt and superstitious, since I just cannot agree with Bradley on this point, or even really relate to what he's saying. It underwhelms me; it just doesn't ring true somehow. It seems to me that his way of thinking and philosophizing is heavily conditioned by Plato (and also Hegel); and although he's willing to deny the ultimate reality of Platonic universals, ultimate, eternal qualities like Redness and Roundness that things in the phenomenal world merely borrow, so to speak, he considers universals to be not only valid as a way of explaining the phenomenal world (or "appearance," or Samsara), but necessary for such explanations. But I have never had much use for Plato, except maybe for entertainment or for salvaging historical information about ancient Greece. (For instance, the rather homosexually-oriented Symposium contains interesting details about the personality of Socrates, the Critias contains a weird story about Atlantis, and the Euthydemus is just plain funny. Yet the famous Simile of the Cave in the Republic definitely resonates with me, as something profound.) 
     Bradley believed in the essential importance and power of human rational thought, largely because he was an Idealist who didn't believe in physical matter at all (except as a convenient working fiction), and largely because of ways of thinking that he inherited from previous Western thinkers, especially Plato and Hegel. He believed, for example, that thought operates through lifting qualities (or "what") from substrates ("that"), and then applying them to other substrates. Thus thought cannot be entirely wrong, since the qualities, or adjectives, that it isolates have their roots in Ultimate Reality. This way of thinking may seem rather odd to a Westerner in the early 21st century; it is probably not very impressive at all in a world that has come to consider thought to be a kind of inexplicable side effect of brain biochemistry. I can sympathize with his Idealism, and occasionally regret that the "barbarous intellectual monoculture of Scientism" has overwhelmed the world, but still I don't buy Bradley's theory. And I don't like Plato, or Aristotle either. 
     My theory of similarity (which is undoubtedly half-baked, and which I haven't worked out nearly so thoroughly as Bradley worked out his) comes from the other side. Let's say that at one level there is "A is similar to B." Beyond that is another level—"A is identical to B"—and, as already mentioned, Bradley insists that the former is derived from the latter. But on the other side of "A is similar to B," opposite "A is identical to B," is "A is reminiscent of B." In other words, when I look at A, certain perceptual associations arise, and when I look at B certain perceptual associations arise, and the more overlap there is between these associations, the more similar A and B seem. If there was complete overlap, so that the associations were exactly the same when looking at either A or B, then we simply could not tell them apart. They would be perceived as exactly the same—not "A is the same as B," but just "A." The qualities seemingly shared between A and B are not really the same qualities; it's just that we can't always tell them apart. So considering two entities to be similar or the same is not based upon a positive recognition of universal qualities that they share; it is based more upon a negative failure—a failure to differentiate those qualities. The similarity or sameness is an abstraction of something positive based upon what is actually negative.
     Here are two points to consider. First, real identity, absolute sameness, would be a virtually meaningless tautology, and would involve no relation or comparison at all. If two things really are identical in every way, even with regard to their relations to other things, then they are not two things at all, but only one. Again, we wouldn't have "A is exactly the same as B," we would simply have "A." We would perceive them as the same thing. Even Bradley, who was no idiot, acknowledged this, for example in his strange observation, "When resemblance is carried to such a point that perceptible difference ceases, then, I understand, you have not really got sameness or identity, but you can speak as if you had got it." So absolute sameness, complete identity, is meaningless, unless you want to make the tautological statement "A is exactly the same as itself." (Whether absolute difference is possible or not is irrelevant to this discussion, I think.)
     Second, consider the case of two people watching a movie and one of them saying, "That guy looks like So-and-so," and the other promptly responding with, "No he doesn't!" (This actually happened to me recently.) The first person perceives a similarity that the second person doesn't perceive. It may be that there is no exact identity of any feature between that guy and So-and-so. The nose isn't exactly the same size or shape. The jaw isn't exactly the same shape. Maybe some skin on the forehead appears exactly the same color and texture as the corresponding skin on So-and-so, but that's just because of the imperfect reproduction of images via photography, plus maybe makeup. So-and-so's patch of forehead skin is really slightly different. Yet that first person saw a certain resemblance, not based on any exact likeness at all.
     Furthermore, there apparently is no precise line separating "reminds me of" and "is similar to." Going with the example just mentioned, where do you draw the line between someone who just reminds you of Brad Pitt and someone who begins to start to kind of resemble Brad Pitt? Of course, someone who resembles Brad Pitt's ex-girlfriend might indirectly remind you of him, but that's not quite the kind of "reminds me of" I'm talking about.
     So relative sameness is derived from perceived similarity, not vice versa; and absolute sameness shrinks down to zero (which F. H. Bradley acknowledged).
     In the mind of a being devoid of conscious logic, say, a chicken, there may not be enough intellectual sophistication for that being to conjure up an idea of "similar to," let alone "same as." "Same as" would appear to be the more advanced of the two ideas, if only because it is less realistic. If a chicken sees an object A, and then later sees an object B which stimulates pretty much the same associated perceptions, then the two objects are simply the same. It's not anything so sophisticated as "A=B," or even "A=A," it's just "A." The chicken is unaware of any "B" in this case, or of any "=" either. Yesterday a guy came out and threw food on the ground. Today a guy comes out and throws food on the ground, and today's perceived guy elicits many of the same kind of associations as yesterday's perceived guy. So the chicken perceives, simply, in the language of chicken thoughts, "That's the guy." The chicken doesn't lift the same positive quality from two different substrates; it just fails to see sufficient differences to consider today's guy to be different from the usual guy. But language fails me in my attempts to describe chicken psychology. 
     In a somewhat more logically advanced being, such as a human, there are ideas of "similar to" and even "same as," even though the latter, like those mirages of puddles on the road on hot days, disappear the closer you come to them. We furless apes have evolved the sophistication to generate positive abstractions based on a mere failure to perceive something. For instance, we generate the positive universal of sameness as the result of failing to tell a difference. Sometimes, however, we still think like chickens and simply don't even try to make differences. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, unless maybe we're writing about logic at the time. 
     Negation, or failure to find something and then turning that failure into a positive idea, is much more sophisticated intellectually than finding something directly. Consequently I have sometimes wondered if a dog is intelligent and logical enough to perceive a positive absence. He may whine and be restless if his master is away, or may hungrily approach his food dish, find it empty, and walk away whimpering in apparent disappointment, but still I'm not sure if a dog is sophisticated enough to be that abstract. A chicken almost certainly isn't bright enough to perceive a positive absence (although it may have evolved some instinct to imitate it or make up for it, if in fact perceiving absences has been conducive to the survival of the chicken species).
     Here is a case of what I'm trying to convey: Let's say someone asks you, "Is it raining?" So you look out the window and check. You don't see rain falling, and you don't see wet ground and puddles—or if you do see them, you don't see the spreading circles of raindrop impacts on the surface of the puddles. You don't see water dripping down car windshields, or from tree branches or the eaves of the house. You don't hear the sound of rain either. Plus maybe your gimp knee isn't acting up. So you turn to the other person and say, "No, it isn't raining." (And if you're a joker you might add something like, "It doesn't even look foreboding out there…although it looks like it could start to forebode at any minute.") So to form a positive perception of "It isn't raining" or "It's non-rainy" one must first hypothesize that it is raining, and then fail to confirm the hypothesis. Hence this is much more advanced reasoning than looking out the window and simply seeing rain, and forming a positive idea of "It's raining" on that.
     Here is another example: You go to the refrigerator looking for a jar of dill pickles. You open the door and look around…there it is…no, that's relish…wait, there…no, that's olives…hmmm. You don't see the jar of pickles after looking in the places where it might be, so you give up and form the judgement, "There is no jar of dill pickles in the fridge." It may be that you've been out of pickles for several months, or it may be that the pickles are behind the carton of milk, and you just didn't see them; but the perception of "no pickles" would be essentially the same in either case. 
     But why exactly did you perceive an absence of pickles and not, say, an absence of caviar? There may have been no caviar in the fridge either, but you didn't notice at all. And if the pickles really were behind the milk, then the caviar would really have been more absent than the pickles. But you were totally clueless as to the absence of caviar. In fact, there are literally an infinite number of things that are not in that refrigerator. Live gibbons, for instance. Extremely few refrigerators contain live gibbons, but how many people notice this? How many people walk to the fridge in search of pickles or beer and suddenly realize, exclaiming at the strangeness of it, "Hey, there are no live gibbons in the fridge!" But those gibbons may be more absent than the pickles.
     The reason why we don't notice an infinite number of things that are not in the refrigerator is because we don't first hypothesize their presence, and then fail to confirm that hypothesis. The absence of something may seem very simple, maybe even more simple than that something's presence would be, but a perceived absence is a complicated abstraction, based on a deduction, based on a failure, based on an initial hypothesis. We may think of that absence as an "it," but really nothing's there. Unless maybe it's behind the milk. 
     Platonic universals, or Bradley's identities, or any notion of "same as" or "similar to," may be generated in this same general way, indirectly. Sameness or similarity might seem like something obviously positive, but I consider it to be a camouflaged version of the same process as perceiving an absence of rain. Two red balls may seem alike, but if there are two of them, then they are really different. One may reply that the balls are different, but that the shade of color, the redness, for example, is the same. But the principle is still the same: it doesn't matter if there are two grains of salt or two identical twins or two tones of B-flat played on the same instrument or two spheres or two samples of fire engine red; so long as there are two of them, they are not the same, even if in certain respects we can't tell them apart. The two balls have two different roundness and two different rednesses. We call it a positive sameness because we have failed to tell the difference, and then failed to notice our abstraction from a deduction based on that failure. Or else we're being meaninglessly tautological by saying, essentially, "A is the same as itself." But again, if there are two different things, they really are different. That statement too is tautological, but most people don't fully "get it." Human thought is based upon generalization; and if we fully acknowledge that different things really are different, pretty much every word in the English language except "this" and "that" becomes uselessly futile. We would land ourselves in a meaningless, absolutely specific Now, with even "Now" not meaning anything. Even a proper noun like "Abraham Lincoln" is a generalization, considering that it's lumping together infinitely many Abe Lincolns in various moments, various places, various states of existence.
     It may be that the beginning of "consciousness," that which separates frogs, chickens, and us from bricks, moss, and possibly even insects, is this ability to generalize; and it may be that our strange ability to perceive as a positive state of being something that doesn't exist at all, to form an abstraction based on a failure to perceive, and even to believe in its palpable reality, is the beginning of truly human intelligence—or truly human delusion, take your pick.
     All this may seem like idle, gratuitous philosophizing, but it can be very useful to understand how our own mind works. Even many meditation teachers in the West (and East too) are relatively clueless as to the processes of their own thinking, despite the fact that they supposedly observe those processes while practicing mindfulness, and teach others how to observe them. Even meditating monks can be pretty clueless. I once knew a monk who was born in a Spanish-speaking country, but who had become an American citizen and had lived in America for several years. His English wasn't perfect, but it was fluent. One time I asked him, out of curiosity, what language he thought in, his native Spanish, or English; and to my surprise he answered, "I don't know." How can we practice introspection regularly and still not even know what language we're thinking in? (Hopefully he knows by now, as he has become a relatively famous Dharma teacher in certain circles.) Western meditation teachers may have considerable handicaps in this respect, such as the distractions of Western worldliness, busyness in making a living, and the Western "Protestant" approach to Dharma, like unwillingness to follow much of it, inability to believe much of it, etc. But I haven't been writing this to pick on Western meditation instructors. No offense intended. Trubba not, no trubba. 
     Carefully examining our own thought and feeling processes can be very beneficial. At the very least it's an exercise in introspection. It may even lead to Insight. For example, we may realize how so much of our suffering is the result of abstract perceptions based on what isn't there, on what doesn't actually exist at all. We hypothesize the presence of something, like money, or a certain person, then fail to confirm that presence, and then suffer because of this abstraction. But if we hadn't made the hypothesis in the first place, or turned into a positive "something" an abstraction based on a negative failure of perception, then we wouldn't have experienced the unnecessary suffering. Or we imagine that we might lose something or need something, and suffer because of that worry, when we haven't really lost or needed it. Most of human suffering, especially in the West, is this kind of unnecessary futility. Chickens have it much easier than us, especially if they're free-range.
     In my personal case, careful, complicated introspection and analysis of thought can also demonstrate to me (and maybe to some of you) how living alone in Burmese forests, without emotionally complicated, heart-oriented women giving input (or otherwise getting on my case), tends to make me pretty damn top-heavy. If I am to continue developing in spirit, with not only a clear head, but with head and heart in harmonious balance, then it's likely I'll have to go back to the West and face chaos, turmoil, and lovely females in the Plato's cave of America. 
      


Are the two 85mm artillery shell vases on this altar identical, similar, 
or completely different? How do you know?
      


Appendix I: A Thought Experiment Concerning Sameness

     This post is already a long one, but what the hell.
     Years ago I happened to encounter the following statement by Leibniz: "To suppose two indiscernible things is to suppose the same thing under two names." In other words, if two things have exactly the same qualities, or for whatever reason we just cannot distinguish them at all, then they are not two things, but only one. I can accept this statement of Leibniz's, largely because I don't accept the Scientistic dogma that there is an objective world out there with individual things going about their business, even if no conscious mind is perceiving them. This strikes me as a case of human ape psychology being superimposed onto a supposed material universe…but I digress. The statement of Leibniz inspired me to devise a rather odd thought experiment, which is as follows.
     Imagine a small, baby universe (and Stephen Hawking says they exist, so they must) which contains only two entities which are exactly identical and have exactly the same orientation toward each other. Would there be one, or two? If the entities were unconscious there would be no observer in that universe to count, so it might be argued that there would be no number at all. So let's assume that both entities are conscious, and observing each other, like two conscious eyeballs. If they were self-conscious they might count two things, themselves plus the other that they are observing; that would complicate this thought experiment, so let's further assume that they are conscious the way a chicken is conscious, without having a developed concept of "me." (Incidentally, I once read that scientists experimentally determined that the only animals other than humans who are self-conscious enough to look into a mirror and perceive that it is a reflection of themselves are chimpanzees, orangutans, and (probably bottlenose) dolphins. Gorillas didn't make the cut; although some creatures that weren't tested, like sperm whales, might also qualify as "self-conscious.") So the two identical conscious beings in this universe each see the other, and in exactly the same way. And so are there two entities, or only one?
     As far as I can remember, every person I've posed this question to has responded without hesitation that there are two entities; but this is mainly because they are adding themselves to the universe as a third, imaginary entity. Or else they're dogmatically assuming the truth of that Scientistic belief about objective universes that was mentioned just recently. But if all that existed in that universe was an eye observing an identical eye, then those two eyes would be exactly the same, especially if we accept the relativity of space (i.e., the idea that space does not have absolute orientation, as Newton assumed). And if they are exactly the same, then they are one, not two. It seems surreally counterintuitive, but I still can accept the notion that those two identical beings merge into a single being. So I suppose describing them as two at the beginning was nonsense. But even so, in a way there would have to be two, since one is presumably observing the other. Strange.
     Now let's complicate the experiment and let them be self-conscious, so that even they count two entities in their little cosmos, themselves, plus the other. But still they are exactly identical! So even if they're both counting two, since they're doing it identically is there still only one? Then again, maybe they're identical only to an imaginary third entity, so that there really is a difference? Yet if this is the case, the difference would not be between the two supposed entities, but between the subjective "me" and "that" perceived identically by both, rendering each of them both "me" and "that"!
     Now let's go back to conscious eyeballs with the consciousness of a chicken, but this time let there be three of them, each with exactly the same orientation towards the others, that is, each at the vertex of an invisible equilateral triangle, looking exactly at the midpoint between the other two. Now each entity would be able to distinguish the other two from each other, since one of them is on this side, and the other is on that side. All three of them would make exactly the same distinction between the other two. So would there now, ex hypothesi, be two entities—with each of the "three" being both of the other two in the view of the other two, even though they all see things in exactly the same way? 
     This is all making me a little dizzy, so I think I'd better stop at this point.


     
Appendix II: A Passage from Plato's Euthydemus 

     …If you will answer my questions, said Dionysodorus, I will soon extract the same admission from you, Ctesippus. You say that you have a dog.
     Yes, a villain of a one, said Ctesippus.
     And he has puppies?
     Yes, and they are very like himself.
     And the dog is the father of them? 
     Yes, he said, I certainly saw him and the mother of the puppies come together.
     And is he not yours?
     To be sure he is.
     Then he is a father, and he is yours; ergo, he is your father, and the puppies are your brothers.
     Let me ask one little question more, said Dionysodorus, quickly interposing, in order that Ctesippus might not get in his word: You beat this dog?
     Ctesippus said, laughing, Indeed I do; and I only wish that I could beat you instead of him.
     Then you beat your father, he said.
     I should have far more reason to beat yours, said Ctesippus; what could he have been thinking of when he begat such wise sons?

     (—translated by Benjamin Jowett)    






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