Aristotle and ethics

From The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th edition, Volume 14, by Anselm
H. Amadio, p.66

Aristotle’s approach to ethics is teleological; that is, he discusses
ethics not in terms of moral absolutes but in terms of what is conducive
to man’s good. This approach leads him to examine various kinds of good
and to arrive at the identification of the highest good with the
attainment of happiness. Aristotle arrives at a definition of happiness
as activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.

Aristotle distinguishes moral virtues and intellectual virtues, which
are determined, respectively, by the irrational and the rational powers
of the soul. Man, however, does not possess these virtues at birth but
comes endowed with the capacity, or disposition, for developing them in
the course of time. For example, a child begins by following his
parents’ injunction to tell the truth without initially realizing the
moral excellence of his action; yet eventually the habit of veracity
becomes an ingrained part of his moral character. Aristotle then
differentiates virtue from vice, arriving at the definition of virtue as
a “mean,” or middle ground between excess and deficiency; courage, a
virtue, for example, is the mean between cowardice and rashness.

Aristotle concludes his discussion by defining the highest happiness
open to man. Because happiness is an activity in accordance with
virtue, it follows that the highest happiness should be in accordance
with man’s highest virtue. And that, according to Aristotle, is the
activity which distinguishes man from other animals, namely the activity
of reason or activity in accordance with reason. Thus in its ideal form
happiness turns out to consist in a life of intellectual contemplation.
Aristotle, on the other hand, also concedes that the political life
(activity in accordance with moral virtue) can bring happiness, albeit
“in a secondary degree.”

Some comments meant to stimulate discussion.

• The teleological vs. moral absolutes distinction is significant for
how we reason about ethical matters. There are different standards for
what counts as good reasoning, and there seems to be no way to translate
from the one to the other. See my book “Prescriptive Reasoning”,
which is the first attempt to clarify that.

• Aristotle’s definition of “happiness” seems to rule out animals other
than humans being happy. Indeed, none of his ethics seems to be applicable
to animals other than humans.

• Virtue is a mean. What is the extreme and what the deficiency that
makes telling the truth a virtue as being in the middle? What is the
extreme and what the deficiency that makes reasoning a virtue as being
in the middle? Note that he does not say “reasoning well”.

• “In its ideal form happiness turns out to consist in a life of
intellectual contemplation.”
This is one more philosopher saying that the highest happiness is
to be like

• Compare Aristotle’s conception of virtue to the way of loving kindness
in the book “The BARK of DOG”. “Be kind, be generous, count not the giving
and taking but give unconditionally. Harm no human, harm no dog. Put from
thee all thought of power save the power of a loving heart.”

Mindfulness Is a Means, Not an End

We are told that meditation and mindfulness can lead us beyond suffering, can help us be open and peaceful.  We can become one with the all.  Then, as a fillip at the end, we are told that we should return from our perfect clairty and peace to be compassionate.

But we are not told how to be compassionate.  We are not told stories of compassion as the end, but of meditation only.

The goal of passing beyond suffering, the goal of being centered, the goal of being at peace, the goal of being open to the world–these are selfish.  ME is still what all revolves around.  Some who practice meditation more deeply hope to go beyond the me to a union with all, the dissolution of the self.  Nirvana.  And then, don’t forget, return to the rest of us to teach us.

There is only one worthy goal: to have a loving heart.  Meditation leading to some peace, some putting from us the horrors of hate, greed, vengeance, lust, fear, gluttony, pride, impatience, indifference, sloth, schadenfreude, guilt, and allergy can make it easier for us to live with an open heart that loves.

Many acting exercises are similar to meditation, but the actor knows that they are only a tool, a way to open to be able to portray a character.  Meditation, too, is a tool, to lead to a loving heart.  No se puede vivir sin amar.

The end of suffering is no worthy goal.  It is learning how to live with suffering, to see suffering as essential in the steps to having a loving heart, this is a worthy goal.  Not to suffer is not to live.  Erasing passion is not to be able to love fully.

We learn to have a loving heart by being loving, each day, learning and telling stories of loving as guides.  We learn to have a loving heart by remembering never to pass up an opportunity to be generous.

A comparison of the way of a loving heart to the selfish version of mindfulness is made in The BARK of DOG, which I have translated from the classic Sumerian.  There you will find stories that give worth to the practice of meditation.

In peace, Arf

The Best of All Possible Worlds?

I’ve been reading Leibniz again.  He explains why there is suffering in this world.  When God surveyed all the the possible ways the world could be, he found that this is the best, even though it contains suffering.  So God created the best of all possible worlds.

But this leaves me puzzled.  If there is so much suffering, why didn’t He refrain from creating any world?

The only reason I can find in Leibniz is that he says it’s better to exist than not to exist.  So this world is better because it exists?  However, I can find no reason why Leibniz thinks it’s better to exist than not to exist.  I’d like to know so I can advise a suicidal friend.

Any help here?  Please put comments on the Advanced Reasoning Forum Facebook page.

The sterility of Leibniz’s view contrasts with the creation story in The BARK of DOG.  The reason that DOG created the world was so that sentient creatures could learn to love (agape), and there is no great love without suffering.

In peace and hope,  Arf

A New Essay linking linguistics and metaphysics and logic

Here is the abstract for a new essay I’ve completed:

“Some say that the distinction between nouns and verbs is present in every human language.  Some even say that such a distinction must be in every human language.  Others give analyses to show that a particular language does not have a noun-verb distinction.  By reviewing this controversy we will see how issues of language universals, metaphysics, relativity in language and thought, and methodology of investigation in linguistics are intertwined.”

You can find it at:

I’d be very glad to get comments and criticism.



Poems in the Style of the Chinese

A. C. Graham in Poems of the Late T’ang explains how Chinese is a mass-term language (see “The World as Process”, at —> research —> work in progress).  He gives some word-for-word literal translations as examples of how Chinese works without tenses and particles.  For example, on p. 18 he gives:

  Dog        bark        water        sound        middle

  A dog barks amid the sound of water.

Those examples are difficult for us because we don’t know the allusions or the way of life the poems are meant to reflect.  At the risk of being ridiculous, I offer here five poems in that style to give an idea how using a mass-process language can convey a great deal and in the hope, probably quite forlorn, that these will help us appreciate Chinese poetry more.






















A New Turing Test

 Alan Turing in 1950 proposed a test to answer the question “Can a machine think?” Roughly: There is one person who is the tester. In separate rooms there is another person and a machine. The only links are between the tester and the other person and between the tester and the machine, and those links are via typed responses only. The tester puts questions to the other person and the machine, not knowing which is which. If in 5 minutes the tester cannot determine which is the machine, then, it’s claimed, the machine can think.

Turing’s test has been analyzed and criticized by many. But no one seems to have noticed that it can be used to test for the capacity of other subjects to think.

I have serious doubts about whether women think—they are so different! So I propose a test to answer the question “Can a woman think?” We’ll have a man who is the tester, and in separate rooms another man and a woman. The only connections are between the other man and the tester, and between the woman and the tester, both via typed answers only. The tester puts questions to the other man and to the woman, not knowing which is which. If in 5 minutes the tester cannot determine which is the woman, then we can claim that the woman thinks.

Similar tests can be done to answer the questions: “Can black people think?” “Can Native Americans think?” “Can Hispanics think?” “Can these people in a community near the Amazon in Brazil who speak a very different language think?”

We look for what we want to find, we set up psychological tests or simply evaluate other people or groups according to our standards. Do these people have this cognitive ability? Too often our tests have the answers already embedded in them.

I was motivated to write up this new test, which I first proposed more than 30 years ago, because of two works I recently read that show how important it is to involve a cultural context in evaluating cognition. Michael Cole and Jerome S. Bruner in “Cultural Differences and Inferences about Psychological Processes” (American Psychologist, vol. 26, 1971) show how “data collection” about cognitive abilities among minorities and impoverished people in the U.S. is terribly flawed by both the framing of the questions and the way that the data is collected. And in her excellent Ph.D. thesis “Linguistic and Cultural Conceptualisations of Time in Huni Kui, Awety´, and Kamaiura Communities in Brazil” (University of East Anglia, 2018), Vera da Silva Sinha shows how to avoid imposing our answers on people who live and talk very differently, while discussing the general problem of data collection about cognition.

Peter Adams, reading the interchange on a draft of this, got frustrated and wrote: “Someone define thinking please.” But that’s what Turing thought he could avoid with his test. Placed in the movement of behavioralism at that time, he looked for behavior that could characterize—not define—thinking. Objective data, subjective conclusion. But as Fred Kroon, William S. (Bill) Robinson, and I showed in “Subjective Claims”, you can’t get a subjective conclusion from only objective claims. Some claim linking the objective claims (the “data”) and the subjective conclusion is needed as a premise, and any argument concluding with “This person thinks” will either be weak or beg the question. Still, in “Language-Thought-Meaning” I make an attempt to show, if not define, what I understand thinking to be.

Kris Hardy raised another issue, saying: From the tester’s perspective, he is determining which player is “thinking” or “not thinking”, a binary, exclusive assignment. If the desired result of the test is not to determine “is each player a person or computer (man or woman, etc.) thinking”, but instead we presuppose that both players do think (“capable of replying to a communication”), we can change the question to one, admittedly, more difficult: “How does each player think?” Solving this question is one that I actually do every day in my software development and security research. What I am trying to determine is “what is the internal model that my subject is using in their communications with me?” The comparisons between levels of thinking then turns into a measure of complexity, entropy, predictability, broadness, and other such factors.

Walter Carnielli said that the new test I proposed could be used by the woman to find out whether the tester, a man, thinks. But that’s just silly. We know that a man can think. After all, I do.

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I live in the countryside. My nearest neighbors are about 100m away. I walk most nights along a dirt road beside an irrigation canal with my dogs Chcolate (a Catahoula) and Bidu (a Great Pyrenees-Anatolian Shepherd). Bidu is big.

Walking home two nights ago, Chocolate was at my side and Bidu was about 10m behind me when I was about 200m from home, near my neighbors’ homes. I didn’t look back again until I got home, and then I saw that Bidu was not with me. He had gone somewhere. I called, but he didn’t show up. It was already dusk, after sunset. Later, when it was nearly dark I went out and he was under the big shade tree, happily eating a big cooked chicken.

Where did he get that? The next evening on my walk I stopped and asked my neighbors, and they said it wasn’t their chicken.

The evidence was eaten. So Bidu can’t go to court! There’s no case against him now. I am the only witness, and I won’t testify. They can throw me in jail, I won’t say anything. A man can’t be forced to testify against his dog, just as he can’t be forced to testify against his wife. The relation is intimate and one of trust. And Bidu can’t be forced to testify against me.

But is Bidu guilty? By the laws of man or by the laws of DOG?

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What’s a Science?

(some ruminations from the work in *How to Reason + Reasoning in the Sciences*)

Some like to say that science is determined by its methods. But that’s not clear enough.

It seems that we have two necessary criteria for a subject to be classified as a science.

• There is a theory or theories.
• From the theories, predictions can be made that can be tested (shown to be true or false).

Are biological classifications science?

“The purpose of taxonomic classification is improved communication. If scientists are in general agreement with respect to the proper “scientific” name of an organism, anyone who reads the name knows which animal the writer means. Consistency precludes confusion. Most important earlier classifications were based on a description of form; that is, animals that looked alike were placed together and the classification was then given a scientific name. This classifying and naming process is what we mean by ‘taxonomy.’ ”
Claud A. Bramblett, Patterns of Primate Behavior, 2nd edition

If there is no theory, only a method of classifying, this doesn’t seem to be science. You can show that someone has classified incorrectly, if the criteria are objective. But you can’t show that the criteria are wrong. They’re only more or less useful for the purposes of communication. If someone finds a specimen that doesn’t fit into the classification system, the system can be expanded.

By these criteria, grammar as taught in secondary schools is also not a science. The rules of grammar are all prescriptive. Science is meant to describe and explain the world. The prescriptions of science are the same as the prescriptions of any study: if you agree with the theories, then you should accept their consequences. So we have another necessary criterion for a subject to be a science.

• The claims that can be deduced from the theory are descriptive.

Is astronomy, like taxonomy, only classification and hence not a science? No. Astronomers aren’t simply tracking the movements of planets and stars and classifying those. They are developing theories they test by making predictions. These are predictions about what happened—at least for stars, since the light astronomers observe has taken years to arrive here. Predictions can be made about the past, too. What about the Big Bang theory? That seems to be just a speculative explanation. But scientists say that predictions can be made with it. They can test it, and so far it seems correct.

There does seem to be a difference between experimental science and historical science. Chemistry is an experimental science. Astronomy is an historical science. With an historical science, theories and explanations can be offered, and predictions can be made from those about what one will find in the historical record. But no experiments can be made, for the past cannot be manipulated. Or perhaps we have different kinds of experiments, for sending a satellite to a comet to discover the composition of the material on it is a kind of experiment to test a theory.

Is evolution an historical science? Not entirely. Scientists have manipulated some species, such as the silver fox in Russia, to show how certain traits evolve.

Is history a science? Historical theories have been propounded, predicting the future development of human society. They’re always wrong. There are too many differences to make the analogies (abstractions) good. You can say that some historians, such as Marx, were trying to be scientists, using the methods of scientists. But if so, they were doing bad science.

What about economics? That’s not just history. Economists propound theories. Some have even been given power to manipulate the economic system of a country or even the whole world for experiments. Their theories are always proved wrong for the same reason that historical theories are wrong: there are too many differences between the past and the present. So if economics is a science, it’s a bad one.

What about the work of ESP researchers and Freudian psychoanalysts? They use the methods of science. But their theories are too vague or too general to be tested. We can never show that a (purported) claim deduced from the theory is false, for anything will confirm those theories.

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Bullying by Medical “Professionals”

At my yearly check-up my family doctor found that I had a high PSA (prostate specific antigen) reading: 133. Anything over 5 is a serious warning of prostate cancer. So she sent me to a urologist to check for cancer, though it took 2.5 months to get an appointment. I wasn’t worried because I have no symptoms. Still, I thought about what I would do if there is cancer. If it’s metastasized, no treatment, certainly not chemotherapy since I’ve seen friends suffer and die from that before the cancer got them. I figured my best treatment plan would be spontaneous remission. I really wasn’t worried, though I did make some plans for what to do with a last year of life: I went out and bought lottery tickets and a bottle of good scotch.

So I go to the urology clinic. They take my vitals and have me fill out some questionnaires. I tell them I have no symptoms at all. Then the physician’s assistant says that she is scheduling a biopsy for me. She’s marking that down on the chart. Then I ask: what’s a biopsy? They go through your lower bowel, puncturing it and taking samples from your prostate. And what are the risks? She tells me, and they are substantial, possibly life-altering. So I say, no biopsy thanks. And she says “Knowledge is power!” And I think “Ignorance is bliss.” I ask her for more information, and it’s clear she is reciting from a memorized script, ready to move on to the next patient. I object and want to talk to the physician. That will take 6 weeks I’m told. I object more and finally I talk to the clinic supervisor, who is a nurse with lots of clinical experience in urology. She goes over options, and I agree to have scans done that will tell us if there is cancer, though not if it’s slow-growing or fast-growing. Only a biopsy will do that. So I get two scans at the hospital the next week. And I also ask my family doctor to do another PSA test.

When the results are in, I see my family doctor. She is wonderful, so clear and helpful, working with me about what to do. The results: no sign of cancer at all. If there is any cancer it must be miniscule, and with no symptoms don’t worry about it for another year. The PSA test came back at 133 again, and that is really strange, but apparently it can happen.

So I call the supervisor of the clinic and tell her that the results show no cancer. And she says we should do a biopsy. I said no, just cancel my follow-up appointment.

Can you say “Overtreatment”? The cure and testing are worse than the (possible) disease.

So why am I telling you folks about this? It’s not (just) because I am a garrulous old man who wants to tell everyone about his health. I really don’t want to share my medical history. But it is such a perfect example of how people get bullied by medical “professionals”. If I’d just gone along, I wouldn’t have made a bad decision. I wouldn’t have made any decision at all. The physician’s assistant and the supervisor would have made the decisions for me. No talk even of risk versus benefit. And that’s why I’ve written the new book *How to Reason*. It’s a small book, based on the old *Pocket Guide to Critical Thinking*, but better (I used my experience teaching in the local jail). It’s meant to lead to the final section “Making Decisions”, which has a chapter on evaluating risk that includes a part on medical decisions.

We, all of us, need to know how to stop and reason, how to think in order to make decisions. And crucial to that is learning how to evaluate risk. Your life is your own. Don’t give it away to a medical “professional”.

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