Do things go wrong, or is it just me?

Consistency seems to be an universal requirement for any account of reality we accept to consider as true. This requirement seems to build slowly in childhood with the acquisition and consolidation of language, along with notions of true and false, and the underlying law of excluded middle, a basis for all rational and scientific accounts of the world. Formal logic and mathematics underlie the growing computational power of our machines, and we also try to make consistent the laws and rules governing our daily life. But whatever the level of formality at which they are used, consistency and truth belong to the realm of discourse. Holding that a discourse is (in)consistent and statements are true or false in the framework of this discourse makes sense and in many cases can be precisely defined and proven by logic. Considering that a statement is true because it seems consistent with reality or at least the state of affairs at hand is more hazardous, but is still useful and is actually the basis for most of our daily decisions. 

But what is more arguable is to consider consistency as a characteristic of the reality itself, independently of any discourse we can have on it. What could that mean? Reality simply is what it is whether we think or speak about it or not, and there is no point in asking if reality is true or false, consistent or inconsistent, all qualifiers which should apply only to statements and discourse. Reality is the state of affairs, the mountain as we experience it, it is not a discourse, even if our discourse is part of it. What can be said true, false, consistent or inconsistent, is that one asserts about this experience. But somehow the experience has those permanent patterns which comfort us in believing that indeed reality is internally consistent and our language can build accounts of it we proudly call facts. Our faith in the internal logic and consistency of reality beyond any account of it has gone as far as considering reality as the embodiment of the discourse of some perfect logos. This metaphysical stance pervades implicitly or explicitly all the occidental thought from Greek philosophy through various avatars of monotheism. We can still track it in modern science, with the quest of the Theory of Everything, which in the mind of some would be a consistent account of no more no less than the thought of God. Of course such a theory should be globally logically consistent, since the creator could not be inconsistent without failing to perfection.

Our philosophy should be more humble. Logic should stay where it came from and belongs, inside language. And when the reality suddenly behave in an unexpected way, inconsistent with those accounts we so far considered as true, instead of thinking first that things have gone wrong, let us admit that it is our account of things which was proven wrong. Things never go wrong, but we often do.


The moving shores of things

I would like to dedicate this post to the victims of last week's attacks in Paris, who were blindly sentenced to death without notice because they were guilty of joie de vivre, or maybe simply of humanity. I started writing those lines before the attacks, and they could seem at first sight to have nothing to do with Daesh madness. But if you are patient enough to read down to the end, I hope you will find relevant food for thought in the context of those events.

Whether things are ontological primitive or abstracted from the states of affairs, as suggested in our previous post, to deny them any kind of existence would fly in the face of common sense and experience. Mountaineers know that there are mountains, rocks and streams, sailors know that there are seas, waves and storms. But ask them what mountain or sea is, and you're likely to get all but a definition. They will certainly tell you awesome stories of climbing and sailing, maybe show you images, and the most sensible of them will just propose to go with them for climbing or sailing to figure by yourself, experiment the thing, be part of it. 
Why is it so? Because being is not being neatly defined. Our logicians and ontologists would like to make us believe that the world can be split neatly between this and that, day and night, land and sea, human and non-human etc, categories which could be logically defined. There are many reasons why they are wrong, the most often quoted being the arbitrary choice of such limits, since the world can be split into things in many ways. A good introduction to the current discussion on this viewpoint called relativism can be found in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
But relativism is not the best and primary stance I would choose to argue why trying to give a logical definition of mountain or sea or whatever else is bound to fail forever. The main point is that such things, as well as most things you can think of, have fringes, shores, edges, interfaces ... (the name depending on the kind of things you consider) through which they are less separated from than intertwined with each other. If you look at a shore from far enough, it can look like a neat line. But if you look closely, while walking on a beach or at the edge of a forest, you will discover a very complex world which belongs to neither or both worlds that meet here. On the shore, the sea enters the land and the land feeds the sea in the perpetual circulation of waves and tides. The shore is where land and sea communicate and exchange. At the forest edge, animals perpetually come in and out of the trees' shelter to feed in the grass and fields. And what is the forest itself, if not a shore between earth and sky, with thousands of trees as so many links and knots between the depth of ground and the air. Great examples of such intertwining interfaces are mangroves, known to be extraordinary rich ecosystems.

Mangrove at Cayo Levisa, Cuba.
Source Wikimedia Commons

The concepts we abstract from the world and toss to each other's face in our endless arguments and wars are of the same nature. Between life and death, human and non-human, the limits should look indeed like the above, moving and intertwined. And thinking otherwise that those moving shores are or should be reduced to neat lines is the first step towards totalitarism, exclusion, and death. 

The words and acts of Daesh have gone of course very far down such an alley, but to fight them back we should be careful not to use similar simplistic rhetoric, ignoring the complexity of fringes and shores, replacing them with edges as straight and cutting as their knife's blade. One of those, the most simplistic one still unfortunately thought aloud by too many people, leads to broadly confuse Daesh with Islam, when 99.9% of Muslims condemn the terrorism, and more than 80% of Daesh victims are Muslims. But the defensive stance of many moderate Muslims claiming outloud that Daesh is not Islam, and his members are not the Muslims they claim to be, is equally simplistic and counterproductive. Daesh is indeed a shore of Islam, although a very remote and dangerous one, and moderate Muslims would certainly benefit to acknowledge outloud that such a shore exists, where Islam meets and intertwine with intolerance, obscurantism, organized criminality, thirst for glory and power, or sheer madness. As any shore, you can get there from both sides. From inside Islam through fundamentalism, and from outside through social exclusion and criminality. 
Beyond or inside Islam, we see many people saying or writing that Daesh killers have put themselves by their words and acts deliberately beyond humanity, and therefore could and should be simply shot down as dangerous furious animals. Calling them "monsters" or "barbarians", whatever fits for saying "they are not like us and must be eliminated" is as simplistic and counterproductive as the above claim "they are not Muslims". Daesh killers certainly dwell on some strange and frightening fringe of humanity, so far off that they are even able to shake the notions we have of what makes humanity. But whether humans or barely so, barbarians, monsters, or simply mad criminals, in any case they have come to this deadly shores from inside humanity, and we need to understand how they got there to prevent more young people to follow the same paths.


Mountains as states of affairs

Trying to make sense of the deep work of Jan Christoph Westerhoff about ontological categories, reality and everything, along with a slow but steady learning of Chinese language and ancient philosophy, leads you to consider as ontological primitive the states of affairs, instead of good old semantic web things and properties, the latter being derived artefacts of the former, not the other way round. Let's try to illustrate this as simply as possible.
Consider a mountain. On the semantic web you represent a mountain as an instance of owl:Thing or one of its specific subclasses such as schema:Mountain. You claim to have defined a non-ambiguous individual identified by a URI and described by an open set of property-value pairs, such as http://dbpedia.org/resource/Mount_Everest.

But in the view of the world proposed by both Westerhoff philosophy and the Chinese language (insofar as I understand them properly), the above are just abstractions derived from some state of affairs. The chinese 山(shān) we translate in English as mountain(s) is a sign associated with certain aspects of things, or states of the world. We have to be very cautious on terms here, and not take for granted that existence of "things" and "the world" are preconditions to the states of affairs we associate with the sign 山. In ancient Chinese culture where this sign first emerged about three thousands years ago, the world is not divided into things before we name them. Certain states of affairs, patterns we recognize again and again, lead us to associate a sign to them. 山 is just an abstract visual representation of those states of affairs presenting peaks rising upward, a main central one and another one of each side, slightly asymmetrical. A mountain is indeed generally mountains, bearing in mind "three" has to be understood as a shortcut for "many".

The difference between considering there are such things in the world as individual mountains and we just give them individual names and put them in a category, and considering mountains as states of affairs we associate using a common sign or name, might appear subtle or moot. But it is indeed a fundamental shift of our view of the world. States of affairs are not neat individuals defined by properties, they are not separated from each other, they have neither precise limits in space and time, nor definite components and properties. Of course we can try to agree and generally agree to disagree upon such limits and components, and argue forever on what is or is not a mountain in general or this mountain in particular. And we actually argue upon what is a human being, or a book, or a Web resource, or democracy ... This kind of argument is interestingly called in Chinese 是非 (shì fēi), literally meaning "being - not being", hence "right - wrong" and in common language dispute, argument. There is much food for thought in this word. Dispute arises when the language gets out of its original role of simply putting signs on state of affairs, going down to argue on what there is and is not behind signs, in other words, when the language mingles into ontology and meaning instead of sticking to what it's really made for - poetry.

I wish you to stay away from dispute, walk up and listen to the mountain songs.