Monday, 31 March 2008

Unmoved by the unmoved mover

It's funny how in philosophy everything seems to begin with Aristotle. Even the most basic philosophical distinction, that between physics and metaphysics or essentially between science and philosophy dates back to his book 'the Physics' -- everything that didn't make it into that book forms the basis of what we call metaphysics.

When it came to the origins of the universe Aristotle wasn't so advanced as to predict the big bang theory however he posited the idea of a first cause, a cause that was itself not the effect of a prior cause but a first cause. Aristotle argued that there is movement in the universe and this movement had an origin, this is the unmoved mover

“The rule of many is not good; one ruler let there be."

Thomas Aquinas took this argument further with his Quinquae viae or 'Five Ways' in his Summa Theologiae as he used this Aristotelian concept as an argument for the existence of God. The argument takes this format:

  1. There is movement in the universe
  2. Everything that moves is moved by a mover
  3. It is impossible for there to be infinite regress
  4. Therefore there must be a first mover, an unmoved mover from which all other movement is generated
  5. We call this mover God
This is, of course, clearly bollocks. First of all there are very big and unprovable assumptions like 'everything that moves is moved by a mover' and 'it is impossible for there to be infinite regress'...why? But I'm feeling very generous so lets move beyond that to 'we call this mover God'. One of the most basic precepts of semiotics is that the naming of concepts is arbitrary so by calling anything 'God' what magic did Aquinas wish to impart? Why not call lamppost or how about Tarquin Fin-tim-lin-bin-whin-bim-lim-bus-stop-F'tang-F'tang-Olé-Biscuitbarrel?

My generosity knows no bounds and lets even look past the arbitrary name relationship and call it, as Aquinas wished, God but what do we 'know' (and I emphasise know here in the platonic: justified true belief sense) about this God...well sod all actually, that he is a first movement and that's it. Even if you ignored the logical problems all this argument supports is a Thomas Paine type Deism where God features merely as a first cause and not as an all powerful hands on deity. But still one step further, lets assume that the God is an all powerful hands on God...why would that make him good? I think the good/bad dichotomy is drivel and a hangover of our binary underdeveloped brains, but lets suppose there is a God, and for all I know there might be as I can't disprove one in the way that I cannot disprove Russell's teapot or the flying spaghetti monster, but even if there is then what possible grounds could I have for believing him peaceful rather than malign because if it's the bible then Yahweh is not a God I wish to know.

Sunday, 2 March 2008


George Orwell was an intelligent man and seemed to have quite a good grasp of semiotics and the importance of language and its capacity to structure and regulate thought. In 1984 he created the concept of 'newspeak' which was a creation of the state with the aim of regulating how people think and exorcising thought which would be harmful to its interests:

"The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought, that is a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as it is dependent on words"

The word free, as in political freedom, became undesirable in Oceania and its use was restriced to a negative use, for instance the dog was free from lice. I could go on and list Newspeak words but Wikipedia does it better than I could so I suggest you check out the relevant article. What interests me more than the fictional world is how this principle is used in the here and now.

A good example of Newspeak is the political correctness campaign or the campaign for plain English and these are two campaigns I generally support. The former started off a campaign to make our use of language more gender neutral. For many, gone are the days of chairmen and manholecovers we now have chairperson and peopleholecovers. I'm generally supportive not because I think any one instance will offend either sex but because we have a language that belies a history of male dominance and reaffirms those positions by their constant use. The campaign for plain English works in a similar way by making the complicated langauge used in law for instance, or politics, accessible to the layman. In the law this has meant the irradication of much of the Latin used, terms like plaintiff and defendant are now replaced by claimant and respondent. They seem like small gestures but they are steps towards the breaking down of class and gender divisions.

More cynical attempts to control public perception with Newspeak are the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In Afghanistan those who fought against the invading coalition forces were not the resistance but they were enemy combatants, a position that denied them the basic Geneva Convention rights. In Iraq the term used was 'insurgents' but even this seems to be politically sensitive as it admits there is a problem and now the official term is concerned local nationals. Politics is rife with this sort of language, ways of circumventing truth by the careful choice of words and this is a major reason people are disillusioned by the process.

I'd always rather be won over by cunning argument than subverted by the 'right' words.