Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

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Philosophical Multicore Has Moved to http://mdickens.me/

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 31, 2013

As of today, I will no longer maintain this site. My blog has moved to http://mdickens.me/. This site will remain as an archive and you may still post comments, but I will not write any new essays here.

If you want to subscribe, the new site supports an RSS feed.

Also, take a look at the first post on my new blog: Haskell Is Actually Practical.

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Most Essays Are Backwards!

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 16, 2011

I suppose this essay is ironic, since it explains why a certain type of essay is overused while using that very type of essay. Perhaps this irony reinforces the point that this essay style is not useless—in fact, it is quite useful—but simply overused.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Most essays written for a class are written as editorials: they are designed to argue for a particular point. Even supposedly ‘analytical’ essays are supposed to take a position on their subject and then explain the evidence for that position. The problem with this lies in the thesis statement.

The thesis statement of an essay gives the main argument of the essay. In these sorts of essays it is always found close to the beginning, usually in the first paragraph. This is useful when you already know what your main point is going to be, as is the case in this essay. But often you do not know what you are going to say before you say it. Often, the point of an essay is not to express ideas you’ve already had but to actually come up with new ideas. When I wrote Morality in the Real World, I didn’t know how I was going to explain the difference between strict and practical morality until I wrote the essay and figured it out. What you might call the “thesis” doesn’t appear until halfway through. Even The Ethics of Crime and Punishment, which follows a fairly “normal” essay structure, certainly does not put the thesis in the first paragraph. (The thesis is really easy to find because it’s in bold.)

So why shouldn’t we put our thesis statements in the opening paragraph? What’s wrong with that?

Well, often there is nothing wrong with it. But there’s nothing wrong with putting it somewhere else, either, depending on what you’re trying to do with your essay. If it’s only five paragraphs and you’re writing your essay as an editorial, there’s not really anywhere to put it except at the end of the opening paragraphs. But the best essays are rarely only five paragraphs long.

Persuasive essays are common, and it usually makes sense to tell the reader early on what you’re trying to persuade him to believe. But if your essay is exploratory rather than persuasive then it makes no sense to put the thesis statement near the beginning because you don’t know what you’re going to discover until you write the essay.

Recently I was writing an exploratory essay about a poem in which I was required to include a thesis statement. I had read the poem and had a general idea of what my essay was going to be about, so I crafted a thesis based on what I knew. Then I proceeded to write the essay, and the process of writing caused me to look at the poem in a completely different light. When I looked back at my thesis statement, I realized that half of it was naive and the other half explicitly disagreed with the conclusions I reached in the last paragraph of my essay. The thesis, which was supposed to be the first thing I would write, ended up being the last thing. It made more sense that way, since only after I had written the essay did I really know what it was about.

So why do we continue to require that essays be structured with the thesis at the beginning? Why do all essays even need to have a thesis? I’m all for persuasive essays, but other types deserve some love too.

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A Parenthetical Writing

Posted by Michael Dickens on November 29, 2010

This parenthetical writing is a proof of concept designed to show how it is possible to sustain a paragraph using no punctuation other than parentheses (and apostrophes for contractions) and still have it be perfectly legible (to an extent (of course (because it is impossible to be perfectly legible when using parentheses (for we as a culture are not adjusted to using only parentheses for punctuation (and for good reason (it is impractical to write using only parentheses (but it is possible (as I intend to prove (although I should probably tell you what inspired this writing (I was thinking about imperative versus functional programming (and I realized that the English language is almost entirely imperative (it works as a list of statements or instructions (rather than a series of functions that call each other (but using parentheses it is possible to have language flow in a more functional way (with statements contained inside of each other instead of being written out in sequence (functional programming languages are generally considered to be better than imperative languages (so it seems as though functional speech would be considered to be better than imperative speech (but this theory must be wrong since this paragraph is so confusing to read (except maybe language is easier when written using more parentheses (it’s just that we are not used to seeing all these parentheses (and (of course) they have to be taken in moderation (and not piled on top of each other for such a ridiculously long time (like I’ve been doing (but there may actually be something to this idea of writing with more parentheses (but not this many (because at a point it’s just too much)))))))))))))))))))))))))).

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Depth and Insight

Posted by Michael Dickens on September 23, 2010

Let us consider art in the broadest sense. Let us assume it to include visual art, music, prose, poetry, performing arts, and any other medium that could be considered art.

The two primary measures by which the merit of art is judged are depth and insight.

The core purpose of art is to provide insight into the nature of some aspect of reality or humanity. The quality of this insight is the first criterion by which art is judged. Crime and Punishment is considered high art because it provides insights into morality and human nature, whileSports Illustrated is not considered a high art because its insights are about sports, which are generally considered to be not as broad or important. The long-term purpose of a piece of art is to provide one or more insights, and the merit of the art depends on the quality of these insights.

The second measure of art is how effectively it serves to cover each insight: that is, depth. The deeper a work of art delves into a particular insight, the more valuable it is. The Da Vinci Code may provide some insights into human nature, but they are very limited and shallow and thus the novel is not as valuable as an art form as Crime and Punishment is.

What is the reason for the importance of these two measures? The answer has to do with the purpose of art. In the end, the reason why we like art is because it makes us happy. Low arts such as The Da Vinci Code make us happy in the short term. High arts make us happy in the long term, by provoking thought or giving our minds room to grow. The best way to promote growth is to provide insight; and the deeper the insight, the more growth there can be.

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A New Kind of Writing

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 27, 2010

People have been writing about things for thousands of years. Sumerians wrote cuneiform scripts, Egyptians used hieroglyphs, the Chinese wrote on bones and turtle shells. Over time, more sophisticated writing utensils began to develop. But writing was still difficult. Copies had to be transcribed by hand. In the 15th century Gutenberg invented the printing press, forever changing the way people would relate to written works. It suddenly became much easier to transcribe and distribute many copies of books.

Then, with the advent of the internet, writing changed yet again. It suddenly became possible to transmit text without paper, to transmit it over vast distances in virtually no time at all. First books had to be written by hand; then, with the printing press, they could be quickly copied; now, they can be instantly viewed from anywhere in the world.

Writing isn’t just limited to books, either. Newspapers and magazines have started publishing online. The internet goes even beyond that, though: whole new media of writing have emerged, media which have changed the way we relate to knowledge.

One example of an underrated benefit of the internet is the hyperlink. If you want to refer to something from a physical paper, you have to add a footnote or endnote with a reference to the relevant work. If the reader wants to follow up of the referral, she has to find the referenced work — this could involve a trip to the library, getting a subscription to a magazine or journal, or even more.

The internet solves this problem. Now, in order to refer to another work, you simply post a link to it (provided that your source is somewhere on the web). This vastly simplifies the process of citation. I think this is far more significant than it gets credit for. The ease with which one can verify claims and find additional resources is mind-blowing compared to the old days of physical paper. Not many sites are taking full advantage of this just yet, but we’re getting there. For example, I was reading an article in Psychology Today and noticed that their online articles often contained links to other articles by other authors on the Psychology Today website. That’s just one example of good utilization of hyperlinks.

Hyperlinks are just one of the many benefits of publishing on the internet. Unlike the printing press, the internet is a relatively new invention. We are only just beginning to discover its potential. I would like to discuss one medium in particular: the blog. A blog can be about virtually anything, from cooking to security to sidewalk chalk math to debate (and whatever else the author decides to write about) to creationism and cephalopods to nothing. [Side note: it took me over twenty minutes to decide which examples to use and how to arrange them.] Many newspapers, such as the New York Times, actually hire people to write blogs for them. Some news sites are actually blogs in disguise (or not in disguise).

When blogs started out they were underutilized, but these days they are used to communicate about serious topics. One big advantage to the blog format is its flexibility: it can be just some guy’s daily journal, or it can take the form of a news report. One thing I’d like to see more of, though, is philosophy.

A blog is an ideal format for the development of philosophical ideas. Blog philosophy is very different from sitting all day in a large armchair and musing about the nature of the universe, then publishing something every few years or so (although, admittedly, I do sometimes write blog posts while in an armchair). A blog allows for good discussions and rapid feedback. It can serve as a single place to develop many philosophical ideas, ranging from the humble to the grandiose. A blog, at least the way it’s represented today, is less than ideal for publishing longer works; but it’s great for writing shorter, more concentrated essays. It’s actually very possible that a blog could be adapted to hold something as long as a book; it’s just that there aren’t many people writing books on blogs so the format hasn’t had much opportunity to adapt itself.

My own experience with a blog has been nothing short of lifechanging. It’s remarkable that I am able to come up with an idea and still have it years later, because I published it on my blog. I didn’t used to be much into writing down my ideas, and even if I had been I’m far too messy to be able to find anything I wrote down more than a few months ago. But with a blog, I have been able to formulate my ideas and can see their progression over time. Even the best of my earlier essays were less in-depth than some of my more recent ones, and I’m sure in a few years I’ll think the same thing about the essays I write today. I find it intriguing to be able to go back and trace the evolution of my ideas and my philosophy.

If there’s one piece of advice I could give to anyone interested in philosophy, it would be this: Start a blog.

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The Art of Hypertext

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 26, 2010

Much like any other sort of writing, blog writing is an art form. But one crucial part of this art form that is not found in hardly any other medium is the art of hyperlinking and hypertext: knowing exactly which words should be turned into links to other sites. Great bloggers are often identified by the quality of their hypertext.

I know of one blogger in particular who has especially impressive hypertext. She writes about scientific topics, and always provides just the right links in just the right places for you to understand what she’s talking about and to supplement her writings. You see, creating hypertext isn’t just about hyperlinking the right word, although that’s a big part of it. You have to hyperlink a word that is relevant to what the site is about, something that will give you an idea of what you’re clicking on. But there is more to it than that. Hypertext can be used to fill gaps in the reader’s knowledge base, and to provide sources for external material.

Another key trick is finding links that effectively describe what you want to describe. It is usually not too difficult to find a decent site, but to find a truly great source requires a master.

The Art of Hypertext is not simple. It is a very critical component of a blog. In fact, there should be some sort of blogging award for most dexterous usage of hypertext.

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The Five-Paragraph Essay

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 8, 2010

Many high-school and college age students have been required to write a five-paragraph essay. I myself have written dozens. This essay is purportedly the only way to write an essay, but this is obviously not true. So why is this format so often used in schools, and what are its pros and cons?

The format itself involves writing an essay that is five paragraphs long. More specifically, there is an introduction and a conclusion; the last sentence in the introduction is the thesis statement, which is the driving point of the whole essay. A good thesis divides the topic into three categories, one for each paragraph.

One major advantage to this type of essay is that it is very structured. This makes it easy to grade, and helps many students to organize their thoughts when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to come up with an essay that had any sort of logical flow. In addition, this format barely inhibits the quality of the essay (depending on the topic); it is possible to write a great essay and still follow this format.

What are the most significant difficulties with this format? Well, most obviously, sometimes you simply cannot say what you need to say in five paragraphs alone. Sometimes you just need more space. Another difficulty with this format is that it is for some purposes too rigid. A flexible format can encourage a type of thinking that is not restricted to an introduction, three main ideas, and a conclusion. An adept essay writer would often feel restricted by the five-paragraph format. At the same time, though, an adept essay writer would be able to be completely expressive in any decent format. And the five-paragraph format is, if not anything else, decent.

I can certainly understand why the five-paragraph format is frequently used, but it is not always the right solution. Students should be encouraged to diversify their writing styles. As I went over in a previous post, essayist Paul Graham denounces the five-paragraph essay as “really a list of n things for n = 3 . . . [where students are] not allowed to include the numbers, and they’re expected to spackle over the gaps with gratuitous transitions (“Furthermore…”) and cap the thing at either end with introductory and concluding paragraphs so it will look superficially like a real essay.” I don’t loathe it quite as much as Graham seems to, but it is certainly not the be-all end-all of essay formats.

By the way, it was a complete accident that I wrote this post in almost-five-paragraph essay format. Honest. You’ll notice a lack of a thesis statement, though, because those are hard to do in blog posts (and also kind of useless, since with blog essays I usually make it up as I go along).

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The balderdash is lunching my kerfuffles!

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 6, 2009

The title speaks for itself.

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A Bad Day at the Office

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 30, 2009

Timithrobo asked for a plug, and being the nice guy that I am, here it is.

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