Meditations on first philosophy

post by Craig_Heldreth · 2011-01-19T00:27:33.631Z · score: -2 (13 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 12 comments

I put this post up on my blog this morning (link) and some here might like to see it or discuss it.


Meditations on first philosophy is the title of the first book ever written in contemporary western Philosophy, according to the university course I took. It was written by Rene Descartes in the seventeenth century, who began with the premise that he wanted to find true factual indubitable knowledge and that the way to find this was to begin by doubting everything, and retaining only what could be defended by rigorous logic. So by these meditations he reasoned to such respected elements as "I think, therefore I am." This short book continues to be relied on hundreds of years later and modern (especially French) philosophers such as Sartre, Foucault and Derrida all explicitly acknowledge the importance of Descartes' achievement.

I am occupied with a similar project. This was not entirely a conscious choice or any sort of Cartesian magnum opus. In the past five years I have slowly realized that almost nothing I think or do is too trivial to closely examine, and I am now of the attitude that I am willing to examine anything and everything, taking absolutely nothing for granted.

The first major recent instance changed my note taking practice. This happened in 2005 and was entirely accidental. I found myself in a seminar that did not absorb my entire attention, and to entertain myself I experimented with notation methods. It is no understatement to say that I learned how to take notes all over again as if for the first time in my life, which is a little odd considering I was over forty years old at the time. By the end of the seminar, I still was not engaged in it very attentively, but everybody else in the seminar felt they had to have a copy of my notes. One of my fellow attendees referred to them as the Golden notes. I later learned that a similar system was employed by Michel Foucault, which he referred to as hypomnemata.

The second big event concerned my vocabulary. In 2006 I thought I had almost as much vocabulary as I was ever going to need, that this was a basic skill like tying one's shoes or riding a bicycle that you learn once and don't worry about it after. In retrospect, that was obviously a silly attitude, but it was not until I took a vocabulary test which I thought I had aced and found out I had not aced it that I realized this. Details are here.

It was the third of my discoveries which shook me to Cartesian doubting level. This was months in the making, and thanks to my hypomnemata I have exact records of its genesis and development. On the 31 March 2010 I became self-employed, and one of the first tasks I embarked upon was an overhaul of my diet and workout practices. I took advantage of the freedom to ignore the clock, eat when hungry, and sleep when tired. Things seemed great in the beginning and actually for several months when I noticed that I had lost quite a few pounds. I bought a scale and weighed myself and was surprised at how little I weighed. It was actually a little bit alarming.

This was in late September. I began weighing myself daily. Within a couple of weeks I concluded that eating when hungry was not consistent with the level of working out I was doing, that I had to eat breakfast immediately upon waking and continue to feed myself as soon as possible in order to maintain weight. After a couple of months (and gaining weight very slowly) I did the numbers. It was a revelation. Here are the constraints:

Eight hours sleep per night.
Three meals per day.
Ninety minutes workout per day.
Five hours to fully digest dinner before laying down to sleep.

To my amazement this sums up (including to the minute how much time is required to prepare and eat breakfast, lunch and dinner) to 24 hours within 2%; i. e. there is virtually no slack time in my schedule at all. After six months and nine days of thinking I was indulging myself in complete freedom, on the 10th of November 2010 I discovered that the simple mechanics of running my organism in its proper operational fashion requires rigid adherence to a fixed daily schedule. Up at 6:00 A. M. every single day without fail. Directly to the kitchen to ingest my breakfast. After four hours digestion, directly into workout with no delay. After workout, directly to the kitchen to prepare and consume lunch. After four hours digestion, directly to the kitchen to prepare and consume dinner. Five hours after dinner, directly to bed to sleep for eight hours. I am self-employed and I have no boss.

Ha! My body is the most rigid task master I have ever known. A fact which I could have, should have known my entire life but it took me six months of being unemployed or self-employed (however you prefer to frame it) to figure it out. And so now I am wondering what else is ripe for making over, and I am inclined to consider anything--speaking, reading, walking, standing, sitting, listening. Even breathing.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Jack · 2011-01-19T06:17:46.190Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This doesn't appear to have anything to do with Descartes.

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2011-01-19T18:08:30.884Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

It is an analogy. If I were Descartes, I might end up at:

"I breathe, therefore I am."

I aim to imitate the method of Descartes (question everything), but open the field of inquiry as widely as possible, wider even than his.

comment by Jack · 2011-01-19T20:01:44.376Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Skepticism is a pretty common attitude, especially around here. So when you bring up Descartes it suggests you have something to say about his philosophy in particular, not that you are claiming the vague bumper-sticker version of his method.

I aim to imitate the method of Descartes (question everything), but open the field of inquiry as widely as possible, wider even than his.

Descartes began by doubting his senses and his own existence- you seem to be doubting what you know about vocabulary and dieting. So I don't really see you one-upping Rene' here. But whatever.

"I breathe, therefore I am."


comment by prase · 2011-01-19T14:46:19.336Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This post is strange. The title lead me to expect some general essay about learning philosophy for the first time, then I thought that it would be a review of a book by Descartes after the first half of the first paragraph, a treatise on postmodernism after the second half, analysis of learning techniques after the third paragraph, and I became completely confused somewhere in the middle of the article.

What is the real message?

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2011-01-19T18:14:00.383Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the spirit of Descartes, the ideas in this post are literally meditations. The guy who taught me Descartes managed to conclude the real message of Descartes' meditations was atheism, which is one of the most far-fetched things I have ever heard from a professor inside a lecture hall.

Descartes said quite explicitly he believed in God and an immortal soul. The professor insisted Descartes was being satirical. He did this quite furiously, as many of the students were capable debaters.

comment by prase · 2011-01-19T19:49:09.933Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

the real message of Descartes' meditations was atheism

I was rather asking for the message of your meditations. (I suppose you have some experience with reading postmodern philosophers, which may lead you to prefer indirect communication. Such a style is a bit unusual here.)

comment by Jack · 2011-01-19T19:44:42.066Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the spirit of Descartes, the ideas in this post are literally meditations.

Er, Meditations on First Philosophy is one of the most organized, methodical works of philosophy ever.

comment by Risto_Saarelma · 2011-01-19T19:05:42.148Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the spirit of Descartes, the ideas in this post are literally meditations.

The style isn't really working for me either. I go in reading posts expecting them to have one thing they are primarily about. This one doesn't really set up the different expectations it's apparently supposed to, and ends up looking like it's just rambling. I'm not charitable enough to assume that the essential rambliness is due to a meta-level narrative device rather than just writing a post without really having an idea what it should be about.

comment by JenniferRM · 2011-01-19T04:59:45.352Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think I remember you having talked about hypomnemata before and it has been percolating in my head to the point that I've begun to think I should set up a system to capture, manage, and functionally direct my stray thoughts into some sort of eventual output.

Your link mentions the system but it doesn't vividly describe the system such that it might be understood and reproduced by a third party.

If you could describe your system, that would be neat!

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2011-01-19T18:03:34.795Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Description here.

There really isn't much to add beyond what I wrote there. I try to write neatly. I put some blinds in there so that if a girlfriend picks it up she will see something about sado sex where some woman is forced to eat her own puke off the carpet long before she can glean any useful insight into my deep psychology. The most common glyphs I use are for Venus and Mars and Jupiter and Saturn and Pisces and Capricorn and Sagittarius and LIbra. I use these in the same manner that LessWrong uses tags.

At the moment the stack of pages is close to a foot tall and I am still going daily at a near constant pace and expect to do so for the foreseeable future.

comment by Barry_Cotter · 2011-01-19T11:24:44.157Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

IIRC Foucault's method was as follows

Four reams of paper, each 15 pages, lined. You take your notes, basically summary, implications and connections with other previously encountered knowledge. Every time you finish a ream you reread it and your next ream begins by summarising, and connecting the previous ream. Repeat ad infinitum, and once you get up to 75 pages, the last 15 are dead to you.

comment by Craig_Heldreth · 2011-01-19T18:05:38.867Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

the last 15 are dead to you