Thursday, July 7, 2016

I Think I Finally Get Hegel

Ever since I read F.S.C. Northrop and his notion that knowledge begins with a problem, I have used the idea in everything. It's obvious: if you don't have a problem you don't need any more knowledge. Just keep on keeping on.

But if something is bothering you, if you have a problem, then you probably need to figure it out and add to the great inheritance of human knowledge.

So Hegel had a problem. But what was it? That is what I have been cudgeling my brain about. And I could never figure out Hegel. But now I think I have, thanks to Alexandre Kojève and his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. I read the book not to understand Hegel but because I read that every lefty who has half a brain has read it. So I read the book to understand lefties.

But the result of reading Kojève is that I now think I understand Hegel, and I think I understand the problem he was trying to solve.

Let's start with Newton. His equations of motion suggested that the universe was a billiard ball universe. Everything in the present and the future is completely determined by the past. Determinism.

Then Hume came along and said that you can't prove cause and effect. Just because Sir Louis Scatcherd fell of a horse and then died doesn't mean that the fall caused the death. This opened a crack in Newton's determinism.

Hume famously woke Kant out of his dogmatic slumber to construct his transcendental idealism. Humans couldn't know things-in-themselves; they could not look behind the curtain to find out what was really going on. Humans can only know appearances, how the world appears to them. So how can we humans know anything? Here is how I tackled it back in October 2012 when taking a course in the Philosophy of Kant.
We take formless sense impressions, view them with the forms of intuition about space and time, synthesize them with intuitions, and then own them as ours by applying the pure concepts of the understanding to our intuitions and finally applying judgments.
Or more crudely, we cook up a theory in our heads about the world, and interpret sense impression in the light of that theory. If it works it works.

But there is still a problem. How do we act in the world; how can we change the billiard ball universe and redirect the billiard balls?

That was Hegel's problem, and he solved it with the concept of Negation. When you come up with a new idea, when you change the world with a conscious act, you are negating the world, making it different. And so the whole history of humans is an endless series of negations, changing the flow of history. Until the End of History when the Scientist knows everything about everything, Napoleon has established his Empire, and that is that.

That's the way you have to think about change in a Newtonian world. You know that Newtonian determinism can't be the whole truth, so you have to conjure up something to make free will possible. And Hegel chose Negation.

But today we think this is rubbish, and not just because Marx and his pals made a complete dog´s breakfast of Hegel -- and a dog's breakfast of Russia and China as well. Why is that?

Because today we have quantum mechanics. It says, crudely, that the old Newtonian idea that it is billiard balls all the way down is wrong. At the base of the billiard balls is the quantum state function which is a statement of probability. We don't know what individual quanta are going to do next, and they don't know either, although we can have a pretty good idea of what is going to happen in the aggregate. So our basic theory of life, the universe, and everything says that, at the basic level, everything is contingent.

We know that quantum mechanics is pretty good because scientists, programming their brains with the ideas of quantum mechanics, have invented LED lights and smartphones, and LED lights and smartphones are constructed on the faith that quantum mechanics works.

Newton's theory works at the macro level on and around the earth, provided you don't go too fast. Kant's idea that we form concepts of understanding and intuition about the things-in-themselves that we only experience as sense impressions is right. Hegel's idea of Negation is sorta right: when we make a conscious change we change the universe forever, just like it says in quantum mechanics, only it comes out of the state function and all the other remarkable concepts of quantum mechanics, not Negation;.

Still, Hegel's idea was a good first try. Pity that his idea was so loosey-goosey that his adepts could use his ideas for their foolish and evil political conjuring tricks.

Because Hegel licensed crude ideas that capitalism is the negation of feudalism and socialism the negation of capitalism and so the world progresses along the arc of history towards justice.

And the result of that those ideas was not good. Still isn't.

But at least now I think I understand Hegel.

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