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Notes on Morality by Alfred Stein
by Alfred Stein

These notes were written by Alfred Stein (1930-1995) in the spring of 1995 shortly before he passed away. Excerpts were published in the March and April editions. This set of notes consists of aphoristically expressed thoughts on a wide range of subjects. As a whole the notes are largely a sustained meditation on the nature of morality and meaning and they canvass a vast terrain of philosophical, mathematical, logical and literary ground. The numberings beside various entries suggest a certain thematic and organizational grouping of the various statements; pointers possibly to some future plan. This publication and much of the effort that has been invested in Books in Canada over the last nine years is in many ways a tribute to Alfred Stein's memory and his expansive interests. We offer this material to you for your reading pleasure and hope that its density and style does not in any way interfere with your enjoyment of our regularly formatted reviews (please e-mail adrian.stein@rogers.com if you any any comments).
F 3 The exile from Eden meant the end of animal innocence; men now required permission, reason, or some excuse to enjoy the killing of their kind, torture, rape and pillage. Religion and race, are excellent justifications but any will do. The craving is strong and ever present. This is original sin; a defect only man can repair. Even with Christ in our hearts we have Satan in our genes. If we are to be spiritually transfigured we must first be biologically transformed.
J 2 When things are too sad for tears we can only laugh. People reveal themselves by the things they laugh at, the things they are prepared to sacrifice themselves and their children for, and the things they find most interesting. They are in order: the accidents, embarrassments and misfortunes of others; idols, emblems and the hatred of "others"; crime and punishment.
B 3 Rawls's "veil of ignorance" and the "congress of the unborn." It should be a conclave of many unborn generations so that their vote is not influenced by the fact that they will all be born in a single generation. (What has this future ever done for me?) The interests of present and future generations (particularly in a short-lived species such as ours) are necessarily conflicting. We are spenders; they would have us be savers. Eugenics: future generations would prefer to be born brilliant and beautiful given the choice. Sentimentality over the botched and the bungled would soon vanish if one was given the opportunity to be among their number. "Amor Fati"¨Why?
J 2-0 Between an electrical-chemical synaptic impulse in a neural net and an immense body a thousand times as large as the sun, which may have vanished a billion years ago, there exists nothing other than an entity rejected by science; the "self" [add to this sensuous deprivation, the cosmic inhospitality of being a "stranger and alone" in a world that (in fact) we have made].
I 4 The "world" is the most puzzling construct of consciousness. One wonders if it is recent. It postulates an entity complete in itself, existing only in the present for common sense, in infinite space-time for physics, and in some quantum entanglement with consciousness. It is also called "out-there" and the "external world."
I 4-1 The notion of a "world" implies a boundary, though it is taken to mean "everything." It is like [ ] rather than ( ) in mathematics. The notion is clearly contradictory.
B 2 Either one is emotionally crippled by the epidemic sociopathic malaise (which takes a variety of forms ranging from idiot hedonism to sado-masochism for the masses) or one views the human condition with anguish and despair. Without a religious or utopian vision the human prospect can only elicit apathy or anger. Perhaps cheerful despair, as lunatic as that may sound, is the only prescription for preserving sanity. Oxymoron is circular as well as contradictory.
B 2-1 Despair is no excuse for apathy or inaction. Purposeful action in the face of despair is courage.
G 3-5-2 Thus Genesis has poetic truth. The world did not begin with a primal quantum phenomenon (the Big Bang). It began in the mind of a bewildered and fearful primate fifty thousand years ago. Perhaps even thirty thousand years ago. Thus man gave birth to these concepts and the concepts have possessed us ever since. Culture is the process of acting out and interpreting these concepts; different cultures have different interpretations.
Q 1-C-5 The notion of a vacuum (Guericke 1650) is a mental construct; it necessarily implies containment and an observer. Then there is the Dirac impulse function, the fantastic phantasmal co-operation of an infinite number of sinusoids extending to infinity in both directions, that sum to a pulse well defined in time, then the soliton (cosh x) functions that lope along merrily passing through each other (and the interesting class of functions of the form cosh x). Yet people "believe in" pulses and sine waves and believe that entities resembling them can be seen, measured and produced. They are ways we have of describing the construct we call the world; thus pulses, electrons, miracles, time, space, and creation. This web of meaning that humanity weaves is as necessary to its existence as the web and the hill are to the spider and the ant.
O 1 The fundamental intellectual abstraction of this century is "the system" with inputs, outputs and internal states. Logic, linguistics, communication processes, economics, and dynamical systems can be accommodated within such a framework (Turing machines, Lambda calculus).
O 2 Problem: Relate Kolmogorov complexity, computational complexity, information theory, Chaos (Feigenbaum constants), uncertainty (in the Chaotic and quantum senses) and unsolvability. Together they constitute a large part of the late 20th century world view.
R 2 Think of a course on "problems" involving philosophers, mathematicians, logicians, lawyers , linguists, psychologists, computer scientists, engineers and chess players. Is there a common core in their interests? What is a "hard" problem? The definition is clear computationally. Can all problems be reduced (translated) into a logical set of statements? Are problems in principle solvable by some search strategy like chess problems? In what sense are ethical problems really problems? Is there some way to categorize a political problem other than as a means of expediting the interests of a particular group of people?
S 1 The individual has no existence divorced from a societal context. Society must be an ongoing "project" for the individuals that constitute the society, if it is to cohere, persist, and evolve. A society must evolve in order to persist. It is like a bicycle which can only remain upright when it is in motion.
B 4 Keynes's aphorism that "in the long run we are all dead" is the manifesto for expediency, opportunism, and management by quarters. Is there much difference in what Keynes said and "apres moi le deluge"? The grandchildren of the "we" who are infants will be living a half century from now in the "long run." Keynes's aphorism is the epitome and the epitaph of an irresponsible and moribund hedonism, of a culture in its death throes.
E 6 An intelligent person soon persuades herself that living an interesting life demands that she accept a minor role in a play which is about ideas, about the world and eternity, or a major role in a comedy of manners which sooner rather than later degenerates into a farce.
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