Monday, August 08, 2005

Blaming St Anselm

I started out last Thursday morning the proud owner of two second-hand, out-of-warranty and out-of-date PCs, thinking that, with a little work, I could I could up-grunt the less obsolete of the two so that it would remain more or less serviceable until the next time I'm offered an out-of-warranty PC with bugger all resale value which I might as well have. 24 hours later I was down to one half-working PC and the realisation that it probably hadn't been a good idea to begin the job thinking "Well, this might not be a good day for making major life decisions or writing thoughful, analytical posts for the blog, but I'm probably up to a few hours of tinkering around with a Phillips' Head screwdriver."

Things started out promisingly enough. Thursday afternoon I opened up the more clapped out of the two PCs, unplugged the hard-drive and slid it into the drive bay of the new box. I then put the bay back in the box, did a bit of work with the Phillips head to secure it and transferred the cables from the existing hard drive to the newly installed one. This is pretty much the same procedure I used when I got the older machine to replace a completely dead one.

I plugged in the monitor, keyboard and mouse and turned on the power. Boot, boot, boot: up came the award BIOS, found the hard-drive and there was the GRUB boot loader telling me I had a choice of booting up Fedora Core 2 and bugger all else and if I didn't make up my mind which one within ten seconds it was going to be Fedora, like it or not. I hit the enter key, and there was some more boot, boot, boot right up to the "Checking for new hardware" message. A couple of bits of hardware had gone missing - a modem and the video card - so I discarded those and let Fedora pick up on the new stuff, like the new video card it had to deal with. All very smooth and cool, just like last time. Then it was back to the last of the boot, boot, boot.

Which all went fine, right up to the point where the PC tried to load the X-Windows GUI, couldn't find the monitor and reverted to text mode, which it was handling without any problems at all. No big drama, thinks I. Had this happen before, got it sorted in a lot less time than it took Zeppo Bakunin when he gave it a try with a Windows hard-drive because the hard-drive on his newly bought second-hand desparation clunker was completely useless. Now where are those mental notes I made on how to sort this? Uh-oh, looks like they found their way into the old cerebral round file. Oops.

No big problem; I had a command line, I could use "man" to find the answer, couldn't I? "man X" I typed and paged quickly through the output to the "See Also" section; "XProjectTeam(7x), XStandards(7x) ..." Nup, nothing promising there. Dimly, I was starting to remember that last time I'd used some program called "xsetup" or "xconfig" or something like that to set up the GUI from the command line. "locate xsetup", I commanded. Nothing. "locate xconfig", I tried. Nothing there either. How about "locate xcfg". Again nothing, except the first stirrings of an ugly, slightly panicked realisation that things weren't going all that well. For the sake of my sanity, I needed to find someone to blame, and I needed to do it quickly.

And so to bed, where I lay in the half-dark running through a list of likely suspects in my head. Single mothers perhaps? Had their malign influence somehow bollixed my new PC? Could the evil spirit of single-motherhood have somehow crept out of its usual haunts in the stews of underclass land to lay its blight on my life, just as it lays its blight on the national economy and our entire social fabric? However appealing, that notion seemed a bit of a stretch. The root of the problem was probably to be found elsewhere.

Eventually, I wrenched my mind away from this profitless train of thought to something else; Mark Bahnisch's off-hand comment at Larvatus Prodeo that St Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God

... [is] useful mainly for giving you an enormous headache in first year philosophy before you suddenly see how easy it is to refute.

There might be a post in this, I thought, once I have a working PC again and, by hook or by crook, I'd have one Friday. Even if it meant putting the Fedora hard-drive back in its old box, while I sorted the new one. Personally, I've never been convinced that refuting the ontological argument for the existence of God is quite the philosophical walkover that Mark's comment suggests. In addition, if someone trots it out in a discussion, they're unlikely to consider themselves refuted if all you have to say is something like "That's pretty much St Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God and any first year philosophy student could tell you what's wrong with it." It invites the question "Can you tell me what's wrong with it?" And there you are, in deep discourse doo-doo because of course you could, back in the days when you were a first year student cutting your philosophical teeth on St Anselm, but you've forgotten precisely how that easy refutation went.

St Anselm's argument went something like this:
  • God is the only perfect being we can imagine.

  • If God did not exist then it would be possible to imagine a being who is more perfect than God: one who is in every respect like God except that she exists and God doesn't.

  • That's pretty much a contradiction - we can't assert that God is the only perfect being imaginable and then go off imagining something more perfect so:

  • God must exist.

It's pretty clear that something has gone wrong here but it's a bugger to put your finger on what it is. So much so that the ontological argument has been repeated a few times in the history of philosophy; Descartes trotted one out and Berkeley produced an entire metaphysics which purported to show that we needed God to keep an eye on the forests so that the trees could be confident that when they fell over, they really fell over. The ontological argument is an obstinate little bugger. You think you've got it refuted and it just picks itself up and crawls away to hide in the dark for a couple of centuries. It's a philosophical cockroach.

It doesn't help that explaining what's gone wrong usually requires a discussion of the principles of logic. You can refute St Anselm's argument, to the satisfaction of logicians at least, by trying to frame it in the languge of formal logic with all those upside down As and backward Es. But that's really only a preliminary step towards explaining the error in ordinary language. And if the argument is being advanced by someone who is logic-blind - the usual case - it's a complete waste of time. They'll invoke something like "higher rationality" or run the old "Well logicians only set up the rules that way for their own convenience" line.

Soothed by the contemplation of my own brilliance, I finally slept. Friday morning I was ready to resume work, thinking "Let's get this done so that I can get the St Anselm piece written. But if things aren't working by 11:30, I'll have to stop because there's that too long neglected little bit of unpleasant personal business to take care of this afternoon."

Half an hour later, the new PC was refusing to boot completely. Bugger, bugger, bugger, bugger! No point cursing the situation; it was time to swallow the little pride I had left and go to the fallback position: put the hard-drive back in the old box.

Once that was done, in went the connections for the monitor, keyboard and mouse and I hit the power switch, confident that within a few minutes I would have a working PC again. OK, so it was the one I wanted to replace but half a loaf is better than no bread or something. Boot, boot, boot, here's GRUB so hit the enter key to bring up Fedora Core 2. Beautiful. And here's the Award BIOS again because the Linux kernel just crashed. Boot, boot, boot and let's go round again a couple more times just to confirm that things are utterly and irredeemably stuffed.

So, things looked irredeemably stuffed, eh? Why not try booting from the installation CDs, I thought. We'll get that St Anselm piece written yet. I changed the BIOS settings, fed the installation CD into the machine and away we went; whatever was wrong, it was on the hard-drive. As soon as I figured out what it was, I could fix it. But right now I'd reached the time limit of 11:30 am, so figuring it out and fixing it would have to wait until later.

It's looking a lot like cut-to-the-chase time; obviously I now have a working PC again, or you wouldn't be reading this. The too long neglected bit of personal business got done and I actually got a couple of amusing moments out of it. And sometime in the next couple of days I may feel up to taking a look at the new PC to see whether it's true that, with a little help from St Anselm and the single mothers, it's been turned into a box o' junk.

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