Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An art man and a dog man

Brian Sewell, the English art critic, had very strong opinions on art (and other matters) and did not hesitate to express them. He was well described [by Clive Anderson] as "a man intent on keeping his Christmas card list nice and short."

Three years ago he was asked by an interviewer about old age and death. "I am philosophical about old age," he replied. "As for whether I fear death – I shan’t know until it’s there. All I really want is to wake up and find that every one of my 17 dogs, past and present, is round my bed. Then I shall know that I’m dead, but happily so."

He died in London on Saturday, aged 84.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Living in an alien world

Paul Horwich
In two recent posts at Language, Life and Logic,* I made some observations on a discussion about an issue which is of admittedly somewhat limited interest to a broader public: the nature and worth of contemporary analytic philosophy. The debate was precipitated by a tightly-argued critique by Paul Horwich who suggests that the whole project – or at least large swathes of it – is ill-conceived.

I tend to share Horwich's point of view on this matter which is (as he claims) quite in line with that of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Horwich's very down-to-earth (and, again, Wittgensteinian) views on language and meaning also appeal to me.

But in other areas I have problems with both Horwich and Wittgenstein. My disagreements relate mainly to their views on (and intuitions about) ethics, religion and science.**

Clearly there is a (rough) divide between religious and non-religious thinkers. But, this division does not neatly mirror the the divide between classical rationalists and those of a more empirical cast of mind, between those who believe that pure human reasoning can reveal deep, a priori truths about the world and those who embrace the messiness and contingency of life and look to empirical science for a fundamental knowledge of the natural world.

This is mainly because many of those who reject the a priori of classical rationalism – and the claims of many rationalists that reason can access or reveal not only metaphysical but also religious truths – are still committed to religion. For them, some faculty other than reason (faith or intuition) provides knowledge of an entirely different and deeper reality than that with which human reason or logic or science is concerned. We may call these fideists (though the term can be used in a narrower sense).***

Historically speaking, fideism has arguably been more conducive to empirical enquiry than rationalism of the traditional kind. For example, the rise of fideism in the late Middle Ages can be seen to have helped to break the overweening and extravagant metaphysics of scholasticism. Natural theology was called into question, and logic and reasoning applied to more practical problems. This shift encouraged the development of empirical science and new technologies.

Certain religious traditions not only incorporate a rich and sophisticated understanding of human psychology, but also promote a healthy awareness of the pitfalls of pure reason and the limits of human understanding. In fact, when I was religious – roughly, between the ages of thirteen and twenty-one – I identified strongly with such (fideist) traditions.

But – there has to be a 'but', I'm afraid – traditional religious views are, in the light of modern science, just no longer tenable. Even the more sophisticated attempts to justify (often some very ill-defined form of) belief – along the lines, for example, of William James's famous essay, 'The will to believe' – strike me as at best unconvincing and at worst dishonest.

One's overall view of the world will be based on more than just science, of course. It will necessarily derive largely from commonsense knowledge and ordinary observation – and even from intuition (understood as a kind of practical understanding or knowledge derived from experience).

Such direct and personal insights are, however, necessarily limited in perspective. And science – with its objective, impersonal perspective, its 'view from nowhere' – is at the very least a necessary corrective.

So long as science is not too narrowly defined, no one in their right mind would deny this. So why is there so much hostility towards science amongst those educated in the arts and humanities (philosophers included)?****

Petty rivalries between discipline areas and professional resentments play a role, no doubt, but my best guess is that the main driving factor is a widely-felt and profound distaste not for science itself but rather for the kind of (almost alien) world which scientific research in various fields seems slowly to be revealing.

* Anti-naturalism in philosophy (I) and Anti-naturalism in philosophy(II).

** I must admit that I am less familiar with Horwich's views on these matters than I am with Wittgenstein's, and it may be that their views are not as close as I currently take them to be.

*** The term is commonly (and I think rightly) applied to the very anti-metaphysical Wittgenstein. I don't know how Horwich would react to being so labelled.

**** Paul Horwich may not be at fault here: he talks a lot about 'scientism' but generally uses the word in a focussed way – and specifically to highlight futile and inappropriate attempts within traditional philosophy to emulate science.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Massimo the Stoic

Massimo Pigliucci has pulled the plug on his 'webzine' Scientia Salon after little more than a year. Its predecessor, Rationally Speaking, ran for more than eight years, however, and so Pigliucci's unique mix of science and philosophy has maintained an online niche for almost a decade.

He is now focussing his attention on a book project and blog designed to popularize Stoicism as a practice and philosophy of life, as well as on a new blog he will write for The Philosophers' Magazine. I wish him well in the latter project but confess that I have strong reservations about attempting to revive a philosophical and religious tradition which grew and flourished in very different cultural environments from our own.

I want to keep this brief and will not elaborate here on the reasons for my reservations, but the gist of my thinking is as follows...

First, the cultural question. I see cultures as evolving, organic structures. The ideas and schools of thought and practice characteristic of any given culture can only really be understood in the context of the culture that gave rise to them: one part cannot be understood apart from, or entirely divorced from, another. And getting to the point of really understanding a past or alien culture is usually a long and difficult process which leads (in my experience at least) to it seeming progressively stranger and stranger before we finally start to feel familiar or at home with it.

Furthermore, I fail to see how we can justify seeing thinkers from past eras as having some kind of head start on us when it comes to what is sometimes called wisdom. They knew so much less than we do about how the natural world works. And – crucially – if they had known what we know they wouldn't have written or thought what they did.

On Stoicism specifically, it just doesn't work, in my opinion, without a belief (common to Stoicism, Christianity and various forms of Idealism) that some kind of overall direction or purpose, essentially benign, is built into the workings of the natural world. Joyful acceptance of one's fate is only possible, as I see it, if one believes in a providential force of some kind.

Lastly, I personally am very wary of philosophers or ethicists of various kinds – or anyone really – trying to fill the vacuum left by the decline of institutional religion by 'playing the priest', as it were. Nietzsche was dead right about this (as he was about so much else).*

The great value of Scientia Salon (and Rationally Speaking before it) was that it attracted a wide range of intelligent and educated readers, humanists (in the traditional sense) and scientists alike.

A number of people have made the point that one of the great strengths of both sites was that they brought together people with very different backgrounds (in various sciences, pure and applied, as well as logic, philosophy and the broader humanities) in a way that does not often occur.

Another way of putting it might be in terms of comfort zones. Both those with exclusively scientific backgrounds and those with exclusively humanities-oriented backgrounds were continually forced out of their comfort zones in a (relatively!) friendly environment. This generally worked to everybody's benefit, I think.

And Pigliucci set the tone, often writing on areas which were of interest to him but clearly beyond the confines of his scientific or philosophical expertise. He was driven by good, old-fashioned intellectual curiosity – not a virtue which is encouraged by current educational or vocational structures, but a crucially important one nonetheless.

It's been clear for some time, however, that Massimo was disengaging from some of his prior concerns and preoccupations and engaging more actively with others. It's no wonder he wanted to reorganize his online offerings.

His interests are changing; nothing wrong with that. It's just that I see the Stoicism project – for reasons I have touched on here, and raised in past discussions at Scientia Salon – as fundamentally flawed (seen as a purely secular project, at any rate).

* He savagely criticized Ernest Renan (who believed in a providential force, by the way) on this very issue.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Sticking to one's principles

To tell the truth, I have doubts from time to time about neo-liberalism. Are the failures and abuses we are seeing the result of institutional corruption and the moral failings of individuals (politicians, bankers, etc.), or are the background assumptions of the centre-right fatally flawed? Is the whole financial system (including the monetary system) flawed in some fundamental way (morally or otherwise)? I don't know. Some kind of market-based system must be allowed to operate but I am uncertain as to its potential scope and limits.

Some people, though, seem to have no doubts about the rightness of their ideological position – like the hard-left British MP, Jeremy Corbyn, who is currently favoured to become leader of the Labour Party.

In this amusing piece, Janet Daley recalls her experiences living under a local council dominated by the hard left (and notably by one Jeremy Corbyn). It is a story, as she puts it, of "class hatred, the indulgence of unionised labour, and the Soviet-style handing out of favours to party loyalists on the council payrolls."

Corbyn often boasts that his political principles have not changed. Daley concludes: "Take that as a threat."

Footnote: Daley's piece is concerned with some of the themes I typically deal with on this site, but it also has an oblique and tenuous link to the site's name. As I note on the 'About' page, the title 'Conservative tendency' was meant to ironically echo (for those who knew the history) the term 'Militant tendency'. The latter term came to refer to the very elements (Trotskyist, entryist) which Daley describes in the article. The fact that Corbyn is currently the leading candidate in the Labour Party leadership battle suggests that times may not have changed as much as I thought they had.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Is the global financial system at risk of collapsing?

Many Western countries may well be facing a relatively bleak economic future, but I doubt that we are headed for anything like a global financial cataclysm.

Though I am no expert, it is important for me to have a considered view on these sorts of matters both for general and more practical reasons: general, because I'm curious about how our economic and political realities evolve; and practical, because of the impact impending events may have on personal investments etc..

I have been devoting serious attention to investing for almost twenty years now, and during this time my fortunes have fluctuated more or less in sync with global equity markets. My intention at the moment is to shift to a more conservative strategy (if only I could figure out what a conservative strategy might be in the current situation, when bond yields are so eerily low...).

Precious metals? I did hold some gold bullion years ago but don't currently own any. So-called gold or silver 'stackers' are often very naive and uncritical in certain respects but at least they perceive that something is seriously wrong with the current financial and monetary system and are seeking to take control of their own destinies.

In fact, some fairly mainstream commentators agree with their logic to a point. James Rickards thinks one should have about 10% of one's savings or investments allocated to physical gold; and Marc Faber and Jim Rogers both maintain a considerable proportion of their wealth in physical gold, held in an Asian country, not the US. (It is commonly thought that, in the event of a sovereign debt or currency crisis, Western governments would force private holders of gold to sell up at a low price, as happened in 1930s America.)

But moving and storing the stuff is always a bother (and an expense), and bullion pays no interest or dividend. More importantly, I don't see a collapse of the global financial system as being a necessary consequence of a loss of confidence in the US dollar. Why would a new system not evolve based (perhaps) around IMF 'special drawing rights' and the Chinese and certain other currencies not associated with over-indebted sovereigns? The Chinese are rapidly moving towards full convertibility for their currency and are already having considerable success in promoting use of the yuan in international trade. (It will almost certainly be incorporated into the IMF's SDR formula before the end of the year.)

More generally, what we are witnessing is a major wealth shift away from the U.S. and most of Europe and towards Asia (and specifically China).

Sovereign debt is a crucial issue here. Sure, there have been times in the post-WWII period when previously-prosperous countries have suffered from sovereign debt crises -- and have recovered. But, in the current situation, with sovereign debt at record levels in most of the major Western economies (as well as Japan) we have arguably passed a point of no return. Only extremely low interest rates are allowing this situation to persist without major financial, economic and political upheavals.

The fact is that major economies such as the U.S., Japan, the U.K., Italy and France are in decline and, given the state of their public finances coupled with low productivity growth, probably in terminal decline.

We are seeing a US-centred world financial system slowly being replaced by a multilateral system which -- increasingly -- will reflect the significance of the Chinese economy and the Chinese currency.

The Obama adminstration is hastening this process not only by sanctioning reckless monetary policies and virtually ignoring the looming crisis of US sovereign debt and entitlements but also by a series of geo-political and diplomatic blunders. One of the most cack-handed and significant of these was its recent -- and largely failed -- attempt to dissuade its major Western allies from joining (as founding members) the China-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

'Conservative' is not a dirty word

A couple of commenters at Scientia Salon recently made some gratuitous remarks about conservatives and conservatism. Their comments prompted this from me [part of a longer comment]:

"... You can define 'conservative' to mean irrational, committed to fundamentalist religion, selfishly seeking to hold on to one's power or privilege, etc. if you like; but it needn't be understood like this. It can be seen as a neutral descriptive term. You could just as easily list a set of positive conservative characteristics as negative ones if you wanted to. (E.g. being appropriately cautious, being aware of the dangers of unintended consequences in social and political matters, seeing culture and society in organic rather than mechanistic or abstract terms, etc.) ..."

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

On the concept of the Jewish people

Daniel Kaufman wrote a piece last month on his new blog Apophenia about religion without spirituality. He talks specifically about his particular liberal take on Jewish religion and culture and relates the notion of Jewish identity not so much to the religious side of Judaism in the sense of beliefs but rather to its rituals and conventions and to Jewish nationhood.

In the comment thread I raised a couple of questions, one about his notion of the Jewish people.

"I can see," I wrote, "that one can identify with the experience of more recent generations but doesn't it get a bit problematic when one imagines that one's "nationhood" traces back thousands of years in more than a mythical way?

"And then there is the problem of deciding who exactly is a member of the Jewish people and who is not. I, like many with British and European ancestry, have Jewish ancestors. There seems to be an arbitrariness about the Jew/non-Jew distinction if it is seen as clear-cut [unless of course one is using the word in a purely religious sense to designate individuals who identify with particular congregations or forms of Judaism]; and an unsatisfactoriness about seeing people as being more or less Jewish (especially in genetic terms)...

"... There are some perceptions of Jewish identity which appear to me on the one hand to give too much credence to the Biblical accounts as history and on the other to incorporate unrealistically strong claims to genetic continuity over the entire span of the tradition. (Or traditions? I tend to see Jewish culture as extremely variegated, more as a kind of patchwork, interacting with and contributing to various other traditions and cultures.)"

Daniel Kaufman's approach draws more on cultural and psychological rather than on strictly historical factors. But, as I suggested in the discussion, the (degree of) historical grounding of the Biblical narratives upon which Jewish culture and religion are built matters; it makes a difference.

He replied first by conceding that the concept of the Jewish people is not amenable to a clear, analytical definition, referring to it as a Wittgensteinian "family-resemblance" type of concept. Would this not, however, render the concept insufficiently determinate, insufficiently robust to do the work he wants it to do?

In a final comment, he more directly addresses my historical concerns, acknowledging that tracing the Jewish people back beyond the Roman era is rather problematic because of the lack of independent sources. He identifies with the tradition of Rabbinic Judaism which, deriving from the Pharisaic tradition, developed in the diaspora after the Roman era.

There are a couple of issues which I would like to pick up on, so here are a few further thoughts...

Firstly, as I suggested above, I see Judaism and Jewish culture more generally as being far from homogeneous. It changed over time (as all cultures do) and at any given time has been more or less variegated. At the time of Jesus, for example, Judaism was clearly comprised of a variety of (competing) schools of thought and practice. In various ways, the Gospels, Acts, the Book of Revelation and Paul's letters provide compelling evidence for these but there is (even stronger) evidence also from many other sources, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls (which were the product of an extremist or radical community which rejected the religious and political status quo and lived a monastic type of life while awaiting an imagined war between the forces of light and the forces of darkness in which they would fight on the side of the angels of light). The figures of John the Baptist and Jesus may be seen to inhabit a similar radical space, though they rejected communal living.

Of course, the Pharisees figure prominently in the New Testament narrative as do the Sadducees (who apparently believed in the traditional Jewish concept of Sheol, rejecting the notion of the resurrection of the dead and indeed any notion of judgement after death). And Paul (or Saul of Tarsus) seems to have been a practitioner of a heterodox and mystical form of Judaism.

Another relevant issue is that, unlike today's versions, Judaism was a proselytizing religion during Roman times. In fact it was the energetic and successful missionary activities of the Jews which apparently precipitated an expulsion in 139 BC and another in AD 19. References to the Jewish expulsion from Rome in the Acts of the Apostles, Suetonius, Cassius Dio and (much later) Paulus Orosius all apparently refer to an edict of the Emperor Claudius (who ruled from 41-54) however.

Given, then, that many Roman Jews were converts and, given that the post-Roman diaspora communities were probably also associated with conversion activity (and widespread intermarriage with local people), it is no surprise that there is much confusion and controversy surrounding the question of Jewish ethnicity, much of it currently focussed on DNA studies and their interpretation.* No doubt a scientific consensus will form over time as more studies are done, but it is already clear that Jewish ethnicity is not and never will be amenable to a straightforward genetic test.

The central focus of Daniel Kaufman's post (which I did not directly address in my comments) relates to the broader question of whether one can have a (viable) religion without spirituality. This issue came up the other day in another exchange between him and me in the comment thread of a subsequent post, and I may have more to say about it in the future.

For now, let me just make two points.

The first relates to semantics. There is a question about whether the attenuated form of Judaism he describes remains a religion in any meaningful sense. Certainly he is employing a broader view of the religious and the sacred than the conventional one. And this is fine, but for the fact that we normally like to retain some kind of distinction between 'actual' religions and forms of life (like nationalism) which may well involve expressions of the same sorts of instincts as those traditionally associated with religion but which are not religions.

The second point relates to the question of whether or not such attenuated forms of religion are capable of sustaining themselves beyond a couple of generations. (My guess is that they are not.)


* I have touched on these issues before. For example, this post discusses (and links to) research which examines Ashkenazi lineages via mitochondrial DNA analysis. The findings were that the female lines derive predominantly from European rather than Levantine populations. (The four major and most of the minor Ashkenazi maternal lineages form clusters within descent lines that were established in Europe between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.)

Y DNA studies, on the other hand, have apparently shown that Ashkenazi Jews (here I am citing Wikipedia) "share more common paternal lineages with other Jewish and Middle Eastern groups than with non-Jewish populations in areas where Jews lived in Eastern Europe, Germany and the French Rhine Valley."

Mitochondrial and Y DNA are good for discovering deep ancestry but don't indicate the actual degree of relatedness between individuals: for this autosomal DNA or whole-genome analysis is required. Studies of the latter kind paint a very complex picture of regional variation with varying levels of commonality with host populations leading to increased scope for competing claims and interpretations. One surprising early result was that there appear to be very strong genetic links between Sephardi and Ashkenazi populations and non-Jewish Southern Europeans, especially modern Italians.

This is how the authors of the cited mtDNA study sum up the research into Ashkenazi origins and place their own work in relation to it:

"We are [...] faced with several competing models for Ashkenazi origins: a Levantine ancestry; a Mediterranean/west European ancestry; a North Caucasian ancestry; or, of course, a blend of these. This seems an ideal problem to tackle with genetic analysis, but after decades of intensive study a definitive answer remains elusive. Although we might imagine that such an apparently straightforward admixture question might be readily addressed using genome-wide autosomal markers, recent studies have proposed contradictory conclusions. Several suggest a primarily Levantine ancestry with south/west European admixture, but another concludes that the ancestry is largely Caucasian, implying a major source from converts in the Khazar kingdom. An important reason for disagreement is that the Ashkenazim have undergone severe founder effects during their history, drastically altering the frequencies of genetic markers and distorting the relationship with their ancestral populations.

"This problem can be resolved by reconstructing the relationships genealogically, rather than relying on allele frequencies, using the non-recombining marker systems: the paternally inherited male-specific part of the Y chromosome (MSY) and the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). This kind of analysis can be very powerful, because nesting of particular lineages within clusters from a particular geographical region allows us to pinpoint the source for those lineages, by applying the parsimony principle. This has indeed been attempted, with the MSY results interpreted plausibly to suggest an overwhelming majority of Near Eastern ancestry on the Ashkenazi male line of descent, albeit with much higher levels (more than 50%) of European (potentially east European) lineages in Ashkenazi Levites, suggesting a possible Khazar source in that particular case.

"The maternal line has also been studied, and indeed Ashkenazi mtDNAs are highly distinctive, but they have proved difficult to assign to a source population. Some progress has been made by targeting whole-mtDNA genomes or mitogenomes, which provide much higher genealogical (and therefore geographical) and chronological resolution than the control-region sequences used previously—although the far larger control-region database remains an invaluable guide to their geographic distribution. Using this approach, Behar identified four major founder clusters, three within haplogroup K—amounting to 32% of sampled Ashkenazi lineages—and one within haplogroup N1b, amounting to another 9%. These lineages are extremely infrequent across the Near East and Europe, making the identification of potential source populations very challenging. Nevertheless, they concluded that all four most likely arose in the Near East and were markers of a migration to Europe of people ancestral to the Ashkenazim only ~2,000 years ago. The remaining ~60% of mtDNA lineages in the Ashkenazim remained unassigned to any source, with the exception of the minor haplogroup U5 and V lineages (~6% in total), which implied European ancestry.

"Here we focus on both major and minor founders, with a much larger database from potential source populations..."

Their conclusion: "... Overall, we estimate that most (more than 80%) Ashkenazi mtDNAs were assimilated within Europe. Few derive from a Near Eastern source, and despite the recent revival of the ‘Khazar hypothesis’, virtually none are likely to have ancestry in the North Caucasus. Therefore, whereas on the male side there may have been a significant Near Eastern (and possibly east European/Caucasian) component in Ashkenazi ancestry, the maternal lineages mainly trace back to prehistoric Western Europe. These results emphasize the importance of recruitment of local women and conversion in the formation of Ashkenazi communities, and represent a significant step in the detailed reconstruction of Ashkenazi genealogical history."