Monday, October 19, 2015

Dogs after death.

I recently quoted this remark by the art critic Brian Sewell: "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."

It brought to mind a (once famous) footnote in chapter XXVI of F.H. Bradley's daunting and difficult magnum opus Appearance and Reality. The remarks come in a section dealing with the human desire for life after death and the inconsistencies of the standard (Christian) view. Bradley wrote:

"No one can have been so fortunate as never to have felt the grief of parting, or so inhuman as not to have longed for another meeting after death... One feels that a personal immortality would not be very personal, if it implied a mutilation of our affections. There are those too who would not sit down among the angels, till they had recovered their dog."

I have now come across another reference to a canine presence in worlds beyond. It occurs around the 8-minute mark of this account of a near-death experience.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Looking ahead

A short essay of mine – a minimalistic, descriptive and perhaps deflationist take on obligations and rights – was published a week ago at the new online magazine and discussion forum The Electric Agora. My name has now been added to the list of contributors: this will involve a certain commitment on my part (basically an essay every month or two, commenting and maybe other odds and ends).

The site in the process of establishing itself and I'll try to do my bit to help. It may not work out but, if it does, it gives me access to a sizable and interesting audience that I would not be able to generate on my own account.

The Electric Agora is a spinoff from Scientia Salon, Massimo Pigliucci's 'webzine' which closed down a couple of months ago. The new site was set up by Daniel Kaufman and Dan Tippens with help from Phil Pollack, all of whom were associated with Massimo and Scientia Salon.

We'll see how it goes. My first essay seems to have been a modest success. The comments were certainly interesting and, judging by the likes on the site's Facebook page and Facebook shares from the original site (which are the only stats I have access to), the essay would seem to have been read by a substantial number of people.

Conservative Tendency will continue. It remains my main site and my personal blog. I'm hoping Google will do something soon to open up commenting to people who don't want to use Google+. There are a lot of Google+ comments on my 'English Jewish surnames revisited' post and they continue to appear. I don't want to lose them or the many archived comments from the old commenting system so I am not wanting to take unilateral action to open up commenting on this (or my other blog).

And – who knows? – with more carrot and less stick the tide might turn and Google+ might suddenly take off!

The digital media landscape continues to evolve and it's hard to make long-term plans. The interactive element of blogs has to a large extent been replaced by social media, it seems. I'm wondering now whether the ready availability and increasing use of platforms like Google Docs will further undermine blogs and blogging.

As I say, I'll stay with my blogs for the foreseeable future, but if blogs in general become redundant or merge or morph into social media or other new forms, there is an upside: 'blog' is a very ugly word and I for one would be happy to see it fade into history.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An art man and a dog man

Brian Sewell, the English art critic, had very strong (and not altogether popular) opinions on art and other matters and didn't hold back in expressing 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.