Wednesday, December 22, 2010

One-Trick Pony

No politics, no polemics, no messiahs, no mangers, no magi, no stars or stables or kneeling oxen. Just a small performing horse...

When I heard it on the radio years ago, I liked this song. A hymn to minimalism.

I like it still.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Taking stock

So where have I/we been? And where are we going with Conservative tendency?

1. Interaction. I want the site to be more interactive, so, if you have an interest, please click on the followers gadget and/or comment or email me (engmar3 [at] gmail [dot] com). And thank you to those who have already shown their interest, and I hope you will continue to find the time to drop by.

2. The human condition. My interests are various but are centered around fundamental questions about the universe and our place in it. I see our situation in fairly bleak terms, actually - no religious comforts. Which is why social and intellectual comforts - a compliment, a probing question, a shared interest - are so very important.

3. Randomness. I'm interested in developing my knowledge of the philosophy of mathematics and logic, especially aspects of these subjects that may relate to fundamental questions. The various types and levels of randomness which appear to underlie physical processes is my current focus, as it has potential relevance to how we see ourselves and our lives.

4. Politics. My inclination is towards quietism, not activism; but I respect activists and those more politically engaged than I am at the moment. I think the long-term political trends we are witnessing are unfortunate - especially to the extent that they involve government-initiated solutions (or supposed solutions) to social problems. Generally it is a healthier situation if individuals and families work out their own solutions to their problems as far as possible.

5. The decline of the West. I am fascinated  by the rise and fall of civilizations, and there is an awful lot of rising (in the East) and falling (in the West) going on at the moment. Cultures must be underpinned by political stability and economic prosperity and arguably we are witnessing the last throes of a two-and-a-half thousand year cultural and intellectual tradition. What can be salvaged from the wreckage?

6. Minimalism. My conservatism is a minimalist conservatism - or perhaps my minimalism is a conservative minimalism! I seek out simplicity and clarity in matters of the mind and in aesthetics. I may try to develop this idea explicitly in the new year, but it is implicit in everything I write.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Jesus the Greek

Ernest Renan... Nassim Taleb (whom I have written about recently) is a fan of his. Friedrich Nietzsche was most decidedly not.

Renan was a seminarian who famously renounced his Roman Catholic faith to become a leading scholar of Semitic languages and a literary celebrity in 19th century France. Much of his fame was due to the spectacular success of his Life of Jesus which rejects the miraculous but which betrays a continuing religious sensibility built around philosophical idealism and a sentimental attachment to the figure of Jesus. For Renan (as one of his biographers put it) religion was expelled from the front door but came in again through the back. Nietzsche saw Renan's perspective as not only religious, but priestly.

Renan had a deep knowledge not only of the languages of the Holy Land but also of its geography and he traveled widely in the region with his beloved sister while researching the Life. What he has to say about the ethnic background of Jesus of Nazareth is interesting, though it probably says more about the (relatively mild?) anti-Semitism of Renan's cultural milieu than about historical reality. There was a great vogue at the time for all things Indo-European, and, though Renan saw the Indo-European and the Semitic peoples as "the two great races which, in one sense, have made humanity [read: European civilization] what it is," he is not altogether even-handed in his treatment of these two traditions. Clearly, Renan is ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with a Jewish Jesus, and the infinite delicacy with which he expresses himself on this matter is nothing short of comical.

He points out that, at the time of Jesus' birth, the population of Galilee was racially diverse and "there were many who were not Jews (Phoenicians, Syrians, Arabs, and even Greeks)." Since many of these non-Jews converted to Judaism, it is impossible, asserts Renan, to "ascertain what blood flowed through the veins of him who has contributed most to efface the distinctions of blood amongst mankind."

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Inciting hatred?

This witty little piece is worth pondering for the light it throws on changes that have occurred in the social, cultural and legal environment over recent decades. The song (as the text on the video notes) ruffled a few feathers when it was released more than 30 years ago.

But would such a song have been written today? And, if it had, would it have been given a mainstream release? I doubt it.

Individual ethics and manners once bore a far greater load and played a more central role in the functioning of society. But now, as Western governments seek to modify behavior through 'education programs' and a progressive legislative agenda, the role of private judgement in morality, manners and professional life has been downgraded.

Legal systems, once perceived as staid but respected, have become pro-active players in an intra-societal struggle, as an ever-expanding inventory of groups and sub-groups and categories of individual seek to benefit from their minority or 'oppressed' status.

I have the strong sense that Western societies were not only considerably freer, but also considerably saner in previous decades.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Religious influences on political views

Religious background - whether or not it has been renounced - clearly plays an important role in determining the shape and tenor of a person's political and social views. Even people who have not had a religious upbringing are often influenced by religious elements of the broader culture.

I am interested not so much in survey data etc. about links between particular religious traditions and particular political ideologies (interesting though this can be) as in the logic behind the links. For example, it seems to me that the left owes a huge debt to Judaic sources insofar as its basic project is an attempt to make real a religious vision of a new earth, a promised land of harmony and prosperity.

Protestant churches and sects are generally closer to Christianity's Judaic roots than churches in the Catholic tradition (e.g. Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Episcopalian and Anglican). These latter traditions are not so much Christian as Christian-Platonic, following Plato in seeing the soul as essentially spiritual rather than essentially embodied and earthy. Judaic notions of the resurrection of the body and a (mass) last judgement sit uneasily with the belief of most traditional Catholics and Episcopalians in a soul that leaves the body at death and makes its individual way to heaven. (The Pythagoreans and Platonists believed something like this.)

But, ultimately, all traditional Christians and religious Jews believe in a spiritual - or at least in a supernaturally transfigured - realm, and such a belief is very compatible with political conservatism (and with political quietism which could be seen as a non-activist form of conservatism). Clearly, for religious people the main game is to get things right for the long haul - for the spiritual or transfigured realm - and secular institutions, political or otherwise, are of secondary importance.

Those who have lost their faith in a supernatural solution may or may not retain the moral priorities and ideals of the renounced religion. They may, like Nietzsche, find inspiration in the aristocratic values of classical Greek and Roman culture, so different, as well-known passages from the New Testament and related works make clear, from Jewish and early Christian social and moral teaching. Though non-religious conservatives will have various views on these matters and may retain many elements of Judaic or Christian ethics, they will not, as a rule, attempt (like the non-religious, left-leaning liberal) to implement a secularized version of Judaic or Christian moral and spiritual ideals.

In this the conservative - non-religious though he/she may be - shows more realism than his/her 'progressive' equivalent, and, in fact, a more profound understanding of the holistic nature of religious thinking.

Of course, the dramatic rise of Islam and, in particular, of militant Islamic fundamentalism, has changed the whole dynamic of the interplay between religion and politics in the West. But that is another story. For now I merely observe that these developments have highlighted the close links between Western religious traditions and our more general notions of freedom. The exploitation and abuse by Islamic extremists of Western conventions of religious freedom not only put those conventions at risk, but, with them, other freedoms which we have taken for granted but which are in fact the delicate fruit of a long historical process.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Sense and self-indulgent nonsense

I recently referred - perhaps unfairly - to the propensity of many mathematicians and scientists to be naive and uncritical when thinking outside their areas of expertise. Of course, we are all inclined to be naive and uncritical at times, but the phenomenon is more striking in a person who exhibits high levels of critical thinking in a specialist area. My original observation was based in part on having read a lot of autobiographical and other material written by very gifted scientists and mathematicians and wondering why I found myself having to 'make allowances' for them.

The distinguished mathematician Gregory Chaitin is a case in point. Here are a few instances of the strange mix of sense and nonsense that flows from Chaitin's pen when he moves beyond the work which has made him famous. [All the quotations are from his book Meta Math! The quest for omega*.]

On medical care. "[I]n my grandmother's generation in the old country, women would have a dozen children, most of whom would die before puberty. So you were trying a dozen mixes of DNA subroutines from both parents. (In the Middle Ages, babies weren't even named til they were a year old, since so many of them would die the first year.) Now instead of trying to keep women pregnant all the time, we depend on massive amounts of medical care to keep alive one or two children, no matter how unhealthy they are. While such medical care is wonderful for the individual, the quality of the human gene pool inevitably deteriorates to match the amount of medical care that is available. The more medical care there is, the sicker people become! The massive amounts of medical care become part of the ecology, and people come to depend on it to survive ... "

On mathematical prehistory. "[F]undamental questions go back millennia and are never resolved. For example, the tension between the continuous and the discrete, or the tension between the world of ideas (math!) and the real world (physics, biology). You can find all this discussed in ancient Greece. And I suspect we could even trace it back to ancient Sumer, if more remained of Sumerian math than the scrap paper jottings on clay tablets that are all we have, jottings that give hints of surprisingly sophisticated methods and a love for calculation that seems to far outstrip any practical application."

Chaitin cannot resist a footnote: "Did Sumer inherit its mathematics from an even older civilization - one more advanced than the ancient Greeks - that was destroyed by the glaciers, or when the glaciers suddenly melted, or by some other natural catastrophe? There is no way for such sophisticated computational techniques to appear out of nowhere, without antecedents."

On ideas and creativity. "Let me describe what it feels like right now while I'm writing this book ... [T]he ideas I'm discussing seem very concrete, real and tangible to me. Sometimes they even feel more real than the people around me. They certainly feel more real than newspapers, shopping malls and TV programs ... In fact, I only really feel alive when I'm working on a new idea, when I'm making love to a woman (which is also working on a new idea, the child we might conceive), or when I'm going up a mountain! It's intense, very intense."

Chaitin elaborates and reiterates with references to beautiful women, art and food (" ... like an amazing ethnic cuisine I've never tasted before."). He continues:

"And I'm a great believer in the subconscious, in sleeping on it, in going to bed at 3 a.m. or 5 a.m. after working all night, and then getting up the next morning full of new ideas, ideas that come to you in waves while you're taking a bath, or having coffee. Or swimming laps. So mornings are very important to me, and I prefer to spend them at home. Routine typing and e-mail, I do in my office, not at home. And when I get too tired to stay in the office, then I print out the final version of the chapter I'm working on, bring it home - where there is no computer - and lie in bed for hours reading it, thinking about it, making corrections, adding stuff.

"Sometimes the best time is lying in bed in the dark with my eyes closed, in a half dreamy, half awake state that seems to make it easier for new ideas, or new combinations of ideas, to emerge. I think of the subconscious as a chemical soup that's constantly making new combinations, and interesting combinations of ideas stick together, and eventually percolate up into full consciousness. That's not too different from a biological population in which individuals ... combine to produce new individuals. My guess is that all this activity takes place at the molecular level - like DNA and information storage in the immune system - not at the cellular level. That's why the brain is so powerful, because that's where the real information processing is, at the molecular level. The cellular level, that's just the front end ...

"Yes, I believe in ideas, in the power of imagination and new ideas. And I don't believe in money or in majority views or the consensus. Even if all you are interested in is money, I think that new ideas are vital in the long run, which is why a commercial enterprise like IBM has a Research Division and has supported my work for so long. Thank you, IBM!"

It takes your breath away, does it not?

* Vintage Books, 2005

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Through a crystal darkly

In previous remarks on randomness and computation, I mentioned the work of Gregory Chaitin, a mathematician and theorist who has written and spoken (he is a brilliant speaker) extensively for both specialist and general audiences. Chaitin's technical work is highly regarded, but his interpretations and extrapolations are sometimes a little idiosyncratic and he is inclined to sound a bit New Agey at times. (He is rumored to receive help in his thinking from a giant crystal!)

Paul Davies (a physicist and writer) is, by contrast, sober and restrained - even a little pedestrian by comparison - but he is a reliable guide within his areas of expertise. I recently came across a foreword by Davies to a book of Chaitin's essays* in which Davies gives his perspective on the significance of Chaitin's work and its implications for physics and our view of the world generally.

Chaitin (who had been obsessed from his childhood years with Kurt Gödel's incompleteness theorem) "greatly extended the scope of Gödel's basic insight," writes Davies, "and recast the notion of incompleteness in a way that brings it much closer to the real world of computers and physical processes. A key step in his work is the recognition of a basic link between mathematical undecidability and randomness. Something is random if it has no pattern, no abbreviated description, in which case there is no algorithm shorter than the thing itself which captures its content. And a random fact is true for no reason at all; it is true 'by accident' so to speak ... Chaitin was able to demonstrate that mathematics is shot-through with randomness ... Mathematics, supposedly the epitome of logical orderliness is exposed as harboring irreducible arbitrariness." (p. vi)

"[M]athematics contains randomness - or accidental, reasonless truths," Davies explains, "because a ... universal Turing machine [an idealized computer], may or may not halt in executing its program, and there is no systematic way to know in advance if a function is computable (i.e. the Turing machine will halt) or not." (p. viii)

But this limitation on what we can know or predict (known as Turing uncomputability) applies not just to mathematics and computers but also to scientific theories. On Chaitin's view, a scientific theory is like a computer program that predicts our observations (the experimental data).

Indeed, in the words of Paul Davies, " ... we may regard nature as an information processing system, and a law of physics as an algorithm that maps the input data (initial conditions) into output data (final state). Thus in some sense the universe is a gigantic computer, with the laws playing the role of universal software." (p. viii)

And if the laws of physics are computer algorithms, there will be randomness in the laws of physics stemming from Turing uncomputability. But, according to Davies, the randomness will, in reality, be "even more pronounced than that which flows from Turing uncomputability." (p. viii)

He points out that the real universe differs in a crucial respect from the concept of a Turing machine. "The latter is supposed to have infinite time at its disposal: there is no upper bound on the number of steps it may perform to execute its program. The only relevant issue is whether the program eventually halts or not, however long it takes. The machine is also permitted unlimited memory ... If these limitless resources are replaced by finite resources, however, an additional, fundamental, source of unknowability emerges. So if, following Chaitin, we treat the laws of physics as software running on the resource-limited hardware known as the observable universe, then these laws will embed a form of randomness, or uncertainty, or ambiguity, or fuzziness - call it what you will - arising from the finite informational processing capacity of the cosmos." (pp. viii-ix)

There are, it seems, different forms or levels or randomness. The 'mild' form which - as chaos theory shows - is implicit even in classical, deterministic physics; the pseudo-randomness which can be generated by simple computer algorithms; the well-known randomness inherent in quantum mechanics; and perhaps the deepest levels of all stemming from proven features of idealized computers (Turing machines) and from seeing the universe itself as a giant computer - one with specific limitations on its processing capacities.

These are difficult (and to some extent speculative) ideas. But I think they are worth pursuing and may even have profound implications for how we see ourselves and our world.

It is, of course, impossible to draw definitive political or metaphysical conclusions from them, but, if the ideas are sound, there will be such conclusions to draw.

Let me just mention two thoughts which come immediately to mind: Chaitin's and Davies' notions are utterly incompatible with any political ideology which attempts to predict, plan and control human affairs; and they also appear to undermine perspectives which incorporate notions of a providential force operating behind the scenes and impinging on natural processes, historical events and/or individual destinies. 

* Thinking about Gödel and Turing: essays on complexity, 1970-2007 (World Scientific, 2007).

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Lessons of the masters

The French expression, maître à penser, has no English equivalent. A 'thinking master' is what I have always wanted and never found. Perhaps wisdom is unstable and only exists fleetingly in an action here or a thought there. A strange thing, the desire for discipleship (to be a disciple - not to have them). It may reveal deep psychological flaws, but I think not. In my case it reflects simply a combination of a desire to know and a certain laziness. (Why should I do all the work?)

Some years ago, George Steiner gave a series of lectures (which became a book*) on the topic of masters and disciples. Most of the relationships he describes end badly, by the way, not unlike love affairs.

The lessons I have learned from my hoped-for masters have pretty well all been negative, and the thinkers I have flirted with have all been seriously flawed in one way or another. Arts and humanities-oriented writers and scholars are too often ignorant or (worse) scornful of scientific knowledge. Scientists and mathematicians, on the other hand, are often amazingly uncritical in non-scientific areas, and especially in social and political contexts.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that politics works as it does, catering to the lowest common denominator, that legislators lack vision or that government debt is spiraling out of control in so many jurisdictions.

But I continue to be amazed when intellectuals - as happens all too often - align themselves with religions or discredited ideologies - the desire for discipleship trumping the desire for truth.

* Lessons of the masters (Harvard University Press, 2003).

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

No sense of place

I have recently been reading some Patricia Highsmith novels* from the 1950s and 60s. Three communication media - the old-fashioned letter, the (usually local) newspaper and the telephone - all play very significant roles in these stories. (There is also the occasional telegram - or cable - and books also appear.)

Highsmith's characters spend a large proportion of their allotted pages planning and writing letters, posting letters, organizing the material for writing more letters, waiting for letters and speculating as to why no letter has come or, more rarely, receiving a letter and analysing the contents. The local newspaper is good for keeping track of whether the body has been found or what stage the police have reached in their investigation. And the telephone looms as large as in the movies of the period.

In their way, each of these media enhances the sense of place and/or the sense of distance from other places. Even the telephone signals the sense of distance by the involvement of an operator.

Patricia Highsmith's world may not be the real world of the 1950s and 1960s - it is a slightly claustrophobic and chilling distillation of reality - but it reflects important truths about the crucial role communication technologies play in weaving a cultural milieu and defining a locality.

As traditional letters disappear from the communication landscape, as print is replaced by digital devices, and the telephone operator is remembered only in the "Operator! Operator!" of old films and TV, we are inexorably losing our sense of place.

*The blunderer, This sweet sickness, Those who walk away and The tremor of forgery.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Normative shmormative

In the light of some recent discussions on this site (here and here), I thought it might be appropriate for me to make a short statement about my general attitude to science and philosophy. I am not as convinced as some of my interlocutors are about the coherence and value of philosophy as a discipline, but I know this is a personal thing, and I certainly don't presume to tell others what they should do or be interested in!

I tend to think historically, and I see a grand tradition of thinkers who were called philosophers, but many (most?) of the great names (e.g. Descartes, Leibniz) were also scientists and/or mathematicians. What is left of philosophy after all the sciences have been peeled off from it does not attract me - unless it can be reconnected in some way with the sciences. I am not unsympathetic to the Quinean view that philosophy of science is philosophy enough. But there are very different ways of seeing the philosophy of science.

As I have the view that philosophy is not an independent discipline, I tend to see any authority to set epistemic norms and make definite judgements on factual matters as residing within specific scientific traditions, and the role of philosophical thinking as essentially clarificatory; but also speculative in the sense that it may suggest new conjectures to be considered or new ways of conceptualizing or interpreting data.

From what I have said it may seem that my worldview is rather impoverished, but let me hasten to say that my view of the world embraces lots of non-scientific things (e.g. pleasure in language and literature). I see morality and manners as being of central importance, but I am reluctant to accept the need for experts in ethics and similar areas (except in limited pedagogical contexts).

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The unity of science

I have always disliked the idea that there is some kind of dividing line between the human sciences and the so-called 'hard sciences' like physics and chemistry. In the 1920s and 1930s the thinkers of the Vienna Circle pursued the 'unity of science' ideal, sensing in the division between the human and other sciences traces of a dualism of mind and matter.

But the unity of science project was strenuously resisted, and attempts (often rather crude) to apply the methods of quantitative science to human questions were - and still are - attacked as 'scientism'. Even the scientifically-minded thinker and  economist Friedrich von Hayek used the term 'scientism' to describe what he saw as misguided attempts to turn economics into a science like classical physics.

But (and I take my cue here from Nassim Nicholas Taleb) Hayek and others who maintain "a hard and qualitative distinction between the social sciences and physics" * are working with an outmoded notion of physics.

The 'hard sciences', we now know, go well beyond the traditional engineering-oriented mentality and the approaches of classical physics - they are far more complicated and shot through with predictive uncertainties (randomness) than was appreciated in the past.

So the idea of the unity of science is given a new lease of life as the nature of science (and reality) is better understood.

Furthermore, socialistic notions of central planning - once claimed to be 'scientific' - are clearly exposed as being based on an inadequate view of science; while the conservative's traditional skepticism about government action and awareness of the dangers of unintended consequences is given (rather belated) scientific support and vindication.

* The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable (Penguin, 2008), p. 181.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Head-hijacking Martians

A reviewer wrote in the Daily Telegraph that Nassim Nicholas Taleb "is an eclectic scholar and a rude man." Yes and yes. He is also provocative, intelligent and informed. (Some other adjectives and epithets appear in the comments section of my previous post.)

Here is Taleb's description of a (typical?) philosophy colloquium [The black swan (Penguin, 2008), p.289]:


A number of semishabbily dressed (but thoughtful-looking) people gather in a room, silently looking at a guest speaker. They are all professional philosophers attending the prestigious weekly colloquium at a New York-area university. The speaker sits with his nose drowned in a set of typewritten pages, from which he reads in a monotone voice. He is hard to follow, so I daydream a bit and lose his thread. I can vaguely tell that the discussion revolves around some "philosophical" debate about Martians invading your head and controlling your will, all the while preventing you from knowing it. There seem to be several theories concerning this idea, but the speaker's opinion differs from those of other writers on the subject. He spends some time showing where his research on these head-hijacking Martians is unique. After his monologue (fifty-five minutes of relentless reading of the typewritten material) there is a short break, then another fifty-five minutes of discussion about Martians planting chips and other outlandish conjectures. Wittgenstein is occasionally mentioned (you can always mention Wittgenstein since he is vague enough to always seem relevant)."

Taleb proceeds then to be very rude to those philosophers "whose curiosity is focused on regimented on-the-shelf topics" and whose critical faculties are "domain dependent." In other words they fail to apply their skeptical methods beyond their philosophical work. For instance, they might blindly believe in the abilities of their pension plan managers.

"Beyond this, they may believe without question that we can predict societal events ... that politicians know more about what is going on than their drivers, that the chairman of the Federal Reserve saved the economy, and so many such things. They may also believe that nationality matters (they always stick "French," "German," or "American" in front of a philosopher's name, as if this has something to do with anything he has to say)."

If Taleb is hard on philosophers, it is not because he doubts the importance of philosophy but precisely because he believes in its importance. "Philosophers," he writes, are "the watchdogs of critical thinking" and "have duties beyond those of other professions."

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Of mice and men

Last night, as I was walking on a footpath by the river, I felt something softish roll under my left heel. It was a juvenile mouse (or some such rodent) which had fatally mistimed its dash across the path. It was still breathing, its body apparently split, with yellow stuff coming out. I didn't have the stomach to put it out of its misery and gingerly pushed it aside with the toe of my shoe and walked on.

Later in the evening, I chanced upon this passage, this cri de coeur, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, with the section heading, "The world is unfair":

"Is the world that unfair? I have spent my entire life studying randomness, practicing randomness, hating randomness. The more that time passes, the worse things seem to me, the more scared I get, the more disgusted I am with Mother Nature. The more I think about my subject, the more I see evidence that the world we have in our minds is different from the one playing outside. Every morning the world appears to me more random than it did the day before, and humans seem to be even more fooled by it than they were the previous day. It is becoming unbearable. I find writing these lines painful; I find the world revolting." *

*The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable (Penguin, 2008), p.215.

[Something lighter next time. I promise!]

Monday, October 11, 2010

Fake wisdom

"Half the time," writes Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The black swan*, " I am hyperconservative in the conduct of my own affairs; the other half I am hyperaggressive. This may not seem exceptional, except that my conservatism applies to what others call risk taking, and my aggressivenes to areas where others recommend caution."

For example, on the stock market, 'safe' blue chip stocks present invisible (and potentially terminal) risks, whereas speculative stocks "offer no surprises since you know how volatile they are and can limit your downside by investing smaller amounts."

There might be some wisdom in this - it is the theme of the book. But this, which follows on the next page, is, I think, more dubious.

"I once received [a] piece of life-changing advice, which ... I find applicable, wise, and empirically valid. My classmate in Paris, the novelist-to-be Jean-Olivier Tedesco, pronounced, as he prevented me from running to catch a subway, "I don't run for trains."

Taleb continues: "I have taught myself to resist running to keep on schedule. This may seem a very small piece of advice, but it registered. In refusing to run to catch trains, I have felt the true value of elegance and aesthetics in behavior, a sense of being in control of my time, my schedule, and my life. Missing a train is only painful if you run after it! Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that's what you are seeking."

The last sentence is good. It makes sense. But my advice on the other matter (for what it's worth) is to run fast and catch the train. (And, more generally, to be wary of anyone who speaks in parables.)

*The black swan: the impact of the highly improbable. (Penguin 2008). Quotations from pages 295, 296 and 297.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The randomness at the heart of reality

Is reality ultimately based on randomness? How one answers this question ultimately colors one's outlook (I suggest) in deep and subtle ways. Of course, there are many ways one could approach the issue and there are ambiguities in the question itself. But I am drawn to such questions as this (as a moth to a flame?) and, since I read and think about them, I might as well write about them here from time to time.

Here, then, are a few notes about Vlatko Vedral's view of the issue ...

Vedral draws a distinction between "classical superficial randomness" (e.g. coin tosses) and "quantum fundamental randomness" (see Decoding reality (OUP, 2010), p.163). Randomness approximates to unpredictability and much in our world appears random because it is impossible to predict in practice even if in theory one could do so using the methods of classical physics (if one had all the relevant data etc.). But the quantum world is different. No prediction can be made (even in theory) of certain quantum events. Quantum theory embraces randomness, and sees some quantum phenomena as random in a fundamental sense.*

We can think of scientific theories, Vedral writes (p. 166), as computer programs "with the output being the result of whatever experiment we are trying to model. We say that our theory is powerful, if we can compress all sorts of observations into very few equations."

But any theory will be finite and will (as Gregory Chaitin first fully realized within information theory) only produce a finite set of results. "In other words, there will be many experimental outcomes that could not be compressed within the theory. And this effectively implies that they are random." (p. 167)

Is the randomness in quantum theory due to the theory's incompleteness - our lack of knowledge of a more detailed deterministic underlying theory - as some people think? Or is "randomness inherent in the Universe, and therefore ... [an essential] part of any physical description of reality? Randomness could simply be there because our description of reality is always .... finite and anything requiring more information than that would appear to be random (since our description could not predict it)." (p. 167-168)

Vedral states what he sees as a "very profound conclusion" that this view implies: "that randomness in quantum physics is far from unexpected - in fact according to this logic it is actually essential. Furthermore, it would mean that whatever theory - if any - superseded quantum physics, it would still have to contain some random features." (p. 168)

To me it matters (or seems to matter) whether or not randomness is at the heart of things. Does it matter to you?

* I have revised this passage slightly in response to a comment.

Friday, October 1, 2010

A model of restraint

Moralizing is a perilous business. It's all too easy to convey not just a moral point, but a sense of moral superiority or self-righteousness also. Perhaps I'm oversensitive to these things and see smugness where there is none, but I do react negatively to most moralizers, especially (for some reason) when they happen to be philosophy professors. (Peter Singer comes to mind.)

I was reminded of these issues when I read a recent article by Kwame Anthony Appiah. Any response that I might make would tend to sarcasm. By contrast, Norman Geras remains dispassionate. His critique of Appiah's article is a model of conciseness, clarity and restraint.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Don't rock the boat

The chapter on 'social informatics' in Vlatko Vedral's Decoding reality (OUP, 2010) is an odd mixture of jargon and platitude. The attempt to apply basic principles of physics and information theory to the social world is not very convincing (and in fact doesn't do justice to important work, by economists especially).

Here is part of his lame conclusion: "Some sociologists are optimistic that the information age will lead to a fairer society that will improve everyone's living conditions, as well as narrowing the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Others are rather pessimistic, claiming that the new age will bring an abrupt end, a kind of phase transition, to present society (through all sorts of mechanisms such as increased crime due to the breakdown of families, global terrorism, global warming, and so on)." (p.108)

The notion of phase transition is nonetheless of some interest. In physics, phase transitions - radical changes in the way elements of the system in question interact - occur only in certain circumstances. In one dimensional systems (where there is limited scope for interaction) phase transitions are impossible. There are no general phase transitions in two dimensional systems either, though there is a particular arrangement which does allow a phase transition to occur. Generally, however, phase transitions only occur in three dimensional systems which allow more complex interactions. The classic example involves interacting H2O molecules: ice becomes water, water becomes vapor.

In the distant past, human societies were very local in nature. "One tribe exists here, another over there, but with very little communication between them. Even towards the end of the nineteenth century, transfer of ideas and communication in general were still very slow. So for a long time humans have lived in societies where communication was very short range. And, in physics, this would mean that abrupt changes are impossible. Societies have other complexities, so I would say that 'fundamental change is unlikely' rather than 'impossible'." (p. 104)

New technologies have changed all this. Now " ... we can learn from and communicate with virtually anyone in the world ... Increasingly ... we are approaching the stage where everyone can and does interact with everyone else. And this is exactly when phase transitions become increasingly likely."

But, of course, the nature of any phase transition is unpredictable, So Vedral ends the chapter with the vague comments on optimistic and pessimistic scenarios quoted above, and the observation that "[i]n a more interconnected society we are more susceptible to sudden changes" and so "we had better improve the speed of our decision making." And maybe the quality?

I can't resist quoting the final lines of this chapter in which he previews the next section of the book. " ... In order to understand the ultimate origins of information we need to take an exciting voyage of discovery. And this will take us into the realms of quantum mechanics, the true nature of randomness, whether teleportation is possible, and the question of free will and determinism. It's going to be a rocky boat, so hold on tight!"

Rocky boat?

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Rewriting history

Back in May I wrote a little piece called 'Out of my comfort zone' in which I touched on some ideas on the nature of the universe put forward by Seth Lloyd and - more recently - by Vlatko Vedral. Vedral's book, Decoding reality: the universe as a quantum computer (Oxford University Press) came out earlier this year.

In his review in New Scientist (there is a pay wall, so I can't give the link) Lloyd praises the book but also shows irritation that Vedral did not even mention Lloyd's book of several years ago on the same theme (Programming the universe). Lloyd also points out a mathematical howler which, as he saw it, was surprising in a leading researcher.

What jumped out at me in Vedral's book was an amazingly slipshod paragraph about Nietzsche which reflects badly both on the author and on Oxford University Press. It helps confirm my suspicion that books have become commodities - objects for sale - and the quality of the content is secondary. Scholarly values are out the window. (Vedral boasts of his 'streetwise' style; more worrying is the sense that he feels that historical truth doesn't matter.)

According to Vedral, Nietzsche " ... based the whole of his philosophy on the premise that physics implies that life is ultimately pointless, as eventually it must become extinct. The idea of absolute progress (the idea of progress to the point of perfection) must therefore ultimately be an illusion, in direct contrast to the ideas underpinning the evolution of life. Nietzsche thought that this conclusion is so difficult to live with that he needed to introduce the concept  of a 'superhuman' - an improved version of the human, able to come to terms with the fact that life cannot achieve absolute progress. Nietzsche, sadly, did not himself have the key attributes of his superhuman - he spent the last 11 years of his life in a lunatic asylum unable to deal with life, disillusioned and alone." (p.60)

Readers who know more about Nietzsche than I do can draw their own conclusions. I simply point out that the German thinker believed in an 'eternal return' - that life would ultimately repeat itself (in fact a scarier idea than extinction!). Also, he had an organic brain disease - he wasn't made insane by his philosophy; and he was looked after by his family after his breakdown, so did not spend the time in an asylum, and nor was he alone. He was so far gone after his breakdown that he could hardly be called 'disillusioned'.

These may be deemed unimportant errors, but they are symptomatic of an unfortunate attitude. It's a pity, because the book is worth reading. It is serving to crystallize some of my ideas, and I'll have more to say about it later.

Friday, September 17, 2010

In praise of the conservative consumer

Much social science is pseudo-science and the proportion of dodgy research is particularly high in business-related areas. Nonetheless, it's interesting to see the concept of conservatism featuring in a recent model of consumer behavior devised by researcher Ross Honeywill. According to a profile by Lucinda Schmidt, Honeywill sees the recent global financial crisis (or 'the great recession') as less significant a turning point than something that occurred about 20 years ago: the advent of a new economic order, and the rise of a new kind of consumer (the 'NEO').

"NEOs are constant consumers: confident, individualistic, creative, free-thinking and socially progressive. Many are under 40, university-educated, self-employed and buy for quality not price.

The other type, 'traditionals', are more comfortable in a structured environment, often have conservative social values and are driven by price and getting the best deal.

Consumers come from these two planets ... The distinction is not between those who have money and those who don't; there are wealthy traditionals and poor NEOs."

The key difference is in the attitude to spending: 'traditionals' are unnerved by uncertainty and have disappeared from the consumer landscape in the US.

Honeywill makes the point that a recovery will only occur when the 'traditionals' start spending again. This may well be, but I can't help feeling that the behavior of the so-called 'traditionals' seems both more rational and more sustainable than that of the NEOs.

In fact this 'socially progressive' new style of consumer who buys for quality might be seen to be behind the massive build-up of debt which caused our current economic troubles. Moreover, the 'constant consumer' will inevitably define life in terms of consumption, and quality of life in terms of product quality.

Traditional modes of operation - based on setting one's own goals and living within one's means - are not only more sustainable but more conducive to a larger - and ultimately freer - view of life.

Friday, September 10, 2010

English Jewish surnames

[Revised July 2011. See also 'English Jewish surnames revisited', March 2012.]

My late father had a special interest in Jewish history and a very positive attitude towards Jews - unlike his brother who was in this regard something of an 'evil twin' whose belief in an international Jewish conspiracy was unshakable.

My paternal grandparents and great-grandparents were either Roman Catholics or members of the Church of England and there was no suggestion of any awareness of Jewish ancestry. But, oddly, virtually all my father's friends were either Jewish (surnames: Pittman, Babel, Mossenson ...) or had surnames which are often indicative of Jewish ancestry (Miller, Bloomfield, Rees ...).

Even his barber was Jewish (of German origin) and, when Dad retired due to ill health, the hairdresser (whose shop was near his office) gave him a card with a touching note in which he referred to himself as my father's "devoted Freund."

I never talked to my father about these matters as I only began to take an interest in them after his death. Was he aware of the possibility of Jewish ancestry? I doubt it. Did his Jewish friends suspect that his family was Jewish or part Jewish? This is possible. In an early photograph my rather anti-Semitic uncle bears an uncanny resemblance to Franz Kafka!

In fact there are some surnames in my family tree - mainly on my father's side - which could indicate Jewish origins. Beck, Fisher and Langman seem the most likely.

English names have been adopted by Jewish immigrants over the centuries. The migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries are well known. Earlier waves of Jewish immigration are less well documented. Many descendants of Sephardi Jews from the Iberian peninsula settled in the British Isles in the 16th and 17th centuries and gradually assimilated into the Christian mainstream.

Some names are more likely than others to be associated with the possibility of Sephardi or other Jewish origins. Amongst the names of my forebears I am looking at in this regard - apart from the names mentioned above - are Davis, Lester, Harris, Michell, and also English, Pember, Russell, Sturgeon and Ward.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Ten ways of being conservative

  • Politically. The current system is a shambles but, if we mess with it too much, we are liable to end up with something even worse.
  • Fiscally. Though debt has a crucial role to play in modern economies, over-indebtedness - especially on the part of governments - is threatening future prosperity. Fiscal conservatism should be less contentious than other forms of conservatism, as it is based on simple rationality and prudence rather than on subjective feelings or convictions.
  • Socially. Traditional ways of relating and communicating have proved their effectiveness. They are also to be preferred on aesthetic grounds.
  • Religiously. Religious fashions (like happy clappy Christianity) are anathema. Like social conservatism but with a metaphysical dimension.
  • Scientifically. Mainstream scientific opinion is taken seriously as a provisional best guess.
  • Artistically. Varies of course with the art and the context. The conservative likes (some) old art not because it is old but because it is good. Anything showy or meretricious is rejected. A painter like Mondrian, I would say, is deeply conservative.
  • Sartorially. There are fashions and fashions. The sartorial conservative takes heed of the slow underlying fashions and ignores the fads.
  • Gustatorily. Adventurous eating is seen as not only unnecessary and potentially wasteful, but as suspect - perhaps indicative of an empty mind (or worse). Ludwig Wittgenstein, in this as in so many other aspects of his life, combined conservatism with its opposite. He didn't mind what he was given for dinner so long as it was always the same.
  • Alcoholically. The right drink at the right time.
  • Sexually. Let's face it, sex and conservatism have been and always will be in an awkward relationship. Uneasy bedfellows?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Were Wittgenstein's antics catching?

A friend sent me this link which features a picture of the philosopher Karl Popper clutching his head. The description of the head-clutching (plus) Wittgenstein in my post of last month ('The showmanship of Ludwig Wittgenstein') was taken from the book Wittgenstein's poker which is about the notorious debate between LW and Karl Popper at which LW was supposed to have threatened Popper with a poker. Ah, those were the days...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The 'internal self' is a fiction. So what?

What might be the practical implications of the view of the self put forward in some of my recent posts, notably "Nietzsche on the 'self'"? Here are a few thoughts.

If one realizes that one has been treating as something real the internal 'self' or 'I' which is in fact a fiction, then one's view of who one is will change in subtle - but possibly significant - ways.

It may provide a way of dealing with death. The body dies, but arguably it is the 'internal self' we are more concerned with. And if it is only an illusion, what is there to mourn (apart from the loss of the body)?

There will be implications also for the moral sense, as the old idea of the freely willing agent - the traditional notion of the conscience - might be called into question. This is too large an issue to address here, but, briefly, my view is that we certainly have a sense of being able to choose from a large array of imagined possible actions - and in a sense we do freely choose. The problem that philosophers have addressed is to define precisely how free choice is to be understood so that it does not depend on an 'internal', immaterial self. I suspect, however, that, as the notion of the internal self is superseded in everyday thinking, the philosophical problem of human freedom will no longer seem to be a problem.

One other implication of the new view of the self is that the atomistic individualism which lies behind much political thinking comes to seem quite unrealistic and false. For there is no spiritual core to define the individual. Rather the individual is a product of society. Language is social and is a key element in an individual's identity; likewise other cultural elements and social relations of all kinds. A new-born baby only gradually becomes a human individual as it interacts with and internalizes elements of its social, cultural and linguistic environment.

It is a truism that we are social beings - but the Christian-Platonic notion of the soul and then its secular equivalent led Europeans for hundreds of years to underplay the social dimension. And current notions of political freedom, human rights and equality could be seen to derive from this discredited tradition.

Believing in a social self does not entail a collectivist social ideal, however, and certainly not an egalitarian one. Collectivism is not incompatible with the view that the 'internal self' does not exist, but then nor is the traditional conservative ideal of an organic society based on multiple institutions and complex hierarchical relationships.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Intelligent behavior

The mark of intelligence is active learning - changing behavior in response to circumstances and past successes and failures. In his remarkable and largely forgotten book The concept of mind (1949), Gilbert Ryle distinguishes between a passive approach of 'satisfying criteria' (or following rules blindly) and an active one of 'applying criteria' (which involves making choices about when to apply which criteria, that is, continually modifying the rules one lives by).

Ryle writes: "To be intelligent is not merely to satisfy criteria, but to apply them; to regulate one's actions and not merely to be well-regulated. A person's performance is described as careful or skillful, if in his operations he is ready to detect and correct lapses, to repeat and improve upon successes, to profit from the examples of others and so forth. He applies criteria in performing critically, that is, in trying to get things right."

Ryle's work is difficult to categorize. It is not scientific psychology, but nor is it anti-scientific. It is concerned with the basic logic of psychological explanations. He called the area in which he worked 'philosophical psychology'.

As Jason Streitfeld points out, Ryle challenges "what he calls 'the dogma of the ghost in the machine,' the tradition of Cartesian dualism which says that minds and bodies are distinct entities, each with their own causal properties. Ryle says this is a category error. When we speak of minds, we are not speaking of states, entities, or events. The language we use to talk about minds employs a logic of dispositions, and not simply of occurrences. Rather than think of the mind as a particular place or thing, Ryle asks us to imagine it as a complex set of abilities, capacities, skills, and so on ...

... Ryle's argument is not that we do not have private thoughts, or that we do not imagine, think, or feel. He does not ignore the richness and potency of experience. Rather, he says that the marks of the mental are not intrinsically private. Sometimes they are public, such as when we speak or write, or otherwise perform publicly. Thoughts are only sometimes private, and then only by convention or circumstance. Furthermore, such private acts do not confer intelligence to outward, public acts. Ryle's insight is this:- Intelligent behavior is not the product of intelligence - it is intelligence itself."

Monday, August 16, 2010

Nietzsche on the 'self'

Martin and Barresi (see my post 'The ghost in the machine') draw attention to Nietzsche's brilliance in seeing so clearly and so early (his final mental breakdown occurred in January 1889) the questionable nature of the self. (The quotes are from pages 194 and 195.)

'Nietzsche is famous for having proclaimed that the rise of Enlightenment secularism meant that "God is dead." He is virtually unknown for having uncovered, in his personal reflections, the perhaps deeper truth that the self is dead ...

"Everything that enters consciousness as 'unity'," he said, "is already tremendously complex." Rather than unity of consciousness, we have "only a semblance of Unity." To explain this semblance, rather than a single subject [or 'I'], we could do as well by postulating "a multiplicity of subjects [or 'I's], whose interaction and struggle is the basis of our thought and consciousness in general." We do not have any reason to believe that there is a dominant subject overseeing this multiplicity. "The subject [or 'I'] is multiplicity." '

(This view, by the way, is in accord with my understanding of the best recent neuroscientific theories.)

'Nietzsche concluded,' write Martin and Barresi, 'that we have been victimized by our language, that is, by "our bad habit ... of taking a mnemonic, and abbreviative formula, to be an entity, finally as a cause, e.g., to say of lightning "it flashes." Or the little word "I." To make a kind of perspective in seeing the cause of seeing: that was what happened in the invention of the "subject," the "I"!" '

In other words, Nietzsche is saying that we have bought into the fiction of thinking that if there is a flashing, then there is a 'something' - an 'it' - that flashes; and if there is seeing, there is a 'something' - an 'I' - that sees. But this 'thing' that does the flashing does not exist - lightning is an electrical phenomenon in the atmosphere; and likewise the thing that does the seeing is not an internal agent, the 'I', but the physical organism (comprising eyes and brain, etc.).

So the "I" - or self - is neither a single thing, nor an agent (it does not do anything). Is it a fiction?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Man on a mission

I was walking the other night along a riverside promenade in the middle of the city of Melbourne, Australia, where street artists, on hands and knees, draw large chalk or crayon versions of Renaissance masterpieces on the pavement. I saw ahead of me a group of drunken young men who were waylaying passers-by and forcing them to admire and contribute to the retirement plan of an embarrassed artist. So I walked a bit faster and studiously avoided eye contact.

As I slipped past I heard one of the men say to one of the others who was going after me: "Leave him. He's on a mission."

Friday, August 6, 2010

The ghost in the machine

I have been reading The rise and fall of the soul and self: an intellectual history of personal identity by Raymond Martin and John Barresi (Columbia UP, 2006). The basic theme is that just as the idea of the soul has disappeared from scientific explanations of behavior (and from most people's thinking) so the idea of the self (which replaced the soul) is now being questioned if not rejected.

Much of the book, especially the later chapters, focuses on scientific research but philosophical approaches are also covered extensively. One thing that strikes me is the extent to which 20th century psychology was unscientific insofar as many theories and  approaches clearly serve as vehicles for individual (value-laden) points of view rather than contributing to a gradual increase in understanding (as truly scientific work tends to do). I was impressed at how well the Anglo-American analytic philosophical tradition seemed to stand up when compared with certain branches of psychology, and with much continental philosophy.

The gulf between the Anglo-American and continental styles of philosophy is brought out in an anecdote featuring the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle:

'...Ryle attacked not only the Cartesian idea of a self distinct from the body - "the ghost in the machine" - but the very idea of an inner life. In The Concept of Mind (1949), he argued that all meaningful talk of mental episodes - "twitches, itches, and twangs," even a person's being angry - was not about anything private to a person's interior life but about bodily "dispositions to behave."

In  the 1950s and 1960s, in England, ordinary-language philosophy, whose hallmark was to deny the inner life, came into full bloom. Meanwhile, on the continent, phenomenology, whose focus was the examination of inner life, was gathering steam. There was little love lost between the proponents of the two approaches. At a conference, the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in a conciliatory gesture, remarked to Ryle, "But are we not doing the same thing?" Ryle responded, "I hope not!" ' (p.244)

Saturday, July 31, 2010

The showmanship of Ludwig Wittgenstein

Here is a description of some of Wittgenstein's typical antics (based on an account given by Peter Munz of a famous 1946 seminar and taken from the book Wittgenstein's Poker by David Edmonds and John Eidinow):

'[Wittgenstein] wrestles visibly with his ideas, holding his head in his hands, occasionally throwing out staccato remarks, as though each word were as painful as plucking thorns, and muttering, "God I am stupid today" or shouting "Damn my bloody soul! ... Help me someone!" '

Now here is a scene from the story 'The secret garden' by G.K. Chesterton (published as the second story in The Innocence of Father Brown in 1911, three years after Wittgenstein's first arrival in England):

'... Father Brown, who had sprung swiftly to his feet, [...] was holding his temples tight like a man in sudden and violent pain.

"Stop, stop, stop!" he cried; "stop talking a minute, for I see half. Will God give me strength? Will my brain make the one jump and see all? Heaven help me! I used to be fairly good at thinking... Will my head split - or will it see? I see half - I only see half."

He buried his head in his hands, and stood in a sort of rigid torture of thought or prayer ...'

In 1936 Wittgenstein tried to distance himself from the Father Brown stories (which had been recommended to him): '... Wittgenstein turned up his nose. "Oh no, I couldn't stand the idea of a Roman Catholic priest playing the part of a detective. I don't want that." '

And yet it seems that Wittgenstein, in playing the part of a philosopher, had himself been mimicking that fictional Roman Catholic priest playing the part of a detective!

Monday, July 26, 2010

Early influences

I would like to highlight a point I made in a comment attached to my previous post - namely that if an individual's political (or for that matter religious or philosophical) views are affected by basic character and personality traits, and if such traits are in part determined by genetic factors and/or by very early experiences, then an individual's views will be less a product of mature reason and analysis than is generally assumed. Consequently, we should be more skeptical of our own convictions.

Recent work in developmental psychology has showed convincingly that - and to some extent how - the sense of self arises from social interaction, but basic personality traits seem to have a strong genetic foundation. This is brought out by the controversy about the influence of birth order. Some (very cursory) reading has led me to the provisional conclusion that the 'first-borns tend to be more conservative' idea is indeed true, but only within (not between) families. Within families first-borns score higher on conservatism, conscientiousness and achievement orientation, later-borns on rebelliousness, openness and agreeableness. The results only work within families because genetic effects are stronger than birth-order effects. The birth-order effect is real but weak.

It is of course intuitively plausible that first-borns might favor the status quo insofar as they often bask in the undivided attention of their parents until the dreaded sibling comes along to drive them out of this childhood paradise.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Little Hitler

Two young women - sisters - chatting in the kitchen of a suburban house. One sister - the visitor - unscrews the lid of a jar of boiled candies and helps herself to one or two.

A little boy, about three years old, wanders into the kitchen, his eyes fixed on the open jar. The candies were his and he had a strict, self-imposed regime of two per day.

"No more lids are to be taken off in this house!" he thunders.

The sisters laugh.

"And there is to be no more laughing in this house!" he orders.

The sisters laugh uncontrollably.


The child was me, and the incident raises the issue of the early formation of psychological characteristics, and also the link with an eventual social philosophy.

It is generally accepted that a person's basic character traits are determined within the first couple of years of life. And clearly one's personality and character affect one's views of social arrangements and ultimately one's (implicit or explicit) social philosophy.

A conservative tendency? The incident suggests - let's be honest - a leaning towards something a little closer to fascism!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Work and play

I'm interested in what people would continue to do if they were no longer paid for doing it. Obviously, there is a large class of not particularly enjoyable jobs which are necessary for the effective functioning of society. And there is a class of activities - like games - which are not necessary in a practical sense but which people engage in just for fun. The interesting areas are between these extremes.

Of course, a lot of people enjoy their paid work, but part of that enjoyment usually derives from the status and the money that it brings, and I suspect that, even if they could afford it, few professionals would continue to work if all the work was pro bono!

My brother is a professional actor, and he will occasionally help out with a student film, or do something he considers worthwhile on the stage for a pittance. But his identity as an actor is dependent on properly paid work.

Journalism is an interesting case. Bloggers generally blog for no financial reward and a fair percentage of the material is professional standard. Obviously, the intrinsic rewards of writing and research (if it is being read and/or utilized) are sufficient to keep these sorts of activities going.

Another interesting area is academic research in the humanities. I know a university professor who spent years (on and off) as part of a team translating Proclus (a 5th-century neo-Platonist with some pretty crazy ideas) into English, which was good for his career - but would he have done it if it did not enhance (albeit indirectly) his pay packet? I doubt it - but I may be wrong. I know of other, older scholars who will happily take their labors of love into retirement.

Despite the exceptional cases, funding matters - in the arts, in social areas and in science. Many - most? - areas of the arts and the humanities would wither away without financial support. Individual initiatives could never replace social spending by government and large private organizations*. And most areas of science depend on a combination of government and commercial support to maintain critical mass.

The hard truth is that much of the support that these activities depended on in the past can no longer be relied on.

There are humanitarian issues at stake here (I would place them above the arts and pure science in importance), and many will suffer.

However, in areas in which human suffering is not at issue, the process may be bracing to watch. A giant social experiment is in train which will determine which (intrinsically valuable) human activities will remain live options into the future.

*Spending by government on social welfare and similar programs can, of course, have adverse consequences. However, I am making the (relatively uncontroversial) assumption here that governments do have a legitimate role in providing a safety net for those in need.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Left, left, left right left

It has recently been pointed out to me that my conversation is full of references to "the left" and "the right" (and this blog tends to reflect my conversational habits). I think the observation carried an implicit criticism (about my tendency to think in terms of simple, adversarial dichotomies?), and I might just give a few initial reflections here on the matter.

First of all, I realize that an individual's political and social views are very complex and cannot be reduced to a position on a one-dimensional (or even multi-dimensional) scale. I have used the word "conservative" to label my general position, but it is a word which is sufficiently flexible to cover a range of perspectives in a range of areas (not just politics).

I had a friend who was raised in China in the 1970s (the daughter of a general, in fact), and she was in a deep sense a conservative, though she was not interested in Western politics. She was educated in Confucian values and classical Chinese literature by her maternal grandmother, who had been a concubine, and yet she was also deeply affected by Maoist Communist ideas.

The point I'm making is that I know there is no simple left/right dichotomy. I am interested in how people think and form their values, and, if I tend to identify with "one side" of politics, I am not totally sure of my position and I remain respectful towards and sometimes fascinated by those with views very different from my own.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Racism and the right

Talk about 'ethnic differences' and attitudes thereto is usually conducted, in educated circles at least, in a very constrained and politically correct manner. No wonder. A word out of place - or the wrong word - can destroy a career.

This situation is unfortunate because there will always be those who - feeling that they have nothing to lose - are only too ready to fill the vacuum with ugly words and ugly deeds.

On the basis of evident racism in elements of the far right, the left tends (incorrectly) to see anyone right of centre as suspect in this regard. I think I am correct in saying that the left particularly prides itself on not being racist (whatever that means exactly [see below]) and sees this as a key point of differentiation and self-definition. So if racist ideas can be imputed to conservatives, this serves to sharpen the left's self-identity.

Racism becomes politicized - which means it is ever more difficult to deal with the deep and complex problems associated with ethnic tensions, and ever more difficult to discuss these issues sensibly.

In fact the words 'racism' and 'racist' have become rhetorical hand grenades without any clear meaning. Sure, racially-motivated violence, racially derogatory language and certain forms of discrimination can be seen clearly to be racist. But even those who merely interpret data garnered from cognitive and other testing of various populations as indicating significant statistical differences between those populations with respect to specific abilities may be accused of racism.

These implicit constraints on free inquiry and free speech only serve to create resentment and cynicism.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Invitation to participate

Casual visitors are invited to register on the followers gadget - I would like to encourage more traffic and interaction on the site.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Radicals of the left

I have a cousinly connection with a family, an exceptional family for whom I have affection and respect, who are seriously left-wing - the father in a quiet, intellectual, old-fashioned English Marxist sort of way, the children creating their own variations on the theme (e.g. syndicalism).

These may be dead issues for most of us, but I suspect that in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis and with hard times in prospect, many on the left have high hopes for a new order emerging, with the likes of Hugo Chavez showing the way.

Comparisons with the old pro-Soviet Marxists may be inappropriate, but there is a similar tendency perhaps to ignore the faults of any system which aspires to do great things for the downtrodden.

Leszek Kolakowski* had some interesting thoughts on what motivated European Marxists who implicitly or explicitly supported Moscow during the last phases of Stalinism:

"The intellectuals ... while they embraced Marxism and Communism as a universal doctrine, were well aware that the movement was wholly governed by Moscow and subordinated to Soviet political aims. They supported it nevertheless, and uncritically rejected all information ... that threw light on the true nature of the Soviet system ... Any who entertained doubts of the perfection of the Soviet system told themselves that 'after all' Communism was the only ... bulwark against Fascism, and must therefore be accepted a hundred per cent. The psychological motives of this voluntary self-deception were various. Among them were a desperate need to believe that someone in the world embodied the age-old human dream of universal human brotherhood; ... contempt for the democratic 'establishment' ... ; the ambition to be on the crest of the wave of history, in other words on the winning side; the cult of force to which intellectuals are especially prone. Desiring ... to be on the same side of the barricade as the deprived and the persecuted of this world, the Communist intellectuals became prophets of the most oppressive political system then existing... "

The new order of Hugo Chavez and his friends may rival the USSR in its totalitarian aspirations if not in its scope and effectiveness.

*Main currents of Marxism (W.W. Norton, 2005), pp.932-3

Monday, June 21, 2010

Out of my comfort zone

Further to my recent post on intellectual curiosity... (This is where it takes me sometimes.)

There is a very commonly held view that each era's key technology tends to be incorporated into cosmological and other explanations (e.g. the mechanistic, 'clockwork' universe of the 17th and 18th centuries). Supposedly, we project our technology onto reality and mistake a mere metaphor for reality.

So what of recent attempts to explain the ultimate workings of the universe in terms either of a classical computer/computation, or, more recently, in terms of quantum computation?

Seth Lloyd, who works in the area of quantum computing, wrote a little book four years ago called Programming the universe. Lloyd claims that the universe is a quantum computer and we (and everything in it) are the computation. If this is true, then we are very privileged to be the first humans to have (half?) understood some very profound things about reality.

Lloyd recently reviewed in New Scientist a new book by Vlatko Vedral (Decoding reality) which makes the same claim and is clearly annoyed that Vedral does not acknowledge his book.

These issues are extremely complex and all I mean to do for the moment is to raise them. In my private reading I'll be following them up and I will report my progress (if any) from time to time. But I won't be writing on this sort of thing very often - others can do it better.

As things stand I am impressed with the view that information is a fundamental concept of physics, more fundamental even than the concepts of matter and energy. And if information is physical, then Seth Lloyd's arguments must be taken seriously.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Intellectual curiosity

I think a lot of people are frightened off trying to understand important aspects of the world by the unfortunate culture of science and especially mathematics which tends to be competitive and exclusive, valuing virtuosity above understanding. So those who had a bad experience of mathematics and science at school often tend to restrict their intellectual curiosity to areas within their comfort zones. The trouble is, one can't really have a good understanding of the natural world and our place within it without some mathematics and basic science - or at least a willingness to be introduced to some basic concepts.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that people with no knowledge of science and mathematics can't have a deep and subtle understanding of the social world - the immensely complex world of human drama and pathos and striving and failing and loving and hating. Of course they can and do, and this is arguably the most important reality. In fact, the mathematically inclined are often socially blind.

Nonetheless I think it's good to be open to all aspects of reality. I once studied - and found wanting - a mid-17th century poet who, despite his prodigious learning and cleverness, was entirely ignorant of the discoveries that Galileo had made 40 years earlier when he turned his telescope on the night sky and helped to confirm the Copernican (sun-centered) view of the solar system.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Being and blogging

In my last post I briefly discussed the desire for a general explanation of the world in terms of purpose that some people feel. There is another, related, question which has bothered me from time to time - and bothered Martin Heidegger virtually all his life: why is there something rather than nothing? Heidegger thought that the pre-Socratic Greeks had some kind of insight on the question of Being which they failed to do full justice to and which he sought to revisit and bring to light. Science, as Heidegger saw it, is concerned with things which exist, not with existence (or Being) itself.

But can one make any progress on such questions simply by meditating on them? (It's doubtful Heidegger did.) Indeed, is 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' a genuine question? If it is, it seems to me that science, broadly conceived so as to include the philosophy of mathematics and logic, could conceivably throw some light on it.

But, as things stand, the question operates as a rhetorical device to encourage a sense of wonder simply that one (and the world) exists. This is no bad thing, and something of an antidote to the hyperactive pursuit of happiness by endless diversion which characterizes contemporary culture.

A final thought. The question 'Why is there something rather than nothing?' implies that nothingness/blankness is somehow more likely than (or prior to) a world full of things and activity. Is such an assumption justified? Could this be a scholar's question? (I don't recall Homer - based on an oral tradition - addressing it.)

Could the question ultimately derive then not from metaphysical insight but simply from the scholar's primal experience of the blank page - which must be filled? If so, it should also resonate with bloggers, for whom the experience of the blank NEW POST screen is both slightly scary and addictive.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Explanation required?

There is an old story about a London taxi-driver who recognized the poet T.S. Eliot. "I've got an eye for a celebrity," he told him. "Only the other evening I picked up Bertrand Russell, and I said to him, 'Well, Lord Russell, what's it all about?' and do you know, he couldn't tell me." *

Russell, like most philosophers, saw general questions about human life and its meaning as being not just unanswerable but essentially meaningless. The standard view of secular thinkers is that we tend to see the world around us in terms of goals and purposes, and when we look at the natural world (and ourselves as part of that world) we are deluded into thinking that there must be an answer to the question of why (i.e. to what purpose) the world exists. Science can perhaps explain how it came to exist but does not address the purpose question (or non-question).

It may then be just a trick that our minds are playing on us that causes us to think that there is some kind of significant mystery (rather than just scientific puzzles) underlying existence.

Of course, religions and some (dubious) philosophical systems purport to provide answers, and this is clearly one of the factors that keep institutions like religion going - the anxiety of not knowing is lifted if one can bring oneself to believe.

Why though do some people seem to be concerned with such issues while others seem blithely indifferent? Could it be that those who are indifferent have seen through the trick our brains are playing on us, whereas others (like the taxi-driver) have not? Or perhaps people are indifferent to these issues not through insight but through a lack of understanding. Maybe they have a mental blind spot and so operate on an entirely pragmatic and superficial level. (If however, as Willard Van Orman Quine has suggested, the surface is all, then superficiality equates to deep insight!) Upbringing and education further complicate the picture.

For those who are concerned with these sorts of issues, I might as well give my (very unoriginal) best guess as to where the truth lies. I tend to the view that there is no ultimate explanation of the kind that some of us (including me) naturally crave.

* If the nature of our celebrities reflects the nature of our societies, we appear to be locked into something of a precipitous downward spiral!

Friday, June 4, 2010

Cataclysm or cleansing fire?

Let me just spell out some possible consequences of the relative decline of the West (expanding upon comments in the last paragraphs of my previous post).

At the heart of the problem are the chronic budget deficits being run by Western countries and the associated accumulation of government debt. Clearly, one consequence is that government spending is going to be constrained and the individuals and organizations who/which depend on the public purse will in many cases find that such support will be reduced or withdrawn.

Some good may come of this, in that an unhealthy situation has arisen in many Western countries whereby individuals and groups have utilized political influence in order to benefit financially without giving anything back to society. (It was always thus. I know, I know.) Pressure groups of various kinds have created mini-empires within governmental, educational and arts bureaucracies and institutions. Within universities, humanities schools and arts faculties in particular have become shamefully politicized and compromised by (anti-)intellectual fashions. Political correctness has been imposed very effectively in Western universities and other institutes of learning.

Good may come from the threats to prosperity if governments respond with judicious spending cuts and policies designed to encourage business activity and productivity.

In the sphere of education, it's clear that science, technology, business and language courses need to be sustained to enhance national prosperity. And perhaps the arts and humanities will once again find a modest niche as a civilizing influence, encouraging knowledge of and respect for texts, buildings and art works of earlier ages. I hope so.

But there are already indications that some governments are reacting to the crisis by enacting left-wing policies and further entrenching the powers and privileges of unions and other groups hostile to business and trade.* If history is any guide, such policies will be a disaster for the mass of the population, dramatically hastening economic decline.

* The Obama administration is a case in point. In Australia, an apparently out-of-control Labor Party government, led by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, has compounded its other socialistic sins by declaring war on mining companies in the vain hope of regaining popular support. (See last month's posts Populism and fiscal policy and Passing in the night).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Doom and gloom

I heard Niall Ferguson on the radio recently, mainly reiterating his well-known views on shifts in global economic power (see my post on Ferguson from last month). He was talking mainly about the US and the UK, and suggested that the latter's situation is even worse than the former's.

Essentially we find ourselves in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis in a similar position to Europe and America post-World War 2, but worse because of chronic budget deficits. Real interest rates will rise (which is of course bad for business and a drag on growth).

He said he had told an American audience that the GDP of China would surpass that of the US within twenty years. So what? asked a government official. Ferguson responded that anyone who had experienced Britain's decline in the post-war period would not be so nonchalant. And in that case, the UK was being eclipsed by an old and trusted ally, by a country with deep historical links. In the case of China and the US, the process will be more traumatic...

While I'm on this doom and gloom theme I might also mention the views of Stephen King, the chief economist at HSBC, who has recently published a book called (in America) Losing control: the emerging threats to Western prosperity (Yale U.P.). Like Ferguson, he sees bad times ahead for Western countries as they gradually - or not so gradually - forfeit control of their respective economic destinies.

There will be competition for scarce resources (commodities) even as the globalization of labor markets undermines the bargaining power of workers in the currently rich countries. Advantageous (to the US) arrangements such as the dollar as reserve currency will go, raising borrowing costs and reducing long-term growth.

I'd like to say something about possible responses and consequences of all this in the future. For now, just a few thoughts.

In the face of lower relative standards of living in the US and Europe, and in the face of an inevitable (?) brain drain, the West will have to rethink just about everything, from political structures to education.

There are some who will welcome such a fundamental reevaluation and see the process as a cleansing fire. Clearly there are dangers, but a strong case could be made that many of our key institutions and bureaucracies have been severely compromised by special interest groups which are driven by ideology and contribute little or nothing to the general good.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

The metaphysical orientation of the European neo-liberal movement

In my last post, I commented on the left-leaning politics of the Vienna Circle and noted that (so far as I know) the only classical liberal associated with the group was Louis Rougier. Rougier was also involved in the European neo-liberal movement. I suggested that the two movements were antithetical in certain respects.

I think the key differences are metaphysical, or concerned in a general way with attitudes to religion. It's well known that the logical positivists were anti-metaphysical and overwhelmingly anti-religious. The neo-liberals, on the other hand, though not concerned with either metaphysics or religion in any overt way, were driven in their political and economic views by a powerful belief in human freedom. I suggest that such a belief is metaphysical - even religious.

And, sure enough, when one examines the writings of key figures in the neo-liberal movement, one finds evidence of idealism (in the philosophical sense, i.e. the antithesis of materialism). Ludwig von Mises, for example, said that he did not accept the doctrines of any religion but believed that particular religions imperfectly expressed an essence or core of truth. Louis Rougier, though less forthcoming than his friend Mises, is another who was arguably an idealist at heart. Significantly, one of the papers he wrote for Erkenntnis (the main journal of the Vienna Circle) in the 1930s was on human freedom. In it he defends free will and rejects a materialist approach to human will and action.

I am trying to clarify my own personal views, and it bothers me that most other intelligent physicalists - in the 1930s and today - seem to have had/to have left-leaning views. It also bothers me that most of the defenders of the social and political values I hold dear are either religious or 'mysterian' (like Mises or Rougier).

It bothers me because I have the feeling that I might be missing something!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The political orientation of the Vienna Circle

I have a particular interest in two (in certain respects antithetical) movements which flourished in Europe in the 1930s. Both had profound effects on subsequent history.

One was logical positivism, which developed in Vienna in the 1920s under the leadership of Moritz Schlick. The goal of the movement was to apply the latest discoveries and methods in physics, mathematics and logic to philosophical questions and, in so doing, to undermine metaphysics by showing its traditional problems to be pseudo-problems which had not been recognized as such by philosophers because of a naive approach to language. Ordinary language was not only vague, its grammar was permeated by metaphysical assumptions. Nietzsche had recognized this, but it was only the development of formal logic by Frege, Russell and others that allowed the deficiencies of ordinary language to be understood and ultimately to be left behind (so far at least as scientific activity was concerned).

The other major movement to which I refer is the European neo-liberal movement which crystallized for the first time at a Paris gathering in 1938, but which did not gain prestige and importance until after the War (notably in the form of the Mont Pelerin Society). This movement brought together economists and others who were convinced of the importance of competitive markets and who were resolutely opposed to totalitarianisms of the left and of the right.

What I find particularly curious is that the logical positivists (with a very few exceptions) were either socialists or social democrats. The only exceptions that I know of were foreign associates: Willard Van Orman Quine, an American in his twenties on a traveling scholarship, was certainly a conservative in his later years; and Louis Rougier, the preeminent French associate of the Vienna Circle, was a liberal conservative and, so far as I know, the only figure to be associated with both logical positivism and the European neo-liberal movement. (Indeed, Rougier played a leading role in the early years of the latter movement, and convened the 1938 Paris meeting.)

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Passing in the night

I live in a quiet residential pocket of inner Melbourne, Australia, and every night I go for a walk along the banks of the Yarra River. Last night, about 10:30, just as I was walking back up the otherwise deserted street to my apartment, I saw a band of people on the sidewalk ahead coming in my direction. I was startled by the extremely hostile and suspicious look of the first man I passed. (This is normally a very friendly neighbourhood.)

Then I passed a man and a woman in expensive tracksuits walking together, the woman talking non-stop. The man I brushed past was the Prime Minister, the automaton-like Kevin Rudd. Then a few burly bodyguards, and, at the rear, two pretty young women, no doubt with guns.

The little bubble of unreality had passed. Soon the PM would be programed for today's events.

The current Labor Party government, by its recently announced resources tax, has done great damage to Australia's reputation as an investment destination, but I didn't think last night an opportune time to raise this issue with the man at the top.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Niall Ferguson on the end of Western supremacy

The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, in a presentation at a conference in Christchurch, New Zealand, has made a number of points which support and give added substance to the line I have been taking in recent posts.

  • We might, he claimed, be witnessing an extraordinary event: the end of Western supremacy.

  • The current plight of the US is evident in the flow of interest payments. In the next 4 or 5 years the US will be spending more on debt servicing than defense. It is predicted that by 2040 interest payments will amount to 20% of GDP.

  • The only time a government has reduced large scale debt by slashing expenditure, tax rates and other prudent fiscal means was in Britain in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. The hard decisions were facilitated by the fact that Britain was only a partial democracy at the time, and much of the heavy lifting was courtesy of the Industrial Revolution.

  • The most recent historical precedent for such high levels of debt as we now face was the US and European debt after World War 2. It took three decades of growth - and inflation - to fall.

  • Inflation is coming. Bonds are as safe a haven as Pearl Harbor in World War 2.

  • In response to a question from the audience, Prof. Ferguson said that the resurgence of Keynesian policies was "sowing the seeds of the next crisis." He predicted an eventual return to favor of the theories of the Chicago School.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The decline of the West: some more numbers.

The broader context of the fiscal and political problems of Europe and the US is long-term economic decline.

For more than a thousand years until the early 19th century, Asia's share of the world economy was well above that of Europe. At the beginning of the 19th century - as the West began to benefit from its development of science and technology - Asia's share of global GDP plummeted.

Asia finally began to recover in the mid-20th century. Measured at purchasing-power parity Asia's share of global GDP was 18% in 1980, 27% in 1995 and 34% in 2009. Currently Western Europe and the US are in precipitous relative decline and Asia is on the rise - to the extent that The Economist has suggested (Feb. 27, 2010, pp. 71-2) that Asia's economy will probably exceed the combined sum of America's and Europe's within four years.

Yes, everybody knows about the rise of Asia and the relative decline of Europe and America, but the extent and speed of these changes and their profound implications (largely unpredictable of course) are generally not appreciated.

I remember thinking during the Asian financial crisis of 1998, when Europe and America seemed so stable and strong, that predictions of Asian dominance were premature. How things have changed in 12 years!

I hope to say a few things about the implications of these changes in future posts.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Populism and fiscal policy

Fiscal populism is always dangerous but the populism engaged in by the left is more dangerous than the center-right variety. Typically center-right governments simply bribe the middle class by offering 'free' services, subsidies and other benefits in return for votes. Left-of-center governments tend to bring into play not just greed but envy and resentment, demonizing big business and the rich.

Often they are driven by ideology in this, and are signalling to their core constituencies - radical elements and organized labor - that they have not been forgotten despite the compromises that being in power usually requires.

Recent verbal attacks by the Obama administration and various European governments on banks and bankers are examples of this kind of populism, as are this week's rhetorical assaults on mining companies by Australia's big-spending, left-wing government, and their announcement of a 40% 'resource super-profits tax'. (Already announcements have been made by mining companies that various Australian projects are not to proceed or are being reviewed.)

Does democracy inevitably lead to such populism and ultimately to government indebtedness and lower living standards? Or can voters take the long view?*

It remains to be seen if the tea-party movement and other advocates of smaller government in the US will have any real success. I suspect that the US debt is just too large and the measures required to fix it will be too painful to be carried through. Similarly I suspect that the Conservatives in the UK will provoke huge amounts of public anger if indeed they have the courage to tackle the UK's budget problems. [Added later: I guessed (wrongly) that the Conservatives would get an absolute majority. The hung parliament - and the prospect of another election within a year or two - makes the UK situation even more dire.]

A recent poll in Australia suggests that the fiscally responsible conservative coalition which was in power from 1996 to 2007 has a chance of winning an election to be held later this year, as the current Labor Party government seems to be losing credibility after introducing a string of ill thought-out programs and policies culminating in the new resource rent tax.

*It's worth noting in the current context that many of the European neo-liberals who advocated a return to market principles in the 1930s and again - with rather more success - after World War 2 were decidedly wary about majoritarian democracy, seeing it as posing a very real threat to responsible long-term thinking and decision-making on the part of political leaders.