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.