Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Privacy, time and fairy lights

Just about everyone is communicating more - and in more ways - than ever and this naturally has an effect on our ideas of privacy.

More and more personal information is stored in data centers and much of that is potentially retrievable by anyone, but the very volume of data out there is perhaps our best protection. Most of the trivial stuff is lost and will never be retrieved - and, even if it was, what would it matter?

Breaches of privacy matter only when one's life is disrupted - for example when one's bank account has been tampered with, or one's friends alienated or offended, or one's house broken into.

As technologies change so do - and must - attitudes. Younger people are clearly less concerned about making information about (and images of) themselves public than previous generations were. There were always teenage exhibitionists, even if today's technologies allow exhibitionism on a much larger scale. The class clown has gone global, the school rebel is part of a worldwide protest movement.

But for every natural rebel or exhibitionist, then and now, there are sure to be many more individuals who have no difficulty maintaining their privacy and dignity and sense of balance.

Some changes are deeper, however. Technologies like the printed book and pen and paper encouraged silent, private reading and writing. And, significantly, the communication process is delayed in these instances and long periods of time elapse between the writing and the reading, months or years in the case of books, days or weeks in the case of letters or periodicals.

By contrast, digital technologies facilitate instant communication with peers in a context of high levels of sensory stimulation so that the private sphere of the silent reader is being crowded out.

This is the real problem for anyone who values minds attuned to slower-moving and important things, companions who sit quietly over a coffee, and who, when they talk, take you into a slower, deeper world where thoughts are more like grand orbiting planets than flickering fairy lights.

But then, fairy lights have their charm...

Saturday, December 24, 2011

On the sunny side of the street

A favorite recording of one of my favorite songs. The Benny Goodman Sextet with a young Peggy Lee.

Recorded exactly 70 years ago, on Christmas Eve, 1941.

Have a merry Christmas and a sunny new year.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The idea of Europe and France's idea of itself

I'm impatient to know what is going to happen to Europe. It matters to all of us, insofar as Europe plays an important part in the global economy, and it matters particularly to those of us who live in Europe, or intend to live in Europe, or who simply cherish an idea of Europe (for ethnic, cultural, intellectual or other reasons).

The Economist's Charlemagne gives a good account of the background to and the prospects for a new treaty. In fact there are two treaties being negotiated: the new intergovernmental treaty associated with the recent Brussels summit; and the not-so-new but yet-to-be-completed treaty setting up a permanent bailout fund (the European Stability Mechanism). These documents appear to be crystallizing not only a two-tier E.U. but also a two-tier euro zone (with debtor countries lacking veto powers, for instance).

But will the markets wait for the bureaucrats and politicians to complete their ambitious agenda of drafting and ratification? Will the temporary rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, prove to be adequate (in conjunction with other funding sources like the IMF)? In the absence of massive bailouts (which can create their own problems), it's difficult to see how heavily indebted countries will be able to come out of this without devaluation (which would entail exiting the euro zone).

Particularly interesting, in the light of my recent reflections on dealing with decline, are comments by Johan Van Overtveldt who, in a new book (The End of the Euro) singles out France for special criticism. "France's inability to accept gracefully its political and economic decline has produced additional tension. La grandeur de la France, once an undeniable reality, is now a thing of the past."

Recent statements by French leaders attacking the creditworthiness of the U.K. were so far beyond the pale as to indicate a degree of panic.

And no wonder, with the ratings agency Fitch saying that "a comprehensive solution to the euro-zone crisis is technically and politically beyond reach," France's triple-A status on the brink of a downgrade - and a French presidential election just a few months away.

One last quote. On a Sky News Christmas special pre-recorded last week, Sir Philip Hampton (the Royal Bank of Scotland's chairman) said he thought the banking system could cope with Greece's exit from the euro zone, but he had broader concerns about social cohesion, even in France. "France has got an unmatched history of getting on to the streets and making a big noise. I'm amazed the French have been so subdued. I don't think it will continue."

If the French do take to the streets, let's hope the Islamists don't hijack the revolution. That would be an interesting twist.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Getting real

I recently discussed Paul Krugman's views on the European crisis, and suggested that his ideological commitments may have distorted his analysis. Krugman argued that austerity programs would inevitably fail and lead to the destruction of democracy.

I note that Amity Shlaes, a Bloomberg columnist, has also taken issue with Krugman's perspective. "There is evidence that austerity did lead to growth in the past," she writes, "and that it did not cause fascism."

Shlaes questions "the standard ... narrative of what happened" during the Great Depression which lies behind Krugman's views. She cites the example of Australian government cost-cutting in the early 1930s. "Australia recovered far faster than the U.S. ... [Prime Minister Joseph] Lyons may have praised Mussolini but Australia didn't go fascist."

I am not really in a position to argue on the basis of historical economic data or economic theory, but I can see that Franklin Delano Roosevelt has become a mythic hero for many liberals, and the New Deal an inspirational tale.

But inspiring narratives are just that - stories designed inspire (manipulate?), not to encapsulate historical (or any other kind of) truth.

History is complicated, there are no heroes, and the world does not owe us a living.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Paul Krugman on Europe

It's always salutary to read or listen to - at least occasionally - those whose ideological perspectives are different from one's own.

Sometimes it's simply a matter of being confirmed in one's current views. Like the time I read a political book by Noam Chomsky (whom I respected as a linguist). I was staggered at the degree of anger and irrationality and extremism evident in Chomsky's prose. I had begun the book with an open mind, ready to be convinced: I was wavering ideologically at the time and had no vested interest in any particular system (beyond some investments in equities which could easily have been put into something else if I came to the view that capitalism was bad). But I found there was a huge gulf between where Chomsky was and where I was. I have no idea how he got there, and I was damned sure that I wasn't going to go there.

Paul Krugman is another kettle of fish, a distinguished economist who is also a liberal polemicist. I recently read an opinion piece by Krugman on political and economic trends in Europe, suggesting that we should call "the current situation what it is: a depression." Even putting aside the (unresolved) euro crisis, lack of growth and high levels of unemployment is leading to immense anger and resentment (against Germany, for instance), risks to social cohesion and a clear move in the direction of authoritarian governments.

Last month, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development "documented a sharp drop in public support for democracy in the 'new E.U.' countries." Hungary, for instance, a country with a turbulent and tragic history, is in dire economic straits. According to Krugman, it has "suffered severely because of large-scale borrowing in foreign currencies and also, to be frank [Krugman acknowledging his ideological position!], thanks to the mismanagement and corruption on the part of the then-governing left-liberal parties."

This led to Fidesz, a center-right party, winning an overwhelming parliamentary majority last year. But now Fidesz, by a series of constitutional and legal measures and media control, seems to be moving towards authoritarian rule "under a paper-thin veneer of democracy." Krugman sees what is happening in Hungary, "in the heart of Europe," as a sign of things to come on the troubled continent. As he puts it, the breakup of the euro may be the least of Europe's worries.

My concern is that Krugman's ideological preoccupations may be distorting his analysis. He is hostile to German-inspired attempts to encourage austerity, suggesting that such an approach is leading to the death of democracy and to authoritarian forms of government. But the crisis was caused, at least in part, by profligate government spending (exacerbated in some countries by their participation in an ill-conceived experiment in monetary union). And something like the pragmatic German model may be the only alternative to fascism or whatever forms of nationalistic collectivism are currently garnering support.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Dealing with decline

Niall Ferguson and many others have made the point that the United States, like other once-dominant nations before it, is in for a very difficult period of adjustment. That is, if the combination of its massive public debt and shifts in the global economic center of gravity play out as expected, and America's international preeminence is relentlessly eroded.

The U.S. debt-to-GDP ratio is around 100%, and it's well known that public debt levels above 85% of GDP are a drag on growth and also carry other, more dire, risks - as recent credit downgrades portend and as recent events in Europe have illustrated.

Of course America never had an actual empire like many of the preeminent nations of the past, and so will be spared the dramatic indignity of surrendering territories and dealing with mass immigration and other such phenomena that are associated with the end of an empire. Though long-held perceptions and expectations are not easy to put aside, the lack of an empire will make the process far easier, not only in practical terms but also in terms of saving face. The decline in power and influence could be seen as a voluntary return to policies of relative isolationism and non-interventionism.

The French writer Henry de Montherlant - an aristocratic conservative - faced head-on and accepted the patent reality of the decline of France in the inter-war years, though he felt the pain of it keenly. Others, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, continued to believe in France's greatness, even after the debacle of 1940, even after the disastrous Algerian war, even now ...

The style and antics of the present French president, Nicolas Sarkozy is explicable only in the light of France's glorious past, and the mismatch between his pretensions and the reality of France's current position in the world is a source of amusement to many.

Britain's decline has been, if anything, even more painful and traumatic than that of France. In the post-World War 2 period, Michael Flanders and Donald Swann reflected the attachments and preoccupations and regrets of the English middle class. Behind the mock xenophobia and comic aggression of this little piece (from a performance in New York) lies ... Well, you be the judge.

A final thought: it strikes me that unsympathetic observers of David Cameron's actions at last week's Brussels summit will see him and his eurosceptic supporters - quite unjustly, of course, at least in respect of Cameron himself - as having been motivated by something like the sentiments being satirized here by Flanders and Swann.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Genetics and political orientation: some further thoughts

Let us assume that - as the research (which I discussed briefly in a previous post) seems to indicate - our political and other values are heavily influenced by genetic and genetic/environmental factors and even reflected in brain structures. What consequences flow from this?

First of all, it will make one skeptical about one's own political beliefs and values. As with someone 'born into' a particular religion, skepticism is definitely called for. But, just as my being born into a particular religion does not mean that the doctrines of that particular religion are necessarily false, so my having a genetic predisposition to believe or value certain things does not mean that these things are not true or valuable.

Even if our political beliefs were completely determined, this would not necessarily reflect on their truth, rightness, viability, plausibility - on their value and worth in other words. But are value and worth matters which can be objectively assessed?

I would suggest that the policy prescriptions of the right or the left or any other political perspective or orientation can be assessed in various ways. Whether particular methods or policies work in practice can be tested (and history can be seen as a record of such experiments). Science can be brought to bear on factual matters, from biology to economics. But basic values - such as whether to value equality over prosperity and individual freedom, etc. - seem not to be amenable to objective assessment.

Another lesson one might draw from the research is that people are different - every brain is unique, of course, but there are also differences which reflect general patterns of thought; and consequently changing someone's mind about a deep ideological issue will not be achieved simply by setting out a logical argument. Of course conversions occur, and people change their own minds (though often, as one of the commenters on the linked post said, as a result of much reading and reflection).

But presumably conversions occur when the new ideology is compatible with underlying brain structures, in other words when elements of that ideology are already present in a latent form. Given the research results, unconscious constraints and unconscious proclivities and tendencies clearly shape the possibilities for individual belief and orientation.

Knowing this, one would not try to convert everybody to one's own way of thinking, but rather accept that many would not be able (without major mental re-engineering) to value the things one values and so think the way one thinks about social issues. One would concentrate on those whose basic values were compatible with whatever social philosophy one was seeking to promote.

Unfortunately, much argument and debate is entered into with the assumption that we all have a more or less identical faculty which we call 'reason' - a kind of logic machine in our heads which determines our views. But - leaving aside areas like mathematics and formal logic - this is not the case. Our thinking is bound up with feeling and with (often unconscious) values. The research results undermine the view that debate and adversarial discussion are truth-seeking activities. There could be a more limited role for discussion, however, in helping those who have certain predispositions to develop a conscious and coherent social philosophy which accords with those predispositions.

It would be nice if we could have a workable dual or multi-choice social, political and economic system, so that we could all just gravitate towards the option we prefer; but unfortunately capitalism needs to be a universal system if it is to work properly. A dual capitalist/socialist (or free market/collectivist) system will fail because the wealth-producing (capitalist) part will always face increasing demands to subsidize the collectivist component.

In fact this is arguably what is happening today. Most Western countries, though nominally capitalist, have large public sectors which are major employers and providers of welfare. A dual (private/public) system operates in many areas of society: there are private schools and public schools, private hospitals and public hospitals, private health insurance and public health insurance, self-funded retirees and retirees on state pensions, and so on.

And - surprise, surprise - public debt is jeopardizing the future of many Western economies and threatening global prosperity.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Meaning and information

I don't remember meeting him, but, when I was a child, we often used to drive past a house belonging to my father's old colleague, 'Sticky' Glew. (My mother had been introduced to him, and had trouble deciding how to address him. She wisely opted for 'Mr Glew'.) It amused my father that his friend had written a dissertation on 'the meaning of meaning'.

"For thousands of years," writes Seth Lloyd (in his book, Programming the universe (Vintage, 2007)), "philosophers have tried to determine what 'meaning' means, with mixed success." (p. 24)

Lloyd's work (in quantum computing and quantum communication systems) is based around the technical concept of information. But strings of bits and so on mean nothing in themselves: they are meaningful only if they can be interpreted. "Meaning is defined only relative to a scheme of interpretation ..." (p. 25)

"Consider the string of bits ... : 1001001 1101110 0100000 1110100 1101000 1100101 0100000 1100010 1100101 1100111 1101001 1101110 1101110 1101001 1101110 1100111. Interpreted as a message encoded in ASCII, this string means 'In the beginning'. But taken on its own, with no specification of how it is to be interpreted, it means nothing other than itself." (p. 25) And, of course, 'In the beginning ...' is interpreted according to the conventions of the English language. As Lloyd points out, natural languages are rich in ambiguity, which is "a key aspect of poetry, fiction, flirting, and plain everyday conversation." (p. 27)

But sometimes, in order to understand basic concepts - like meaning - it is useful to strip away complexities and ambiguities and look at simple models, as Wittgenstein did in his account of language games. Imagine a simple language game in which a builder says "Block" and the assistant hands him a block, or "Slab" and the assistant hands him a slab. The meaning of each expression is to be found in the action the expression provokes.

Lloyd relates Wittgenstein's idea to computers and computing. "The meaning of a computer program written in a particular computer language," he writes, "is to be found in the actions the computer performs as it interprets that program. All the computer is doing is performing sequences of elementary logic operations, such as AND, NOT and COPY ... The computer program unambiguously instructs the computer to perform a particular sequence of those operations. The 'meaning' of a computer program is thus universal, in the sense that two computers following the same set of instructions will perform the same set of information-processing operations and obtain the same result." (p. 26-27)

Meaning, then, is interpreted information. We don't need a theory of meaning such as philosophers have attempted to build. Philosophy (most notably the philosophy of language and metaphysics) has drifted into unproductive areas reminiscent of scholasticism in which intellectual work is done without first ensuring that there is an important intellectual task to address.

Of course, the word 'meaning', like many English words, can be used in different ways, and a careful analysis of the context of use will reveal subtle - and not so subtle - differences. One sense of the word - rather different from most of the others is 'general significance' or 'point' or 'purpose', as in the sentence, 'My life seems to lack meaning.' I have not been talking here of this generalized kind of meaning, but of the ordinary - and primary - uses of the word in relation to information and communication. And, understood as interpreted information, it seems to me a perfectly clear and unmysterious concept. Trying - as some philosophers do - to make a big issue of what they call 'aboutness' or 'intentionality' (which doesn't mean what non-philosophers think it means) constitutes unnecessary mystification.*

The remarkable advances in computing and information and communication technologies during the last 70 years have thrown up many real problems of a fundamental nature, but they require scientific knowledge (not just knowledge of formal logic and philosophy) to address. In particular, the parallels between thermodynamics and information theory are clearly rich in new problems which would benefit from informed reflection. For example, all matter and energy is subject to the laws of thermodynamics, but all matter and energy - everything there is - is also subject to the laws of information. Information theory appears to be a more fundamental and all-encompassing theory than thermodynamics (which can now be seen as just a special case of information theory).

Though I doubt the value of much recent philosophical work in the areas of language and meaning, some very important foundational work has certainly been done by philosophers, philosophically-inclined mathematicians and logicians. The key advances were made during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The work of George Boole, Giuseppe Peano, David Hilbert, Bertrand Russell, A.N. Whitehead and many others provided the conceptual tools which made the development of the electronic computer and sophisticated communication technologies possible. Claude Shannon's development of what he called a 'mathematical theory of communication' and which has come to be known as information theory was based largely on the work of George Boole.

Information has come to be seen as physical - it is no longer seen as abstract, disembodied and unquantifiable. It is always tied to a physical representation: a mark on paper, a charge, a spin, a sequence of bases in DNA. Information processing occurs not just in computers and brains but throughout the physical world.

In 1961 Rolf Landauer came up with a principle with (it is said) startling implications: that one essential information processing operation (erasure) cannot occur without causing heat to dissipate into the environment (thus increasing the entropy of the universe). The processing of information is a thermodynamic process (just as thermodynamic processes are informational) and erasure is an irreversible operation. Negation can be reversed by a second negation. Addition can be reversed by subtraction. But erasure cannot be undone.

I will resist the temptation to discuss the implications of Landauer's principle (which I believe are not good!). I am a layman in these matters, but the role that information processing seems to play in every aspect of nature intrigues me. I am trying at least to understand the fundamental principles, and to relate the sort of thing one learns within the context of philosophical logic - e.g. that there are any number of alternative systems of logic - to the apparently more constrained context of real-world information processing.

* Much philosophical work in recent decades in areas such as ethics, metaphysics, the philosophy of language and even logic has been done by people with a commitment to a religious view of the world (or at least with an anti-physicalist orientation), and has been motivated (I believe) by an attempt to undermine physicalism and to save a space for the spiritual (broadly interpreted). Such a motivation does not invalidate the work, but I personally don't think a convincing case against physicalism has been made.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Old guys in bow ties

The internet has taken the donkey-work out of academic research, and devalued personal memory and expertise. Much of my research time in the past was taken up leafing through neglected volumes in 'research collections' (i.e. the stuff nobody reads anymore if they ever did) of academic libraries, scanning back-of-the-book indexes, and very occasionally turning up unexpected links between thinkers and bringing to light forgotten comments and analyses and predictions which often seemed to give the lie to commonly accepted views on intellectual history (where the focus tended and perhaps still tends to be on a few intellectual 'stars' who are credited with more originality and prescience than they had in reality).

Now, thanks to search engines etc., one can do in a few minutes what previously took months of searching. The dusty research collections have been or are being digitized - but what of the experts, the old guys with bow ties whom one valued highly for their lifetime's worth of knowledge? One of the pleasures of researching a topic was interacting with these often-eccentric people, chatting with them, making hurried notes as they gave one important clues and names to follow up on. Such mentors are fading out of the picture as so much of what they had to tell can be found now online.

But still there are questions of a type which Google doesn't really seem equipped to answer. Specific questions that an individual might have come up with in the course of reading or research require interlocutors who can put themselves in the position of the questioner - who can empathize intellectually. Or sometimes one is interested in the relationship between this and that - and a Google search will give one all there is to know on this and all there is to know on that, but never the twain shall meet (or at least not in the way one wants).

And then there are fundamental questions about the worthwhileness (for me or in general) of this or that subject area, this or that profession. This type of question is often the most important of all - and a human mentor (preferably old and learned) is definitely called for.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

No tears for Massimo

Massimo Pigliucci is a self-styled public intellectual who runs a blog misleadingly called Rationally Speaking. It is in fact highly politicized, a vehicle for Professor Pigliucci to promote his left-liberal views – and himself. Which (apart from the misleading blog name) would be fine, if it wasn't for the site's (and Massimo's) loyal followers, and the feeling that one is dealing here not with a group of freely thinking individuals but with a sort of cult. [Update Nov. 2013: Whether or not this was true at the time, I have to say that this is no longer how I see the site. For one thing, one of the secondary writers there who was very political has gone, and my sense is that Massimo himself (with whom I have had some productive interactions) has focused more on non-political topics in the last couple of years. Also, there is much robust debate in the comment threads, and a variety of views on display.]

So I had a sense of Schadenfreude (unworthy, I know) when I read this post by Pigliucci on an imminent restructuring of the curricula at the City University of New York where he is employed as a philosophy professor.

The proposal incorporates a reduction of the compulsory general education requirements from more than 50 to 30 credits (out of a total of 120 credits necessary for graduation). And within that 30 there is a 'required core' of 7 credits in English composition and 8 in mathematics and science. Professor Pigliucci alleges that this is part of a national trend towards "dismantling liberal arts education" and that these efforts are motivated by an attempt to produce not "intelligent and critically thinking citizens" but "workers who are trained to do whatever the market and the reigning plutocracy bids them to do." Unfortunately, the phrase "reigning plutocracy" gives him away.

It's my view that many - too many - academics in the humanities have betrayed their calling by allowing the content of what they teach to become politicized to an extreme degree. Too often divergent views on controversial issues are not welcomed and students are required to echo the politically correct clichés of their teachers in order to succeed. Feminism, multiculturalism, standard liberal views on social issues, geo-politics and capitalism dominate teaching and writing in many areas within the humanities and social sciences. And so the process continues, as indoctrinated college graduates become teachers themselves or journalists or public employees of one kind or another or occupiers of Wall Street.

So I'll not be shedding any tears for Massimo and his like if they lose their battle to maintain their power and influence. All in all, I think some good may come from the withdrawal of funding from the humanities as certain particularly noxious forms of indoctrination will be curtailed.

And whatever there is of abiding value in the areas affected by funding cuts will more than likely be incorporated - under other names perhaps - into new curricula, or find other modes of survival.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The meaning of life

Having a cause to stand for or to fight for can give meaning to life. As well as meaning and purpose, a cause can also confer on its upholders a sense of psychological security, a sense that one knows things that others are unaware of, that one is committed to something important which the mass of humanity does not recognize as such (or at least does not actively support). There is a danger of smugness, arrogance and complacency here, but such pitfalls can be avoided.

A cause also gives one allies and adversaries – even, in some cases, a sense of excitement and adventure. Think of communists (and fellow travellers) in Western countries during the Cold War. Just the right amount of secrecy and excitement, and no real danger to life and limb. (Professional agents on both sides did, of course, face great dangers. But then they were paid for it.)

The onetime MI6 (Secret Intelligence Service) agent David John Moore Cornwell (writing as John le Carré) depicted that world as one in which the moral and political issues were dark, complex and ambiguous, but his great creation, George Smiley, managed nonetheless to retain a simple sincerity and goodness.

In The spy who came in from the cold (1963), Smiley makes only a brief appearance as a colleague of the main character, Eric Leamas. Leamas also stands for certain moral values. There is a passage in which Leamas, waiting for an important and fateful meeting on the Dutch coast, thinks about a girl called Liz (a member of the Communist Party in Britain and so technically opposed to Leamas's cause) who had recently looked after him when he became ill in a rented room in London.

... At about eleven o'clock the next morning he decided to go out for a walk along the front, bought some cigarettes and stared dully at the sea.

There was a girl standing on the beach throwing bread to the seagulls. Her back was turned to him. The sea wind played with her long black hair and pulled at her coat, making an arc of her body, like a bow strung towards the sea. He knew then what it was that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things - the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into a paper bag, walk down to the beach and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it ...

Le Carré seems to be suggesting that the real meaning of life is not to be found in causes and grand designs but in the mundane, apparently pointless details of ordinary life. It is tempting to go along with this line of thinking, but perhaps it is just a bit too facile.

The dichotomy between activism and quietism, between cause- or ideology-driven behaviour and the still passivity of just being, does not in fact demand an evaluative choice – activism bad, quietism good, or whatever. It is not a question of either/or but of both/and.

As we shuttle between conviction and doubt, activity and stillness, sickness and health, a sense of meaning and well-being just bubbles up from time to time.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Cats are people too

F.H. Bradley, the idealist philosopher, used to shoot cats (at night, in the grounds of Merton College, Oxford). Bradley was a dog man.

In a footnote in chapter XXVI of his magnum opus, Appearance and reality, in a section dealing with the human desire for life after death and the inconsistencies of the standard (Christian) view, he writes:

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

The only pet I've ever owned (apart from animals that were family responsibilities) was a cat, and I know the strange chemistry which sometimes links humans and animals of other species. I wouldn't want to make too much of it, but there was a kind of recognition there, a kind of bond, albeit tenuous and uncertain. Intimate may not be too strong a word.

A while ago, I saw on a lamppost a small, monochrome poster. Just a stylized cat's face and the sentence: Cats are people too. I have some sympathy with the people who bothered to design and print and paste up these posters, with their quirky and lighthearted campaign in defense of a currently very unpopular animal.

But I don't believe that animals have rights, or that we humans should be seen as more or less on a par with chimpanzees. The attempt by intellectuals and activists to raise the status and moral profile of animals has succeeded only in distorting reality and weakening moral thinking in general. By virtue of language and our relatively advanced brains we inhabit a vast new world from which all other animals are excluded.

The burdens of this world of human consciousness are such, however, that the pre-human world of our distant ancestors - of which we remain obscurely aware - can be seen as a kind of paradise from which we have been cast out. This may explain in part the mystique that animals have for many.

What animals see in us is an altogether more difficult question.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Do genetic and environmental factors determine political orientation?

So often we see the truth of something, even talk or write about it, but don't fully realize the implications. And for me the implications of an idea which I have accepted for quite some time are finally, I think, sinking in. I'm talking about the idea that our - for want of a better word - ideological propensities (and perhaps values in general) are in large part determined by genetic and environmental factors.

Late last year and earlier this year there was a lot of publicity about a particular study (associated with the actor Colin Firth) concerning correlations between brain structure and political orientation. A paper detailing the results was published in April 2011 in Current Biology, and I had been meaning to have a close look at it, and perhaps to trace reactions and interpretations with a view to forming my own opinion on what it all might mean.

The study found that the gray matter volume of the anterior cingulate cortex was generally greater amongst university students identifying as liberal or left wing, while the right amygdala was larger in those who identified as conservative or right wing.

Predictably, a lot of nonsense was written by journalists and bloggers on the significance and implications of this piece of research - much of it along the lines that conservatives are less evolved!

It goes without saying that our knowledge of how brain structure and brain activity relate to thought and behavior is very limited. Research into these areas is at a very early stage and this study is a small piece of a very large and largely incomplete jigsaw puzzle. What the study does do, however, is to provide evidence that our political propensities are correlated to brain structures, which in itself is a profoundly important result. What it does not do is to validate value judgements about specific political propensities.

As the authors of the study point out, their research extends previous findings which related certain kinds of brain activity to political attitudes. Reference is also made to a study of twins which indicates that genetics plays a significant role in determining political views, and to other studies which have focused on the interaction between genetics and the social environment. "For example," the authors write, "political orientation in early adulthood is influenced by an interaction between a variant of a dopamine receptor gene linked with novelty seeking and an environmental factor of friendship."

Though not mentioned by the authors, research on birth order has thrown significant light on these issues. As I noted in a post last year, first-borns have been found to score higher on conservatism, conscientiousness and achievement orientation; later-borns on rebelliousness, openness and agreeableness. But, apparently, this pattern holds only within (rather than across) families because genetic effects are stronger than birth-order effects.

All in all, it is becoming increasingly clear that genetic and environmental factors play a big role in determining an individual's political orientation - and this is a hugely significant fact. When we engage in political (or similar kinds of) discussion and debate, we can no longer assume that we are dealing with people who - at least potentially - think like us. We all know from experience that such debate is usually (always?) futile, and at last, perhaps, we are beginning to understand why.

It is all very depressing for anyone who has been committed to the value of discussion and debate about values and politics. I want to face the implications of these findings head on. What consequences flow from them? Is ideological discussion a waste of time?

I'm still thinking about it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Hayek and Hobbes

I recently expressed an affinity for the social views of F.A. Hayek, noting that this position might appear to be difficult to reconcile with my fondness for the writings of Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679).

Hobbes is most famous for his contention that without a strong central authority societies disintegrate into conflict:

[D]uring the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war, as is of every man against everyman ... In such condition, there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. [Leviathan (Basil Blackwell, 1960), p. 82.]

The common power of which Hobbes speaks is conceived as a sovereign individual or group of individuals which is granted supreme power to act 'in those things which concern the common peace and safety.' The sovereign - so conceived - is the source of all law, and rights are a matter of legal definition.

There are obviously conflicts here with the views of Hayek. Hobbes had a major influence on the 19th and 20th-century tradition of legal positivism and the command theory of law, a tradition of thought to which Hayek was steadfastly opposed. Hayek accepted that the idea of law as a command is appropriate in systems of regulation applied to administrators and government officials, but if it is applied to the population at large then everyone is reduced to the status of unpaid servant of the state.

Hayek felt that healthy ideas of the rule of law were undermined in the later 19th century by proponents of legal positivism. The dangerous idea that whatever the government does is right and legal led to the perversion of the Rechtsstaat into the Kulturstaat and to various forms of totalitarianism. It also led to the acceptance of ideas of 'social justice' (involving, amongst other things, the redistribution of private wealth). Hayek believed that laws should not involve arbitrary elements and should be process-based and not directed at particular individuals or towards particular ends. His purpose was to delineate a private sphere where individuals are free to act without fear of coercion by government.

Fundamental to Hayek's position is his rejection of the view that order needs to be created by a sovereign authority. For order arises spontaneously, and any imposed order will - because no central orderer can ever have or process the required information - necessarily be inefficient and oppressive. But I think it's fair to say that Hayek also had a strong belief in individual freedom as a value in itself.

The major threats to individual freedom in Hayek's day were secular totalitarian ideologies (and social democracy which had - as he saw it - a tendency to drift in a totalitarian direction). For Hobbes, however, the main threat was social chaos, but also religious ideologies. Hobbes' sovereign (unlike religious authorities) was not concerned with the private lives of its subjects. Secular totalitarian threats were just not there in 17th-century England, and it is a mistake to see Hobbes as some kind of proto-fascist. Arguably he was just as concerned to protect human freedom as Hayek - and he was certainly opposed to totalitarianism.

Strangely, the tenor of Hobbes' thinking seems quite close to that which led to the development of game theory, one of the most significant new tools of 20th-century economics (and pioneered by Hayek's friend Oskar Morgenstern). Hobbes' suggestion that the individual should first seek peace, but, if betrayed and attacked, is justified in availing himself of 'all helps and advantages of war' to defend himself, approximates to the famous 'tit-for-tat' strategy which generally outperforms other strategies in the 'prisoner's dilemma' game. In one-off versions of the game, the outcome Hobbes predicted occurs and everybody loses (though tit-for-tatters lose less badly than others). But in iterated versions of the game, where artificial agents interact (in what could be seen as a model of society), pockets of spontaneous order and cooperation develop and thrive (providing evidence to support a Hayekian view).

I recognize the reality of spontaneous social order, though I suspect it is not quite so robust as Hayek assumes. As Hobbes (and Hayek in fact) knew from first-hand experience, civil disorder and war are real dangers, and something like Hobbes' sovereign, with strong and undisputed power, may be a necessary condition for peace in many contexts. Certain societies, especially highly cohesive ones with strong systems of morality in place, may be able to exist for long periods without the need for such an authority but history shows that civil conflict can erupt unexpectedly.

Both Hobbes and Hayek saw themselves as men of science, but appreciated also the other dimensions of human culture and the contingency of history. Both men were responding in their work to what they saw as the key social problems of their times in a rational, unsentimental and entirely secular manner. Hobbes' outlook is less colored by religious or metaphysical ideas than that of most of his contemporaries; and, of all the European neo-liberals, Hayek was probably the closest in spirit to logical empiricism, the anti-metaphysical and rigorously secular movement - exemplified in the Vienna Circle - which sought to replace obscurantist philosophies and religions with a view of the world based on science and a new understanding of logic and language.

Who cares about the compatibility or incompatibility of the thought of these two men? Why is the issue even worth raising? Because, I suggest, their differences bring to the fore very important questions about might and right, pragmatism and morality, ends and means.

I have the sense that - for better or for worse - Hayek's thinking retained traces of philosophical idealism, and this may have been what drove him to attempt to justify (certain types of) law on non-legal grounds and to place such an emphasis on human freedom. But the important questions are not what Hayek (or Hobbes) thought about this or that, but rather about what is, and what is not, the case.

Facts and values are intertwined in all discussions of social philosophy, and, if any progress is to be made, they must - no easy task! - be disentangled. The factual questions may be resolved through empirical research and reason, but questions of value will, I suspect, always remain contentious.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Little yellow men

Parking spaces are at a premium in my part of town. The old 'no parking' sign has been replaced by complex permit zones and new technologies to detect and fine cheaters. Every afternoon the clearways are cleared and giant trucks carrying delinquent vehicles speed off to some outer-suburban destination. It's like a long, drawn out and slowly escalating war between motorists on the one side and the authorities and property owners on the other.

These little yellow men are survivors from a different age, an earlier and gentler stage of the war. One has the sense that they were designed with a sense of pride and a sense of humor. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Rejecting religion

There is more to religion than doctrines, and much more to understanding religion than just understanding doctrines; but if the doctrines of a given religion are false, or if there is no good reason to believe they are true, then such a religion is not a live option for me.

Admittedly, some religions are less doctrinal than others, but I have found no religion which did not incorporate - as central elements - ideas which I find utterly implausible. Even Buddhism - often presented in the West as being open to a scientific understanding of the world - is committed, like other religions, to the idea of an objective moral realm, and also (at least in its Tibetan form as articulated by the Dalai Lama) to the notion of the soul as spirit, not entirely reducible to the self as understood by science.

Many people, reluctant to give up on religion entirely, admit that the doctrines they may have once believed are indeed false, but argue that there is a central core which the major religions share, a kind of essence of religious truth. When pressed to say what this core consists in, what exactly they do believe, such people reply in various ways, some more plausible than others. But I have never heard or read an account that attracts me or that I could personally endorse or adopt. For example, it's all very well to say that our minds have inbuilt limits. Of course they do, but does this fact suggest that something like what religions envisage lies beyond those limits? Often it's asserted that there is a benign force underlying reality: the evidence, I would suggest, is overwhelmingly to the contrary. Or that all is one, all is interconnected. I agree, and there is some evidence for this in physics (e.g. quantum entanglement) but how is this idea a religious one?

Religion, of course, is a very personal thing, and we all have our own deep reasons or motives for accepting or rejecting religious claims. I was a Christian until my early twenties when, one night, I suddenly realized that the burden of proof was on those who sought to affirm the claims of Christian doctrine rather than on those who sought to deny them. I say 'suddenly', but this shift in perspective happened at a time when I had been reading a lot of historical material on the Jewish background of the New Testament, and realizing that so much that seemed so special in the figure of Jesus was explicable historically. For a few weeks, I toyed with the idea of adopting the Jewish faith (as Christianity minus Jesus seemed to equal Judaism), but I found the notion of a 'chosen people' a little hard to swallow. And the notion of a personal God seemed more and more unreal. I had accepted it as part of a package of beliefs. But without those other beliefs (about God acting in history or through particular individuals or institutions), what reason was there to believe in such a being?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Neither fascist nor socialist

I have been modifying and expanding the summary of my social views which currently appears as a stand-alone page under the title 'Sketch of a social philosophy'. I refer there to a particular European tradition of thought upon which I am consciously drawing and which may be characterized as both conservative and classically liberal.

"During the 1930s, a time of great political instability and polarization, a small group of European and American thinkers set out to revive and revise the classical liberal tradition. The group first came together in 1938 at a conference in Paris organized by the philosopher Louis Rougier, and was re-formed after the World War II as the Mont Pelerin Society. Its members were generally conservative, steeped in the cultural traditions of Europe, but forward-looking and seeking to apply new developments in economic theory and new political thinking to the economic and social problems of the time. Since then, of course, much has changed - new technologies have radically altered the way we communicate, and traditional and homogeneous cultures have been replaced by mixed and fragmented societies severed from their historical roots - but these scholars, largely because of the breadth and depth of their cultural understanding and their acute awareness of the contingencies of history, retain their fascination and relevance.

The European neo-liberals remained independent thinkers and did not really constitute a single school of thought. Some, like Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, favored relatively unregulated markets; others, like Wilhelm Röpke, Alexander Rüstow and Louis Rougier, argued for a more active role in the economy for governments. Ultimately, the test of social and economic principles is whether they work in a given context - though, admittedly, there will always be an ideological element in such judgements.

Instinctively I favor the less interventionist approaches of Mises and Hayek. It's clear that command economies, such as those of the old Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe, do not work. But Hayek saw as fatally flawed not just socialism but also social democracy. Both systems may be utopian in inspiration but are oppressive and inefficient in practice. And, indeed, most European experiments in social democracy have failed miserably.

Hayek's attitude to social democracy was linked to his view that justice is not a matter of outcomes but of process, so the legal system should provide a framework for free human action that does not seek to direct it to predetermined outcomes. He was especially wary of the idea of 'social justice' which he saw as incoherent (because it is concerned with outcomes rather than process). I have some sympathy with this view, and, though I believe the unlucky and those not able to cope should be helped, I don't think it's a matter of rights or justice, but rather of benevolence or common decency. (See my short piece on rethinking rights.)

Socialist and social democratic programs may have failed, but there is a crisis also in economies more closely associated with free market approaches such as the United States, and so Hayek's optimism about spontaneous order may seem to have been unjustified. But, arguably, the financial crisis of recent years was caused (at least in large part) by inappropriate government interventions (for example, the politically motivated programs which encouraged people without means to buy homes).

Nevertheless, it can't be denied that there were failures in the financial markets also, and the expected self-regulatory mechanisms did not deliver. My explanation is that the spontaneous economic order which Hayek championed cannot be divorced from more general social values and norms, and these common values have been seriously eroded in the West in recent years. A lightly regulated system will only flourish in a moral and cohesive society. On the other hand, a proliferation of laws and regulations is no substitute for basic moral values, and may only succeed in stifling entrepreneurial and general business activity. In fact, whatever one's views on the nature of law and justice, it's undeniable that laws and regulations tend to proliferate beyond what is required to secure human freedoms or enhance other aspects of well-being."

[Since I wrote this I have been reflecting on my attachment to the writings of Thomas Hobbes which seems on the face of it difficult to reconcile with the views outlined above. More on this matter later.]

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A very conservative person

Having read some novels by Patricia Highsmith - and in particular The tremor of forgery in which she portrays rather patronizingly an American living abroad who makes anti-communist radio broadcasts to then communist Eastern Europe - I assumed that her own political views were liberal in the American sense. So it puzzled me a bit that I liked her as a writer. Usually writers with a liberal or progressive agenda really bother me - and so I don't bother with them.

This puzzlement was resolved when I read these words of Highsmith's friend, American playwright Phyllis Nagy (cited by Andrew Wilson in Beautiful shadow, his biography of Highsmith):

"The fact that Pat was from Texas is incredibly important for an accurate appreciation of her character. When you say things like this to people who aren't American they think it's terribly facile but Southern conservatism was deeply ingrained in her. People forget that she was a very conservative person ..."

She did, however, "... hold some very weird and contradictory views."

Patricia Highsmith was a complex character, flawed but very human. Her writing style is plain and spare and utterly non-experimental. She explores the themes of identity and morality in her fiction in very confronting ways.

Tom Ripley is her greatest creation, a likable psychopath. He only murders people (very few really) when he has to - and feels no guilt. He can kill someone in the afternoon and have a pleasant dinner, or dispose of the body during the night and really enjoy his morning coffee.

But Highsmith is acutely aware of the moral landscape that Ripley's behavior seems to challenge. In particular she is sensitive to the nuances of human communication which constitute in large measure the texture of our lives. In Ripley under ground, a suicidal artist character reads from the journal of another suicidal artist:

"Where has kindness, forgiveness gone in the world? I find more in the faces of children who sit for me, gazing at me, watching me with innocent wide eyes that make no judgment. And friends? In the moment of grappling with the enemy Death, the potential suicide calls upon them. One by one, they are not at home, the telephone doesn't answer, or if it does they are busy tonight - something quite important that they can't get away from - and one is too proud to break down and say, 'I've got to see you tonight or else!' This is the last effort to make contact. How pitiable, how human, how noble - for what is more godlike than communication? The suicide knows that it has magical powers."

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Fascism and radical egoism

Max Stirner (1806-1856) advocated absolute egoism: my ego is for me the only reality and the only value, and in affirming it I am simply myself. All general values and ideals (God, progress, humanity, etc.) are foreign to myself and do not concern me.

But Stirner believed that our minds are forever besieged and manipulated by such ideas and ideals which he saw as alien values, toxic abstractions:

"Man, your head is haunted ... You imagine great things, and depict to yourself a whole world of gods that has an existence for you, a spirit realm to which you suppose yourself to be called, an ideal that beckons you." The Ego and its own (Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 43).

In the manner of memes (as described in recent years by Susan Blackmore and others), such ideas subject the individual to themselves: they call the tune.

On the face of it such a philosophy would encourage individualism and perhaps anarchism, and indeed Stirner's writings inspired anarchists in the 1890s and beyond. But, curiously, Stirner's ideas also inspired various German proto-fascist groups.

Leszek Kołakowski tried to make sense of this apparent paradox at a time when the chief threat to liberal democracy seemed to be from the left. Today, when the far right has regained a prominent place in the political landscape, his reflections are of even greater interest than they were when they were first published (in Polish) in 1976.

"At first sight, Nazi totalitarianism may seem the opposite of Stirner's radical individualism. But fascism was above all an attempt to dissolve the social ties created by history and replace them by artificial bonds among individuals who were expected to render explicit obedience to the state on grounds of absolute egoism. Fascist education combined the tenets of asocial egoism and unquestioning conformism, the latter being the means by which the individual secured his own niche in the system. Stirner's philosophy has nothing to say against conformism, it only objects to the Ego being subordinated to any higher principle: the egoist is free to adjust to the world if it is clear he will better himself by doing so. His 'rebellion' may take the form of utter servility if it will further his interest; what he must not do is to be bound by 'general' values or myths of humanity. The totalitarian ideal of a barrack-like society from which all real, historical ties have been eliminated is perfectly consistent with Stirner's principles: the egoist, by his very nature, must be prepared to fight under any flag that suits his convenience." (Main currents of Marxism (W.W. Norton, 2005, pp.137-138))

It seems clear to me that many of the 'historical ties' that once anchored Europeans and Americans have indeed been stripped away by various cultural and technological forces, so that large segments of the population in Western countries may now be vulnerable to something like a new form of fascism.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Jews with force

Roger Cohen used the following fragments of dialogue from Philip Roth's novel Deception to bookend his recent New York Times opinion piece on anti-Semitism and Jewish identity.

The novel's protagonist, a middle-aged American writer, is speaking to his English lover.

"In England, whenever I'm in a public place, a restaurant, a party, the theater, and someone happens to mention the word 'Jew', I notice that the voice always drops just a little... [That's how] you all say 'Jew'. Jews included."

When he returns to New York, he tells her that he has realized he had been missing something. What? she asks.


"We've got some of them in England, you know."

"Jews with force, I'm talking about. Jews with appetite. Jews without shame."

Nicely observed. (Sits uneasily, by the way, with Cohen's worthy but rather contorted reflections.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Anyone for chess?

This picture tells a sad story about priorities and cultural decline. In a corner of the mezzanine floor of the local library (or is it a community center now?), pushed up against an air-conditioning vent and adjacent to a fire extinguisher, sits a chess table and chairs. The pieces are set up - albeit that the kings and queens are on the wrong squares (white queen should be on white, black queen on black); and albeit that one pawn and one knight have gone missing! A tradesman has left a small paint brush on the table which nobody has bothered to remove.

When the chess table first appeared a few years ago it occupied a prime site within the library, but I have it on good authority that it was virtually never used.

In itself a trivial matter, but symbolic - and indicative not only of cultural trends but also of the pitfalls of public sector decision-making.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

The boat sails on

The stand-alone pages (click under the Conservative tendency banner) are designed to sketch out in a concise way the political and ethical framework within which I am operating. But, since what I have written only imperfectly reflects my ideas, and also because my ideas are slowly evolving, there is a constant need to revise my notes.

I am reminded of Otto Neurath's famous image which compares our body of knowledge to a boat that must be repaired at sea: "We are like sailors who must rebuild their ship on the open sea, without ever being able to dismantle it in dry dock and reconstruct it from the best materials."

Today I put up a revised version of 'Conservatism without religion' under the new title, 'Modern conservatism'.

Sometimes I am tempted to go in a more scholarly direction. For example, I have been reading up on the philosophy of law. But, in some ways, such areas (the philosophy of mathematics is another that comes to mind) can be problematic. They appear rigorous and scholarly, but they lack a mechanism to create the convergence of views which characterizes scientific disciplines.

Debates between, say, legal positivists and supporters of natural law-based approaches - or indeed between legal positivists and legal positivists! - roll on for decades without any real resolution. Such debates produce divergence rather than convergence of opinion - growing lists of elaborate and more or less incompatible theories.

I have tried to avoid getting entangled in this sort of thing, stating my views as clearly and as plainly as I can. Not everyone will agree with what I say. There are facts and there are values, and values are necessarily subjective to some degree.

That's just how things are, and I am inclined to think that life would be a lot simpler and a lot more pleasant if that subjective element were more universally recognized and accepted.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The future of conservatism

Once upon a time - not so long ago really - the older generation knew things that the younger generation wanted or needed to know. There was a sense that certain customs, certain literary or artistic or cultural standards persisted through time and might be expected to persist into the future. Objective standards, if you like.

That Western cultural tradition, that thing which we felt as our tradition, is dead. There is no 'us' any more other than fragmentary groups with little prospect of self-perpetuation.

Nothing highlights the disconnect between today's culture and the past more clearly than the slow but relentless closing off of the channels of intergenerational communication. Young people are largely self-sufficient, communicating with and seeking information from one another rather than from older mentors. And, of course, digital technologies facilitate such intragenerational information flow, freeing it from restrictions of time and distance.

Declining fertility rates in many Western countries and in Japan seem to be linked to the failure of cultural traditions. Is it not possible that a loss of confidence in those traditions might be a contributing factor to low birth rates? Look at it from the point of view of the individual who identifies with and takes his values from a culture he sees as dying. Why go to the bother and expense of having a family when there is little chance one's children would carry forward one's values?

We have learned that genes play tricks on us (as it were) in order to encourage us to reproduce - them! But what do I care about my genes? What I do care about are people, certain values, certain cultural and intellectual traditions. I feel much closer to people who share my basic values (I am not thinking politics here) than to those to whom I might have a close genetic relationship but who do not share my values.

Let us assume, then, that traditional conservatism, predicated on the assumption that key values are embodied in certain institutions (the traditional family, churches, etc.), is in terminal decline. Is there any future for conservatism? Perhaps a new form of conservatism?

I am of the view that there is a set of values which might justifiably be called conservative which will always survive the demise of particular cultural traditions: values such as independence of thought, self-reliance, self-discipline and the generous spirit which expresses itself in good manners.

Such values are timeless and not dependent on particular traditions and so are resilient to social and cultural upheaval. They stand a better chance of being passed on than culture-specific values.

But the upholders of such values will be geographically scattered, constituting - if this is not too Romantic an idea - a kind of diaspora. Their promised land is not and never will be a geopolitical entity, but simply the prospect of meaningful contact and communication, a meeting of minds in the here and now, maybe hearing echoes from the past and radiating out into an indefinite future.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Summoned by bells

Schools run by, or under the auspices of, mainstream churches were once the mainstay of conservative values in many Western countries. The schoolmasters and schoolmistresses of times past were natural conservatives, valuing hierarchies of authority, almost military (or monastic?) routine, and a relatively stable body of cultural lore to be passed on - Christian texts, Greek and Roman texts, and various literary works in English and European languages.

In many ways this traditional amalgam of Greek, Roman and Christian ideas became a liability for the West because of the high prestige accorded to classical learning and literature, and the low status attached to science and technology. Nietzsche, steeped in the classical tradition, saw science as democratic and levelling. At the school I attended from the age of nine to the age of seventeen - an institution which carried the Middle Ages well into the second half of the 20th century - Latin and French were high-prestige subjects and, before some long-overdue renovations, our chemistry laboratory would have made any time-travelling alchemists feel right at home.

But there is no doubt that the West's shared cultural traditions helped to create a sense of social harmony at home and the sense of belonging to a wider world; that the widespread teaching and learning of Latin and Greek helped to create self-discipline and a sense of history; and that the tedium of regular services in the school chapel taught the invaluable but dying art of sitting still.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Back to the apes

Richard Dawkins has been having a little trouble lately with feminists. He may think back with nostalgia to earlier decades when the world was marginally saner and marginally more intelligent and he was an evolutionary biologist who wrote popular books on evolutionary biology.

I was browsing through one of these older books recently, an elegant little tract entitled River out of Eden: a Darwinian view of life. The book is full of fascinating material, but let me focus here on a section showing that we are all more closely related than most people think.

"You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents and so on. With every generation, the number of ancestors doubles. Go back g generations and the number of ancestors is 2 multiplied by itself g times: 2 to the power g. Except that, without leaving our armchair, we can quickly see that it cannot be so. To convince ourselves of this, we have only to go back a little way - say, to the time of Jesus, almost exactly two thousand years ago. If we assume, conservatively, four generations per century ... two thousand years amounts to a mere eighty generations... Two multiplied by itself 80 times is a formidable number, a 1 followed by 24 noughts, a trillion American trillion. You had a million million million million ancestors who were contemporaries of Jesus, and so did I! But the total population of the world at that time was a fraction of a negligible fraction of the number of ancestors we have just calculated.

Obviously we have gone wrong somewhere, but where? We did the calculation right. The only thing we got wrong was our assumption about doubling up in every generation. In effect, we forgot that cousins marry. I assumed that we each have eight great-grandparents. But any child of a first-cousin marriage has only six great-grandparents, because the cousins' shared grandparents are in two separate ways great-grandparents to the children. 'So what?' you may ask. People occasionally marry their cousins ... but it surely doesn't happen often enough to make a difference? Yes it does, because 'cousin' for our purposes includes second cousins, fifth cousins, sixteenth cousins and so forth. When you count cousins as distant as that, every marriage is a marriage between cousins. You sometimes hear people boasting about being a distant cousin of the Queen, but it is rather pompous of them, because we are all distant cousins of the Queen, and of everybody else, in more ways than can ever be traced."

Seeking to get one of his students to reason along these lines, Dawkins asked her "to make an educated guess as to how long ago her most recent common ancestor with me might have lived. Looking hard at my face, she unhesitatingly replied, in a slow, rural accent, 'Back to the apes.' An excusable intuitive leap, but it is approximately 10,000 percent wrong. It would suggest a separation measured in millions of years. The truth is that the most recent ancestor she and I shared would possibly have lived no more than a couple of centuries ago, probably well after William the Conqueror. Moreover, we were certainly cousins in many different ways simultaneously."

Classic Dawkins.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The ground of being

For almost the whole of human history - until, say, the 19th century - the intellectually curious could expect their culture's deepest and most universal explanatory systems to be not only intellectually but also emotionally satisfying. Mythic, religious or metaphysical systems provided explanations (albeit inadequate as we now see) of both the natural and the social/moral world.

Our best theories of physics, by contrast, omit - as they must - all the things our complex brains seem primarily designed to deal with. And the men (and very few women) at the forefront of research in physics and related sciences often come across as lacking in social awareness.

Writing style (in non-technical contexts) gives a lot away about a person, and so often, when reading autobiographical or semi-autobiographical books by leading scientists, I find myself making allowances for what seems to be a certain childish quality, a lack of critical or social or psychological awareness or sophistication - even sometimes a certain moral immaturity and recklessness. It seems almost as though - as with autistic savants - these people's brains are not 'wasting' any time or energy on the immensely complex processing involved in being socially (and morally?) aware.

There are exceptions, of course. Seth Lloyd's book Programming the universe (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006) is not only beautifully written in a spare and restrained style, but it is also saying something of profound importance. Lloyd takes the tradition of digital physics associated with such names as Edward Fredkin and John Wheeler and updates it to encompass the concept - and the reality - of quantum computing.

Wheeler suggested that the bit (i.e. information) was the fundamental building block of reality rather than the physical particle; Lloyd and his colleagues deal not in bits but in qubits (quantum bits). The cosmos is not a classical computer but rather a quantum computer - computing itself. A more recent work by Vlatko Vedral, Decoding reality (OUP, 2010), makes similar claims.

According to this way of thinking, in order to understand any complex system the most important thing is to understand how information is represented and processed within that system. But underlying all systems are just a handful of simple logical operations. There is something very beautiful about this, and I am sometimes tempted to devote myself in a serious way to learning more about these fundamental processes - and even writing about them. But I'm not sure the payoff would be worth it. Fascinating as these ideas are in general terms, I fear that the deeper one goes, the less interesting they become - except in a technical sense. The puzzles of quantum computing are fascinating - but no more so than any other complex joint problem-solving exercise. The fascination is not the emotionally satisfying fascination associated with a global understanding of one's place in nature.

My provisional conclusion is that ultimately our ordinary lives are more complex and interesting than these fundamental processes. To imagine otherwise is to exhibit traces of theological thinking, the old sense that there is something very wonderful at the heart of reality - God, the Ground of Being. But it's looking increasingly likely that there's just a whole lot of computing going on, willy-nilly, and without a master programmer.

Friday, July 1, 2011


I walked past a disabled man the other day who was rattling along in his motorized wheelchair with the brand name emblazoned on the back in big letters: KARMA.

Since karma is the supposed moral law of cause and effect whereby the sum of a person's actions is carried forward from one life to the next, I wondered what the makers of the wheelchair had in mind. A little joke?

Or do they really believe that their clients - at least those of them who were born disabled - are paying for evil deeds committed in previous lives?

Friday, June 24, 2011

Conservative and libertarian

Though much philosophical and ideological debate, polemic and argument can seem like a waste of time (and frankly much of it is), there will always be a place for it if only as an intellectual safety valve or as the mark of a free society. But can such debate be a truth-seeking activity?

Worldviews or ideologies are a mixture of facts (or purported facts) and (inevitably subjective) values. They can be partially assessed in terms of the facts (or falsehoods) they rely on, in terms of how well they reflect social and psychological realities, and also in terms of internal consistency or coherence.

Though internal consistency doesn't necessarily imply truth, testing coherence can serve a useful (if limited) purpose. Amongst those whose ideas are different but close, discussion can be productive. If I generally think like you but we disagree about this or that, I might be inclined to look again at those issues from your point of view, and you from mine. Two minds which are fairly close trying to reconcile areas of disagreement are not unlike one person finding incompatible elements in his own thinking and trying to bring them into some kind of harmony. There are certainly circumstances when explicitly setting out one's ideas in writing or in a discussion does make a difference.

Such clarifying discourse, however, is pretty rare, as most of the time - whether we mean to or not - we are just playing games, scoring points, defending long held points of view without really putting our beliefs on the line. And these problems are magnified when the setting is institutional and the participants are professional scholars.

The sciences are tethered to reality by strict conventions and procedures. Predictions are made and tested. Adverse results may often be explained away, but adverse results do make a dent in the credibility of those who support the theory in question. By contrast, in non-empirical areas (mathematics is a special case and can be seen as quasi-empirical in fact) the prizes go to those with the most persuasive manners, the most dogged commitment to scholarly tasks (and to writing grant applications), and the most influential friends and allies. Truth has little to do with it, and the proliferation of theories of human rights, justice, morality, equality, etc. is just about as far from science (which is marked over time by drastic pruning and convergence) as it is possible to get.

There is also the unfortunate fact that scholars with left-wing or (so-called) progressive views have, to a large extent, taken over the teaching of the humanities in universities as well as most of the important journals. One example: a preference for "creative" and "novel" approaches by the Journal of Social Philosophy is combined with a clear left-wing bias. The journal, edited by Carol C. Gould, "seeks to publish creative approaches to practical and normative issues ... such as those arising from economic and other forms of globalization, violent political conflict, and the multiplicity of cultural experiences worldwide." It "gives priority to the development of novel theoretical frameworks from social ontology to care ethics to cosmopolitan theories of democracy, human rights and global justice."

So is social philosophy just a cover for ideological posturing and empty talk? Not necessarily. But, clearly, the sort of thing promoted as social philosophy by the Journal of Social Philosophy is far too influenced by current ideological fashions. It is all too easy covertly or unwittingly to build values and biases into theories and models in the humanities, and the "novel theoretical frameworks" being sought are sure to be shot through with implicit values. A different style of social philosophy could, though, usefully identify hidden values and biases in social scientific research. Scientific disciplines must eschew values if they are to be truly scientific but reflection on such disciplines can legitimately incorporate substantive and explicit discussion of values as a central element.

System building in social philosophy and related areas is problematic. The countless systems and theories which have been elaborated are just so many incompatible and ultimately crude attempts to encapsulate the immense complexity of social reality into a linguistic construct - thin and static models of a dynamic world. (Computer simulations may, however, manage to capture important aspects of social reality.)

For me, then, social philosophy is mainly critical and analytical, but it can also involve the articulation of principles, directions, ideals and preferences.

The tradition of social thought which I favor draws on both conservatism and libertarianism because these currents of thought not only - as I see it - reflect the realities and the possibilities of human nature, but also because they do not appeal to grievances and resentments as leftist ideologies tend to do. Conservatives respect the cockeyed wisdom of tradition, libertarians the rationality of ordinary people (imperfect though it is and we are).

Both conservatives and libertarians embrace the present and, though they look to the future and hope, they do not, like radical leftists, look for salvation there... Life - when all is said and done - is good.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Democracy, debt and delusion

The Economist's 'Buttonwood' recently cited a BCA Research report which predicts - on the basis of some plausible assumptions concerning the continuation of current voting patterns relating to age, ethnicity and gender, and demographic trends - that the Republican Party will fade as a major force, and that even Texas will be a solidly Democratic state by 2030.

BCA believes that the deficit problems in the U.S. will not be tackled until 2013, and (this is based on new research from the Pew Research Center) that spending cuts - especially to Medicare and Social Security - will be resisted by voters. Taxes will rise substantially:

"[H]igher taxes will lead to lower labour supply and slower capital accumulation. Eventually, further tax hikes will become self-defeating. At this stage, the U.S. will likely experience a fiscal and political crisis on a scale that has few parallels in history."

The problems of American democracy are mirrored in many other Western democracies today, and they go beyond the fortunes of particular parties and indeed beyond politics.

The Western liberal democratic model seemed until relatively recently to have stood the test of time and to have achieved a degree of stability. But increased populism and the gradual erosion of traditional institutions within Western countries has led inexorably to chronic budget deficits and accumulating public debt.

In the dark days of the 1930s and 40s, a group of European and American thinkers tried to articulate a social philosophy which had at its core the key principles of economic liberalism. Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek played leading roles in the movement, but there were many others, now mostly forgotten.

They shared, by and large, a belief that human reason could help to define economic and social possibilities and impossibilities as a guide to policy-making. They developed a very sophisticated understanding of the way free markets operate and are able to process and assimilate complex information. But their thought also had a socio-political dimension.

These thinkers shared a distrust of majoritarian democracy which they saw as a potentially fatal flaw in Western political thought and practice.

It is only in recent decades that the complex, traditional structures and institutions of the West (structures which often embodied privilege and elitism, but also social complexity and autonomy) have been effectively dismantled - leaving what? Naked majoritarian democracy and its corollaries, political populism and an unsustainable welfare state.

The idea of freedom, that as far as possible people should determine their own lives, is a powerful one, and most Western countries have managed - until now - to deliver a high degree of freedom with social order and prosperity. But the relative freedom and prosperity enjoyed in the West over the past two centuries or so was not just the result of a particular political model. It was also dependent on deep social, cultural and historical factors or preconditions.

And, arguably, those preconditions for an effective and prosperous free society are no longer in place in the U.S. and many other Western countries.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Two kinds of people

We all have a tendency to think in terms of simple dichotomies, and often these dichotomies are strongly value-based and involve taking sides (good and bad, friend and foe, right and left ...).

The English writer Alan Bennett recalled that, as a child, he often saw inanimate objects as either good or bad, friendly or not friendly: one shoe brush (maybe the one for putting on the polish) was bad, the other (for polishing) good; one spoon was good, its fellow was bad, and so on.

Needless to say, these tendencies are stronger in some people than in others. They often manifest themselves in sporting or political contexts. Some people can watch a sporting contest or listen to a political debate without taking sides. Others - perhaps more naturally competitive - just can't be impartial.

A particularly amusing case relates to an old controversy between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz whose respective claims to have invented the calculus led to much dispute at the time. The mathematician Gregory Chaitin couldn't resist joining the fray - more than 300 years later! - and, what's more, highlighting the personal and moral qualities of the two long-dead antagonists:

"Newton was a great physicist, but he was definitely inferior to Leibniz both as a mathematician and as a philosopher. And Newton was a rotten human being ... Leibniz invented the calculus, published it ... and then was astonished to learn that Newton, who had never published a word on the subject, claimed that Leibniz had stolen it all from him. Leibniz could hardly take Newton seriously!

But it was Newton who won, not Leibniz.

Newton bragged that he had destroyed Leibniz and rejoiced in Leibniz's death ...

Morally, what a contrast! Leibniz was such an elevated soul that he found good in all philosophies ... It pains me to say [really?] that Newton enjoyed witnessing the executions of counterfeiters he pursued as Master of the Mint." [Meta math! The quest for omega (Vintage Books, 2005), p. 57]

Later, Chaitin pities Voltaire, who satirized Leibniz and praised Newton:

"Poor Voltaire - if he had read Newton's private papers, he would have realized that he had backed the wrong man!" [p. 59]

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Midgets on my shoulders

I have previously mentioned my failed search for a 'thinking master', a reliable guide to approaching and assessing the most important intellectual and moral questions. Perhaps it was a good thing that I never found one; perhaps even seeking such a guide is a sign of intellectual indolence. Certainly, George Steiner's study of maîtres à penser and their disciples which I cited in that previous post suggests that the vast majority of such relationships end in disillusionment. This is not to say, however, that we are not utterly dependent on what others have discovered and thought and said.

Isaac Newton wrote that he had seen further than other men only because he had stood on the shoulders of giants. Steven E. Landsburg cites an anonymous variation on this saying: "If I have not seen as far as other men, it is because midgets are standing on my shoulders."

Landsburg may or may not be an intellectual giant but - to his great credit - he is not afraid of addressing the big questions, and often brings to bear upon them a refreshing candor and directness coupled with ruthlessly rigorous logic (usually).* I have a few reservations about some of his positions, but I believe his general approach is well grounded.

One of his most interesting ideas relates to what people really believe. Wisely, he is very skeptical about what people say in response to survey questions, and he thinks that much of today's anti-religious literature (including Richard Dawkins's efforts) is based on the false premise that people really believe what they say (and perhaps think!) they believe.

According to Landsburg, "Dawkins undercuts his own position when he points to statistics showing that ... there is no correlation between religiosity and crime. His point is that religion does not make people better, but he misses the larger point that if religion doesn't make people better, then most people must not be terribly religious."

Different parts of our brain can in effect 'believe' different, incompatible things, and it's often only when circumstances require or force a single choice that the inconsistency is noted and resolved - one way or the other. So most purportedly religious people only believe in the tenets of their religion when there is no real cost to them. They believe that they believe, but it doesn't matter all that much so their beliefs are what Landsburg calls "disposable".

"Suppose you could take a devoutly religious person," he writes, "ask him, 'Are the tenets of your religion true?' and somehow convince him that the life of his child depends on getting the answer right. I'm guessing that nine times out of ten, you'd find yourself confronting a born-again infidel. The only reason that rarely happens is that there's rarely an occasion when getting the right answer actually matters."

*See The big questions: tackling the problems of philosophy with ideas from mathematics, economics and physics (Pocket Books, 2010). See also http://www.the-big-questions.com/

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dollar bears

The U.S. dollar seems to be losing its status as a store of secure value and it's difficult not to see this both as a contributing factor to, and as symbolic of, a world-wide loss of confidence in the United States itself.

A Bloomberg report published today makes it clear that most of the top-performing global fund managers are sticking to their "long-term bets against the U.S. dollar even as the currency has rallied more than 4 percent since the end of last month." Despite the recent rally, the dollar is still down 12 percent in the past year against a trade-weighted basket of six currencies.

Alessio de Longis, a New York-based currency strategist, was quoted as saying that "the long-term fundamentals still look terrible for the dollar... The U.S. has worse monetary policy and worse fiscal policy than other countries, and that is a bad combination..."

Bill Gross of Pimco said that investors should "revolt" against Federal Reserve-engineered low interest rates and seek alternatives to U.S. bonds. Michael Gomez, also with Pimco, said that Asian currencies were only part way through a multiyear appreciation against the dollar. "We think this is a powerful trend," he said.

The rising Chinese currency (the yuan) is not yet convertible but many believe that Asian countries such as South Korea and Malaysia will let their currencies climb along with the yuan. Other currencies to get a favorable mention in the Bloomberg report were the Australian and New Zealand dollars, the Norwegian krone and the Swedish krona.

Anthony Norris of Wells Fargo thinks the U.S. dollar will rally later in the year but still believes the dollar has to decline in the longer term.

There are, of course, dissenting views, but the fate of the dollar rests with interest rates and government finances, and U.S. monetary and fiscal policies do not inspire confidence.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The smelly pony

Modern psychology has confirmed the deep psychological insights of a few 19th century thinkers (most notably, perhaps, Arthur Schopenhauer and Friedrich Nietzsche) about the extent to which we are strangers to ourselves. We often do not see ourselves as clearly as others - even chance acquaintances - see us, or know our own minds.

I once read an account of a young woman who realized with great surprise that she had really hated the pony she thought she had loved as a girl. All girls love their ponies, don't they? And her younger self had duly conformed. But, looking back, she suddenly realized that that girl did not love her pony at all. It was evil-tempered and evil-smelling. A burden was lifted, an unnecessary self-deception revealed.

I can think of similar examples from my own adolescence. My 'love' of playing cricket lasted into young manhood, and it took a mere acquaintance (an older man, the captain of a team for which I was playing) to ask the obvious question - and to dispel the illusion. Again, a burden was lifted. At my father's initiative, I had had extensive training in the game, and, until that slightly embarrassing (but liberating) conversation, I continued to play it out of habit or duty or a delusion, not that I was good at it (I clearly wasn't), but that I enjoyed it.

Now, this may be drawing a long bow, but I recently wondered whether my love for the English language might not be another case of 'the smelly pony'. English is a brute of a language to use well. I don't know about you, but, even as a native speaker, I find it a struggle sometimes. I don't really feel at home in my own language!

English is classed as Germanic, but is really a mixture of Germanic and Romance. The double vocabulary (Anglo-Saxon/Norman), reflected in legal phrases like 'last will and testament' and 'storm and tempest', is well known and results in an unnecessarily large and unwieldy lexicon. But English sentence structure - not just the lexicon - seems also to have been influenced by the French-speaking Normans, to the extent that German sentence structures sound strange to us. (For English and the Romance languages the basic word order for transitive sentences is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), whereas German has verb-final order in subordinate clauses.) I wonder if native speakers of, on the one hand, Germanic languages like German or Swedish, or, on the other, of French or the other Romance languages, ever feel daunted by - not at home in - their own tongue. I doubt it.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Filthy lucre

My thoughts have been more than usually concerned with financial matters of late as I attempt to rejig my modest investments in the light of the changing economic and financial environment, and bring them into line with my assessment of the current risks and opportunities out there. It's difficult to know where to put one's savings these days, with currency turmoil and sovereign debt problems adding to the usual uncertainties. I may in the future have a go at talking in detail about these matters though I still have a residual sense (derived from a rather old-fashioned upbringing) that money is not a proper subject for polite discourse!

The most unlikely people have spoken in praise of money - and in the most unlikely circumstances. The English television and screen writer Dennis Potter was interviewed on Channel 4 by Melvyn Bragg a short time before his death from cancer. He was in pain, and occasionally sipped a morphine-based concoction from a flask. He spoke of his early life, his work (he was trying to complete a final television drama), politics, English culture, and of his desire to murder Rupert Murdoch. Despite his left-wing views, Potter admitted to a strong preference for traveling first class. A disarming aside stuck in my memory. "Money - I like it," he said.

If lefties and the dying normally refrain from speaking in praise of cash, so do other categories of people, including Romantics and romantics. And, of course, the traditionally religious. The notion of holy poverty ("Blessed are the poor ...") is a major New Testament theme and a strong element in most Christian traditions, including Roman Catholicism.

So this couplet by Hilaire Belloc, a writer who strongly identified with the Roman Catholic church, has rather more punch than it would had it come from the pen of a worldly cynic:

I'm tired of Love; I'm still more tired of Rhyme.
But money gives me pleasure all the time.