Saturday, May 26, 2012

Back to the drachma?

This piece (from Bloomberg Businessweek) makes some good points about the problems which a return to the drachma would cause for the Greek economy - including exporters. For example, the price of imported components and raw materials upon which many exports depend would soar. On the other hand, agriculture and tourism would benefit.

What stood out in the article for me was not so much the analysis as a reported remark by a disgruntled German guest (it would have to be a German, wouldn't it?) to an Athens hotel worker: "You don't have an economy, government, or money, but you're charging me €4 for a coffee."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

All the best people are dead

A body is not a person. A person is created when a growing body interacts with other bodies in a particular cultural context (language, manners, technologies, values...).

And, from the perspective of this particular person, the people being formed at present and for the foreseeable future will come with serious deficiencies of mind: attention-span limitations, an inability to embrace silence and solitude, no sense of history or cultural continuity. Technological factors are the main culprit.

There will be a small number of individuals (of conservative or contrarian persuasion) who will transcend their circumstances and shine, but on the whole it will remain the case that the best people are dead.

Such a claim need not be absolute or categorical. In fact, it will be stronger and truer if put into hypothetical form. If one espouses certain (you might call them old-fashioned) values associated with self-discipline, restraint, focused thought, etc., and believes current and likely future technological and cultural trends will not support such values then the bleak proposition that the best people are dead (or well on the way to oblivion) seems to follow inescapably.

This sort of claim is routinely ridiculed as the typical and utterly predictable refrain of groups associated with the old order as society changes (as it always has and always will). But a case can be made that this time it's different. (A case I will not attempt to make here, however, merely noting that the digital revolution is quite unprecedented in its scope and intrusiveness.)

And the claim about the best people being gone or fading fast need not be made in a whinging or complaining sort of way. For me, it is an (admittedly sad and regrettable) observation, but also a tribute to teachers and intellectual ancestors.

And finally, with respect to the future, I did speak only of the foreseeable future.

There are other times, other worlds...

Friday, May 4, 2012

Can we dispense with ideology?

It has been the case for many, many years, and is now, of course, even more so the case, that humanity's knowledge-base is so vast and varied that an individual is capable of understanding only the tiniest fraction of it. Specialists devote a lifetime to their little corner, and even then, at least in the sciences, will only make significant contributions by working collaboratively with others.

And yet we (or at least some of us) still hanker for a general understanding of things, a synoptic view. This is what religions and various secular ideologies have provided - something to satisfy our instinct to get to the bottom of things and to situate ourselves within the whole; to make sense of our fleeting lives.

Crucially, we need to integrate our feelings and values with our practical and objective knowledge of the world, and this is what religions and ideologies have done so successfully in the past.

Unfortunately, the most potent forms of religion today are completely divorced from modern science. Islam is locked into a medieval worldview, and the forms of Christianity (and indeed Judaism) which are currently flourishing rely on a blinkered and literalistic interpretation of scriptures composed thousands of years ago.

More intelligent forms of religion (like the views put forward by Erwin Schrödinger to which I recently alluded) are also problematic, in my opinion, largely because they tend to lack content. Rereading Schrödinger, I am annoyed both by the vagueness of his religious claims and by the patrician, sage-like tone. Just a bit too self-conscious. And of course the science is old.*

Political ideologies are not much more satisfactory. The complexity of the social realm makes it impossible to pin down the essentials in a creed or text, and attempts to do so - and apply the creed - have been spectacularly unsuccessful, often resulting in much unnecessary death and suffering.

But one can take the word 'ideology' in a broader sense, denoting a general set of beliefs about the nature of things and about social life and about what is important. In this sense, ideology is a good and necessary thing.

We need to make choices, we need to act, and to do so we need to integrate objective knowledge with feelings and values. I don't think we need to turn to religious traditions for help here (though many do); and of course we should be modest in what we claim for our view of things. But we need something like an ideology if we are to have a synoptic view, and certainly if we aspire to give a coherent and principled account of our actions.

* Interestingly, Roger Penrose contributed a brief preface to the reprint of some of Schrödinger's non-technical writings which I have been reading. Penrose writes that when he was a young mathematics student in the 1950s he didn't read a great deal, "but what I did read - at least if I completed the book - was usually by Erwin Schrödinger." It is no surprise that Schrödinger's mystical view of life and consciousness would have appealed to the man who was to write The Emperor's New Mind.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Schrödinger and friends

I am revisiting some of Erwin Schrödinger's beautifully-written essays in which he reflects on science, life and religion. (The Canto paperback published by Cambridge University Press incorporates What is Life? and Mind and Matter as well as Autobiographical Sketches.)

Schrödinger was profoundly influenced by Vedantic thought and, when I read him previously, I was more interested in and respectful of mysticism than I am now. It will be interesting to see whether I still feel I can endorse his view of the world.

He was not a paragon of virtue. An only child, he had a very happy childhood, though he admits that as a young man he neglected his ailing parents. I know that he fell out with Albert Einstein, and, though I don't know the circumstances, I believe that Schrödinger was at fault.

And here is a paragraph from Autobiographical Sketches (1960). It strikes a rather odd - and disturbing - note. But it should be noted that the Schrödingers stayed only a brief time in Jena, and Hitler's rise to power was well over a decade away.

In March/April 1920 Annemarie and I got married. We moved soon after to Jena, where we took furnished lodgings. I was expected to add some up-to-date theoretical physics to Professor Auerbach's set lectures. We enjoyed the friendship and cordiality of both the Auerbachs, who were Jews, and of my boss Max Wien and his wife (they were anti-Semites by tradition, but bore no personal malice). Being on such good terms with them all was a great help to me. In 1933, the Auerbachs, I am told, saw no means of escape from the oppression and humiliation which Hitler's taking over ... held in store for them but suicide. Eberhard Buchwald, a young physicist who had just lost his wife, and a couple called Eller with their two little sons were also amongst our friends in Jena. Mrs. Eller came to see me here in Alpbach last summer (1959), a poor bereaved woman whose three men-folk had lost their lives fighting for a cause they did not believe in.