Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas incident

Last night at about 9:30 I was walking through Melbourne's Chinatown. Walking ahead of me were a couple of harmless-looking locals, best pals obviously. One looked like he might have been Greek – a street famous for its Greek restaurants and cake shops is nearby – and the other, wearing a Santa bonnet, was pale-skinned and earnest and obviously an Anglo.

I didn't see the face of the large figure who was looming towards us but I heard him plain enough.

"Fuck Christmas," he shouted as he brushed past. "I'm a Muslim." Then further profanities (including the c-word) from the self-proclaimed follower of the Prophet.

Presumably, he had been the recipient of a seasonal greeting from the young man in the bonnet.

The latter stood to attention and puffed his chest out. He was shocked and affronted.

But there was no violence. The offender had disappeared into the crowd, and the two friends, disconcerted and a bit confused, resumed their course, muttering to one another.

[I know. You mustn't generalize or stereotype people according to ethnic or religious background. But I am motivated to recount this little story as a reaction against the tendencies – prevalent in the circles in which I move – to self-censorship and to pandering (as I see it) to the feelings of ethnic minorities. Such pandering can actually encourage this kind of crass arrogance in my opinion.]

Friday, December 20, 2013

Seven billion brains

Neil Turok is a theoretical physicist and campaigner for various progressive causes including his particular quest to promote mathematics and science education in Africa. A very worthy cause, you might say. And I agree.

But Turok's naïve enthusiasm – for this and other ideas – leads him to make extravagent claims and comparisons.

For example, his talk about a future "African Einstein" is pure hype and verges on the meaningless. For one thing, science in general and physics in particular have changed dramatically in the last hundred years such that individual scientists will never again play the prominent roles they once did.

Turok's most recent book, The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos* (based on his Massey Lectures given in late 2012), is a disorganized and confused mixture of popular science, social advocacy and mystical-sounding speculation.

I'll focus on a particularly vacuous section (pp. 199-201). Here Turok raises (for the third time in the book) the issue of the discrimination and prejudice once faced by European Jews. When eventually, in the latter part if the 19th century, they gained access to scientific and technical education they were (as he puts it) "hugely motivated to ... show that Jews could do every bit as well as anybody else."

It follows from this, apparently, that other excluded groups (such as Africans) hold the key to future scientific breakthroughs.

Turok is now really hitting his stride...

"Which brings me," he writes, "back to the question of unification, both of peoples across the planet and of our understanding of the world. [Don't you love this?] The search for a superunified theory is an extremely ambitious goal. A priori, it would seem to be hopeless: we are tiny, feeble creatures dwarfed by the universe around us. Our only tools are our minds and our ingenuity. But these have enabled us to come amazingly far. If we think of the world today, with seven billion minds, many in emerging economies and societies, it is clear there is a potential gold mine of talent... If opportunities are opened, we can anticipate waves of motivated, original young people capable of transformative discoveries.

Who are we in the end? As far as we know, we represent something very rare in the universe..."

Forgive me if I gloss over Turok's one hundred and fifty word summary of the cosmic and biological evolution which has brought us to "the threshold of a new phase of evolution". He continues:

"Great mysteries remain. Why did the universe emerge from the big bang with a set of physical laws that gave rise to heavy elements and allowed complex chemistry? Why did these laws allow for planets to form around stars, with water, organic molecules, an atmosphere and the other requirements for life? Why did the DNA-protein machinery, developed and selected for in the evolution of single-cell organisms, turn out to be able to code for complex creatures like ourselves? How and why did consciousness emerge?"

There is much more of this contentless verbiage. Like this gem (which reminds me of something an ousted Prime Minister with a particularly healthy ego said** when asked what he would be doing in the future):

"We cannot know what new technologies we will create, but if the past is any guide, they will be extraordinary."

Obviously, though, all these rhetorical questions and speculations are pointing in a particular direction, are leading up to something. "Might we be the means," asks Turok, "for the universe to gain a consciousness of itself?"

What he seems to be suggesting is that there is some kind of master plan. And this interpretation is reinforced by the attention given to the writings of (of all people) the Jesuit mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (whom Turok insists on calling 'de Chardin' as if Teilhard was a given name).

The main lesson (and it is an important one) I take from The Universe Within is that scientific and mathematical expertise in no way guarantees that sense of critical awareness which is so necessary for sound judgement on broader intellectual and social matters. Theoretical physicists should be listened to only when they are talking about theoretical physics.

But even here we have to be careful, as many physicists – Turok amongst them – cannot resist trading on their scientific expertise to underscore broader philosophical and religious points which they wish (for non-scientific reasons) to make.

Turok claims, for example, that according to the laws of quantum physics, "... we are not irrelevant bystanders. On the contrary, what we see depends upon what we decide to observe. Unlike classical physics, quantum physics allows for, but does not yet explain, an element of free will." (The Universe Within, p. 168)

Apart from the fact that "free will" is a thoroughly theological concept which he just throws in here without any discussion or elaboration, Turok is glossing over very real controversies about the interpretation and implications of contemporary physics.

It may well be that consciousness does lie at the heart of reality (though on most recent interpretations quantum mechanics does not assume or imply this, at least to my knowledge). It may even be that the concept of free will can be rehabilitated.

But Turok's pronouncements on these sorts of issues are no more illuminating than most of his speculations and predictions about human progress.

* Allen & Unwin, 2013.

** He didn't know what he would be doing, but whatever it was it would be big!

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Marriage and social change

As progressive causes – like feminism and gay rights – progress, the victories often become less significant.

Why, for example, would a woman want to be a priest or a bishop? Why would anyone want to be a priest or a bishop?

Well, to be serious, I do understand why devout Catholics or Episcopalians (whether they be men or women and whatever their sexual orientation) might aspire to leadership roles within their respective churches, but the question of who gets to be priests etc. is (or should be) of concern only to the members of the churches involved. And, of course, that membership base is much depleted – and shrinking.

The issue of same-sex marriage, however, is both more complicated and more significant. You could ask similar questions to the questions I asked above, but the parallel with ordination breaks down. It's readily understandable and widely understood that – and why – (many) couples want to wed. The cynical take on marriage [cue Eddie Cantor routine (see below)] is – as it always was – a minority position.

However, I think it's fair to say that a personal or theoretical lack of commitment to the institution of marriage in general does not necessarily entail either sexism or cynicism. But I'll save my arguments on this for another day and make do with an anecdote.

A lawyer who lived with and had children with and eventually married (a non-event in the scheme of things) a favorite cousin of mine used to say to her, "Let's not bring the law into our relationship." (He also used to say, "The law is an ass." But I won't go there...)

Clearly, she wanted more security. And he had been through a very messy (and I suspect expensive) divorce as a younger man. Anyway, they stayed together, if you want to know, even after my cousin was struck down with a terrible illness. Faithfulness (or the lack of it) is what defines a relationship in the end.

The only other comment I want to make on this issue is that allowing same-sex couples to marry (which I am not arguing against) does change the meaning of the institution of marriage. This is an obvious fact which some advocates of reform don't seem to acknowledge. Exactly how it changes it is difficult to define precisely. But, clearly, it would make the institution less appealing to those with conservative views.

It is quite possible that many non-religious conservatives who might under the old system have quite liked the idea of marrying their girlfriend (I can only really speak from a male point of view here) may henceforth be put off the idea because marriage no longer sends the same (mildly socially conservative) signal it once did.

Some may detect homophobia in this general line of thought – along the lines that gays and lesbians have somehow contaminated the institution. But this would be stretching the concept of homophobia much too far and distorting some relatively simple semantic and social truths.

In fact, one would have to say that anyone who could interpret a man's choosing not to marry his female partner as a sign of homophobia is living in a quite different linguistic universe from the rest of us.

I am reluctant to talk about liberty or freedom in a political sense, as such talk often rings hollow to me. But, for what it's worth, I do discern within myself a deep psychological – and, perhaps, ideological – commitment to personal freedom. Freedom to love or not to love. Freedom to devise and live by one's own values, whether they be progressive or conservative or something altogether different.

The problem and the paradox of such a view is that we can fully realize these freedoms only in the context of a society in which our particular personal values find widespread expression.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Cool as a cuke

Further to my ruminations some time ago on 'the concept of cool', here is Blossom Dearie (1924-2009) introducing and performing a satirical song (lyrics by Dave Frishberg) on the topic.

Three trivial observations. The curious way she articulates – no doubt in fulfilment of contractual obligations – the name of the sponsor's cigarette brand in her introductory remarks. Her headmistressy admonishment of the audience member who dared to snap a photo. And is that microphone slowly slipping down, or is she merely moving it closer in as the song progresses?

It was hearing her neat, jazzy version of 'Plus je t'embrasse' being played in a coffee shop recently which brought the singer to mind, and got me thinking about accents and language. Dearie sings French with a kind of flat, American accent which comes through mainly in various vowels and diphthongs, though she generally gets that beautiful liquid 'r' and some of the characteristic vowel sounds right.

Whatever 'right' means these days. (I'll be posting a few thoughts on languages, accents and cultural identity soon.)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The complex ancestry of European Jews

A clearer picture is finally emerging of the ethnic origins of European Jewish populations. And it seems that the connections to the Near East are more tenuous than previously thought.

An important new study examining Ashkenazi lineages by decoding and analyzing entire mitochondrial genomes has found that the female lines derive predominantly from European rather than Levantine populations.* The four major and most of the minor Ashkenazi maternal lineages form clusters within descent lines that were established in Europe between 10,000 and 20,000 years ago.

Y-chromosome analysis has, on the other hand, revealed distinctive patterns which suggest that male European Jewish lineages may trace back to the large Jewish population of ancient Rome, though complicating the picture is the fact that large numbers of those practising Judaism in the ancient world were converts. Interestingly, of all general present-day European populations, Northern Italians exhibit the greatest proximity to Ashkenazi and Sephardi populations on the basis of whole-genome analysis.

So the story that seems to be emerging is that single males traveled (as traders?) from Italy and adjacent areas (as well as from the Levant, presumably) deep into various parts of Europe and married and converted local women. And it was basically from this process that the Ashkenazi and Sephardi populations of Europe arose.

A simplification, no doubt. But, if the broad outlines of this view are confirmed by future research, the myth of a clearcut racially-based Jewish identity – still entertained by certain Jewish as well as anti-Semitic groups – will be further undermined.

Social myths can be benign. But the myths associated with Jewish origins and identity have been – and unfortunately still are – being used to foment fear, hatred and division.

For example, Islamist groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood draw on traditional European as well as non-European sources which impute demonic powers to Jews whom they define as much by race as by religion.

This sort of medieval thinking has no place in the modern world, and it a great pity that some Jewish groups seem to draw on similarly implausible myths to define themselves and to justify territorial claims and political strategies.

I don't want to get involved in a discussion about Israel and its neighbours – I have never lived there and don't know enough about it. But, like many other Western observers, I regret the fact that Israeli moderates and secularists have in recent years apparently lost ground to Jewish religious groupings whose views seem at times to have more in common with their despised Islamic fundamentalist neighbours than with their moderate and secular brethren.

* See also Nicholas Wade's New York Times article.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Natural selection

No photo, unfortunately, but you can easily picture it and, no doubt, have seen this broken pattern many times. As I have. But sometimes, for no apparent reason, it hits home, as it did for me last evening.

Sitting in a sheltered courtyard at dusk, I happened to look up at a patch of sky and saw a ragged V-formation of birds (ducks?), very high up, flying north-northwest.

Then, a few seconds later, a single bird flying in the same direction.

It had started out with the others, I supposed, and was slowly falling behind, lacking the required strength or coordination or stamina. If the journey were a long one, the laggard would inevitably be lost to the others.

Evolution at work.

My point here is not political. But you could say that how one responds to these particular facts of life determines the broad tenor of one's political views. Some deny the facts, of course, but those who accept them can clearly respond in very different ways.

In general terms, you could say that the Social Darwinist or the radical right-libertarian positively embraces the dark truths of the evolutionary process; that the moderate conservative accepts the facts and tries to mitigate their worst social and human consequences; and that the socialist seeks to create a sacrosanct social sphere in which these particular facts just don't apply.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Context is everything

I am making a few changes to the summary of my political and social views which previously appeared as a permanent page on this site (and will repost it soon). [Update (September 9): revised version of my 'Sketch of a social philosophy' is now posted.]

Manifestos and lists of principles and so on are always somewhat arbitrary and inadequate, and my attempts at this sort of thing should always be taken as the rough and very provisional sketches that they are.

My thinking has evolved in the last couple of years in a couple of respects. I have come to see general political orientation less as a thing one chooses and more in terms of deep psychological dispositions – and consequently have been less inclined to talk about conservatism than about conservative approaches to this or that. (See 'The adjective not the noun'.)

Also, there has always been an implicit tension between conservative politics and classical liberalism even if many advocates of free markets identify as, and are seen as, conservatives. I have always felt and continue to feel this tension, and have not really found a way to deal with it, except to note that markets don't exist in a social vacuum and so are never actually free.

In a sophisticated society markets depend on a framework of law and enforcement as well as upon moral norms. But clearly they function best in a cohesive society with strong moral norms and values (so that the legal framework has less work to do and can afford to be less onerous).

Another recurring theme (for me) and point of tension is the relationship between politics and religion. This is complicated by the fact that political ideology often draws upon and sometimes even functions as – to the extent of being almost indistinguishable from – religion.

This issue also has a lot to do with questions of how our brains function and are structured, and how, in the face of an indifferent and often hostile world, we have a tendency to seek out or construct ideologies which can offer us comfort, vindication and perhaps transcendence.

The worst mythologies and ideologies – those that cause the most strife and conflict – are the ones which involve one group imposing its beliefs and ways of doing things on others, of essentially dividing the population into opposing camps, the side of light and the side of darkness – such approaches being all to common in human history and all too common today.

The most obvious examples of this kind of thing have been – and are – explicitly associated with religions. But you can also, as I have suggested, plausibly interpret some secular ideologies in religious terms.

For example, non- or anti-religious left-wing belief systems are often, I think, little more than secularized versions of certain Biblical moral and social values and attitudes. I am thinking in particular of some of the prophetic writings and the New Testament where characteristic themes of justice and morality are combined with apocalyptic myths about cleansing fires and curses and devastating punishments and retributions and a new heaven and a new earth. Such myths clearly feed into modern notions of revolution and radical change.

Even moderate leftist positions derive from similar sources. And, though the left-leaning scientific community tends not to see it, today's tedious secular sermons about 'social justice' and human rights are firmly based on religious and metaphysical ideas.

There are of course genuine moral issues at play and social problems that need fixing. But mythologizing, metaphysicalizing and politicizing them only serves to create unnecessary division and confusion.

I detect religious elements also in classical liberalism.

Something I noticed when I was researching the European and American thinkers who came together in the 1930s to revive the principles of classical liberalism and who provide a kind of baseline for my social thinking was that, almost without exception, they were religious (or at least had a high regard for religion).

This attitude contrasted starkly with that, for example, of most of those associated with the Vienna Circle. The logical positivist movement was characterized not only by a distaste for metaphysics and, in most cases (Gödel and Wittgenstein were exceptions) religion, but also by left-leaning political views.

It's easy to understand why traditional conservatives – whose main defining characteristic is to put a high value on traditional ways of thinking and acting – would tend to value religion, but less clear why classical liberals (who tend to emphasize the importance of individual liberty, property rights and free markets) would tend to be religious.

A partial explanation may derive from the fact that most of those mid-twentieth century thinkers were also pretty conservative in various ways.

But similar patterns still apply today. The secular right is certainly not a crowded space in the political spectrum.

In fact, I see the very commitment of those on the libertarian and free-market right to individual liberty or freedom as having a religious source. Notions of free choice and free will have a central place in Western religious and philosophical thought, and were a central element in Renaissance humanism. Mankind had, on this view, an exalted status, and that status derived from the God-given gifts of freedom and creativity.

But unfortunately the modern scientific view (as I interpret it, at any rate) rejects such interpretations and sees the rhetoric of freedom and liberty as lacking a firm foundation.

There is a sense of freedom which is worth defending, but – as with all workable ideals and values – it is contingent and qualified.

Context is everything in these matters.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The trials of fatherhood in a globalized world

Overheard last night. On an esplanade, near a conference center and hotel complex.

A man on the phone to his little son or daughter – sounding rather stern and not too happy.

"Would you ask Mommy to translate that for me please."

Friday, August 9, 2013

Germany's slow drift to the left

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, though nominally a conservative, is above all a wily and pragmatic politician who has seized the middle ground of German politics. So success for her Christian Democrats (and allied parties) in next month's elections should not necessarily give comfort to mainstream conservatives, especially if long-term trends are taken into account.

According to the highly regarded polling organization, the Allensbach Institute, over the last forty years the political views of the German people have shifted to the left.

'Each year,' writes Quentin Peel in the Financial Times, 'Allensbach asks people to place themselves on a scale of 1 to 100, from left to right. Most are in the middle, and the bell curve gets flatter towards the edges. But in the mid-1970s and earlier, the chart was skewed to the right: the average score was 56-58.'

Today, two decades after German unification, the curve has, according to a senior researcher at the Institute, Thomas Petersen, "... got much more symmetrical, and now the middle point is just to the left of centre."

And, after 70 years of peace ('the longest such period in German history') and in the wake of a largely successful reunification process, levels of anxiety, as measured by Allensbach, have fallen.

A number of questions come to mind – not least concerning the meaning and value of such self-assessments. But assuming the drift to the left is a reality, is it replicated in other Western countries? What are the likely causes? And will these trends persist?

My sense is that it is a general Western phenomenon, and that it has been caused in part by a slow but relentless breakdown of shared cultural traditions, particularly over the course of the last half century or so. Mass immigration has certainly changed many European countries dramatically, and, by all accounts, the drift to the left in America is driven largely by demographic change.

But assigning causes to such phenomena is always going to be difficult and contentious. And the last question – concerning the future – is, of course, impossible to answer with any confidence.

But my guess is that the combination of high unemployment and spiralling public debt levels in many European countries (Italy, Portugal, Spain, Greece, Ireland and, more recently, France) is setting the scene for trouble ahead, increased anxiety levels and (quite possibly) an increasing polarization of political views in Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Conservative reticence

Out of politeness, we don't say what we really think. Politeness, being grown up, being civilized, is to a great extent about keeping our thoughts to ourselves – unlike children, who can wound and often do, but are forgiven.

There is a story in my family of one of my mother's cousins – as a small child – sitting on the knee of his doting but rather vain grandfather, staring up at him and saying slowly and with great earnestness: "Oh, Grandfather, you do have a face like a dog!"

I said that we (adults) don't say what we really think. Perhaps I should say we usen't to say what we think. Times change, manners change. And digital communications give us many more opportunities to frankly speak our minds – using pseudonyms or not – than we ever had before.

But, strangely, there are still strong taboos in certain areas.

Whereas the old taboos were mainly about form rather than substance (and therefore not really intellectually restrictive), today's taboos are politically or ideologically driven. Today it's not so much how you say something that gets you into trouble (swearing or whatever) but how what you say may reveal unacceptable beliefs about, for example, the significance and interpretation of cultural or ethnic traditions, or about the role of inherited factors in explaining individual differences, or about the appropriate role of markets or the scope and responsibilities of government, or the basis of political authority, or environmental issues.

There are strong social pressures, especially in culturally elite circles (academia, media, government, etc.) not to take certain lines in these contentious areas – whether one expresses them in a restrained and measured way or not – and breaching these increasingly stringent protocols can be fatal for one's career.

It's no wonder, then, that generally the only people who go against these taboos are either not part of that elite (and with no hope of joining it) or those at the other end of the continuum who are rich enough or famous enough to be able not to care how the self-appointed guardians of morality and propriety may judge them. (I have a few names in the latter category in mind, but to list them might imply a blanket endorsement – and would only serve to attract opprobrium without any compensating notoriety.)

It seems to me that the left has largely given up on previous attempts to develop a comprehensive and theoretically coherent worldview, and has become an emotionally-driven amalgam of groups and individuals defined above all else by a strident moralism, featuring what they see as anti-racism as a (the?) prominent element. Leftist thinkers have a strong – and curiously patronizing – tendency to favor the non-white, non-European side in virtually any dispute. Also, of course, to favor women over men, and 'the oppressed' over 'the oppressor'. Because truth, of course, is a social construct...

The upshot of all this is that today's natural conservatives feel more marginalized than at any time in living memory from the political and cultural mainstream and, consequently, are – at least in many instances – finding themselves pushed in radical directions (e.g. towards right-libertarianism, or, alternatively, towards more authoritarian or even neo-fascist options).

They see the traditional modes of being conservative as becoming unviable, as what some decades ago might have been perceived as left-wing or progressive notions have been aggressively promulgated through legislation and broader cultural channels.

These days conservative reticence is more likely to mask a simmering anger and discontent than a Stoic sense of the inevitability of imperfection or a bemused recognition of human foibles.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Different drum

A comment from a school report on academic progress (the high point in fact) for a ten-year-old boy of my acquaintance:

David is an enthusiastic and creative percussionist.

David was diagnosed as autistic some years ago, but he attends a mainstream school.

Thinking back to my own school days, I must say that the more creative and percussive types tended, for better or for worse, not to get a lot of positive recognition or encouragement.

Clearly, a balance must be struck, but I am inclined to think that the fashionable emphasis on creativity is unfortunate, and often represents a cop-out by educators as well as contributing to giving students a somewhat problematic value hierarchy.

Whether you look at creativity in the arts or the sciences, significant creative achievement has always been based on self-discipline and a long and hard apprenticeship.

That said, some people do have a much greater potential for original and creative work than others. But too much early and easy praise can undermine the development of any innate gift or talent.

Because he is (mildly) autistic, David's case raises other issues. I can't help feeling, for instance, that the policies of closing special schools and putting children with learning disabilities into mainstream schools and classrooms is not to the children's benefit.

David certainly has problems, but over the years he has shown – not true savant-like abilities – but apparently remarkable aptitudes in various areas, and not just in reading notation and banging a drum.

I know my own values are obtrubing here! But the point remains that no attempt has been made by his educators to develop any of these aptitudes in a sustained way.

As it is all too often the case that parents of autistic children are under a lot of pressure and struggle just to get by from day to day, some kind of formal framework especially designed for children with these sorts of problems would certainly ease the burden and give the children a better chance of fulfilling their potential.

[I am looking again at the views of Simon Baron-Cohen (and others) on autism, and expect to post on the topic from time to time – both here (when policies and opinions are at issue) and at Language, Life and Logic (where the focus is more on the science).]

Monday, July 1, 2013

Explanation and illusion

For some reason, I once used to be vaguely interested in Eastern mysticism and used to go along to talks by visiting Tibetan or Indian monks. But I was fated never to get deeply involved, partly because, even as child, I could never sit comfortably cross-legged, and partly because I always thought there was something a bit silly about Westerners adopting Eastern customs. (A friend of mine, a high church Anglican, converted to Buddhism, but, since he had a Chinese grandfather, I didn't disapprove.)

One thing which frustrated me about these talks was that the speakers never put what they were saying into any broader intellectual context. I remember asking questions about how they saw themselves as relating to this or that other strand of Eastern mystical thinking. I wanted to get an overview in order better to understand what I was dealing with and in order to make judgements.

Ah, but how they disapproved of this entire mode of thinking! I was on the wrong track entirely! Most of these monks wouldn't have known how to characterize it exactly (Western, analytical, reductionistic?) but they really bristled at this style of thinking and talking.

I ended up seeing them as rather blinkered and narrow; but I also have to say that I am less optimistic than I was then that a knowledge of various cultural traditions coupled with basic scientific knowledge can lead to anything like a satisfactory and comprehensive worldview. (I haven't quite given up, however.)

What brought these thoughts to mind was some reading I have been doing in the wake of watching this video of a short talk by Merlin Donald. I wanted to get a sense of where Donald fitted in with others who have written in an area which has been characterized as speculative cognitive paleoanthropology.

One book I have read in this area is Terrence Deacon's The Symbolic Species which seemed to me a very interesting piece of work, but one which overreached in certain ways.

Rather than going into details, I will for now merely make a general point: that these interdisciplinary and (as they are often called) 'magisterial' works are all fundamentally suspect in that they reflect an outmoded 19th-century ideal. Not only is it no longer possible for a single mind to encompass the knowledge required, but the very idea that there is a scientifically-sanctioned story to tell is wrong. There are facts of the matter – but they are so complex and multifaceted that the grand narrative or grand overview approach is necessarily distorting.

George Eliot sensed this in creating in her novel Middlemarch that absolutely devastating portrait of a scholar seeking to map out just such an explanatory system: Edward Casaubon and his doomed Key to All Mythologies.

Ernst Cassirer's grand theory of symbolic forms falls into this tradition, as does the much more recent attempt by Robert N. Bellah (his Religion and Human Evolution) to interpret the rise of 'the great world religions' in a broadly evolutionary context.

Interestingly, Bellah drew heavily on Donald's ideas, and Donald wrote a favorable – though commendably cautious – review of Bellah's book.

For such works as this often tell us as much about their authors as about the world. And always I am inclined to try to look for what fundamental motivations lie behind various personal intellectual projects. More often than not (in my experience, at any rate) religious and/or more general ideological factors can be seen to be playing a decisive role.

It appears that Bellah is a practising Christian.

Donald is also sympathetic to religion. In his essay 'The Widening Gyre: Religion, Culture, and Evolution' (the title alluding to William Butler Yeats's profoundly pessimistic and apocalyptic vision of our imminent future) he speculates that we may yet find a way to stem the rapid cultural and intellectual decline ("cultural free-fall" he calls it) of the present age.

"Perhaps," he concludes, "a new religious genius will find a ... way to protect the sacred core that has sustained human beings throughout our turbulent history as a species." Sacred core? A new religious genius? What strange – and revealing – ways of speaking.

Mainstream secular intellectuals – like Steven Pinker, Daniel Dennett or Pascal Boyer – take a very different line, of course, and tend to have very different intuitions about religion and the nature of mind.

I have the view that convincing explanations tend to be constrained, piecemeal and, more often than not, deflationary; and that we should be particularly wary of grand and inspiring narratives.

Which, you might be inclined say, says more about me than about the way the world is.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

You would be surprised

In a news report published today about allegations concerning the sexual abuse of boys in Jewish schools, a New York-based ultra-Orthodox rabbi – formerly based in Sydney – was quoted as making some remarks which illustrate the extent to which religious groups and sects can create and maintain their own realities and remain virtually untouched by modern ways of thinking.

I don't want to quote any passages here, and I do wonder about the appropriateness of Fairfax Media making these comments public. (They were taken from "a legally recorded telephone conversation heard by Fairfax Media and provided to N[ew] S[outh] W[ales] detectives ...")

But I just couldn't resist highlighting the strangeness (and, frankly, the comicality) of the context of the rabbi's use of the expression 'you would be surprised'. The implicit suggestion is that the rabbi's naïve interlocutor has not been vouchsafed true and accurate knowledge of the extent to which ordinary people (including children!) are actively driven by their carnal natures – such matters, presumably, as routinely come to the attention of holy men in the course of their religious duties.

I feel sorry for the old guy, actually, who seems to have managed to remain completely outside the modern world which most of us inhabit.

And, though I remain critical of current social and legal trends, the rabbi's remarks make me appreciate that, in the end, I am a part of, and committed to, that world. Modernity, for all its flaws and mixed blessings, is to be cherished.

And, in my opinion, it's not entirely a bad thing that the privileges given to religious communities – arguably hard-earned by previous generations of devout Christians and Jews and now being exploited by extremist Islamic groups and other cults – are increasingly being called into question.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Nobody is to blame

Some time ago I wrote a short piece, prompted by my reading of some novels by Patricia Highsmith, on the way new technologies have in recent years eroded our sense of place. Highsmith not only had a remarkable insight into human psychology – and psychopathy – but also a strong sense of the ambience of particular geographic locations.

Despite the advent of new and culturally disruptive technologies during the middle years of the 20th century, the sense of place had not yet been significantly eroded, and the communication technologies of that time – letters, telegrams, long-distance operator-assisted telephone calls, and newspapers (though not so much radio and TV) – feature prominently in Highsmith's stories. In fact, they often serve to underscore the sense of her (often solitary) characters being in a particular location.

Though it has been an important feature of human consciousness from the beginning, I would argue that this strong sense of being in a particular place is, due to the advent of new digital technologies, as well as other factors related to the increased ease and affordability of travel, simply no longer possible. The new technologies have undermined it – and something has been lost.

In a nutshell, communication and travel between distant places has become so easy that the uniqueness of place has been fatally undermined.

It might be objected that I am overreacting to current changes. But I don't think so. We have passed a threshold of sorts. I am talking about a confluence of factors. And something very profound and significant has occurred.

A related issue is the way digital devices are currently affecting how young brains develop. The effects are evident everywhere, but I won't bang on about it as, for example, Susan Greenfield has been inclined to do. It's a losing battle. Nothing can be done, and all the nasty neurological details will, no doubt, come gradually to light.

So I can't help thinking with some nostalgia of times past.

Of a very long, difficult but magical journey I made as a small child with my mother and two siblings on a series of turboprop aircraft. Of letters. Of newspapers as they used to be. Of the heady experience of being in a great city or a fabled or exotic place.

These things are no longer possible in the way they once were. But, as Tom Stoppard said not so long ago, speaking of similar matters: "Nobody is to blame. It is progress in operation."

Monday, June 17, 2013

Decisions, decisions

I was going to post this piece (about why conservatism, like all political –isms, is fatally flawed) here.

But since it is so boringly non-partisan – and even science-oriented in a vaguely reflective rather than an evidential sort of way – I opted to post it on the other blog.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Jim Rogers on the looming crisis

I don't know how to take Jim Rogers. Though a graduate of Yale and Oxford, he has no advanced degree, but that shouldn't necessarily count against him as an interpreter of the economic and financial scene.

Since economists routinely disagree about even the most basic issues, there is scope for others who have some expertise in finance and related areas to make their contributions. And, arguably, pragmatic freelance investors – whose only concern is to get things right (primarily for their own portfolios but also for reputational reasons) – have an important role to play in the public debate.

And Rogers has no doubt been a phenomenally successful investor. This means something, even if you put it down to mere luck and commonsense.

His ideas are worth looking at not because they are interesting but because they have an 'emperor's new clothes' quality – and (who knows?) he may just be right.

His economic assumptions are not doctrinaire, in the sense that they appear to have been arrived at independently. They just happen (as Rogers has himself observed) to correspond with some of the main tenets of the Austrian school.

He emphasizes the relevance of morality to the markets, but not in a naïve or objectionable way, it seems to me.

So here are some extracts from a recent interview in which he talked (amongst other things) about morality and the markets and the coming crisis (as he sees it) for the US, Europe and Japan.

Félix Moreno: [You have written that] the US [is the] largest debtor in the history of the world.

Jim Rogers: That’s not an indictment, that’s a fact. If you consider it a negative fact, it’s an indictment. It happens to be a fact that it is the largest debtor nation in the history of the world. The debt is going through the roof, you know with all the shady rates. I do criticise it. I don’t like it. I’m an American citizen. I’m an American taxpayer, so I hate what’s happening with the debt situation in America. No nation in history has gotten itself into this situation and got out without a crisis. So I guess it is an indictment.

FM: Do you expect the US politicians to do something about the debt? To balance the budget any time soon?

JR: No, not at all. Not either the present politicians or future politicians. The situation is so dire that it would be almost impossible to balance the budget and pay down the debt without an enormous amount of pain. Now suppose that somebody could win an election on that platform – well within six months or a year or two, he would either be assassinated or give up because the people would say “wait a minute, we didn’t know it was this much pain. This is not what we had in mind” and he would be thrown out and his policies reversed. No it’s not going to happen until there’s a crisis or a semi crisis. That’s the lesson of history. Nobody gets out of this situation until there’s a crisis.

FM: What would you say to those that see the current situation as perfectly sustainable, especially in reference to the money printing, quantitative easing, etc.

JR: I would suggest that they get out a couple of simple history books and see if there has ever been a way out. For what it’s worth, there has not been and there won’t be. I suggest that they look it up. They don’t have to listen to people like me, look it up.

FM: Do you think that Bernanke and the Fed have an exit plan from QE and zero-rates?

JR: Mr Bernanke’s exit plan apparently is that he is going to leave his job. He doesn’t want to stick around for the hangover. He doesn’t want to be around for the consequences of what he’s doing. I don’t know if there’s an exit plan. If and when they stop it’s going to cause lots of ramifications in the market and lots of, perhaps even chaos, but certainly turmoil and upset. The only exit plan that he’s talked about is to let it all mature. That sounds wonderful, but it’s not very practical.

FM: It seems that the whole “let’s get out before it crashes” worked well for Alan Greenspan.

JR: Well, Alan Greenspan did get out before it collapsed, more or less, but if nothing else, history has figured out that he is a charlatan who didn’t know what he was doing in the first place.

FM: So you don’t think that they have an exit plan. Does that mean that you are in the inflation camp? Do you think that the crisis is going to come from high inflation like in the ‘70s and ‘80s, or are you in the deflation camp? That it will come through bankruptcies, banking collapses and debt defaults?

JR: Throughout history when you print staggering amounts of money, it has always led to inflation. Now, you can have an inflationary boom, an inflationary feel-good period, but usually the politicians just keep printing. No politician is going to run on a platform, or could get elected on a platform of “we are going to have pain”, so they are going to continue to print money. You know as Mr Bernanke is doing, the BoJ, the Bank of England, the ECB. They all say the same thing. They are all doing the same thing. So they are going to continue to print money. Eventually of course what always happens is that inflation gets higher and higher and then the bubble pops and you have deflation and harder times. But between here and there is a long way, because they are not going to stop printing money. That’s all they know how to do. It’s the wrong thing, but it’s all they know to do.

FM: ...[Y]ou give examples of banking crises where there were no bailouts. What is your opinion on the bailouts?

JR: It’s not supposed to work that way. You are not supposed to take money away from the competent people and give it to the incompetent so that the incompetent can compete with the competent people with their own money. That’s not the way capitalism is supposed to work. That’s not the way morality is supposed to work. I know politicians don’t care about morality. It’s not going to work. You see what happened in Japan. Japan has had two lost decades. Their stock market is down by 70-75% from where it was 23 years ago. This system has never worked.

In the 1920s America had this problem and America balanced the budget and raised interest rates... They had a terrible 18 months, but then they had the most exciting economic decade in American history. Scandinavia did the same thing in the early ‘90s. When the Japanese were refusing to let people fail, the Scandinavians let people fail. They had a terrible two or three years, but since then Scandinavia has been an extremely strong and exciting part of the world. This way (the bailout way) doesn’t work, and there are no examples of something like this having ever worked. It’s not going to work this time either.

FM: Some argue that a current example are the eastern European countries: Estonia, Lithuania, etc, who made big cuts within one year of the crisis and are now growing faster than the rest of Europe.

JR: There’s no question. You can look at other places: Iceland, Ireland – you know, the places that did take some pain have certainly done better than the places that denied reality.

FM: From the Spanish perspective, it’s certainly not better to have a lost decade or two by trying to postpone all the big budget-balancing hard work.

JR: You can postpone it all you want, but the problems just mount. There is no country in Europe that’s going to have lower debt this year than last year, or lower debt the next year than this year. Every one of them will run up the debt, instead of decreasing the debt.

FM: Do you expect the Euro to lose the currency wars? Which will fall down the cliff first? The yen, the euro or the dollar?

JR: It depends on what standard of measure you are talking about. The Japanese claim that they are going to print “unlimited” amounts of money. That’s their word, not mine. Unlimited amounts of money. I would expect the yen to go the furthest the fastest. But America has also said “wait guys, we’ll print a lot of money too” – though they didn’t say “unlimited”. And the British said “we should do it”. So I don’t really know. It’s a very good question, which one to own. I don’t own the yen, because “unlimited” is a pretty hefty amount of money. I grapple with this every day, which currencies to own. Believe it or not I was even contemplating putting money into the ruble – only because it seemed less flawed at the moment than these others.

FM: You seem to have had a change of heart recently regarding Russia.

JR: In recent months I have seen that Mr Putin and people in the Kremlin have changed their attitude. It will take a while for all this to sink in. They said for many years that they welcomed foreigners and capital, but they were lying. They shot you, they put you in jail, and they confiscated your wealth. But now Mr Putin seems to understand that he has to play by international rules, he cannot go on putting people in jail and taking their money. If he wants to play on the world stage he has to treat international capital, and domestic capital, in a proper way. You can ask me in 10 years if I got it right or not...

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The meaning of conservatism

The word 'conservatism', like most abstract nouns of its kind, has a very fluid meaning. Even when used as a specifically political designation, its meaning is context-dependent and impossible to pin down. Nonetheless, it can be fascinating to observe the shifting coalitions and alliances which form around this particular concept.

Inevitably there is a tendency for self-described conservatives, or members of any ideological grouping in fact, to identify their own particular views with what they conceive to be the true tradition or the purest conception of the ideology in question.

Claes G. Ryn, who turns seventy this week, is such a one.

I came across the writings of this Swedish-born thinker only recently. Though deeply versed in – and committed to – European intellectual culture, Ryn teaches in America and has a strong and critical interest in the recent history of American conservatism.

This essay, for instance, is both a survey and a scathing critique of American conservatism. In it Ryn is particularly harsh on that strand of post-World War 2 conservative thought which culminated in the neoconservatism which so profoundly influenced the policies of the George W. Bush administration. He quite rightly identifies the neocons' lack of historical understanding as a major flaw in their thinking.

Libertarianism, another key strand in American conservative thought, is criticized on similar grounds.

It is to his credit that Ryn tries always to do justice to the historical perspective, rejecting an ahistorical, Platonistic view based on universal abstractions.

He particularly emphasizes the importance of morality, and also the importance of an imagination formed by cultural, intellectual and artistic traditions. Which, again, is fine and quite defensible.

But his attachment to European philosophy – and Hegel and Croce in particular – will put off more than a few Americans (and not just Americans!).

Crucially, his interest in these thinkers signals not just the elite intellectualism of the old world, but also a commitment to idealism and to the primacy of mind and spirit.

Though Ryn is critical of the often intellectually complacent and ostentatious appeals to religious belief on the part of American conservatives, he is himself clearly driven by what are essentially religious convictions.

And it's here that I must part company with him, as I am simply not convinced of the existence of transcendent truths or values – moral, intellectual or aesthetic.

I have written before about the anomalous nature of non-religious conservatism and, yet again, we see conservatism being defined in broadly religious terms.

But what do you do when you have just about all the basic conservative instincts or intuitions (I am in sympathy with much of what Ryn is saying) but just can't accept religion or philosophical idealism?

I can call myself a non-religious or secular conservative, of course. But the trouble is, most conservatives will not see me as being a real conservative – and I am just conservative enough to agree with them.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Don't go there!

Razib Khan (writing as David Hume at Secular Right) deals sensibly – but gingerly – with a controversy regarding a Harvard PhD dissertation on IQ, race and immigration. He is "not keen to get deeply involved", because, he says, so much has been said already about the affair in question. But I suspect his reluctance may have other causes as well, for there are clear disincentives in play for right-leaning moderates to discuss certain sensitive issues.

Razib also made a more general point about academic manners and assumptions which I strongly endorse.

"As a non-liberal with some affiliation with academia," he writes, "I’m in a peculiar position. I get to observe people blithely confusing their normative presuppositions with the basic background assumptions of the average person."

This leads them to suspect anyone whose opinions are out of line with theirs on certain litmus issues to be an extremist.

Which leads me to another topic entirely, but one which serves to illustrate the above points: the recent suicide of Dominique Venner in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

As it happens, I have some knowledge of the French far right (including a couple of Venner's former associates), but I hesitate to write on the topic because even a balanced and quite dispassionate account would likely be interpreted in academic circles as some kind of endorsement of fascism.

The way one is supposed to deal with this sort of topic – if one deals with it at all – is to do it in the way David Sessions did it, writing at The Daily Beast. Sessions's analysis carries useful information but is heavily loaded with moral outrage and left-wing signaling to protect the author against any suggestion that he feels anything other than the greatest possible repugnance for the man in question and his ideas, and indeed for anyone associated with the French right.

Sessions talks, for example, of the Algerian conflict of the 1950s and early 60s having "further radicalized the already hysterically right-wing pieds-noirs, the French settlers in Algeria who, at the end of the bloody war, uprooted themselves from generations of history and moved en masse to metropolitan France. Though they successfully assimilated into French culture, they often supported the country’s emerging far-right party, the Front National…" Do we really need the "hysterically right-wing"? (And that was before they were further radicalized.)

What leftists and politically-correct journalists don't seem to understand is that the hidden constraints on speech which have arisen over recent decades create pressures which are felt not just by educated moderates (like me) but also by less well-educated people of conservative disposition who are liable to react to such perceived constraints – spurred on, perhaps, by dramatic events like Venner's suicide – in unpredictable and possibly violent ways.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Europe's failing states

The homeland of Helen Blums, along with a number of other former Soviet or Eastern Bloc countries, is in trouble due to emigration and low birth rates. Latvia's president said recently that the country's independence would rapidly become unsustainable if the net outflow of population was not stopped.

And in a provocative piece on the problems of fertility and emigration in some European countries, Edward Hugh suggests that the international community should start thinking about a 'country resolution mechanism' along the lines of the mechanisms for dealing with failed banks recently debated in Europe.

Hugh refers to Wolfgang Lutz's low fertility trap hypothesis which involves self-reinforcing mechanisms which may lead to population meltdown.

Economic factors are clearly crucial.

"... Not only do […] negative economic conditions discourage young people from forming families and having children (obvious I think), they can also have the effect that young people leave in search of a better future thus reducing the potential number of children who can be born in the future.

"The ensuing acceleration in the rate of population ageing and the proportions of older people only makes the problem of sustaining public spending on pensions and health systems worse and worse, causing the fiscal burden on those who stay to grow and grow, a development which makes it more and more attractive to leave and start up again elsewhere. And with each additional person who leaves there is another turn of the screw, and the costs of staying get higher, as do the advantages of not doing so. This is how melt down can happen.

"Naturally there can be a political dimension to the disintegration, as the need to implement ever less popular policies (especially policies unpopular with older people, those who do vote) leads politicians to become more and more demogogic while delivering less and less. Naturally the democratic quality of a country’s institutions starts to deteriorate under these circumstances, which only makes the young feel even more helpless and under-represented.

"This outcome is now becoming plain in much of Southern Europe, but it is obviously even more evident in Ukraine...

"... [T]he process of country decline, like most processes in the macro economic world, is non linear. That is to say critical moments or turning points will exist when suddenly things move a lot faster than expected. Hemingway grasped the essence of this in his much quoted “bankruptcy comes slowly at first but then all of a sudden”. As the economy falls back, and the burden of debt grows on the ever smaller numbers of young people expected to pay, the pressure on those young people to pack their bags and leave simply mounts and mounts, accelerating the process even further.

"In fact populations dying out is nothing new in human history if we move beyond the most recent world delineated by nation states. In hunter gatherer times populations occupied increased or reduced proportions of the earth’s surface as climate dictated. In more modern times, islands have been populated or become depopulated according to economic dynamics (think the Scottish coastline). More recently, it is clear the old East Germany would have become a country in need of “resolution” had it not sneaked in under the umbrella of the Federal Republic. Why people should find the idea of country failure so contentious I am not sure, perhaps we have just become accustomed not to have “hard” thoughts.

"Applying the argument many apply to banks, unsustainable countries “deserve” to fail, don’t they? Why should the US or German taxpayer have to pay to keep them afloat? Naturally, including Spain in this group of countries that can only now salute Caesar as they prepare to die may seem extreme, but just give it time.

"I expect (should I say “predict” in the Popperian sense, since this argument is empirical, and is surely falsifiable) the first countries to die to be in Eastern Europe, with the most likely candidates to get the ball rolling being Belarus, Ukraine and Serbia. But then gradually this phenomenon will spread along the EU periphery, from East to South..."

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Helen Blums

This is not really my thing, but it's a nice photo, and I am, as it happens, a great reader of obituaries, especially of people who lived long lives.

Though there is a strong genetic component in longevity, other factors cannot be ignored.

You would think that living through years of desperate poverty and war and chaos and grueling work would take its toll. But it seems that, in many cases, (involuntary) caloric restriction, physical activity and self-discipline may have proved more significant in the end than exposure to what we would now characterize as serious occupational and other health and safety hazards.

Those many ordinary and yet extraordinary people who survived the horrors of World War 2 in Europe are slowly disappearing. Many, of course, emigrated and have lived out the greater part of their lives in the USA, Canada, South America or Australia.

Like Helen Blums.

"... She was 28 years old in 1944 when her family fled their farm [in Latvia] to walk to the Baltic Sea to escape the [...] Red Army. Her older brother and sister, mother and sickly father embarked on the journey, leaving most of their possessions. Helen's father died in her arms near the Baltic coast in a smokehouse where a fisherman let them shelter. Despite the previous two refugee ships to leave the Baltic port of Liepaja being torpedoed by Soviet submarines, Helen's ship made it through. The next stage was a work camp in Nazi Germany. For the next five years they worked seven days a week, slept on concrete and were always hungry.

Helen was home-educated – she never went to a day of school – yet was fluent in reading and writing in three languages. She was indefatigable from the farm as a child to old age ...

While in Berlin she worked in a chemical factory for six days a week and cleaned windows on Sundays for a jar of jam. At one stage she obtained a bicycle and read tarot cards for surrounding farmers. When she correctly predicted a wife would learn the fate of her soldier husband on her return home, demand escalated. She also set up shop in a basement cleaning and smoking fish..."

Helen Blums died recently in Melbourne, Australia, aged 97.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013


I've noticed that the handful of bloggers with whom I have been in intermittent contact, and who started around the same time I did (three years ago or so), have either discontinued or drastically scaled back their offerings.

It makes me wonder whether I am missing something. Has there been a decisive change in the digital environment or a subtle shift in the zeitgeist?

Or is it just a function of individuals only having a very finite stock of (worthwhile) things to say? Of course, people have always kept diaries, but diaries are not addressed to others and so the entries don't need to justify themselves in the way public comments (arguably) do.

But I suspect it's more a matter of people having found better things to do than having run out of worthwhile things to say!

I realize that social networks seem to be growing at the expense of blogs – or at least at the expense of blog commenting.

Speaking of which, I have been having problems again with comment spam and have changed the settings so that now comments on Conservative Tendency will be checked by me before they go up to make sure no more junk gets through.

I will be posting a couple of videos featuring David Albert and Thomas Nagel respectively on the other blog soon.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

The spectre of nihilism

It might seem from some of my previous posts that I see philosophical thinking as outmoded and impotent. This is not my view, however, as I have consistently argued that there is and will remain an important place for philosophical thinking within – and on the margins of – the various sciences.

But I do – as I have most recently discussed here – have misgivings about pursuing areas like ethics and metaphysics independently of scientific investigations.

At the risk of boring those who don't have a vital interest in these matters and aggravating those who do, I want to air here a couple of my doubts about ethics.

I acknowledge that I am making very general and sweeping claims that reflect a personal – and also, in a sense, a conservative – perspective. But I wouldn't be making them if I didn't think they were objectively plausible.

Philosophical ethics, as I see it, is fatally incomplete because it carries within itself an implicit promise to provide fundamental justifications which it cannot fulfil.

Even if foundationalism is out of favor amongst philosophers, it seems to me that the very existence of a discipline of normative ethics inevitably raises expectations that philosophical reason can provide a basis for morality. But, of course, it can't. (And nor can science, I hasten to add.)

Moral philosophers have done some valuable work over the years clarifying ethical questions and elaborating ethical systems or frameworks of various kinds. But, more often than not, they have brought to their work strongly formed but unacknowledged convictions.

Most have been aligned with traditional religious and/or humanistic schools of thought, while some have operated within radical traditions of various kinds.

My point is that, loosed from the constraints of such implicit, culturally-formed convictions and beliefs, reason can all too readily become a destroyer of values, a kind of universal acid.

Our values are bio-cultural products, and there is every reason to see some of them as quite delicate and vulnerable.

In fact, the spectre of nihilism (which Nietzsche grappled with) has been a very real one in the West for at least the last century-and-a-half.

Writers in the Western tradition, from the Greek tragedians on, but especially within the last two centuries, have often written of a realm of chaos that lies behind or beneath the veneer of civilization. And many non-Western religious traditions also give credence or recognition to dark forces. (Think of the Hindu goddess Kali, for example.)

But philosophical ethics generally bears the stamp of two very optimistic (overly optimistic, in my view) traditions of thought: Western humanism, deriving from the Christian Platonism of the Renaissance, and the 18th-century Enlightenment. Both of these traditions looked beneath the surface of life and found, not darkness and chaos, but a reassuring order.

And yet the darkness and chaos is there – as a psychological reality, and maybe as more than that.

The view of the world which modern science is revealing has, in my view, a lot more in common with our darker religious and literary intuitions than with Platonistic humanism or with the cheerful deism of the 18th century.

Science is also throwing light on how our brains work, and the picture that is emerging seems, in general terms, to vindicate thinkers such as Nietzsche and Freud (who emphasized the role of unconscious elements over conscious rationality) rather than the rationalists.

Increasingly, I am coming to see ethics in terms of what is conducive to mental well-being and the social integration of the individual.

And certain forms of rationality-based introspection and discourse can actually work against these goals.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ten conservative insights

1. Conservatives are more inclined than progressives and radicals to find value in the present, in life as it is, with all its imperfections and injustices. Resentment, in particular, is to be avoided at all costs.

2. And you can't really value the present without valuing the past. A sense of history is all about seeing the past in its own terms, and not just as a source of debating points for current controversies.

3. Though non-conservatives often resist the idea, conservative modes of thinking are, in fact, universal, as human brains are structured in a conservative way. This was evident long before evolutionary biology and brain science spelled out the details. The narrator in Proust's great novel about time and memory, for instance, reflects on the way our concepts are formed in our early years and affect the way we perceive new things. His concept of a flower was based on the flowers he saw in childhood, and exotic forms encountered in later life – like orchids – were somehow not real flowers.

4. Conservatives give due recognition to the familial and social instincts upon which cohesive societies – and, indeed, the individual's sense of self – are built.

5. They also tend to place great importance on certain (unfashionable) character traits – like self-discipline and frugality, for instance.

6. Related to this, conservatives have a more sophisticated notion of freedom than leftists and libertarians. They know that a lightly regulated society which allows the individual to exercise personal judgement and discretion to a high degree will only function properly if individuals are generally honest and self-disciplined. Personal freedom has its roots in morality rather than in law or politics.

7. Society is organic. This is a metaphor often used by conservative social thinkers. The essential point behind it is that social life and cultures grow and develop over time according to their own imperatives and may be tended, as a plant or garden is tended, but not controlled.

8. Another angle on this, for those who are wary of metaphors, is that the world is more complicated than we think and our theories are always going to be unable to take full account of that complexity. If conservatives are seen to be averse to theorizing (about the moral, social and political realms), it is because they recognize that social reality inevitably transcends any models we might construct.

9. And, clearly, trying to implement or actively impose such models on the real world is asking for trouble. Unintended adverse consequences are guaranteed.

10. It is important to be sensitive not only to the ever-present possibility of unintended consequences but also to the contingencies of time and place. Caution and pragmatism tend to characterize conservative approaches to political action.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Philosophy as (disguised) apologetics

While trying to find out more about David Albert's religious views, I have stumbled across something rather more interesting and more significant: an article by Nathan Schneider (written from a point of view sympathetic to religion) which seems to confirm much of what I have been saying about philosophy and religion.

It seems that the John Templeton Foundation which, under the guise of promoting a dialogue between science and religion, seeks to enhance the status and intellectual credibility of the latter, has been providing a lot of funding to academic philosophers of late. Albert, who has benefited from Templeton in the past, is currently co-directing a three-year project on the philosophy of cosmology which is funded by the foundation.

Strangely enough, there is a prominent link to Schneider's article, which discusses not only the great influence of Templeton money on the discipline of philosophy, but also the 'silent coup' conducted over recent decades by Christian philosophers, on the website of David Albert's Templeton project.

The article gives interesting general background information on the John Templeton Foundation, but the excerpts which follow are specifically concerned with the wooing of philosophers by the foundation, as well as with earlier activities by Christian philosophers which had the effect of reversing an early-to-mid-20th century trend within philosophy towards more rigorously scientific and secular perspectives.

Controversy ... always follows money, especially when it's Templeton money. Partisans of Richard Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists have long despised the foundation, interpreting its interest in dialogue between science and religion as an attempt to buy undeserved credibility for the latter at the cost of the former. Adds Brian Leiter, "It's clearly more of a windfall for philosophers who have some sort of vague religious angle to what they're doing." Yet he also points out that [Alfred R.] Mele is an exception. His foregoing work on free will expressed scant interest in the religious implications—which makes it all the more noticeable that his Templeton project has a component devoted to theology.

It's true that one tends to hear more Templeton-branded talk of "Big Questions"—spoken as if capitalized, and without irony—on the lips of philosophers with religious commitments, at religious institutions. When I met Christian Miller two years ago at a Society of Christian Philosophers conference at Wake Forest, the historically Baptist university where he teaches, he was still glowing from news of the three-year, $3.7-million Templeton grant he'd just received. Its purpose is "to promote significant progress in the scholarly investigation of character," and $2-million of it will go to empirical psychological research, alongside accompanying investigations in philosophy and theology...

[Barry] Loewer, a philosopher at Rutgers University at New Brunswick, isn't likely to turn up at a Society of Christian Philosophers meeting ... "I myself have no interest in philosophy of religion and am not a religious person," he says. For years, Loewer has been working with a group of philosophers, mathematicians, and physicists in the New York area, meeting and collaborating on papers—nothing very expensive. But about five years ago a colleague at Rutgers, Dean W. Zimmerman, told the group about the Templeton Foundation and suggested that they apply for a grant. Zimmerman, a top Christian philosopher, had ... served on Templeton's advisory board ...

The idea at first was to do a project about quantum mechanics and the foundations of physics, which was an interest of Loewer's group. Templeton had other ideas. The foundation pointed the group in the direction of cosmology, with the prospect of a much bigger grant, and the researchers jumped at the idea. They realized that cosmology encompassed the questions of time and physical laws that had concerned them all along.

"You know that story of Molière's where someone discovers that he has been speaking prose his whole life?" says Loewer. "It was a bit like that."

The nearly $1-million grant his team received from Templeton last year coincided with another, slightly larger one called "Establishing the Philosophy of Cosmology," which was awarded to scholars at the University of Oxford. Despite the change of plans at Templeton's behest, Loewer stresses, "They've been really helpful, and totally noncoercive in terms of any agenda that they might have. I had my eyes open for it."

Not that philosophers are especially well practiced in negotiating the terms of million-dollar grants, much less in thinking about how such money might sway them... But now that the money is coming into the field, it is being welcomed even by those who lack the foundation's spiritual proclivities. "Templeton picks some people whose Christian epistemology I might not share," Brian Leiter says, "but there's no quarreling that they're serious philosophers." Suspicions about some secret religious agenda tend to lessen the more widely the foundation's substantial sums begin to spread.

The phenomenon under consideration here can be traced to two others gradually converging over the past few decades: the rise of the John Templeton Foundation itself, and the quiet coup hatched by religious believers within analytic philosophy.

...The archtect of projects like Mele's and Loewer's is a philosopher named Michael J. Murray, who before joining the foundation taught at his alma mater, Franklin & Marshall College. He did a short stint directing philosophy and theology programs, and then was elevated, in February 2011, to the job of overseeing Templeton's entire portfolio of grant programs. Murray is a product of what has often been called the "renaissance" of Christianity in analytic philosophy. So is Dean Zimmerman, the one who connected Murray with Loewer. And so was the Wake Forest conference... This renaissance helped till academic philosophy for Templeton then to sow.

In the 1960s and 70s, while the atheistic straitjacket of logical positivism was loosening, smart, young Christian philosophers like Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff began crafting new ways of defending Christian faith from the deliverances of the latest epistemology and modal logic. They formed the Society of Christian Philosophers to help coddle their conversations and cultivate successors, and they ascended to chairs in eminent departments—Plantinga at Notre Dame, Wolterstorff at Yale. Soon, thanks to them, the world of analytic philosophy that was once decidedly hostile to religious believers became significantly less so. More science-savvy students soon followed suit, crafting their own sophisticated defenses of faith in terms of physics, neuroscience, and biology. Michael Murray, who earned his Ph.D. at Notre Dame, has played a part in this, including as editor of a 1998 book, Reason for the Hope Within, which triumphantly summarizes the fruits of the renaissance so as to equip lay Christians to defend their faith. Follow these contours, and Templeton's recent projects—even those led by people outside the Christian-philosophy fold—seem to follow a certain apologetic logic. Free will, for instance, is a critical feature of Plantinga's celebrated defense against the problem of evil; although Al Mele does not partake in religious speculation himself, he is a respected opponent of the brazen neuroscientists, like Michael S. Gazzaniga, who announce free will's nonexistence. Cosmology, too, is considered one of the most promising avenues lately in arguments for God's existence, particularly thanks to evidence that basic features of the universe may be "fine-tuned" to provide for the possibility of life. Barry Loewer isn't particularly interested in arguing for a divine fine-tuner, but his efforts might indirectly lend aid to someone who is. The recent $5-million grant to study immortality went to a philosopher who doesn't believe in the afterlife, but the very fact that so much money is going to study it might give more credence to those who do.

It is clear that Templeton money is not just supporting respected, mainstream academics and institutions.

Much as Notre Dame served as the headquarters of the Christian-philosophy renaissance ushered in by Alvin Plantinga, a 104-year-old evangelical institution on the outskirts of Los Angeles called Biola University has cleared the way for one of the ren­ aissance's most spirited and ambitious outgrowths. Biola supports the Evangelical Philosophical Society, a more doctrinally austere cousin of the Society of Christian Philosophers, and it houses the country's largest philosophy graduate program, which is devoted to sending Christian students with its master's degrees to leading Ph.D. programs. For a few weeks each year, Biola is graced by an intensive by William Lane Craig, the master of public "God debates," who famously trounced Christopher Hitchens in 2009.

This summer Biola received the largest foundation grant in its history—a $3-million Templeton award to support a new Center for Christian Thought, an interdisciplinary forum led by three philosophy professors. One of them, Thomas Crisp, was a star student of Plantinga's at Notre Dame, and he first met Michael Murray during a 2010 Society of Christian Philosophers good-will expedition to a symposium in Iran. A year later, Crisp and the others in the center's "leadership triumvirate" were hard at work on a proposal for the foundation, and he sees Templeton and Biola as an ideal match.


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Physicists and philosophers fight it out

I have lately spent rather too much time and effort catching up on a controversy concerning reactions to a book by physicist Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing, published last year), and, in particular, concerning a muscularly negative review of the book by philosopher David Albert.

The controversy has been recently reignited by the withdrawal of Albert's invitation to join a prestigious panel (including Krauss) for a public discussion at The American Museum of Natural History.

As Jason Streitfeld makes clear, one of the underlying issues relates to the status of philosophers vis à vis scientists (in this case physicists).

The demarcation lines and motivational factors in this disinvitation dispute are not all that clear, however. It should be noted, for instance, that David Albert, as well as being a philosopher, also has a PhD in physics, and that attitudes to religion are playing a key role.

Albert's main contention is that Krauss's 'nothing' (relativistic-quantum-field-theoretical vacuum states) are particular arrangements of elementary physical stuff, and therefore far from nothing as generally understood.

But Albert is particularly scathing about what he sees as Krauss's facile rejection of religion. He writes:

"When I was growing up, where I was growing up, there was a critique of religion according to which religion was cruel, and a lie, and a mechanism of enslavement, and something full of loathing and contempt for everything essentially human. Maybe that was true and maybe it wasn’t, but it had to do with important things — it had to do, that is, with history, and with suffering, and with the hope of a better world — and it seems like a pity, and more than a pity, and worse than a pity, with all that in the back of one’s head, to think that all that gets offered to us now, by guys like these, in books like this, is the pale, small, silly, nerdy accusation that religion is, I don't know, dumb."

Krauss called Albert's review "moronic", by the way.

Physicists have a history of disparaging philosophers. Some months ago, one of the most reflective of contemporary physicists, the (then) 88-year-old Freeman Dyson ruffled a few feathers by disparaging contemporary philosphers in an essay published in The New York Review of Books.

I read it at the time, and intended to do a piece on it, but didn't get around to it. Strangely, the expression "the fading of philosophy" – used by Dyson – must have lodged in my subconscious, and I used it as the title for a post last month without realizing its source.

I am in sympathy with much – though not all – of what Dyson says, and I am attracted by his somewhat world-weary tone and contrarian instincts.

There is something of the amateur and the dabbler about him, and he has (or had) one of those almost freakishly clever mathematical minds which can sometimes lead to a certain kind of hubris about one's own abilities and judgements as well as to an overestimation of the power of technologies to solve problems.

Dyson balances these tendencies with a genuine sort of wisdom, however. His little anecdote about a disappointing encounter with Wittgenstein, and then the story of his accidentally coming across Wittgenstein's grave in the course of a winter walk fifty years later, is quite moving.

Dyson's essay is a series of reflections on (rather than a review of) a book by Jim Holt based on interviews with various thinkers (philosophers, physicists and cosmologists) on why there is something rather than nothing. (In fact, Holt has been invited to join the panel from which Albert was disinvited. The world of public scientific intellectuals is a very small one. Even our old friend Massimo Pigliucci plays a part in the controversy.)

Dyson was not impressed with the calibre of Holt's philosopher interviewees. Dwarfs, he calls them, in stark contrast to the philosophical giants of the past. Only one, John Leslie (retired and living on Canada's west coast), gets a favorable mention.

"Philosophers became insignificant," Dyson wrote, "when philosophy became a separate academic discipline, distinct from science and history and literature and religion. The great philosophers of the past covered all these disciplines."

I too have been arguing against philosophy as a stand-alone discipline, and see philosophical thinking as being something which arises naturally in the context of the pursuit of the various sciences.

But I have to say that I find Dyson's way of expressing himself at times vague and imprecise. The last sentence quoted above, for example, could be read as suggesting that all of the great philosophers of the past covered all of these disciplines, or, alternatively, that some covered one or some disciplines and some covered other disciplines. Also, religion is not a discipline. This is just poor writing.

I have some reservations also about Dyson's view of philosophy as a literary phenomenon, and I tend to see, for example, the Book of Job more as literature with a religio-philosophical slant than as philosophy as such. But this is perhaps little more than a semantic – or definitional – question.

My more serious disagreement with Dyson relates to his obviously religious tendencies, which I don't share. But I will concede that, of all the possible religious outlooks I have considered (and rejected), Dyson's Platonic and mystical approach ranks amongst the least unappealing.

Dyson's key point about philosophers having become insignificant relates directly to the disinvitation controversy, and, though Dyson and Krauss are about as different from one another as two physicists could be, it is interesting that they are both dismissive – albeit for different reasons – of contemporary philosophy.

Perhaps the best thing I read in all the pretty wild and woolly discussion associated with the Krauss/Albert dispute was – apart from Albert's original review – a little joke in the comment thread of a blog post I didn't make a note of.

It was a brief mock-warning to scientists about the dangers of being rude to philosophers of science. They had better be careful because the philosophers might go on strike, and where would the scientists be then?

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Xi Jinping brushes up on his Russian

Apparently, the new Chinese President, Xi Jinping, has been brushing up on his Russian grammar and reciting Russian poetry before a small circle of associates as part of his preparations to visit Moscow.

According to John Garnaut, one of the leader's close associates happens to be an aide to a childhood friend, Li Xiaolin, who runs a quasi-official diplomatic organization. The aide has been shuttling back and forth between Beijing and Moscow to help clear the way for a huge new oil and gas supply deal.

As Garnaut points out, Li Xiaolin's father was the revolutionary leader, Li Xiannian, who worked closely with Xi's father when they were both vice-premiers in the 1950s, a time of close links between China and the then Soviet Union. And Li Xiannian helped the young Xi Jinping and his family in the turbulent times that followed.

Such family links clearly play a very important part in contemporary Chinese politics, and Xi's network of contacts enables him to circumvent the often sclerotic Communist Party bureaucracy in order to get things done.

Garnaut talks about a 'red aristocracy', and the signs are that its influence is increasing. Last year (drawing on another Garnaut article) I alluded to the ideologically and culturally influential – though largely oppositional – role played by children of former prominent Communist Party members. One organization, the Children of Yan'an Fellowship, has a history of railing against an erosion of moral values which they see as being strongly associated with China's shift towards Western-style capitalism.

In a surprise move, this group recently threw its support behind the new Chinese leader. Not surprisingly, there are concerns in the West that Chinese conservatives – whose views are more in line with the style of authoritarian state capitalism developing in Russia than with a Western open markets model – are gaining the ascendency.

Recent initiatives from both Moscow and Beijing seem to point to the prospect of the two giant neighbours becoming closer politically and increasingly interdependent from an economic point of view.

Clearly, if these initiatives prove successful, they could have significant geo-political and ideological implications.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Political philosophers

Elsewhere, I have been questioning the viability of philosophy as a discipline, emphasizing its curious dependence on a basically religious – or at least pre-modern – view of the world.

But I have also noted another side of the issue, the way some academics may use their professional status as a means of promoting a favored ideology.

This may be done, as the linguist Noam Chomsky does it, in such a way as to keep separate the scholarship and the ideology; or, more questionably, as many humanities academics do it, injecting partisan politics into their teaching and research. It is not hard to find evidence that many philosophers follow the latter course.

Not only do these players have a vested personal interest in protecting and promoting 'the profession', they also have an ideological interest in doing so. Not surprisingly, skeptics about philosophy, from Wittgenstein to present-day critics, are very unpopular in professional philosophical circles.

Nonetheless, it seems pretty clear that – at least for those who reject a religious perspective – academic philosophy as an area of research is very problematic, and not many people apart from academic philosophers (and by no means all of those) take it seriously anymore.

Paul Horwich, writing at The Stone (the New York Times philosophy blog) has recently defended a scaled-down, Wittgensteinian vision of philosophy as purely descriptive and clarificatory. Whether such a limited and unambitious style of philosophy could form the basis of a viable academic discipline or profession I very much doubt, but I am sympathetic to Horwich's general – deflationary – approach.

He notes the propensity of academic philosophers to build rather dubious theoretical constructs: theories of meaning or theories of truth, for example, when there is simply no need for such things.

Take the words 'true' and 'truth'. They do not add anything substantial to a direct assertion which does not use these words. They do allow us, however, to make certain general statements in concise and convenient ways. But to ask, "What is truth?" is to ask an effectively meaningless – and certainly futile – question.

As Horwich puts it, "Truth emerges as exceptionally unprofound and as exceptionally unmysterious."

Interestingly, the inevitable reply defending the philosophical status quo published by The Stone a few days later was more concerned about the non-political – or politically quietistic – nature of Horwich's view of philosophy than anything else.

Michael P. Lynch unequivocally rejects a merely descriptive philosophy which leaves the world as it is.

"I think philosophy can play a more radical role," he writes. For example, his normative version of philosophy would seek to attack the idea of authority "which has been used over the centuries to stifle dissent and change."

And, sounding rather authoritarian himself, he insists that the philosopher must also take "conceptual leaps".

"She [note the irritating choice of pronoun as a badge of the author's progressive credentials] must aim at revision as much as description, and sketch new metaphysical theories, replacing old explanations with new."

On one level (the level of literal content) such empty rhetoric says very little. On another level, however, it provides yet another indication of the politicization and decline of the humanities.

Sadly, Lynch's reply to Horwich only serves to underscore the fact that a great many academics working in the humanities, philosophers amongst them, see their role not so much in terms of contributing to the stock of human knowledge, as of promoting progressive causes and social change.