Archive for January, 2011

Assignment Desk
January 28, 2011

Image representing Formspring as depicted in C...
Image via CrunchBase

So Formspring became sort of a thing when I was in college, and at that point it struck me as being a perfect blend of everything bad about online social networking: the unwarranted self-regard it takes to solicit the Internet to ask you about yourself, the random cruelty that comes with anonymous submissions, and the oversharing that somehow manages to be both uncomfortable and boring.

But on the other hand, one of the few things I miss about Tumblr as a blogging platform is the opportunity for pretty much anyone to ask a question. The questions I got over there were, by and large, pretty great. (This one is a favorite.) I’d like to open this blog up to interesting queries about interesting things again. Free WordPress accounts on their own don’t have that capability. But Formspring with WordPress sharing activated does.

So long story short: Yeah, I’m caving. I have a Formspring account, and you can ask me questions on it here. The ones I like will get answered on this blog. Have at it.

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The Meaning of a Bus
January 26, 2011

Maybe some of you know that I spent ten weeks in the summer of 2009 living on a veggie-oil powered school bus with a few of my friends and tooling around the American South. Well, the guy who came up with the idea, purchased the bus, drew up the plans and repaired the diesel engine/veggie oil system whenever the bus broke down — my amazing, brilliant friend John Pags — has a blog post reflecting on the meaning of the trip. I hope he won’t mind if I just excerpt his post in full:

I finished Blue Highways recently, and I’m not quite sure whether I liked it or not. It has many lovely stories about small towns all across America, which I loved to read about, but it’s also littered with little throw away facts about towns he drove through. It felt at times like the entire premise of the book was just an excuse to tell stories about small towns, but there’s a point of separation from the story when he just rattles off facts about a town without having stopped in it or talked to any residents. It feels like it would have been better as a collection of short stories, each with their own setting and characters instead of pulling them all into this larger narrative. I realize it’s all true, it’s just that I didn’t find his voyage all that interesting in and of itself.

Although I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, since the author/narrator didn’t really either. From the last page:

The circle almost complete, the truck ran the road like the old horse that knows the way. If the circle had come full turn, I hadn’t. I can’t say, over the miles, that I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.

I feel a similar way about the Tour, and often replied as such if anyone asked what I had learned. That’s also why I probably won’t ever write much about the trip, save a few events. There was a more revealing passage, several pages earlier, that had also echoed what I had felt about the Tour. Looking back, it really reflects what I feel was the purpose of the trip:

In a season on the blue roads, what had I accomplished? I hadn’t sailed the Atlantic in a washtub, or crossed the Gobi by goat cart, or bicycled to Cape Horn. In my own country, I had gone out, had met, had shared. I had stood as witness.

This drove me nuts for maybe a year or so after the trip had ended. I kept trying to write some sort of cohesive, definitive account of the trip, but I always came up against the fact that there seemed to be no cohesive plot. I had no idea where things had begun, I had no idea where they ended, and there was more discernible arc connecting the two. It was with a certain arrogance that I just assumed that a series of thematically and causally connected events in my life automatically formed a story.

We’re conditioned to believe that our whole lives are in the stories we tell to ourselves and each other. Any story has some sort of meaning embedded in its text, so the natural instinct is to judge that there is some sort of meaning imbued into actual events, and that making sense of those events is a sort of forensic, archeological process. But of course, we’re not archeologists. We’re sculptors working with raw, shapeless material. Telling is shaping, no matter how much we try and convince ourselves otherwise.

As far as the Juan Way Tour goes, I’ve abandoned shaping a single big document out of it for now. I treasure the raw material too much to dare chip at it with shaking hands. Maybe some day when I have the time, focus and skill, I’ll give it another shot.

Understanding China
January 25, 2011

We in the West so often fail to understand China because in our arrogance we assume it fits into Western conceptions of the nation-state, ethnicity, and how state interacts with the individual. That’s the thesis of this excellent TED talk by Mark Jacques, author of When China Rules the World. Here’s the embed:

At the very end of the talk, Jacques rightly points out that the rise of China, India, Brazil and other developing nations herald a democratization of the world order. But anyone who watched the twenty minutes preceding that remark knows that he’s talking about a very specific kind of democratization which has little to do with Western-style liberal democracies and is wholly compatible with the sort of authoritarian paternalism central to Beijing’s governing philosophy. The world order may be democratizing, but that does not mean it is becoming more hospitable for democracy.

Last week I expressed my deep skepticism towards the notion that history will inevitably culminate in a state of enlightened democracy. I presented the philosophical case, but China’s ascension towards world power status strikes me as the empirical one. If, as Jacques predicts, China’s economy dwarfs all others in the year 2050, there won’t be many Western pundits left opining about the end of history. Indeed, the existence of a sinocentric world would leave open the possibility that in four or five centuries liberal democracy will be regarded as a historical fluke.

I pray that won’t be the case. Political legitimacy derived from the consent of the governed remains the most morally defensible justification for political authority we as a species have yet developed. But we need to appreciate that this thing we’ve built is as fragile as it is precious. More to the point, it’s not as quickly and easily exportable as we’ve assumed in the past.

At the same time, we need to understand that the death of liberal democracy likely wouldn’t be some apocalyptic, world-destroying event. It’s possible that when the end comes, most people won’t even notice, let alone mourn. Maybe that sounds a little bit fatalistic, but I’m not talking about inevitabilities. I only want to underscore that democracy’s death is no less preordained than its triumph, and that sheltering what gains we’ve made means humble, clear-eyed engagement with a world that thinks in very different terms.

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On Biocentrism
January 24, 2011

Double-slit experiment
Image via Wikipedia

My mom sent along this Huffington Post item called Five Reasons You Won’t Die, thinking I would find it interesting. Unsurprisingly, my mom knows me pretty well.

Here’s the most interesting part (warning: large blockquote ahead):

Reason One. You’re not an object, you’re a special being. According to biocentrism, nothing could exist without consciousness. Remember you can’t see through the bone surrounding your brain. Space and time aren’t objects, but rather the tools our mind uses to weave everything together.

“It will remain remarkable,” said Eugene Wigner, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 “in whatever way our future concepts may develop, that the very study of the external world led to the conclusion that the content of the consciousness is an ultimate reality.”

Consider the uncertainty principle, one of the most famous and important aspects of quantum mechanics. Experiments confirm it’s built into the fabric of reality, but it only makes sense from a biocentric perspective. If there’s really a world out there with particles just bouncing around, then we should be able to measure all their properties. But we can’t. Why should it matter to a particle what you decide to measure? Consider the double-slit experiment: if one “watches” a subatomic particle or a bit of light pass through slits on a barrier, it behaves like a particle and creates solid-looking hits behind the individual slits on the final barrier that measures the impacts. Like a tiny bullet, it logically passes through one or the other hole. But if the scientists do not observe the trajectory of the particle, then it exhibits the behavior of waves that allow it pass through both holes at the same time. Why does our observation change what happens? Answer: Because reality is a process that requires our consciousness.

The two-slit experiment is an example of quantum effects, but experiments involving Buckyballs and KHCO3 crystals show that observer-dependent behavior extends into the world of ordinary human-scale objects. In fact, researchers recently showed (Nature 2009) that pairs of ions could be coaxed to entangle so their physical properties remained bound together even when separated by large distances, as if there was no space or time between them. Why? Because space and time aren’t hard, cold objects. They’re merely tools of our understanding.

Death doesn’t exist in a timeless, spaceless world. After the death of his old friend, Albert Einstein said “Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us…know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” In truth, your mind transcends space and time.


Here is a Hand
January 23, 2011

poster for The Matrix
Image via Wikipedia

Pretty much anyone who’s thought about philosophical problems in any way is familiar with the skeptical argument. It’s right at the top of everyone’s list of All-Time 4 AM Dorm Room Shit, next to, “How do I know if, like, my green is your green? What if what you perceive is green is more of like a red to you?”

Descartes posed the skeptical argument as: “How do I know that anything I perceive is part of an external world, and not just illusions created by an evil demon to trick me?” You may have also heard it as: “How do I know I’m not just a brain in a vat?” Or, more recently, “Dude, what if, like, we’re all plugged into the matrix?”

When I blogged Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus late last year, I briefly noted that the great logical positivist was basically sympathetic to solipsism. More accurately, he proposed that one’s world is the entirety of one’s perceptions, and that death is nothing less than the end of the world. In his austere worldview, it didn’t make much sense to speak of an “external world.”

That’s early Wittgenstein. Later on he evidently became a big fan of G.E. Moore’s “Here is a Hand” argument, an argument against which I’ve been banging my head off and on for the past week. Here’s its basic structure.

  1. Here is a hand.
  2. Here is another hand.
  3. Therefore, the external world exists.


Tunisia and the Frozen Sunset of History
January 20, 2011

110118 Tunisia unity government unravels 07 | ...
Image by magharebia via Flickr

I welcome the overthrow of an authoritarian thug as much as the next guy, but I would caution Peter Beinart to take a deep breath and count to ten before declaring Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution a victory for the end-of-history crowd. For one thing, the dust hasn’t quite settled yet. Messrs. Henry and Springborg write:

When Chief of Staff General Rachid Ammar refused to order his troops to fire on demonstrators, President Ben Ali had no choice but to flee. Thus the military has emerged from the wreckage of the post-colonial state with its good reputation further enhanced. It provides, therefore, a potential political base for a new regime. Given the paucity of viable political organizations after a generation of repression under Ben Ali, the scenario of a military caretaker government is not out of the question. One but need recall that Nasser’s Revolutionary Command Council was initially presented as such to know how such caretaker status can become permanent.

The further temptation to open the state’s coffers may be difficult to resist. Indeed, then Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, two days before the regime fell, sought to quell discontent by announcing a dramatic increase in governmental jobs for young graduates. Since it is they who sparked the Jasmine Revolution, they can now reasonably expect rewards yet more generous than Ghannouchi promised.

So the political ingredients for a new authoritarian populist regime are present. It would be history as farce, however, were Tunisia, and possibly others in the Arab world, to squander its revolutionary opportunity by going back to the future in this fashion. But the task of building a new political order that can provide democracy and development is, if anything, even more challenging than it was for the immediate post-colonial political elites.

If there’s any lesson to be drawn from Tunisia, then we’ll probably have to wait a few months or even years before we can even properly disagree over its content. But in the meantime, here’s a lesson we’ve already learned many times over: infant democracies are exceedingly fragile things. Especially when there aren’t many stable institutions left over from the old regime that can be used as building blocks. And especially if the populace doesn’t have much in the way of bread or security. Extraordinary counterexamples aside, I think this works as a general maxim about human nature: the will to freedom is strong, but not as strong as the will to live.

Will that be a deciding factor in Tunisia? I have no clue. Color me cautiously optimistic, but cautiously.

But let’s say now that things go well. Does that lend greater credibility to the claim that democracy is an inexorable force that will eventually consume the globe and usher us into a glittering age of peace and prosperity? Nah. Don’t think so. My deep suspicion remains that the arc of history isn’t actually an arc but a semi-intelligible series of events. As much as we may try to divine an overarching theme from this series of events, none exists but blind causality. And history will only end when there’s no one left to take notes.

If I get frozen in carbonite, am thawed out several millennia from now, and I’m subsequently forced to admit I was wrong and apologize to the citizens of an Earth governed entirely by glittering liberal democracies, I will be overjoyed to do so. But in the meantime, I think the prudent thing to do is plan for a world in which I’m right, meaning a world in which the forces of history are not aligned in favor of human freedom and dignity. The smart optimist still wears a seatbelt, no?

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Reductive Empiricism
January 18, 2011

I’ve made this point several times in the past with varying degrees of success, but I like Matt Yglesias’ way of putting it:

For my part, I’m continually baffled by the degree to which thought-leaders and politicians on the center-left think it’s credible and/or political useful to present our agenda as wholly un-ideological and “pragmatic,” somehow emerging magically through empirical study. Quine’s Word & Object isn’t about politics at all but it’s full of valuable insights. All efforts to understand the world meld empirical and theoretical efforts, and all efforts to understand the world in a way that’s politically relevant are thus necessarily ideological.

I highlight Matt’s take because it seems tangentially related to the ongoing debate I’ve been having in the comments of a couple posts over whether or not moral principles can be derived through pure empirical observation. Both the political “non-ideological pragmatist” and Sam Harris the moral naturalist make the same category error: they take their own highly subjective value judgments as a given, so that any empirical observations they make can be neatly plugged into a preexisting conceptual framework.

So for example, in The Moral Landscape, Harris just sort of blithely asserts that anyone who uses the phrase, “You ought to do that” in any sort of moral context is really saying, “You doing that would contribute to overall human flourishing.” There’s no real reason to think that everyone everywhere considers overall human flourishing as the ultimate end of their various moral systems, but Harris clearly believes that they should. But he also distrusts non-empirical intuitions, so the only way to justify his own moral intuitions is to construct a book-length, profoundly wobbly line of reasoning that will obscure the fact that his moral convictions don’t spring fully-formed from rigorous scientific investigation.

What I’m saying is that Sam Harris is essentially the No Labels of moral philosophy. The way those guys roll is basically the same: they start from some first principles that they don’t feel like defending on philosophical grounds (like say the notion that a large federal deficit is worse for voters than the fact that many of them live in areas so impoverished they resemble third-world countries) and duck the issue entirely but just declaring their claims non-ideological and highly scientific.

I used to occasionally call this impulse “scientism,” but that sounds too much like a crack at science itself. Really what we’re talking about is an abuse of science. So I’m going to start calling this “reductive empiricism” instead — i.e. the overweening belief that any conceivable problem can be reduced to an empirical matter.

Why Sam Harris’ Ethical Empiricism Is Wrong
January 12, 2011

Sam Harris
Image via Wikipedia

I an earlier post about the holes in empirical atheism, I briefly mentioned Sam Harris’ argument that science can answer moral questions. Since the post was already running sort of long, I dismissed Harris (pictured) rather quickly by linking to what I thought was a good takedown by philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci. Commenter Josef Johann replied:

Dissenter warning!

Harris only commits a category error if you think there is a divide between what science is about and what morality is about in the first place. Claiming there is a category error is just a repackaging of one’s first-order disagreement with Harris. It doesn’t contain the why.

Yes, you did link to Massimo at the end, and that would be fine if the issue weren’t contentious, but being that it is contentious I think that’s a rather weak way of backing up your post’s fundamental premise.

I’m not trying to be uncivil but I’m flabbergasted by this type of assertion-by-fiat argument, as if dogmatic repetition of the very position Harris is arguing against is sufficient to rebut him. It isn’t. The trick is to reply to Harris in a way that isn’tquestion begging.

Resorting to empiricism to resolve questions may appear to you to be “cheap and intellectually lazy.” But someone from my side could just as well say that this viewpoint reflects a lack of imagination with respect to the explanatory scope of empiricism. And it surely wouldn’t be the first time- history is replete with confident declarations that X is outside the scope of science (e.g. Newton’s claim that there may from time to time be divine intervention to stabilize the orbit of the planets, the belief the human brain couldn’t be produced by natural selection or any other evolutionary mechanism, a belief that was argued for in respected circles in the 20th century).

So we return to the question of whether Harris’ definition, or any other, captures all the different ways we use the word morality. If it can’t even be done inprinciple, well, that requires argument just like everything else. I argue in the affirmative, you argue in the negative, and we explain why. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough, but at least in the context of rebuttals to Sam Harris, all I see are assertions-by-fiat masquerading as arguments.

Also, a recent PhilPapers Poll shows most analytic philosophers are moral realists. It can mean many different things, but one of its meanings is that moral issues can be decided by factual matters, which the Cornell Realists certain seem to have thought. So Harris’ view isn’t as completely out of the mainstream as is, I think, commonly believed.

Maybe my dismissal was overly glib, but I don’t think I was arguing by “dogmatic fiat” or “assertion-by-fiat.” I was letting Professor Pigliucci do the arguing for me. But in the interest of trying to put Harris’ deeply flawed argument behind us once and for all, I’m happy to expand on why on the professor’s argument a bit.

The Joys of Journaling
January 10, 2011

Moleskine notebook.
Image via Wikipedia

I keep a journal. Not a daily journal — I try to update it at least twice a week or so, though sometimes more. It’s a Moleskine journal, because those are sturdy, have good quality paper, and also because in certain respects I am a pretentious piece of shit.

The first entry in this journal was written on December 13, 2008, most likely around 2 or 3 AM. The very last entry will likely be written some time this week. I started out with 240 blank pages, and now I have five to go. Once the last page is filled, I’ll move on to a fresh Moleskine.

Before December 13, 2008, I had made other attempts at keeping a journal. I alway knew it was the sort of thing Very Serious Writers are supposed to do, and I’ve always wanted to be one of those. But I also am not so great at finishing big personal projects, and so I had notebooks scattered all over my room, maybe the first 15 or 20 pages or so of each filled with chicken scratch. What would happen is, I would forget why I was keeping a journal, and so I would toss it aside until, months later, it would occur to me that I should keep a journal. But not that one, the one that had already been despoiled by my past failures. I needed to start a fresh one.

When I started the current journal I didn’t worry about the why so much. I just wrote what popped into my head — I wrote to write. Some of what I put down was traditional journal fare: events in my life, personal observations, and so on. Feelings and shit. Other times I would note down story ideas, or just scratch out little doodles of people. I didn’t force myself into a regular schedule, and there are gaps in the chronology of a couple months or more. But unlike with the other journals, I always came back after those gaps.

I think part of what always drew me back is journaling’s meditative qualities. Like anyone who has lived in Manhattan at any point, and like anyone who spends any significant amount of his or her daily life online, I’m used to being perpetually bombarded with more stimuli than I can effectively process at any one time. Even as I write this I’m carrying on conversations on GChat, flipping to other tabs in Chrome, listening to music, and so on. But when I write in my journal, all of that goes away. I write in silence, without interruption, focused solely on my own thoughts and the physical sensation of writing. Writing full sentences with a good pen on decent paper is a really pleasing tactile sensation that I don’t get enough of in the age of Microsoft Word and WordPress. And Moleskines themselves are nice to look at. They’re stylish and minimalist, and they seem to give a sort of austere dignity to whatever thoughts you put inside them.

(Aside: That actually used to discourage me from keeping a journal. I would have thoughts that I would consider writing down, but then I would start wondering if they were good enough thoughts to record in a journal that nice. Eventually I decided that dropping $9 on a notebook meant I had to put something in it, and my thoughts weren’t getting any more profound from just sitting around and wondering whether they were worthy of a pretty nice paper product.)

That all makes my Moleskine sound like a Zen garden. But it’s really more like my shrink. Believe me: I’ve tried real shrinks, and the notebook provides me with nearly the same level of service at a drastically reduced price. Granted, that’s just me. If you’ve got a serious condition, it requires professional help. Hell, probably everyone could benefit from a little bit of professional help now and then anyway. But if you’re like me — not clinically depressed and not struggling with some nightmarish childhood trauma, but beset by mild paranoia, moderate-to-intense social anxiety, and spasms of congenital whininess — then the therapist is mostly there so you have someone to whom you can kvetch, in total confidentiality, about the things you can’t share with anyone else. Sometimes saying those things aloud automatically takes the air out of them, and that’s always nice. Other times, saying them aloud at least means you have a better idea what you’re dealing with. Often therapy is just venting. Like Tony Soprano said to Doctor Melfi: sometimes what goes on in here is like taking a shit.

A journal is just another impartial, confidential, professional receptacle for all of the things you need to put into words and all the shits you need to take. And whereas my shrink never let me look at her notes, I can always flip a few pages back in the journal and look at how much progress I’ve made. The results are often heartening.

And the best part? It’s all 100% private. My journal is the only thing I write intended only for my eyes. Everything else has an audience, or at least a potential or intended audience. I will always try, consciously or unconsciously, to manipulate that audience. I’ll withhold details, skew facts, and put on sort of an authorial persona that bares less of a resemblance to how I actually am than it does to how I think of myself and would like to think of myself.

That all happens when I write in the journal too, since it’s basically unavoidable. We all lie to ourselves — that’s what makes it so much easier to lie to each other. But when you write for yourself alone, you at least slough off the layers of deception a third party observer necessitates. What I write in my journal is often bullshit, but it’s honest bullshit.

There’s another advantage to a journal’s privacy as well: dignity. Now that we children of the Internet era volunteer more personal information for public consumption than any prior generation in human history, it’s more important than ever to have a space set aside for private reflection. To constantly shirk solitude, to speak and write only in front of an audience, is to assiduously avoid that space where 95% of our really serious thinking and self-examination gets done. Besides, living in public really is deeply, deeply undignified. Maybe dignity’s going the way of answering machines and the Whig Party, but goddammit, it still means something. As long as there are people out there who are willing to keep their shit to themselves and deal with it discretely, dignity is still alive.

Anyway, I encourage others to give journaling a shot. Or if you do keep a regular journal, to share your routine and experiences in the comments.

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Natural Rights versus Humanitarian Concerns
January 7, 2011

Via Naheed Mustafa’s Twitter feed, Stephen Kinzer has a really thought provoking column in the Guardian regarding what he calls “human rights imperialism.” He writes:

For many years as a foreign correspondent, I not only worked alongside human rights advocates, but considered myself one of them. To defend the rights of those who have none was the reason I became a journalist in the first place. Now, I see the human rights movement as opposing human rights.

The problem is its narrow, egocentric definition of what human rights are.

Those who have traditionally run Human Rights Watch and other western-based groups that pursue comparable goals come from societies where crucial group rights – the right not to be murdered on the street, the right not to be raped by soldiers, the right to go to school, the right to clean water, the right not to starve – have long since been guaranteed. In their societies, it makes sense to defend secondary rights, like the right to form a radical newspaper or an extremist political party. But in many countries, there is a stark choice between one set of rights and the other. Human rights groups, bathed in the light of self-admiration and cultural superiority, too often make the wrong choice.

This is a symptom, I think, of the static and inflexible notion of “natural rights” bequeathed to us by the Enlightenment. The descendants of Locke and Jefferson too often reduce the whole idea of liberty — a thorny concept if there ever was one — to a checklist that has remained basically unchanged for the past few centuries. And as if that weren’t strange enough, we pretend that these rights are self-evidently natural, as if freedom of the press somehow predates the written word.

To make this point is not to reject the importance of the Bill of Rights. I’m as big a fan of the ACLU as you’ll find, and I think my past blogging about civil liberties has pretty firmly established my pro-civil liberties cred. But while Enlightenment-era natural rights were a policy success to the extent that their wide acceptance demonstrably increased the basic freedoms available to the whole Western world, they’re still a mess as a philosophy of freedom. And our blind acceptance of their supposed naturalness has led us into embracing the sort of misguided and potentially catastrophic policies Kinzer describes above.

A truly humane philosophy of freedom must be more organic and receptive to humanitarian concerns. When our preconceived notions of “human rights” sharply diverge with humanitarian interests — or worse, precipitate humanitarian crises — there’s clearly something wrong with this picture.

(By the way: If you want to take this out of the realm of the abstract, I recommend reading Samantha Power’s excellent Sergio (originally published as Chasing the Flame). Its subject is the life of Sergio Vieira de Mello, perhaps one of the greatest humanitarians in the history of the United Nations. Although de Mello saved countless lives, the tactics he often employed to do so — including choosing the forceful repatriation of Rwandan refugees in Tanzania as “the least bad option” available, and negotiating with the Khmer Rouge — often earned him the ire of international human rights groups. Even more interesting, he was both an academic philosopher by training and, eventually, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.)

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