Thursday, March 29, 2012

It is hard to feel special as a person in a universe that looks like this (a collection of stars born round the same time, held together by their gravity)

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Meaning of Life and It's Determinants

Below is an excellent excerpt about the meaning of life from Jay Garfield of The Teaching Company.  Inserted in red are my notions about what besides our genes determines which meaning of life we adopt for ourselves.

There’s two big dimensions that we need to consider when we pose the big question of the meaning of life…one I’m going to call the personal dimension, and one I’m going to call the collective or the relation dimension. 
When we ask the question in the personal dimension, we’re asking the question: If I simply think of myself, as an individual, worrying about my own life, in what does the meaning of my life consist?  We might have a number of different kinds of answers to that.
We might say, a meaningful life for me is a life of reason.  That is it’s a life led reflectively, thoughtfully, where I make my choices in an informed way, where I’ve got good reasons for the things that I do, where I can look back at my life and I can say, “Yes, I did the right things, and I did them for the right reasons.”
Works if you are someone who can form excellent ex post rationalizations to your hasty decisions.  If your consciousness is a good lawyer on your behalf.
On the other hand, it might be that I say, for me, a meaningful life is a life of faith, where I find faith in some higher value, some spiritual value, and am able to accommodate myself and my concerns to what I see as my dictates of the higher spiritual value.  That’s possible.
Not sure what to say here...
On the other hand, I might say, that what makes my life meaningful is that I’m able to lead it naturally, in harmony with my own nature, in harmony with the nature that I find around me, where I think of myself fundamentally as an organism and I try to shed social excretions, get back to my natural way of being, and live that way…
If I don't want to have to rationalize my hasty decisions, and would rather not think about my decisions.
I might say, for instance if I’m a Confucian or an Aristotelian, that what gives my life meaning, is that it’s a social life.  That I’m a member of a culture, a member of a society, a member of a family. 
If the people in my social life revere me, and thus I revere them.
Or perhaps I could say with Nietzsche…that what makes my life meaningful as an individual is that I live an independent life.  That I’m the author of my own life.  I create it as a piece of art, and I don’t worry the demands of others, the demands of society around me, or external values: I make my own values, and I make myself, and that kind of autonomy and individuality is what gives my life meaning….
If society rejects you and you are unable to correct what society dislikes (good for rejected novelists who don't know how to write any differently)
But beyond this individual dimension there’s a second, social dimension…the dimension of connectedness.  And in that dimension we need an account of what our relationships are to each other, to the broader world, to the universe, to our society, in order to answer the question: what is the meaning of life?
If you love to gossip and pander.
On this dimension we might ask the question: are we primarily independent agents in voluntary association with one another…when we think about society, is it a group of individuals and get together and say, let’s form a society and make some agreements, as we might see in the social contract dimension, where we see government and social institutions as constituted and legitimated by the wills of individuals.  
If an "every man for himself" policy works best for you economically.
Or it might be that we are essentially social beings, and that is what our fundamental nature is.  And when we think about ourselves as individuals, that’s no more appropriate than to think of my hand as an individual instead of as a part of my body…Do we choose our roles in society, or does society give us our roles?
Again, if we love to gossip and pander.
Or, is our context not primarily social but natural?  Are we fundamentally animals living within an ecosystem, and what gives our lives meaning is our connection to other animals and plants in that broader ecosystems.
If you want to rationalize your actions as being good for a inanimate ruck of mass.
Or, as the Stoics might have it, are we simply tiny parts of a very vast cosmos, and we need to think of ourselves relationally, and in relation to the whole.
If you see the world as it is, and it doesn't depress you.
—Jay Garfield.  The Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World’s Great Intellectual Traditions.  2011.  Lecture 1: The Meaning of the Meaning of Life.  The Teaching Company.
Commentary by a dramatic stoic.

The desire for philosopher-kings

Could be taken from Plato's The Republic, if translated to contemporary settings...

If we look at America, we find a country that is in quite a bit of psychological self-doubt at this moment.  We find a country that has had much of its government, many of its leaders, besieged by irrationality, religiosity, they don't believe in evolution, they don’t believe in climate change, we cannot pass a simple measure in Congress to extend the national debt (which is not going to not happen): how can a government that is so paralyzed by its own inability to see reason be the custodian over that critical part of every economy that a government must preside over…
…while China, governed by engineers and technocrats tends to look at reason.  There are no climate deniers in China.  I have never spoken to a Chinese who doubted evolution.  And yet the ranks of the political houses of Congress are replete with these people—and there making decisions which govern how we live and how we govern the American economy.
Intelligence Squared Podcast.  March 20, 2012.  “Does China Do Capitalism Better Than America?”  National Public Radio.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Great Intelligence Squared Debate About U.S. and Chinese Capitalism

You don’t have as many regulations in China as the U.S., that is true.  Does that mean China does capitalism better?  No.  It means that if you want to move a village and build a road you can.  It is not clear to me that that is capitalism at its most effective or even its most rapacious form.  That’s the state doing what it wants to do for the benefit of the state.  That’s the problem.  You wanna talk about state intervention?  We’ve got it in China.  Look, the Chinese system is not just capitalistic its state-capitalism, and state-capitalism is a system where the state is the principal actor in the economy.  And it uses markets ultimately for their own political gain.  If it turns out that profit is useful for their political gain, they’ll go for it.  If it turns out it isn’t, they’ll go against it.  I mean, Facebook’s doing a pretty good IPO but they’re not in China—why?—because China doesn’t want Facebook in China.  It would make a lot of money for China, but that’s not the point.    
Intelligence Squared Podcast.  March 20, 2012.  “Does China Do Capitalism Better Than America?”  National Public Radio.

In the United States you do largely know what your officials are up to.  Look, Solyndra was a disaster…but we found out about it.  In China, they don’t want to tell you about Solyndra.  They don’t have media that’s getting inside the dirty laundry of series Chinese officials…
Intelligence Squared Podcast.  March 20, 2012.  “Does China Do Capitalism Better Than America?”  National Public Radio.

These are the facts, if you are an entrepreneur in China.  You cannot open a private, bank, you cannot get into telecom services…energy…international resources…fourteen other very important sectors because these are the sectors reserved for state-owned companies.  You cannot get bank loans.  You cannot secure property rights.  If you get into a dispute with another entrepreneur, whether you win that dispute does not depend on whether you have a good case.  It depends on whether you know the Communist Party secretary in charge of the legal system.
Intelligence Squared Podcast.  March 20, 2012.  “Does China Do Capitalism Better Than America?”  National Public Radio.

More writers than readers

Last night I was playing with my new Kindle Fire by perusing the books available at Amazon, and I grew overwhelmed but then inspired by the seemingly infinite number of books that exist on every conceivable topic and genre.  An aspiring writer must see observe this catalog and ponder whether his books even have a chance at decent sales, when there are so many other books going largely unread.

Perhaps they are irrationally optimist (I'm sure it helps in the publishing world) but perhaps becoming an established writer is not their ultimate goal.  Perhaps they feel a yearning to drive their steak into hard ground and announce to the world that their soul and mind exists, and they will prove it by transcribing the most unique and beautiful parts of their identity into a written word that will exist forever.

If that is the case, one has to be impressed at the human spirit.

Of course, to do this and publish successfully, becoming a known author with a respectable market share: that is an absolutely remarkable achievement.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

How much education is optimal?

A new report on education in the U.S. will undoubtedly cause some to lament the "fall and decline" of the U.S. and beg the nation to spend more in our schools.  I only ask that we keep one consideration in mind.  First, note the dominance of South Korea in education (chart below).  Then read a recent article in The New Yorker about what South Korean children endure as they are pressured to out-perform each other (the government must even regulate the amount of tutoring children get).  Finally, let us remind ourselves that the most important part of education is learning how to live a happy, meaningful life.  That is a lesson South Korea has not learned.  We should find a wiser educational system by which to compare ours.


The Essence of Anarchy

My latest intellectual adventure is into anarchy, because their riots look fun, and because I know nothing about it.  From a good source I believe the founder of modern anarchy to be Emma Goldman, so I have been reading her essays.
Emma Goldman, 1919.
[Credit: The Granger Collection, New York]
(Emma Goldman)

First, an attempt to explain what anarchy is...what it stands for..

ANARCHISM:—The philosophy of a new social order based on liberty unrestricted by man-made law; the theory that all forms of government rest on violence, and are therefore wrong and harmful, as well as unnecessary...
...The history of human development will disclose two elements in bitter conflict with each other;...the individual and social instincts...


...Anarchism is the only philosophy which brings to man the consciousness of himself; which maintains that God, the State, and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can be fulfilled only through man's subordination....

Of course, anarchism is a struggle (they are always mad, aren't they?), but against what?

Anarchism has declared war on the pernicious influences which have so far prevented the harmonious blending of individual and social instincts, the individual and society. Religion, the dominion of the human mind; Property, the dominion of human needs; and Government, the dominion of human conduct, represent the stronghold of man's enslavement and all the horrors it entails.

In many ways Goldman sounds like a modern libertarian, or an atheist Bastiat (maybe he was atheist, I don't know).  Even the most extreme libertarian believes in a government to protect property, protect us, and enforce good laws.  When we think of the absence of government we think about thugs coming into our house and taking our belongings, and we having nothing to defend ourselves.  It seems Goldman has heard this before.

...The most absurd apology for authority and law is that they serve to diminish has come to an absolute standstill in coping with crime...

Her arguments against the state sound much like the Public Choice arguments.  You tell me a utopian vision for government.  I tell you how government really works.  You are surprised at what you learn, and decide that faith in government is hopeless, and it causes more harm than good.  Consider he comments on labor laws.

What does the history of parliamentarism show? Nothing but failure and defeat, not even a single reform to ameliorate the economic and social stress of the people. Laws have been passed and enactments made for the improvement and protection of labor. Thus it was proven only last year that Illinois, with the most rigid laws for mine protection, had the greatest mine disasters. In States where child labor laws prevail, child exploitation is at its highest, and though with us the workers enjoy full political opportunities, capitalism has reached the most brazen zenith.

So, what exactly would an anarchic society look like?  I still haven't figured that out, but she does assert there is no single "program" like the inevitable revolution Marx would predict occur in a specific fashion.

The methods of Anarchism therefore do not comprise an iron-clad program to be carried out under all circumstances. Methods must grow out of the economic needs of each place and clime, and of the intellectual and temperamental requirements of the individual. The serene, calm character of a Tolstoy will wish different methods for social reconstruction than the intense, overflowing personality of a Michael Bakunin or a Peter Kropotkin. Equally so it must be apparent that the economic and political needs of Russia will dictate more drastic measures than would England or America.

Do not doubt the Utopian vision she has though.

Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations.

She even invokes Thomas More's assumption (from Utopia) that once power was taken from the wealthy there would be enough loot to go around for everyone.

If society were only relieved of the waste and expense of keeping a lazy class, and the equally great expense of the paraphernalia of protection this lazy class requires, the social tables would contain an abundance for all...

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Have you noticed?

That every economist seems to think they are the only ones who understand what Adam Smith truly meant in The Wealth of Nations?

Monday, March 19, 2012

How science really works

Scientists, it’s said, behave more like lawyers than philosophers.  They do not so much test their theories as prosecute their cases, seeking supportive evidence and ignoring data that do not fit—a failing known as confirmation bias.  They then accuse their opponents of doing the same thing.  This is what makes debates over nature and nurture, dietary fat and climate change so polarized.
—Matt Ridley.  March 17-18, 2012.  “A Global-Cooling Theory Gets a Second Chance.  The Wall Street Journal.  C2.

Independent Thinking, Helped

I would still say, despite my reverence for Emerson, that one can learn a good deal from writers like Paul Krugman and Don Boudreaux, even if you can anticipate their arguments.  They can help you become a more independent thinker.

If I know your sect, I anticipate your argument.  I hear a preacher announce for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church.  Do I not know beforehand that not possibly can he say a new and spontaneous word?  Do I not know that, with all this ostentation of examining the grounds of the institution, he will do no such thing?  Do I not know that he is pledged to himself not to look but at one side—the permitted side—not as a man, but as a parish minister?  He is a retained attorney, and these airs of the bench are the emptiest affectation.  Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief, and attached themselves to some one of these communities of opinions.  This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars.  Their every truth is not quite true.  Their two is not the real two, their four not the real four…
— Ralph Waldo Emerson in Self-Reliance

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Quote regarding alienated labor

I cannot tell you how often I have received comments from my former students…that went out into the work-world and write to me, “You know, when you read that passage from Marx on alienated labor, I confess it didn’t mean all that much to me.  But now—now that I worked in the corporate world, for example—now I know what Marx is talking about.  Because when he uses the term that work is external to me, and that I cannot identify with it, I cannot put myself in that process of work, that the product which I create is not part of me and I cannot feel myself as part of that product, now finally I feel that.  And sometimes people will write to me a year after they’ve graduated, sometimes ten or twenty years…and as they write back to me their refrain is this: why is it I have spent so much of my life, so many of my hours engaged in an activity that I’ve come to hate, why should I feel the activity itself cannot be part of me
—Dennis Dalton.  Power Over People: Classical and Modern Political Theory.  Lecture Ten:  Marx’s Critique of Capitalism and the Solution of Communism.  The Teaching Company.  1998.

I can identify with this quote in that I believe I would despise life if I was anything other than a college professor.  But I don't know why alienated labor is any different in a capitalism system compared to any other system.  At least with capitalism you get to choose your profession, to some extent.  I think this quote really applies to the reality of life.  I'm sure many a Soviet comrades felt very dissatisfied with their jobs, as did many a peasant.

By the way, surveys show that the people unhappy with their jobs are those without autonomy and responsibility.  I would think that a socialist system contains far less autonomy and responsibility.

The Consequence of Karl Marx

I am a huge fan of lectures by The Teaching Company, and believe one can learn more per minute of study through their lectures than the best book.  It took more than 200 lectures before I found one I was dissatisfied with.

Power Over People is a series of political science lectures by Dr. Dennis Dalton.  Although it is sometimes more about philosophy than politics, it is nevertheless a superb series.  Lecture 10 on Karl Marx was disappointing though, because he hardly even related Marx to politics or power!  At first the lecture dwells on Marx's life, and towards the end Dr. Dalton ponders the issue of income inequality.  Inequality is worsening, he argues, and so long as that is the case, he argues Marx will be relevant.

But that is where he stopped, and he left out the most important thing.  Marx opposed income inequality.  We have income inequality.  Inequality may be worsening.  Dr. Dalton reveals his opposition to inequality, but does not say what he or Marx is willing to do in order to reduce inequality.  How far are they willing to use governmental force to equalize wealth?  What types of policies are acceptable?  Are they willing to reduce income inequality if it makes everyone poorer?  For goodness sake, if the lectures series is called Power Over People, how can you lament income inequality without remarking the tyrannical use of force that would be needed to fight it?

Moreover, Dr. Dalton does not remark upon the existence of books like F. A. Hayek's Road to Serfdom.  At a minimum, they should be mentioned in passing.  A lecture on the politics of income inequality, even one focusing on Marx, simply has to address the many repugnant uses of force that is needed to mitigate income inequality.

Nevertheless, the lectures series overall is fantastic, and worth purchase.

Friday, March 16, 2012

I just can't let this go...

this is why anyone saying "studies show..." isn't saying much.

Within parapsychology, there is a tendency to accept any positive replications but to dismiss failures to replicate if the procedures followed have not been exactly duplicated.
—Chris French, on why his article showing ESP doesn’t exist, an article replicating a previous study showing ESP does exist, was not published in the same journal.  An illustration of why many “scientific”  journal should not consider itself scientific.

Now, I must acknowledge that you can't publish 100 studies all showing ESP or ghosts don't exist, but once you publish one that says they do exist, you are obliged to publish at least a few others that show they don't exist.

If there is a sample selection problem, the sample is biased.  Thus, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is biased.

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology is not a scientific journal

I do not believe you can call yourself a scientific journal if you refuse--without review--to publish articles that replicate other studies (especially if the replication shows ESP doesn't exist when the original article said it did).

ScienceDaily (Mar. 15, 2012) — Research failing to find evidence for the existence of psychic ability has been published, following a year of industry debate. The report is a response by a group of independent researchers to the 2011 study from social psychologist Daryl Bem, purporting the existence of precognition -- an ability to perceive future events.
Professor Chris French (Goldsmiths, University of London), Stuart Ritchie (University of Edinburgh) and Professor Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire) collaborated to accurately replicate Bem's final experiment, and found no evidence for precognition. Their negative results have now been published by open access journal PLoS ONE.
Their report was rejected by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (JPSP), which originally published Bem's findings along with his appeal to independent researchers to attempt replications.
"Our submission was rejected without being sent for peer review on the basis that the journal has a policy of not publishing replications," said Professor Chris French. "Our paper has opened up the debate on the proper place of replication in the scientific literature."

Thursday, March 15, 2012

College students don't learn anything

Eight years ago, leaders of the University of Texas set out to measure something few in higher education had thought to question — how much their students learn before graduation…An unsettling answer emerged: arguably, not very much…That conclusion is based on results from a 90-minute essay test given to freshmen and seniors that aims to gauge gains in critical thinking and communication skills…In a landmark study published last year, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa used the test to measure collegiate learning in the nation. Using data drawn from a sampling of public and private colleges, they shook the academic world with a finding that 36 percent of students made no significant learning gains from freshman to senior year.
—Daniel de Vise.  March 14, 2012.  “Trying to assess learning gives colleges their own test anxiety.”  The Washington Post.  Online in Education section.

Two contrasting views on property

Then now let us consider what will be their way of life, if they are to realize our idea of them. In the first place, none of them should have any property of his own beyond what is absolutely necessary; neither should they have a private house or store closed against any one who has a mind to enter; their provisions should be only such as are required by trained warriors, who are men of temperance and courage; they should agree to receive from the citizens a fixed rate of pay, enough to meet the expenses of the year and no more; and they will go to mess and live together like soldiers in a camp. Gold and silver we will tell them that they have from God; the diviner metal is within them, and they have therefore no need of the dross which is current among men, and ought not to pollute the divine by any such earthly admixture; for that commoner metal has been the source of many unholy deeds, but their own is undefiled. And they alone of all the citizens may not touch or handle silver or gold, or be under the same roof with them, or wear them, or drink from them. And this will be their salvation, and they will be the saviours of the State.
But should they ever acquire homes or lands or moneys of their own, they will become housekeepers and husbandmen instead of guardians, enemies and tyrants instead of allies of the other citizens; hating and being hated, plotting and being plotted against, they will pass their whole life in much greater terror of internal than of external enemies, and the hour of ruin, both to themselves and to the rest of the State, will be at hand. For all which reasons may we not say that thus shall our State be ordered, and that these shall be the regulations appointed by us for guardians concerning their houses and all other matters?
—Plato in The Republic

And there is another objection to the proposal. For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual. For besides other considerations, everybody is more inclined to neglect the duty which he expects another to fulfill; as in families many attendants are often less useful than a few
Next let us consider what should be our arrangements about property: should the citizens of the perfect state have their possessions in common or not?...when they till the ground for themselves the question of ownership will give a world of trouble. If they do not share equally enjoyments and toils, those who labor much and get little will necessarily complain of those who labor little and receive or consume much…
…how immeasurably greater is the pleasure, when a man feels a thing to be his own; for surely the love of self is a feeling implanted by nature and not given in vain, although selfishness is rightly censured; this, however, is not the mere love of self, but the love of self in excess, like the miser’s love of money; for all, or almost all, men love money and other such objects in a measure…
…And further, there is the greatest pleasure in doing a kindness or service to friends or guests or companions, which can only be rendered when a man has private property. 
—Aristotle in Politics

Plato's remarks about fiction

Come then, and let us pass a leisure hour in story-telling, and our story shall be the education of our heroes.
By all means.
And what shall be their education?  Can we find a better than the traditional sort?  And this has two divisions, gymnastic for the body, and music for the soul.
And when you speak of music, do you include literature or not?
I do.
And literature may be either true or false?
And the young should be trained in both kinds, and we begin with the false?
I do not understand your meaning, he said.
You know, I said, that we begin by telling children stories which, though not wholly destitute of truth, are in the main fictitious; and these stories are told them when they are not of an age to learn gymnastics.
Very true.
That was my meaning when I said that we must teach music before gymnastics.
Quite right, he said.
You know also that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken.
Quite true.
And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up?
We cannot.
Then the first thing will be to establish a censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to tell their children the authorized ones only.
Of what tales are you speaking of? He said?
Whenever an erroneous representation is made of the nature of gods and heroes—as when a painter paints a portrait not having the shadow of a likeness to the original.
—Plato in The Republic

I recommend watching "Fall of the Eagles"

If you are like me, European history between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I baffles you.  What was the difference between "Germany" and "Prussia"?  Who was this Bismarck character, if he wasn't a Kaiser?

Lately I have used two sources to enlighten me, and they are excellent sources.

First is the Fall of the Eagles, a TV mini-series from the 1970's you can acquire through Netflix.  It had almost no budget, and is filmed like a play, but the plots are both interesting and 100% accurate.  Moreover, I believe the actors and writers did a good job of capturing the personalities of people like Bismarck.  The series covers most of the major countries and events, including the unification of Germany, the fall of the last Russian Tsar, the suicide pact the Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria made with his admirer.  They are long and many episodes, requiring four DVDs, but you can learn more from watching these videos than devoting the entire next year to books.

Next is the audiobook The Coming of the Third Reich, which reveals the essence of the German zeitgeist after Napoleon, after World War II, and of course, all the way to Hitler.  I am surprised to say that, now that I know how the Germans thought, Hitler's rise is not very surprising.  The Holy Roman Empire was the first Reich (empire). Unified Germany before World War I was the second.  Nazi Germany was the third Reich.

What this book taught me was the quasi-religion that was made out of the concepts of "Germany" and "Prussia."  The Germans thought their greatness inevitable, just, and after their defeat in World War I they blamed it on elements within the German government, and thus, didn't really accept military defeat.  Just as men will kill each other over who has divine influence, the Germans thought of their government not as a political system, but a holy (though non-Christian) entity.  Because this "entity" was given its own sentience and existence (in a way) when a man betrays Germany he betrays a god--and he must pay with his life.

I know that may sound weird, if you haven't been exposed to German history before and during World War I.

I truly do recommend these sources.  Fortunately, they are cheap.  Netflix is cheap to rent from, and members of can get The Coming of the Third Reich for only $5.99.  What a great era to be an observer.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Excerpt from book review about economic growth

Neither culture nor geography can explain gaps between neighboring American and Mexcan cities, they argue, to say nothing of disparities between North and South Korea.
They offer instead a striking diagnosis: some governments get it wrong on purpose.  Amid weak and accommodating institutions, there is little to discourage a leader from looting.  Such environments channel society’s output towards a parasitic elite, discouraging investment and innovation.  Extractive institutions are the historical norm.  Inclusive institutions protect individual rights and encourage investment and effort.  Where inclusive governments emerge, great wealth follows.
Britain, wellspring of the industrial revolution, is the chief proof of this theory.
The Economist.  “Creating economic wealth: The big why.”  Review of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s book Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (2012).

Revising Plato's Ship

Plato is known for promoting governance by philosopher-kings rather than direct democracy.  He say corrupt, debased men casting votes for a society should be ruled, and he saw these same men kill his beloved Socrates, and so it is not surprising he favors autocracy by the those with the most merit.

When arguing his point, Plato (Book VI of The Republic) uses the analogy of a ship and the decision of who will command the ship.  One option is to allow the captain, who has spent his life studying navigation and gaining years of actual experience.  Another is the mass of sailors guiding the ship by mob, voting or even fighting to decide whether to turn the rudder or trim the mast.  Certainly, you want the captain in charge, and the sailor subordinate to him.

Plato is making the case for central planning...or is he.  Is he instead talking about the formation of laws?  That is, is the captain a metaphor for a central planner or an enlightened lawmaker?  I doubt Plato believed the philosopher-king should set prices, or should he?  I don't know, but I think the ship-metaphor can be deciphered a number of ways, and to support a variety of politics.

Someone who wanted to study Plato and write something interesting could recast the ship-metaphor, making it reflect much of the elements of the calculation debates (calculation, meaning how can you plan without market prices to guide you?).

And tell him he is quite right in saying that the finest philosophers are useless to the multitude; but tell him it is their fault for not using them...
--Plato, The Republic, Book VI

Quote about Ph.D's and writing

It’s what saved me, I think.  If I had taken a doctoral degree, it would have stifled my writing capacity.
—Barbara Tuchman.

Lines from movie: Catherine the Great

I recently watched this made-for-TV movie that came out in 2000 and starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.  I thought that, given the 100 minutes they had and the obviously low budget, the writers did a superb job of reflecting the most important part of Empress Catherine's personal and professional life, especially her difficulty of acting as a disciple of the Enlightenment in the brutish Russian nation.  Below are some lines which I believe reflect her true feelings about Russian serfdom.

Pugachev:  You’re gonna have my head, aren’t you?
Empress Catherine:  I don’t know.
Pugachev:  You’d be wise to, because if you don’t, I will have yours.
Empress Catherine:  Is that what you do?  If I kept you here or exiled you, you’d have my head?  Why?
Pugachev:  Is it right, that human souls should be bought and sold like animals?
Empress Catherine:  No.
Pugachev:  Is it right that millions should starve, so their masters could grow fat?
Empress Catherine:  No.
Pugachev:  Isn’t what you call your empire an abomination?
Empress Catherine:  And what would you put in its place?  You kill.  You burn.  You destroy.  But what would you put in its place?  What would you build?
Pugachev:  Man is born equal, but is everywhere in chains.
Empress Catherine:  Rousseau.
Pugachev:  I don’t know who said it, lady, but it is God’s word.  You ask me what I would build, I will tell you.  I would build a new world where every man is free, where all men were equal, that’s what I would build.
Empress Catherine:  On the ruins of the old?
Pugachev:  To build a house you must first level the ground.
Empress Catherine:  Oh no, you lay foundations.
—Lines from movie Catherine the Great (2000).  A&E.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Two instances of altruism

at the most primitive stages of life.

“This question ‘why family?’ was only the beginning.  ‘Why family?’ led him to a bigger question: why does anybody help anybody?  If you think about Darwin’s idea (survival of the fittest) think about what that really means.  It means if you are a creature you have two big important jobs.”
“You gotta survive and you’ve gotta be fit.”
“Right.  Fitness means: how many babies can you make?  And so if you do some stupid, hair-brained thing [act of altruism], that means you can’t stay alive, or you can’t make babies…that doesn’t make any sense.”
“And yet, wherever you look in nature…”
“You see creatures doing this.”
“From bacteria.”
“Ants and wasps.”
“I’ll give you an example.  There’s a species of amoeba called  xxxx, which usually the amoeba usually lives on its own—it’s a single celled organism—in the forest.  But when resources are low, what it does is send out its chemical signal, and all the other amoeba…”
“They start sending out signals…”
“And they start crawling until they all meet, and they become one slug, which is now a single organism.”
“And this slug begins to crawl until it finds a place that’s windy and sunny, at which point…”
“It stops, and the top twenty percent of the slug—the top twenty percent of the amoeba, the slug—begin to create out of their own body, a stalk, which hardens, and they die while doing so.  But the stalk allows the bottom eighty percent to climb up the stalk and to create an orb at the top of the stalk…”
“And from there, all the amoeba that aren’t, you know, dead, can catch a wind…”
“To better pastures.”
“It’s like a dandelion.”
“So what’s happened is, that the top twenty percent have really sacrificed themselves for the back eighty percent: and that’s an amoeba…
—various voices on the Radiolab podcast.  Season 9.  Episode 1.  “The Good Show.”

“…the coccolithophores are not doing very well.”
“Well, they’ve got a couple of tricks up their little calcified sleeves.  Sometimes when a virus enters, the coccolithophores will send out a chemical signal…”
“They’re saying, ‘Hey, it’s too late for me…”
“but save yourselves…and initially this signal is pretty weak in the water but as more and more coccolithophores are infected the chorus of this chemical beacon grows louder and louder…”
“And so the other cells hear these messages…”
“And they change by messing with their DNA a little bit and they go from having those white shields on the outside to having these jaggedy scales…”
“Which we think might be impenetrable…”
“Well, why aren’t they scaly all the time?”
“Because when they’re scaly, they can’t be the best Coccolithophores they can be.  They just don’t grow as well.”
“So [being] scaly is an adaptation against the virus.”
“And then finally, if all else fails…”
“Program cell death.”
“The Coccolithophores just commit suicide.”
“It just shuts down and kills itself to prevent propagation of viruses.”
—various voices on the Radiolab podcast.  March 5, 2012.  “A War We Need.”  

Monday, March 12, 2012

Why we coerce

Rewards and punishments can cajole people into cooperating, but they are costly to implement.  A theoretical study finds that, when participation in group activities is optional, punishing uncooperative behavior is the cheaper method.
—Simon Gachter (Nature, March 2012) summarizing research by Sasaki et. al. in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012.  

The Role of Activists and Information

I knew what Rolling Stone magazine would argue in its recent article on fracking and Chesapeake's CEO Aubrey McClendon (see The Fracking Bubble by Jeff Goodell in the March 15, 2012 issue).  Because of its readers, Rolling Stone would have to argue that fracking is bad for the environment, and that the firms doing the fracking are manipulative and greedy.  Of course, I was right.  So was there any point in reading the article, if the conclusion was decided before the research?  I argue: yes.

Activist media like the Rolling Stone are not charged with objectively researching an issue and providing its readers with what it needs to hear, instead of what it wants to hear.  That job goes to people like me and media like The Economist.  No, the charge of Rolling Stone is to accumulate all the information that can be effectively used to make fracking and people like Aubrey McClendon look bad.  First decide the argument, then go get the evidence.  Much as a lawyer arguing a case.

Consequently, reading the article helps you acquire information you might not normally stumble upon.

For example, I was not aware of the "first, rigorous, peer-reviewed study of pollution at drilling and fracking operations."  After examining 60 sites in the Northeast, the study found, "systematic evidence for methane contamination."  I'm skeptical the article was presented to me properly (a recent article in Science News said the risks of fracking "are very similar, if not exactly the same, as the impacts that we see from conventional gas development"; March 10, 2012, page 11) but still, I was unaware of the study.

I was also unaware of the fact that operations like Chesapeake appear to be making much of their money by discovering potential fracking sites and then "flipping" the site by selling it to others.  The article reports that McClendon told a group of Wall Street analysts in a conference call that, "I can assure you that buying leases for x and selling them for 5x or 10x is a lot more profitable than trying to produce gas at $5 or $6 per million cubic feet."  This means that the motivation to drill, drill, drill may not be tied to the long-term profitability of fracking, after the markets sort prices out and the true environmental impact of fracking becomes known, but instead to the perceived long-term profitability of fracking by the same investors who perceived in the long-term profitability of mortgage-backed securities.

The article makes fracking seem something like a bubble, and while their case is not terribly strong, I am concerned that most of the firms promoting fracking will be protected against future lawsuits because they will no longer own the wells, just as banks didn't have to worry about the housing bubble if they sold the mortgage as soon as the money was lent.

Thus, activist media are like little demons scrambling all about the world looking for every scrap of evidence supporting a preconceived notion, and sometimes, those scraps of evidence are worth the damage these demons due to the psychology of a society.

This guy doesn't understand prophecy (or, maybe I don't)

If a prophecy is made, and you respond to it by fulfilling the prophecy, I don't know if that should be called prophecy.  Doing so would remove the divinity of a prophecy, because instead of foretelling what Providence dictates, it merely provides one option for humans who wish to become part of the divine.  The future then becomes the product of secular, human choices.  One could override the will of Providence by choosing to fulfill an alternative prophecy.
From a sociological perspective, however, that might be the true essence of prophecy.
One of the volunteers, Mike Clayton, a former preacher from Seminole, Okla., reads out of the Bible from Isaiah 61:5: "The son of the foreigner will come and tend your vines."
Then he adds: "Well, a few days ago, myself and my son got off a plane ... and I got to watch as I handed my son ... a pair of pruners, and I took a picture as he walked out there. He fulfilled scripture. ... Is the Bible true? Is all this happening? I saw it with my own eyes."
—Lourdes Garcia-Navarro .  March 7, 2012.  “Christians Provide Free Labor On Jewish Settlements.”  All Things Considered.  NPR.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Meaning of Life: Hindu Perspective

The Hindus were among the first to conceive of life as a journey—a grand journey—…The individual in life ideally moves through various stages of development, and those stages of development begin with Brahmacharya…the student stage.  The first 25 years of a students’s life, ideally devoted to studying all knowledge and understanding the sacred texts of Hinduism.  After that, Grihastha, that is, the householder stage.  Notice that’s age 25 to about 55, in which the individual establishes a family and becomes devoted to providing for others, for raising children, and so that key portion of one’s life is dedicated to society and fulfilling one’s social responsibility.  But then there’s the prospect of liberation here, and in the third of the stages, Vanaprastha, the individual is encouraged to sever his or her ties with society and to move off into a realm of solitude, in which one searches in the most serious manner possible one’s connection with truth, with the divine, and so the term literally means “forest hermit”…This solitary seeker of truth…must begin with leaving all family and responsibilities behind in a quest for self-knowledge…in this journey…the third stage is necessary.  Necessary for what?  For attaining the fourth stage…: Sannyasa…the meaning of Sannyasa, it means saintliness, and it depends on the result of Vanaprastha…because one could wander about in the forest for a very long time and not attain this kind of self-realization or self-knowledge of what is true, good, noble, right, just…One has to attain a certain wisdom…
—Dennis Dalton.  Power Over People: Classical and Modern Political Theory.  Lecture One: The Hindu Vision of Life.  The Teaching Company.  1998.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The March of Science

First, the truth is ridiculed.  Then it meets outrage.  Then it is said to have been obvious all along.  We’re currently in the outrage stage, but we’ll be obvious before long.
—E. O. Wilson remarking on the progress of science and the controversy over his theories of altruism.  As quoted by Jonah Lehrer.  “Kin and Kind: A fight about the genetics of altruism.”  The New Yorker.  March 5, 2012.  This is Martin Nowak describing how theoretical biologist Robert May described inclusive fitness theory.

What is intellectual progress (Cahoone quote)?

The child says something about what happened between Jane and Johnny.  You saw the same thing.  You explain it differently and in a more complicated way.  The child cannot understand your explanation but you can understand the child’s explanation because yours includes…the child’s explanation as a possibility….  This is rational progress, and its why hopefully adults still get to teach their children. 
Rational progress therefore remains conceivable wherever we can articulate within our new improved understanding of things…(an improved understanding of things), and still articulate the older way of understanding, and still explain its inadequacy along with the greater adequacy of the new view: that’s rational progress, and there’s nothing we’ve seen to say that can’t be done.
—Lawrence Cahoon.  2010.  The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida.  Lecture 36: Philosophy’s Death Greatly Exaggerated.  The Teaching Company.

What is philosophy (Cahoone quote)?

In fact, one has to think that the philosopher’s job is more central than ever.  While it is true that over the centuries philosophy has been diminished as more and more fields…have gradually split off from philosophy…the problem of integrating the knowledge of those fields and of the other fields of everyday life…the job of integrating this and seeing them in a common context, is greater than ever.  The attempt to know the world in ourselves, to know what is true, good, and beautiful, remains a philosophical job.  Nobody else is taking it up. 
So, the alternative to philosophy would be essentially to stop wondering.  To stop asking questions that go beyond the methods and intellectual boundaries of the many contexts of our lives:  family life, the sciences, our business, entertainment, our local civic obligations, technology.  Each of these spheres and in each of these spheres human beings interact and ask questions.  But it’s only when they step outside that, they ask questions about, “Is this sphere good, is it what it should be, is it what it ought to be, how may I to understand the relationship between these different parts of my life and our lives?”
So the choice is either, as Aristotle knew long ago, to accept our unreflective, uncoordinated—often contrary—beliefs, or to ask ourselves if they are true and how they hang together.  If you ask those questions and try to answer them, you’re doing philosophy. 
It may be that we are just not built for cognitive rest.  Perhaps we never have been since we ate of the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  Human beings are condemned to ask questions beyond and about what they do and what they experience.  When we do that, again, we’re doing philosophy. 
So the journey of modern thought is not over.  Perhaps it’s just beginning. 
—Lawrence Cahoon.  2010.  The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida.  Lecture 36: Philosophy’s Death Greatly Exaggerated.  The Teaching Company.

The Meaning of Life (Prelude to thirty-six lectures)

I will soon begin a new lecture series titled Meaning of Life: Perspectives from the World's Great Intellectual Traditions.  I listen to these lectures when I walk my dog at night.  

Before I begin the lectures, I thought I would describe my current view of the meaning of life, so that I can see how it changes throughout the thirty-six lectures.  Here goes...

To live a happy, meaningful life, you must at some point decide whether you are going to be a participant in life or an observer of human life.  

The essence of participating human is to create conflict where none exists.  Peaceful college campuses contrive football games where men armor themselves and collide at full speed for no logical reason.  Hannibal created and spread myths about his divinity both to intimidate the Romans and—in case he emerged victorious—to become a demigod.  Bastiat became the founder of modern economics because knowledge was lacking and its provider would be crowned.  Saint Francis loved unconditionally because so much love was conditional.  The key is that all fight largely for the fight; there is no other reward.  For life to have meaning it must accomplish something.  To accomplish, there must be something inferior that is made superior due to human effort.  Perfection, satisfaction: these only stand in the way of a virtuous life.  Eve did not bite the apple because she was tricked by a snake.  She ate because she was bored.  Yet, participating human cannot admit his cause is ultimately pointless, and so affiliation and myth emanate.  Every Alabama student and alumni were victorious when "their" team won the national championship.  Roman citizens considered Augustus to be their father, almost literally.  Saint Francis performed miracles, because there is nothing spectacular about a stinky, barefooted man simply wandering around, begging for food.

The observer, on the other hand, cannot participate in the fight because in his perennial reading, listening, and watching, he sees that humans create conflict solely for the purpose of conflict.  He sees this over and over, in different places, times, and forms—but it is all the same.  He records the creation of affiliation and myth out of nothing, because nothing is empty and human lives cannot remain empty.  One becomes a visitor to another team's football game, a chronicler of an ancient history that can never be altered, and so he never feels the urgency in which participating human is called to fight.  The observer's happiness in life comes from the observation.  If history, sport, politics, war, literature, and science of every kind are not interesting to the observer, then he is left with nothing, and his life empty.

Both can be happy, and one is no more virtuous than the other.  There is on peculiarity readers must beware, though.  One can transform from a participating human to an observer.  Indeed, many do in the latter stage of their life.  The observer cannot become a participant though.  His foot-tracks are covered.  Unless the story of mankind is his pleasant companion, the observer is cursed with perennial loneliness. 

The participant can always find a new cause.  The observer is stuck with the universe he is given.  I am one of these observers, and though I grow fonder of the human story the more I learn, I do know that if it forsakes, all is forsaken.

If I maintain this view on the meaning of life after thirty-six lectures I would be surprised.  Not necessarily proud.

My Final Thoughts on Modern Philosophy

Over the past month I have been listened to a lecture series called Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida, given by Lawrence Cahoone through The Teaching Company.  I took it for two reasons.  One is that I didn't know much about modern philosophy and I wanted to learn.  The other is that I really wanted to know what postmodernism referred to, because I heard it all the time but couldn't decipher it.

I cannot imagine a better lecturer on this topical than Dr. Cahoone.  His best qualities is his knowledge of how to explain things to an educated person who isn't well educated in philosophy.  At every difficult subject he stops to repeat, rephrase, reinforce, but not in excess.

In this final blog entry regarding philosophy (though more quotes will be coming) I had intended to compare modern philosophy to quantum physics.  Both seem empty, in that philosophy seems to run in circles in an obsession about definitions—in fact, I'm almost convinced all philosophical arguments arise due to inconsistencies about the definition of the "true" world—and quantum physics seems to be about a world which only exists in probability.  Also, knowledge of modern philosophy or quantum physics is unnecessary, as I can get through my day without worrying about the definition of "definition" and the world feels more like Einstein's relativistic world than a quantum world.  Still, one can marvel at the genius of their authors, and admire their pursuit of this "truth" they claim to exist (or not exist).  I choose to do both.

At the last minute, though, I changed my outlook on what I had learned.  I read an article in the recent The New Yorker by Jonah Lehrer concerning the biology of altruism, describing the intellectual debate E.O. Wilson endured and continues to endure.  This fight largely concerns whether inclusive fitness theory is the best theory to explain altruism, and I was astounded at how different the article seemed now that I had listened to Cahoone's lecturescompared to how it would have seemed without the lectures.  The work by Quine (see previous post) was especially influential.

For I was able to see how Wilson and other biologists were not really arguing in a very scientific way—or according to Quine, they debated the only way science can deliberate.  Instead of arguing whether certain predictions of the theory were accurate, it was an argument over whether the entire inclusive fitness theory was right or wrong.  It also seemed apparent that there was no separation between conjectures about sense data (read: observation) or definitions used by the theory.  It better resembled a theological argument over who was the correct prophet.  In fact, theoretical biologist Robert May described it as a cult, not a science.

Due to Cahoone's remarkable lectures, this scientific deficiency did not bother me.  It didn't even shock me.  That is because it is naive to believe the search for meaningful truth to be carried out using the quixotic scientific method.  It is naive because we are human and cannot tell what it means to not be human, and thus we cannot see whatever human fallacies exist.  And thus, identifying our scientific fallacies is incredibly difficult.  Frankly, I'm surprised we ever learned the law of gravity.  That may sound confusing.  It would to me too—had I not purchased these lectures.

Thank you Lawrence Cahoone.

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