[Collage] On and on and on

…the fact that an aeviternal thing is neither inveterate, nor subject to innovation, comes from its changelessness; and consequently its measure does not contain “before” and “after.” We say then that since eternity is the measure of a permanent being, in so far as anything recedes from permanence of being, it recedes from eternity… Therefore these are measured by aeviternity which is a mean between eternity and time… In this way time has “before” and “after”; aeviternity in itself has no “before” and “after,” which can, however, be annexed to it; while eternity has neither “before” nor “after,” nor is it compatible with such at all.

Thomas Aquinas, ST. I-I, Q10A5.

It is, I say, evident from what has been said in the foregoing Parts of this Treatise, …that visible Ideas are the Language whereby the governing Spirit, on whom we depend, informs us what tangible Ideas he is about to imprint upon us, in case we excite this or that Motion in our own Bodies.
George Berkeley, Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge.
CONSIDER the following sentences:
“Those spots mean (meant) measles.”
“Those spots didn’t mean anything to me, but to the doctor they meant measles.”
“The recent budget means that we shall have a hard year.”…
[F]or all these examples an approximate restatement can be found beginning with the phrase “The fact that…”; for example, “The fact that he had those spots meant that he had measles”…
When the expressions “means,” “means something,” “means that” are used in the kind of way in which they are used in the first set of sentences, I shall speak of the sense, or senses, in which they are used, as the natural sense, or senses, of the expressions in question.

Paul Grice, Meaning, Philosophical Review.

A memeplex is a set of memes which, while not necessarily being good survivors on their own, are good survivors in the presence of other members of the memeplex.

Richard Dawkins. The God Delusion.

Some marine bacteria have internal magnets (called magnetosomes) that function like compass needles, aligning themselves (and, as a result, the bacteria) parallel to the earth’s magnetic field… If a bar magnet oriented in the opposite direction to the earth’s magnetic field is held near these bacteria, they can be lured into a deadly environment… this appears to be a plausible instance of misrepresentation. Since, in the bacteria’s normal habitat, the internal orientation of their magnetosomes [naturally means] that there is relatively little oxygen in that direction, and since the organism needs precisely this piece of information in order to survive, it seems reasonable to say that it is the function of this sensory mechanism to service the satisfaction of this need, to deliver this piece of information, to indicate that oxygen-free water is in that direction.

Fred Dretske, Misrepresentation.

[C]onsider honey bees, which perform “dances” to indicate the location of sources of nectar they have discovered. Variations in the tempo of the dance and in the angle of its long axis vary with the distance and direction of the nectar. The interpreter mechanisms in the watching bees-these are the representation consumers-will not perform their full proper functions of aiding the process of nectar collection in accordance with a normal explanation, unless the location of nectar corresponds correctly to the dance. So, the dances are representations of the location of nectar. The full representation here is a dance-at-a-time-in-a-place-at-a-tempo-with-an-orientation.

Ruth Millikan, Biosemantics.

Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws. She hums the old well-known air through innumerable variations.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, History.

[The plausibility of the idea that there are such things are homogeneous units of labor] allows [Marx] to formulate the crucial definition of “value” as “socially necessary labour-time;’ which “is the labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society:’ He concludes, “What exclusively determines the magnitude of the value of any article is therefore the amount of labour socially necessary, or the labour-time socially necessary for its production”.

David Harvey, A Companion to Marx’s Capital.

The situations into which the product of mechanical reproduction can be brought may not touch the actual work of art, yet the quality of its presence is always depreciated. This holds not only for the art work but also, for instance, for a landscape which passes in review before the spectator in a movie. In the case of the art object, a most sensitive nucleus – namely, its authenticity – is interfered with whereas no natural object is vulnerable on that score. The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object.

Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Starting without prior meaning or communication, how are we supposed to get to the most desirable sort of equilibrium? Once there, why do we stay there? Lewis offers answers to both these questions. A signaling system, like any convention, is maintained because a unilateral deviation makes everyone strictly worse off.

Brian Skyrms, The Evolution of the Social Contract.

I originally took my clue on how to read the performativity of gender from Jacques Derrida’s reading of Kafka’s “Before the Law.” There the one who waits for the law, sits before the door of the law, attributes a certain force to the law for which one waits. The anticipation of an authoritative disclosure of meaning is the means by which that authority is attributed and installed: the anticipation conjures its object. I wondered whether we do not labor under a similar expectation concerning gender, that it operates as an interior essence that might be disclosed, and expectation that ends up producing the very phenomenon that it anticipates. In the first instance, then, the performativity of gender revolves around this metalepsis, the way in which the anticipation of a gendered essence produces that which it posits as outside itself. Secondly, performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body…

Judith Butler, Gender Trouble.

Others instead obey a norm just because they recognize the legitimacy of others’ expectations that they will follow the norm. My definition of what it takes for a social norm to exist and be followed takes into account the fact that there are different types of people. All have conditional preferences for conformity, and all need to believe that enough people are obeying the norm to make it worthwhile to conform. What makes people different is the nature of their normative expectations: Some just need to believe that enough other people expect them to conform, whereas others need to believe that others are also prepared to punish their transgressions. In both cases, I stress that preference for conformity is conditional. If expectations change, so does conforming behavior… A situation can be interpreted and categorized in several ways, with very different consequences for norm compliance. An observed exchange, for example, can be perceived as a market interaction, an instance of gift-giving, or an act of bribing. Depending on how we categorize it, our expectations, predictions, and emotional responses will be very different.

Cristina Bicchieri, The Grammar of Society.

[The fluidity of imagination and belief] is noted in the case of liars; who by the frequent repetition of their lies, come at last to believe and remember them, as realities; custom and habit having in this case, as in many others, the same influence on the mind as nature, and infixing the idea with equal force and vigour. (1-5)

Men will scarce ever be persuaded, that effects of such consequence can flow from principles, which are seemingly so inconsiderable, and that the far greatest part of our reasonings with all our actions and passions, can be derived from nothing but custom and habit. (1-10)

In a little time, custom and habit operating on the tender minds of the children, makes them sensible of the advantages, which they may reap from society, as well as fashions them by degrees for it, by rubbing off those rough corners and untoward affections, which prevent their coalition. (2-2)

David Hume, A Treatise Of Human Nature.

For the translation of values into needs is the twofold process of (1) material satisfaction (materialization of freedom) and (2) the free development of needs on the basis of satisfaction (non-repressive sublimation). In this process, the relation between the material and intellectual faculties and needs undergoes a fundamental change. The free play of thought and imagination assumes a rational and directing function in the realization of a pacified: existence of man and nature. And the ideas of justice, freedom, and humanity then obtain their truth and good conscience on the sole ground on which they could ever have truth and good conscience – the satisfaction of man’s material needs, the rational organization of the realm of necessity.

Herbert Marcuse, The One-Dimensional Man.

In my approach, the focus of inquiry is not needs but rather discourses about needs. The point is to shift our angle of vision on the politics of needs. Usually, the politics of needs is understood to concern the distribution of satisfactions. In my approach, by contrast, the focus is the politics of need interpretation.

The reason for focusing on discourses and interpretation is to bring into view that contextual and contested character of needs claims.

Nancy Fraser, Talking About Needs: Interpretive Contests as Political Conflicts in Welfare-State Societies.

Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward that lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.
It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

A monotonous and unvarying order was established in my whole economy. Everything unable to move stood in its appointed place, and everything that moved went its calculated course: my clock, my servant, and I, myself, who with measured pace walked up and down the floor. Although I had convinced myself that there is no repetition, it nevertheless is always certain and that by being inflexible and also by dulling one’s powers of observation a person can achieve a sameness that has a far more anesthetic power than the most whimsical amusements and that, like a magical formulary, in the course of time also become more and more powerful.

Kierkegaard, Repetition.

The Heaviest Burden. What if a demon crept after you into your loneliest loneliness some day or night, and said to you: “This life, as you live it at present, and have lived it, you must live it once more, and also innumerable times; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and every sigh, and all the unspeakably small and great in thy life must come to you again, and all in the same series and sequence – and similarly this spider and this moonlight among the trees, and similarly this moment, and I myself. The eternal sand-glass of existence will ever be turned once more, and you with it, you speck of dust!” – Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth, and curse the demon that so spoke? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment in which you would answer him: “You are a God, and never did I hear anything so divine!” If that thought acquired power over you as you are, it would transform you, and perhaps crush you; the question with regard to all and everything: “Do you want this once more, and also for innumerable times?” would lie as the heaviest burden upon your activity! Or, how would you have to become favourably inclined to yourself and to life, so as to long for nothing more ardently than for this last eternal sanctioning and sealing?

Nietzsche, The Gay Science.

The first question is by no means whether we are satisfied with ourselves; but whether we are satisfied with anything at all. Granting that we should say yea to any single moment, we have then affirmed not only ourselves, but the whole of existence. For nothing stands by itself, either in us or in other things: and if our soul has vibrated and rung with happiness, like a chord, once only and only once, then all eternity was necessary in order to bring about that one event,—and all eternity, in this single moment of our affirmation, was called good, was saved, justified, and blessed.

Nietzsche, The Will to Power.

The categorical imperative is thus only a single one, and specifically this: Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law… Because the universality of the law in accordance with which effects happen constitutes that which is really called nature in the most general sense (in accordance with its form), i.e., the existence of things insofar as it is determined in accordance with universal laws, thus the universal imperative of duty can also be stated as follows: So act as if the maxim of your action were to become through your will a universal law of nature.

Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals.

“The thing is,” says [Alan] Moore, “we don’t have free will, or at least that’s what I believe, and I think most physicists tend to think that as well, that this is a predetermined universe. That’s got to pretty much kill religion because there aren’t any religions that aren’t based on some kind of moral imperative. They’ve all got sin, karma or something a bit like that. In a predetermined universe how can you talk about sin? How can you talk about virtue?”

This leads to a humanist philosophy that is not without its own morality, albeit one that this is self-imposed and unique to each individual. It means, says Moore, that you should be careful not to do anything in life that you cannot live with for all eternity.

“We’re talking here about heaven and hell, we’re talking about them as being simultaneous and present, that all the worst moments of your life forever, that’s hell; all the best moments of your life forever, that’s paradise. So, this is where we are. We’re in hell, we’re in paradise; both together, forever. I’m saying that everywhere is Jerusalem. That in an Einsteinian block universe, where all time is presumably simultaneous, then everywhere is the eternal heavenly city.”

Dominic Wells, on Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

Extinctions, of course, have been happening for millions of years: animals and plants were disappearing long before people arrived on the scene. But what has changed is the extinction rate. For millions of years, on average, one species became extinct every century. But most of the extinctions since prehistoric times have occurred in the last three hundred years.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last three hundred years have occurred in the last fifty.

And most of the extinctions that have occurred in the last fifty have occurred in the last ten.

It is the sheer rate of acceleration that is as terrifying as anything else. We are now heaving more than a thousand different species of animals and plants off the planet every year…

Even so, the loss of a few species may seem almost irrelevant compared to major environmental problems such as global warming or the destruction of the ozone layer. But while nature has considerable resilience, there is a limit to how far that resilience can be stretched. No one knows how close to the limit we are getting. The darker it gets, the faster we’re driving.

Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See.


I’m in a holiday mood, so I guess I’ll crank out a “get off my lawn” style post.

The inciting event, I guess, was Ophelia Benson’s post here, which isn’t much of an argument so much as a broadside against a Tweet from sociologist Sally Hines at Leeds. For context, I should explain that Ophelia is a gender critical feminist who I have long been friendly with. I should also explain that, for what it’s worth, my own view is that gender is a socially constructed thing. e.g., conceived as a gender, the ideal of being a man or boy has got less to do with evolutionary psychology and more to do with entrenched patterns or narratives that people who identify as men can hold as their own. So, I believe that trans-men are male. I also think men should defer to women in general to decide what counts as a woman, insofar as ‘woman’ is an intelligible concept that affects the plans and destinies of actual human beings who identify as women, and insofar as I’m not one of them. But, the upshot — I think the field gender studies is copacetic, just fine, and A-OK (as if anyone asked me), though it can be misrepresented by both hypervigilant detractors and overexcitable enthusiasts.

Speaking of which —

My post right now is not about gender politics or gender ontology or gender studies. It’s not even about Ophelia’s post, or Hines’s tweet. My post is about the rational futility of arguing with people on Twitter. I argue that, in general, we — the people who are not on Twitter, and who broadly endorse some approximation of the rational Enlightenment ideal of reason — should hold a moratorium on Twitter (by which I mean 280 character texts sent by tweet). I say this full well knowing that I’m not the first to say it, and this isn’t the first time it’s been heard, but in the hopes of giving this gentle reminder that Twitter has always sucked and still sucks and will probably suck until the end of inquiry.

There are at least two problems with diagnosing intellectual debates by responding to tweets (including tweets by academics). For one thing, because (to paraphrase comedian Joe Mande) Twitter is the informational equivalent of smoking formaldehyde. Here is what I mean. Suppose that the rational part of culture sets some kind of standard for the minimum shared units of rational thought, and the nature of Twitter is to share thoughts that are well below the minimum of what’s worth sharing. When we participate in the cycle, we make everything worse — even if, or perhaps especially if, we agree with the Tweet we’re sharing. For another thing, Twitter is an agonistic medium which encourages quickness and brevity over coherence and cooperation. The back-and-forth of up-to-the-minute opinion-mongering tends to level off into an equilibrium where the least reflective proposals get pushed to the front of the cultural queue. This happens even if you agree with what you’re sharing, or even especially if you agree.

The second point is probably quite obvious to everyone, so I’ll concentrate on the first one.

A tweet is a particular kind of speech act, and another name for the act is the ‘bland assertion’. And, in comparison to arguments, bland assertions are uninstructive. Assertions treat the reader like an idiot whose only job is to read and assent. Where an argument (in the philosopher’s sense) has the purpose of offering a rationally defensible position, the bland assertion only functions at minimum as an expression of the will in reference to some proposition. Most of the rational usefulness of an assertion can only be found in the context of actual or implicit arguments, i.e., where multiple assertions are thrown into the ring and forced to work together to establish a conclusion. Arguments are calculated attempts to persuade oneself and others to observe how thoughts may behave in an orderly fashion; bland assertions are calculated attempts to induce conformity. That’s Twitter. Me me me, here’s what I say, look at me saying it, now you say it too. It is lulling us, like sirens, into habits of uncritical discourse that are addictive.

There are plenty of interesting things happening in the world right now. Trans-gender rights! Felon President! Alt-right! Climate change! You might be tempted to go to Twitter to find out what these things are and what people have to say about the issues of the day. If you use Twitter yourself, as an author, that might be a fun exercise. But that’s only from the author’s point of view. From the consumer’s point of view, there is only one author — the Twitter Thing — with its characteristic style and verve and self-contradictions and mood swings. We listen to it closely, anthropomorphize it into a big malevolent god, and ask ourselves questions about its health and well-being. Is Twitter angry today? What’s Twitter up to? For non-users of Twitter, the answer to these question is basically always the same. Twitter is drunk. It is always drunk. It does not know what is happening.

So I really think we modernist Enlightenment types have to stop reading it. It is better to read and comment on articles, blogs, or essays. And when we do, I think we owe it to each other to read the whole thing; not to excise choice bits and fisk them. That way, when you recognize an argument you don’t like, call it what it is — an argument you don’t like, which can be diagnosed for its validity, soundness, and rational cogency.

Darmok (the game)

Out of boredom and also a lot of holiday free time, I came up with a little game that might appeal to bibliophiles. First, ask your friends to state a subject that they care about. Then search your book collection for an appropriate quote that captures how you think or feel about that subject. I’ll call the game ‘Darmok’, after that Star Trek episode. The rules of the game are that I can only use my own “lore” (i.e., collection of physical books), and that I had to actively search for a quote that is optimally relevant and informative in some allegorical sense (though I occasionally used Google Books for help). Score is determined by three criteria: (1) Explicitness, (2) Value as allegory or implicature, (3) Relevance.

Here are the results when I played with my friends.

Some attempts are quite successful at (2) implicature and (3) relevance, but did not (1) make explicit reference to the subject:

  • Kyla: “Poutine.”
    • “”I usually come here with a book, even though it’s against doctor’s orders: one eats too quickly and doesn’t chew. But I have a stomach like an ostrich, I can swallow anything. During the winter of 1917, when I was a prisoner, the food was so bad that everyone got ill. Naturally, I went on the sick list like everybody else: but nothing was the matter.” (p.105) Jean-Paul Sartre, “Nausea”
  • Stephanie: “Puns.”
    • “Bybee argues that a solely phonological connection between words — in other words, homophony — is the weakest connection of all… Homophony does give rise to a minor yet robust priming effect. In lexical decision and target naming tasks using homonyms, there is a priming effect of both the contextually appropriate meaning and the homonymous meaning within 0-220 msec of presentation of the stimulus; after 200 msec, only the contextually appropriate meaning is primed… This priming effect indicates that there is a lexical connection based on mere phonological similar, but not a strong one.” (p.303)
      “(8) John and his driving license expired last Thursday.” (p. 113) William Croft & D. Alan Cruse, “Cognitive Linguistics”
  • Steve: “Any string of characters formed from your n books by looking at the n-th character of each book and choosing some other character.
    • “In the preceding example, I have introduced some basic terminology of recursion… The terms are push, pop, and stack… To push means to suspend operations on the task you’re currently working on, without forgetting where you are– and to take up a new task. The new task is usually said to be “on a lower level” than the earlier task. To pop is the reverse — it means to close operations on one level, and to resume operations exactly where you left off, one level higher.“But how do you remember exactly where you were on each different level? The answer is, you store the relevant information in a stack. So a stack is just a table telling you such things as (1) where you were in each unfinished task… (2) what the relevant facts to know were at the points of interruption… When you pop back up to resume some task, it is the stack which restores your context, so you don’t feel lost.” (p.128) Douglas Hofstadter, “Godel, Escher, Bach”

In other cases, I was successful at (1), but not (2) or (3):

  • Lucie: “Bamboo”.
    • “Students of the Vietnamese meditation tradition rely on Flowers in the Garden of Meditation, a book compiled in the fourteenth century. The “flowers” of the title refer to the outstanding meditation masters of Vietnam… According to this book, Tang Hôi established a meditation school in Vietnam, which continued until the Tran era (fourteenth century). After that the meditation school of Tang Hôi, along with other meditation schools, was gradually folded into the Bamboo Forest school which became the predominant school of the meditation tradition in Vietnam.” (p.19) Thich Nhat Hanh, “Master Tang Hôi”

And in others, I was successful at relevance (3), but not (1) or (2):

  • Ashley: “Donuts”
    • “Moreover, a finite universe with the topology of a torus is equivalent to a periodic universe with infinite volume, both mathematically and from the perspective of an observer within it.” (p.122) Max Tegmark, “The multiverse hierarchy”, in “Universe or Multiverse?”, ed. Bernard Carr
  • Robin: “Lidars”
    • “”What’s up, boss?”
      “The comm laser,” Bull said. “Say I wanted to make it into a weapon. What’s the most power we could put through it?”
      Sam’s frown was more than an engineer making mental calculations. The spin gravity made her seem older. Or maybe bathing in death and fear just did that to people.
      “I can make it about as hot as the middle of a star for a fraction of a second,” Sam said. “It’d burn that side of the ship down to a bad smell, though.””
      James SA Corey, “Abaddon’s Gate”

On one occasion I scored zero points, because the value of the quote did not pertain closely enough with the subject:

  • Colin: “Cults”
    • “My publisher asked whether we actually referred to ourselves as economic hit men. I assured him we did, although usually only by the initials. In fact, on the day in 1971 when I began working with my teacher Claudine, she informed me, “My assignment is to mold you into an economic hit man. No one can know about your involvement — not even your wife.” Then she turned serious. “Once you’re in, you’re in for life.” After that she seldom used the full name; we were simply EHMs.” (p.xi) John Perkins, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man”

And on other occasions I hit the high mark on all three:

  • Phil: “Pro wrestling”
    • “The first boy to reach for Calo got a knee in the groin and went down moaning; right behind him came Tesso, with a hard right that sent Calo backwards. Galdo tackled Tesso around the waist, howling, and they hit the ground scrabbling for leverage. ‘Soft talk’ meant no weapons, and no blows that could kill or cripple; just about anything else was on the table. The Sanzas were capable brawlers, but even if Locke had been able to hold up his end of the fight the numbers would have told against them. In the end, after a few minutes of wrestling and swearing and kicking, the three Gentlemen Bastards were dumped in the middle of the alley, dusty and battered.
      ‘Right, lads. Preferences, is it? Let’s hear ’em.’
      ‘Go fold yourself in half,’ said Locke, ‘and lick your arse.'”
      Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora
  • Sarah: “climate change”
    • “A giant meteorite, after burning through the atmosphere, crashed into the planet’s surface… It rang Earth’s crust like a bell, triggering volcanic eruptions around the world. The ejecta darkened the sky, altering the global climate… [The event] was the fifth disturbance of this great magnitude in Earth’s history during the 400 million years previous to that time… Now a sixth spasm has begun, this one a result of human activity.” (p. 73-4)“[Diversity of] species do not occur evenly over the land and sea, but in concentrations called hot spots.” (p.94)

      “In 2000 Conservation International sponsored a conference of biologists and economists, entitled ‘Defying Nature’s End’, to address this matter… They concluded that in order to put a protective umbrella over the twenty-five hottest spots on the land then recognized… plus core areas within the remaining tropical forest wildernesses… would require one payment of about $30 billion. The benefit… would be substantial protection for 70 percent of Earth’s land-dwelling fauna and flora.” (p.98) E.O. Wilson, “The Creation”

Scattered thoughts on religion

Oh, look! Here are two hands. They are balled up into tight little fists. Each has a perspective in it and both are mine.

Hand one: I take comfort in those who criticize religion thoughtfully, because the criticism reflects the vibrancy and strength of a society of free (albeit well-trodden) thought. Indeed, I think religious claims to authority ought to be vigorously challenged in the public sphere to earn their keep. Moreover, I find the ‘meaning of life’ question more honestly answered by watching the Discovery Channel than by the Summa Theologica or the Tao Te Ching. In epistemology I observe a relatively thick distinction between reasons and evidence, and insist that putatively divine ‘datum’ (revelations, intuitions, insights) do not count as evidentiary.

Hand two: Still, if you call me ‘atheist’, there is some sense in which my introspective life makes you a liar. I pray, and have prayed, as a form of meditation. Increasingly, existentialism has seemed rather point-missing (with the exception of Paul Tillich, who was canny). I think that Alex Rosenberg’s nihilism marks the low water mark of new atheist metaphysics. As far as the ethics of belief is concerned, I think William James had it over W.J. Clifford, owing to the histrionic bombast of the latter (despite some of the feeble arguments of the former). While I think people should generally assert what they know, uptake demands simplification, so knowledge is not a constitutive norm of rational assertion.

I can’t pretend that I’ve always had these views. As a boy, I was pious in the way that boys are, being attracted to the idea of playing a role in a bigger story. But gradually, I realized that the impulse to pray in Western Protestantism is often toxic, based on wish-fulfillment instead of enlightenment — and that felt creepy. Once I realized that culturally fashionable forms of prayer provided me with no moral comfort whatsoever, religion lost most of its appeal. I stopped caring as a matter of principle. As a young man, I preferred the term ‘apatheist’, meaning, constitutively agnostic owing to not giving a shit about the God question. Later, after witnessing the growth of religious lunacy in the US, I preferred ‘quietism’, meaning that I think religious belief is not public business.

The times have pressed me into transcendentalism, which holds that natural cycles are valuable independently of autonomous or collective volition. Transcendentalism fits nicely with my general, uh, shtick. There is certainly quite a lot of virtue in collecting your thoughts away from social media, and in rooting your sense of value in what can be justified independently of pragmatic consequences. The transcendentalist asks the individual to think of nature as a source of value — and this seems to require us to look hard for patterns of behaviors and to revel in them. In this sense it is the philosophy of discovery, of empirical daring-do.

Transcendentalism also has a better account of absurdity than existentialism, in the sense that a lot of life’s absurdity comes from the plain fact that quite a lot of nature is utterly, wonderfully, mechanistically bonkers. Not just because there is a conflict between the internal and external points of view (though there is), but because nature is weird in itself.


I guess this is all on my mind because, a few weeks ago, while enjoying my coffee, I overheard two Protestant evangelicals explain their feelings to each other in terms of apocalyptic death parables. They used code-phrases that were, apparently, quite significant to them; “keep the porch light on” being a favorite. That was followed up with rapturous references to Revelation theology, and the building of the third temple in Jersalem, and, etc. It does not take a master cryptographer to understand their meaning. It only takes an episode of Star Trek:Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“. For them, “keep the porch light on” implies, roughly, “let me have something to live for”; and the apocalyptic references imply, “Or else.”

The thing that makes philosophy so difficult, and so valuable, is that it asks us to try to avoid errors in judgment that are associated with certain kinds of analogical conceptual processing. You see, the ways that we categorize our concepts have a direct effect on the ways that we ascribe and detect errors when we go about making inferences from one judgment to another, insofar as our inferences feature those concepts. Philosophy, at its best, asks us to raise our conversational game, to infer according to rules that are more theory-like and less story-like.

For the educated person, the dangers of losing oneself to the story-telling mind are all too clear. For it is possible, and all-too-easy, to find yourself reasoning exclusively by analogy or meme, operating from one dogwhistle to the next. Hearing people talk that way about how they think is absolutely, positively uncanny.

Oh, look! Here are two hands. They are balled up into tight little fists. In the one, I have the weird — Douglas Adams (of Last Chance to See), Ursula K. LeGuin, and China Mieville; in the other, the transcendentalists — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller.

Economic ideology as backseat driving

I try to think of debates over governmental policy as being sort of like arguments over how to drive.

When driving, there are lots of complaints you can make as a backseat driver: e.g., depending on the conditions of the road, the obstacles ahead, and the needs of people in the car, and so on. If someone in the car is bleeding to death, then it may be reasonable to complaint that the car is going too slow; if, on the other hand, the driver is not very skillful or attentive, then it might be reasonable to advise against speeding. On this analogy, reasonable criticism has to be contextual. For instance, only a total weirdo would categorically say, “Hit the brakes!” in every context, unless they’re not in a hurry to go anywhere.

On this analogy, deficit spending is like hitting the gas, and balancing the budget is hitting the brakes. Saying “I’m a fiscal conservative” in politics is like saying you’re a Brakeist in cars. It isn’t a minimally intelligible policy position until you give a little rundown of things going on around you — the places you think we want to go, the needs of the people in the car, and the obstacles ahead, and so on.

Carpe Diem & the Longer Now [tpm]

[Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog]

So here’s the thing: I like utilitarianism. No matter what I do, no matter what I read, I always find that I am stuck in a utility-shaped box. (Here’s one reason: it is hard for me to applaud moral convictions if they treat rights as inviolableeven when the future of the right itself is at stake.) But trapped in this box as I am, sometimes I put my ear to the wall and hear what people outside the box are doing. And the voices outside tell me that utilitarianism is alienating and overly demanding.

I’m going to argue that act-utilitarianism is only guilty of these things if fatalism is incorrect. If fatalism is right, then integrity is nothing more than the capacity to make sense of a world when we are possessed with limited information about the consequences of actions. If I am right, then integrity does not have any other role in moral deliberation.


Supposedly, one of the selling points of act-utilitarianism is that it requires us to treat people impartially, by forcing us to examine a situation from some third-person standpoint and apply the principle of utility in a disinterested way. But if it were possible to do a definitive ‘moral calculus’, then we would be left with no legitimate moral choices to make. Independent judgment would be supplanted with each click of the moral abacus. It is almost as if one would need to be a Machiavellian psychopath in order to remain so impartial.

One consequence of being robbed of legitimate moral alternatives is that you might be forced to do a lot of stuff you don’t want to do. For instance, it looks as though detachment from our integrity could force us to into the squalor of excessive altruism, where we must give away anything and everything we own and hold dear. Our mission would be to maximize utility by doing works in such a way that would keep our own happiness above some subsistence minimum, and improve the lot of people who are far away. Selfless asceticism would be the order of the day.

In short, it seems like act-utilitarianism is a sanctimonious schoolteacher, that not only overrides our capacity for independent moral judgment, but also obliges us to sacrifice almost all of our more immediate interests for interests that are more remote — the people of the future, and the people geographically distant.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Samuel Scheffler, Bernard Williams: here are some passionate critics who have argued against utility in the above-stated ways. And hey, they’re not wrong. The desire to protect oneself, one’s friends, and one’s family from harm cannot simply be laughed away. Nietzsche can always be called upon to provide a mendacious quote: “You utilitarians, you, too, love everything useful only as a vehicle for your inclinations; you, too, really find the noise of its wheels insufferable?”

Well, it’s pretty clear that at least one kind of act-utilitarianism has noisy wheels. One might argue that nearer goods must be considered to have equal value as farther goods; today is just as important as tomorrow. When stated as a piece of practical wisdom, this makes sense; grown-ups need to have what Bentham called a ‘firmness of mind’, meaning that they should be able to delay gratification in order to find the most happiness out of life. But a naive utilitarian might take this innocent piece of wisdom and twist it into a pure principle of moral conduct, and hence produce a major practical disaster.

Consider the sheer number of things you need to do in order to make far-away people happy. You need to clamp down on all possible unintended consequences of your actions, and spend the bulk of your time on altruistic projects. Now, consider the limited number of things you can do to make a small number of people happy who are closest to you. You can do your damnest to seize the day, but presumably, you can only do so much to make your friends and loved ones happy without making yourself miserable in the process. So, all things considered, it would seem as though the naive utilitarian has to insist that we all turn into slaves to worlds that are other than our own — the table is tilted in the favor of the greatest number. We would have to demand that we give up on today for the sake of the longer now.

But that’s not to say that the utilitarian has been reduced to such absurdities. Kurt Baier and Henry Sidgwick are two philosophers that have explicitly defended a form of short-term egoism, since individuals are better judges of their own desires. Maybe utilitarianism isn’t such an abusive schoolteacher after all.

Why does act-utilitarianism seem so onerous? Well, if you’ve ever taken an introductory ethics class, you’re going to hear some variation on the same story. First you’ll be presented with a variety of exotic and implausible scenarios, involving threats to the wellbeing of conspecifics that are caught in a deadly Rube Goldberg machine (involving trolleys, organ harvesting, fat potholers, ill-fated hobos, etc.) When the issue is act-utilitarianism, the choice will always come down to two options: either you kill one person, or a greater number of others will die. In the thought-experiment, you are possessed with the power to avert disaster, and are by hypothesis acquainted with perfect knowledge of the outcomes of your choices. You’ll then be asked about your intuitions about what counts as the right thing to do. Despite all the delicious variety of these philosophical horror stories, there is always one constant: they tell you that you are absolutely sure that certain consequences will follow if you perform this-or-that action. So, e.g., you know for sure that the trolley will kill the one and save the five, you know for sure that the forced transplant of the Hobo’s organs will save the souls in the waiting room (and that the police will never charge you with murder), and so on.

This all sounds pretty ghoulish. And here’s the upshot: it is not intuitively obvious that the right answer in each case is to kill the one to save the five. It seems as though there is a genuine moral choice to be made.

Yet when confronted with such thought-experiments, squadrons of undergraduates have moaned: ‘Life is not like this. Choices are not so clear. We do not know the consequences.’ Sophomores are in a privileged position to see what has gone wrong with academic moralizing, since they are able to view the state of play with fresh eyes. For it is a morally important fact about the human condition that we don’t know much about the future. By imagining ourselves in a perfect state of information, we alienate ourselves from our own moral condition.

Once you see the essential disconnect between yourself and your hypothetical actor in the thought-experiment, blinders ought to fall from your eyes. It is true that I may dislike pulling the switch to change the trolley’s track, but my moral feelings should not necessarily bear on the question of what my more perfect alternate would need to do. Our so-called ‘moral intuitions’ only make a difference to the actual morality of the matter on the assumption that our judgments can reliably track the intuitions of your theoretical alternate — assuming your alternate knows the things they know, right on down to the bone. But then, this assumption is a thing that needs to be argued for, not assumed.

While we know a lot about what human beings need, our most specific knowledge about what people want is limited to our friends and intimates. That knowledge makes the moral path all the more clear. When dealing with strangers, the range of moral options is much wider than the range of options at home; after all, people are diverse in temperament and knowledge, scowl and shoe size. Moral principles arise out of uncertainty about the best means of achieving the act-utilitarian goal. Strike out uncertainty about the situation, and the range of your moral choices whittle down to a nub.

So if we had perfect information, then there is no doubt that integrity should go by the boards. But then, that’s not the fault of act-utilitarianism. After all, if we knew everything about the past and the future, then any sense of conscious volition would be impossible. This is just what fatalism tells us: free will and the angst of moral choice are byproducts of limited information, and without a sense of volition the very idea of integrity could not even arise.

Perhaps all this fatalism sounds depressing. But here’s the thing — our limited information has bizarrely romantic implications for us, understood as the creatures we are. For if we truly are modest in our ability to know and process information, and the rest of the above holds, then it is absurd to say, as Nietzsche does, that “whatever is done from love always occurs beyond good and evil”. It is hard to conceive of a statement that could be more false. For whatever is done from love, from trust and familiarity, is the clearest expression of both good and evil.


Look. Trolley-style thought-experiments do not show us that act-utilitarianism is demanding. Rather, they show us that increased knowledge entails increased responsibility. Since we are the limited sorts of creatures that we are, we need integrity, personal judgment, and moral rules to help us navigate the wide world of moral choice. If the consequentialist is supposed to be worried about anything, the argument against them ought to be that we need the above-stated things for reasons other than as a salve to heal the gaps in what we know.

Preoccupied about wall street pundits [tpm]

[Originally posted at Talking Philosophy Magazine blog]

Wall Street is occupied. Across America, the streets have been taken. These popular revolts are an expression of a common cause. Ordinary people are convinced that the 2008 financial crisis was a moral, economic, and political disaster. Citizens have a hard time with the state of things, so they take their grievances to the pavement.

That common cause is easy to see. Their cause is communicated beautifully by the pithy slogan: “We are the 99%”. They are referring, here, to the historically unprecedented income disparity between 99% of the population and the 1% that controls the wealth.

Yet a certain class of pundit — the kind you see on the Oct 7/2011 edition of Real Time With Bill Maher — have found it difficult to decipher what the protesters have to say. Hence, the message of the 99%s is called “incoherent”. But this claim is just weird. The 99’s message is clear as crystal: there is a state of economic injustice, this state of affairs is on the whole a bad thing, and that this state of injustice need not exist.

The more interesting question is: how is it that an educated class of people has, by all appearances, lost the ability to read? It’s as if we’re living through the Day of the Triffids, except only the cable news anchors have gone blind.


To answer these questions, we have to step back and ask a more general one. How is it that people fail to talk to each other effectively?

Some time ago, Miranda Celeste Hale took issue with a claim made by a literary critic:

What [the critic] fails to understand is that, when it comes to effective communication, the onus is on the communicator, and that, if a communicator fails to reach their audience, they cannot blame their failure on the attitudes or supposed “deficiencies” of their readers. To assert otherwise is both counterproductive and gallingly elitist.”

This is an expression of Hale’s ‘clarity imperative’. And she’s making two solid points, here.

The first point to make is that the speaker has a lot of control over the way their message is interpreted, and so they have a duty to speak clearly. Philosopher of language H.P. Grice famously pointed out that the speaker has the duty to be cooperative in various ways — the speaker should not blather on for too long, should not say things that are false, and so on. Grice is like Hale in the sense that he puts the onus primarily on the speaker, not the listener.

The second point to make is that someone who knowingly traffics in nonsense is a moral elitist. As a younger version of me argued in a 2002 op-ed:

It saddens me to report that philosophy enthusiasts, modern philosophers and modern philosophy teachers alike have no grasp on how to communicate… If you’re a philosophy student, then odds are, you’ve noticed. You notice it when you ask a question about basic logic and receive a referral to Wittgenstein. You notice it when you propose a simple critique and have its merit gauged on whether or not someone else wrote about it. You certainly noticed it when you read a post-modernist philosopher and wondered just how much wacky tobaccy the French-to-English translator was smoking at the time of writing the book.

Yet all of the above authors — Hale, Grice, Nelson — provide an uneven analysis. Hale’s clarity imperative should not be exaggerated in such a way that places the burden entirely on the speaker. The fact is, both the speaker and the listener have their duties to each other. Just as the speaker has a duty to contribute in a cooperative way, the listener has to make an effort to follow along in good faith.

Of course, there may be contexts where it is important for us to focus on the obligations of the speaker more than the listener. But the role of the speaker is not going to make much sense of the present concern. The fact is, by their own admission, the American pundit class does not understand how to read the signs.

So let’s look at it from the other direction. How is it that two people might fail to communicate, because the listener isn’t pulling their own weight?

Courtesy of Mr. Fish (clowncrack.com)

Courtesy of Mr. Fish (clowncrack.com)

Grice suggested rules for speaking cooperatively in conversation. I intend to make some general remarks about the duties of active listeners engaged in conversational uptake. For good measure, I’ll illustrate each maxim with some topical goodies. (Be sure to click the Youtube links.)

#1. FIDELITY. The first rule is, don’t intentionally misrepresent the contents of what has been said.

If you have a lot of time and energy — for instance, if you’re a philosopher — then you ought to try to attribute as many true beliefs to the speaker as you can, so long as those beliefs are consistent with what has been said. If possible, try to get as much bang for your buck: listen for the broader message in context, to get the most information as you can. But if you don’t have that kind of time or energy — for instance, if you’re not a philosopher — then at least interpret others in such a way that they do not seem totally confused about themselves.

Admittedly, it can be hard to be charitable when you are trying to figure out the message of a crowd. But even so, there are better and worse ways of doing it.

An excellent tactic might be to look at what all the signs have in common, and judge them all on how much you think they are representative of the context. Consider [VIDEO 1]. Perhaps you don’t agree that we should abolish the Fed, but you do think that something is seriously awry with the banking system. If so, then congratulations are in order — you’ve found enough common ground to be able to say something about what is going on. This particular protester has some views to talk about, and by all indications, his views are appropriate to the context.

A bad tactic would be to single out a fart enthusiast, and draw conclusions about the nature of the protest from that.

#2. CANDOR. The listener also has the duty to not misrepresent their own level of engagement in the conversation.

If the listener is interested in the message, but finds the message confusing, then they ought to communicate their confusion (if possible). If the listener is unwilling or unable to follow along, then they ought to say so. If as a listener you find yourself bored, it may be that you are in fact listening to a boring person, and therefore should run away as if being pursued by leopards. But it may also be that you feel entitled to a circus, parade, and song, in which case you might consider relocating to hell, your proper domicile.

In ordinary talk, when a person is disengaged and feigns interest, we call it pretentious; and when they’re engaged but feign disinterest, we call it disingenuous. In both cases, at least one or more of the interlocutors is going to end up embarrassed, and usually the humiliation falls on the interlocutor who has less power. But actually, there’s not really much telling in advance who it’s going to be. Consider [VIDEO 2]. It is difficult to imagine that the visibly pretentious and relatively unknown CNN anchor in the linked clip will make a strong recovery.

#3. INTEGRITY. Provided that the listener is, in fact, engaged, he/she should be ready to make clear what type of conversation they are interested in having (i.e., the rules of their language-game).

If you expect a cooperative dialogue, then at minimum you should be prepared to say what “cooperation” means to you. Not everyone is playing the same game, or keeping score by the same rules.

Consider this exchange [VIDEO 3]. In it, an eloquent protester named Jessie makes some compelling remarks. While his responses are completely relevant to the interviewer’s prompts, he’s also playing a different game than his interrogator. NewsCorp’s interviewer wants to give credit to the Tea Party movement for inspiration, and to direct blame towards the Obama administration for inadequate response; Jessie credits the movement to the populace, and directs blame towards a mismanaged corporatist state.

Edit: Consider, also, this video from the CBC [VIDEO 4]. In it, author Chris Hedges subverts the expectations of his conversation partner by arguing that the protesters are the true conservatives, since they advocate the rule of law. Hedges also makes it clear, when being accused of being a ‘nutbar’, that he has no interest in that kind of adversarial exchange.

#4. HUMILITY. If you can’t engage in the conversation in a way you find satisfying, then consider either deferring to someone who can, or disengage with the conversation entirely.

For instance, media pundits might be having a hard time making sense of what the kids are going on about, much in the same way that Beethoven might have had a hard time listening to The Rap Music. Still, when it comes to the protests, the financial experts are having no trouble at all. Perhaps that might be worth pause.

And finally, an essential rule that applies to both speakers and hearers (which Grice missed):

#5. DIGNITY. Both the listener and speaker should treat their interlocutor as being worthy of consideration, and expect to be treated in the same way.

The vague way of putting it is to say, “Treat people as if they have some kind of dignity”. A less vague formulation would be to say, “Be willing, as far as possible, to ratify the other person’s self-concept.”

A first step, there, is figuring out how exactly people see themselves. By talking to them as if they were human beings, for instance.

A second step is to make sure you are consistent in the way you treat others, once you’ve figured out how. For example, you can’t treat someone with pomp and circumstance, and then go on to say things that are completely at odds with that sentiment. Consider the speech of the anchor in the linked clip [VIDEO 5]. If you click through, you’ll witness a bizarre interview where the anchor (in this case the speaker) goes out of her way to praise the interviewee as being in high esteem, a “national treasure”, and so on, while also making the argument that no taxpayer has any desire to support her. The incoherence is painful to endure.

This principle of dignity sounds like it is magnanimous, a kind of principle of kindness and generosity. But it’s actually a double-edged sword: treating people with dignity can be devastating. If a man presents himself as a clown, then it is consistent with his dignity for him to be treated as a clown. If you present yourself as a medical doctor, but have not actually got a degree, then it is consistent with your dignity for you to be treated as a charlatan.


So there you have it. Four listener’s duties, and one final duty for both speakers and hearers. That’s all I wanted to say.

I don’t have any snappy ending to this post. Anyway, thanks for reading, if you did. But if you were expecting to find a song, then fine, I’ve still got you covered.