Archive for December, 2014

Winter Break

December 30, 2014

The sun still rises, and so do I… but I’m taking a break from this venue, and from most of the virtual world. Occasional exceptions will occur on Twitter, at my day-blog, at CoPhi, at A&P and Bioethics. But I’ll return to this site only when the Spring semester resumes. Only too soon.

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Babadook

December 15, 2014

I’m not a big fan of the horror genre but grades are in, film major Older Daughter is home for the holidays, and Babadook is at the Belcourt. So we went, late yesterday afternoon.

Three and a half thumbs up, at least, from us. A Vandy film prof led an intelligent audience discussion after the screening. And the director, Australian Jennifer Kent, gave an intelligent interview the other day.

The problem with much of contemporary horror, according to Kent, is its literalness. “I feel like a lot of the people who make horror actually don’t understand its depth and its power,” she says. “Unbeknownst to themselves, they’re looking down on the genre. I also think a lot of horror is made cynically, and by that I mean that it’s made to make money.”

Anthony Lane says more female directors  in this genre might “restore horror to its rightful place as a chamber of secrets, ripe for emotional inquisition.Back to the Twilight Zone? No, beyond.

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It’s too late

December 5, 2014
Yes and yes.

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At a loss for words

December 4, 2014

A student yesterday reported on the quirky Slovenian Marxist Slavoj Zizek, who somewhere apparently has stated that the pursuit of happiness is “unethical.” What a strange thing to say, unless he just means that it’s wrong to seek one’s exclusive happiness. Or does he mean that happiness is not good enough for him? He and Calvin could talk about it.

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Rawls, Turing & Searle, Singer

December 2, 2014

Last day of class, before final exams next week. But, as I never tire of repeating, nothing has really concluded. The sun will come out tomorrow, figuratively at least. 


(Also worth repeating: “A yes, a no, a straight line, a goal,” Nietzsche’s “formula” of happiness. Not that it worked out all that well for him.)

John Rawls’ veil. Rawls was committed to the idea of selfless mutual self-interest as the precondition of justice and fairness. Justice is fairness, he said.

What principles of social justice would be chosen by parties thoroughly knowledgeable about human affairs in general but wholly deprived—by the “veil of ignorance”—of information about the particular person or persons they represent? Rawls thought they’d pick these two: (1) fundamental  individual equality, allowing (2) only those inequalities that can be presumed to work out to everyone’s advantage.

An amusing (if not especially animated) rendition of Rawls:

http://ift.tt/S11T04

Last time we talked Rawls somebody suggested a sporting example: a Rawlsian social contract won’t entirely level our playing fields, won’t be purely egalitarian. Behind the veil we’d probably want to design a society in which those who excel at a game others  might enjoy watching, for instance, will have sufficient incentive to actually play. The basketball fan does not begrudge Michael Jordan’s fortune, if he thinks it contributes to his own delight at courtside. It’s to his “advantage,” too, for Michael to have more money and notoriety.

But whatever the deliberators decide, behind that veil, Rawls wanted to give them a procedural opportunity to agree on the basis of relevant considerations. We’ve instead been auctioning public office and social influence to the highest, loudest bidders, not the coolest reasoners.  There’s nothing fair or just about that. The “law of peoples” can do better.

Michael Sandel is a semi-Rawlsian, with his talk of restoring respectful forms of democratic argument. He’s also, as Wolff notes, “a communitarian who thinks Rawls is biased towards liberal individualistic conceptions of the good.”

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And he likes to think about trolleys too.

http://ift.tt/S11T07

The late Robert Remini, biographer of Jackson and Clay, was by my reckoning a Rawlsian in spirit. He bemoaned the lost art of political compromise. (“Clay,” btw, is a family namesake: my Dad was James Clay, his Dad was Clay, and back it went deep into the 19th century. A rooted source of my pragmatic attraction to anti-ideology, perhaps?) [Remini on NPR]

An important question: “who’s doing the imagining in the Original Position?” A bunch of philosophers will presumably think and deliberate differently from a bunch of fascists, or monks. But if it’s a polyglot mix drawn from a diverse society, and none of them knows their race, sex, earning power, or basic preferences, maybe they won’t think exclusively like (narrow or partisan) philosophers, fascists, and monks. Maybe they’ll think like pluralists and cosmopolitans. Maybe they won’t be prepared to gamble with their liberty. Maybe they’ll want to be just and fair, and be more inclined to take care of the least well-off. Maybe so.

Carlin Romano fills out Rawls’s position with the important, astonishing, neglected biographical Rawls back-story. It’s useful and illuminating to know who he is, in assessing his theory of justice. He was a lucky child, recovering from diptheria and pneumonia, then a lucky soldier. His siblings and army brothers were not so lucky. He felt bad about his good luck, and angry about the theodicies offered to account for it. 

A Lutheran pastor… said that God aimed our bullets at the Japanese while God protected us from theirs. I don’t know why this made me so angry, but it certainly did. I upbraided the Pastor (who was a First Lieutenant) for saying what I assumed he knew perfectly well… were simple falsehoods about divine providence… Christian doctrine ought not to be used for that…

To interpret history as expressing God’s will, God’s will must accord with the most basic ideas of justice… I soon came to reject the idea of the supremacy of the divine will as also hideous and evil. 

Did Rawls “fail” to justify his theory of justice? Wolff doesn’t think so. Nor, apparently, do the theatrical producers behind this:

http://ift.tt/S11St1
You don’t have to follow anybody, but you could do worse than to follow the example of Peter Singer“the best known living moral philosopher” who urges us to “think through” what most take for granted, then alter our acts and assumptions accordingly.

Singer’s on our final CoPhi bill (after John Searle and Alan Turing [PhilDic] at the end of Little History of Philosophy today. And, one last pitch from Carlin Romano, making the case for viewing Barack Obama as “philosopher and cosmopolitan in chief.”

“How should we treat animals?” Respectfully, of course. But does that mean we can eat them or not? Singer says no. Michael Pollan, among others, says maybe. I say I wish they’d build a better Boca Burger. 

Alan Turing was a strange, heroic, and tragic figure who contributed more to preserving the world we had (by cracking the Nazis’ codes) and shaping the digitized world we live in now (by contributing to the creation of the computer). Turing’s Cathedral… The Enigma

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Turing’s test for artificial intelligence is said by some to imply that if something functions intelligently, it is intelligent; and if its functionality resembles human personality in superficial ways, we may then speak of it as possessing human-grade intelligence.

And who knows? If you’re prepared to entertain that proposal, maybe you can also envision a mainframe host in your personal future. Maybe there will be a way to “map the billions of functional connections” of your brain onto a machine capable of replicating and preserving your intelligence and memories. Welcome to the brave new afterlife.

Seems pretty far-fetched, and it’s unclear that one’s hopes and dreams and delights– the stuff of embodied personhood– can be replicated in any meaningful sense. Never mind whether they should be. Planet’s pretty crowded as it is, and maybe one time around the wheel is only our fair share.

And anyway, as John Searle says, tests like Turing’s may not be any more conclusive about real intelligence than his Chinese Room thought experiment.

Advances in AI don’t seem to have come as quickly as some have speculated they might. But it’s still fun to ponder the possibilities, as Richard Powers did in his wonderfully informed and entertaining Galatea 2.2.
What a moment we find ourselves in! Ray Kurzweil calls this the Age of Spiritual Machines. If you can just live long enough– until the year 2040 or so, last I heard– you can live forever. He means you, kids. And he’s popping enough vitamins to delude himself into thinking that maybe he means himself as well. Good luck. I’m not holding my breath. I confess, I used to have a Sleeper fantasy like Woody’s. But Ted Williams kinda ruined it for me. (Fresh Air 12.3.13)

The best form of immortality may be the same as it ever was: a legacy rippling across time, impacting lives far beyond one’s own. Alan Turing didn’t live long enough to get himself fully digitized, but the digital world he set in motion has already secured a legacy likely to outlive us all. It dwarfs the primitive world of reflexive sexual bigotry he had to suffer in his brief lifetime.

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To those who have a hard time fathoming how machines might ever acquire self-awareness, intentionality, and thought, Turing asks you t o ask yourself: how did we?
Instead of trying to produce a programme to simulate the adult mind, why not rather try to produce one which simulates the child’s? If this were then subjected to an appropriate course of education one would obtain the adult brain. “Computing Machinery and Intelligence”


Singer’s challengePeter Singer challenges the way we live in the relatively prosperous western world (“western” here is less a geographic designation than a state of mind and material comfort) on many fronts, including how we eat, how much we luxuriate, how much we earmark for our own offspring, and how much we give away to strangers. He sets the bar of selfless generosity much higher than our culture of consumption rewards. But the rewards of consumption don’t begin to match those of humane compassion.

http://ift.tt/R20Com


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  • “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.”
  • “If possessing a higher degree of intelligence does not entitle one human to use another for his or her own ends, how can it entitle humans to exploit non-humans?”
  • “The Hebrew word for “charity” tzedakah, simply means “justice” and as this suggests, for Jews, giving to the poor is no optional extra but an essential part of living a just life.”
  • “Just as we have progressed beyond the blatantly racist ethic of the era of slavery and colonialism, so we must now progress beyond the speciesist ethic of the era of factory farming, of the use of animals as mere research tools, of whaling, seal hunting, kangaroo slaughter, and the destruction of wilderness. We must take the final step in expanding the circle of ethics.”
  • “To give preference to the life of a being simply because that being is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.”
  • “Philosophy ought to question the basic assumptions of the age. Thinking through, critically and carefully, what most of us take for granted is, I believe, the chief task of philosophy, and the task that makes philosophy a worthwhile activity.”

So, the end is nigh. But since it’s really not: carry on. Keep asking questionscreate satisfactionfollow your bliss, and as Joseph Campbell also said: “your own track, kid, not what your guru tells you.”

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Wittgenstein & Arendt

December 1, 2014

Today in CoPhi it’s Wittgenstein (and recommending Barry Smith on Wittgenstein) and Arendt

Wittgenstein is said to have favored American westerns, but didn’t admit to enjoying them. “I don’t know why we’re here, but I’m pretty sure it’s not to enjoy ourselves.” Was he responding to Santayana (“no cure for birth and death, save to enjoy the interval”) or just being his own morose self? I’ll bet he never took or offered a Happiness class. (In fairness, his family historywas less than cheering.)

But I always try to accentuate the positive, when introducing philosophers. Wittgenstein, to his credit, laudably walked away from the academic profession of philosophy when he thought he’d said everything wherof he could meaningfully speak. Changed his mind later, of course, just in time for the posthumous publication of Philosophical Investigations. But good for him. I think he was moving in the right direction, away from a futile preoccupation with how language might “capture reality” and toward a more constructive inquiry into “the relationship between language and us.”

We must still always remind ourselves, when discussing this most rare and eccentric of modern philosophers: beware the temptation to “explain” Wittgenstein: Barry Smith says he diagnosed “our problem in philosophy as the search for explanations where none can be given.” That’s what it means to be stuck in a fly-bottle, and what he meant by aiming to show us how to get unstuck.

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Wittgenstein the former engineer came to view philosophy not as an abstract quasi-mathematical, scholarly-dispassionate discipline, but as a form of therapy. It’s supposed to be helpful, even if his way of tapping its “meaning-as-use” was often mysteriously cryptic.

But for a would-be therapist, Freeman Dyson reports, he was not really a very nice man. As a young student at Cambridge in 1950 the future physicist Dyson (himself no stranger to eccentricity, check out his performance in a symposium of philosophers called “Glorious Accident“) tried to compliment the philosopher and asked if (as then rumored, and now widely accepted) his views had altererd or evolved in the decades since Tractatus came out in 1922. Wittgenstein churlishly asked what publication the young man worked for. When Dyson said he was a student, not a reporter, Wittgenstein wheeled and walked away.
Wittgenstein’s response to me was humiliating, and his response to female students who tried to attend his lectures was even worse. If a woman appeared in the audience, he would remain standing silent until she left the room. I decided that he was a charlatan using outrageous behavior to attract attention. I hated him for his rudeness.


A new word is like a fresh seed sewn on the ground of the discussion,” it says he said on the wall in Vandy’s Buttrick Hall. It doesn’t say where or when (1929) he said it. It’s in the posthumous collection Culture and Valueright below “Each morning you have to break through the dead rubble afresh so as to reach the living warm seed.” Tell me about it, Ludwig.  But, a “fresh seed”? Sounds more like a nipped bud.

Later in life Dyson, a scientist who “recognize[s] other sources of human wisdom going beyond science” (he names literature, art, history, religion, and philosophy), found himself respecting the permanently-silenced Wittgenstein’s legacy of eloquent inarticulation. He now blames contemporary philosophy’s marginalized place in the larger culture on its dearth of “mystics” like Wittgenstein. He evidently hasn’t read James on vagueness [or Tim Williamson, or Bill Gavin]. “It would be an awful universe if everything could be converted into words, words, words.” Consider the conceptual shotgun.
Philosophy lives in words, but truth and fact well up into our lives in ways that exceed verbal formulation. There is in the living act of perception always something that glimmers and twinkles and will not be caught, and for which reflection comes too late. No one knows this as well as the philosopher. He must fire his volley of new vocables out of his conceptual shotgun, for his profession condemns him to this industry; but he secretly knows the hollowness and irrelevancy.

A  ”dumb region of the heart” may well be, as James said, our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things.” Lay down your conceptual shotgun, pick up your POV gun. (That’s from Douglas Adams, but curiously it’s also referenced, sort of, by Wittgenstein’s biographerRay Monk when he says Wittgenstein didn’t give arguments so much as acknowledge alternative points of view.)

Wittgenstein agreed with James about the frequent hollowness and irrelevancy of words and explanations: there’s much we ought to shut up about. Or at least restrict ourselves to pointing at. Show, don’t say. Stop wasting time trying to eff the ineffable. “Explaining,” says novelist Richard Ford, “is where we all get into trouble.”

But also try to be respectful of the points of view and the feelings of other people, and don’t be rude, Ludwig. Impoliteness and incivility are trouble, too.

But was he finally right, there at the end of the Tractatus? Must we maintain a studied silence, in the face of the unspeakable? I think I prefer wise young Kacey Musgraves‘ counsel to “make some noise.” Eternal silence comes soon enough.


Well, at least Wittgenstein wasn’t a Nazi. Nor did he sleep with one, or hold his tongue in face of horrific evil.

Hannah Arendt was not one to get stuck, to bog down in logic or hair-splitting. She did seem to get stuck defending the object of her old student infatuation, Martin Heidegger. But mostly she was concerned with big questions about birth and death, good and evil, and our vital stake in the “common world”:
The common world is made up of all institutions, all cities, nations, and other communities, and all works of fabrication, art, thought, and science, and it survives the death of every individual. It encompasses not only the present but all past and future generations. “The common world is what we enter when we are born and what we leave behind when we die,” Hannah Arendt writes. “It transcends our life-span into past and future alike; it was there before we came and will outlast our brief sojourn in it…” 
The foundation of a common world is an exclusively human achievement, and to live in a common world–to speak and listen to one another, to read, to write, to know about the past  and look ahead to the future, to receive the achievements of past generations, and to pass them on, together with achievements of our own, to future generations, and otherwise to participate in human enterprises that outlast any individual life–is part of what it means to be human…” -Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth


She also said, more pithily:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.  
Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it… 
Forgiveness is the only way to reverse the irreversible flow of history.


Arendt was briefly Heidegger’s lover (talk about “banality of evil”!), but is still widely regarded as a philosopher of integrity who was quite right to notice that “natality” has been too long neglected. The symmetry of death and birth is obvious. Who will write The Book of Newborn Philosophers? Alison Gopnik’s Philosophical Baby is a start. [Evil of Banality] If we want to avoid repeating the evils of history we must stop raising unthinking bureaucrats and formalists “brought up to obey the law and trained to follow orders” without reflection. There’s nothing more dangerous than an unthinking man or woman.

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