Archive for January, 2006

Tensor algebra love poetry

One of the books Curt gave me for Christmas was Stanislaw Lem’s The Cyberiad, which is a wonderfully fantastical collection of related short stories. Here’s a couple of selections:

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I believe…

“I,” she told him, “can believe anything. You have no idea what I can believe.”


“I can believe things that are true and I can believe things that aren’t true and I can believe things where nobody knows if they’re true or not. I can believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and Marilyn Monroe and the Beatles and Elvis and Mister Ed. Listen—I believe that people are perfectible, that knowledge is infinite, that the world is run by secret banking cartels and is visited by aliens on a regular basis, nice ones that look like wrinkledy lemurs and bad ones who mutilate cattle and want our water and our women. I believe that the future sucks and I believe that the future rocks and I believe that one day White Buffalo Woman is going to come back and kick everyone’s ass. I believe that all men are just overgrown boys with deep problems communicating and that the decline in good sex in America is coincident with the decline in drive-in movie theaters from state to state. I believe that all politicians are unprincipled crooks and I still believe that they are better than the alternative. I believe that California is going to sink into the sea when the big one comes, while Florida is going to dissolve into madness and alligators and toxic waste. I believe that antibacterial soap is destroying our resistance to dirt and disease so that one day we’ll all be wiped out by the common cold like the Martians in The War of the Worlds. I believe that the greatest poets of the last century were Edith Sitwell and Don Marquis, that jade is dried dragon sperm, and that thousands of years ago in a former life I was a one-armed Siberian shaman. I believe that mankind’s destiny lies in the stars. I believe that candy really did taste better when I was a kid, that it’s aerodynamically impossible for a bumblebee to fly, that light is a wave and a particle, that there’s a cat in a box somewhere who’s alive and dead at the same time (although if they don’t ever open the box to feed it it’ll eventually just be two different kinds of dead), and that there are stars in the universe billions of years older than the universe itself. I believe in a personal god who cares about me and worries and oversees everything I do. I believe in an impersonal god who set the universe in motion and went off to hang with her girlfriends and doesn’t even know that I’m alive. I believe in an empty and godless universe of causal chaos, background noise, and sheer blind luck. I believe that anybody who says that sex is overrated just hasn’t done it properly. I believe that anybody who claims to know what’s going on will lie about the little things too. I believe in absolute honesty and sensible social lies. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, a baby’s right to live, that while all human life is sacred there’s nothing wrong with the death penalty if you can trust the justice system implicitly, and that no one but a moron would ever trust the justice system. I believe that life is a game, that life is a cruel joke, and that life is what happens when you’re alive and that you might as well lie back and enjoy it.”

— Neil Gaiman, American Gods, pp. 393-4

Throwing ethics out of the courts

I have been reading In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote, which is pretty interesting, if considerably less intellectually dense than my preceding readings in Rousseau and Burke. Basically, the book seems like an attempt to describe journalistically yet psychologically a sort of mental derangement that manifests itself in two men that commit a multiple murder. When Capote puts all his cards on the table by actually quoting at length from a psychiatric report on murderers who kill “without cause,” he seems to lose his journalistic distance and be less describing the situation than mounting a legal defense of the criminals.

Ultimately, I find it somewhat unconvincing, and it seems to get down to a basic disconnect I have with the underpinnings of our legal system. By listing all the emotional traumas, paranoias, lack of contact with reality, etc. of the murderers, the psychiatrists, and Capote, seem to assume that this somehow exonerates the culprits, or at least makes them not punishable by death. But aren’t the people that are most screwed-up and unable to have any sort of normal relationship with society the ones that are most dangerous to it? I am not defending capital punishment, and one could argue that at the least its deterrant value would probably be largely inoperative for those who are genuinely insane, but on the other hand it would certainly serve the function of removing them from society if they simply cannot co-exist safely with others (a debateable point, of course). Anyway, the point is that it baffles me how so many people (and it is certainly not limited to psychiatrists or Truman Capote) can view judicial punishment as some sort of verdict on moral culpability rather than as a matter of making the world safer for the future. I would imagine, at the least, that someone who is sane is more capable of controlling violent behavior than someone suffering from delusions or uncontrollable impulses. I am not sure what the relative merits of capital punishment, pyschiatric care, imprisonment or whatever else are for the overal welfare of society are, but I am sure that that is what is important in these matters, rather than whether criminals are good or bad people, mentally ill or operating with free will.

p.s. It also sort of annoys me how the psychiatrists in the book seems to assume that, for example, a man who kills someone for money is sane and rational, while someone who kills while suffering under a delusional persecution complex is not. I’d say that someone who is willing to shoot a whole family for their money is pretty much pathological, regardless of whether he is objectively lucid about the situation. But it is the old Enlightenment view that morality is tantamount to knowledge or awareness, and that not behaving rightly is tantamount to ignorance. So if someone is aware of their surroundings and what they are doing they are rational. I’d say people are more heterogenous than that: rationality and sanity by my lights is just as much a question of prioritizing values; those who do not see a life as being more valuable than a few dollars are no more sane than those who think that everyone is out to get them.

A reasonable European view of religion?–alackaday!

I have criticized Frank Furedi in the past quite a bit, so I was quite happily surprised at what a penetrating analysis of the anti-religious hysteria in Britain and the States he has written, especially since he is, as far as I can tell, one of the old European leftists of the ambiguously socialist variety. I think he gets it exactly right in the following passage:

“Until recently, cultural expressions of religious faith were simply considered old-fashioned and gauche. But over the past decade, scorn has turned into bigotry and hatred…This trend for blaming the rise of theocracy on ordinary folks’ apparent penchant for simplistic black-and-white solutions shifts the focus from the elite’s failure to promote and uphold a positive vision of the future on to the alleged political illiteracy of the masses. That is why discussions of so-called fundamentalist movements often contain an implicit condemnation of the people who support them – and why the alleged creations of fundamentalist culture are implicitly condemned as immoral. It is the insecurity of the Anglo-American cultural elites about their own values and moral vision of the world that encourages their frenzied attacks on religion. There is a powerful element of bad faith here: many leftists and liberals denounce those who appeal to moral values as being inferior, but they are also envious of them…In the confused cultural elite’s fears of a powerful religious right winning over the masses, we can see a good example of bad faith worrying about real faith.”

There are so many perceptive elements here. It’s certainly true that there seems to be a growing intolerance in certain circles simply of people having religious beliefs, apart from how or even if they act upon them. And I have to imagine that it is in fact based on the persistence and strength, so baffling to leftists (Marxism is after all “dialectical materialism”), of a religious-based mindset that is not ostensibly based on material concerns. One hears constantly the frustrated complaint that this mindset “makes people vote against their own economic and social interests.” And so one sees a dramatic shift in attitude. The leftists who used to rant supposedly in favor of the poor, oppressed working-class, having seen that that working-class, even when given the choice, rejects their platform, turns on it for being stupid, fanatical and duped by the manipulation of superstition. And of course they attack the propagators of religion for having supposedly brain-washed the masses to ignore their best interests. And I would add another element: the zealously anti-religious, at least those mentioned in the article, frequently tack away from a direct argument as to the merits of the core beliefs of religion, atheism, etc. Instead, they focus on auxiliary, less controversial issues like the supposed intolerance or fanaticism of the religious. Well, let’s face it, believing you’re right and those who disagree with you are wrong is inherently intolerant at some level, and in that respect there is no difference between, say, creationists and Darwinists. The secularists set up this bugaboo without acknowledging that everyone acts in defense of and to further their own beliefs. What it comes right down to is what beliefs you choose to adopt. I feel that there is a sort of uncomfortable awareness that if you get right down to, say, two naked propositions: “God exists” and “There is no God,” one does not really seem more inherently logical than the other, both seem like equally irrational (or rational) assumptions. But if you can cut the theists off at the base by condemning them for “intolerance,” then you don’t have to grapple with their actual beliefs, or, more importantly, the fact that your own are, at root, also just based on arbitrary assumptions.

Furedi makes one other excellent point. After reading most of the article, I was dreading the typical leftist idea that, having seen the power of religion, one should try to harness it even if one puts no credence in it, the attitude embodied by the London think-tanker who says “the liberal, secular left has somehow to find ways of supplying citizens with emotional and metaphysical comforts even when it does not itself believe in such things.” But as Furedi correctly points out, this is a totally cynical ploy, and hypocritical too in that it would involve leftists in the manipulation of religious beliefs in the the same way they accuse the conservatives of doing. He seems to imply that one ought to perhaps re-evaluate the strength and validity of one’s own beliefs rather than simply trying to manipulate others’. As for myself, I find it more empowering both on the indvidual and general level to provisionally accept the materialistic scientific view because it seems to make it easier to understand, to predict and ultimately control our environment when one assumes that everything is a manipulable object devoid of supernatural forces beyond our control. But this is not an ontological but merely an instrumental belief, and hence not based on the belief that it is true, but only that it is most useful. In one sense this is kind of a meaningless distinction, but the difference is one of emphasis and value; from my point of view the most important thing is that people adopt whatever beliefs most allow them to improve their own living conditions. The metaphysical beliefs are only valuable insofar as they support this project; they have no value in and of themselves. It seems to me that the really committed theists, atheists, etc. have the values of these reversed–our personal lives ought to be put at the service of these big beliefs rather than vice versa.

p.s. I think Furedi is right that religious fundamentalism, far from taking over, has been considerably marginalized, even in America. As he points out, the Intelligent Design equation of Darwinism+God to start the process is, in a sense, an enormous concession to science, certainly a long way from strict creationism. After all, it may be unwarranted from a scientific point of view, but since natural selection has nothing to say about how the whole process got started in the first place, it’s not necessarily any worse than any other speculation about ultimate origins. On the other hand, I seriously doubt that many of those propounding Intelligent Design themselves believe it sincerely, and I suspect that should they ever come to control school curriculae we would be back to purely scripturally-based dogmas soon enough.

1 year, five months and finally up

After many months of almost superhuman laziness, I have finally loaded the majority of my photos from last year in Europe on to the site–just go to the “Photographs” link at the top of the page (or click here for anyone who is as lazy as I am) and scroll to the bottom of the page, where the last five albums cover most of my year, and I should have two final albums, covering my trips to England and Germany/Switzerland/Italy up in a couple of days.

Oil on troubled waters–cosmopolitans to the rescue!

I don’t want to get too stuck in a rut of just criticizing other philosophies, but this kind of thing could provoke a camel. Is this seriously the point to which “alternative,” “progressive” political philosophy has led itself? That the new inspiring ideal that is going to unite the oppressed masses is–cosmopolitanism? I’m reminded how important it is, no matter how widely one travels or mingles in the outside world, that one not become cosmopolitan. In the rather unappetizing form presented here, it doesn’t seem like much more than a loss of principles. The author claims: “There is a strange presumption in recent thought about human values. When we think about basic issues in ethics and politics, it is taken as a given that we face a choice between liberalism and relativism…There are many things wrong with this dichotomy. One of the most obvious is that it is highly parochial. Liberalism may look like the only game in town these days, but just a generation ago there were Marxists, anarchists, socialists and others who believed a systematic alternative to liberal society was desirable, imaginable and practically feasible. ” Well, I know plenty of liberals, and I can’t think of one of them who believes that liberalism is the only integral uiversal value system in existence. They just believe it’s the best one available.

To continue: “In Appiah’s view cosmopolitanism has two intertwined strands: the idea that we have obligations to other human beings above and beyond those to whom we are related by ties of family, kinship or formal citizenship; and an attitude that values others not just as specimens of universal humanity but as having lives whose meaning is bound up with particular practices and beliefs that are often different from our own…As a position in ethical theory, cosmopolitanism is distinct from relativism and universalism. It affirms the possibility of mutual understanding between adherents to different moralities but without holding out the promise of any ultimate consensus.” To me this seems like an almost totally empty point. To take one of the most extreme examples, I don’t know almost anyone that is not aware that the lives of Islamic terrorists are “bound up with particular practices and beliefs that are often different from our own.” At the same time, this awareness does not make them any more inclined to sympathize with those practices and beliefs, or any less committed to their own brand of liberalism, conservatism, socialism or whatever. Usually quite the contrary. And forgive if I’m wrong, but the knowledge that an “ultimate consensus” probably cannot be achieved, it seems to me, is an instigator of open conflict at least as often as it is of tolerance.

I get the feeling that this hollow attempt to pass off “awareness” as tolerance and to receive commensurate credit for it derives at some level from the uncomfortable, even if subconscious, realization that tolerance is not necessarily a very admirable thing. Tolerance of that of which we don’t disapprove is more or less redundant, and tolerance of that which we do implies basically putting up with what we consider to be wrong. I don’t of anyone whose moral beliefs would allow that to be a good thing. The article implies a bogus distinction between things which are objectively, indisputably wrong, like murder or genocide, and things about which one can have ethical beliefs but also tolerate deviation in others, like personal religious habits. This is bogus because I would argue that it is only the views about which one is intransigent that count as one’s true moral beliefs. I certainly don’t care about other people’s personal religious habits (unless they involve harm to others), but these do not hold any place in my moral framework because they are indifferent to me. In fact, an issue on which one will not tolerate deviation from what one considers to be right might count as a definition of an ethical belief. The sorry denouement of this concept of cosmopoolitanism is evident in this little gem at the end of the article: “In international relations this idea is expressed in the prevailing belief that only regimes that respect human rights or practice democracy (it’s not always clear which) can be legitimate–a view that has been used by the neoconservative right to justify the calamitous attack on Iraq. If we are to avoid similar disasters in the future, we need an account of legitimacy as applied in the society of states that is not just a recent version of liberalism writ large. ” Right, so the problem with the invasion of Iraq was a disastrous concern with human rights, and apparently the job of cosmopolitanism is to find up with some means by which to legitimize regimes which don’t respect human rights. Well, let’s face it, this is what cosmopolitans tend to spend a large portion of their lives doing anyway, so this would likely not be too drastic a change in course.

selling waves now helps you avoid the whole long reading business

For anyone that just doesn’t have time to read all the long, meandering travelogues about Africa, you can save yourself the trouble now by just reading these tips for how to put one together.

Rousseau-less sinning than sinned against?

I’ve been reading Du contrat social (The Social Contract) by Rousseau, and I would have to say that, generally speaking, I find the liberal abhorrence of it to be a little overwrought. I think the main mistake has been to see it as a realistic, rather than idealistic, representation of society. I myself have criticized the notion of the “social contract” in the past as not being at all the foundation of our society and for being somewhat empty, given the relative impossibility of opting out of social living in the world today. But in reality the social contract is just a hypothetical for Rousseau, an idea of what should be the basis for society, rather than what really is.

And the basic problem with the notion is that there is no real concrete practical program of how to achieve the utopia described in the book starting from our own fallible, self-interested world. The view of Rousseau as a totalitarian is definitely unfair, although he does give the rather amorphous “general will” absolute sovereignty over the members of society. But the phrase “general will” is not entirely disingenuous, even though it is clearly a conception of the general welfare of society which trumps the desires of any individual citizen. But Rousseau is very clear that society can only work if its members themselves work first and foremost for the welfare of others and not only their own private interest. So while one might criticize his insistence on the general social good as being somewhat empty and unrealistic, it is not a coercive system that he has in mind, of which many liberals have accused him. One might question if and how people are supposed to place the general good above their own interests. Rousseau’s answer is education. This is why his political and educational programs are virtually synonymous. Again, one can question the feasability and validity of the ultimate end, but he means to bring about those ends by inculcating his ideas as education principles so that people will really want to pursue the general good rather than having it forced upon them. No doubt the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and 80 years of communism has made many of us cynical about this kind of idealism and suspicious that when the peaceful revolution doesn’t work out a violent dictatorship will likely become the vehicle of social change, but in that case one can only Rousseau of naïveté, not of himself having totalitarian ideas.

And, quite honestly, although I can’t share his belief in the existence of a social collective and a unitary “social good,” and I don’t really believe that the basic psychology of humanity can really be fundamentally changed, in the big picture he is right in the sense that social living does require people to look beyond their own self-interest and consider the good of others. The difference is that, in the absence of some sort of extra-human collective will that he envisions, we must do this as subjective individual beings, and with less regard for the strict chimeric equality that he prizes so highly than with a respect for the diversity of things in which people place value.