Archive for September, 2006

The bend of history

I do not in general pay much attention to trendy political science theses, but I finally got around to reading the ever-topical End of History essay by Francis Fukuyama. It seems that any reference to this theory, like its near relative the “clash of civilizations” theory of Samuel Huntington, must be prefaced by a mandatory disavowal of it. The idea seems to be that on a global level the events of Sep. 11 and all the wars and terrorist attacks in its train proved the notion of a relatively harmonious global capitalist order devoid of any real ideological competitors to be fatally naive. But one could surely at least say that within Western society the collapse (or perhaps merely exposure of the absence) of any such viable alternatives has been one of the major, if somewhat unspoken, political themes of the last 20 years. Especially in America people often talk of the continued impotence and inertia of “the Left” and especially of the various socialist and post-socialist groups of all stripes, but it seems intuitively clear that the disbanding of the Soviet Union, the gigantic country that represented a clear statist alternative to the American system, created a huge void, even if only subconsciously. It is hard to summon much opposition to the status quo and the conservatives who defend it when it means living in by far the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. The only major alternative candidates, like Europe and China, seem to a greater or lesser degree to be converging with this system, especially in an economic sense.

Fukuyama’s basic thesis that liberalism is going to predominate for the great majority of the world seems like a pretty good description of the dominant trends of today. In what, sense, then, could recent terrorism and chaos in the Islamic world have unsettled the validity of the thesis? The terrorist attacks seem to have plausibly demonstrated a massive democratization of destructive capability. Implicit in Fukuyama’s thesis is that a large majority of the world’s people living in liberal society will greatly pacify the world, since he seems to assume that a rather large number of people, at least enough to govern and run a powerful nation, must subscribe to an aggressive belief system for it to threaten world peace. But if 20 people can kill 3,000 in a day with regular household supplies, it seems that the threshold for keeping the world a dangerous place indefinitely is rather lower. The statement probably most embarassing to Fukuyama in hindsight is the claim that:

“In the contemporary world only Islam has offered a theocratic state as a political alternative to both liberalism and communism. But the doctrine has little appeal for non-Muslims, and it is hard to believe that the movement will take on any universal significance. Other less organized religious impulses have been successfully satisfied within the sphere of personal life that is permitted in liberal societies.”

Since Islam, unlike say race, is an ostensibly universalist category, i.e. anyone could potentially join it, the statement that “[Islamic theocracy] has little appeal for non-Muslims” doesn’t actually prove anything. All the non-Muslims of the world could convert! And should the policy of “conversion by the sword,” possibly the primary source of Islam’s original growth, ever arise again as a popular policy, conversion and violence could go hand in hand. And even if not a single non-Muslim were to convert to Islam and the birthrate in the Muslim world, currently much higher than the world average, were not to significantly increase the Muslim share of the world’s population, over 1 billion, or about 1/6 of the world’s people, would still be Muslim. Given that Fukuyama is willing to consider fascism a legitimate historical competitor with liberalism despite the fact that Germany and Italy had less than 150 million people between them at the time (granted, the world as a whole was a lot smaller then), it seems a little strange that Islam cannot be considered a major political force when only seven times as many people follow it. Of course, they are not as centralized within such relatively powerful nations, but that goes back to the first point. Of course had Fukuyama simply confined himself to political analysis and disburthened himelf of the pointless Hegelian metaphysical nonsense he would have alleviated himself of the primary source of criticism, the misunderstanding-inducing phrases “the end of history” and “the last man” themselves. Because it is not like he believes that the Rapture would descend on us all if universal free trade were instituted; he makes pretty clear that ideological conflict could re-emerge at any time should a non-discredited ideology arise against liberalism, or even in a fit of boredom. Come, crazed bourgeois-loathing theorists of the world! The humanities professors of the world pine for you!

The view from somewhere

Laws among the bands of human beings walking to and fro across the earth at once both envision an ideal and impose a course of action to realize it. Yet cosmic laws, in the sense only of the laws of nature, not divine laws, do nothing of the kind. They only describe a reality as we perceive it, and aim only at, or at least are judged according to, the ability to predict the course of future natural events more or less. Yet despite their function in describing the complex, varied temporal reality, they still aim at the same universality as the timeless idealizations of the Law. Yet the 20th century, particularly in such areas as quantum physics, have brought a dark harvest: only an approximation of universality, with much greater uncertainty.

Paul Qunicey’s attempt to “normalize” quantum mechanics does a fairly poor job at explaining clearly, as opposed to merely alluding to, fundamental concepts like Planck’s constant, but from what I gather his point is something like the following: even in The Evolution of Physics Einstein wrote in a somewhat bizarrely wistful tone, given his own unavailing wrestlings with a Unified Field Theory, how sad it would be for everything in physics to become, to paraphrase Faulkner in Light in August, “as clear and barren as an empty corridor.” But the very concept of eternal physical laws that transcend space and time to some degree by their very nature presuppose a certain lack of mystery in the universe. Theoretically, the entire history of the universe should be able to be inferred if one knew the location and motion of everything in the universe at its birth. Until, of course, we get to 20th century physics. Quincey suggests that quantum physics, just like relativity, puts us back in our limited non-transcendent frame of reference, where place and time are relevant in a way they are not in classical physics. Strangely, it actually demonstrates structurally some intuitively obvious realities of everyday life: we cannot predict the future with certainty, certain places and events are not observable and hence not measurable. One could say that these limitations and uncertainties actually bring physics closer to the lineaments of human life, and are certainly more comprehensible than the arbitrary or gratuitious ambiguities often attributed to quantum theory.

The war of all cells against all

As part of a continuing series of my wild speculations on virtually anything:

Doesn’t it seem possible, given its extreme prevalence in the human population, particularly among people past their reproductive years, that cancer is not some weird mutation of the cells, but in some sense a natural state, perhaps even one that preceded the more familiar restrained, cooperative behavior of cells in our bodies? Think about it: Richard Dawkins has already suggested that organisms may die for the most part not too long after they become incapable of reproduction because, after they cease to be fertile and their offspring are raised, there is not much adaptive value in their continued existence (although they may still be of help in raising the young in a group, especially their grandchildren), so there is not a strong selection pressure weeding out the fatal ailments that afflict them from the gene pool. Cancer is one of the major forms of these post-reproductive afflictions (though it of course hits the young sometimes as well). What I want to add is that, from what I know of cancer, it seems to make cells behave more like they would as single-cell or very simple organisms: they reproduce as fast as possible and try to wipe out all the other cells in the vicinity, as if they were competitors. Now for basically independent cells this strategy seems sensible from an evolutionary standpoint, at least until they start to overpopulate an area. But in a complex multicellular being, where individual cells cannot survive on their own and rely on other cells around them, reproducing onself at the expense of others can be fatal. So my hypothesis is that a form of cooperative behavior between the component cells of large organisms during the period of life in which they reproduce and/or raise offspring proved successful enough to replace the old competitive behavior, but that, among old organisms, the old behavior has been able to hold on and reassert itself simply because there is not much selective pressure against it. Of course environmental factors can induce, or at least favor cancer’s onset, but the very frequency of its appearance in the population seems to indicate its centrality to our genome. Perhaps there is even a positive evolutionary value in its killing off older organisms, insofar as it frees up resources for the younger and more vital generations. Just think how sustainable our biosphere would be if everyone lived to be 500 or older (not that I think such a project to be remotely feasible, but medical scientists who take as their goal the indefinite prolongation of human life might want to keep this issue in mind. While the world birthrate (except in a few places like Africa) has fallen enough to disappoint Malthusian fears, an ever-growing army of the near-undead could still prove them right).

Happy poverty

I remember a few months ago hearing what seemed a somewhat astonishing claim, that a 2005 poll had revealed Africans to be the most optimistic people of any region in the world, and I after googling it in I found a story about it here. Given that it seems to be more or less taken for granted in the places that I have lived that Africa is some sort of gigantic morass that requires some fairly radical overhauls before the majority of its people will be able to enjoy even a reasonable standard of life, this is bound to seem a little strange. Not that those two things are necessarily contradictory, and on further reflection I think there might even be some positive correlation between them.

I remember reading somewhere that four out of the six “universal” human emotions are negative, and intuitively it would make sense that it probably does not behoove individuals locked in a never-ending struggle for life to be overly serene about the future. A certain amount of fear or at least apprehension, coupled with a healthy discontent regarding the future, as long as they do not degenerate into fatalism, might perhaps be more useful on the whole for identifying and then solving problems. I am not saying by any means that Africa is a relatively poor and ill-governed region because its inhabitants are, for whatever reason, on the whole more optimistic than people from other areas, I simply mean to point out that there are some logical reasons why one might expect to see such a correlation. And obviously if such a correlation were to be established (if it ever could be, definitively), it would raise a lot of intriguing questions as to the worth of the relative trade-offs between mental tranquility and material well-being.

The sneaky deck-shuffler

In this short piece, the mathematician John Allen Paulos tries to poke holes in the creationist stastical-probability-based opposition to Darwinian evolution. He basically makes the good point that in a long process with lots of steps and alternative possibilities, the result will almost inevitably be extremely improbable. As an example, he cites the fact that after shuffling a deck of cards the resulting card order has approximately a 1 in 10 to the 68th power of occuring. However, I would make a distinction between a simple (or random) arrangement, like that of a shuffled deck of cards, and meaningful order. Obviously a deck of cards will be arranged in some way, no one would find that strange, but if the cards, after shuffling, were all in straight suits from lowest to highest, even Paulos would no doubt find that a little anomalous. The reason is that, although it’s just as statistically likely as any other particular arrangement, it is much more likely to have been the result of an intentional ordering. That sort of intuition usually proves correct in daily life, and creationists seem to simply be applying that way of thinking to evolution (assuming, of course, that they are not simply opportunists or casuists). Living organisms appear to exemplify meaningful order, and intuitively we imagine it to be much more plausible that meaningful order is created by a conscious mind than by the random interaction of inert matter. Of course this could just be an anachronistic product of the fact that our conscious minds are also created by that random process, so the order that we create in our surroundings, which we imagine to be exclusively within our purview, is itself simply an extension, and a relatively crude one at that with respect to them, of those randomly created organic systems.

In any case, those who have been reading my thoughts recently know where I stand on this issue right now: I’m no creationist, but from what I know it seems to me that evolutionists pay much too little attention to the source of variation and change in living things, as opposed to how traits are selected among competing alternatives. I suspect that the new theories of emergent order, which suggests that that which is created may be superior in complexity to that which created it, which at least in philosophy has traditionally been believed impossible, will have some implications on this debate.

Does this make me a polymath?

In the spirit of Curt’s post from April and my own post from last November, here’s a rundown of a few of the things I’ve been reading the last few weeks:

  • God’s Debris, by Scott Adams. Billed as a thought experiment masquerading as fiction, the Dilbert creator’s first foray into “serious” writing is kind of silly. The entire book consists, basically, of a near-omniscient old man questioning his naïve interlocutor’s assumptions about the universe. It raises some legitimate questions, but provides no really satisfying answers, sort of like a late-night discussion between stoned philosophy majors. In fact, that may well have been Adams’ inspiration. On the plus side, it’s free and short.

  • A Mathematician’s Apology, by G.H. Hardy. Considered by many mathematicians as the definitive justification for doing pure mathematics, Hardy’s book stands out as much for his bitterness at the age-related decline in his mathematical faculties as for its defense of mathematics. That’s not to say that the book is without merit; Hardy’s justification of mathematics on purely aesthetic grounds is about as well-stated as I’ve ever read and certainly all subsequent such arguments owe a heavy debt to this book. Unfortunately, Hardy’s aforementioned bitterness, coupled with his rather heavy-handed elitism, occasionally makes reading the Apology feel like listening to your grandfather talk about the merits of rap music. On the other hand, the Apology also gains a certain anachronistic appeal due to developments since its publication in 1940: one of Hardy’s primary justifications of pure mathematics in general and especially of his own field, number theory, is that such pursuits will never yield any military applications (this was especially relevant, of course, in 1940). Of course, with the rise of public-key encryption since the mid-1970s, this is now an absurd claim: modern encryption is intimately connected with and derived from advances in number theory (including some of Hardy’s own results) and it would be rather difficult to argue that encryption doesn’t have military applications.

  • Free Culture, by Lawrence Lessig. A fascinating book, as much for the historical context it provides to the current copyright debate as for its supposedly radical suggestions for altering copyright law. Lessig makes a compelling case that the conception of property rights embodied by current copyright law and organizations like the MPAA is both inconsistent with American tradition and indeed quite intellectually extreme. While I have considerably mixed feelings about his proposed solutions, I think he does an admirable job of arguing that there is a serious problem and that it doesn’t just have to do with intellectual piracy. In fact, my biggest complaint about the book the excessively insular tone it takes towards its readership; apparently, Lessig seems to think that the only people who care about these sorts of issues are “crunchy lefties”, even though he’s intellectually aware that his argument is more broad. See, e.g. the following quotation:

    But there’s an aspect of this story that is not lefty in any sense. Indeed, it is an aspect that could be written by the most extreme pro-market ideologue. And if you’re one of these sorts (and a special one at that, 188 pages into a book like this), then you can see this other aspect by substituting “free market” every place I’ve spoken of “free culture.” The point is the same, even if the interests affecting culture are more fundamental.
    Still, it’s a good book and it’s a free download, so there’s no reason not to check it out.

  • Tartuffe and Other Plays, by Molière. Aside from “The Misanthrope”, I’d never read anything by Molière until this book, but I’d been increasingly coming across references to him in other reading. Unfortunately, I don’t speak French nearly well enough to read this in the original and Frame’s translation is, to put it bluntly, crashingly inelegant, but enough of Molière’s genius managed to survive to make reading this book eminently worthwhile. While “Tartuffe” is obviously the most famous of these plays, the ones that held the most (admittedly, somewhat anachronistic) appeal for me were the two responses to critics of “The School for Wives”: “The Critique of The School for Wives” and “The Versailles Impromptu”. What’s perhaps most amazing about these plays is that they work (at least as literature; I don’t know how well they would hold up in the theater) despite how absurdly meta they really are. For example, a one-sentence summary of “The Versailles Impromptu” would probably be something like the following: A play written and produced on short notice at the behest of the king about the process of making a play on short notice at the behest of the king in which the playwright/director/lead actor decides to take the easy way out by producing a satire of the criticism of his satire of the criticism of his satire of over-protective and jealous husbands. That such a thing is even coherent, let alone enjoyable to read, is as impressive a testament to Molière’s skill as anything I can think of.

  • Hacker Crackdown, by Bruce Sterling. The sci-fi writer’s foray into journalism yields an interesting history of both hacker culture and the legal backlash against hacking in the early 1990s. One word of caution: this book was published in 1994 and deals primarily with events that took place before 1992, so if you’re looking for something about Internet-era hackers, you’ll have to go somewhere else. That being said, it’s still surprisingly relevant to the modern day, especially with regards to the heavy-handed approach taken by law enforcement and big business (AT&T and the Baby Bells in the book, ISPs and music labels today) in dealing with illicit online activities. When Sterling talks about the “purely theoretical” (and quite extreme) damages invented by BellSouth for the posting on various bulletin boards of one of their internal documents or of the indiscriminate confiscation of computer equipment that was demonstrably unrelated to that crime, it’s hard not to see parallels to more recent events. Another free download.

  • Letters to a Young Mathematician, by Ian Stewart. Stewart says that

    Letters to a Young Mathematician is my attempt to bring some parts of A Mathematician’s Apology up to date, namely those parts thatmight influence the decisions of a young person contemplating a degree in mathematics and a possible career in the subject.

    For the most part, he succeeds admirably. Stewart really does do a pretty good job of explaining just what, exactly, it is that mathematicians do, though of course his descriptions are most directly relevant to his own field (complex dynamics and dynamical systems). One major advantage Stewart has going for him is that he’s a very engaging writer, the sort of guy who seems like he’d be a lot of fun to have a beer or five with. This quality is especially apparent by contrast with Hardy, who would probably be appalled by the mere suggestion that he would be the sort of person to have a casual beer with the likes of you. I would definitely recommend Letters to a Young Mathematician to anybody who is either interested in pursuing a career in mathematics or who is just curious what the hell those mathematicians are up to, though I would warn any potential readers that Stewart’s basic conceit (i.e. that this is a hypothetical series of letters to an up-and-coming mathematician, starting when she’s in grade school and ending when she gets tenure) gets old after a while.

  • Glasshouse, by Charles Stross. One of the big complaints about Stross’ last sci-fi book, Accelerando (yet another free download), was that it was, in the end, about an upload culture and that, once people stop being human, they stop being interesting. In particular, by the end of Accelerando, the protagonists live in a culture so technologically advanced that physical death is meaningless provided you back up regularly, physical bodies are as interchangeable as clothing and distance is something understood in the abstract but essentially meaningless. As a result, there’s not exactly a lot of drama in people’s lives. In Glasshouse, Stross manages to re-inject some human interest into this universe by addressing the most obvious potential wrench in the works of the idyllic setup in Accelerando: data corruption. The protagonist of Glasshouse is a veteran of the most destructive war in human history, a war neither he nor anybody else quite understands or even remembers because it was fought against a nebulously-defined group of Luddite fanatics who figured out how to selectively delete people’s memories, especially those related to what the war was about. Now that he’s accidentally signed on for a purported psychology experiment run by those same fanatics in an inaccessible station literally in the middle of nowhere with access only to supposedly late-20th/early-21st century technology, with no offsite backups and stuck in the body of a petite woman, it all boils down to whether he can figure out what’s going on and beat down the bad guys before he is, truly and permanently, killed. The somewhat artificial addition of traditional human fears and anxieties like death, body image and social norms into the post-human milieu makes for better drama and setting most of the action in a more-or-less recognizably turn-of-the-21st-century environment lets Stross shift his attention from producing technical fireworks to actually writing the story. Of course, it also allows him to make fun of the more ridiculous aspects of our own society, which is always good for a few laughs.

  • Finally, some articles of note.

    First, for research-related work, there’s:

    For teaching:

    For fun:

    Short Story:

The transgressive order of subversive associative rhetoric in the ambiguous matrix of co-optive power arrangements

Some thoughts on a day that is so overcast and smoggy in Tianjin that it’s difficult to see the TV tower two miles away:

  1. I don’t know or care a great deal about traditional Chinese medicine, but it is interesting to see what role it plays in its home culture. It doesn’t seem to really be an object of cult fetish or ideological allegiance like in the States: most people I’ve asked about it use both Chinese and Western medicine rather than philosophisizing about which one is superior, and invariably give the same almost rote answer about the differences between the two. Western medicine is seen as a quick fix to most problems, but associated with often nasty side effects, whereas Chinese medicine is seen as slowly fixing problems without deletrious side effects. I’m rather skeptical of the claims made about most tribal medicines, and suspicious of the presence of a placebo effect, especially in the West, where the people that use them often see them as infallible miracle cures, but this response seems too widespread to attribute it simply to superstition. If I might possibly hazard an ignorant speculation, I would guess that it may have something to do with different views of the bodily system, namely that in Chinese medicine health seems to be largely regarded as an interplay of different parts of the body, and hence medicine is focused on improving the functioning and interaction of the organic systems, but may not quickly or directly address the immediate problem, whereas Western medicine seems more fixated on the role of pathogens and negative aspects of the environment, so that health or sickness result from a war between the host body and intruders. Medicine is hence often a matter of destroying those invaders, which not surprisingly also not infrequently injures the body. As for whether there are any parallels to the social and political Weltanshauung of China vs. the West, I leave to someone else to say.

  2. I agree with Stephan Prothero that sin (along with theology and sectarianism) seems to have become greatly downgraded in contemporary American religion (a subject which I believe Alan Wolfe, another professor of religion in the Boston area, deals with at much greater length in The Transformation of American Religion, though I haven’t yet read it). I’m not so sure as Prothero that this is such a bad thing, but then again I’m not a Christian. The idea that one’s actions are always morally under the purvew of some sleepless all-powerful mind is I admit a useful one, though I would hope that one’s own conscience would be sufficient for that. The concept of sin may regulate the actions of individuals beyond the reach of the law, but it also seems to me to arise from the need to rationalize suffering, and in an age where suffering (at least of the immediate physical kind) is at an all-time low, that is not nearly as compelling of a motive as in byegone eras. Whether it is still better to have a notion of sin and a vengeful God is disputable, but I live in China right now, where the very existence of religion for the greater mass of the population is itself debateable, and you can well believe that here, pace Dostoyevsky, certainly not everything is permitted.

  3. Far be it from me to discourage the rehabilitation of humanism in philosophy, but Michel Foucault in his early “anti-humanistic” phase (discussed here) has a point in holding that the very liberal notions of human and social rights, according to a common theory the very foundation of “freedom,” could themselves exert a severely constraining force on individuals in a society, and thus in another sense entail a great loss of freedom, although I agree that the “maw of biopower [the co-opting societal norms and controls] as described by Foucault seems so inescapable and totalizing that one is at a loss as to how one might combat it. After all, how can we ensure that a given instance of transgression is not merely a ruse on the part of biopower to further ensnare us?” But it’s true that the forms of constraint imposed by an ever-expanding conception of individual or group “rights” is often a manifestation of horizontal power or a network of power rather than purely a function of simple hierarchical domination. And I have felt for a long time that it all depends on how one defines freedom. There are at least two different fundamental types when speaking in a socio-political context: the freedom to not be imposed upon by others and the freedom to do what one wants to do regardless of the wishes of anyone else. Many restrictions upon the field of action open to us have been imposed in our society in the name of freeing its members from being imposed upon by others. This brutal dilemma almost inevitably ensues when one views people as passive objects of the workings of their environment, rather than upholding a social morality where individuals voluntarily restrict their own actions in accord with righteous conduct.

p.s. I’m planning to apply for grad. school in comparative literature, so the post title is my attempt to practice up on academic-humanities-paper-title-writing.