Archive for June, 2007

Random thoughts

The remembrance of the dead is an important component of almost all cultures, but despite the assertions of Joseph Bottum, the preponderance of tombs and other memorials of the dead among the ruins of ancient cities doesn’t exactly prove that the commemoration of the dead was the foundation and originally the most important function of civilization. Since lasting, remaining intact indefinitely, is not just the instrumental but the ultimate purpose of memorials, it seems pretty logical that they would outlast most of the other constructions of civilization, and the older the site, the more they will probably dominate.

It’s not necessarily always true that democracies are more peaceful than non-democracies, and it’s certainly not true that they never fight each other, but war in almost all cases represents a net loss for the populations involved as a whole, simply because presumably everyone on the losing side suffers, as does at the very least all those on the winning side who are killed. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that a majority of the population, even if they only consult their self-interest, will not support a war if they believe there is a high chance of winning and a low chance of being killed or maimed, but self-interest would definitely dictate against war as a long-term or normal state of affairs, which would pile up the costs of war without the benefit of permanent victory. Ony an élite which doesn’t bear those costs could coutenance that sort of policy.

Heroism depends on the existence of bad conditions and crises by which to distinguish itself. People in comfortable surroundings may regret the absence of grandeur in their lives (although the opportunities for risk and self-sacrifice are rarely as far away as one might feel comfortable with), but they ought not forget that just as taboo-breaking depends on the existence of censoriousness, freedom-fighting depends on that of oppression and charity on that of poverty.

Like a porcelain teapot that can’t recreate itself

In recent years, computer programmers having failed to invent HAL, despite have created some pretty good chess players, various scientists and philosophers, like noisy Dennett and quiet Hofstadter, sort of the Penn and Teller of neuroscience, have been trying to objectify the thinking process, to classify it as essentially a system of information-processing, while taking into account the massive apparent differences between human minds and computers, leading to models of parallel processing, self-referential systems, and so on, all while still reducing the function of the mind to some extent to the similar task of processing information. And it’s true that in the past many have probably insisted too much on seeing consciousness as some sort of tangible medium rather than as a series of functions, like some sort of watery drama in miniature reproducing the events of the outside world inside people’s heads. Much, maybe all, of what goes in our thoughts consists of receiving information and reacting to it. To speak of the contents of the mind being exclusive to one person seems rather arbitrary in that light, even solipsistic. Computers don’t own the information that is put into them, nor, if they function properly, does that information have any relation to the uniqueness of the individual machine. The intellectual contents of the computer are general and easily transferrable, even if they exist in some particular system. Hofstadter apparently is now even taking this principle of the transferrability of information to mean that in some sense he can still preserve part of the mind of his dead wife.

Of course a large amount of the contents of the mind, namely conscious thoughts, can be transferred between people. That is pretty much the essence of linguistic communication, and sense conscious thoughts are almost by definition expressed through language, they can be transmitted, shared, or imbued between people. At the same time, exactly what makes them transmissable and objective is also what renders them somewhat impersonal. What really makes them personal are one’s feelings towards them, and those probably cannot be easily reproduced without the whole enormously sensitive and complicated machinery of the human organism and as well the entire particular history by which its components have been modified and conditioned. Nor is sharing a few of the conscious ideas of a lost loved one probably a great deal of comfort, since one misses the sight of them, the touch, the presence and the sense of mutual feelings much more immediately than the abstractions of conscious thought. Still and all, I would stake a career on the deceivability of the human heart before I would on its countenancing the abandonment of hope, so some people will probably keep their hopes invested in computers and existing minds until the day when they can upgrade to realistic hope for biomorphic replicates.

Subjective universalism

One of the more irritating questions I’ve been confronted with in the discussions I’ve had in my life is: “But what if everyone acted that way?” This kind of objection tends to get thrown up against everything from someone choosing not to vote all the way up to its most grandiose manifestation as Kant’s categorical imperative. And of course sometimes realizing that you wouldn’t necessarily want other people to behave the way you do leads to the realization that it’s not a very upright thing to be doing in the first place, which is the essence of the Golden Rule. But at the same time it’s pretty obvious that not everything you do in life is somehow an expression of the conviction that everyone should be doing the same thing. If a general orders his troops into battle, no one would conclude that all the soldiers should hence start ordering each other around. Nothing would ever get done. Not only are exceptionless general rules too clumsy to deal with every unforseen occurence in life, they tend to undermine the conscience as a guide to integrity and decency in the world in favor of inflexible dogmatism.

Something similar comes about from the continuing belief in some quarters that ethical rules somehow represent objective existing things in the world. 100 years ago the logical positivists, soaking in their hermetic stew of scientism, were claiming not only that all of language describes things out there in the world but that in some sense the representations were actually equivalent to the things they represented. Then Wittgenstein came along and received all the accolades in the world, as well as becoming the golden calf of idol-worshipping college students ever since, by pointing out that this obviously isn’t true, a common reward for those that happen to be in a position to puncture ridiculously over-extended theories and bring them back to earth. One would think that “you should” statements would be a pretty clear example of an area where the theory lacked, even if it hadn’t been for J.L. Austin and the “speech-as-act” school. To claim that such a statement is really a description of something existing, as opposed to an assertion in favor of something ideal, makes about as much sense as claiming that ordering a beer at a restaurant is a description of an existing reality. It goes against the very essence of proscriptive statements. To erase the distinction between them and descriptive statements loses the meaning of both.

I understand the impulse to ground claims about what should be in objective reality, but this attempt shows no courage, no confidence in the strength of subjectivity. Something should be because I believe it should. No one else need share my belief, and my subjective conscience grants me license to judge the actions of others. The mania for “objective” moral truths is consensus-building shit. There’s no use appealing to a higher source of affirmation than one’s conscience, because it doesn’t exist. Anything else is just deference to authority. Surely even the religiously-inclined might be persuaded to trust to the conscience God imparted to them, the divine flame, as surer guidance than various statements issued in the past that, as issued by mortals, could not have anticipated every twist of fate in the future. Of course people often lull themselves into equating their own self-interest with righteousness, but the problem isn’t exactly dismissed by shuffling the responsibility off on someone else. When people choose which parts of doctrine to obey and which to ignore, it all comes back to personal affinity and intuition in the end anyway.

Outsourcing lawn service?

From an e-mail I wrote a few days ago (why let material go to waste?):

I can understand a non-prejudiced economic argument against mass immigration, on the grounds that it will lower the wages for American workers. But isn’t the issue a pretty exact parallel to the outsourcing debate? There too the anti-globalization crowd have been complaining that American workers will suffer as their jobs are taken by lower-paid foreigners (or in the case of immigration recently foreign workers). In fact, the immigration debate is simply the counterpart to the outsourcing debate for service-sector jobs that can’t be exported. In both cases however it seems likely that overall there’s a net economic benefit: corporations benefit from lower costs, foreign workers should benefit in equal numbers (from getting new jobs) as the American workers who suffer (from losing them), and consumers should theoretically benefit from lower prices, though I’m rather skeptical that that’s actually happening. But even if it’s not, the economic anti-immigration argument still seems ethically suspect to me because even if not overtly prejudiced it still seems to be implicitly predicated on the idea that American workers somehow have a God-given right to have jobs, and with much higher wages, than non-Americans, which may fit with an egalitarian agenda on a national level but not on a global level. I think the issue of jobs and poverty is the same whether the workers are American, Mexican or Chinese. So for me it doesn’t really matter that jobs are being transferred from one part of the world to another. And maybe even at that it’s still better, because the foreign workers are being lifted out of greater poverty than the American workers whose jobs they’re taking. We know this because if American workers, even the now-unemployed ones, were at the same economic level, and hence willing to compete for the same jobs, immigrants would not have a competitve advantage. Of course I understand there are other rational reasons to not favor relatively open borders, like the possibility of political destabilization from a restive, non-integrated Latino minority in the Southwest, but those can I think at least be separated from the economic rationale.

p.s. A fairly large number of politicians, including the president, seem hell-bent on pushing through some sort of amnesty plan for illegal immigrants in the hopes, among other reasons, of capturing the loyalty of the immigrant, especially Hispanic, voters. And it might work if those who benefit from it vote in the future based on gratitude, or simply out of ethnic or national loyalty. But if they vote based on economic self-interest it seems almost inevitable that this kind of legislation would be most unpopular among recent immigrants, since they’re the ones that are most likely to suffer from further waves of immigrants driving down wages in their sectors. And if this is true then the attempt to win future immigrant voters will always alienate current immigrant voters, hence an intrinsically self-defeating tactic.