Archive for July, 2007

links for 2007-07-31

Freedom stays

Many people speak of, for example, governments or political systems as granting or denying people freedom. Which is, of course, totally false and maybe, especially in the mouths of politicians and officials, not only in the sense of being incorrect but also in the sense of being deceptive and illusory. Because freedom is a basic human capacity, and can no more be given or rescinded by others than can basic motor skills or the ability to speak. What people call freedom in these contexts is usually having an adequate number of choices to be happy with, and the ability to choose between them they call free will.

So this might seem to be nothing more than a semantic distinction, and maybe it is–but models, symbols and verbal shorthand have a way of taking over the concepts they represent, and if the at-first-perhaps-merely-verbal association of something seemingly so necessary to a good life as freedom with the transitory and ever-shifting realm of having “enough” choices, rather than with the ability to choose what is best and most worthy, which can never fade or disappear, deepens enough, a quickly disenchanted life seems near. Americans especially have a tendency to let social idealism confine them in a prison of permanent political expectations. In other words, the illusion that the choices are limitless, that you can find somewhere anything that you desire or that through political action you can “change” society to make it so. Even in a more moderate form this attitude is bound to lead to disappointment.

And that is why, despite the farce of the current and former “people’s republics,” I can imagine that a dictatorship really might be more popular than a more “democratic” regime. Because people can always content themselves with that which they can resign themselves to, whereas when they have the belief that they can control a situation, the disappointment when things don’t hold up to their individual expectations, as they almost inevitably will not in a society of millions where most people’s influence is so insignificant to the whole, can lead to greater and more unsettled discontent.

You not only can’t have everything, you can’t choose from everything, especially through politics, but the power to choose what’s best from what’s at hand always will exist. Many “liberal” minds claim that a choice between two options in an election is a perfectly adequate manifestation of political freedom, and in even the deepest totalitarian rule there are always at least two alternatives of what to do. Solzhenitsyn said that in the gulag one only has a chance at spiritual growth through not valuing one’s own life above all else, and maybe that’s not just true there. Because when power and right are totally opposed, decency is dangerous. And if no alternative to self-preservation can be considered, then one really is hedged in without escape, but not because one has no freedom.

The age of mechanical spirits

As with any window, the light from our minds shining onto our perceptions of the world cast our own reflections upon the scene we see through them. People have always seen minds like their own within or behind nature. In the earliest forms of society people believed (and in some places still do) animate spirits to exist not only in clearly living things but also in fire, rocks and the wind, later only in the God or gods that created and/or controlled them. Today this inexhaustible enthusiasm for seeing life in everything leads some to see it, or at least some of its defining characteristics, even in technology, as though the ancient spirits, having been expelled from the forest by no-longer-intimidated minds, had, like the demons exorcised by Jesus in the Gospels, been forced to take roost in lesser hosts, the clanking, jointed legions which, though machines, then became to some extent their own masters.

And not only the AI idealists with smoke-hazed fantasies about the creation of “spiritual machines” at some point in the future. Whether in the old jeremiads from the industrial age about machines having subverted humans to serving their purposes rather than the other way around or by calling the technological realm a “technium” and defining it as the “7th kingdom of life”, there seems to be a continuous process of deliberate mythologization of technology whose level of metaphorical self-awareness isn’t entirely clear. It’s one thing to claim that machines will become alive someday, it’s quite another believe they already have, or at least substantially perform the functions of a living entity.

Because while it might seem that machines have not made the world a happier place, or even that they subject people to untold misery both in the job of operating them and in their effects, even in the deepest holes of the earth they are in all things driven by man out of greed for wealth or sex or fatted calfs. Of course technology survives and is replicated and spread throughout the world, but crucially always through the medium of human brain and action. Technology is dynamic and constantly changing with many of the characteristics of evolution. It is (sometimes literally) the engine of history. But what, to invert a metaphor, is the engine that drives the engine? It is human life, driving along technology for its own purposes, maybe shortsightedly or even perversely, but in always as the dynamic force. One might call technology an example of Dawkins’ concept of the “extended phenotype,” separate from the body of a living creature but yet a product of it which serves it in the evolutionary game. Not a a successor to humanity, but rather its extension.

From the availability heuristic to Cayley’s Theorem in 74 steps

Via Daring Fireball, the other day I came across this review of The Black Swan, where one of the commenters linked to the Wikipedia article on the availability heuristic. A couple of hours later, when I came up for air, I’d somehow ended up reading about the Yoneda lemma and Cayley’s Theorem. Here’s a visual representation of how I got from one to the other:

Click the image for the full size version, in which all the nodes are linked to the corresponding Wikipedia article. The same is true of the PDF version. The order in which I read roughly corresponds to the vertical position.

I also rather like this alternative view, with corresponding PDF version.

Incidentally, if you enjoy this sort of thing and you use a Mac, you might like Pathway.

links for 2007-07-24

links for 2007-07-23

  • [I]t would be fair to say that arguments like Gödel’s against ‘the reality of time’ can be matched by similar arguments against ‘the reality of space’. The real question is: What is the physical significance of such models? […] To use the existence of a class of models with closed time-like world lines as an argument against the concept of time, without a shred of evidence that such models apply to any physical phenomena, is an example of that fetishism of mathematics, to which some Platonists are so prone.

links for 2007-07-22

The joy of not giving a damn

Various academic institutions and government ministries in America and Britain have recently begun dedicating specific groups and centers to the study and propagation of happiness. The cynical might question whether that means by implication that that quest does not lie at the root of the government and university’s other pursuits, and the even more cynical mean even surmise that the degree to which a person or society proclaims its commitment to pursuing happiness generally lies in inverse relation to their own happiness and reasonable chances of attaining it. The most deeply cynical would likely conclude (and already have, in some cases) that a government-sponsored or -affiliated program to directly increase peoples’ happiness without even the usual tired proxies of “anti-poverty initiatives” or simply sweeping the trouble-makers and discontented off to the dungeons, will probably take the form of some massive leveraging of the population into a state of pharmaceutical dependency to the point where their eyes will turn red and they’ll clamor for Prozac like the old junkies in “Naked Lunch” of whom “you expect any moment a great blob of protoplasm will flop right out and surround the junk.”

On the other hand, this type of program, if you can call it that, represents for a lot of academics and government ministers, coming on the heels of the comprehensive écrasement of their own preferred infâme, the degraded reality of a shitty little collectivist fantasy, something of a cheap escape from an ideological dead-end. Having seen that the only people willing to devote themselves to an advanced state of North Korean progressiveness are North Koreans, many seem to have concluded that the problem isn’t just with the institutions, there’s just something wrong with people themselves. Some sort of campaign directed at unhappiness itself at the psychological and physiological levels gives them a way forward out of all of that–the triumph of Freud over Marx.

Not that I’m opposed to the idea that much of what we thought was external in terms of causing happiness or unhappiness is actually internal, or even some sort of coordinated central response to that idea, particularly if it doesn’t involve massive expropriations of property or the commencement of hostile operations against various domestic and foreign “enemies.” But it’s not as scientific as all that, because happiness is just a word, like “good,” and any attempt to delimit its terrain precisely will probably be just as unsuccessful as G.E. Moore’s attempt a century ago to wall the concept of “good” in an ethical sense off from any particular qualities possessed by things which are considered good.

The problem with happiness is not that it’s an elusive concept but that it’s a manifold one; people in using it mean a million different things by it, since it’s basically an all-purpose word for a positive or desirable state of being. The Chinese character for “happiness” (well, one of them) includes the the radical that denotes clothing, as well as those for a roof, a dwelling-place and a cultivated field, the implication being that the one is equivalent to the possession of the others. Which is not probably something that many members of our wealthy society evidently so much in need of guidance in attaining happiness could probably accept without reservation, though if it were true it would make the famous (or notorious) substitution of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence for Locke’s formula “of life, liberty and property” as the fundamental individual rights more interesting and less vacuous.

Nor, as much as this idea sells itself in the trappings of biology, and sometimes even with real biological research behind it, should one forget that natural selection, the fundamental concept driving most of biological science today, in its evaluative criteria doesn’t have anything to do intrinsically with happiness as such. Remember that what makes a being evolutionarily successful is not dying as readily as its fellow beings and being more reproductively fecund. While for most people being alive and mating is probably fairly essential to happiness, this makes no difference for the purposes of evolutionary theory, since survival and reproduction are important not as possible means but as ends in and of themselves. Which doesn’t prove anything by itself, except maybe that evolution isn’t about ultimate ends or goals, much less providing a Purpose in Life. It’s more just an observation about life, and fundamentally a pretty obvious one at that: those that are best at surviving (in a multi-generational sense) in the greatest numbers will tend to take over. Anyone that thinks this gives their life a direction probably shouldn’t be trusted or even touched by those around them, as they’re likely to be traitorous, careerist little bastards who don’t realize or don’t care that survival is no more inherently glorious than a half-drowned rat clinging to a a piece of driftwood. Give me the romantically self-destructive any day.

And I am now Jesus, as Bill Hicks would say.

links for 2007-07-18

Now the trendy kids speak Chinese

It’s interesting to me how easy it is to paddle through life surrounded by one’s little boat of self-affirmation and yet, when challenged by someone else and threatened with a breach, it becomes disconcertingly obvious that one’s principles and assumptions about the world are only worth as much as the energy and skill with which one defends them personally. Because the sight of someone else conducting their lives according to very different ideas confronts one with the specter of an equal and opposite reality. It seems that any set of values, no matter how ludicrous they might seem, acquire a certain validity simply through their centrality to someone’s life; each life itself possesses that quality of undauntable validity, because no one’s existence can simply be refuted intellectually.

And of course the larger the numbers, the more true this is, which is why most people conform themselves internally to some extent to their society’s morays, no matter how little they may correspond to an individual person’s temperament. And why so many in the intelligentsia are suddenly coming alive to the interest of religion, as if they had stumbled on some half-witted intellectual terra incognita, when 20 or 30 years ago many of them would have concluded religion to be positively refuted by the various materialist philosophies or at least sunk from the view of the well-educated, and would have considered any open consideration of religious claims, as opposed to merely the supposed sociological facts about religion, much less important than addressing rising inequality in allowances in the 10-14 age group, or deciding whether a more pressing need exists for a hermeneutical theory of transgenderedness or a transgendered theory or hermeneutics. Since then, nothing has increased or decreased the inherent interest and attractions of the Bible or the Qu’ran, but even the most die-hard Marxists and queer theorists have to see that there are a lot more committed Muslims in the world than there are of them–and no one wants to be on the wrong side of a gathering storm. Similar to how increasing hordes of Western students are going to China, even though for most of them there’s probably very little to attract them about the daily life of the average Chinese student. Some will acknowledge the role of prevalence and popularity in shaping their thinking, others will insist that their new-found interest in religion or Chinese culture or Arcade Fire arises purely from its own merits.