Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘philosophy’

Stopped clocks and reporters

One convenient thing about the Trumpist banana republic is that rampant nepotism makes it easy to keep track of the key players, because no one trusts anyone but a blood relative.* So now the Washington Post reports that Trump’s absurdly incompetent choice for Education Secretary has a brother, Erik Prince, who just happens to be the founder of the infamous Blackwater mercenary troop. And that

The United Arab Emirates arranged a secret meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladi­mir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, according to U.S., European and Arab officials.

Is it true?

A Prince spokesman said in a statement: “Erik had no role on the transition team. This is a complete fabrication. The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump. Why is the so-called under-resourced intelligence community messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?”

According to this spokesman it is a “complete fabrication”. On the other hand, “the meeting” occurred, apparently. I suppose the Post might have fabricated the story, which turns out only by sheerest coincidence to be true, like stopped clock that just happens to be showing the right time when you look at it. Seems like we’re getting deep into the epistemological weeds, though.

The best part is the last sentence, though, which sounds like the guy pulled over for drunk driving, who yells at the police, “I pay your salary. Shouldn’t you be out catching some real criminals?

* I heard the joke recently, after Trump gave his son in law the job of reforming the federal government, on top of bringing peace to the Middle East and reviving US manufacturing, that perhaps Trump is one of those fairy-tale kings who requires that the prince seeking to marry his daughter perform three impossible tasks. (Except they’re already married… or are they?) Perhaps he can use his experience to help the federal government find a wealthy heiress to marry…

Pascal on the Trump era

I’ve been thinking a lot about this quote from Blaise Pascal:

Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.

All the misery of mankind comes from a single thing, which is not knowing how to sit quietly in a room.

This is something I thought about a lot in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. People seemed excited that something important was happening. The significance of boredom in human affairs has been underestimated by political theorists.

“Getting a bit of extra assistance is never cheating”

If I were a philosophy student with a looming deadline for an essay on casuistry, I know I’d turn to BuyEssay for expert help. The Guardian has reported on government moves to crack down on essay mills, that sell individually crafted essays for students who need “extra help” –anything from a 2-page essay to a PhD dissertation (for just £6750!) The article reprints some of the advertising text that these websites offer to soothe tender consciences.

“Is Buying Essays Online Cheating?” it asks, in bold type. You’d think this would be an easy question, hardly something you could spin a 300-word essay out of. But they start with a counterintuitive answer: “We can assure you it is NOT cheating”. The core of the argument is this:

What is essential when you are in college or university is to focus on scoring high grades and to get ready for your career ahead. In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Trivial things like ordering an essay will seem too distant to even be considered cheating.

Given that high grades are so essential, it seems almost perverse that universities make it so difficult to obtain them. Why do they put all these essays and other hurdles in the way — “unreasonable demands from unrelenting tutors in expecting extensive research in a short time”, as the essay puts it? It’s shitty customer service, that’s what it is.

The only critique I might make is that the essay is a bit generic. I’d worry that when I submitted it for the assignment “Is Buying Essays Online Cheating”, that the marker might notice that someone else bought almost the same essay for the assignment “Is Murder Wrong?” In the long run, your success will be all that matters. Wasn’t this the plot of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors?

The random correspondence theory of truth

Republicans may not believe in scientific reasoning, but Republican administrations seem to be the best for generating innovations in epistemology. The Bush administration brought us the taxonomy of “known unknowns”, etc.

Now presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway continues to press forward her creative truth-value confections. After coining the term “alternative facts” for what were formerly called “lies”, she is now attacking what might be called the curatorial conception of truth.

“You can talk about somebody almost making a mistake and not doing it,” Tapper said. “I’m talking about the President of the United States saying things that are not true, demonstrably not true. That is important.”

“Are they more important than the many things that he says that are true that are making a difference in people’s lives?” Conway replied.

It is not important, in her conception, for true statements to be statistically more common than false, or, presumably, even more common than background randomness. Only that they are there, and that they “make a difference”. The lies presumably make a difference as well.

Abstractly, statements can be generated by a machine, or a Magic 8 Ball, and there are approximately equal numbers of potential statements that are true as false. (Think Library of Babel.) We count on humans having a preference for truth, even an abhorrence of falsehoods. From Conway’s point of view, though, Trump has no obligation to make overwhelmingly true statements, as long as the truths that do crop up “make a difference”.

The unexpected autocracy

One of my favourite logic paradoxes (does everyone have favourite logic paradoxes?) goes by the name of The Unexpected Hanging. There are numerous versions, but a standard story is: A man has been condemned to death for some crime. The judge tells him, “Today is Monday. You are to be hanged at noon some day in the next week, but you will not know until the morning of the day of the hanging which day it will be.” The man then reasons, it can’t be Sunday, because if I haven’t been hanged by Saturday noon, I’ll know it must be Sunday, which would contradict the judge’s order. Since it can’t be Sunday, if we get to Friday afternoon, I’ll know it must be Saturday. Again a contradiction. So it can’t be Saturday. Working backward in this way, he is confident that he cannot be hanged at all. But then Thursday dawns, and he is hanged, and he never anticipated it.

I was thinking about this, particularly in the light of this comment by Josh Marshall:

One thing we can say in Donald Trump’s favor, there was no bait and switch. They told us they would do all of this and more.

It’s true, and I’m not surprised. And yet… Trump did say he would ban Muslims. He would build a wall. He would ban abortion. He would revoke the Affordable Care Act. And yet, at the same time, he was saying over and over again, I’m going to be unpredictable. I won’t say what I’m really going to do. More than that, his whole demeanor suggested that you couldn’t believe the specifics of what he was saying. So, in the end, he does exactly what he said he would do, and it actually is somewhat surprising. (more…)

From portent to program: Factless fascism

I’m old enough to remember when “relativism” was the second-favourite scare word hurled by the Right (after “socialism”, of course). The truth of the matter was that leftist intellectuals had put a lot of effort into analysing the way worldviews are created by and support particular power relations. This seems like good work, in principle, and obviously useful in interrogating the making of history, economics, and social ideologies, and has made important contributions to the philosophy of science. There have been excesses — edging into denial of scientific truth or progress.

The arch-cultural reactionary Dinesh D’Souza in his heyday (before he became completely ridiculousused the then-modish term deconstruction as a catch-all for this iconoclastic posture toward literary and (it is implied, more than actually shown) moral authorities of the past to exemplify the inconsistent application of moral relativism as a political weapon:

Marx, for instance, never seems to be deconstructed, nor does Foucault, or Lacan , or Derrida, or Barthes. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr, seem to enjoy immunity. There may be an entire gender exception for women.

I’ve never been sufficiently au fait with the humanities and social sciences — “critical theory” — to judge whether these extreme denials of objective truth were ever as central to leftist discourse as some critics would suggest. I think this has been overall very productive intellectually and scientifically. But as a political tactic it was, it seems clear now, tragically short-sighted. The Left made a serious strategic error in trying to shortcut its way out from under the dead hand of the past  by promoting relativism and attacking the authority of science and rational discourse. The right wing were taking notes, and while the older generation — figures like William F. Buckley, John Silber and Allan Bloom — started by ridiculing the anti-rationalist turn, the younger generation saw it as a program to be emulated and developed. Fascists have always had an uncomfortable relationship with objective reality, that seems to be offering only stubborn opposition to the imposition of the authoritarian will.

Nietzsche — the doyen of this kind of analysis, but conflicted in this as in everything else — framed what should have been the core left-wing critique of relativism in Die Fröhliche Wissenschaft [The Gay Science]:

Ein Jude umgekehrt ist, gemäss dem Geschäftskreis und der Vergangenheit seines Volks, gerade daran — dass man ihm glaubt — am wenigsten gewöhnt: man sehe sich darauf die jüdischen Gelehrten an, — sie Alle halten grosse Stücke auf die Logik, das heisst auf das Erzwingen der Zustimmung durch Gründe; sie wissen, dass sie mit ihr siegen müssen, selbst wo Rassen- und Classen-Widerwille gegen sie vorhanden ist, wo man ihnen ungern glaubt. Nichts nämlich ist demokratischer als die Logik: sie kennt kein Ansehn der Person und nimmt auch die krummen Nasen für gerade. (Nebenbei bemerkt: Europa ist gerade in Hinsicht auf Logisirung, auf reinlichere Kopf-Gewohnheiten den Juden nicht wenig Dank schuldig; voran die Deutschen, als eine beklagenswerth deraisonnable Rasse, der man auch heute immer noch zuerst „den Kopf zu waschen“ hat. Ueberall, wo Juden zu Einfluss gekommen sind, haben sie ferner zu scheiden, schärfer zu folgern, heller und sauberer zu schreiben gelehrt: ihre Aufgabe war es immer, ein Volk „zur Raison“ zu bringen.)

On account of his people’s business relations and past, the Jew is not used to being believed. You see this in the way Jewish scholars are obsessed with logic, that is, compelling assent through reasons. They know that they can succeed in this way, even when the prejudice of race and class tell against them, even when one would rather not believe them. Nothing is as democratic as logic: It recognises no personal distinctions, and takes even the crooked nose for straight.(Europe must be grateful to the Jews particularly with respect to logicalising — for clearer habits of thought. Above all the Germans, a pitifully irrational race. Everywhere where the Jews have gained influence, they have taught people to reason more precisely and write more clearly. It has always been their task to bring a people “to its senses”.)

And so we find ourselves in the 21st century with a senior adviser to a Republican president criticising, in 2002, the naivety of what he called the “reality-based community”, stating

That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.

And sure enough, as soon as a new Republican is elected, we have his surrogates even more openly attacking the very notion of objective reality:

 And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.

And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some—amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.

You may think you’re talking about facts and evidence, but for those on the inside these are just ways of saying whether you “like Mr. Trump”. They tried out their message first on evolution as a matter of “belief”, honed the message on climate science — a harder nut to crack — and finally brought us to where groundless claims that millions of people voted illegally are also matters of belief.

Speaking of Allan Bloom, the University of Chicago philosopher who had a hit book in the mid-1980s The Closing of the American Mind, which was mainly about how the kids today with their crazy rock-and-roll music were having more sex than he had at their age, which was driving him crazy. But I remember one really striking idea that he was pushing was that, just as the Romans conquered the Greeks militarily, but then as a consequence of absorbing the Greek world ended up being dominated by Greek culture and philosophy, so the Anglo-American world conquered Germany militarily, but are now dominated by the German Weltanschauung, and Nietzsche in particular.

How to do racist things with words

In contemplating the state of political discussion on the right wing of US politics, I found myself thinking about the celebrated work How To Do Things with Words, by the linguistic philosopher J. L. Austin.

I’ve been trying to understand the way Republicans talk about Donald Trump. For months mainstream Republicans have been predicting that Trump would “pivot” toward the general election and adopt a more “presidential” tone.  “Pivot”, a term that usually describes a turn away from the interests of ideological allies in ones own party toward emphasising more centrist positions, but in the special context of this presidential election means ceasing to make racist attacks and boasting about penis size.

Republicans don’t like Trump’s open racism. You might think they would then not support him. Or (and I’m not so naive as to miss their inescapable self-interest in continuing to support him) if they find his racism just embarrassing but not inherently a problem they might publicly condemn it, while privately encouraging him to tone it down, and hope that people will forget. Instead, though, they are publicly encouraging him to stop making racist comments. For example, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said “He needs to quit these gratuitous attacks on other Americans”, and said “Donald Trump has got a lot of good qualities, but he needs to put them forward and suppress some of these other actions.” Senator Bob Corker said Trump has “two or three weeks” to “pivot to a place where he becomes a true general election candidate.” (more…)

Politicians debate statisticians and philosophers

I should have known the writing was on the wall for my career in Canada when, at the first federal election debate in 2006, the Bloc Québécois leader Gilles Duceppe said

We don’t need inspectors. We don’t need statisticians. We need doctors and nurses.

The rest of academia kept their heads down, hoping the storm would blow over. But now, not even a decade later, just south of the border, presidential candidates have another academic discipline in their sights. In yesterday’s Republican presidential debate Marco Rubio said

Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.

As is pointed out here, the first statement isn’t actually true. Whether it should be true is another question. We might say, a philosophical question; although, in a serious dispute over the issue between a philosopher and a welder, I would not be surprised if the latter came out the better for it.

First they came for the statisticians…

Nietzsche, China, and Tory politics

John Holbo has pointed out, in a post on Crooked Timber, that Nietzsche advocated in Morgenröte expatriating 1/4 of the European population, and replacing them with Chinese immigrants, who would

bring with them the type of thinking and living that would suit industrious ants. Indeed, they could generally help the nervous Europe that is jittering itself to bits to attain some measure of asiatic calm and contemplation…

Know we know where the Tories have been cribbing their social policies! Just a few weeks ago Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, made headlines by declaring that cuts to tax credits for the working poor were needed to inspire them to work as hard as Chinese and Americans:

My wife is Chinese. We want this to be one of the most successful countries in the world in 20, 30, 40 years’ time. There’s a pretty difficult question that we have to answer, which is essentially: are we going to be a country which is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard?

Unlike Nietzsche, Hunt believes in transfer of spirit without transfer of people. I’m not sure if this is what the UKIP voters thought they would get by keeping out the foreigners.

His cabinet colleague Michael Gove believes the Chinese have other lessons to teach. He wrote a few years back that

I’d like us to implement a cultural revolution just like the one they’ve had in China.

Zionism and antisemitism

What is the connection between Zionism and antisemitism? The question is rarely posed, since those who are interested in these themes are usually concerned with the converse link, between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. That link clearly exists. Those who hate the Jewish state usually end up helping themselves to the stockpile of ideological weapons of antisemitism, honed over centuries; and it’s hard to miss the historical continuity between traditional left-wing antisemitism in Europe and modern anti-Zionism. (The crassest form, unsurprisingly, was in Germany, as recounted in Hans Kundnani’s book Utopia or Auschwitz, about the German ’68 generation, who simultaneously attacked their parents for their war crimes, and demonstrated their antifascist opposition by helping the PLO to kill more Jews — or by planting bombs themselves in German synagogues.)

And yet, the link in the other direction is also impossible to ignore. It’s hardly novel to point out that Binyamin Netanyahu is committed to fulfilling Hitler’s dream of removing all Jews from Europe. (It’s true that the ultimate methods of the Nazis were exterminatory, but that was not an inevitable part of their programme. Many ferocious antisemites were happy to have the Jews be genuinely expelled. For example, to Palestine.) And now I have just discovered, reading Hannah Arendt, that one of the 20th century’s most famous antisemites was also a committed Zionist: (more…)

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