Posts Tagged ‘concepts’

Comebacks: Britney and Me

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

Britney Spears accepts the award for Best Pop Video for “Piece of Me” at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

Britney Spears accepts the award for Best Pop Video for “Piece of Me” at the MTV Video Music Awards. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

On Sunday evening, my 15-year old daughter, typically guileless, made a bid to watch MTV’s video music awards. “No way,” was the answer, “You have school tomorrow.” (She’s in tenth grade, and supposed to be making a strong start in a new school.) “But we watched it last year,” she replied, “Remember we saw Britney Spears…”

This sent me to the computer because I knew I’d blogged about Britney’s woeful performance at last year’s VMAs. With the help of the blog and my wife’s clam-like mind we recalled that we’d TiVo’d Britney’s debacle instead of watching it live. All of which is to say that my daughter went to bed on time and that this is a blog post about comebacks.

Charles Austin - Atlanta Olympic Gold

Charles Austin - Atlanta Olympic Gold

I’m back from the time vortex of school vacation. It feels strange to be blogging again. Having been out of the mix for a few weeks, I’m afraid that I’ve lost something or that some essential capacity has become stunted. The “me” of then seems more capable than the “me” of now. I feel a little bit like I imagine Charles Austin feels. Austin won the gold medal for the high jump at the Atlanta Olympics. When we couldn’t watch the VMAs last night (alas, our TiVo attempt this year resulted in two and a half hours of silent gray screen; don’t ask me how that happened) we watched a TiVo’d Austin trying to break the world high jump record for a 40-year old on the David Letterman show. We were all rooting for him as his shirt tipped the bar off its stays. “Tuck your shirt in!” I shouted at the screen.

Britney apparently made a successful return to popstardom on Sunday night, winning three awards. And while I cared momentarily about Austin’s high jump attempt, the objective distance I have about Britney’s success or failure as a pop star (I could care less) allows me to burrow in to the philosophical aspects of success and redemption.

Put simply, in and of itself it ultimately doesn’t matter whether we succeed or fail, whether we make a successful comeback or not. If Austin had broken the high jump record for a 40-year old, someone eventually would have outjumped him, or not. Austin will eventually pass on and those who know him will pass on. Britney will stop making music videos. And this blog post will get archived off to tape, never to be read again.

Ambitions, successes, failures, comebacks are all idealized narratives that we create or consume to accompany events that fill time. They exist in conceptual space, but not as real objects. The most obvious example of a counter-narrative is this: If someone prevails in a competition, others must lose. Letterman asked Austin about his three Olympic bids — gold in one, and what about the other two? “Not so good.” Not so good for Austin, but great for the guys who won golds in those competitions, and not so good for the other competitors the time Austin won.

This perspective can have a very freeing impact. Today I can sit down and write what I want to write because ultimately it won’t matter what I write. And even today right now it doesn’t matter.

Socrates - The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

Socrates - The Unexamined Life Is Not Worth Living

But inner and outer narratives often keep us going. More so it seems in modern life we care about the narrative of life and experience life less in itself and more in the abstract. Which brings us back to Socrates, and, for once, it brings me strangely into apparent opposition with Socrates, who said “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

However, onto this I would like to paste the narrative that Socrates had in mind the kind of reflection that brings us deeper into reality rather than further from it… (more…)

The Philosophy of Conviction

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

On George Bush in Israel, video game workouts, and predictions of neural Buddhism.

Philosophy blog: George Bush Neural Buddhist belief conviction war iran iraq israel middle eastIn a bold and boldly quirky opinion, David Brooks predicts that current research into the workings of the mind will lead toward more widespread acceptance of the spiritual concepts of Buddhism, and away from adherence to the textual “patina of different religions.”

This research has shown, says Brooks, that the mind “does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.”

I can’t help but quote his pivotal paragraph whole:

“First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.”

I think that Brooks may have gone a little loopy. Not because what he’s saying is nutty, but he’s saying it without any seeming objectivity or pause for reflection.

To parse and unpack adequate individual responses to each of Brooks statements in his opinion would take many posts. So I’ll focus on the aspect of his opinion that represents a common thread: Conviction. Brooks writes as if he is convinced of his opinion. He writes as if others will be convinced of the research findings. And he writes as if a person who has a sense of the interrelated self, or inherent morality, or the sacred, or God, will necessarily have a belief in those same things in spite of or despite a more nuanced understanding or wherefrom and why those senses derive.

Philosophy blog: Nintendo Wii Mii Fitness virtual realitySure, we operate less like machines than people once thought, but that doesn’t mean that life in all its rich emotion and subjectivity is inevitably mysterious and unknowable, sacred and spiritual. Just because life has evolved to include psychological and physiological responses that evoke transcendent sensory experiences, doesn’t prove that our perception of those transcendent experiences is evidence of something inexplicable.

Video games provide a case in point. Nintendo’s Wii and Wii Fitness take new steps into the realm of virtual reality. As reviewed, Wii Fitness does a good enough job of simulating a fitness regime that people found it winningly good at doing what it set out to do. The human mind nimbly assimilates virtual or perceived realities into its overall perception of the real world. This isn’t surprising. The mind needs to be able to do this in order for us to imagine different scenarios, to predict and plan.

George Bush, still president, still persisting in his perception of himself as a leader, and a leader of some weight, has said this week in Israel that talking to Iran and Syria would be like talking to Hitler.

Again, I feel I should quote him in full:

“Some seem to believe that we should negotiate with the terrorists and radicals, as if some ingenious argument will persuade them they have been wrong all along. We have heard this foolish delusion before. As Nazi tanks crossed into Poland in 1939, an American senator declared: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler, all this might have been avoided.” We have an obligation to call this what it is — the false comfort of appeasement, which has been repeatedly discredited by history.”

I was left wondering on what level Bush believes this. Surely he can’t believe that anyone who would seek to talk to hostile and dangerous leaders would expect to convince them they were wrong with some “ingenious argument.” Does he believe that’s what they would try to do? Surely not. No. Not even someone as apparently ignorant and deluded as Bush.

(One would of course expect to try to convince them that they have more to gain by peaceable coexistence than by continued hostility. This is not ingenious, it’s just common sense.)

Philosophy blog: George Bush addresses knesset israeli parliament on middle east trip invokes hitler to defend policyBush’s difficulties in perceiving accurate versions of reality reveal something about what makes the human mind successful or unsuccessful in guiding us through our lives. As we’ve discussed, we need to be able to use our imagination to conceive of different versions of current and future reality, to assess possibilities and outcomes. But we also need to be able to accept as more concrete the versions that carry more rational weight. This won’t always yield truth, but it will more often than not yield truth.

Bush seems to be able to conjure up a version of reality and attach his belief to it, regardless of evidence to the contrary. This is perhaps his greatest deficiency. He wanted to believe in the link between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein so badly that he ignored all the signs that it was a fiction. He wanted to believe in rapid and easy success in Iraq so passionately that he failed to plan for the more likely scenario that it would be a long, hard, bloody war. He wanted to believe that Hurricane Katrina was a local disaster and required a local response, despite evidence to the contrary, with deadly and horrific results.

Bush is not alone; many leaders delude themselves, as do many of us less prominent citizens. The trouble is that Bush has deluded many others, too, and continues to do just that.

Footnote: As has been noted elsewhere, Bush’s reference to Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the words of an American Senator (attributed by some to William Borah) are hardly new material. Rumsfeld was spouting the same fear-mongering rhetoric back in 2006.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor a rational, science-based explanation of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive. (more…)

Pragmatism: Pregnant Drug Use, Economic Policy, And Profanity

Monday, March 17th, 2008

On the philosophy of pragmatism: Or, when concept meet conception.

jailed for taking cocaine while pregnantA zealous, Alabama district attorney has been going after pregnant mothers who abuse drugs. As his statutory weapon Greg L. Gambril uses a law that punishes “chemical endangerment of a child,” which was introduced, primarily, to protect children from exposure to meth labs. “When drugs are introduced in the womb, the child-to-be is endangered,” Mr. Gambril said. “It is what I call a continuing crime.” Gambril betrays no compunction about removing mothers from their babies.

federal reserve chief ben bernanke acts to save financial marketsOn economic policy, Fed chief Bernanke, once a professor of economics, started out in his new job with a belief in the ability of the markets to respond rationally, and a hands-off approach to new financial instruments and odd turns of events. The real world seems to have influenced Bernanke’s thinking. In recent weeks he’s begun to act in ways that contradict his earlier statements — shoring up the ailing Bear Stearns, cutting rates multiple times, and making risky loans to keep the markets from further floundering.

And, to profanity: both Fox and the FCC seem happy that the Supreme Court will be reviewing the FCC’s attempt to tighten its policies on profanity. The FCC wants to be able to go after the networks for “fleeting expletives.” And the networks want to protect themselves against such actions. This momentous legal event is sparked by expletives uttered by Bono at the 2003 Golden Globes, and by Cher and Nicole Richie during the 2002 Billboard Music Awards. I can’t repeat what they said… Well actually, I guess I can. Bono said “fucking brilliant,” Cher said “Fuck ‘em,” and Nicole Richie said “Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It’s not so fucking simple.”

nicole richie prada bag cow shit billboard music awardsRichie is the clear winner.

A common aspect to these three stories seems to be the concept of pragmatism. In each one, pragmatism represents the fulcrum around which decisions or choices need to be made.

Pragmatism can be a deceptive concept. It gets bandied about as a compliment. “It was a pragmatic decision,” people say. Or, “he is clearly the more pragmatic.” But pragmatism is in the eye of the beholder. Alabama DA Gambril doubtless believes that he is exhibiting pragmatism by upholding the spirit of the law and very literally introducing separation between children and chemical exposure. Others argue that Gambril’s efforts do more harm than good because they don’t help the mother and separate mother and child during a critical period in the child’s development.

Likewise, the same people who today praise Bernanke for his pragmatism — the jumpy executives fearing collapse — would criticize him if he were to exert greater central control and influence during sunnier times. They see Bernanke as pragmatic because they like what he’s doing.

And I expect that the 550,000 people who’ve complained to the FCC about “fleeting expletives” would praise the pragmatism of the FCC’s new policies, whereas those who got a good giggle out of Nicole Ritchie’s colorful, cow shit complaint probably think that the policies against expletives are already somewhat unpragmatic.

So, can we make a pragmatic decision that isn’t, by definition, subjective?

Unfortunately, as with most things worth doing, it’s not easy. Firstly, it is important to understand the abstract premise against which pragmatic decisions will be judged.

gambril da alabama crackdown on pregnant drug abusersIn the case of the Alabama drug convictions, DA Gambril might frame this premise as “protecting children from the adverse effects of illegal drugs.” The mothers and their supporters might frame it as “ensuring what’s best for the child’s welfare.”

Immediately, we see that Gambril’s abstraction represents a somewhat narrower frame of thinking. Protecting children from the adverse affects of illegal drugs is just one factor in a more complex set of factors that may ultimately help not just the children in the cases being considered but also other children (by acting as a deterrent, for instance). We can then immediately say that, at least as far as I’ve framed it, Gambril’s perspective only considers one piece of the overall impact of his actions. He cannot therefore be said to be acting completely pragmatically.

Once we’ve understood the abstract premise, the second step in deciding whether something is pragmatic must be to try to determine whether the action being taken warrants us bending the rules.

Bernanke can’t be in a very happy position. I expect that he’s considered the long term impact of his current actions. And I expect that he’s ideologically uncomfortable with some of the steps he’s taken. I would imagine that Bernanke believes that without the actions he’s taking there is a good chance that the country’s financial systems would have collapsed. I can’t think of a better reason for acting against one’s purist beliefs. The only counterveiling reason would have been if Bernanke could convince himself that ultimately the markets would have been better for off for a little collapsing.

And here we come to a curious quirk of pragmatism: When it is justified, pragmatism should lead us to question the very foundation of the principles we’re bending. Bernanke should be realizing through this muddle that his original beliefs were deficient, that the markets can’t be trusted to be rational and sensible.

cher billboard music awards fuck 'em fcc rulingLastly, applying these principles to the FCC versus the networks. The FCC regards its proposed policy change as a pragmatic response to the request for action against fleeting expletives from 550,000 members of the public. But the FCC reveals itself to be thinking unclearly when it says that “the ‘F-word’ in any context ‘inherently has a sexual connotation.’”  I’m perplexed as to how to read a sexual connotation into the use of the word fuck or its derivatives when it’s being applied as an adjective or adverb.

But one also can’t necessarily defend the networks by poking holes in the FCC’s argument. The meta-question here seems to be whether, pragmatically speaking, the use of fleeting expletives is more offensive than not, whether the networks are responsible for fleeting expletives or not, and whether there is a reason to allow the FCC to change its expletive policy.

LIFE Why We Exist and What We Must Do To Survive Rational Science-Based Book About Meaning and Purpose of ExistenceFor more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive. (more…)

Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Kosovo’s independence, Serbia’s reaction.

Kosovo Independence Mitrovica, Serbia, BelgradeDo the roots of ethnic and national identification run particularly deep in the Balkans? Reading the latest news from Kosovo and Serbia, it seems so, but I guess not. No more deeply than in Chechnya, for instance, or Northern Ireland, or Darfur, or any of the many other flash-points around the world. But why do people feel so strongly about their ethnic and national identification that they’re willing to hate so deeply, fight so forcefully, and suffer so greatly to protect the concept of ethnic and political autonomy?

I’m not saying that people should not feel so strongly. They do, so there must be reasons. But what are those reasons and could we learn anything useful from understanding them?

social animals bonobo enhance survival by life living in groupsEvolution rewards species and groups that survive. Social animals enhance their chances of survival by living together, protecting one another, and competing against other groups for the necessities of survival such as food and shelter. The stronger the group identification, the stronger the cooperation, and the greater the chances of group survival.

But, in people, the process of forming and belonging to groups has evolved into a highly complex and, from a biological and micro-social perspective, largely artificial (because it is a mental rather than tangible) trait. An Albanian living in the north of Kosovo consciously connects his or her allegiance to Albanians in the south of Kosovo, but while this conceptual grouping feels intensely related to his or her survival, it in fact bears no resemblance to the cooperation of a tight-knit group living in close proximity with its members contributing materially to one another’s well-being… Or, to be more exact, it resembles that tight-knit group only in as much as the Albanian in the north invests his allegiance with the Albanian in the south with the same kind of significance.

angry serbs burn border posts in kosovo against independence of albanian kosovaOur identification along lines of ethnicity and demography can’t be defended as an evolutionary survival mechanism. Ethnic conflicts deplete the world’s resources by commiting them to weaponry and defense forces and result in the deaths of millions.

A Serb in Mitrovica wishes to remain Serbian because he identifies with the concept of being a Serb; Kosovo independence does not necessarily reflect a change in his or her chances of living a healthy, happy and prosperous life. Likewise, the lot of an Albanian living in Mitrovica doesn’t necessarily improve because he is no longer part of Serbia. I’m stressing the word necessarily because obviously when people define themselves along ethnic lines there are indeed practical implications of a change in the majority ethnicity of the ruling body.

By reflecting upon the processes of evolution and its translation into concepts and feelings we immediately see that our minds fool us into drawing unnecessary divisions between ourselves and others, divisions that ultimately hurt us all.

From a practical perspective, what can be done?

We need to teach practical philosophy in school. By drawing up curricula that examine these kinds of connections between the nature of existence and its impact on our world of concepts we can begin to teach children how to see the world for what it is rather than for what it seems to be. This suggestion is no more radical than saying that children should be taught that the earth revolves around the sun even though it seems that the sun revolves around the earth.

For more rational, science-based explanations of life’s meaning and purpose, please refer to my book: LIFE! Why We Exist… And What We Must Do To Survive.




Thursday, January 3rd, 2008

On voting in Iowa (and elsewhere).

violence in kenya after disputed electionsAs has been vividly demonstrated in Kenya in recent days, and as we experienced directly here in the US at the closing stages of the last presidential election, voting often produces more losers than winners. Today is caucus and primary day in Iowa. The presidential voting process begins. But what are we voting for, and why?

In some democratic systems, such as in the UK, people vote for a party rather than a person. Of course, a strong, popular and capable party leader can make a great deal of difference in which party people vote for, but it’s not quite the same as throwing the choice of party leader out to the popular vote. I focus on this difference to help illustrate the point that in a democracy our vote counts toward a particular result — the future government of the nation — and that rationally we should use our vote to try to help bring about the future government that we believe we prefer.

This may seem obvious, but I think it’s not.

Political pundits, the media, political campaign managers and even candidates get confused during the voting process. They become obsessed by the process itself, on what needs to be done to get elected. But getting elected and running a successful government require two very different sets of skills.

The particular skills required to govern the country don’t change much over time: Without integrity, effectiveness and vision things will go awry.

Whether a candidate (or party) claims to have the answer to fixing health care, or saving social security, or countering terrorism really makes no difference if they can’t demonstrate a track record of integrity, effectiveness and vision. Conversely, if a candidate honestly admits that they don’t currently have definite and convincing answers to such issues (how could any one candidate possibly have all the answers?) this demonstrates integrity without necessarily proving them ineffective and lacking in vision.

The pundits, the media, the campaign machine and the candidate make the voter’s task inordinately more difficult by masking the candidate’s key qualities behind a screen of distracting and tear-inducing smoke.

The other part of the voter’s task is to ask himself or herself what kind of government he or she prefers. Again, this seems obvious, but again I would claim it isn’t. If we focus on particular issues we risk losing sight of the big picture. Issues shift. New issues arise. The kind of government we prefer really doesn’t change much over time. That’s why political systems the world over tend to polarize to a greater or lesser degree into the opposing camps of conservative and liberal, republican and democrat, right wing and left wing, fascist and socialist.

The kind of government we prefer tends to fall somewhere along this spectrum. If the party we would normally vote for has swung too far one way, perhaps we feel a swing back in the other direction is called for. But fundamentally we tend to prefer a government that aligns better with our ideological bent.

voting in iowaTo those in Iowa, New Hampshire, Florida and across the country I say, forget the hoopla, look past the mud that’s been slung, dig into the record of the candidates on matters of integrity, effectiveness and vision, and vote for a leader who lacks none of these and for a government whose ideology promises to set the country on a course that you will feel happy about four years from now.

I make no apology for belaboring the point that George Bush, who so clearly lacks integrity and effectiveness and who’s vision has been so muddled and ill-founded that it’s mired the country in a dire war, set back international relations thirty years, hobbled the country’s finances, and introduced a deplorable set of incursions on basic human rights, was elected to the highest office in the country not once but twice. We can only hope that this year’s voting process turns the tide.


Free Will And Personal Development

Monday, December 31st, 2007

On the concept of free will and its application to personal development.

penguins huddled in storm blizzardAs I watched March of The Penguins with my family the other evening my wife asked whether the penguins, who spend months of each year huddled together in freezing conditions, gradually starving, ever wonder whether there’s something better out there. The film’s accompanying commentary (narrated by Morgan Freeman) often wanders into sappy projections of human psychology, ascribing human thoughts and feelings to the penguins, spoiling to some extent a fascinating documentary.

We can say with some degree of certainty that penguins do not conceive of choice in the same way people do. But how do people conceive of choice and is it an illusion?

As a teenager I was sure that there was no such thing as free will, no such thing as choice. It seemed obvious to me that any response to any stimulus must be pre-determined by environment and instinct. At the most fundamental level, our minds are complex but absolute mechanisms, sets of synaptic switches, and every “choice” is simply the next configuration of these switches determined by the configuration that came before as influenced by a new set of external stimuli.

free will and choiceIn a way I still believe this, but I now think that it skips over an explanation for the concepts of free will and choice, and in doing so lets us abdicate responsibility for our actions or inactions.

Perversity, I think, provides one of the clearest ways to conceive of free will: Imagine someone sitting in a temperature-controlled room with a thermostat. The person can raise or lower the temperature in the room by adjusting the thermostat. If he’s cold he can make it warmer. If it’s hot, he can make it cooler. But, if he’s feeling perverse, he can make it colder when he’s cold or hotter when he’s hot.

It’s at this level that free will and choice have meaning. We conceive of a set of choices and decide to act or not act either according to what we feel we should do, or according to what we feel we shouldn’t do. (This is why perversity provides such a good mental template for the concept.) Being conscious and having access to abstract concepts, we can conceive of doing things that counteract our physiological and emotional instincts.
At the next level down a conscious choice may well reflect a pre-conditioned set of psychological and environmental switches, but that’s not the point. We encounter free will and choice as we conceive of an action or inaction and consider them abstractly, consciously.

free will and choice - personal developmentNow, here’s the trick. We can train ourselves to reset our switches, essentially changing the current conditions of our psychology. You can read this post and go away with a newly set switch, a switch that will permit you to decide to change a behavior that you don’t like. You have then exerted free will and contributed to your own personal development.

The most important part of this insight is that the results of these changes can be cumulative and can snowball. A choice to practice yoga or start therapy or quit drinking, for instance, can lead to a whole new set of experiences that reset a whole bunch of switches in our minds. Small choices can lead to big changes.

This, I believe, is the level at which we experience free will. Acknowledging the power of choice, even if it is mechanistically illusory, can lead to profound and powerful changes that help us get more out of life.

(My book LIFE! contains a more searching discussion of these ideas.) (more…)

The Philosophy of Reason

Thursday, November 29th, 2007

The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David (1787).What is reason?

I’ve probably written about fifty posts already on this blog, but it occurred to me just yesterday that I have yet to write about “reason.” Since the name of the blog is and since it’s my stated goal to analyze subjects of interest from a rational perspective, I think I should correct the omission.

We can encapsulate the realm of reason as follows: Reason involves the logical manipulation of abstract concepts.

To unpack this: “Reason” itself is an abstract concept that describes a mental process. This mental process is what happens when we use logic to explore and analyze other abstract concepts. “Logic” is the consistent application of definitive rules (it’s also an abstract concept).

So, when we take any set of defined rules and apply them consistently to analyze ideas, we are using reason.

Notice, we’ve said nothing about whether the rules reflect reality. Neither have we said anything about whether the ideas being analyzed reflect reality. Reason doesn’t require real objects. But as we evolved the rational faculty we first apprehended reason through our interaction with the real world, because that’s our primary and immediate point of reference. The real world also provides us with myriad situations that can be abstracted and anaylzed through reason. Reason is what we do to some extent and with varying degress of success day in day out just to stay alive.

When I was a boy I used to enjoy logic puzzles. Many of them conjured up odd worlds populated by fanciful tribes (one springs to mind about three different groups that sometimes, always or never told the truth). After setting out the rules of the imaginary world and posing a problem, the puzzles left the puzzler to figure out a rational solution. The unspoken dictat being that if the puzzler applied logic, he would find a definite solution.

In real life, we often find ourselves presented with problems or challenges for which no definite solution exists. Either the set of concepts is incomplete or the rule set to be applied isn’t definitive.

Here are some examples from current news stories:

Tightening Business’s Financial LifelineCredit available to US business apparently shrank by an unprecedented 9% since August, perhaps pressaging a recession. The story and the information set reveal that it is impossible to deduce rationally whether the credit shrink indicates that a recession is nigh. The history that connects previous credit shrinks to recessions hasn’t established a definitive causal link, the circumstances surrounding the current credit shrink are unique, and the actions that people and institutions will take in response to the credit shrink are undetermined. But rationally we can say that we have cause to be concerned about a recession given the news about a credit shrink.

Ehud Olmert, George W Bush, Mahmoud Abbas (left to right) at White House - 28/11/2007After the latest round of middle-east peace talks ended with a commitment from both sides to work toward peace in ‘08 and a two state status quo, Ehud Olmert is quoted as saying: “If the two-state solution collapses, and we face a South African-style struggle for equal voting rights, then the State of Israel is finished.” Olmert asserts this as rational fact, but he is inferring a future event by comparison to a similar set of circumstances. He is probably correct to draw the comparison, and he may be making a reasonable guess about the outcome, but the categorical tenor of his statement leans on emotion rather than logic.

Bill Clinton Asserts that he opposed the Iraq warBill Clinton this week said that he opposed the Iraq war from the start. Records of his statements at the time indicate that he spoke in favor of completing WMD inspections rather than rushing to war. Clinton recalls that he didn’t speak out more plainly because it would have been inappropriate for a former president to question the military decisions of an acting president. Clinton could be recalling correctly and his statement may be true. Or he may be deliberately mistating his former position on the war in which case his statement would be false. But he may also be mistaken in his recollection, in which case his statement would be false in fact, but true in its own internal logic (derived from his faulty recollection). We cannot know which is the case unless Clinton kept some kind of definitive record of his true position on the war at the time.

The elusiveness of definitive information and fully understood conditions means that when it comes to real life we’re often working with approximations and likelihoods. We don’t know that something will happen (like a recession) but we try to deduce the likelihood and weigh the risks or benefits of certain actions in the face of this likelihood. This, I believe, leads to a very common mistake. When we’re faced with incomplete information, we often replace questions of “what is likely” with “what is possible.”

A striking example of this is religious belief. Religious belief is a matter of faith. We don’t have enough information to draw a rational conclusion about whether a god or supreme being exists or doesn’t exist. When many people argue about religion, they invert this logic to say that we don’t have enough information to draw the rational conclusion that a god or supreme being doesn’t exist. That’s true, but just because the two statements are true doesn’t mean that they infer the same likelihood of god’s existence.

Frog on MoonLet’s put it this way: If I claim that a large frog lives on the far side of the moon, you cannot prove that I am wrong, but you can demonstrate with a very high degree of likelihood that I am wrong. I can also say that can’t prove that the frog doesn’t exist, and while this is true, I can’t demonstrate it with the same high degree of likelihood.

After a simple review of the world’s greatest conflicts we quickly determine that they are not caused by insolubly complex problems but by the refusal of people to engage in thoughtful, rational debate and problem-solving. (more…)

What We Don’t Know…

Friday, October 26th, 2007

Is it ‘what we don’t know can’t hurt us,’ or ‘what you don’t know can’t hurt you?’ I’m not sure. Let me look it up…  Hmmm, still not sure. I found both versions out there, and no origin. I suppose it doesn’t really matter.

But David Brooks’ Op-Ed today “The Outsourced Brain“ got me wondering about the harm of not knowing. Brooks recently installed a GPS system in his car and now can’t live without it. He lets iTunes select his music, and he finds himself wedded to his Blackberry. Brooks, tongue in cheek, professes oneness with the idea of an outsourced brain, but clearly remains ambivalent on the matter.

He makes an interesting point: “I had thought that the magic of the information age was that it allowed us to know more, but then I realized the magic of the information age is that it allows us to know less.”

Last night, my wife and I went to our son’s pre-school to hear a little from his classroom teachers about the learning environment. It’s a Montessori school, and we both marvelled at the teachers’ efforts to make the learning process organic, tactile and structured. Each activity aims to add a specific strut or pillar to the incremental development of the child’s understanding of the world.

Listening to the teachers at my son’s school it seemed incontrovertibly right that children should learn from first principles how the world works, including the world of abstract concepts. If we don’t understand the foundations of abstract thought as they relate to the world around us, we can never have a solid rational understanding of life and existence. Going through life without that understanding seems a bit like tying one arm behind your back for a game of tennis. (The arm you would usually hold the racket with!)

Unlearning things in later life or dispensing with the regular exercising of pieces of knowing or know-how for the sake of efficiency perhaps isn’t such a big deal. Outsourcing navigational worries to a GPS system (which will navigate a whole lot better than most of us,) for instance, doesn’t seem problematic.

But as the old adage about art goes: You have to know the rules before you can break them. When technology allows or encourages us to avoid knowledge or understanding that seems like not such a good thing. Using a calculator is fine, then, as long as you understand the computations it’s performing for you. But if your only interface with the art of navigation is a GPS system, that seems to be a problem.Unlaunched GPS satellite on display at the San Diego Aerospace museum

(Incidentally, I just learned for the first time that GPS systems use relativistic calculations to account for time dilation. When I found this out (I was helping my daughter research her Physics homework on Doppler effects) I reeled at the depths of specialized knowledge embedded into a device that will soon seem like an everyday driver’s tool.)

But what about some of the common and seemingly innocuous holes in our collective understanding? How many of us know where our electricty is generated, and by what means? How many of us know the source of our local water supply and potential risks posed to it? And what happens when technology becomes unavailable or breaks down? Do we wait for someone to fix it, or do we have the wherewithall to get on without it?

You’ll be relieved to hear that all of this leads me somewhere. It’s to this: We can’t outsource to our school-teachers the importance of understanding the world from first principles. This is perhaps the most important reason for adults and parents to remain in touch with a direct and comprehensive understanding of the world, rather than divesting this understanding to gadgets and gizmos.


And Counting… Numbers as Signifiers

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

Mexican Border Delays

The NY Times reported yesterday that tighter controls for returning Americans at the Mexican border have been causing long delays, with wait times up to a couple of hours or more. I guess I’d never thought about how long it takes, nor how long it should take, to cross the Mexican border. I wonder now whether two hours is, in real terms, a long time. I also wonder how we deal with such numbers — the processing of numbers and the comparison of these abstract quantifiers affects so much of our lives.

Two other reports on numbers caught my eye:

How many site hits? Depends who’s counting” discusses the fight between Internet businesses, ratings organizations, and advertizers, on how to count and account for website traffic. The businesses count more visitors than the ratings organizations. But which numbers are correct, and why do the advertizers care?

And in his piece on military contracting corruption (I won’t say scandal, because, unfortunately, it’s not that much of a scandal) Frank Rich points out that the suicide of the second highest ranking USAF procurement officer, seems to have been due to a sum of money that wouldn’t have even made a bulge in Erik Prince’s pants pocket (Erik is the Blackwater guy…)

Are such numbers real or abstract, relative or absolute? When we place stock in numbers, run our lives and our deaths by them, are we working with the stuff of tangible experience or throwing psychological dice?

Numbers start out real, I think, but quickly become signifiers. We seem to be very good at translating numbers into abstract concepts that we can use as points of data in processing everyday life, making decisions, discussing our opinions for and against, etc.

In the case of the Mexican border crossing: The numbers have a reality for someone who last year crossed the border several times without any wait time, and now has to sit in his car for two hours. The delay is real, tangible, perhaps it causes him to be late for an important event, or to lose income, or to become frustrated or tired or angry. But by the time the NY Times reports that average delays are up to a couple of hours, the number has become a signifier of stricter controls. If the delay time had gone up to two hours because of reductions in staffing it would have become a different signifier. If raccoon migrations had caused the delays, still another.

Similarly, website traffic numbers have a tangible basis in the collective urge of Internet users to visit pages on a particular site. I may feel an urge to go back to a site, to tell a friend about it, to click through from another page. These are tangible connections I have with my visits. Likewise other visitors have their tangible connections, too. If I were in a room with a group of people and half of us had visited a particular site and began to discuss it, this would be a tangible reflection of the aggregated numbers. But by the time the business and the ratings agencies are arguing about hundreds of thousands of clicks, the numbers have taken on a different meaning. They are now signifiers for reliability of data, viability of business models, money.

And lastly, in the matter of the poor man who killed himself over $26,788, this number was tangible to him, this was money that tided him over until he got his first Pentagon check. Maybe it meant that he and his family could avoid a few weeks of belt-tightening while he was between jobs. And then it became a signifier for him of a personal lapse in judgment. A signifier that he couldn’t downplay or get past. And now it has become another signifier for the sad schism between his devastated reaction to the publicity, and the administration’s generally flagrant waste and squandering and lining of the pockets of the likes of Erik Prince, Halliburton, and countless others.

In the modern world, a lot of counting goes on. We count things all the time. Everywhere, there are people counting things, arriving at statistics and conclusions, tranferring numbers into signifiers. The danger is that we begin to replace reality with signifiers. That the signifiers become more real to us than the reality that they attempt to signify. Life is in the here and now. If it’s not tangible, how much time should we spend consorting with it?

Belise cave


Torture, Courage, and Cowardice

Thursday, October 4th, 2007

The New York Times article today on Secret U.S. Endorsement of Severe Interrogations is both appalling and fascinating in its thorough exposure of the administration’s dogged efforts to encourage and enable the CIA to use a wide range and combination of brutal interrogation techniques without having to worry about their legality. But beyond the pertinent questions of what constitutes torture and in what ways the administration blurred the line between branches of government, and, once again, abused its executive power, I was struck by the universal themes of courage and cowardice that sprang out of the circumstances of the story.

The Times reports on a White House meeting involving James Comey, deputy attorney general: “Mr. Comey stated that “no lawyer” would endorse Mr. Yoo’s justification for the N.S.A. program, Mr. Addington demurred, saying he was a lawyer and found it convincing. Mr. Comey shot back: “No good lawyer,” according to someone present.”

Sitting at home reading the newspaper or watching events on TV it’s easy to regard the administration as laughable and not worthy of respect. But to be in its midst, as Comey was, surrounded by powerful supporters of the White House, with your job on the line, his boldness took real courage.

The Times also reports that within the circle of unswervingly loyal Bush insiders “there was a sense that Comey was a wimp” on national security matters.

I’m reminded of Plato’s Socratic dialogues. In criticizing Comey’s moral stance, the administration defines a specific instance of “courage” as the ability to follow through on severe methods of interrogation in order to get valuable information. Socrates would never let them get away with that kind of rhetorical sleight of hand.

It’s notable that at no point in the several years that this story has been unfolding has the administration appeared to betray any compunction about using severe interrogation methods. This may be an extreme thing to say, but one gets the impression that the administration does not view the detainees as human or deserving of human rights, and, therefore, feels that torturing the detainees couldn’t possibly be inhuman.

And perhaps this is their true perspective. It would explain a great deal.

Let’s suppose for a moment that some within the administration don’t feel that the detainees retain any human rights; that any form of torture is justified if it achieves results. Is this a form of cowardice? Is it courageous?

Courage and cowardice are concepts. They have meaning only as formulated through mental processes. A tree is not courageous because it holds fast against the wind (unless it appears in a poem, at which point it becomes a conceptual tree).

The concept of courage is directly opposed to the concept of cowardice. And the concept of courage has as its root two other concepts — fear or an awareness of risk, and strength — holding one’s course despite the fear. Fear is a direct emotional response to a situation of real or perceived danger. Strength or resistence to fear is a result of our conscious faculty, holding back our natural urge to give in to the fear, the power of the conscious mind to control our more immediate fight or flight responses.

Cowardice, in contrast, arises from the concepts of fear and capitulation. We feel fear, we are aware that we do not want to or should not give in to the fear, yet we give in to it anyway.

Going back to my working premise that maybe some in the administration don’t view the detainees as deserving of human rights. If this is correct, then to condone and enable torture of the detainees requires no courage on their part. But neither is it, in itself, cowardly. (Since they are not, in holding this stance, capiltulating to any fear; they feel no fear of the consequences of this approach.)

However, at the risk of extending my conjecture too far, the perspective I’m presuming exists in Cheney and others itself rests on cowardice. — Whenever we decide on a course of action and act, we risk error. If we don’t recognize the possibility for error, it is because we are afraid we will have to admit our failure. Refusing to admit failure, of course, is a hallmark of the current administration. This then, is cowardice at a deeper level.

To build this logic back up: The White House chooses to pursue a policy of severe interrogation that denies the detainees their human rights. The White House refuses to accept that this premise and the course of action being followed may be wrong. In refusing to accept that it may be wrong, the White House acts out of cowardice.

Others in the story betray a more simple and obvious form of cowardice: Gonzalez and Yoo, for instance, who defend the administration’s tactics for their own ends, to please their masters, or just so they don’t have to say ‘no.’