The latest collection of recent essays and stories from around the web that have caught my eye and are worth plucking out to be re-read.
When truth becomes a commodity
Daniel T Rogers, Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 January 2017
The reorganization of society and the social imagination along market lines, which has accelerated so rapidly, reaches a kind of culmination. But in this reconstitution of truths as market commodities, the invisible hand working to sort things out is nowhere to be found. There is no dialogue. There is no discourse. There is no weighing of competing hypotheses. Truths slide past one another without contact points, headed for their designated purchasers.
The very idea of politics as an act of deliberation, by which people with inevitably different desires and starting positions must work something out, must find their way to a destination that none may have imagined before, is devalued in the process. We click on truths. In the process we instantiate the figure who now commands so much of the imagination of the contemporary social sciences: the choosing self. But where truths are utterly free to be individually chosen, where the processes of inquiry are marginalized, the social disintegrates. So does truth.
The rise and fall of European meritocracy
Ivan Krastev, New York Times, 17 January 2017
Unsurprisingly then, it is loyalty – namely the unconditional loyalty to ethnic, religious or social groups – that is at the heart of the appeal of Europe’s new populism. Populists promise people not to judge them based solely on their merits. They promise solidarity but not necessarily justice.
Unlike a century ago, today’s popular leaders aren’t interested in nationalizing industries. Instead, they promise to nationalize the elites. They do not promise to save the people but to stay with them. They promise to re-establish the national and ideological constraints that were removed by globalization. In short, what populists promise their voters is not competence but intimacy. They promise to re-establish the bond between the elites and the people. And many in Europe today find this promise appealing
The dangerous ideal of mental health
Simon Keller, Summer Newsroom, 13 January 2017
No matter how it is understood, a positive conception of mental health always expresses a moral or political ideal, entailing a view about how humans should live and how we should relate to each other. People of different ideologies, religions, and cultures will naturally disagree about what true mental health looks like.
But that is not how the positive conception of mental health is usually presented. The positive conception of mental health is dangerous, because it takes the concept of health, which we usually treat as objective and scientific, and applies it to the questions of how we should think and how we should live. It hides moral and political ideals beneath a veneer of medical inevitability.
The scourge of self-flagellating politics
Angela Nagle, Current Affairs, 19 January 2017
Watching the suicidal levels of secularized self-flagellation in the aftermath of Trump made me recall the famous scene in the movie Malcolm X, in which a young white woman momentarily blocks Malcolm X’s path and asks what she, as a white person, can do to help his cause. He answers with one coldly served word – ‘Nothing.’ The scene was based on a real encounter he had with a ‘little blonde co-ed’ after which he wrote, ‘I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke to before more affected than this little white girl… Her clothes, her carriage, her accent all showed Deep South breeding and money.’
‘Nothing’ could certainly be a succinct one-word summation of what exactly anyone seems to be benefiting from much of the contemporary online performance of self-criticism. But then, Malcolm X went on to regret being contemptuous of the white girl depicted in the scene. Years later, it affected him quite profoundly, and he said:
Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument… I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.
The politics Trump makes
Corey Robbins, n+1, 11 January 2017
The interregnum between Trump’s election and his inauguration has occasioned a fever dream of authoritarianism – a procession of nightmares from faraway lands and distant times, from Hitler and Mussolini to Putin and Erdogan. But what if Trump’s antecedents are more prosaic, the historical analogies nearer to hand? What if the best clues to the Trump presidency are to be found in that most un-Trump-like of figures: Jimmy Carter?
The differences between Carter and Trump are many and obvious: Carter shyly confessed to having ‘committed adultery in my heart’; Trump brags about grabbing pussy. Carter was a moralist and a technocrat; Trump, an immoralist and a demagogue. Carter was a state senator and a governor; Trump has no political experience. Carter wouldn’t hurt a fly (or a rabbit). Trump takes pleasure in humiliating others, particularly women and people of color.
The parallels between Carter and Trump are also many, if less obvious. Like Carter, Trump ran hard against his party, decrying its most basic orthodoxies on trade, immigration, and entitlements. Throughout the campaign, Trump proudly and repeatedly declared his refusal to cut Social Security and Medicare. Like no other Republican in modern memory, Trump railed against the plutocratic union of money and state power.
How Albert Woodfox survived solitary
Rachel Aviv, New Yorker, 16 January 2017
He was extradited to New Orleans and placed on the Panther Tier at the Orleans Parish Prison. Eighteen members of the Black Panther Party, waiting to be tried for shoot-outs with the police, held classes on politics, economics, sociology, and the history of slavery. Steel plates had been affixed to their windows so that they couldn’t communicate with prisoners on other tiers. Malik Rahim, the defense minister of the New Orleans chapter of the Party, told me, ‘They thought they were separating us, but everywhere we went that infectious disease called organizing was taking hold.’ They ripped apart Frantz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ and divided it into sections, so that each inmate could study a chapter and teach the others what he’d learned.
Formed a year after the assassination of Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party was disillusioned by the incremental approach of the civil-rights movement. Huey Newton, the Party’s co-founder, said that black people were tired of singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ He said, ‘The only way you’re going to overcome is to apply righteous power.’ The Panthers saw a direct link between the country’s armed interventions abroad—in Vietnam, Latin America, and Africa—and what Eldridge Cleaver, a Party leader, called the ‘bondage of the Negro at home.’ Black people, he said, lived in a ‘colony in the mother country,’ shunted into inferior housing, jobs, and schools. The Panthers followed the police, whom they saw as occupying troops, through the ghetto. If an officer questioned a black person, the Panthers got out of their car and monitored the encounter, drawing loaded guns.
Life-and-death thought experiments are correctly unsolvable
Julian Baggini, Aeon, 17 January 2017
In one way, we value life above all else, and, in another, there are things that matter even more than life. Life is, in a sense, of supreme value because without life there can be no value at all. That’s why, if we are asked to make choices in which there is more or less life as a result, it seems wrong to choose less.
But what is it that makes life valuable? Not, it would seem, life itself. Most people think that there is no reason to prefer a permanent vegetative state to death. In many ways, the former is worse because it prolongs the agony for loved ones and takes resources away from others in need. Furthermore, despite some radical vegans’ claims to the contrary, most of us find it absurd to value the life of a hamster the same as that of a human.
If life has value, it is surely because of what life makes possible: love, aesthetic experience, great moments, creativity, laughter. But even these things are not judged to be unqualified goods. The context in which they appear matters too. The love between two psychopaths, egging each other to horrendous crimes, might seem good to them but is an abhorrent perversion to others. Nor do we value the laughter of tormentors or the building of great monuments with slave labour.
The specter of democracy
Abi Wilkinson, Jacobin, 11 January 2017
For people like this, it’s been hard to understand the increasing rejection of the political and economic consensus as anything other than an outbreak of irrationality and self-sabotage. While there may be room to fine tune, why would anyone want to tear down or significantly alter something as good as what we’ve got?
If politics is about nothing more than the effective administration of the current system – if it’s about nothing more than putting one’s faith in an able pilot – experience and technical expertise are the primary requirements. Ideological differences are immaterial, conflicting interests obsolete.
Elite liberals grew so confident that their ‘pilot’ conception of politics had triumphed that when fury erupted from the outside, many were apoplectic, having forgotten that their views were even open to contest. For years they’d felt little need to police the boundaries of respectable discourse, because the only viable political options were reasonably close to the existing center and decidedly hostile to any program of radical change.
Losing their minds
Andrew Scull, TLS, 4 January 2017
Following his usual procedure, Scoville cut into Henry’s skull, exposing portions of his brain to view. His target on this occasion, however, lay further back, behind the frontal lobes that he usually targeted for his lobotomies. The electroencephalograph had failed to reveal any epileptic focus. Now, using a flat brain spatula, Scoville pushed aside the frontal lobes, exposing deeper structures in the temporal lobe: the amygdala, the uncus, the entorhinal cortex, searching for any obvious defects or atrophied tissue. At this point, a cautious surgeon would have cut the surgery short, since there was no obvious lesion to justify further intervention. Scoville was not such a person. In his own words, ‘I prefer action to thought, which is why I am a surgeon. I like to see results’. Results he obtained, if not perhaps the ones his patient was hoping for. Using a suction catheter, Scoville proceeded to destroy all three regions of the temporal lobe bilaterally.
Patient HM, as he became known in the trade, suffered absolutely devastating losses. Though his intellect remained intact, he had in those few minutes lost all but the very shortest of short-term memory. Henceforth, as Scoville noted, he was left essentially helpless and hopeless, with ‘very grave’ memory loss ‘so severe as to prevent the patient from remembering the location of the rooms in which he lives, the names of his close associates, or even the way to the toilet or the urinal’. And, of course, much else besides: those words constituted, as Dittrich puts it, ‘the birth announcement of patient HM. It was also the obituary of Henry Molaison’.
Where life is seized
Adam Shatz, London Review of Books, 19 January 2017
Fanon was not a pacifist, but the emphasis on his belief in violence – or ‘terrorism’, as his adversaries would say – has obscured the radical humanism that lies at the heart of his work. In her 1970 study, On Violence, addressed in part to Fanon’s student admirers, Hannah Arendt pointed out that both his followers and his detractors seemed to have read only the first chapter – also entitled ‘On Violence’ – of The Wretched of the Earth. There Fanon described how violence could serve as a ‘cleansing force’ for the colonised, liberating them not only from their colonial masters, but from their inferiority complex…
Violence was never Fanon’s remedy for the Third World; it was a rite of passage for colonised communities and individuals who had become mentally ill, in his view, as a result of the settler-colonial project, itself saturated with violence and racism. Like Walter Benjamin, Fanon believed that for the oppressed, the ‘”state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule’, and that his revolutionary duty was to help ‘bring about a real state of emergency’. Fanon’s clinical work was the practice that underpinned his political thought. He was only slightly exaggerating when he estimated that there were ‘more than ten million men to treat’ in Algeria. For Fanon, colonialism was a perversity. The coloniser and the colonised were locked together – and constructed – by a fatal dialectic. There could be no reciprocity, only war between the two, until the latter achieved freedom.
Poker is the latest game to fold against Artificial Intelligence
Will Knight, MIT Technology Review, 11 January 2017
Poker is more complex than many other games that have pitted humans against AI. And tellingly, it contains levels of uncertainty, such as when an opponent may be bluffing, that are found in many real-world situations that AI has not yet mastered. Poker players cannot see their opponents’ hands, meaning that, in contrast to checkers, chess, or Go, not all of the information contained within the game is available to them. Researchers from DeepMind, a UK-based subsidiary of Alphabet, made headlines last year after creating a program capable of beating one of the world’s best Go players.
Heads-up no-limit Texas Hold’em is a version of the game played between two people who can bet as many of the chips as they possess. This variant for a long time proved too difficult for machines to play expertly. There are 10160 (10 followed by 160 zeros) possible paths of play for each hand in heads-up no-limit Texas Hold’em.
The captive aliens who remain our shame
Annette Gordon Reed, New York Review of Books, 19 January 2017
Parkinson does not discount slavery’s importance to shaping attitudes about African-Americans. Nor does he deny that the early American republic saw the rise of open calls for a ‘white man’s government’ and the formalized policy of Indian Removal. But he goes back to 1775, when the American Revolution turned into the Revolutionary War, to locate the origins of racial exclusion in the society that would become the United States of America. It was during these days, Parkinson says, that patriot leaders made a fateful choice. They embarked upon a specific and concerted plan to place blacks and Native Americans—no matter what their condition, whether they believed in the patriots’ ideals or not—firmly outside the boundaries of America’s experiment with democratic republicanism.
‘Men like Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Washington,’ Parkinson writes, ‘developed a myth about who was and was not a part of the Revolutionary movement; about who had an interest and who did not.’ Other esteemed advocates of the Revolution, such as Thomas Paine and the Marquis de Lafayette, joined the effort. According to Parkinson, these men chose to prosecute the American war for independence in a way that put race at the heart of the matter. They used – actually helped foment – racial prejudice as the principal means of creating unity across the thirteen colonies in order to prepare Americans to do battle with Great Britain. The base sentiments they promoted for ‘political expediency’ survived the fighting, and the ‘narrative’ that dismissed blacks and Native peoples as alien to America – and conflated ‘white’ and ‘citizen’ – ’lived at the heart of the republic it helped create for decades to come.’ It kept both groups from ‘inclusion as Americans.’
Terry Eagleton, Commonweal, 11 January 2017
Wittgenstein’s philosophy is really a form of iconoclasm. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche declares the overthrow of idols to be a vital part of his task. A hammer, he believes, is among the philosopher’s most precious tools. True to this spirit, Wittgenstein remarks that ‘All that philosophy can do is destroy idols.’ It must free up human thought by dispelling certain reified conceptions that have gained a lethal grip over us. ‘Philosophers’, he complains, ‘as it were freeze language and make it rigid.’ Wittgenstein’s skepticism of theory is not simply old-style mandarin prejudice, though it is that as well. It is bound up with his materialism. A good deal of our knowledge is carnal knowledge, grounded in our bodily responses. When Wittgenstein writes in the Investigations of how we obey rules ‘blindly,’ he is not out to foster a craven subservience to authority but, once again, to anchor thought in the body. To cross the road the moment the little green figure begins to flash is a sign of the fact that our relationship to the world is not primarily a theoretical one. We follow the signal blindly, which is not to say irrationally. Obeying it so unthinkingly is part of the way we have internalized the shared conventions that govern our form of life, converting them into bodily disposition. We do not need to ‘interpret’ the sign.
Turing tests, Chinese rooms, Sherlock Holmes,
Wittgensteinian vagueness and Descartes
Hanoch Ben-Yami & Richard Marshall, 3am Magazine,
22 January 2017
Brain research can make no contribution to traditional philosophical questions. These are conceptual, not empirical, and therefore no empirical discovery can shed light on the issues they involve. But even more specific, non-conceptual questions that can be asked by neuroscientists sometimes involve problematic conceptual assumptions which might undermine them. I think the search for a brain correlate of voluntary action is one such case. An action is voluntary if you can do it or refrain from doing it upon request, or more generally, when given a good reason for it. This applies to actions of very different kinds: attentively reading a book; stirring a pot; chatting with someone; whistling a tune absentmindedly; sitting without doing anything. And involuntary actions are similarly heterogeneous: sneezing; breathing (which you can stop for a while, but not simply stop); laughing from a joke (you can stifle your laugh, but not stop it altogether); acting in a fit of rage. There is no reason to expect that all the former have something neurological in common that all the latter lack. What makes an action voluntary or otherwise is counterfactual, and not anything in their actual mechanisms. For such reasons I think the contributions of neuroscience, despite its otherwise immense value, are of little philosophical relevance.
Sylvia Jonas, Aeon, 17 January 2017
It turns out that we know many things without being able to express them, and there is nothing mysterious about that at all. I know how to play the violin, but my explanations about how to hold the instrument and move the bow would not be enough to impart this knowledge to you. You would have to acquire ‘knowledge-how’ to play a violin yourself, through practice. Similarly, I could try to explain the colour red to you, in terms of the latest scientific theories about wave-lengths, retina receptors and human colour-perception. But no matter how comprehensive my description, phenomenal knowledge can’t be passed on through language.
Similarly, an amnesiac might know all the facts about, and properties of, a man called Rudolf (where he was born, what he looks like, whom he is married to, and what his favourite ice-cream flavour is) without knowing that he himself is Rudolf. The piece of knowledge that would enable Rudolf to ascribe those properties to himself, and to recognise the facts about Rudolf as facts about himself, cannot be rendered in language – at least, not in language that is free of expressions that index facts to a particular person or spatiotemporal location, such as ‘I’, ‘you’, or ‘here’. No description of himself, no matter how detailed or complete, would convey to him the indexical knowledge that he is Rudolf.
There are forms of knowledge, then, that cannot be expressed in language. Unlike ineffable objects, truths and contents, ineffable knowledge is neither incoherent nor untenable for any other reason. In fact, it’s vital for day-to-day life. Knowledge-how enables us to act, indexical knowledge to recognise ourselves, and phenomenal knowledge to understand the world with our senses.
How to be civil in an uncivil world
James Ryerson, New York Times, 11 January 2017
Given how nasty and intractable the conflicts in our society can be, Bybee argues, it is naïve to imagine we can somehow transcend our clashing sets of values and miraculously agree on what counts as acceptable behavior and tolerable opinion. After all, if we could find common ground on something as fundamental as that, we wouldn’t have the sort of nasty and intractable conflicts we call on civility to manage in the first place. For better or worse, we must accept that civility ‘does not exist outside of politics as an independent force,’ Bybee writes, but rather is just as much the ‘subject of political struggle’ as everything else.
This solution has a paradoxical cast. The whole point of civility, you might think, is to have a consensus, not on any particular issue of debate, but on the manners that govern disagreement. For Bybee, though, that is a misguided belief. Ultimately, civility is about establishing the rules of ‘social belonging’: Whose views and interests merit consideration? That is a quintessentially contestable question. Bybee himself favors ‘more inclusive and egalitarian’ conceptions of civility. But there are also hierarchical conceptions that require a social pecking order, like that of Warren Farrell’s men’s rights movement. For Bybee, that broader notions of respect aren’t universal is less a sign of civility’s weakness than a reminder that there is political work to be done.
Psychology’s favourite tool for measuring racism isn’t up to the job?
Jesse Singal, New York Magazine, 11 January 2017
Given all this excitement, it might feel safe to assume that the IAT really does measure people’s propensity to commit real-world acts of implicit bias against marginalized groups, and that it does so in a dependable, clearly understood way. After all, the test is hosted by Harvard, endorsed and frequently written about by some of the top social psychologists and science journalists in the country, and is currently seen by many as the most sophisticated way to talk about the complicated, fraught subject of race in America.
Unfortunately, none of that is true. A pile of scholarly work, some of it published in top psychology journals and most of it ignored by the media, suggests that the IAT falls far short of the quality-control standards normally expected of psychological instruments. The IAT, this research suggests, is a noisy, unreliable measure that correlates far too weakly with any real-world outcomes to be used to predict individuals’ behavior — even the test’s creators have now admitted as such. The history of the test suggests it was released to the public and excitedly publicized long before it had been fully validated in the rigorous, careful way normally demanded by the field of psychology. In fact, there’s a case to be made that Harvard shouldn’t be administering the test in its current form, in light of its shortcomings and its potential to mislead people about their own biases. There’s also a case to be made that the IAT went viral not for solid scientific reasons, but simply because it tells us such a simple, pat story about how racism works and can be fixed: that deep down, we’re all a little – or a lot – racist, and that if we measure and study this individual-level racism enough, progress toward equality will ensue.
Philosophy vs ethics
Max Hayward, TLS, 11 January 2017
‘What can philosophy contribute to ethics?’, asks James Griffin in a challenge to some of the deepest assumptions of contemporary philosophy. The very question might come as a shock to those used to thinking of ethics simply as a subfield of philosophy. But Griffin reminds us that ethics – conceived of as thinking how we should live – is ‘something that appears early in the life of a culture’, and does not wait on philosophers to provide it with foundations and the trappings of a theoretical science. Griffin argues that this obsession with contorting the messy expanse of ethical life into a neat theoretical mould distorts our understanding.
Philosophers have tried to reduce all of ethics to a small number of simple rules or principles, but they have missed the fact that the vital constraints on ethics are practical, not theoretical. Ethics cannot be blind to the limits of our capacities – not just what we can physically achieve, but also what we can calculate, and what we can be motivated to do. Neat, abstract theories like Utilitarianism, which tells us to maximize the well-being of all people, demand calculations of future consequences of actions that we cannot perform, and a degree of impartiality in our motivations we do not have, and indeed could not have, without losing the attachments and commitments that make our lives worthwhile.
The trouble with quantum mechanics
Steven Weinberg, New York Review of Books, 19 January 2017
The instrumentalist approach is a descendant of the Copenhagen interpretation, but instead of imagining a boundary beyond which reality is not described by quantum mechanics, it rejects quantum mechanics altogether as a description of reality. There is still a wave function, but it is not real like a particle or a field. Instead it is merely an instrument that provides predictions of the probabilities of various outcomes when measurements are made.
It seems to me that the trouble with this approach is not only that it gives up on an ancient aim of science: to say what is really going on out there. It is a surrender of a particularly unfortunate kind. In the instrumentalist approach, we have to assume, as fundamental laws of nature, the rules (such as the Born rule I mentioned earlier) for using the wave function to calculate the probabilities of various results when humans make measurements. Thus humans are brought into the laws of nature at the most fundamental level. According to Eugene Wigner, a pioneer of quantum mechanics, ‘it was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.’ Thus the instrumentalist approach turns its back on a vision that became possible after Darwin, of a world governed by impersonal physical laws that control human behavior along with everything else.
America, you look like an Arab country right now
Karl Sharro, Politico, 22 January 2017
During the campaign we were surprised to learn of the influence that the head of the American mukhabarat (state security, i.e. your FBI) can wield over the election process, simply by choosing to pursue a certain line of investigation. As you may know, this has been a constant feature of our politics since independence. Our surprise turned to astonishment when we started to witness the blossoming feud between the then-president-elect and the American mukhabarat, another important feature of Arab politics.
On top of that, we started to hear reports of foreign meddling in your elections, which some say may have influenced the result. Of course, we are quite familiar with that situation, too, not least because of the efforts of your own administrations over the decades. Yet it came as a surprise to hear talk of ‘foreign hands’ and ‘secret agendas’ in a country like America. We sympathize.