This is conceived as an informal and spontaneous annex to my more extensive blog, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon

19th April 2014

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A Return to the Marxian Paradigm

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In several posts over the years I have argued that history has not proved Marx “wrong” (nor has history proved Marx “right”) and that we cannot judge of Marx’s predictions until the world entire is industrialized and the condition of the proletariat is thereby made universal. I have tried to make these points in the following posts, inter alia:

Globalization and Marxism

The Continuing Relevance of Marx

Marxist Eschatology

Addendum on Marxist Eschatology

Of course, Marx himself wanted the revolution to come about in his lifetime, and the sooner the better. To read the works of Marx and Engels is to see them grasping at straws, so that any and every strike is heralded as the beginning of the revolution that is going to bring down capitalism.  No one every says that Marx died a broken and embittered man because he did not live to see the revolution he predicted; by all accounts, Marx remained a true believer to the end.

Lenin was an impatient revolutionary (even more impatient for the revolution than Marx and Engels) and wanted to foment revolution in Russia during his lifetime, so he formulated an interpretation of Marxism that served his purposes, calling Russia the “weakest link” of capitalism and thereby identifying it as the point where communist revolution would happen first. This was a convenient doctrine for Lenin, but as an interpretation of Marx it is rather weak. A Paleolithic revolutionary might have argued that those regions of the world in which hunting and gathering was still predominant constituted the weakest link of emergent agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and might consequently claim that the real agricultural revolution would happen here. This would not be very convincing.

Almost 150 years after the publication of Das Kapital, and after several nation-states attempted to put Marxist principles into practice and failed miserably to make it work, the intellectual legacy of Marx continues to be a source of conflict. There are those who uncritically dismiss Marx as irrelevant, and there are those who uncritically accept Marx, and find countless excuses and patches for his doctrines even where they have manifestly fallen short.

Five years ago when I started writing about Marx on my blog I had hopes that a more critical and objective assessment of Marx would become possible in the post-Cold War period, but I have since come to doubt this; the spectre of Marx still hangs over Europe and the world. (And I realize even as I write this present post that those few who bother to read it will almost certainly say that it is I who have gotten Marx completely wrong — as indeed a recent writer commented on Tumblr — either because I have been insufficiently critical or insufficiently appreciative.)

Despite the absence of a tradition of scholarship that would, in my view, take up what is essential in Marx’s work and re-formulate it within the theoretical context of contemporary economic theory, I think that it is still possible to shed contemporary light on Marx, and one way to do this is to consider core Marxian ideas in the light of the looming possibility of technological unemployment, which is much discussed today.

In recent discussions of technological unemployment (which I have discussed in many posts, including Automation and the Human Future, Addendum on Automation and the Human Future, and “…a temporary phase of maladjustment…”, inter alia) I have emphasized that, while employment opportunities are changing, we are not seeing a social response on the part of contemporary society to these changed conditions of unemployment. Our attitude to the unemployed is largely punitive rather than supportive. This seems to suggest that, as industrialized economies develop into their mature form, they create the “reserve army of the unemployed” that Marx predicted. This is an obvious interpretation of contemporary economics in Marxian terms. But it is not the only possibility for a Marxian interpretation. 

Often we hear that the solution to unemployment and underemployment is education, and as a consequence we have seen a boom in higher education and competition among prospective employees in the number and prestige of credentials that they can offer to potential employers. These prospective employees supposedly belong Richard Florida’s so-called “creative class,” who contribute to the “information economy.” 

But the information economy is as much in crisis as many traditional sectors of the economy. Everyone who (and every industry that) has hitherto made a living from the enforcement of intellectual property rights is today in crisis. The near impossibility of enforcing intellectual property rights given the ease with which creative work can be copied and redistributed means that new revenue streams must be found, or, if they are not found, some traditional businesses will simply disappear as their revenue stream dwindles to nothing. In the Information Age, information is too cheap to meter and those who would seek to make a living from information must recast themselves as impresarios of information rather than mere brokers of information.

Taking the considerations of technological unemployment together with Matthew B. Crawford’s recent book on Shop class as Soulcraft (which I discussed in Back to shop class! and Some Thoughts for Labor Day), which argues for a restoration of the trades as a viable way of life, not least because many of the trades will be not only difficult to outsource but also difficult to automate, we can imagine the unemployed becoming a jack of all trades and master of none, as in a labor market of chronic underemployment one moves from one trade to another in the attempt to maintain oneself above the most abject measure of poverty.

There is a famous and oft-quoted passage from Marx where Marx imagines the worker’s paradise of a communist society in dilettantish terms:

“…nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” (Karl Marx, The German Ideology, Part I: Feuerbach. Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook, A. Idealism and Materialism)

Perhaps not voluntarily, but purely in response to the need to make a living, we may mostly end up doing whatever we can, which may well eventually include the contemporary equivalents of hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and rearing cattle in the evening, saving criticism for after supper because no one (except celebrities who have hit the jackpot in a winner-take-all economy) can make a living from criticism.

The story of Marx is far from over, and the reckoning that Marx imagined as an historical necessity — the expropriation of the expropriators — if it must come about as a result of the total industrialization of the world, has not come about yet, and may not come about at all if our civilization expands beyond Earth before it reaches a point of total industrialization.

But even in this event Marx will have a future in outer space, as what is perennial in Marx’s thought will be extracted and reformulated in the context of changed conditions. To slavishly follow Marx’s own formulations of his ideas is as limiting as the claim that Marxism is a defunct idea with nothing to contribute to the future.

Tagged: MarxKarl MarxMarxismtechnological unemploymentThe German IdeologyDas Kapitalrevolution

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17th April 2014

Link with 3 notes

4 Reasons You Should Move To Vienna →

Of all the major European cities I have visited (and I have visited many of them) Vienna was among my least favorite, so it was with some interest that I noticed the above-linked article that talks up Vienna as a place to which one would want to pick up stakes and move.

The four criteria cited for making Vienna a desirable place to live are the following:

1. “Unlike the U.S., where public housing too often looks like a series of soulless fortresses, subsidized housing in Vienna is colorful, unique, and occasionally filled with amenities like rooftop pools and Finnish saunas. “

2. “In the early 1990s, Vienna instituted a policy called gender mainstreaming, aimed at providing equal access to city resources for both men and women, who don’t always use the city in the same way.”

3. “…the city uses information technology to improve the efficiency of city operations and the quality of life of its citizens.”

4. “Vienna’s car-free residential projects ask residents to commit to living without a car upon signing the rental agreement. Though the city still requires most developers to build a parking space for each residential unit, the car-free projects and developments like Bike City have managed to build without dedicated parking spots.”

All of these criteria are magnets for the urban design set, and don’t much bear upon the tourist’s impression of a city, and, of course, my impression of Vienna was a tourist’s impression. I have no idea what it is like to live in subsidized housing in Vienna, but if it includes rooftop pools and saunas, it must be very comfortable indeed. Somehow I suspect, though, that if you are newly moved to Vienna, you don’t get put directly into the subsidized housing with the rooftop pool.

One space in which the residential experience and the touristic experience of a city overlap is in the public spaces. If you have the good fortune to live in beautiful city with nice public spaces, well-maintained parks, and a pleasant layout, it is no burden at all to have a small personal living area, since much of one’s life can be lived in public spaces.

And there are many cities with ravishingly beautiful public spaces: the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, the Piazza San Marco in Venice, which has been called the “living room of Europe,”  Rio de Janeiro’s beaches, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and many others. If a city has a network of interconnecting public spaces of beauty and functionality — as one finds, for example, in Paris or Kyoto — and it is possible to find reasonably priced restaurants and coffee shops interspersed throughout these public spaces, this makes a city a pleasant retreat for resident and tourist alike. I personally did not experience anything like this in Vienna, but I have no doubt that others have found Vienna much more to their liking. 

Tagged: urbanismurban designVienna

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16th April 2014

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The Wrong Way to be Right

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Among the common presuppositions of a technological society is the prevalent idea that there is a right way that everything ought to be done. I hate this idea, and because I hate it, I notice it when it appears in its many different forms.

Now, when I say that I hate the idea that there is a right way for all things to be accomplished, I do not mean “right” in the way that C. S. Lewis meant “right” when he wrote in The Screwtape Letters:

"The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring twopence what other people say about it, is by that very fact fore-armed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the ‘best’ people, the ‘right’ food, the ‘important’ books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions."

Now, I share Lewis’ disdain for the “right” food or anything else that is “right” in this sense. But Lewis means by “right,” that which is socially acceptable and likely to reflect well on on the individual who avails himself of the “right” commodity in question

I don’t know if you get what I mean, as the kind of meaning I want to try to convey is a bit elusive and I can’t hit on a really clear definition, but I have so many times personally encountered the idea that there is a correct way for life to be lived, and, again, I don’t mean it in a moral sense, or even an aesthetic sense. I mean it in a technical sense. The idea I hate is that there is a technology of life, and it remains to us to find the correct algorithm for each and every circumstance and situation.

Those who know me often hear me say, “There is no right or wrong answer; there’s only what you end up doing.” In so saying I am merely channeling Sartre, who wrote in his "Existentialism is a Humanism":

"…to choose an adviser is nevertheless to commit oneself by that choice. If you are a Christian, you will say, consult a priest; but there are collaborationists, priests who are resisters and priests who wait for the tide to turn: which will you choose? Had this young man chosen a priest of the resistance, or one of the collaboration, he would have decided beforehand the kind of advice he was to receive. Similarly, in coming to me, he knew what advice I should give him, and I had but one reply to make. You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world." 

In saying, there’s only what you end up doing, I am saying, in effect, you are free, therefore choose.

What I have called the algorithmization of the world is a more general case of the algorithmization of the self implied by the quest to find the “correct” way to go about living.

The algorithmization of the self turns one into an automaton; the algorithmization of the world transforms the world entire into an automaton — and what is this but the clockwork universe of Newton and the mechanical philosophers?

Perhaps this is one of the sources of the belief in determinism that I have discussed in The Denial of Freewill as a Philosophical Problem. I don’t personally struggle with an existential dilemma of whether or not I have freedom, but I do struggle with why anyone would believe themselves not to be free against the evidence of their own experience. And because I cannot understand this, I come back to the problem time and again.

I can think of no more visceral intellectual experience than that of exercising one’s own freedom — as Kierkegaard wrote, following St. Paul, we realize our freedom in the dizziness that is dread, and make our choice in fear and trembling. A momentous decision does not remain confined to the strictly intellectual portions of our mind, but expresses itself corporeally, not least because we know that that decision has consequences. In other words, we know on an intuitive level that our choices shape the world and change the course of history.

When someone knows and feels their freedom so intimately, why should they be so ready to deny it? Why should they insist upon that denial and try to rationalize and to justify the self-abnegation of freedom?

Tagged: determinismfreewillfree willchoiceclockwork universealgorithmalgorithmizationmechanical philosophySartreJean-Paul SartreC. S. Lewis

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12th April 2014

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Cultural Foucauldianism

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"Cultural Foucauldianism" doesn’t have quite the caché of "cultural Marxism," but it describes a particular feature of contemporary history that is worth analyzing.

Cultural Marxism typically refers to the reconstruction or reinterpretation of cultural institutions along Marxist lines, specifically, according to the narrative of an oppressed group that attains consciousness of its repression (perhaps as the result of the agitation of a revolutionary cadre) and, following the raised class consciousness of the oppressed group in question, that group seeks a revolutionary overthrow of the institutions that have maintained the group in a position of social subjection.

Cultural Marxism is especially indebted to the work of Antonio Gramsci, who formulated the central ideas of cultural hegemony, which displaced Marxism (and the Marxist critique of bourgeois society) from the economic realm into the cultural realm.

Cultural Foucauldianism, constructed analogously to cultural Marxism (indeed, one could even say that cultural Foucauldianism is a construction of cultural Marxism), is a generalization and extrapolation of those features of Michel Foucault’s work that have been subsequently called anti-humanist

In a series of books on institutions characteristic of modern “enlightened” (and therefore humanistic) society, Foucault analyzed in detail the structures of power and social presuppositions embedded within mental institutions, prisons, medical clinics, and sexuality. Foucault insisted with a kind of counter-intuitive relentlessness that sociocultural practices that we have been conditioned to think of as being humane if not humanitarian are in fact oppressive, that is to say, that they are instruments of social control, in ways that we have long been accustomed to thinking of religion as a form of social control.

Cultural Foucauldianism takes this critique of the institutions characteristic of a humanistic society a step beyond those institutions constitutive of contemporary political society and democratizes the anti-humanist critique to all cultural and social practices, seeking to overturn our assumptions as to what constitutes a humane and enlightened society. 

The central and infinitely flexible argument is that, despite whatever you may have been taught, your attempts at kindness, caring, and the humane treatment of others have in fact been oppressive paternalistic impositions on the individuals and groups that they have been intended to help. Indeed, in contemporary social work “help” has become a four-letter word, unacceptably patronizing, and an endless variety of alternative formulations are employed to try to avoid the appearance that one is so arrogant to believe that one can “help” others. 

While this radical critique of humanism has sometimes brought a measure of good sense to over-protective institutions of our society, this reformist zeal usually exists in paradoxical symbiosis with a political program of increased state intervention that actively militates against the abolition of over-protective institutions.

Perhaps more damaging yet, the radical anti-humanistic critique can become a cover for bullies who employ the critique nihilistically to justify and rationalize their personal delight in cruelty. As I have observed previously, the last refuge of the disappointed idealist is sadism in the form of a vindictive idealism that revels in retribution. And what is more conducive to the disappointment of a young idealist than the pervasive compromises and corruption of our fallen world?

Aldous Huxley has been quoted as saying, “It is a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer by way of advice than ‘Try to be a little kinder’.” In so far as cultural Foucauldianism is used to justify unkindness in the name of higher moral ideals, it stands in contravention  to Huxley’s advice, but like any radical critique, what is done with it lies in the hands of its advocates.

Tagged: Michel Foucaultcultural MarxismAntonio GramsciFoucauldianismanti-humanismcrueltykindness

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11th April 2014

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A Schopenhauerian Fable

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There is an aphorism by Schopenhauer that, I think, has even wider application in our time than it did in Schopenhauer’s time. This is from the collection of Schopenhauer’s essays and aphorisms that has been reprinted many times as Studies in Pessimism, but which was originally part of Schopenhauer’s much larger Parerga and Paralipomena:

A mother gave her children Aesop’s fables to read, in the hope of educating and improving their minds; but they very soon brought the book back, and the eldest, wise beyond his years, delivered himself as follows: This is no book for us; it’s much too childish and stupid. You can’t make us believe that foxes and wolves and ravens are able to talk; we’ve got beyond stories of that kind! In these young hopefuls you have the enlightened Rationalists of the future.

True to Schopenhauer’s pessimism, he takes this idea as a dismal sign of what awaits us in the future, and as Schopenhauer was writing in the nineteenth century, it is at least arguable that Schopenhauer’s dark vision has come to pass. The wider implementation of procedural rationality that characterizes industrial-technological civilization is largely a product of the enlightened rationalists that Schopenhauer scorned, and this civilization often ignores the perennial lessons of Aesop’s fables.

And yet, stories of all kinds proliferate. What Schopenhauer observed of Aesop’s fables could just as well be said of science fiction, fantasy, computer games, comic books, and all media in which fantastic storytelling is the norm. We have never had more stories than we have today, and perhaps we understand them less than we realize. 

Story telling in its most fantastic forms, at its best, embodies a line from John of Byzantium that I have often quoted: that which never was but always is. In setting a story in the inaccessible past or the inaccessible future, or telling a story with animals (or aliens) as the protagonists, the storyteller gains a certain freedom that slavish adherence to fact cannot grant. And in this freedom lies the possibility of depicting human nature truer to life through fiction than through fact.

One should remind oneself, whenever one hears something dismissed as mere science fiction or fantasy, that the author has chosen a fantastic genre for a reason. Fantastic narratives consciously sacrifice realism in order to focus on ideas, so that one must look to the idea in order to understand the story.

The moral of the story is the idea it seeks to develop, and the ideas we find in fantastical narratives have a crucial role to play in industrial-technological civilization.

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Tagged: SchopenhauerArthur SchopenhauerAesopmythologyfablescience fictionfantasy

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3rd April 2014

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A Cairn of Stones

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When human beings want to leave a sign of their passing, they make a cairn of stones. It is, I think, a natural impulse, the basal instinct that is to be found at the origin of all building. One takes some elements of the landscape that are ready to hand (tool beings, as it were) and arranges them in a way reflective of human agency rather than of natural processes without purposes.

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If you extrapolate a cairn of stones, making it much larger, and transforming it into a communal undertaking, it becomes a pyramid. Enough stones stacked on top of each other take on the shape of a pyramid because of the angle of repose. Almost all early civilizations built monumental pyramidal structures — the Mayans in Central America, the Mississippi Valley mound-building culture in North America, the Egyptians, and the Mesopotamians, inter alia.

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David Christian, known for his work in Big History, has identified monumental architecture as one of the markers of civilization:

"Where monumental architecture appears, we can be certain that there exist powerful leaders or managers, for someone has to coordinate the labor of hundreds, even thousands, of people. In this way, secular and religious power often went hand in hand. Leaders hoped to inspire awe by building such structures—awe at the power of the gods, and also at the majesty of the priests and rulers who dealt directly with such powerful gods and who supervised the building of their residences. Monumental architecture is both a sign of power and an instrument of power." (Maps of Time, p. 261)

The pyramids of Egypt and Mesopotamia are monumental architecture if they are anything. Indeed, the pyramids survive today due to their monumentality even while the other six of the seven wonders of the ancient world have been lost to subsequent history. The oldest known pyramid in Egypt is the stepped pyramid of Saqqara, northwest of Memphis (also called the pyramid of Djoser). Built in the Third Dynasty of Egypt around 2650 BC, it is now a ruin, but when completed it was probably clad in polished stone.

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It has been observed that when Greek civilization was at its height (say, Periclean Athens) the Egyptian pyramids were as old to them as the classical Greeks are now old to us. That gives a kind of temporal perspective into human history that we don’t often have, not least because there aren’t a lot of civilizations as immediately recognizable to us as ancient Egypt and Periclean Athens. The Greeks, we know, had heard of the Egyptians, but had the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians heard of each other while each civilization was erecting monumental pyramids? The oldest ziggurat known (now in ruins) is at Tepe Sialk, close to what is now central Iran. This ziggurat at Tepe Sialk may date to 3,000 BC and therefore may be older than the Egyptian pyramids, which suggests the possibility of idea diffusion. But in which direction did the idea travel, if it did travel? Some ancient Sumerian might have traveled to Egypt and then back to Mesopotamia, told stories of the wonders they had seen, and the people at Ur (where the largest and best-preserved ziggurat is to be found) may have decided to imitate the Egyptians.Or vice versa.

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Later, when technology allowed for it, there were taller and more elaborate cairn-like structures, such as Trajan’s column and the Eiffel Tower. Engineering technologies made it possible to transcend the pyramid dictated by the angle of repose and to more directly implement the basal building instinct. The impulse to build monuments remains with us today in our skyscrapers, which vie with each other to reach greater heights in the way that medieval towns vied to build the tallest cathedral vaulting and spires.

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Tagged: monumental architecturepyramidDavid Christianbig historyzigguratcairn

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30th March 2014

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Metaphysical Biases

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Would it make any sense to identify a particular class of cognitive biases as metaphysical biases?

If we can identify metaphysical principles upon which we rely in our reasoning, principles derived neither from purely logical considerations or from empirical sources, and within these metaphysical principles we can identify a pattern of deviation in judgments involving metaphysical principles, then this would constitute metaphysical bias.

In my post on metaphysical fallacies I pointed out that metaphysical fallacies are perfectly parallel to logical fallacies, in so far as there are many systems of logic as there are many systems of metaphysics, but we don’t notice logical pluralism in the same way that we notice metaphysical pluralism because we rarely examine the principles of our reasoning in the way that we are forced to recognize principles that come into play in our ordinary engagement with the world.

In so far as a cognitive bias is a systematic (and systemic, for that matter) pattern of deviation from a logical or scientific principle (under which latter I include statistical principles), the principle is recognized as prescriptive, while cognitive bias recognizes the descriptive reality of attempting to reason in accord with logical and scientific principles. 

We can say the same thing about metaphysical reasoning with metaphysical principles: metaphysical bias is a systematic and systemic pattern of deviation from a metaphysical principle recognized as prescriptive, even if we find ourselves in our actual reasoning unable to follow is prescriptions.

Thus it is important to note that metaphysical bias is not the preference of one metaphysical principle over another, with these distinct metaphysical principles being recognized as prescriptive rules of reasoning in distinct metaphysical systems. One could easily make this mistake, and claim that metaphysical bias is the employment of a fallacious metaphysical principle.

Metaphysical bias sensu stricto would be a pattern of deviation from a principle recognized as a prescriptive rule of reasoning, while a descriptive account of our actual metaphysical reasoning reveals that out attempt to reason in accordance with a recognized metaphysical principle has fallen short of the ideal. In other words, one must acknowledge the legitimacy of the metaphysical principle (perhaps only implicitly, by way of tacit consent to a metaphysical Weltanschauung) in order to reveal one’s cognitive bias is failing to do justice to this principle. Thus rejecting a valid metaphysical principle in favor of a fallacious metaphysical principle isn’t the same thing as metaphysical bias; it is merely error or fallacy.

To conflate metaphysical bias and  metaphysical fallacy is like mistaking a hypocrite for a fool. Now, it may happen the a hypocrite may be a fool, and a fool may be a hypocrite, but one can be a fool without being a hypocrite, and vice versa. This metaphysical conflation is a metaphysical fallacy.   

If, for example, one claims to reason about the world in accordance with a naturalistic metaphysic, but a careful examination of one’s metaphysical reasoning reveals a pattern of deviation from naturalistic metaphysics, and this pattern can be identified, studied, and found in others, this is a metaphysical bias. If, on the other hand, one claims to reason about the world according to a naturalistic metaphysic but one explicitly employs non-naturalistic principles, then one is committing a metaphysical fallacy.

Tagged: cognitive biasmetaphysicsreasoningmethodmethodologyprinciplesmetaphysical biasmetaphysical fallacy

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28th March 2014

Link

Vladimir Putin: The rebuilding of ‘Soviet’ Russia →

This longer-than-average BBC article on Putin’s relationship to the idea of Soviet Russia is by Oliver Bullough, the author of Let Our Fame Be Great, about the peoples of the Caucasus, and The Last Man in Russia: The Struggle to Save a Dying Nation, which is kind of a declension narrative of post-Soviet Russia (like the ever-popular declension narratives predicting the decline of America).

The article includes this interesting quote from Vladimir Yakunin, a friend of Putin:

"Russia is not between Europe and Asia. Europe and Asia are to the left and right of Russia. We are not a bridge between them but a separate civilisational space, where Russia unites the civilisational communities of East and West,"

What is Russian civilization? Is it a borderland between East and West, or a bridge, or a unity of East and West? Well, I think Russia is much too large to be considered a borderland, but neither is it a bridge; one does not find either ideas or goods traveling through Russia between East and West. Russian civilization is something different from either a boundary or a bridge. If you want to call it a separate civilizational space, well, that is one way to formulate it.

What is Russian civilization? Russian radio astronomer Nikolai Kardashev was asked in an interview, “If you could have dinner with any 3 people, past or present, who would they be and why?" He responded, "These would be I.S. Shklovsky, S.B. Pikelner and A.D. Sakharov — I wish I could learn their opinion of the status of terrestrial civilization and especially the one in Russia." It seems that even Russians would like to know what to think of Russian civilization.

Although the author suggests that we should not be surprised at Putin’s move on Crimea, he also says, “Putin’s decision to invade Crimea was taken quickly and impulsively.” This is inaccurate. The decision needed to be taken quickly for obvious political reasons, but it is in perfect accord with Putin’s underlying principle of action, which I have called The Putin Doctrine. This was not an impulsive decision.

The remarks in the article about “restoring the Soviet system” are also highly misleading. While Putin’s lack of an ideology is something of a problem at a certain level of sociopolitical engagement, it is also an opportunity: Putin is in the position of picking and choosing eclectically from the Russian past, which means he is equally free to light candles at an Orthodox altar and to rehabilitate some Soviet-era symbols. This is not the same — not at all the same — as attempting to reconstruct the Soviet system.

Crucially, the Russians now, without needing to make an ideological accommodation with communism, can adopt purely pragmatic economic policies. Often Russian economic policies are not, in fact, pragmatic, but they are much more pragmatic than under the Soviet system. And this gives Putin’s Russia much more breathing space than the Soviet Union. 

Tagged: Oliver Bulloughvladimir putinSoviet UnionHomo sovieticusPutin DoctrineCrimeaKardashevNikolai S. KardashevRussian civilization

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27th March 2014

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Neglected Scientific Research Programs

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I wrote Hero’s Steam Engine and the Apollo Space Program partly as a response to a comment on my post about Kardashev, What Kardashev Really Said, to Centauri Dreams. I wanted to focus attention on the fact that a technology for which we possess proof of concept is not automatically adopted; the socioeconomic conditions must be conducive to the adoption of the invention.

In my post on Hero’s steam turbine (in which I also referenced Taqi al-Din’s turbine engine, which, like Hero’s, never found industrial application) I wrote the following:

No industrial revolution drove or was driven by the adoption of the steam turbine of Hero or Taqi al-Din’s turbine. The social context in which these inventions received their proof of concept was not conducive to large-scale industrial application of these machines, although surprising technological resources were available at the time.

The same is true, I have come to realize, of some ideas. An idea may be proposed, and yet languish in obscurity for years, decades, centuries, even millennia in some cases.

We all know that, in classical antiquity, Aristarchus proposed a heliocentric model of the solar system, and in fact in an early manuscript version of his treatise on heliocentric cosmology, Copernicus cited Aristarchus as an ancient authority.

The presocratic philosopher Democritus wrote:

"There is an infinite number of worlds of different sizes: some are larger than ours, some have no sun or moon, others have suns or moons that are bigger than ours. Some have many suns and moons. Worlds are spaced at differing distances from each other; in some parts of the universe there are more worlds, in other parts fewer. In some areas they are growing, in other parts, decreasing. They are destroyed by collision with one another. There are some worlds with no living creatures, plants, or moisture."

While Anaxagoras held that,

"The sun, the moon, and all the stars are burning stones which have been caught up by the revolution of the aither."

These are remarkable claims to have been made when most human beings assumed that the stars were gods.

My favorite example of a neglected idea is Benjamin Franklin’s unambiguous anticipation of plate tectonics and geomorphology in a letter to a friend:

"Such changes in the superficial parts of the globe seemed to me unlikely to happen, if the earth were solid to the centre. I therefore imagined, that the internal parts might be a fluid more dense, and of greater specific gravity than any of the solids we are acquainted with, which therefore might swim in or upon that fluid. Thus the surface of the globe would be a shell, capable of being broken and disordered by the violent movements of the fluid on which it rested." (letter of 22 September 1782 to Abbe Souliave)

It would be easy to dismiss Franklin’s speculation as a lucky guess, but if you read the whole of the letter, and other of Franklin’s observations about geological features it is clear that he had intuitively hit upon the basic idea we have of the Earth today, and for the right reasons. But Franklin was a busy man, and he didn’t have time to follow up on all his ideas.

Ideas that languished in obscurity while scientists focused on ideas that we now view as ridiculous (like neptunism and plutonism) we now appreciate in hindsight and wonder why contemporaries failed to appreciate these insights.

It would be relatively easy and obvious to give a Kuhnian account of the scientific revolution that replaced a static and unchanging Earth with a dynamic and living planet, and this account would not necessarily be wrong, but I think we get a better picture if we follow Imre Lakatos rather than Thomas Kuhn.

What distinguishes once-neglected ideas is that they never became the focus of a scientific research program. Imre Lakatos in particular is known for his work on scientific research programs and their role in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.

To give a sense of Lakatos’ approach from Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes, here is Lakatos on Newton’s physics as a scientific research program:

"The classical example of a successful research programme is Newton’s gravitational theory: possibly the most successful research programme ever. When it was first produced, it was submerged in an ocean of ‘anomalies’ (or, if you wish, ‘counterexamples’), and opposed by the observational theories supporting these anomalies. But Newtonians turned, with brilliant tenacity and ingenuity, one counter-instance after another into corroborating instances, primarily by overthrowing the original observational theories in the light of which this ‘contrary evidence’ was established. In the process they themselves produced new counter-examples which they again resolved. They ‘turned each new difficulty into a new victory of their programme’."

A scientific research program is a consciously rational undertaking, and we can understand how and why one research program supplants another. The research programs of neptunism and plutonism pursued by gentlemen amateur geologists in an age when science was the child of privilege ultimately turned out to be sterile, and a new research program came out of the works of Hutton and Lyell, but Franklin was not a part of this. 

The practical equivalent of a scientific research program is an industrial-technological program. If an idea is part of an industrial-technological program it will be taken up and developed in the context of the contemporary socioeconomic system; an idea that comes from outside the established industrial-technological program will have difficulty getting traction, but if the mainstream ideas are tapped out or prove sterile, eventually those looking to carry the industrial-technological program into the future will have to look further afield. 

Tagged: Imre Lakatosscientific research programmethodologyDemocritusAnaxagorasBenjamin Franklinplate tectonics

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27th March 2014

Link

UN News - Backing Ukraine’s territorial integrity, UN Assembly declares Crimea referendum invalid →

The UN has voted on a resolution and has decided by a majority vote that the majority vote in the Crimea has no standing. I suppose that if you were to hold a majority vote in the Crimea of whether the majority vote in the UN had any standing, that there would not be much sympathy for the UN’s disenfranchisement of the peoples of the Crimea, notwithstanding its conformity with the highest standards of procedural rationality.

You can read the official statement from the UN in English, Territorial integrity of Ukraine. There is nothing in the document about a mob throwing the legally elected president of Ukraine out of office, but there is Kafka-esque language about, “Prevention of armed conflict: strengthening the role of mediation in the peaceful settlement of disputes, conflict prevention and resolution.”

I know I am in the minority on this one, but I cannot strongly enough stress the importance of the principle at stake: the international community talks a good game of democracy, popular sovereignty, and self-determination, but when it comes down to it, they are only willing to tolerate democracy when it gives the result that the powers that be desire.

A few years ago the Palestinians had an election, and when the Palestinian people elected Hamas as their representatives, the international community did everything in its power (and is still doing everything in its power) to de-legitimize that election and its result. The Palestinians were disenfranchised then as the Russian Crimeans are being disenfranchised now. Who will be next? 

There is a pattern revealed in these shenanigans, and that pattern is not a democratic one. Territorial integrity, the particular point at issue in this UN vote, is no more respected than is democracy. The powers that be will respect territorial integrity when it is convenient for them, or when it suits their purposes, but the moment it becomes inconvenient or no longer serves their purposes, they will pass another resolution formulated in the most dignified and diplomatic language that violates territorial integrity. 

Tagged: UkrainedemocracyCrimeaUnited Nationsterritorial integritypopular sovereigntyself-determinationWilsonianism

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