Archive for the ‘post modernism’ Category

Thin Gruel

January 23, 2012

Due to the inevitable definition diffusion words undergo as they pace through time as though a tireless miler, the word Agnostic has broken into four distinct meanings.

Nineteenth century author and literary critic Leslie Stephen wrote the sheepishly titled essay An Agnostic’s Apology. Primarily a defense of Thomas Huxley and Darwinism, the piece nonetheless hints, almost en passant, at formative attitudes toward the kissing-cousins; atheist and agnostic. Most useful, is a discussion about the almost forgotten Gnostics, almost forgotten due to the rather unfortunate pronunciation of the Gnostic negative (Ag-Nostic, instead of A-Gnostic). Lesile writes:

The Gnostic holds that our reason can, in some sense, transcend the narrow limits of experience. He holds that we can attain truths not capable of verification, and not needing verification, by actual experiment or observation. He holds, further, that a knowledge of those truths is essential to the highest interests of mankind, and enables us in some sort to solve the dark riddle of the universe. A complete solution, as everyone admits, is beyond our power. But some answer may be given to the doubts which harass and perplex us when we try to frame any adequate conception of the vast order of which we form an insignificant portion. We cannot say why this or that arrangement is what it is ; we can say, though obscurely, that some answer exists, and would be satisfactory, if we could only find it. Overpowered, as every honest and serious thinker is at times overpowered, by the sight of pain, folly, and helplessness, by the jarring discords which run through the vast harmony of the universe, we are yet enabled to hear at times a whisper that all is well, to trust to it as coming from the most authentic source, and to know that only the temporary bars of sense prevent us from recognising with certainty that the harmony beneath the discords is a reality and not a dream. This knowledge is embodied in the central dogma of theology. God is the name of the harmony ; and God is knowable.

Agnosticism, from the perspective of a 19th century theologian or philosopher, is simply the negative of the above. Note that the position of the Gnostic is not limited to the concluding sentence, but encapsulates a epistemological attitude unconcerned with the demands of hardened materialists (reread the first two sentences if that is not immediately clear).

Winding our clock forward to the 21 century we find agnostic limited strictly to the heavens, and easily married to all kinds of lazy buffoonery. This is a rather unfortunate fate for what might have otherwise been a perfectly serviceable word; a postion that one might be proud to carry a banner for. But now, dear reader, we have more confusion than clarity, exactly what do you mean by agnostic?

Intellectual Honesty

Many if not most basically secular people readily self identify as agnostics. It’s a position easily adopted and simply defended by the seemingly meek I do not know. Why this position is so appealing is obvious, for admitting to ignorance and the technical possibility of god allows one to secure an unassailable strong point of intellectual security. Yes, there is only one truly intellectually satisfying position one can take about God: I am not sure either way.

However, *thunderclap* if the above is all someone wishes to convey by their adherence to agnosticism, that there is a spectrum of belief ranging from dead certain there is (undoubting religious faith) to dead certain there isn’t (not merely atheism, but dogmatic atheism) and they fall almost all the way to the atheist side but not quite, then those people are being… very silly. You don’t need a word for the 99% agnostic, because there is already a word for that: atheist. Atheism is no more wholly dogmatic than, say, accepting free speech and yet recognizing that there might be circumstances where it should be curtailed. An atheist is unconvinced by arguments for god, and proceeds as if god does not exist. If you make your choices as if god does not exist, then you are an atheist. Get a life, and stop calling yourself an agnostic.

Unless, you are the the third and altogether more respectable type of agnostic. That is, someone who believes that the question itself, whether god exists or does not exist, is beyond our understanding. That the essential nature of all things is somehow unknowable, and that knowledge is limited to what we can gather by our senses (experience). This type of agnostic is more like the 19th century version, and has a position considerably more robust and interesting than the agnostic who merely wants to acknowledge the intellectual caveat of doubt. I disagree with this agnostic, in as much as I think the nature of god is a scientific question (either a loving god interested in the affairs of man created the universe… or it didn’t) but at least in this case we have a distinct postion on the nature of knowledge and metaphysics.

The fourth type of agnostic doesn’t know that they are really anything but. Again, this type of self identifying agnostic suffers from a position on god that doesn’t jive with their basic epistemology. Go back and read for (hopefully) the third time the opening sentences of Leslie Stephen’s thoughts on Gnostics. We all know people like that, perhaps you are one, dear reader. They/you think your mind capable of unlocking things you choose to call true about the nature of reality, without the need for a rigorous experiment or materialist foundation. That is all well and good, but if you also think the nature of god is unknowable by definition, then your viewpoint is no longer cogent. If you think it is possible to know the mind of god, and yet are unsure if it exists, then you… are a gnostic.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

NB: as I have written elsewhere and often, I am not overly concerned about the metamorphosis of word meanings, and nor am I all that interested in arguments that insist on trapping opponents in esoteric or academic definitions of words. However, the above is not an attempt to reclaim an older definition of agnostic as standard, but to illustrate that: the philosophical position advocated by many who call themselves agnostics, isn’t really much of a position at all, and not because it is wrong, but because it is thin.

Advertisements

The 99 Will Never Agree

October 21, 2011

The 99% is comprised of ninety nine 1%s

Excuse my being topical, but Occupy Wall Street (et. al.) has me struggling for a fingerhold. Most everyone in the variant circles I travel views the protest with kind eyes, and are sympathetic to the basic ethos of the crowd (believed to be a sincere desire for fiscal responsibility on the part of private sector, and by decree and law). Some specific demands are bubbling to the surface of the wave; the Robin Hood Tax being one example and welcome relief for those of us desperate for an opinion with which to grapple. But cynicism descends in a grey mist and I shudder at the inevitability of some journalist trotting out some tired but apposite idiom about herding cats. Yes, you and I can agree that laissez faire capitalism is dangerous, but can we agree on anything else?

I fear the struggle for a viewpoint, or the emergence of a leader, or the necessary pragmatism that amounts to distilling broad and sometimes disparate desires to a list of demands, will fracture the movement into the ineffectual bands they were before the protest began. Make no mistake, the typical OWSer does not exist. We have all stratums, and all kinds of leftists. We have the militant vegan sect mixing with those for whom animal rights only a minor issue. Humourless environmentalists are mixing with humourless feminists, liberal interventionists with relativists, secularists with religious appologists, and all with bents that place emphasis on certain issues. Hell, I am all for a heavily regulated economy, the bailout money returned, but I eat meat and think the Iraq war defensible. I don’t think corporate America is any way meaningfully responsible for Sept 11th, even indirectly. Can I walk arm and arm with my brothers and sisters because we both support regulation? Perhaps, but perhaps only for the time being.

Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth put together a pretty swell gallery of photographs  of the Occupy protests in NYC. Take this one:

The sign in the right rear reads “Private Ownership of Industry is Theft.” In other words, that fella is advocating communism. Are the other protestors communists? Dude on the left is an FDR fan. That is golden age American responsible government, but anything but communism. Buddy in the centre just wants a job, and wants the world to know it. I suppose that is an attempt at conveying willingness to work lest conservative America view the protest as little more than the poor hoping for a handout – a welfare state. Could those three guys agree on the best way for the movement to make progress? Does the guy in the middle care? How can a communist and a nostalgic capitalist with an Obama hate on agree on the specifics of the Robin Hood Tax?

The 99% is a fantasy.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

Atoms Go Dutch

September 21, 2011

Everyone is a philosopher.

Core beliefs, assumptions, convictions, dislikes, preferences, and guesses, when bundled together in a holistic faggot become a worldview. To varying complexity, people trot about their daily lives with a host of viewpoints, some consciously and painstakingly put together through years of toil, and others unconsciously, the product of chance but nonetheless subject to examination (if challenged). What is true, is that regardless of whether someone lives an examined life, or if the underpinning of their values is important to them, their values have foundations and are subject to both criticism and praise.

Recently, I encountered a sentiment I take issue with. Essentially, the notion that because some people do not reduce their viewpoints to a combination of facts and logic (philosophy, aka rational argument) then their point of view is somehow not subject to scrutiny. I find this notion both disturbing and more than little baffling. While there are some fundamental ideas I accept but cannot defend from first principles (e.g. why is it good to be nice? why should we value evidence and reason? how do we know rocks dont feel pain?) I can proceed to defend other ideas when making those assumptions. Given that anyone who isn’t either a sociopath or medieval accepts and values niceness and evidence, it is generally safe to proceed as if both my readers and opponents share those assumptions.

Though you’d never know it.

In my aforementioned encounter, a religious apologist friend had this to say

So someone down on their luck will meet a kind religious person (of any religion) and will pick up on their kindness and that will draw them to their religion, as opposed to being won over by a philosophical argument.

In short, not everyone is a philosopher and sees the world in philosophical/empirical terms ….

I agree completely with the above statement. I am sure that it is almost certainly true that in the vast number of cases new converts to a religion are not won via philosophical argument. I would also guess that a great number of people born into varying religions are also simply adopting what amounts to a cultural practice. What I cannot accept, dear reader, is the implication that such things are at all acceptable. That it is in anyway okay to support an organization absent of a reasonable inquiry.

Let’s start with an extreme example, if only to illustrate the point, and then move toward the middle lest we are accused of only cherry picking the worst. Cults.  From Moonies to Scientologists, and Jonestowners to Russian death cults, people down on their luck or desperate to incorporate some meaning into their lives, are Hoovered up by these sycophantic and sometimes lethal organizations. It is precisely because someone encounters such an organization without their rational lens in perfect working order that is the problem. David Koresh would get nowhere at a TED convention.

What about the Salvation Army? A rabidly Christian group that does a great deal to feed and clothe the destitute. They also (rather callously in my opinion) temporarily shut down operations in NYC when the city chose to offer marriage benefits to same sex partners. Now, we can debate the relative harm/good of the Salvation Army and come to a nuanced conclusion about whether people in good conscience can still support them. What we can’t do, is have such a discussion with someone who refuses (or is ill equipped) to engage in such a talk, and that is a problem.

Lastly, what I have no time for, is giving allowances to people who are mentally lazy, or stupid, or poorly read, or subject to a tyrannical culture, or otherwise incapable of fully examining a creed to which they claim to adhere but know little about. They deserve every chance of changing their lot, of developing a complex worldview full of greys, but do not deserve to have a naive and poorly voiced opinion given respect or weight.

No one would hire me to fly a plane, or build a bridge, or split an atom. Rightly so.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

Order Whatever You Like

May 9, 2011

Some subjects do not admit of expertise.

What constitutes a healthy diet changes every five minutes. To harvest the opinion of nutrition experts is to reap endless conflict and fickle revisions – if not complete reversals. Truly, the chasm that speaks to the breach between reasonably informed laymen and the devoted expert is a narrow one. Yes, the expert knows more, a great deal more, than the laymen. The expert may even possess greater insight into the relationship between food and health. Be that as it may, if the accuracy of predictions is the only meaningful way to assess whether someone possesses genuine expertise in a given subject (and it surely is) then the flakey nature of nutrition advice speaks to what can only be described as meaningless expertise.

Yes, we know to a moral certainty that minimum dietary requirements must be met to avoid death and disease, and over indulgence in some food groups will negatively effect both quality and span of life. But to read nutritional advice on, say, the value of anti-oxidants, the negative effects of vegetarian diets, the positive effects of vegetarian diets, red meat, pastas, breads, milk, the Atkins diet, etc and ad infinitum is to witness the entire spectrum of endorsement to condemnation. What is inescapable, is that a common sense approach to eating healthy has approximately the same chance of success as one carefully guided by any given expert. Yes, in principle some of the experts must be closer to the truth than some others, but which experts?

I can hear the cries now we have to eat, and we have to make decisions based on the available information – no matter how incomplete the data or flawed the analysis. It’s true, much like everything else in life when we don’t possess all the relevant information, we look to whatever appeals to our sense of reason, and make a choice – knowing full well that it might be wrong. However, if there is a point to be gleaned from the above, it’s that the label expert is inappropriate for a wide variety of subjects, and to call a nutritionist (et al) an expert on food in the same breath as a mathematician an expert on mathematics, is to render the term ‘expert’ useless. Again, if an expert is only an expert if they can predict the future based on what they have learned from the past, then food experts are not experts, but merely databanks prone to very shakey assertions.

The Hierarchy of Real Expertise

1.  Pure Logic/ Mathematics

2.  Evidentiary Coupled with Experimental Science (e.g. Physics)

3.  Applied Sciences (make a bridge that doesn’t collapse)

4.  Purely evidentiary studies (history minus analysis e.g.)

5. Economics/ Psychology/ Social Theory/ Anthropology/ Meteorology/ Politics/ Medicine

Some scientists, and their supporters, are routinely labelled arrogant. Arrogant for being so sure of their conclusions, and so dismissive of conclusions that contradict them. However, aside from the fact that to read a paper or book by a qualified scientist is to encounter great humility almost universally (humbleness in face of the facts being the primary requisite quality of any decent scientist) a scientist working in groups 1 through 4 is operating in spheres where conclusions can very often be drawn – where real answers are possible. That doesn’t make those disciplines more worthy of respect than others, but it does mean that conclusions drawn by scientists working in Groups 1-4 needn’t be treated with undo skepticism.

One last thought. Blanket distrust of expertise is likely borne of the conflation of Group 5 experts with the other four. Sure, there are problems with all five of them, from human error to corruption to laziness. But Group 5 change their minds every five minutes, so their thoughts and conclusions should be met with great caution and skepticism, and by default.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

Arguing on the Internet

April 14, 2011

Having a decent discussion on the internet is next to impossible.

Yesterday, I found myself embroiled in a debate with someone I didn’t know. I normally find the prospect of an argument rare treat, and was hoping for yet another vicious and mercilessness attack on my assumptions. Instead, while it was promising at first, it soon became wet bread.

Difficult talking points are difficult for being nuanced. Many facets must be weighed, discarded, accepted, and are ultimately built upon other facets and ad infinitum. It is no wonder that many a talk is derailed or bogged down for challenging not only the central points of one’s discussion partner, but the foundations of the foundations of the foundations of their assumptions. Not only must one follow the thread, but scrutinize each step, and each of those steps is a potential tangent. Soon enough, your friendly debate about whether Main Street needs a stop sign becomes one about the role of the super ego in 19th century power politics.

My discussion yesterday was about a video a friend posted. I took issue with the central message, and a friend of the poster supported it. It soon became clear that continuing the discussion was impossible for the foundations of his assumptions. Right or wrong, his worldview was so completely foreign to me that to continue debating the topic at hand would have been pointless. To trust I was being understood would only have been possible with a personal glossary, index, and footnotes. For me to understand him would have required drilling holes in my brain…

But some people are impossible to talk to, and they do it to themselves.

Arguing from personal experience, while not entirely inappropriate 100% of the time, is a conversation stopper. At worst, personal experience informs all kinds of crazy ideas – gambling assumptions being a classic example of how people come to conclusions about the world based on insufficient data “… I always seem to win on red.” However, even the seemingly more reasonable observations from personal experience “I got robbed while on vacation in Utah. Utah is a dangerous place” or “The policeman let me go with a warning. The police are nice” are incredibly difficult to cope with intelligently. The problem? Any argument from personal experience runs into a counter example from somebody else’s personal experience, and the discussion is rendered neuter.

If I could pick just one tactic to render verboten in any discussion about anything, it would be playing the unfalsifiable card. If someone makes a statement that cannot be argued with “I just know the Yankees will win tomorrow” they are off the island. However, examples of this sort of tactic abound. Yesterday, my antagonist said

“obama is a corporate shill, too, I figure…they all are at that level…this isn’t news to cynical ol’ me”

What he has done is express a very common sentiment that may be accurate, and then again, may also be totally unfair. I can’t prove him wrong, and he can’t prove he is right. Our lack of access to relevant  information to determine just how much The President is hobbled by corporate interests renders his claim unfalsifiable. Additionally, the way he has framed his sentiment “they all are at that level” is so monolithic and lacking in nuance that it might be dismissed for that reason alone. However, the real problem with what he is saying, is his lack of supporting evidence for his contention – evidence we know he cannot have short of him being a political or corporate insider. Again, I cannot prove he is wrong, but if we accept that the onus is always on the claim maker to demonstrate why he is right, and *not* on those who demand supporting evidence, then we are well on our way to having a reasonable discussion.

Shwew.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

The Wealth of Neurons

March 30, 2011

Your thoughts and feelings don’t count for anything.

As social creatures human beings are judged by their actions. The Christians disagree, for our thoughts can also be evil and God may judge us sinners for the crimes of our neurons. But, if you are like me you will agree that what transpires in our brains is our own business (so, not only is there no God, I am also relieved).

“You have heard that the law of Moses says, ‘Do not commit adultery.’  But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust in his eye has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 27-28

The distance afforded by social networking is fraught with benefits and danger. On the one hand, the lack of personal touch allows us to minimise the effects of the emotions of others, and to examine dispassionately whatever it might be they are saying. On the other, the lack of body language and other cues can on occasion make it difficult to pick up on jokes, sarcasm, or irony. Then again, it can also inhibit the genuine expression of thoughts for confusing them with said levity.

However, I am morally certain that in the wake of recent tragedy in Japan that the cries of support and venting of personal turmoil were entirely genuine. Sprinkled amidst the feed were also jokes about Mothra and the other ironic parallels playing out in the East Asian catastrophe. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether such jokes are born of cynical indifference, or are a just another means of coping with the horrors of the world.

But but but but… we are defined by our actions. All reasonable people agree. What wells up in me when I see “My heart goes out to the people of Japan” scrawling across my Twitter or Facebook, is not a sense of commiseration or feelings of human solidarity, but thoughts of “Oh yeah? What are you doing about it?”

I don’t mean to be cold or dismissive of people’s feelings. Life in so many respects is about feelings; emotional responses, coping, and revelling. Nor do I think that because someone is coping with a public tragedy with an expression of sorrow that they therefore must follow through with an action – that they have somehow taken on more responsibility than someone who is mute.

However, what does it mean to really care about something? If a mother claims to love her child and yet neglects and abuses the child, does the mother love the child? The mother might express extreme sorrow for having her child taken away, fight to the last to keep her child… but is that love or a response to maternal instincts? I say it isn’t love. We are defined by our actions.

So I am at a loss to reconcile the vast majority of the response to public tragedies with the words “I care.” Tragedy that is so far away as to be but mildly emotionally effective at first, and then an intellectual puzzle second and permanently.

I’ll end with this brilliant quote from Adam Smith:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

One Concession

March 28, 2011

The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. – John Gray

One way debates between the religious and atheists run aground is over the question of faith. A standard argument might go something like this:

Atheist: Having faith is a form of intellectual dishonesty. To claim you believe in something without evidence is to remove yourself from the discussion before it even begins.

Religious: Scientists have faith that the universe is intelligible. That the laws of physics held true since the beginning of time. That there is a connection between what our senses tell us and objective reality. All of that requires a leap of faith.

I was for a very long time satisfied with what amounted to a syntactical argument, i.e. to call religious assumptions about the nature of god faith in the same breath as scientific assumptions about an intelligible universe faith, is to reduce the word faith to no definition. That is, faith becomes a useless word.

But dude’s quote above has me re-evaluating my once staunchly held belief in the absence of faith in science. No Darwinian would dream of arguing that the human brain arrived at its current form due to an evolutionary process that selected for ‘maximum truth acquisition.‘ No, the Darwinian would insist that the human brain is the way it is because it defeated other types of brains in an evolutionary race, and the qualities that evolution selected for would be linked to truth accuracy only coincidentally at best.

Furthermore, whatever the universe is made of, it is not made of sights, sounds, smells, tactile sensations, and tastes. Those means (our senses) with which we interact with the universe exist only at the level of the brain, and any other type of information that might transmit to us requires a wholly different type of brain to receive. Therefore, the most generous we can possibly be about our knowledge of what can only be called objective reality, is that it is flawed due to fidelity of transmission. At worst, the universe is barely at all like we think it is, that our senses while giving us a practical means with which to interact, are grossly inaccurate.

So, there you have it, a leap of faith is required to believe that the universe is understandable by our prehistorically selected brain, and that even if our biological equipment is uniquely suited to exploring objective reality, it is an assumption to believe that the universe is understandable – that it is cogent, consistent, and always has and will be.

I’ll make that leap.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

Utopia in the Gunsights

March 21, 2011

If you can’t abandon your ideals the moment better ones come along, you’re insane.

There are three types of libertarian. The first, which I  call Double L Libertarians, or LLers, are both socially and economically libertarian. LLers believe that government involvement in the personal and business lives of the people should be kept to the barest possible minimum. Ayn Rand would be such a libertarian, a cops, courts, and the army, type.

The second kind I call Business Libertarians, or LBers. These libertarians desire an unfettered laissezfaire free for all economy. How a man makes his crust is nobody’s business, and if he is going to die in a gutter or in bed at home on giant pile of riches, is up to him. Life is dangerous and unfair. Tough. However, these same libertarians are socially conservative. They believe the government has a role in preserving traditional values and behavior.  Glen Beck and the Tea Party are LBers.

The third kind of libertarian I call Social Libertarians, or LSers. These libertarians believe government should play a large role in shaping the economic life of the people. They believe in a safety net for those who might fail in their endeavor to feed themselves, and that in no way does a business have “rights” in the same sense a person does.  However, the LSers are socially liberal. They believe the government has no place in the cultural discussion over traditions and values. If forced to choose, I would be an LSer.

What all three types of libertarian share is that individual liberty is paramount. However, the LBers and LSers believe that in some contexts more collectivist thinking results in the greater good.

Alright, now that the floorboards are nailed in tight, we can begin.

*

Ideology is an ugly word. The notion that a person should look to a code to define their actions strikes at our deepest integrity. For what do we have if not our capacity to think for ourselves? Are books of religion or philosophy there to think for us or to inform and facilitate? If one does not, in an instant, abandon a belief as soon as they can no longer reconcile it with new information, then one is deluded, and by definition. Nothing is so holy that it cannot be trashed.

In a debate between brands of libertarian, a simple yet salient point is often forgotten. The LBer will shout at the LSer “Businesses are made up of people, and people have rights.” To which the LSer will respond “But businesses are subsidized by the people. We train the workforce, build the infrastructure, and defend the business with the army, therefore, we have the right to stick our beak in.” Then the LBer might say “Yes, but businesses pay taxes too.” Then the LSer says “New businesses haven’t yet paid taxes, they couldn’t have gotten their start without the efforts of people. Why should I subsidize a new business if I don’t get a say in how it’s run?” And so on and so on.

The point they have forgotten, is that the goal of political discourse is not to defend a philosophical position… to put ‘individual rights’ on some sort of pedestal and thwart all attempts at tearing it down. The goals must be to inform the decision making process, to build a state that… what?

There’s the rub. We all recognize before a political discussion starts that for a political philosophy to count, it has to translate to policy. That, ultimately, pragmatism rules. However, pragmatism to what end? What imperfect but best real life scenario, independent of whatever philosophy informs it, is the goal?

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris argues that if someone thinks an action resulting in “the maximum possible misery for all sentient creatures” can be called moral, then “I don’t know what you mean by moral, and don’t think you do either.” If you agree with Harris, then it simply follows that morality is no longer solely in the domain of personal opinion. The natural inference, is that anything that maximizes happiness in sentient creatures, is moral.

Harris achieved a meaningful definition of morality, but what is lacking in the political philosophy discourse is a similar, ideologically independent, real world semi-ideal to strive for. Sure, a LLer can describe a Libertarian Utopia, where the rules are designed to keep rules to a minimum, but such a definition says nothing about human well being, happiness, prosperity, thriving etc. Can we borrow from Harris’ thoughts on morality and agree that any political ideal that results in negative well being, happiness, prosperity, and thriving, can and should be discarded? That to continue to believe in such an ideal is deluded?

Clearly, most LLers, LBers, and LSers, are not ravenous ideologues eager to stamp out any hint of contrary sentiments. I am sure the rank and file libertarian of any stripe is eager to maximize well being, happiness, prosperity, and thriving, and that they see their political ideals as just the way to do that. What I am unsure of, is if they are capable of being convinced of radically contrary fundamentals that might go against their core beliefs, no matter how compelling.

To end, ask yourself this question. Which is more dear: Free Speech, or the maximum possible human happiness? If it was demonstrable that in order to maximize human well being that it was necessary to introduce severe speech laws, would you vote in favour of such laws? If the answer is No, I think you are crazy.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

The Virus of Mediocrity

March 11, 2011

To comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable – Cesar A Cruz

There exists a conflict of idealized peaks in the world of art. Take a moment to chew on the following:

What you don’t read  (or watch, listen to, etc) matters as much as what you do read.

If you are like me, you think the above pretty much the case, that exposure to the lesser arts can only make you dumber, less interesting, corrupted, and soft. Many think that danger doesn’t exist, that one can move freely and without consequence between doses of  Goosebumps and Gore Vidal.

Imagine you are charged with picking one of two extremes for a high school student. In the first, the student is exposed to nothing but the lowest common denominator from the world of arts. Popular young adult situation comedies, top 40 radio hits, and mass market fiction. Their high school career spent ignorant of anything but what is easily digestible and then forgotten. In the other extreme is challenging literature, film, and music, all of which serve to enhance the students understanding and appreciation for the human experience. Your pick.

Now, those extremes are unrealistic and unfair, and it is obvious that one cannot spend 100% of their time in either the intellectually stimulating ivory tower, or caked in Pizza Pop residue and plopped in front of Melrose Place. However, if you accept that one extreme is preferable over the other (or even a more moderate version of the above scenario that nonetheless emphasizes one approach) then you must acknowledge that it matters what we watch/read/listen to.

However, the above is almost beside the point. The question at hand is whether anyone can be worse off for what art (or craft) they have been exposed to, not for what they have missed. Can the brilliantly erudite aficionado of the complete works of the artistic greats be somehow damaged for attending a Coldplay concert? I will argue he can.

Coldplay are catchy. They are also nauseatingly sentimental, two dimensional, obvious, uninspired, and totally lacking in anything  substantive. The fact that adults listen to this worthless and altogether trite dredge is a tragedy, but they are catchy. Catchy isn’t a problem, and nor is it easy. Many a band attempted little more than to compose a single head-bobber and failed. But Coldplay’s catchyness is the musical equivalent of thinly veiled propaganda serving as a vehicle for  shallow poetry and cynical contrivance.

But here I was not six months ago walking along and idly muttering a melody “Look at the stars, Look how they shine for you…” They got me. Stuck in my peon brain is this tired dreck. It took no conscious effort to summon the lyrics and melody – they are with me forever, potentially inserting themselves into whatever other endeavor I attempt, musical or no, and maybe even without my knowledge.

No artist exists in a vacuum is obvious to everyone. What might not be so obvious, is that maybe they should do their best to do just that.

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com

The White Sheep Moves First

February 21, 2011

Working from first principles is grossly inappropriate. Except when it isn’t.

There is barely, if any, distinction between mathematics and logic when one is asked to reason from a premise. If all sheep are white and you see a creature not white, it isn’t a sheep. The premise, all sheep are white, cannot be argued with or it isn’t a premise anymore. It may not be true that all sheep are white, but that is not a concern of formal logic.

Tic Tac Toe (noughts and crosses for the internationals) is both a game of perfect information and wholly solved. The game is so simple that poultry have been trained to play the game to the inevitable draw. Yet, sheer ignorance or dis attention, have resulted in the occasional loss of a game by normal functioning adults. Nonetheless, whether working from first principles or the rote calculation of variations, there is no ambiguity to be found in Tic Tac Toe.

In principle, Chess must be the same. A finite grid featuring the maneuvers of 32 units all of which act according to unchanging rules. No information is hidden from the participants, and no random factor is present. Chess, for all intents, is nothing more mysterious than Tic Tac Toe. The only substantive difference, is where Tic Tac Toe has answers in practice, Chess only has answers in principle, and there’s the rub.

A human being is incapable of memorizing the sum of all possible variations, and nor is it within the realm of feasibility for a human to calculate all possible variations from the starting position. What one is forced to do, is guess, for despite all relevant information being available in principle, it is denied in practice for the shortcomings of the human brain. You calculate precisely what can be calculated, apply the principles of good play when appropriate, and intuit the rest. What one cannot do, is work from first principles in any but the most trivial of positions. Forced moves leading to checkmate, captures and recaptures, checks, and the short term loss and acquisition of large amounts of material, are obvious and easy for being subject to first principle reasoning. The rest is what’s hard, and is hard for being very fuzzy.

Much like philosophy, Chess requires of the practitioner (if I may refer to someone who philosophizes as someone who practices philosophy) to simultaneously remain rigorously logical, think abstractly, and be very concentrated. Abstract to get your idea. Logic to examine the veracity of the idea. And concentrate to maintain the long line of steps necessary to apply the logic successfully – don’t lose the thread.

So, despite being routinely cast with algebra or calculus, computer programming, or bean counting, talent for Chess (if not Chess itself, for it is only Tic Tac Toe) is more in keeping with fuzzy reasoning – areas where logic plays an obvious role, but not all the important information is available. The stock market, political contests, and warfare, being obvious examples.

So, the ability to win chess games, and the ability to reason from a premise, may be related by coincidence, but are not manifestly so. In chess, you must always ask: “Yes, but are all sheep really white?”

Robin Lindsay

rockrobinoff[at]gmail.com


%d bloggers like this: