Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Ron Paul R[love]ution

Since I spend so much time bashing libertarians I thought for balance I should link to this well-written and convincing post by Charles Davis on the reasons why progressives should prefer Ron Paul to Barack Obama. Excerpt:
[Obama has] pushed for the largest military budget in world history, given trillions of dollars to Wall Street in bailouts and near-zero interest loans from the Federal Reserve, protected oil companies like BP from legal liability for environmental damages they cause – from poisoning the Gulf to climate change – and mandated that all Americans purchase the U.S. health insurance industry's product. You might argue Paul's a corporatist, but there's no denying Obama's one.

And at least Paul would – and this is important, I think – stop killing poor foreigners with cluster bombs and Predator drones. Unlike the Nobel Peace Prize winner-in-chief, Paul would also bring the troops home from not just Afghanistan and Iraq, but Europe, Korea and Okinawa. ...

Even on on the most pressing domestic issues of the day, Paul strikes me as a hell of a lot more progressive than Obama. Look at the war on drugs: Obama has continued the same failed prohibitionist policies as his predecessors, maintaining a status quo that has placed 2.3 million – or one in 100 – Americans behind bars, the vast majority African-American and Hispanic. Paul, on the other hand, has called for ending the drug war and said he would pardon non-violent offenders, which would be the single greatest reform a president could make in the domestic sphere, equivalent in magnitude to ending Jim Crow.
To put it my own way: I'd say I agree with maybe 30-40% of Ron Paul's principles, and strongly disagree with the rest. But the point is, unlike every other current Presidential condidate, he actually has some. That in itself is enormously appealing. It also pretty much guarantees he won't be elected, unless something awfully drastic happens to change the way electoral politics works.

[This previous post is pretty anti-Paul, but also expressed a similar fondness.]

Counting the Omer: Compassion

In the typically vague and half-assed way I approach such things, I am engaging in a Jewish ritual I never did before (and actually never even heard of before) -- counting the Omer, which is a way of marking the period between Passover and Shavuout. There's a tradition of linking each week with one of the lower sephirot of the Kabbalah, and so I decided to try to produce a blog post for each week.

This week is Chesed, which means roughly compassion or lovingkindess. That's a subject which comes up here fairly regularly. I see it as an idea that just seems central to a lot of things I care about, from politics to the psychology of mind to Latourian notions of agency.

Here's what I wrote about on Christmas a few years back:
I'm rather trying to appreciate the shared feelings, longings, motivations, needs, whatever, that are common to both religions [Buddhism and Christianity] and perhaps all religion. The belief in a better way of being; the universal truths that bind all humans together; the thread of compassion that links humans and the divine. The longing for a savior. The role of religion as a focus for these otherwise inchoate feelings.

I'm no good at all at this kind of stuff, but what the hell, it's Xmas. So I'm taking a moment to dwell in these feelings before returning to the usual rounds of sectarian hatred. I'm by nature a negative person, an againstist, I'm with Heraclitus that conflict is the father of all things. But I'm tired of it, I want and need to get more peace love and understanding into my personal mix. Hence this slow, reluctant, erratic, but seemingly inevitable slide into religion. Most of my being resists it, truth to tell. But I have to assume that I'm just as human as the rest of the billions of people that exist now and in the past, and religion is just something humans do, as much a part of the game as eating, shitting, making love and dieing.
The political spectrum today seems to split along a line that divides the party of compassion from the party of its opposite, whatever that is -- authority, mercilessness, shrinking the circle of caring rather than expanding it. While I prefer compassion to its enemies I don't think I can wholly identify with either side, because compassion by itself can't manage a world and can't be a foundation for politics and generally is associated with a lack of rigorous thinking that bugs the hell out of me. Compassion must be tempered.

But the modern conservative movement is not about tempering compassion, it's about furiously denying it. Some branches do this through racism and xenophobia, dividing the world into an us and them, so we don't have to care about them. Another branch does it through a radical individualism as preached by the sociopathic prophetess of the satanic inversion of compassion, Ayn Rand.

But I have some compassion even for the compassionless, because I know they aren't monsters despite their monstrous ideologies. I imagine at the root they are driven by essentially the same forces that drive me. What leads one to anti-compassion, to the constriction of caring? Perhaps it's the seemingly limitless needs of the world. If you truly felt compassion for all the suffering in the world, you'd be overwhelmed, and useless. And once you start caring about your neighbors, where will it end? Better not to start. But to not care for others is to not be human. I think that part of the appeal of right-wing ideologies is that they promise to get the follower out from under this impossible dilemma. But it's a false promise, and the increasingly deranged shrieking of right-wing politics is just an effort to drown out the voice of conscience.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Philosophy of Conspiracy

Philosopher fight! So Barbara Forrest published an article in a special issue on evolution of the journal Synthese where she said nasty things about Francis Beckwith, a rightist creationist/ID supporter. The journal editors, apparently under pressure from the ID crowed, inserted a disclaimer, and this has caused a minor outrage in the philosoblogosphere, with calls to boycott the journal, everyone in high dudgeon.

My first-order reaction: get over yourselves. This is a perfect example of academics getting their panties in a twist over the exceedingly trivial (in this case, the propriety of the disclaimer). Second-order: the underlying dispute (theism v. atheism) is really, really boring, but even so, there must be better ways to argue about it than to take offense at editor's notes.

But in poking around in this mess, I noticed something more interesting -- one of the guest editors of the journal issue is James Fetzer, whose name I was vaguely familiar with from the old days because he worked in philiosphy of AI for awhile. But now he seems to have become a full-blown conspiracy theorist, in the most literal sense -- he's published an academic paper on it (Reasoning about Assassinations), which looked interesting at first glance. The issue of how one properly evaluates evidence in such cases is pretty interesting from an epistemological viewpoint, especially to someone like me who likes to dabble with fringe beliefs without losing my mind over them.

But on second glance it looks like he's just become sucked into a rather standard hole, and is now an unquestioning supporter of various Kennedy assassination theories, 9/11 conspiracies, climate change denialism and the like, as well as even kookier-sounding ones like a conspiracy by Johnson & Johnson to murder someone over a dental floss-related invention. He's founded a site called Assassination Science, which might qualify for my Academic Units with Amusing Names series, although it doesn't look recognized by any institution, or likely to be. The paper above doesn't seem like it's meta to conspiratorial thinking as its name suggested; it's just an example of it.

But the really interesting thing is that the initial offense of the original paper was exactly the sort of conspiracy-flavored thinking that Fetzer seems to be promoting, although in a much milder form. Here's an extract:
In addition to the ideological congruences between Dembski'™s views and those of declared dominionists, there are more direct connections between ID and CR [Christian Reconstructionism --mt]. The CSC has received major funding from Howard Ahmanson, a former board member of the Reconstructionist Chalcedon Foundation... In 1999, speaking at Christian Reconstructionist D. James Kennedy's "Reclaiming America for Christ" conference, Phillip Johnson urged attendees to reclaim the intellectual world "œwhile we're recapturing America ... Kennedy, a staunch ID supporter, produced a 2006 anti-evolution documentary featuring CSC fellows Michael Behe, Richard Weikart, and Jonathan Wells as experts. CSC fellow Charles Thaxton was among the "conference faculty" at a May 2006 CR conference held by American Vision (AV), one of the most extreme CR groups. Journalist John Sugg describes AV leaders Gary North and Herbert Titus:  œTheir imposition of a theocratic state would not, by their standards, be tyranny. Public schools to them are tyrannical. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) labels AV a hate group because of its virulent anti-gay attitudes. Similarly, Beckwith is listed among the conference faculty of Summit Ministries, which SPLC reports "œgraduates more than 1,300 students a year--”all steeped in "¦Christian dominionism and anti-gay politics" ... [references omitted --mt]
Now, I don't see anything particularly wrong with this. Weaving strong networks of ideas, people, and evidence while attacking your opponent's corresponding networks is just how argumentation works. But it does seem to stray a bit from the academic norm into something more journalistic, polemical, personal, and mildly conspiratorial. Doesn't bother me but I can see how it might bother someone with more devotion to the academic ideal. I've argued before that ad hominem is a perfectly valid form of reasoning, or at least close to one. Apparently Charles Taylor and Paul Feyerabend have also defended ad hominem in their own ways, so I'm not alone in this. The passage above is not even all that ad hominem, although that seems to be the basis for why it has offended its target.

Oh well I'm rambling. The interesting thing here I think is the paper Fetzer didn't write, on how to think productively about conspiracies and conflict, how to account for the reliability or bias of sources, how to do ad hominem right. How do we factor in to our world models the revelations of Climategate or Wikileaks, or the fact that intellectuals we might admire or not are bankrolled by the Koch brothers? How do you think about the hugely important role of networks of power and influence without becoming a kook? These are actually useful, indeed crucial questions that professional epistemologists ought to be applying themselves to.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


[updated below][and again]

Since it was a nice day to go to the park, I dropped in on the annual Anarchist Bookfair, feeling even more out of place than ever now that I am charging my time to government research contracts (previous visits described here and here). "Anarchist" ought to indicate a state of mind, a constant rebelligon against any kind of fixed, stagnant order whatsoever, including political labels. The first duty of an anarchist should be to violate whatever expectations are raised by the term "anarchist". Instead, it seems to be yet another counter-cultural tribe, people seeking an identity as radicals or punks or something, and devoted not to changing the world but supporting a bohemian lifestyle.

Alright, that is not really fair to the fair. One of the panelists, Cindy Milstein, who spoke on "horizontalism" (good new word), seemed like a normal person, and thus serious. And there are a good number of people involved in radical labor unionism and seemed like genuine working class types. And many of the people there are actual activists, who are trying to do their best to fix the world. That's better than my complaining (and jeeze, I'm noticing how many posts I make involve me encountering some vaguely promising group, meeting, movement, or book, and then kvetching about how it doesn't meet my expectations exactly. That must get tedious for the reader).

All this opposition to "capitalism" seems misguided. Capitalism has its flaws but it's not an institution, it's a fucking force of nature. Or rather, it's a set of social practices that harnesses a fundamental force of nature (self-interest, aka greed) in ways that are astonishingly powerful for both good and ill, and ultimately promise to end in civilizational self-destruction. Tackling it head-on as an enemy seems like a stupid move, and fits in with my image above of these anarchists as more about attitude than actual change.

I suppose that it's due to a generally technophobic atmosphere (somewhat refreshing actually compared to the normal Bay Area vibe) that I heard nothing there of the most successful subversion of capitalism in our time -- the free software movement. They successfully created an entirely new mode of production, one in which the work product is not owned but freely available to all. And this new mode of production is not confined to some obscure vegan food co-op but has produced the software that powers the communication infrastructure of the entire planet (Linux, Apache, and much else), not to mention one of the most visited and useful sites on the Internet (Wikipedia). No capital, no capitalists, no ownership, no cash nexus. That seems more radical than anything I saw at the fair.

[update: you know, the above is entirely too negative, based largely on me being uncomfortable in a crowd of bohos. But I'm uncomfortable in any kind of crowd whatsoever, so discount all that. On looking over some of the literature I took home, particularly the catalog from PM Press, one of the more solid-seeming institutions that were displaying there, I'm actually quite glad that this subculture exists and is active and self-sustaining and keeping certain parts of the human spirit alive. If it's often self-indulgent and more interested in itself than the world, well, what group isn't?

But I'm keeping the title since Google says it's an original coinage and I kinda like it.]

[update again: on looking over some videos from radical speakers, I've decided it's something like a church -- people don't listen to these guys for information or for critical analysis, they listen to have their faith renewed. The faith is that we are in the grip of the devil (capitalism) but a savior will appear any day now (in the form of working class solidarity) and bring about heaven (a classless society). I'm hardly the first person to make that kind of observation, but it suddenly clicked just now. Like many other forms of spiritual fervor, I feel somewhat drawn in but my resistance to being swept up is much stronger. And it makes me feel somewhat jerkish for criticizing it, since people's spirituality is their own business.]

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Morlocks & Eloi

I spent a good chunk of Friday involved with two Latour-ian events -- one, where I was presenting a slice of my paper (with a hefty Latour section) to a seminar at work, to a bunch of straight techie types who were not very sympathetic, and two, where I went as a spectator to an event devoted to "speculative realism" and "object-oriented ontology" at the California Institute for Integral Studies. I felt roughly equally out-of-place at both -- well, no, not really, I am far closer to the hardnosed engineers at work than I am to the ethereal scholars of "philosophy, cosmology, and consciousness".

During the talks, I had to suppress my internal voice saying this was all nonsense, and appreciate that these people, like me, are just trying to frame an understanding of the world in which they find themselves, and if it suits them to do it through reference to dead Germans (Schelling) and live Frenchmen and Buddhism and Wordsworth and I don't know what all -- then it deserves to be appreciated for what it is.

But for a great deal of the program I could not for the life of my figure out what the fuck they were going on about, all this stuff about noumenon and phenomenon and withdrawal and primary vs secondary sense data and apodicity and on and on. I have spent some of my energy critiquing cognitive science and mechanistic theories of mind, but that's because I have internalized their ideas, which are built on science. These people seem to have not a clue or the slightest interest in, say, what's known about the physiology and computational structure of vision that could contribute to an understanding of what goes on when we perceive something, preferring instead to natter on about what Schelling thought about what Kant thought about what Plato thought "red" meant. Not only are they uninformed by science or mathematics, indeed, they seem to be deliberately avoiding it.

Another hint of what might separate me from these beautiful souls -- I sensed that all this philosophizing was based around a hidden assumption that the universe revolved around humanity and the human mind -- hence the attraction of idealist philosophy. The appeal of speculative realism, in fact, is that it starts to hint that the universe may just not be all about us. That's a good trend in philosophy, but my starting assumptions -- based on personality and training -- are quite the opposite, I'm perfectly comfortable with the idea that the universe is a soulless and uncaring machine that happens to have accidentally coughed up some self-regarding chunks of protoplasm out on the edge of an obscure solar system. Not these scholars of consciousness -- for them, the mind is more primal than anything else and the problem is reconciling the rest of the world with it. Hence the whole program seemed devoted to simply teetering on the brink of allowing that objects might have a reality in their own right, separate from the mind. Well, duh.

These humanists are no doubt nicer, better adjusted, perhaps saner people than me. Mechanism has some serious flaws; the image of the universe as a mindless machine is not really all that attractive or life-supporting, which is why I seem to be constantly looking for ways to modify or enhance it. The intent of the philosophies on display last night is to try to bridge the gap between mind and world, ideal and real. I want to do that too, these people are just coming at it from the opposite side.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Loci of Knowledge

While rummaging around through all of human knowledge for shiny bits that I could stick into the paper (now submitted, yay), I came across lots of interesting material that just wouldn't fit, and occasionally things that were gateways into whole subfields of learning I had no idea existed. here's one such out-take: The Knowledge-Based View, Nested Heterogeneity, and New Value Creation: Philosophical Considerations on the Locus of Knowledge, by Teppo Felin and William S. Hesterly, Academy of Management Review 2007, Vol. 32, No. 1, 195-218.

The major point of this article is somewhat "reactionary", in that it's a reaction against a trend in management and sociology to think about organizational learning, cultures of learning, and things like that. Apparently that's gone too far, and the authors are reasserting the more common-sense view that it is people that know things, not groups. Well, I can easily imagine an intellectual trend overreaching itself, but since I'm not a sociologist or (god help me) a professor of management, I still find the idea of social learning much more interesting. I tend to like things that challenge or modify the standard model of individuality.

The authors acknowledge that they are running heading into some pretty deep and fundamental issues:
Our analysis has limitations of course. First, in many ways, we have raised some age-old philosophical questions regarding the fundamental origins of knowledge, which have yet to be completely resolved. ... future empirical work sorting out individual and collective effects remains to be done.
I'm not sure what empirical work they have in mind, since there's the fundamental problem that individuals are never encountered outside of a social grouping (and even if they are lone inventors in a basement, they bring along the social basis of their training with them). They cite all sorts of stuff, including Chomsky's battle with Skinner over innate vs environmental factors of intelligence, which seems to be confusing a separate hard question -- the innateness (or not) of language doesn't really say much about where knowledge about, say, drug design lives (they use the biopharma industry for some example)

The topic of this paper strikes me as a very interesting issue (that is, the relation between individuals and their groupings and how knowledge is managed at the various levels) but a very dumb question (that is, are individuals or collectives the chief locus of knowledge?). This kind of either/or thinking drives me crazy. Obviously everything interesting in knowing involves both social and individual factors. They even have a picture:

Obviously, the right model is to have the arrows running in both directions. So I wonder why this simple, obvious truth is not mentioned? I often have this reaction to academic papers, and sometimes I wonder if they create these battles of oppositions because they truly believe it has to be one or the other; or instead they do it because conflict gets dialog going, it gives you an excuse to publish a whole series of papers arguing over big-endian vs. little-endian egg-cracking, you get invited to panels. I've noticed the same phenomenon in pop-technology books, which all seem to be marketed either as tech-is-the-greatest-thing-evar or omg-tech-is-slowly-sapping-our-humanity. One might hope that academics would be better, but I suspect that the dynamic that makes such conflicts profitable is a universal.