Monday, 22 July 2019

The Octave Illusion

Posted by Thomas Scarborough*

440Hz and 880Hz alternating R and L

The Octave Illusion was discovered by Diana Deutsch in 1973. It produced two alternating tones, one octave apart, in each ear. However, when the tone in one ear went ‘high’, the tone in the other ear went ‘low’, and vice versa. (Click the arrow to play.)

The tones used here are A4 (440 Hz) and A5 (880 Hz) - in this case reproduced with the precision of the modern computer. The effect is the same whether this is played through headphones or loudspeakers -- and interestingly, does not change when the headphones or loudspeakers are swapped around.

It is a simple auditory illusion, yet most powerful. Instead of hearing two alternating tones in each ear - as one should - most people hear alternating tones bouncing from ear to ear. It seems that the brain has therefore removed two tones, one from each ear. That is, the tones are replaced with silences.

There is copious literature on what this might mean, and what might cause the effect - yet the general agreement is that there is no simple explanation.

It might not seem at first that an auditory illusion has anything to do with philosophy. However, what we have in this particular case is auditory ‘objects’ -- a range of auditory ‘things’ which include bangs, ringtones, meows, and so on -- which belong to the much larger set of ‘objects’ in general.

To this day, then, we search for ways to decide what is or is not illusory ...
space, time, numbers

identity, free will

things, events, properties

society, language


matter, force, energy

causes, physical laws...

... and even God.
Thus, illusions such as that above -- of which we all now are aware -- have a lot to do with the way we perceive our world.  It has not always been so. There once was a time - or so it is thought - where we perceived everything as real. Today, to borrow the words of the British philosophy professor Simon Blackburn, we have left this far behind: ‘Everything you can think of has at some time or another been declared to be a fiction by philosophers.’

It falls under the subject of ontology - and it all started, according to the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, Thomas Reid, when we separated objects from ideas. The Octave Illusion is just one of many evidences that our experience is not the same as the ideas we have about it. Our brains have already interpreted it for us.

* The author once designed a simple electronic unit to produce this effect. This is still obtainable from the publisher at

Monday, 15 July 2019

Is Beyoncé really an Existentialist?

Glamorous, yes. But is this what an Existentialist couple looks like?
Posted by Martin Cohen

There are many who claim to be existentialists, but few of them seem to be following the same path. Perhaps that is because existentialism is supposed to be all about individualism. Here is one such recruit to the philosophy - Beyoncé - of whom we are assured ‘writing existential songs that move millions is kind of her thing’. Her performance of her song ‘I Was Here’ at the United Nations World Humanitarian Day in 2012 was epic.
‘The song is so powerful, so true. It is existentialism in it’s purest form: I was here. “I want to leave my footprints on the sand of time/ Know there was something that, something that I left behind/ When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets/Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget.”’
So writes Kari. Who is: a ‘vegan, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, yogi-mama that also loves to binge watch Netflix whilst eating an entire bag of potato chips’. So she ought to know!

But is it really existentialism as philosophers see it? Indeed the word has often been misused, but hen it is a term poorly defined even by the great existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre. Instead, we are left to guess at its , ahem, ‘essence’.
‘I was here, I lived, I loved, I was here. I did, I’ve done, everything that I wanted.’
Beyoncé Knowles is in many ways a remarkable figure. Born on September 4, 1981, in Houston, Texas, to parents one of whom worked as a hairstylist and the other was.. a manager in the record industry. The advice and skills of the two were both doubtless of later use. She somehow managed to become one of music’s top-selling artists with a net worth of around $300 million, only slightly shadowed by the assets of her partner, the rapper, Jay Z, who wears his cap back-to-front and T-shirts with slogans like ‘Blame Society’ and is is sitting on a pile of $500 million. Is there not something inauthentic, even contradictory about that? Maybe, but then… ‘Blame society’.

As a young girl, Beyoncé won a school singing competition with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. But it’s not what Lennon probably imagined as the good life, even if it is highly idiosyncratic. To be fair, she does do some ‘good works’, with charities including Chime for Change, Girl Up, Elevate Network, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Girls Inc. of Greater Houston, and I Was Here cited in her publicity. Beyoncé also joined former Destiny’s Child bandmate, Kelly Rowland, to create the Survivor Foundation, which provides relief to victims of natural disasters. This is all very fine  - but it is not the stuff of existentialism, which is at heart a selfish doctrine born of elitism.

But back to the main question: is Beyoncé really an existentialist? And I don't think so… After all, whatever else he may or may not have been saying, Sartre openly derides those who act out roles: the bourgeoisie with their comfortable sense of ‘duty’, homosexuals who pretend to be heterosexuals, peeping Toms who get caught in the act of spying and - most famously of all - waiters who rush about. All of these, he says are slaves to other people's perceptions - to ‘the Other’. They are exhibiting mauvaise foi - bad faith.

This is a common flaw, and as the psychologists say, in choosing this fault to condemn in others, Sartre tells us a little about himself too. But isn’t it a popstar who dresses a certain way, adopts a certain hairstyle, away of speaking, of walking, that Sartre should really mock for their pretending and posturing to the audiecne and promising to be something that they are not really…?

Surely Beyoncé should find another label than that of ‘existentialist’ to attach to herself.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Altruism: Is It Real?

Painting by Jacques-Louis David (1781) depicting ‘Belisarius Begging for Alms’

Posted by Keith Tidman

A car is turned over, set ablaze. A passerby spots the driver still trapped inside. The driver has little time left, soon to be engulfed by the flames. The passerby sprints, from amidst onlookers, to the fiery wreck, managing to pull the driver out to safety but at his own grave peril. The ‘good Samaritan’ waits for the first responders to arrive, while comforting the semiconscious driver, and then leaves without giving his name or waiting for a thank-you.

Were the actions of the passerby those of altruism? Most people would immediately answer that question affirmatively. After all, the passerby selflessly put himself at risk, to aid a stranger. He seemed to disregard his own welfare. There was no expectation of reward or adulation or reciprocity. And he could just as readily have stood impassively watching or gone on his way to office or home, as everyone else was doing. Still, might the passerby’s self-interested motivation and intent have been as simple and basic as feeling good about having performed the deed? Or might the passerby’s actions have been prompted irresistibly by instinct, based on his brain’s physiology? Or is yet another explanation plausible?

Some people deny that altruism exists at all. Altruism is impossible, they say. They contend that all actions are taken solely to satisfy some selfish need or urge, and that the fact such actions might benefit someone else is incidental — or at least self-serving. The philosopher Ayn Rand starkly warned against what she saw, in fact, as the purported deceit of altruism: ‘If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that people have to reject’.

One name for such beliefs is ‘psychological egoism’: the view that deep down, people are always motivated by what they perceive to be in their own self-interest. That is, voluntarily helping others is only a subsidiary consequence of actions taken, where assistance rendered is impelled singularly by wanting to benefit ourselves. We relish feeling the glow of doing good. This overriding self-interest remains valid even when the actions taken might be accompanied by detriment to the doer, divorced from the urge to ‘help’. In short, no acts, it is thought, are designed solely to benefit someone else. There’s always the sense of gratification for having helped. It’s an unflattering explanation of human nature and behaviour.

Against this, other people subscribe to so-called ‘pure’ or ‘strong’ altruism’. This is a model of behaviour where acts of altruism are wholly selfless, undertaken uniquely to benefit someone else. There is no expectation of either an intrinsic or extrinsic reward, or of personal gratification. That is, every ‘good deed’ — including those where there’s a noble sacrifice (possibly even injury or death to the doer) — is unswervingly motivated by the desire to be of service to others. Martin Luther King’s words capture these sentiments, when he talks of the choice between ‘walking in the light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness’. A recent real-life example of self-sacrificial altruism was of a university professor who, losing his life in the process, blocked the door to his classroom in order to shield his students from the bullets of a rampaging shooter.

However, one characterisation of selflessness centers on utilitarian ideas about individuals deferring dispassionately to bettering the welfare of others, in the process, resisting their own self-interested wants and urgings. The definition of ‘others’ in this case may range from a single individual to family members, friends, associates, or larger community (the collective), importantly including people we don’t know and never will. It’s a more logic-based approach to supporting others’ wellbeing. Another approach centers on sympathy and kindheartedness, correlated to an intense response to the suffering and misfortune of others. Although there may always be the prospect of self-gain, here aiding others is based more in sentiment than reason, and hinges on the specialness of human connections. The 18th-century English philosopher Joseph Butler nicely parses this point about the balance between self-gain and selflessness, observing that: 
‘The satisfaction that accompanies good acts is itself not the motivation of the act; satisfaction is not the motive, but only the consequence.’
Thus far I have focused on ‘psychological altruism’, involving prosocial, empathic, compassionate behaviours such as providing aid and comfort in order to alleviate another person’s or a group’s suffering. Especially a total stranger’s woe, rather than the presumably simpler case of a relative’s or friend’s anguish. Taking in a migrant family, with no expected reward, is one example of this type of aid; volunteering as a doctor or nurse to work, say, in a remotely located Ebola or HIV treatment facility might be another. However, there may be at least another explanation for fathoming the human facility for altruistic deeds: the physiology of an individual’s brain.

Recent research, using brain imaging, claims to have found that those people with little to no empathy, compassion, or ability to recognize cues of others’ distress tend to have smaller-than-average amygdala regions. The worst-case example being psychopathy, resulting in those with this condition to act callously, insensitively, and disinterested in others’ welfare. People thus afflicted thereby are often unable to recognize others’ fear. In contrast, highly altruistic people tend to have amygdalas that are larger and more reactive than average. This kind of explanation in which ‘mind’ is reduced to ‘matter’ does, of course, bring into question whether free agency is essential to altruism. In the case of our hypothetical passerby, the one who rescues the driver from the burning car, it’s assumed that his amygdala would have had these same features. In this same vein, the affection people generally feel for their own children, along with a deep motivation to protect and do good for them, may seem to be ‘hard-wired’, further pointing to the role of brain physiology in altruism. This extends beyond just gene survival and evolutionary purposes.

Sigmund Freud pointed out that our motives, and the motives of others, are often veiled, and that we are in fact driven by parts of our minds that have agenda of which we are unaware. Perhaps, therefore, the difference between ‘pure altruism’ (if attainable) and what we might call ‘everyday altruism’ is more one of language and semantics, with little to no practical consequence as to the reality of altruism and beneficial outcomes.

Monday, 1 July 2019


By Jeremy Dyer *

You draw a breath as you dive under the wave
Of silence in this nether world
Where peace and pain and green light and bubbles flow
As your body curves slowly to the surface
     like it was the first time
Waking from a dream that wants to drown you
     in its comforting
Pinpricks of light as you pause between the forces
Of darkness and light, hope and despair, death and life
Like an abandoned photograph slowly fading
Wishing everything would dissolve forever
and you would cease to be

* Jeremy Dyer is an acclaimed Cape Town artist.

Monday, 24 June 2019

The world in crisis: it’s not what we think

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

The real danger is an explosion - of Big Data

We lived once with the dream of a better world: more comfortable, more secure, and more advanced.  Political commentator Dinesh D’Souza called it ‘the notion that things are getting better, and will continue to get better in the future’.  We call it progress.  Yet while our world has in many ways advanced and improved, we seem unsure today whether the payoff matches the investment.  In fact, we all feel sure that something has gone peculiarly wrong—but what?  Why has the climate turned on us?  Why is the world still unsafe?  Why do we still suffer vast injustices and inequalities?  Why do we still struggle, if not materially, then with our sense of well-being and quality of life?  Is there anything in our travails which is common to all, and lies at the root of them all?

It will be helpful to consider what it is that has brought us progress—which in itself may lead us to the problem.  There have been various proposals:  that progress is of the inexorable kind; that it is illusory and rooted in the hubristic belief that earlier civilisations were always backward; or it is seen as a result of our escape from blind authority and appeal to tradition.  Yet above all, progress is associated with the liberating power of knowledge, which now expands at an exhilarating pace on all fronts.  ‘The idea of progress,’ wrote the philosopher Charles Frankel, ‘is peculiarly a response to ... organized scientific inquiry’.

Further, science, within our own generation, has quietly entered a major new phase, which began around the start of the 21st Century.  We now have big data, which is extremely large data sets which may be analysed computationally.

Now when we graph the explosion of big data, we interestingly find that this (roughly) coincides on two axes with various global trends—among them increased greenhouse gas emissions, sea level rise, economic growth, resource use, air travel—even increased substance abuse, and increased terrorism.  There is something, too, which seems more felt than it is demonstrable.  A great many people sense that modern society burdens us—more so than it did in former times.

Why should an explosion of big data roughly coincide—even correlate—with an explosion of global travails?

On the one hand, big data has proved beyond doubt that it has many benefits.  Through the analysis of extremely large data sets, we have found new correlations to spot business trends, prevent diseases, and combat crime—among other things.  At the same time, big data presents us with a raft of problems: privacy concerns, interoperability challenges, the problem of imperfect algorithms, and the law of diminishing returns.  A major difficulty lies in the interpretation of big data.  Researchers Danah Boyd and Kate Crawford observe, ‘Working with Big Data is still subjective, and what it quantifies does not necessarily have a closer claim on objective truth.’  Not least, big data depends on social sorting and segmentation—mostly invisible—which may have various unfair effects.

Yet apart from the familiar problems, we find a bigger one.  The goal of big data, to put it very simply, is to make things fit.  Production must fit consumption; foodstuffs must fit our dietary requirements and tastes; goods and services must fit our wants and inclinations; and so on.  As the demands for a better fit increase, so the demand for greater detail increases.  Advertisements are now tailored to our smallest, most fleeting interests, popping up at every turn.  The print on our foodstuffs has multiplied, even to become unreadable.  Farming now includes the elaborate testing and evaluation of seeds, pesticides, nutrients, and so much more.  There is no end to this tendency towards a better fit.

The more big data we have, the more we can tailor any number of things to our need:  insurances, medicines, regulations, news feeds, transport, and so on.  However, there is a problem.  As we increase the detail, so we require great energy to do it.  There are increased demands on our faculties, and on our world—not merely on us as individuals, but on all that surrounds us.  To find a can of baked beans on a shop shelf is one thing.  To have a can of French navy beans delivered to my door in quick time is quite another.  This is crucial.  The goal of a better fit involves enormous activity, and stresses our society and environment.  Media academic Lloyd Spencer writes, ‘Reason itself appears insane as the world acquires systematic totality.’  Big data is a form of totalitarianism, in that it requires complete obedience to the need for a better fit.

Therefore the crisis of our world is not primarily that of production or consumption, of emissions, pollution, or even, in the final analysis, over-population.  It goes deeper than this.  It is a problem of knowledge—which now includes big data.  This in turn rests on another, fundamental problem of science: it progresses by screening things out.  Science must minimise unwanted influences on independent variables to succeed—and the biggest of these variables is the world itself.

Typically, we view the problems of big data from the inside, as it were—the familiar issues of privacy, the limits of big data, its interpretation, and so on.  Yet all these represent an enclosed view.  When we consider big data in the context of the open system which is the world, its danger becomes clear.  We have screened out its effects on the world—on a grand scale.  Through big data, we have over-stressed the system which is planet Earth.  The crisis which besets us is not what we think.  It is big data.

The top ten firms leveraging Big Data in January 2018: Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Chevron, Acxiom, National Security Agency, General Electric, Tencent, Wikimedia (Source: Data Science Graduate Programs).

Sample graphs. Red shade superimposed on statistics from 2000.

Monday, 17 June 2019

What Is Love?

Posted by Berenike Neneia
     with Thomas Scarborough 
What is love?  There is the unspoken view that what love means to one it means to the whole world.  This is not the case, as I shall demonstrate by exploring the word in my mother tongue, I-Kiribati.
In English, love is hard to define – or rather, it has many definitions – while in my own language, the word itself informs us of its meaning.

In English, ‘love’ may be traced back thousands of years to the Sanskrit ‘lubh’, which means ‘to desire’.  Its meaning has not changed much since then.  Today the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘a feeling or disposition of deep affection or fondness for someone’.

To many, this is unsatisfactory – mostly for the reason that affections may change – alternatively, that they believe love to be deeper and wider than mere desire.  In English, the only real alternative to this is the religious meaning of the word, which compares our love with the love of God which is sacrificial and unchanging.  Yet this, too, is simply called ‘love’.

In my own language, the word for love is ‘tangira’.  It comes from two words, namely ‘tang’, which means ‘to cry’, and ‘ngira’, which means ‘to groan.’  Crying may be both positive and negative, in the sense that a person can cry if they are happy and if they are sad.  This already reveals something important about love.  Love does not change when it turns to crying, or where there is groaning.  This is by definition wrapped up with love.

'Ngira' has a further, related meaning, which is 'to sacrifice'.  Thus a person who is in love will engage in self-sacrifice.  This, in turn, needs to be mutual, to be shared equally between a husband and a wife, so that it will build a good and lifelong relationship which brings glory to God’s name.

Sacrifice, too, should rule out the possibility of violence.  In my culture, men may abuse their relationship role, and use it to gratify themselves alone.  In some instances, in which wives are violated by their husbands, men argue that they do such things out of love.  Then their behavioural beings, called ‘aomataia’, change and become violent.  This creates disunity and disorder.  But ‘ngira’ as sacrifice implies that a husband will sacrifice himself for his wife, and vice versa.  This lies closer to the religious definition of love in English.

‘Ngira’ has a social aspect, too.  People often identify themselves by the power they hold, and not by love.  The more people hold high rank in government, church, or non-governmental organisations, the more they are likely to define themselves as superior within the family, society, church, or country as a whole. Sometimes this quest for importance causes people to do harm to others because they want to be placed higher.  While power is not harmful in itself, it needs to be founded on sacrifice, to the benefit of all.

There is a related word in our language, to ‘tangira’.  It is ‘onimaki’, which means ‘belief, faith, confidence’.  This word clarifies the love that binds couples in marriage.  If both have faith in each other, it is assumed that there will be no violence, which leads people to separation and divorce – although this does not mean that they will not quarrel.  In spite of such things, there is a possibility that they will find solutions for their problems, because they believe that they are faithful to each other, and to God.

The meaning of ‘onimaki’ should rule out unfaithfulness.  Therefore, remaining a virgin is very important for unmarried women in I-Kiribati culture, and is still practiced nowadays.  If daughters are found not to be virgins during the first time they have sex after marriage, they will be returned to her parents and family naked.  To return the woman naked is to embarrass her, because she is not good enough to be a daughter-in-law, as she has already given her body to someone else.

Faithfulness also implies provision.  Sometimes marriage relationships are destroyed through the wife or the husband being lazy.  For instance, if a wife is lazy in the sense that she cannot look after her husband and in-laws, then if she lives in an extended family, as most women in Kiribati do, she can be chased away by the in-laws. This also applies to men, but is rare compared to women.

It will be seen in this exploration of the I-Kiribati definition of ‘love’ that it matters a great deal what we think of a word, and what it means – love being one of the most important words of all.  Yet some words give us little guidance in themselves, so that we profit from teaching ourselves their meanings.  The examples of ‘tangira’ and ‘onimaki’ in my language serve as an illustration of the value of knowing.

There is a tendency today to say that meanings are not defined but absorbed.  This is especially prevalent in religion.  Sometimes, however, there is great reward in reflecting on what our words mean, and applying these meanings to our personal and social situation.

Monday, 10 June 2019

On the Influences Upon ‘Happiness’

According to Sonja Lyubomirsky, a person’s happiness level combines ‘genetic set-point’, ‘intentional activities’ (choice of daily activities), and life circumstances (The How of Happiness).

Posted by Keith Tidman

Is ‘Happiness’ in large measure subjective? Are people happy, or unhappy, just if they perceive themselves as such? Surely, there’s a transient nature to spiked happiness, either up or down. That is, no matter how events may make us feel at any moment in time — ecstatic (think higher-than-expected pay increase) or gloomy (think passed over for an anticipated major promotion) — eventually we return to our original level of happiness, or ‘baseline’. This implies that happiness does not change much, or long-lastingly, for an individual over a lifetime. There’s always the pulling back to our happiness predisposition or mean, a process that philosophers sometimes refer to as ‘hedonic adaptation’. So, what factors influence happiness?

The feeling of happiness may be boosted when we’re fully occupied by activities that we deem especially important to us: those pursuits that represent our most-cherished values, inspire us, require concerted deliberation, prompt creative self-expression, achieve our potential, confirm our competence, reflect purposes beyond ourselves, foster meaningful goals, and promote relatedness. Ties to family, friends, colleagues, and the larger community — socialisation and connectedness — enhance this feeling of wellbeing. We benefit from these pursuits in proportion to how clearly we envision them, how committed we are to attaining them, and the amount of effort we invest.

The role of money in the subjective perception of happiness extends only to its helping to meet such salient necessities as a place to live, sufficient nourishment, adequate clothing, sleep, and security. That is, the barest requirements, but which importantly help lessen one’s anxiety over physical sustenance. After meeting such basic living conditions, the ability of larger sums of money to influence happiness trails off. People eventually adapt to the perks that a surge in wealth initially brings. Happiness reverts to its original baseline. (Even lottery winners, temporarily ecstatic as they believe the windfall is the key to life-long happiness, typically return to their baseline level of happiness. Their happiness level may ultimately even fall below their baseline, as new wealth might bring unanticipated pressure and anxiety of its own, such as being badgered for handouts.) That’s the individual level. But there’s a similar tendency at the national scale, too: defined as the declining effects of growing wealth on the wellbeing of populations. 

For instance, middle-income and wealthier citizens may find themselves unendingly aspiring for more and fancier material possessions — each leading, eventually, to adaptation to new norms and perpetually rising expectations to fulfill desires. This dynamic has been referred to as the ‘hedonic treadmill’. Happiness appears illusory and transient; there’s instability. Adaptation leads to fewer emotional rewards, and along the way possibly squeezes out less-tangible goals that might bear more significantly on quality of life. A sense of entitlement settles in. Whole sets of new wants materialize. As the 19th-century British philosopher John Stuart Mill counseled, ‘I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them’.

A powerful influence on happiness, which underscores the nature of wellbeing, is what people fundamentally value — their ideal, conditioned by cultural factors. For example, in pursuing happiness, one nationality may predominantly prefer situations and experiences that thrill, exhilarate, and enervate, with satisfaction of the individual at the core. Another nationality may be more predisposed to situations and experiences that promote tranquility, comfort, and composure, with satisfaction of the group at the core. Both of these culturally based models, in their respective ways, allow for citizens to fulfill expectations regarding how to live out life. 

Meanwhile, evidence suggests yet another dimension to all this: people tend to recall their personal reactions, such as joy, to activities inaccurately. In reflecting back, there’s greater clarity of what happened toward the end of the activity and diminishing clarity of what happened at earlier stages. As American-Israeli psychologist Daniel Kahneman succinctly expressed it, ‘Remembered happiness is different from experienced happiness.’ Holes or poorly recalled stages of activities get filled in by the mind, based more on what people believe should have happened, reshaping memories and misrepresenting to a degree how they really felt in the moment. The remembered experience — ‘experienced happiness’ — may thus have an unreal quality to it.

Some people believe that free choice, rather than submission to the vagaries of chance, is essential to this experienced happiness. But reality is a mixed bag. Countries that are relatively wealthy and enjoy the social perks of liberal democratic governance tend to feel confident and unthreatened enough to grant their citizens true choice (as a social and political good), which gets manifested in generally higher levels of happiness. Depending on what conditions might prompt sharp increases or decreases in happiness, hedonic adaptation will prevail. The key to maintaining at least baseline happiness is to have jurisdiction over how our choices actually play out, not merely to be presented with more choices. 

In fact, an abundance of choices can confound and freeze up personal decision-making, as people hesitate to choose when overwhelmed by a multitude of nuanced possibilities. Anxiety over the prospect of less than the best outcomes and the unintended consequences of choice only makes matters worse. This reflects how people exhibit different approaches to evaluating happiness. Yet, paradoxically, citizens who have known no other social scheme may in fact prefer contending with fewer choices. Such is the case, for instance, with autocratic systems of governance, modeled on prescriptive social contracts, which take a characteristically more patriarchic-leaning approach to decisions. Citizens become acclimatized to those conditions, where their level of happiness may change little from the baseline.

Tracking the influences on happiness tells us something important about context and efficacy. That is, the challenge to happiness — and especially efforts to control how these influences bear on the amount of happiness people experience from moment to moment — seems tied to resigning to the formidable reversion back to one’s happiness baseline. Evidence is that hedonic adaptation’ is a commanding force. By extension, therefore, attempts to appreciably elevate an individual’s happiness quotient, lastingly not just transiently, by manipulating these influences might have modest effect. The situation of influences’ limited effects in heightening happiness both appreciably and long term  one’s actual experience of happiness  may particularly be the case in context of how Sonja Lyubomirsky, among others, apportions the influences (‘determinants’) of happiness among the three sweeping categories shown in the graphic above. 

Monday, 3 June 2019

Picture Post #47: Joyful Shades, A Riddle

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.' 
Mountain View, Kareedouw, South Africa

Posted by Tessa Den Uyl

For a light to shine, it has to burn something, and within this transitional process, it is able to illuminate shapes. The stronger a directional light shines, the clearer the shadows become, and without the shadows, we wouldn’t see forms but flat surfaces.

Certain shapes we can touch, but when we try to grasp their shadow, this doesn’t work. In this image, where the shadows are almost as clearly outlined as the physical bodies, it comes to mind that no problem is situated within the space of an outline, but merely in the identity of that which establishes it. 

This means that we can put confidence in the cosmic order, in which no person has a right to self-contained certainty, since everything is opened up by something else, and liberated the moment it is touched by light.

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Is Popper a ‘modest’ Leo?

Posted by Martin Cohen

A few years ago, astrologer-aesthete Mark Shulgasser asked this revealing question about one of the 20th century's most under-rated philosophers for us. Popper, we should first recall, is admired for at least two big ideas: the first that science proceeds by testing hypotheses and disregarding those that fail the test (‘falsification’) and secondly, his critique of ‘historicism’ (the idea that history is marching towards a fine goal) and linked defence of liberal values and what he calls ‘the open society’. His point is that too many philosophers, from Plato down, think that they are exceptional beings - ‘philosopher kings’.

And yet... Shulgasser throws the charge back at him!

Those (like Popper) born under the astrological sign of Leo think they are kings. Do Leo philosophers think like that too?

Shulgasser continues:
‘Popper himself, so Napoleonic, the overcompensating short man. Popper's philosophical ambitions are overweening. He conquers continents. No one talks about Popper the person without noting his autocratic behavior and intransigence in contrast to his ethic of openness. Here's the Leo dilemma — the autocratic, central I versus the right of every peripheral being to claim to be the same.’
Certainly, in later years, it seems that Professor Popper lived in a house ‘supremely large in area, and adorned with numerous books, works of art, and a Steinway concert grand piano’...  But does that make him ‘Napoleonic’? Consider Brian Magee (broadcaster, politician, author, and popularizer of philosophy) on Popper. taken from Confessions of a Philosopher. Magee starts by accepting Popper as the ‘the outstanding philosopher of the twentieth century’ indeed, the “foremost philosopher of the age”! 
‘My chief impression of him at our early meetings was of an intellectual aggressiveness such as I had never encountered before [Napoleonism]. Everything we argued about he pursued relentlessly, beyond the limits of acceptable aggression in conversation. As Ernst Gombrich—his closest friend, who loved him—once put it to me, he seemed unable to accept the continued existence of different points of view, but went on and on and on about them with a kind of unforgivingness until the dissenter, so to speak, put his signature to a confession that he was wrong and Popper was right. 
In practice this meant he was trying to subjugate people. And there was something angry about the energy and intensity with which he made the attempt. This unremittingly fierce, tight focus, like a flame, put me in mind of a blowtorch, and that image remained the dominant one I had of him for many years, until he mellowed with age. . . 
He behaved as if the proper thing to do was to think one’s way carefully to a solution by the light of rational criteria and then, having come as responsibly and critically as one can to a liberal-minded view of what is right, impose it by an unremitting exercise of will, and never let up until one gets one’s way. ‘The totalitarian liberal’ was one of his nicknames at the London School of Economics, and it was a perceptive one.’
Popper it seems,  ‘turned every discussion into the verbal equivalent of a fight, and appeared to become almost uncontrollable with rage, and would tremble with anger ’.

Yet central to his philosophy is the claim that criticism does more than anything else to bring about growth and improvement of our knowledge and his political writings contain the best statement ever made of the case for freedom and tolerance in human affairs.

So who is the ‘real’ Karl Popper? Does it matter if he failed to live up to his own writings? There's a revealing story told about Popper in which he was invited to give a talk at Cambridge University ‘at the Moral Sciences Club’. 

Who did wave the poker during the acrimonious debate? I understood the Popper version of the Poker incident to put him in a meek and philosophical light and Wittgenstein in a boorish, intolerant one. Maybe I got this wrong - alas I committed myself to this in print - in my book called Philosophical Tales

Anyway, what is known is that Popper was there to present his paper entitled ‘Are There Philosophical Problems?’ at a meeting chaired by Wittgenstein. The two started arguing vehemently over whether there existed substantial problems in philosophy, or merely linguistic puzzles—the position taken by Wittgenstein. In Popper’s account, Wittgenstein gestured at him with a fireplace poker to emphasise his points. When challenged by Wittgenstein to state an example of a moral rule, Popper claims to have replied: ‘Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers’, after which (according to Popper) Wittgenstein threw down the poker and stormed out.

My guess it that Popper was indeed a little bit Napoleonic. Mind you, he faced a world in which he was passed over by others all the time, not least Wittgenstein, partly on some kind of unspoken notion of his not being ‘one of us’, not being quite posh enough. Popper was denied access to Oxbridge, and had to graze on the outskirts of academia as a 'not-quite-great' philosopher. 

And elsewhere Magee himself makes it clear he believes Popper is colossally underrated. Why, it’s enough to give anyone a Napoleon complex!

Monday, 20 May 2019

The Will-Ought Distinction

David Hume, the originator of the is-ought distinction
Posted by Thomas Scarborough
The is-ought distinction is a philosophical classic which lies at the core of moral philosophy. It states that one cannot derive ‘ought’ sentences from ‘is’ sentences -- in other words, one cannot derive ethics from fact. This rests in turn on the things-relations distinction. While ‘is’ describes how things are related to one another, it is unable to describe how they ought to be related.
Instead, here, I seek to introduce another distinction which, as far as I can see, is non-existent in the world of philosophy  -- yet may be more important than the is-ought distinction.  The goal here is to present a will-ought distinction. It is offered in broad outline, while acknowledging the fact that there are many nuances at play (that is, what follows is necessarily simplistic).

Now ‘is’ and ‘will’ play a large part in science.  The scientist begins with ‘is’, which is the facts -- or the pieces of what is out there -- and these facts, for a scientist, may not make much sense in the beginning.  As scientists seek to understand the facts, then, they play with them -- they rearrange them, reword them, have a few drinks together as they argue over them -- even bet on hypotheses, and so on.  In other words, the ‘is’ of the matter may be a fairly detached activity.

This is the first of the (if one so prefers) four parts of the scientific method: characterisations, hypotheses, predictions, and experiments -- and the first of these four, namely characterisations, is about observations, definitions, and measurements of the subject of inquiry.  In other words, it is about establishing the facts.

Yet facts alone offer little or no explanation of phenomena.  There comes a point where these facts must be combined in such a way as to present a theory.  At this point, ‘is’ (the facts) becomes ‘will’ (the theory).  Theory is, after all, that which will happen.  Theories predict things.  If they do not predict things, they are not theories.  We now find, besides ‘is’ and ‘ought’, a third category.  In the context of science:
• ‘is’ refers to fact,
• ‘will’ refers to theory,
• while ‘ought’ refers to value
Let us now notice that ‘will’ and ‘ought’ both have to do with expectation.  Both may be defined -- at least in a great many cases -- as ‘reasoned expectation’ -- and reasoned expectation is a fairly standard definition for theory.  One cannot call theory reasoned certainty of course, as every scientist will freely point out.  Neither is this true of ‘ought’.

Further, both ‘will’ and ‘ought’ may refer both to personal and impersonal things.  This fits well with the things-relations distinction above.  They both have to do with how we expect things to be related to one another.  Things ‘will’ be so and so ordered, or they ‘ought’ to be, whether this refers to a person's behaviour (‘She will ...’ ‘He ought ...’) or to the arrangement of objects, events, or concepts (‘It ought ...’ ‘That will ...’).

How, then, should we distinguish ‘will’ from ‘ought’?

Unlike ‘will’, ‘ought’ may often be non-normative -- which means that one may not seriously, in every case, expect it to happen.  As an extreme example, someone might say, ‘There ought to be two moons orbiting the earth’ (which is impossible).  But then, too, someone might consider, ‘Crystal Palace ought to win the Premier League’ (possible, though not likely), ‘The rocket ought to land safely’ (likely), or 'This experiment ought to produce an alkali’ (all but sure).  There is a continuum of additional information, therefore.

Now I need to make a further distinction.  In that case of proposing two moons, we might really have meant, ‘There ought to have been (perfect tense) two moons.’  A great many ‘ought’ sentences may be interpreted in this way.  Subtract such examples from all examples, and this increases the number of oughts which are more seriously about the future.  ‘Ought’ now comes a lot closer to ‘will’.

Perhaps one might argue, too, that ‘ought’ may be distinguished from ‘will’ by seeing the term as applying only to ethics -- and not to such neutral subjects as those of science.  Yet how should one make such a distinction?  It is artificial -- not to speak of old-fashioned.  I have said that ‘ought’ represents the way that things ought to be related to one another, and this does not in principle separate ethics from science, or from any other activity for that matter.  This brings two important questions:
•  Is science in reality a language of ‘ought’? (Which is, all about value?)
•  Can one really separate ‘ought’ from ‘will’? (That is, to separate moral acts from any acts at all).
And one last question too:
•  Is every move we make a moral one?

Monday, 13 May 2019

Advantages of Ecological Socialism

Image courtesy of Clariant. 
Today, companies like the speciality chemicals company
Clariant say that they are working to reposition
themselves as sustainable solutions providers

Posted by Andrew Porter*

Today, there is much greater awareness of the threat of Climate Change. Yet species loss, disruption of planetary systems, and widespread environmental degradation are allowed to continue. Over millennia, we have been very good at developing ways to respond to the environment; now the imperative is to develop the sharpness and capacity to respond to ourselves.

Surely it is apparent now that modern industrial overreach needs to be scaled back significantly. A number of systems might be devised for remedy, but the only ones that have any real chance of success revolve around human ecology and sustainability. Can large swathes of society rally around a call to protect ecologies and promote sustainability? Because underlining such a solution is the question ‘What's in it for us?’ I think that this question itself must be transformed by a new ecological attitude, what we might call an 'inner ecology.'

One ‘system’ that might guide a large set of cultural and societal factors toward a much better relationship between humankind and the Earth is what I call ‘ecological socialism’. It would require a re-orientation of society towards an integration of human needs and what is necessary to afford the natural world its sustainability. The ‘socialism’ of the idea means equal possession of the opportunities and limitations inherent in living within the governance of natural principles. It is both ethical and ecological to distribute limitations and opportunities equally: who could argue otherwise?

An integration of the planet’s health (preservation of biodiversity and habitat, clean water and air, soil conservation, and respect for the earth's climate mechanisms) and people’s lives maximises care of one for the other. Nature has its goals and man has his; unless they are integrated, sustainability will remain out of reach. Two primary principles that we might work into to guide and animate environmental preservation are:

1) Streams, trees, bays, animals, mountains, oceans, and so on, should have standing as holders of legal rights because they have moral rights in our mind. We are in this together, nature and man, and if we are a lame and destructive partner, this joint venture remains unviable.

2) Natural systems maintain health and balance as a core feature, and should become a core feature of our lives. This involves development and implementation of human ecology models. The process as well as the result is – rather than a frittering away of human capacity – a kind of wholeness.

Surely the present is the crucial time to address this. George Monbiot makes the point well in a March 15, 2019 article in The Guardian newspaper entitled ‘Capitalism is Destroying the Earth. We Need a New Human Right for Future Generations’.
‘At the heart of capitalism is a vast and scarcely examined assumption: you are entitled to as great a share of the world’s resources as your money can buy. You can purchase as much land, as much atmospheric space, as many minerals, as much meat and fish as you can afford, regardless of who might be deprived. If you can pay for them, you can own entire mountain ranges and fertile plains. You can burn as much fuel as you like. Every pound or dollar secures a certain right over the world’s natural wealth.’
Ecological socialism—moving away from current assumptions and forms of exploitation—seeks the sustainability of the natural world and also aims to sustain man, in some form, within this. A principal standard of ecological socialism is that human burdens on the planet are kept well below the Earth's carrying capacity for them.

Ecological socialism attempts to genuinely represent all life forms and natural systems as equals in its sphere of obligation, caring, and set of rights. Ecological socialism models human governance and society on the appreciation of ecological balance and advantages. It seeks to make organic goodness human as well as natural. Ecological socialism recognises that humans must be integral with natural ways for both humans and the Earth to thrive.

Some specific choices are clear. Industrial society must be phased out. Strategies must be found to bring human numbers down and encourage small-scale simplicity. I believe that ecology-centred education, with good assistance from the humanities, helps pave the way. The belief that the individual and society are supported best by harmony with and not antagonism with nature is the vital one.

The exploitive way of life, denying costs, is over. Ecological socialism integrates man and ecologies, making the human path forward one of integrity itself. This is a value worth crafting human life around. Currently, culture and societies seem not to mind demise. But ecological socialism aims to help people understand that a citizen is not a citizen unless responsible to oneself and to the Earth.

Citizenship is best defined as this dual responsibility—to help oneself and one’s circle thrive, and also to bolster the optimal flourishing of the ecosystems and planetary systems of Earth through non-interference. Ecological socialism is the best way to ensure this.

Andrew Porter is a philosopher and educator who lives near Boston in the United States

Monday, 6 May 2019

Picture Post #46 A Machine to Peek Into the Universe’s Core

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Keith Tidman 

The Large Hadron Collider, siad to be the most complex machine ever built by humanity.
Image courtesy of CERN
tale of scale.  The CERN Large Hadron Collider, a Brobdingnagian* machine searching through the Lilliputian world of subatomic particles. This, we are told, to better understand the universe at the smallest scale. The human mind is challenged to take in the machine’s ‘cathedral’ dimensions. I think that the aim of this cathedral, however, is more than just inspiring awe, or reverence, or faith.

Rather, for me this towering monument — testament to human tool-making — has a very different purpose: to pull back the shroud so that humanity can peek into the remarkable inner world of our cosmos, and what it tells us about aspects of reality. Case in point: the confirmation of the Higgs boson a few years ago, whose field gives other particles their mass — ‘convenient’ for a universe like ours, including us.

There’s the hard-core science to all this, to be sure, with international collaboration at its best. But just like more-conventional, faith-based cathedrals, doesn’t this image also inspire humanity to speculate about the cosmology and meaning of this universe that we occupy, our own purpose, and the values we ought to revere? Doesn’t it serve and reward humanity’s instinctual sense of curiosity, imagination, and inspiration — the fertile seedbed of human discovery?

* After the fictional land in Jonathan Swift's 1726 satirical novel Gulliver's Travels occupied by giants

Monday, 29 April 2019

On Black Holes and Amazing Discoveries

In 2019, astronomers using the Event Horizon Telescope system announced that they had captured what they described as the first ever image of Black Hole

Black Hole discovered in far-off galaxy?
“A Black Hole has been photographed at the centre of the galaxy M87, 55 million light-years from us. It's now been named Powehi, a Hawaiian phrase referring to an "embellished dark source of unending creation.”

Steve Crothers* begs to disagree...

It is not a discovery at all.

Rather, this is how astronomers and cosmologists do science: fraud by means of mass-media induced mass-hysteria. It beggars belief. Think about it: according to the astronomers and cosmologists the finite mass of their black hole is concentrated in a 'physical singularity' of zero volume, infinite density, and infinite gravity. But no finite mass has zero volume, infinite density, and infinite gravity, anywhere!

Similarly, the astronomers and cosmologists assign to their black hole two different escape speeds: one of zero metres per second and one corresponding to the speed of light of 300,000,000 metres per second, and this in the same equation! At the same time there is no capacity for an escape speed (since nothing can even leave), simultaneously, at the same place (at the 'event horizon' meaning the boundary of a black hole beyond which nothing can escape from within it.). But nothing can have two different escape speeds and no capacity for an escape speed, simultaneously, at the same place! Furthermore, the astronomers and cosmologists assert that the escape speed at the event horizon is the speed of light, yet light cannot either leave or escape; indeed, nothing, they say, can even leave the event horizon. But since light travels at the speed of light, which is the escape speed at the event horizon, light must both leave it and escape! And, moreover, anything else can leave.

On the mathematical level, the black hole is conjured by violations of geometry. Geometrically speaking, the theory of black holes moves a sphere originally centred at the origin of a coordinate system to some other place in that same coordinate system but leaves its centre behind. By this means the two 'singularities' of the black hole are produced, the centre of the moved sphere, now thought to be an event horizon, and the left behind centre at the origin of coordinates, thought to be the 'physical singularity'. According to Black Hole theory, In the centre of a black hole is a gravitational singularity, a one-dimensional point which contains a huge mass in an infinitely small space, where density and gravity become infinite and space-time curves infinitely, and where the laws of physics as we know them cease to operate.

Analytically speaking, the violation of geometry manifests in black hole theory as the requirement that the absolute value of a real number must take on negative values – which is impossible as I’ve argued in detail elsewhere. (For example, in a paper for Hadronic Journal called ‘On Corda’s “Clarification” of Schwarzschild’s Solution’).

The laws of thermodynamics require that temperature must always be an intensive thermodynamic property. (The first law, also known as Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system. The second law of thermodynamics states that the entropy of any isolated system always increases. ) To argue otherwise is a violation of both the 0th and 2nd laws of thermodynamics. The Hawking temperature of a black hole is however non-intensive, in violation of the laws of thermodynamics. (Stephen Hawking argued that quantum effects allow black holes to emit exact black-body radiation and that the electromagnetic radiation would be produced as if emitted by a black body with a temperature inversely proportional to the mass of the black hole.) So black hole thermodynamics is entirely nonsense as this video on the subject of Gravitational Thermodynamics demonstrates.

The conclusion must be that the black hole does not exist; proven with common sense and high-school science. Yet the astronomers and physicists have managed to image that which does not exist. To which we might say, of course they did - they have to justify their lucrative jobs and their vast grants of unaccountable public money.

Read more:

Stephen Crothers is a mathematician who has written and lectured on many of the problems with the standard model of cosmology. During his PHd thesis, at the School of Physics in the University of South Wales he studied General Relativity and Black Holes and found the concept to be inconsistent with General Relativity.

Crothers, S.J., A Critical Analysis of LIGO's Recent Detection of Gravitational Waves Caused by Merging Black Holes, Hadronic Journal, n.3, Vol. 39, 2016, pp.271-302,

Crothers, S.J., LIGO -- Its Claims for Black Holes and Gravitational Waves | EU2017,

Crothers, S.J., Gravitational Waves: Propagation Speed is Co-ordinate Dependent, Poster Presentation, 2018 April APS Meeting, Columbus, Ohio, presented on 14th April 2018.

Monday, 22 April 2019

On Connotation

Connotation or denotaton? by Zach Weiner, of SMBC Comics.

By Lina Scarborough

A while ago, a friend waltzed up to me and asked: ‘What is a connotation?’ . Knowing he likes to pull my leg once in a while, I decided to humour him. ‘It is the description attached to a word’, I answered as we started walking.

After a pause for thought, he replied: ‘Ah, but when I have an object... ’ he stooped down to pick up some pebbles, ‘the words that come to mind describe the colour, the shape...’ he turned the stones between his fingers, ‘the weight’, he dropped them suddenly, ‘but not all of those are connotations’.

I paused and added, ‘Then, it’s a description that does not pertain to some thing’s physical properties’.

He looked amused and told me he had come across several definitions that were besides the point - or entirely flawed. Whether or not my definition satisfied him, he did not say.

Of course, not only objects with physical properties can have connotations. In fact, it is mostly adjectives that contain nuances. For example, the word stingy holds a negative undertone, whereas thrifty implies something akin to a virtue – someone who likes to be smart with their money. But what is this desire to find an exact label for something? What is, and why is there joy in finding the precise term for an object, a situation, an abstract feeling?

Let us define a label, or better - a term, as a chiefly one-word noun. Then a definition is a phrase which explains exactly what that label encompasses. The definition: waking up from a pleasant dream feeling contented. There is a term for that feeling – euneirophrenia.

We can define a great number of things in different manners. The only limit is our personal experience or imagination. The latter of course, poses the question whether one can imagine a feeling into existence (but that’s a whole other topic - and possibly borders on schizophrenia).

A private world

Connotations create private microcosms in romantic couples. Your partner might replace the word ‘walk ‘with ‘locomotion’ to avoid unnecessarily exciting the dog that recognizes the term ‘walkies!’ or ‘walk!’. Or, you might lightheartedly call a USB a hockey-stick, and no-one but your significant other and close family would understand what on earth you meant. The shared private language creates a sense of insiders versus outsiders and, consequently, facilitates intimacy and brings a lightheartedness to the relationship. Carol Bruess, director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, says: ‘When couples have their own language rituals…they feel like they know one another in a way that others don’t, and that they have a strong connection or bond to each other.’

Connotations can also be cultural. Don’t offend a Chinese by gifting him a watch – the Chinese symbol for watch (送钟, sòng zhōng) has the same pronunciation as [attending] a funeral! Giving somebody a watch implies that you are patiently waiting for their death - not a message you want to convey...

Some cultural connotations are oddly specific. Let us again consult the Chinese for inspiration: Do not give somebody in China a green hat - it is a metaphor for man’s wife having been unfaithful (帶綠帽, dài lǜ mào, with green hat). But why specifically green? A turtle is green, and turtles hide their heads in their shells, so calling someone a ‘turtle’ is deemed offensive since it's also equivalent to calling someone a coward!

Using a certain connotation can also help one identify with a community, fulfilling the need to belong. In African-American communities one doesn’t call a friend ‘mate’ like the British or Australians do, one calls a friend ‘brother’, or simply bro. Such cultural connotations are one reason it is so hard to learn a foreign language. Or rather, why it is so hard not to make embarrassing faux pas when speaking as a beginner.

Even in your own native language and communities, people fight to have certain words de-stigmatized or entirely made redundant. This is particularly applicable to the historically more vulnerable members of society. No one would dream of calling a disabled person a retard nowadays unless they were deliberately seeking to insult.

In parts of the world women have started pointing out double-standards that occur when labelling the same behaviour. Perhaps a boy is praised for taking initiative and being a leader, whereas a girl might be scolded for the same and labeled as ‘bossy’. Where does one draw the line between being steadfast, tenacious, or stubborn? How does one distinguish between meticulous or picky? Is it not usually somewhat subjective as opposed to universal?

The neuroscientist Terence Deacon has said: ‘The way that language represents objects, events, and relationships provides a uniquely powerful economy of reference…It entirely shapes our thinking and the ways we know the physical world.’ Building on this, I could say that the reason it is satisfying to find the exact word to convey what I mean, as opposed to using a phrase or long-winded definition (this in itself needs a term!), is because it creates a sense of power. What I can define, I can examine, influence, control. Hence associations around words are the building blocks around spiritual or emotional depth and intellectual growth.

If I understand that what I feel is called leucocholy - a state of feeling that accompanies preoccupation with trivial and insipid diversions – I know how to find a more productive pursuit to ease my feelings of anxiousness instead of faffing around (as the British say). The origin of leucocholy dates back to the 18th century, and literally means ‘white bile’ and is opposed to melancholy, which is ‘black bile’.  In this way, connotation therefore reveals something about our psyche. Freud may have realized this when he started using so-called ‘free association’ as a method for diagnosing and alleviating what was going on in his patient’s unconscious processes.

My friend later informed me that he had found a definition of connotation that he liked: ‘Connotation is the illusion of denotation’, he said.

And yet - this same illusion is the reason that poetry can exist, and is what gives depth and flavour to our language and our lives.

Monday, 15 April 2019

Soap Operas in Africa

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Posters for Kenyan and South African Soap Operas

Who are the influencers in Africa? The politicians? Preachers? Educators? Revolutionaries?

There are some we may seldom think of: the producers of Africa’s soap operas. According to Discovery Networks, the average TV viewer in South Africa watches a massive 4.5 hours a day – a large part of which is taken up with soap operas. Statistics show that South Africa’s top five soap operas have about five billion views a year.  It is, according to journalist Tiema Muindi, ‘habitual viewing’.

Now before any person or group can influence another, there need to be certain conditions in place. It is generally agreed that people are motivated – not only motivated, but induced to act – when they hold up a picture of the world to the world itself, and there find a difference or disjoint. Psychologist Richard Gregory describes it as finding the ‘unexpected’, and the philosopher Willard Quine adds: the expected which fails to happen.

I look from my kitchen window, to see my little girl with her face down in the grass. This is not what I expected to see – and I spring into action. Or I did not expect to see a woman assaulted on the street, or a child malnourished. Again, I spring into action. To put it simply, psychologists say that our behaviour is controlled by mental models – and this, said the philosopher Plato, spells danger. Show people things which change their expectations, and you distract and destabilise all of society. Or so he thought.

It would be important to know, therefore, whether Africa’s soap operas give Africa a picture of the world which is different to the world itself. We are all aware of the shock-factor of soap operas in general: conflicts, intrigue, and the breaking of cultural taboos. Yet in Africa, there is something that would seem to loom larger than any of this. We see it in virtually all of the soap opera posters – which are the 'door', so to speak, to the soap operas themselves. It is affluence. Designer dresses, tailored suits, expensive smartphones, sumptuous settings, and more.

We may open this door and enter in. Here we find, again, affluence. Meals in fine restaurants, fitted kitchens, fast cars, expensive whisky, and so on – not to speak of the expensive pursuits of the characters themselves.

Yet in the real world which is Africa, a vast number of people live in poverty.  By some statistics, 33% in Nigeria, 42% in Kenya, and 55% in South Africa. In reality, one sees shacks made with wood and iron and empty agricultural sacks – overcrowded trains, dusty streets, and children playing with wire toys. Given this context, how might the soap operas influence Africa? There are various possibilities:
They do not significantly shape a continent’s views and expectations – they are merely soap operas, after all. This seems unlikely.
They may lead people to believe that Africa really looks the way that it is presented in the soap operas. May we then blame the wealthier classes, for failing to recognise or understand the desperate struggles of the poor?

The soap operas may dull the senses and desires of the masses – leading them to feel that they are absorbed by the fantasy world they see, to become one with it, as it were.
They may lead viewers to expect the life that they see on TV. And what happens then? Do viewers make these values their own highest good – old colonial values, one might add? Or do they grieve within, to see that they fall so far short of the dream? Or are they motivated to strive for more?
One may ask, too: what would it do to people’s expectations, if they were to view more realistic soap operas? Would these conscientise societies more effectively as to their real plight? Would they lead people to be more realistic in their plans and strategies – with their feet now firmly planted on the ground? Or would they lower their expectations, or degrade them?

Few seem to have given it much thought. Both academic research and popular articles are very thin on the ground. A rare paper on How Do Soap Operas Affect the Poor? Experiences of Turkish Women, by Turkish academics Aras Ozgun et al, concludes that ‘we need to understand the issue from the perspectives of the vulnerable’. There are troubling signs. In particular, in most cases in their study, soap operas led to ‘self-imposed alienation’ amongst the poor, including feelings of shame, anger, dissatisfaction, and powerlessness.

Monday, 8 April 2019

The Myths That Shape Us

The Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy
Posted by Tessa Den Uyl
The shadow of Benvenuto Cellini’s sculpture of Perseus holding Medusa’s head is cast triumphantly on the wall. And was it not also for the shield that the goddess Athena gave to Perseus, that he could sever Medusa’s head? Is such reflection a kind of indirect contact, that tells us something about our own eyes?
The myth tells that everything which came into direct contact with Medusa’s sight petrified, even after her beheading. As miraculously, from her bleeding neck she gave birth to two other creatures, Pegasus and Chrysaor. For the idea of myth is to continue, indeed the force of Greek tragedy reflects on those who have grown up in its shadow, until this present day.   

Such stories have shaped generations, and we ourselves are shaped by stories we may not even have read or heard of. Romanticism, for instance, didn’t take place in Africa, which partly explains how love is perceived within a completely different coding in the West. Similarly, Indian philosophy stimulates a distinct view on life and the Taoist another.

Humankind has searched for meaning, and meaning stems from what happened before us, whether completely invented or not. Through our eyes, we see a past which we are very often unable to recognise, and without recognition, how can we deal with it? Often we see as in a mirror, although we do not see the origin of the image.

When Athena later depicts the decapitated head of Medusa on her chest (the same image is portrayed on the shields of heroic warriors), this image served to frighten the enemy, and surely eyes have become symbolically charged with expressions for us. ‘She looked at me as if I should drop dead.’

You might mistrust someone for the look of one’s eyes more than their words or actions. And friendly eyes make you feel comfortable? Such impressions are generally not much our own creation. They were passed on from generation to generation. Terror is similarly conveyed, and the Ancient Greeks have been masters in paving the path.

We have woven our lives in oblivion. When we seek to find meaning, the effort is to understand what is there. And what is there is filled with symbols that seemingly hand us meaning. We become immensely stimulated by a specific agglomeration of symbols that we make meaningful while their randomness is overlooked.

We give deep attention to a particular combination of images and thoughts whose impressions are immediately accessible to us. Certain gestures, phrases, ideas, and emotions are highlighted which we do remember indeed. Everything we do remember detaches from all other experiences, yet all together they weave the tapestry of our lives. This is the complexity of memory.

Everybody builds up memory in different combinations. What we keep consciously present in our mind tells us how to react, how to pick up a concept, how we feel. We react on what our mind and body have memorised, though not all that is memorised is recalled.

Then, to see our memory as a minor part of a vaster landscape which is not remembered does not sound that illogical. Nor does the notion that oblivion includes everything from which we do not draw conclusions, although the tragedy might just be that this is not that true.

Turning back to the picture above, Benvenuto Cellini’s sculpture exposes a rather violent historic representation. Likewise the other exhibited sculptures by various artists. Today their elevated greatness in the history of art confuses famous names with underlying stories which are represented within the sculptures. The symbolism which reaches out to offer us insight into our current being, ‘a touch into oblivion’, is generally overlooked.

Today, a fair amount of literature and film marches on the key element of tragedy to entertain us. Creating tragedy seems to come naturally to us. Yet indirectly we give meaning to something that was created long before we were there.

The shadow in the picture reminds us how reflection indirectly connects us to oblivion, how oblivion can make us act, and is triumphantly present, silently exhibiting its influence. As this statue by Cellini moves far beyond its time, backward as forward, it is properly charged with oblivion. And this is the art of seeing, the force of myth, that we all carry along.

Monday, 1 April 2019

Picture Post #45: Undesired and Eliminated

'Because things don’t appear to be the known thing; they aren’t what they seemed to be neither will they become what they might appear to become.'

Posted by Tessa den Uyl

Paris - France 2018

The more imagination you put into the display of products for a shop window, the more people will remember it. Here the dead rats are eye catching indeed, aside from the large golden letters announcing: Disinfestation of Harmful Animals.

We remove the unwanted, to justify our own characteristics? 

No animal knows about our bounds, nor do we know about theirs. Living along together, this very often human being simply cannot. Though all those unwanted creatures need an earth to live on. 

Perhaps when these undesired beings are there, we might have something they need? And we need them, whether we like to see them or not. It’s a fair contract, made by nature.

The problem does not originate in nature, but it is a problem how nature will survive with us, and this is one of the most outstanding contradictions in the nature of humankind.

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