Monday, 16 October 2017

Do We Speak Different Realities?

By Lina Ufimtseva
I have a vague feeling or concept in my head, yet I simply cannot put it into words—not even to those who are closest to me.  It certainly creates a barrier between me and whomever the message is intended for. 
Now imagine quite the opposite. I speak multiple languages in which I am fluent, and know the phrases which express the subtleties and layers of the meaning of each word.  Yet composing the same thought in different languages yields different meanings.  I feel that I am just as impeded as before.

Here is an example. In Russian we say, ‘We with our friends are going to dinner,’ not ‘My friends and I are going to dinner.’  If a Russian were to use the latter phrasing, the underlying meaning would convey that he or she does not want to associate with the group of friends, and dislikes the group. Saying ‘We with our friends or family or class’ reinforces the idea that you share the same values, and find identity in that group. In this case, therefore, we have an easy translation, but it is just not the same as that which is translated.

Many have attempted to explain the relationship between language and thought. My interest here is the question: do words create meanings, or do meanings create words—or is it both?

If we were to remove various words from a language, and thereby simplify it (think of Doublespeak in the novel 1984), our ability to express thoughts would surely diminish, and thus the breadth of our worldview would perish. Dictators have effectively done this when using language as propaganda to control masses of people. It would make sense to say that yes, language does create thoughts, and words create meanings. If you don’t have the words, you can’t describe it. Here, meaning is created linguistically, from without.

Yet when we come across a word which describes a very specific situation, there is a click, an a-ha! moment that is universal—whether your language includes the word in question or not. For instance, many have experienced what the Scots call ‘tartle’—the panic-like hesitation just before you have to introduce someone whose name you can't quite remember. Would this not indicate that actually, meaning is created cognitively, from within?

Then again, one word can signify different shades of meaning, even separate concepts. Let’s take the concept of time. Compare how the English in Britain speak about time—how precise and punctual they are about it—and the casualness of South African English. Terms like ‘now’, not to speak of ‘now now’ and ‘just now’, are much more than simply a label for ‘coming another 20, perhaps 25 minutes later’. Such ‘Englishes’ comprise an entirely different mind-set, and thus also, a different worldview to that of the English speaker in Britain or other English-speaking places.

The Germans have a special word: Weltansicht, which refers to ‘the general attitude towards life and reality that an individual or character demonstrates’.  Weltansicht is closely allied with the words which we speak, so that it is difficult to escape their pull. Thought is not objective, and some accidental difference in which language or linguistic dialect you were raised in can indeed shape the way you think and perceive things.   

I would suggest that language is ultimately not only culture bound. An entire cultural identity exists within it and is perpetuated by it. Even the same language spoken in different parts of the world evokes modified meanings.
Photo credit: Russian Report, with the caption ‘Everyone stands for the entire liturgy’.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Identity Politics: Whose Identity?

By Sifiso Mkhonto
Identity is concerned with the facts of ‘who I am’, or ‘what it is’. Identity politics reveals itself in the tend-ency of a people of a particular religion, race, social background, and so on, to form exclusive political alliances. Yet which ‘people’ are these? Are they ordinary citizens, or active citizens in politics? It is both—and identity politics is at its most dangerous when it does not favour ordinary citizens.
When we bring our identity into politics, we awaken the dragon within: the excessive admiration of oneself. It is bad enough when this happens to the citizen. It is worse when it reaches the top, and infiltrates the state itself—and the acceptance of identity politics at one level may cause it to blur into the next. Another way of putting it is that identity politics is too often the doctrine of prejudices, and in politics, such prejudices control discrimination.

Our identity is what belongs to us. My identity is who I am. This is revealed by what I believe, how I act, and how I think the future should be. This provides the evidence of my identity. In other words, people identify me (largely) on the basis of what they see. Of course, identity changes. In different stages of our lives, both our conscious and sub-conscious being changes. This leads to changes in our identity.

Paradoxically, our obsession with our identity has hijacked our moral strength. One may call it our‘moral consciousness’. Race, religion, gender, and other factors which many people identify with, are the pride of their obsession. Too often, exclusive political alliances too are a form of narcissism, and seem to be its driver. In modern psychoanalytic theory, narcissistic pathologies are related to the fragility of selfhood and impoverished object relations. With this in mind, identity politics is frequently biased, limiting, and based on who is victimised extremely. This, then, is defined and introduced as a new concept.

Many heads-of-states’ (ostensible) power is their identity. Why do powerful leaders suppress the truth of reality in order to remain in power? Because they are not really powerful. Are they fearing the real power, which is the will of the people? Why are they insecure about security? Why do they impart fear into their organisations, comrades, and colleagues? Because they abuse the artificial power—which is the identity—granted to them.

In Europe, identity politics is threatening to tear apart the United Kingdom through its ‘Brexit’ from the cosmopolitan, post-national structures of the European Union, and to rekindle civil war in Spain, where Catalan nationalism splinters not only Spain but Catalonia itself.  North Korea serves as another example—not being a monarchy, but a dictatorship, as a result of its lack of a formalised law of succession and its  militarisation (missile tests included), through its current leader Kim Jong-un.  It has proven that fear is a great servant but a terrible master.  It suffocates a leader’s integrity, confirms the obsession of power, and is the pathway to a narcissistic state.

In my own nation of South Africa, a clear and present danger is that one fights identity politics with identity politics in a racially polarised society, so that the values of a non-racial, non-sexist society (and more) remain lost in the ‘rainbow nation’.

A critical ‘truth’ for a post-truth society is reasoning honestly about identity politics: reason which in itself makes one’s identity irrelevant. The validity of the dialogue will not depend on our identity.

Monday, 2 October 2017

Picture Post #29 Stripping Down the Tailor's Dummy

'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 and Martin Cohen

A Shop Window in Florence, Italy, September 2017. Picture credit: Antonio Borrani
We can all wonder what we will do next. What to invent to keep on going while deadlines mark pressure on time schedules. And even when we have no idea what to talk about or to show, surely with something we have to come up. This is a crazy world, more bound to production than quality, and even when we have nothing to tell, we will fill the page, when we have nothing to sell, we fill the shop window. With (non)sense?

The image above shows a ‘flying’ woman in a, perhaps, rather dubious position. Her legs are revealed, which assuredly does exalt her shoes that anew lead up to her legs and higher up to her bottom without underpants. Of-course the woman is a tailor’s dummy, not a real woman. Still, the shoes and her dress are made for real, living woman. In short: what does this puppet represent?

The female figure seems to shape a larger social imagery than we are used to seeing explored for the male. Erotically the female body seems much more consumed for commercial purposes. Imagery is a driving force in many plays, to start with the daily role-play we dress up when we wake.

Something must attract the consumer.

One purse and one shoe exposed for sale, two glass frames containing sand that can be turned around. Like the image of a woman? Or is this a representation of sand dunes? The time? A woman suspended or, perhaps better to say,  a woman pending, in the air.

This, is the fashion to follow.

Monday, 25 September 2017

The Earth is Our Prison

A (Semi-scientific) Theory States that We Come from Another Planet and that the Earth Is Our Prison

Reposted from Pi-Alpha

 A subversive and highly imaginative theory developed by the American Professor of Ecology, Ellis Silver, ponders that human beings seem to have too many misfitting characteristics to be truly a native of Planet Earth. As examples, Silver offers that Man has problems with his back and often suffers from pain because our species descended from a planet with less gravity than on Earth. [The conventional explanation is we pay the price of back pain is the evolutionary one about having opted to wander around on two feet.] However, according to Silver, we also face problems when we are exposed to direct sunlight for a relatively short time because we were not designed to come in so close contact with such a sun.

An additional argument offered by the Professor concerns parturition difficulties and especially those resulting from the fact that the size of the head of a newborn child is disproportionately large. We are the only species on the planet with such high rates of complications and mortality during pregnancy and childbirth, emphasises the scientist. Finally, he notes the fact that humans seem poorly equipped to deal with the natural environment, for example, such basic things as cold or heat.

The theory also considers the paradox that human shows strong dislike for many types of foods that nature provides. Silver says that humans often become ill because, amongst other things, our biological clock is tailored for a day of 25 hours, not the solar day we live under! Silver says that this has been confirmed by certain studies.

So, his conclusion is that, anatomically, modern human is a hybrid resulting from the crossing of the Neanderthals with another kind of humans who came to Earth from 60,000 to 200,000 years ago from a planet in Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to us.

Silver's explanation for our arrival on Earth is that the aliens we once lived with could not stand our indiscipline and aggression and sent us here as a punishment, i.e. we were ‘imprisoned’ here to become… human, and that one day (who knows?) maybe we will be allowed to return to our real celestial home…

The theory is bizarre and requires the suspension of many normal scientific assumptions and principles, but ecologically it has one thing in favour of it: why otherwise would nature have created a species quite as destructive to the rest of the natural world as Man?

Monday, 18 September 2017

Poetry: A Nation in Mourning?

Posted by Chengde Chen *

‘Britain, don’t you want another Diana?’

In Mourning for Future Dianas
Written some years back, but strangely prescient ...

Britain has not only become ugly
Since losing its beauty
But has also become crazy,
Kindling its love for the Princess
To burn the media that created her!
The sword of privacy law legislation
Is being sharpened with the mourning ...
If it does kill the birds of intrusion
Who else will be victimised by the slaying?

Wasn’t it those countless stories and pictures,
Digested with English breakfasts and dinners,
That constructed a ‘Queen’ in people’s hearts
– A ‘close friend’ felt by many many strangers
Who decorated Kensington Palace
With millions of flowers?
Oh, the millions of flowers ...
Are they criminal evidence against the media
Or public awards for its unprecedented success?

Enjoying the honey but condemning the bee
Adoring the river but detesting the rain

This nation is also ‘three times over the limit’
On this side of the Channel
Killing future Dianas to mourn the lost one!

Britain, don’t you want another Diana?
A great mourning may be timeless
But the tears for mourning the past
Won’t dry into logic for mourning the future!

* Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Monday, 11 September 2017

Chaos Theory: And Why It Matters

Posted by Keith Tidman

Computer-generated image demonstrating that the behaviour of dynamical systems is highly sensitive to initial conditions

Future events in a complex, dynamical, nonlinear system are determined by their initial conditions. In such cases, the dependence of events on initial conditions is highly sensitive. That exquisite sensitivity is capable of resulting in dramatically large differences in future outcomes and behaviours, depending on the actual initial conditions and their trajectory over time — how follow-on events nonlinearly cascade and unpredictably branch out along potentially myriad paths. The idea is at the heart of so-called ‘Chaos Theory’.

The effect may show up in a wide range of disciplines, including the natural, environmental, social, medical, and computer sciences (including artificial intelligence), mathematics and modeling, engineering — and philosophy — among others. The implication of sensitivity to initial conditions is that eventual, longer-term outcomes or events are largely unpredictable; however, that is not to say they are random — there’s an important difference. Chaos is not randomness; nor is it disorder*. There is no contradiction or inconsistency between chaos and determinism. Rather, there remains a cause-and-effect — that is, deterministic — relationship between those initial conditions and later events, even after the widening passage of time during which large nonlinear instabilities and disturbances expand exponentially. Effect becomes cause, cause becomes effect, which becomes cause . . . ad infinitum. As Chrysippus, a third-century BC Stoic philosopher, presciently remarked:
‘Everything that happens is followed by something else which depends on it by causal necessity. Likewise, everything that happens is preceded by something with which it is causally connected’.
Accordingly, the dynamical, nonlinear system’s future behaviour is completely determined by its initial conditions, even though the paths of the relationship — which quickly get massively complex via factors such as divergence, repetition, and feedback — may not be traceable. A corollary is that not just the future is unpredictable, but the past — history — also defies complete understanding and reconstruction, given the mind-boggling branching of events occurring over decades, centuries, and millennia. Our lives routinely demonstrate these principles: the long-term effects of initial conditions on complex, dynamical social, economic, ecologic, and pedagogic systems, to cite just a few examples, are likewise subject to chaos and unpredictability.

Chaos theory thus describes the behaviour of systems that are impossible to predict or control. These processes and phenomena have been described by the unique qualities of fractal patterns like the one above — graphically demonstrated, for example, by nerve pathways, sea shells, ferns, crystals, trees, stalagmites, rivers, snow flakes, canyons, lightning, peacocks, clouds, shorelines, and myriad other natural things. Fractal patterns, through their branching and recursive shape (repeated over and over), offer us a graphical, geometric image of chaos. They capture the infinite complexity of not just nature but of complex, nonlinear systems in general — including manmade ones, such as expanding cities and traffic patterns. Even tiny errors in measuring the state of a complex system get mega-amplified, making prediction unreliable, even impossible, in the longer term. In the words of the 20th-century physicist Richard Feynman:
‘Trying to understand the way nature works involves . . . beautiful tightropes of logic on which one has to walk in order not to make a mistake in predicting what will happen’.
The exquisite sensitivity to initial conditions is metaphorically described as the ‘butterfly effect’. The term was made famous by the mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz in a 1972 paper in which he questioned whether the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil — an ostensibly miniscule change in initial conditions in space-time — might trigger a tornado in Texas — a massive consequential result stemming from the complexly intervening (unpredictable) sequence of events. As Aristotle foreshadowed, ‘The least initial deviation . . . is multiplied later a thousandfold’.

Lorenz’s work that accidentally led to this understanding and demonstration of chaos theory dated back to the preceding decade. In 1961 (in an era of limited computer power) he was performing a study of weather prediction, employing a computer model for his simulations. In wanting to run his simulation again, he rounded the variables from six to three digits, assuming that such an ever-so-tiny change couldn’t matter to the results — a commonsense expectation at the time. However, to the astonishment of Lorenz, the computer model resulted in weather predictions that radically differed from the first run — all the more so the longer the model ran using the slightly truncated initial conditions. This serendipitous event, though initially garnering little attention among Lorenz's academic peers, eventually ended up setting the stage for chaos theory.

Lorenz’s contributions came to qualify the classical laws of Nature represented by Isaac Newton, whose Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy three hundred-plus years earlier famously laid out a well-ordered, mechanical system — epically reducing the universe to ‘clockwork’ precision and predictability. It provided us, and still does, with a sufficiently workable approximation of the world we live in.

No allowance, in the preceding descriptions, for indeterminacy and unpredictability. That said, an important exception to determinism would require venturing beyond the macroscopic systems of the classical world into the microscopic systems of the quantum mechanical world — where indeterminism (probability) prevails. Today, some people construe the classical string of causes and effects and clockwork-like precision as perhaps pointing to an original cause in the form of some ultimate designer of the universe, or more simply a god — predetermining how the universe’s history is to unfold.

It is not the case, as has been thought too ambitiously by some, that all that humankind needs to do is get cleverer at acquiring deeper understanding, and dismiss any notion of limitations, in order to render everything predictable. Conforming to this reasoning, the 18th century Dutch thinker, Baruch Spinoza, asserted,
‘Nothing in Nature is random. . . . A thing appears random only through the incompleteness of our knowledge’.

*Another example of chaos is brain activity, where a thought and the originating firing of neurons — among the staggering ninety billion neurons, one hundred trillion synapses, and unimaginable alternative pathways — results in the unpredictable, near-infinite sequence of electromechanical transmissions. Such exquisite goings-on may well have implications for consciousness and free will. Since consciousness is the root of self-identity — our own identity, and that of others — it matters that consciousness is simultaneously the product of, and subject to, the nonlinear complexity and unpredictability associated with chaos. The connections are embedded in realism. The saving grace is that cause-and-effect and determinism are, however, still in play in all possible permutations of how individual consciousness and the universe subtly connect.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Picture Post #28 Messages Concealed in Jarring Details

'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 and Martin Cohen

        Kung, Bamenda area, republic of Cameroon. 
    Picture credit 2015, Pierpaolo di Carlo

Looking back to the picture, nothing appears strange indeed. Perhaps, more often, we have seen pictures of people carrying loads of fruit, bread or books on their heads. A wallet seems so light and small that maybe this lightness is somehow surprising.

“No! The woman does not pose for the camera. Nothing extraordinary,” a linguist and anthropologist replies. “Common practice. Here, everybody carries things on their head. And, by the way, that is not a booklet - but a wallet.”

As with everything, we can pause and take some time for something. Imagine we would walk around with our wallet on our head. Could that happen?

Observing the picture, we might perceive a contrast between the modern, urban icon of the portfolio, and the rural, timeless idea of an African woman standing in front of her habitat. Why? When did we stop carrying things on our head? This picture seems to shape questions of comparison.

Does this picture tell more about us, than about her?

As with many otherwise trivial occurrences, something very ordinary conceals a door to a closet, and when we open that door we find a chaos of things that, before, we tended not to imagine. Nothing is strange, though there is no such strangeness as to believe that.

A practical note on the picture:

Kung is a small village of about 600 people, perched on a steep hill in the Lower Fungom region, northwest Cameroon. Like any other village in the area, Kung has its own chief and its own language - a true language that should not be confused with a dialect. The language has no written form, and is endangered, although one of the community's central motivations is to safeguard its speech, so that the population can continue to communicate with their ancestors who have passed away.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Leadership in (Philosophical) Crisis

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Leadership today is in acute crisis. According to psychologist Harry Levinson in the Harvard Business Review, the signs of trouble began around 1980 in the USA. This coincides with the rise of a theory of leadership called transformational leadership, which is trusted and applied by countless leaders. Does the problem lie in the theory?
Bloomsbury columnist Max Nisen, in Business Insider, describes leadership burnout today as a ‘huge problem’. 96% of senior leaders feel ‘somewhat burned out’, while a third describe the problem as ‘extreme’. Psychologist Kevin Fleming writes: ‘The numbers are absolutely staggering.’ The problem has been exported, too – at least, there has been a lag before it has reached other shores.

There are costs and collateral damage to match. According to Forbes, businesses in the USA lose nearly $40 billion every year through absenteeism among professionals, executives, and managers – far in excess of any other occupations. Mental stress and fatigue affect not only the leader, but the company.

Several years ago, I submitted a proposal to a major seminary, to investigate the problem in a 150-page postgraduate thesis.

The damage to leaders was approximately known. It was known, too, that most put their trust in transformational leadership theory. But statistics which might reflect on the causes of the trouble were virtually non-existent. There were not so much as credible definitions of transformational leadership – and without definitions there is nowhere to begin. Existing definitions seemed more like slogans for the movement.

I chose to use a semantic critique – and this proved to be a powerful tool. I applied it to about five-thousand pages of leadership texts. My first task, then, was to identify the core concepts of the texts. From these, I isolated and developed a fresh definition of transformational leadership (which may go by various names, including connective leadership, servant leadership, and ternary leadership).

Then I listed ‘oppositions’ of the core concepts. Oppositions are something like ‘opposites’. They help us, among other things, to find subtexts. Did the authors' writing cohere, or did their texts reveal subtexts – namely, oppositions which subverted what they said?

It might seem an absurd idea – to look for evidence that authors contradict their own selves. However, it proved to be very fruitful. I was later awarded a distinction for the research, which was a testimony to the power of the method.

Out of five or six core concepts of transformational leadership theory, ‘influence’ is arguably the highest on the list. Leadership consultant John Maxwell epitomises this with the mantra: ‘Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less.’ This is too simplistic, yet it captures the core of it. Other concepts are subsidiary to influence, among them character, persuasiveness, and strategy.

The core question was whether there were ‘oppositions’ which showed that influence was rejected, defeated, weakened, and so on. Indeed there were. To sustain one’s leadership influence, one needed (quote) ‘more than sacrifice and suffering’, ‘courage of the highest order’, and a ‘Herculean effort’, among other things. Hercules, needless to say, was a demigod. There were ‘countless discouraged leaders’, and ‘low expectation and hope’. One author wrote, ‘Lord have mercy!’

The leadership authors seemed to have a perverse drive to tell the truth, even if it was only in a single line. Those single lines torpedoed whole chapters of text. The subtext, although one finds it only in snippets, reveals that all told, the core concepts do not work. Every transformational leadership text, without exception, fundamentally subverted itself.

On the surface of it ‘influence’, with its attendant concepts, would seem to be a felicitous approach to leadership. In reality it is not. It can only seem felicitous as long as one admires it in isolation. Oppositions of resistance, discouragement, acquiescence, failure, and many more, lie in wait at every corner, and slowly destroy the leader.

This is not a small finding. One is dealing with the dominant theory of leadership in the West.

But the purpose here is not merely to summarise a situation. It is to drive deeper, philosophically. The very fact that there are oppositions in the leadership texts gives the problem away. We are not thinking holistically today. We are thinking one-sidedly, or dichotomously. We have developed a one-sided leadership metaphysic, while a powerful subtext has been largely expunged from the texts.

It surely has to do with the times. We have been trained to think in partial ways. We no longer think expansively. In physics, wrote the philosophers Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen, we investigate processes ‘by progressively screening things out.’ While one might justifiably think this way in physics, we now find it all over. It reaches all our concepts, including leadership. We are in bondage to dichotomies today, writes psychologist Ellyn Kaschak, in Psychology Today.

Some put the troubles of leadership down to work load, inadequate coping skills, a lack of preventative mechanisms, an increasing rate of change, and so on. Under my own leadership, in an assignment, a Canadian intern Peter Nighswander put it like this: symptomatic treatment of leadership burnout is not without use, yet it seems that we need to be ‘questioning the system that is producing these results ’.

The alternative to a one-sided or dichotomous view is obviously a holistic one. Many proposed solutions point to the need, not merely for holism, but for deeply holistic thinking.

The scattered solutions, when one surveys them together today, are both broad and complementary. Proposals for a more participative leadership promise to reconcile the leader with the led. Proposals for more adequate recuperation promise to reconcile the leader-as-leader with the leader-as-person. Calculations of total losses to business promise to reconcile the fate of the company with the fate of its leaders. A reduction of stresses external to the workplace promise to heal not only the leader but society.

All such proposals may be characterised as the introduction of a more holistic thinking. This is the philosophy of it. We need to develop a holistic picture, then apply it. We cannot afford any more to lean on one-sided or dichotomous concepts based on a misplaced trust in the text.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Re-Drawing the Lines of Democracy

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
‘As a child, you tend to look on the lines drawn as the inevitable nature of things; for a long time, I did. But along somewhere in boyhood, I came to see that lines once drawn might have been drawn otherwise,’ said Haywood Burns, a leader of the civil rights movement in the USA. We think that the lines drawn of democracy are inescapable.  But are they?
Democracy is not only a system of government of the people, by the people for the people, typically through elected representatives. It is the privilege of freedom, and this is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. In many countries around the world, democracy was gained through the efforts of those who passionately fought and died for it.

Today we find that democracy is not seen with the same eye as it was during the dark days when many did not have the privilege of enjoying it.  The government of the people, by the people, for the people – the power of the people – is undermined and threatened today, above all, by those with artificial power.  This is how:
People are prioritised over issues.  Democracy is a good mechanism for arranging a society for its good, because elected representatives come from the grass roots.  Yet paradoxically, it gets bogged down in the weaknesses encouraged by the personalities involved.  In the words of philosophy writer Thomas Scarborough, it is compromised by personal loyalties, fleeting fears, populism, short-sightedness, and vested interests, among other things.

Groups are prioritised over consensus.  In spite of democracy, many leaders fail to encourage compromise, as a means to obtain group consensus and government which serves the weak and the strong in a fair way.  Mahatma Gandhi wrote, ‘I understand democracy as something that gives the weak the same chance as the strong’.  But elections are mostly fictitious, wrote revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, and ‘managed by rich landowners and professional politicians’.

Bureaucracy is prioritised over democracy.  We perceive that democracy provides every citizen with the right to decide what the general matters of concern are.  Yet, through the years, democracy has been overtaken by bureaucracy – now the driver of democracy in many states.  People have no difficulty with this illusion, while true democracy is lost.

Appearance is prioritised over content.  We argue that those who endorse the principles of democracy represent democracy, as opposed to those who do not.  To some extent, this distinction may be true.  But all too often, both sides are in bondage to class rule.  One side makes this rule overt, while the other is able to disguise it.  Yet little really separates the two.
How then do we judge that democracy is fair and not fictitious?  In answering this question, we should consider two things:
If we seclude democracy from the rule of law, we are preparing for calamity, and

If we fail to respect the fact that nations are diverse, we lose the essence of democracy, which is the power of people.

Monday, 14 August 2017

The Modern Stoic

Oil on canvas by Robert Burridge
Posted by Lina Ufimtseva
The ancient Stoics famously consoled themselves by accepting the inevitable. Through this, their purpose was to endure and to govern their negative emotions. Today, this has led to the misconception that being stoical means to be devoid of all emotion. Rather, it is to be devoid of passions, in the old sense of the word—distress, lament, lust, even excessive delight (including, for example, malice or ostentation).
Here is the crux of the matter: how then does one control excessive passions or negative emotions? This further leads us to the question: what do negative emotions result from? Usually they result from a disparity between desire and outcome. Simply put, when we cannot control what happens around us, we are nettled, riled. All people inherently have a God-complex. We want to plan and control our lives as we see fit.


We exercise control over our negative emotions when we reduce the disparity between desire and outcome, consciously reducing the desire to govern the things we have no control over. Thus we increase our happiness and satisfaction. I visit the airport. My flight is delayed. A friend of opposite persuasion to that of the Stoic—call him the ‘impulsive’ person—gets agitated because he desires to be on time. I, as a stoical person, realise that this is outside the realm of my control. The Stoic therefore might say, ‘The flight is only delayed by two hours. It's not as though it is cancelled.’

Following this logic—namely, that Stoicism reduces the disparity between desire and outcome—being stoical can make one a more buoyant person than the non-Stoic. An impulsive person might react to unwanted surprises with grumpiness, or drama, which can exhaust the patience of others. A stoical person, on the other hand, turns the lack of external control into the abundance of internal control. This may include such reactions as humour, or a quick wit. The Stoic need not be confined to dispassionate or boring responses.

The wisdom is learning to gauge when something is out of one’s control or not. For instance, my friend and I at the airport could have gone to the information desk, and asked if there was another flight with two empty seats—which often happens at airports. This would be an example of practicing Stoic virtues.


Paradoxically, Stocism in itself may lead to positive feelings. Consider the after-effects of destructive passions: drinking too much, or burning the house down. Naturally, this would leave one with destructive feelings in the morning, or may hamper relationships around one (people don't like people who burn a house down).

I may enjoy the illusion of power that destructive behaviour momentarily brings about, yet at the end of the day, it robs me of joy and liveliness. It is generally not sustainable to burn houses down, or to drink excessively, without harming one's own esteem. Stoic virtues therefore aim to increase and sustain satisfaction.

Courage is another virtue of the Stoic. To laugh in the face of a nuisance (such as a delayed flight) or in the face of danger, takes courage. Such courage generally raises one's self-esteem, as long as it is done in humility. With the raising of one's self-esteem, one becomes happier, and loses the need or desire for impulsive behaviour. So the Stoicism which might seem emotionless or boring can actually be a deep sense of satisfaction.


Now this leads us to the inner experience of the Stoic, and begs the question what it means to be such a person. Is one boring by being perceived as being boring, or is it important to be perceived by others in a certain way? Which is more true? My own perception of myself, or other people's perception of me? Which is more objective?

What one person perceives as a boring reaction (say, not reacting at all) might be perceived as cool and level-headed, even inspiring, by another. A friend seems to touch the quintessence of it: ‘There is a certain beauty and elusive joy that comes from embracing the absurdity of the things that lie outside of one's control.’

'A bad feeling is a commotion of the mind repugnant to reason, 
and against nature.' —Zeno of Citium.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Picture Post #27 An Icon on the ‘Verge’ of American History

'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 and Martin Cohen 

A native American family taking a ride in a car. The picture was 
apparently taken in 1916 in the American Pacific Northwest

There's a piquant quality about the image. For the photographer and the publisher of the time, were the passengers meant to be ridiculous? A mocking look at native peoples in the White Man's world? Yet even if so they surely do not know that. For the passengers of that day, they are very modern, very grand.

The picture shows that realities fuse together in ramifications of accidental experiences. Notably, the image contains the awareness that symbols deeply embedded in societies take on different senses given different motivations and perspectives.

We now know how Native Americans, in general, fared with modernity: the car is a symbol of their fate and oppression. An image such as this accumulates meaning by virtue of some of its intrinsic symbolic values, which are nonetheless unusual in the face of deep-rooted events – events that allow a symbol to become an icon. 

There cannot be anything strange to see a Native American family driving around in an automobile. Yet this occasion, strange indeed might be the Indians pictured in the limousine. The first possibility shades into a reality where everything becomes like a dream and realisation is always immediate, no matter how many complex things are combined. The second bears the idea that realisation will always be something postponed to the future, and that in this process elements reappear as odd, as clashing symbols.  

The difference in the language is subtle. This is the delicacy on which an icon can be raised.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Identity: From Theseus's Paradox to the Singularity

Posted by Keith Tidman

A "replica" of an ancient Greek merchant ship based on the remains of a ship that wrecked about 2,500 years ago.  With acknowledgements to Donald Hart Keith.
As the legend goes, Theseus was an imposing Greek hero, who consolidated power and became the mythical king of Athens. Along the way, he awed everyone by leading victorious military campaigns. The Athenians honoured Theseus by displaying his ship in the Athenian harbour. As the decades rolled by, parts of the ship rotted. To preserve the memorial, each time a plank decayed, the Athenians replaced it with a new plank of the same kind of wood. First one plank, then several, then many, then all.

As parts of the ship were replaced, at what point was it no longer the ‘ship of Theseus’? Or did the ship retain its unique (undiminished) identity the entire time, no matter how many planks were replaced? Do the answers to those two questions change if the old planks, which had been warehoused rather than disposed of, were later reassembled into the ship? Which, then, is the legendary ‘ship of Theseus’, deserving of reverence — the ship whose planks had been replaced over the years, or the ship reassembled from the stored rotten planks, or neither? The Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch elaborated on the paradox in the first century in 'Life of Theseus'.

At the core of these questions about a mythical ship is the matter of ‘identity’. Such as how to define ‘an object’; whether an object is limited to the sum of people’s experience of it; whether an object can in some manner stay the same, regardless of the (macro or micro) changes it undergoes; whether the same rules regarding identity apply to all objects, or if there are exceptions; whether gradual and emergent, rather than immediate, change makes a difference in identity; and so forth.

The seventeenth-century English poilitical philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, weighed in on the conundrum, asking, ‘Which of the two existing ships is numerically one and the same ship as Theseus’s original ship?’ He went on to offer this take on the matter:
‘If some part of the first material has been removed or another part has been added, that ship will be another being, or another body. For, there cannot be a body “the same in number” whose parts are not all the same, because all a body’s parts, taken collectively, are the same as the whole.’
The discussion is not, of course, confined to Theseus’s ship. All physical objects are subject to change over time: suns (stars), trees, houses, cats, rugs, hammers, engines, DNA, the Andromeda galaxy, monuments, icebergs, oceans. As do differently categorised entities, such as societies, institutions, and organizations. And people’s bodies, which change with age of course — but more particularly, whose cells get replaced, in their entirety, roughly every seven years throughout one’s life. Yet, we observe that amidst such change — even radical or wholesale change — the names of things typically don’t change; we don’t start calling them something else. (Hobbes is still Hobbes seven years later, despite cellular replacement.)

The examples abound, as do the issues of identity. It was what led the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus to famously question whether, in light of continuous change, one can ‘step into the same river twice’—answering that it’s ‘not the same river and he’s not the same man’. And it’s what led Hobbes, in the case of the human body, to conveniently switch from the ‘same parts’ principle he had applied to Theseus’s ship, saying regarding people, ‘because of the unbroken nature of the flux by which matter decays and is replaced, he is always the same man’. (Or woman. Or child.) By extension of this principle, objects like the sun, though changing — emitting energy through nuclear fusion and undergoing cycles — have what might be called a core ‘persistence’, even as aspects of their form change.
‘If the same substance which thinks be changed,
it can be the same person, or remaining
the same, it can be a different person? — John Locke
But people, especially, are self-evidently more than just bodies. They’re also identified by their minds — knowledge, memories, creative instincts, intentions, wants, likes and dislikes, sense of self, sense of others, sense of time, dreams, curiosity, perceptions, imagination, spirituality, hopes, acquisitiveness, relationships, values, and all the rest. This aspect to ‘personal identity’, which John Locke encapsulates under the label ‘consciousness’ (self) and which undergoes continuous change, underpins the identity of a person, even over time — what has been referred to as ‘diachronic’ personal identity. In contrast, the body and mind, at any single moment in time, has been referred to as ‘synchronic’ personal identity. We remain aware of both states — continuous change and single moments — in turns (that is, the mind rapidly switching back and forth, analogous to what happens while supposedly 'multitasking'), depending on the circumstance.

The philosophical context surrounding personal identity — what’s essential and sufficient for personhood and identity — relates to today’s several variants of the so-called ‘singularity’, spurring modern-day paradoxes and thought experiments. For example, the intervention of humans to spur biological evolution — through neuroscience and artificial intelligence — beyond current physical and cognitive limitations is one way to express the ‘singularity’. One might choose to replace organs and other parts of the body — the way the planks of Theseus’s ship were replaced — with non-biological components and to install brain enhancements that make heightened intelligence (even what’s been dubbed ultraintelligence) possible. This unfolding may be continuous, undergoing a so-called phase transition.

The futurologist, Ray Kurzweil, has observed, ‘We're going to become increasingly non-biological’ — attaining a tipping point ‘where the non-biological part dominates and the biological part is not important any more’. The process entails the (re)engineering of descendants, where each milestone of change stretches the natural features of human biology. It’s where the identity conundrum is revisited, with an affirmative nod to the belief that mind and body lend themselves to major enhancement. Since such a process would occur gradually and continuously, rather than just in one fell swoop (momentary), it would fall under the rubric of ‘diachronic’ change. There’s persistence, according to which personhood — the same person — remains despite the incremental change.

In that same manner, some blend of neuroscience, artificial intelligence, heuristics, the biological sciences, and transformative, leading-edge technology, with influences from disciplines like philosophy and the social sciences, may allow a future generation to ‘upload the mind’ — scanning and mapping the mind’s salient features — from a person to another substrate. That other substrate may be biological or a many-orders-of-magnitude-more-powerful (such as quantum) computer. The uploaded mind — ‘whole-brain emulation’ — may preserve, indistinguishably, the consciousness and personal identity of the person from whom the mind came. ‘Captured’, in this term’s most benign sense, from the activities of the brain’s tens of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses.

‘Even in a different body, you’d still be you
if you had the same beliefs, the same worldview,
and the same memories.’ — Daniel Dennett
If the process can happen once, it can happen multiple times, for the same person. In that case, reflecting back on Theseus’s ship and notions of personal identity, which intuitively is the real person? Just the original? Just the first upload? The original and the first upload? The original and all the uploads? None of the uploads? How would ‘obsolescence’ fit in, or not fit in? The terms ‘person’ and ‘identity’ will certainly need to be revised, beyond the definitions already raised by philosophers through history, to reflect the new realities presented to us by rapid invention and reinvention.

Concomitantly, many issues will bubble to the surface regarding social, ethical, regulatory, legal, spiritual, and other considerations in a world of emulated (duplicated) personhood. Such as: what might be the new ethical universe that society must make sense of, and what may be the (ever-shifting) constraints; whether the original person and emulated person could claim equal rights; whether any one person (the original or emulation) could choose to die at some point; what changes society might confront, such as inequities in opportunity and shifting centers of power; what institutions might be necessary to settle the questions and manage the process in order to minimise disruption; and so forth, all the while venturing increasingly into a curiously untested zone.

The possibilities are thorny, as well as hard to anticipate in their entirety; many broad contours are apparent, with specificity to emerge at its own pace. The possibilities will become increasingly apparent as new capabilities arise (building on one another) and as society is therefore obliged, by the press of circumstances, to weigh the what and how-to — as well as the ‘ought’, of course. That qualified level of predictive certainty is not unexpected, after all: given sluggish change in the Medieval Period, our twelfth-century forebears, for example, had no problem anticipating what thirteenth-century life might offer. At that time in history, social change was more in line with the slow, plank-by-plank changes to Theseus’s ship. Today, the new dynamic of what one might call precocious change — combined with increasingly successful, productive, leveraged alliances among the various disciplines — makes gazing into the twenty-second century an unprecedentedly challenging briar patch.

New paradoxes surrounding humanity in the context of change, and thus of identity (who and what I am and will become), must certainly arise. At the very least, amidst startling, transformative self-reinvention, the question of what is the bedrock of personal identity will be paramount.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Pity the Fundamentalists

Posted by Mirjam Scarborough*
          with Thomas Scarborough

Ferdinand Hodler - Die Lebensmüden (Tired of Life) 1892

What is it that sustains the fundamentalist?  I should say, the religious fundamentalist.  In particular, the fundamentalist who is willing to give up everything for God?  Of this description, there are fundamentalists of many kinds: missionaries, militants, medics, volunteers – priests, nuns, imams, rabbis – anyone for whom God means the world, and proves it by his or her sacrifice.

I had the privilege of researching religious fundamentalism through a ten-year study of women missionaries in Central Africa.  These represented the most committed members of fundamentalist faith**.  In a sense, they were the foot soldiers of the avant garde.  They were the leading edge – ready to give up everything in the name of God: friends, comforts, health, security, even freedom, children, life itself.

The reason why they did it, not unexpectedly, was that fundamentalists see themselves as being under orders – and these are orders from God himself.  The orders may go by various names: God's summons, commission, commandment, burden, among other terms.  In the case of the women missionaries, it was a 'call'. 

This call from God is not 'empty', so to speak.  It is rich in content.  Yet one thing characterises it above all.  God’s demands are high.  His paragons are perfect.  One gives much and expects little.  The orders which the religious fundamentalist receives make the highest demands – indeed they represent, generally speaking, the hardest tasks that anyone may aspire to. 

The question of my research was simple: 'What is it that sustains such a call?'

My intuitive answer was: God himself.  It is sufficient to know that one is called by God, to see one through any challenge and hardship on earth – and then, in many cases, to add to it love.  In fact, this proved to be true, and was borne out by the research.  Orders from God – or the perception of orders from God – encouraged the religious fundamentalist to great commitment and endurance, heroism and sacrifice.

However, it didn’t last.  It couldn’t last.  In the long term – which was about four years – the heroes crumbled.  There were intense stresses.  Their expectations were deeply challenged.  They suffered severe emotional trauma and exhaustion.  In fact, it was accepted as the norm that one would 'break down' in year four. Most, if not all of the missionaries I interviewed, needed medical interventions to stabilise their condition.

Even then, statistically, 50% of them were lost to the mission every thirteen years. Worse than that, anecdotal evidence showed that their spouses and children may have suffered the deepest trauma.

The call of God sustained them at first. It inspired them to extraordinary commitment and endurance. Up to a point, my assumptions were on target. Those who feel that they are called by God – perhaps ordered, summoned, commanded, commissioned by him – are sustained by the call. But as months grow into years, they nearly all crumble. They are utterly depleted.

However, there was a surprise.  Some of fundamentalism's foot soldiers – by far not all – rebounded.  After their first leave of absence, broken and beaten, they returned to the mission field repaired, if not refreshed – to the very same circumstances – never to experience such crisis again.

What changed?  It was not their fundamentalism, really.  They did not lose the sense of being under the call and commandment of God, nor did they feel in any way that his high demands had slipped.  But they let go of personal effort, and they trusted God to do it – in spite of them.

It all turned, therefore, on their understanding of their trust in God. No longer did they trust God to give them super-human powers for the task, or an indomitable will.  Rather, in brokenness, they trusted him to bless their great weakness.  Some called it the purification of the call.  Some called it repentance.

It all hinged on this one thing: God is great – but he does not impart his greatness to us.  It does not rub off on mere mortals.

The religious fundamentalist – the avant garde – missionaries, militants, medics, volunteers – priests, nuns, imams, rabbis – anyone for whom God means the world, and prove it by their sacrifice – all are of only fleeting usefulness to the cause, if any usefulness at all, until their call is purified.  In fact, until then, if anecdotal evidence would be true, they do great damage not only to themselves but to all those close to them.

It is tragedy and ruin – until they find a realistic sense of themselves, and a realistic sense of the God they serve.  Pity the religious fundamentalists, and all those near to them – at least, those whose call has not yet been 'cleansed'.

* Rev. Dr. Mirjam Scarborough (1957-2011) was a doctor of philosophy and a missiologist.
** My study included some who are sooner referred to as 'revivalists'.

Monday, 10 July 2017

Poetry: A Notice Offering Amnesty

Posted by Chengde Chen*

A Notice Offering Amnesty
Written after the Grenfell Tower fire

By Chengde Chen

To determine the numbers of dead,
The police appeal to the survivors:

‘Please let us know your situation
And that of others you may know of.
Don’t worry about your immigration status–
We will not report it to the Home Office,
Nor will the Home Office pursue it.
So, please contact us!’

I seem to be touched by this,
But don’t really know what for.
For humanity in the law?
Or because we’re guilty of so lacking in it,
That we have to sacrifice the law
To compensate?

* Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Picture Post #26. Life-Matters

'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 and Martin Cohen

Guatamala, 1968. Picture credit: Jill Gibson
A woman with a newborn passes by the word ‘Muerte’ written on the wall. Nothing could be more natural; birth and death simply belong to each other.

Which raises two questions: what happens when death becomes a symbol to reclaim something belonging to the past? What happens when a distinction is made about who, and who should not, live? Because then the right to live is not the same concept for all of us. 

Suppose that birth is a concept about being, and death a concept about non-being, then whatever touches upon these concepts, touches upon a principle. The problem is not birth, nor yet death itself. The problem is in the claims being made. To respect life means to respect death. Herein lies something universal.

A note by the photographer, Jill Gibson:

During the years 1966–1968, I was photo-documenting the work and progress of doctors who were examining the medical problems of children living in the pure Mayan village of Santa Maria Cauqué, located in the hills 30 minutes outside of Guatemala City. There were some days I travelled in a 4-wheel drive vehicle, up riverbed roads for five to six hours just to reach remote villages, along with a doctor. The doctor educated me about the United Fruit Company and it’s influence over the Guatemalan government, and the ramifications of U.S. involvement in the country. So, I believe the word Muerte, being a graffiti on the wall, has something to do with the resistance at the time.

There was in fact a lot of death going on then, as the country was immersed in military violence from 1965 through 1995. We saw it again first hand in 1984. During these years, the Mayans were being annihilated.

Monday, 26 June 2017

The Death Penalty: An Argument for Global Abolition

Posted by Keith Tidman

In 1957, Albert Camus wrote an essay called Reflections on the Guillotine. As well as arguing against it on grounds of principle, he also speaks of the ineffectiveness of the punishment:
‘According to one magistrate, the overwhelming majority of the murderers he had tried did not know, when they shaved themselves that morning, that they were going to kill someone that night. In short, capital punishment cannot intimidate the man who throws himself upon crime as one throws oneself into misery.’
For myself, too, the death penalty is an archaic practice, a vestige with no place in a 21st-century world. In the arena of constitutional law, the death penalty amounts to ‘cruel and unusual’ (inhumane) punishment. In the arena of ethics, the death penalty is an immoral assault on human rights, dignity, and life’s preeminence.

Through the millennia, social norms habitually tethered criminal punishment to ‘retribution’ — which minus the rhetorical dressing distils to ‘revenge’. ‘Due process of law’ and ‘equal protection under the law’ were random, rare, and capricious. In exercising retribution, societies shunted aside the rule of authentic proportionality, with execution the go-to punishment for a far-ranging set of offenses, both big and small — murder only one among them. In some societies, matters like corruption, treason, terrorism, antigovernment agitation, and even select ‘antisocial’ behaviours likewise qualified for execution — and other extreme recourses — shades of which linger today.

Resort through the ages to state-sanctioned, ceremonial killing (and other severe corporal punishment) reflected the prevailing norms of societies, with little stock placed on the deep-rooted, inviolable value of human life. The aim was variously to control, coerce, impose suffering, and ultimately dehumanise — very much as enemies in war find it easier to kill if they create ‘subhuman’ caricatures of the enemy. Despite the death penalty’s barbarity, some present-day societies retain this remnant from humanity’s darker past: According to Amnesty International, twenty-three countries — scattered among the Asia-Pacific, Africa, the United States in the Americas, and Belarus in Europe — carried out executions in 2016; while fifty-five countries sentenced people to death that year.

But condemnation of the death penalty does not, of course, preclude imposing harsh punishment for criminal activity. Even the most progressive, liberally democratic countries, abiding by enlightened notions of justice, appropriately accommodate strict punishment — though well short of society’s premeditatedly killing its citizens through application of the death penalty. The aims of severe punishment may be several and, for sure, reasonable: to preserve social orderliness, disincentivise criminal behaviour, mollify victims, reinforce legal canon, express moral indignation, cement a vision of fairness, and reprimand those found culpable. Largely fair objectives, if exercised dispassionately through due process of law. These principles are fundamental and immutable to civil, working — and rules-based — societies. Nowhere, however, does the death penalty fit in there; and nowhere is it obvious that death is a proportionate (and just) response to murder.

‘One ought not return injustice
for injustice’ — Socrates

Let’s take a moment, then, to look at punishment. Sentencing may be couched as ‘consequentialist’, in which case punishment’s purpose is utilitarian and forward looking. That is, punishment for wrongdoing anticipates future outcomes for society, such as eliminating (or more realistically, curtailing) criminal behaviour. The general interest and welfare of society — decidedly abstract notions, subject to various definitions — serve as the desired and sufficient end state.

Alternatively, punishment may be couched as ‘deontological’. In that event, the deed of punishment is itself considered a moral good, apart from consequences. Deontology entails rules-based ethics — living under the rule of law, as a norm within either liberal or conservative societies and systems of governance — while still attaining retributive objectives. Or, commonly, punishment may be understood as an alliance of both consequentialism and deontology. Regardless of choice — whether emphasis is on consequentialism or deontology or a hybrid of the two — the risk of punishing the innocent, especially given the irreversibility of the death penalty in the case of discovered mistakes, looms large. As such, the choice among consequentialism, deontology, or a hybrid matters little to any attempt to support a case for capital punishment.

Furthermore, the meting out of justice works only if knowledge is reliable and certain. That is, knowledge of individuals’ culpability, the competence of defense and prosecutorial lawyers, unbiased evidence (both exculpatory and inculpatory), the randomness of convictions across demographics, the sense of just desserts, the fairness of particular punishments (proportionality), and the prospective benefits to society of specific punitive measures. Broadly speaking, what do we know, how do we know it, and the weight of what counts — epistemological issues that are bound by the ethical issues. In many instances, racial, ethnic, gender, educational, or socioeconomic prejudices (toward defendants and victims alike) skew considerations of guilt and, in particular, the discretionary imposition of the death penalty. In some countries, politics and ideology — even what’s perceived to threaten a regime’s legitimacy — may damn the accused. To those sociological extents, ‘equal protection of the law’ becomes largely moot.

Yet at the core, neither consequentialism — purported gains to society from punishment’s outcomes — nor deontology — purported intrinsic, self-evident morality of particular sentences — rises to the level of sufficiently undergirding the ethical case for resorting to the death penalty. Nor does retribution (revenge) or proportionality (‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’). After all, whether death is the proportionate response to murder remains highly suspect. Indeed, no qualitative or quantitative logic, no matter how elegantly crafted, successfully supports society’s recourse to premeditatedly and ceremoniously executing citizens as part of its penal code.

‘Capital punishment is the most
premeditated of murders’ — Albert Camus

There is no public-safety angle, furthermore, that could not be served equally well by lifetime incarceration — without, if so adjudged, consideration of rehabilitation and redemption, and thus without the possibility of parole. Indeed, evidence does not point to the death penalty improving public safety. For example, the death penalty has no deterrent value — that is, perpetrators don’t first contemplate the possibility of execution in calculating whether or not to commit murder or other violent crime. The starting position therefore ought to be that human life is sacrosanct — life’s natural origins, its natural course, and its natural end. Society ought not deviate from that principle in normalising particular punishments for criminal — even heinously criminal — behaviour. The guiding moral principle is singular: that it’s ethically unprincipled for a government to premeditatedly take its citizenries’ lives in order to punish, a measure that morally sullies the society condoning it.

Society’s applying the death penalty as an institutional sentence for a crime is a cruel vestige of a time when life was less sacred and society (the elite, that is) was less inclined to censor its own behavior: intentionally executing in order, with glaring irony, to model how killing is wrong. Society cannot compartmentalise this lethal deed, purporting that sanctioned death penalty is the exception to the ethical rule not to kill premeditatedly. Indeed, as Salil Shetty, secretary-general of Amnesty International, laconically observed, ‘the death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it’.

Although individuals, like victim family members, may instinctively and viscerally want society to thrash out in revenge on their behalf — with which many people may equally instinctively and understandably sympathise — it’s incumbent upon society to administer justice rationally, impartially, and, yes, even dispassionately. With no carveout for excepted crimes, no matter how odious, the death penalty is a corrosive practice that flagrantly mocks the basis of humanity and civilisation — that is, it scorns the very notion of a ‘civil’ society.

The death penalty is a historical legacy that should thus be consigned to the dustbin. States, across the globe, have no higher, sober moral stake than to strike the death penalty from their legal code and practices. With enough time, it will happen; the future augurs a world absent state-sanctioned execution as a misdirected exercise in the absolute power of government.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Language: Two Himalayan Mistakes

Seated Woman by Richard Diebenkorn
Posted by Thomas Scarborough
We take a lot on trust. Too much of it, mistakenly. We even have a name for it: ex verecundiam.  With this in mind, there are two things at the heart of our language, which we have mistakenly taken on trust. The first is how to circumscribe the meaning of a word, the second is how to qualify that meaning. These are not merely issues of semantics. They have profound implications for our understanding of the world. 
There was a time, not too long ago, when we had no dictionaries. In fact, it was not too long ago that we had no printing presses on which to print them. Then, when dictionaries arrived, we decided that words had definitions, and that, where applicable, each of these definitions held the fewest possible semantic features. A woman, for instance, was an ‘adult human female’, no less, and certainly no more – three features in all. While this may be too simple a description of the matter, the meaning will be clear.

We may never know who first gave us permission to do this, or on whose authority it was decided. It may go back to Aristotle. But at some time in our history, two options lay before us. One was to reduce the meaning of a word to the fewest possible semantic features. The other was to include in it every possible semantic feature. We know now what the decision was. We chose artificially and arbitrarily to radically reduce what words are.

We canvassed the literature. We canvassed the people. All had their own vast ideas and experiences about a word. Then we sought the word's pure essence, its abstract core – like the definition of the woman, an ‘adult human female’. This, however, introduced one of the biggest problems of semantics. We needed now to separate semantic features which mattered from those which did not. The artificiality and uncertainty of this dividing line – that is, between denotation and connotation – has filled many books.

Worse than this. It is easy to prove that we took the wrong option at the start.  We are in a position to demonstrate that, when we refer to a word, we refer to its maximal semantic content, not minimal. Some simple experiments prove the point. Take the sentences, ‘I entered the house. The karma was bad,’ or, ‘The car hit a ditch. The axle broke.’ What now does ‘the karma’ or ‘the axle’ refer to? It refers to the maximal content of a word. This is how, intuitively, innately, we deal with words.

Our second big mistake, which follows on from the first, was the notion of subject and predicate. We call these the ‘principal syntactic elements’ of language. They were at the forefront of Kant's philosophy. Today, the universally accepted view is that the predicate completes an idea about the subject. Take as an example the sentence, ‘’The woman (subject) dances (predicate),’ or, ‘The penny (subject) drops (predicate).’

Again, ‘the woman’ is taken as the bare-bones concept, ‘adult human female’. Add to this the predicate – the fact that the woman dances – and we expand on the concept of a woman. We already know that a woman dances, of course. We know, too, that she laughs, sleeps, eats, and a great deal more. Similarly, we define ‘the penny’ as a ‘British bronze coin’. Add to this that it can drop, and we have expanded on the concept of a penny. Of course, we know well that it clinks, shines, even melts, and much more besides.

Yet, what if the predicate serves not to expand upon the subject, but to narrow it down? In fact, if words contain every possible semantic feature, so too must subjects. A predicate takes a ‘maximal’ subject, then – the near infinite possibilities contained in ‘the woman’, or ‘the penny’ – and channels them, so to speak. ‘The woman (who can be anything) dances.’ ‘The penny (which offers a multitude of possibilities) drops.’  Predicates, then, are ‘clarifiers’, as it were. They take a thing, and narrow it down and sharpen its contours.

The application to philosophy is simple.  We discard a word’s many possibilities – those of a woman, a penny, a house, a car – in the interests of the arbitrary notion that they represent minimal meanings – so reducing them to the smallest number of semantic features people use, and throwing the rest away.

Day after day, we do this, through force of centuries of habit. With this, we instantly discard (almost) all the possibilities of a word. We meet situations without being open to their possibilities, but cobble a few predicates to bare-bones subjects, and so lose our good sense. Nuclear power is the generation of electricity, a ship is something that floats, a Führer is someone who governs. The words, being stripped of their maximal meanings, do not contain – perhaps most importantly – the possibility of evil. This greatly assists prejudice, bigotry, partiality, and discrimination.

When words are reduced to their minimal features – when we base their meaning on their denotative core – we ‘crop’ them, truncate them, reduce them, and above all, cut away from them a great many meanings which they hold, and so reduce our awareness of the world, and cosmos.  Due in no small part to the way we imagine our language to be – minimal words and minimal subjects – we have entered habits of thinking which are simplistic, reductionistic, technical – and dangerous.

But to understand words in terms of maximal meanings is to reject the reductionism of our present time, and to think expansively, creatively, intuitively, holistically.