Monday, 24 August 2015

The Price of Culture

Is the world's biggest bookshop - killing the book?

The journalist, Sonny Yap, once described the library as ‘perhaps the best antidote to the insidious influence of the suburban shopping mall… a chance to browse in a marketplace of ideas instead of a marketplace of goods and services*’, but even if it was once, these days the antidote is no longer effective. Far from it! Amazon, which is today where the world goes for books, has carefully applied the ruthless Walmart model to every stage of publishing. Its founder, Jeff Bezos, is proud of revolutionising the means of book production and distribution, yet the old mechanisms by which academics did have at least the ’potential’ to spread ideas are also disappearing, replaced by a much more ruthless market in intellectual property.

It happened so fast, we hardly noticed. In 1995, the year Jeff Bezos, then 31, started Amazon, just 16 million people used the Internet. Today, almost one out of every four humans on the planet, are online.

The year before Amazon, that is in 1994, Americans bought 500 million books, worth $19 billion, and seventeen bestsellers each sold more than 1 million copies. Today, Jeff Bezos is himself worth some ludicrous sum in excess of $25 billion. It’s an extraordinary shift of resources – from publishers and authors to hedge funds – and Bezos. But then, unlike Google, which got its start on an academic campus and pays lip service to certain values* as a result, Amazon began its story on Wall Street, where Mr. Bezos worked as an analyst at D. E. Shaw, a quantitative hedge fund that ‘pioneered the use of computers and sophisticated mathematical formulas to exploit anomalous patterns in global financial markets’. It is this background that explains the reasoning behind his idea of an online ‘everything store’ and Amazon’s ruthless attitude towards competitors. According to one of Bezos’ biographers, during negotiations for access to their back catalogues, the small independent publishers were nicknamed the gazelles by Amazon – meaning the food for the lion.

But the bookstore wars are long over, and Amazon won. Rarely do students and academics buy their books from the curated collections that were university bookshops, they buy them on-line where margins are shaved and prices are cheaper. Where once university presses earnestly solicited academics for their research projects, promising readers' reports, copyediting and fastidious proof checking, now even the giant, transnational presses (like Taylor and Francis and Wiley-Blackwell) have had to drastically rethink their assumptions about profits from such books, in the absence of library sales, shrinking university bookshops and a public culture of book browsing for free on the Internet.

The Journal system in particular has run its course – publishers will have to do without its golden eggs. The high prices paid for access to the precious real estate of journals sitting in a thousand library racks cannot for long survive the practical advantages of online open access. Perhaps funding through grants or library consortia will ease the transition, but Journals are heading the same way as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

For the academic presses, the kind of books they can do has changed. The change is one way – from the bookshop ‘trade’ towards reading lists. So the place of the presses and academic authors alike in intellectual and cultural life is shrinking, taken by attractively packaged, gossipy books from trade presses, who ‘pile ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap’.

Actually, I’m not saying the changes are all black and white (that old ways are all good and new ways all bad). I’m just saying that they are profound and ‘out of control’. And that we should be sceptical of talk of new forms of writing, new forms of learning  - market forces normally result in the emergence of a few brands at the expense of choice and diversity. Harry Potter for children, Shades of Gray for adults...

*The full quote is: 'The library is perhaps the best antidote to the insidious influence of the suburban shopping mall. As responsible citizens, we need to give the young a chance to choose between a video arcade and a reading place, a chance to browse in a marketplace of ideas instead of a marketplace of goods and services.'

Monday, 17 August 2015

Special Investigation: Gene Therapy and the Origins of Life

The process of natural selection and survival of the fittest lies at the surface of the great molecular chronicle of gene therapy. This investigation argues  the approach will play a great use in near future- as long as  attention is paid to the very spirit of its conceptualisation.

A Special Pi Investigation into the Biochemical Mechanisms involved in Origins and the Evolution of Life - centred on the role of Gene Shuffling.

by Muneeb Faiq and PI editors
Is gene therapy - or gene shuffling as we might alternatively call it -  a product of human genius or a traditional method employed by evolution for last 3.2 billion years in order to give rise to all forms of life that the planet earth has seen? 

Indisputably, this is a very important question which has escaped attention from theoretical biologists for almost four decades (since gene therapy was conceptualised) and there seems to be almost no literature available on it. Instead, there is a general tendency to think that gene therapy is a very recent phenomenon innovated by human mind to achieve desired functioning of a gene and consequently an organism.

That notion is correct in its own right but when you look at it with a little scrutiny, you have to be drawn to the conclusion that gene therapy has been the modus operandi of the process of evolution for billions of years and it is the process of gene therapy (or gene manipulation for that matter) that has brought about the variety and complexity of life that we witness today.

This philosophical investigation will oppose the self-evident notion that the best survives (which begs the question of what the 'best' means) by emphasising that it is the shuffling, the complexity, of gene manipulations that is the real engine of evolution.

Gene therapy lies at the crux of evolutionary mechanisms and how the manipulation of DNA (the genetic material, DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, and I find it is the hereditary material in humans and almost all other organisms) has helped gene therapy to achieve the target of producing millions of different species of plants and animals. But before discussing this further, it is imperative to define the terms first so that it becomes easy to understand the arguments put forth in this investigation. Here is how we go, starting with what I call the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology.

Monday, 10 August 2015

A Liberation Economics

Image courtesy of liberation blog
Posted by Thomas Scarborough 
We no longer live in a state of nature. Over the course of centuries, our vocations have become more specialised, and more distanced from our roots.
Our workplaces now at a distance, our knowledge contained in isolated pools, our tools manufactured by others, our potential curbed by managers, and our recovery-time limited by numbers on a wall – among other things – the question is pressing as to how we should best accommodate vast changes as we move through time and through history.

We tend to underestimate the hapless way in which we have managed the change, and the burdens we have brought upon ourselves. Consider the word 'employment' – derived from the Latin implicare, to enfold. We may thus be seen to be enfolded by employers: surrounded, enveloped, even engulfed. The consequences need no introduction: traffic jams, night shifts, equipment malfunctions, red tape, even surrendering our children to strangers. Fatigue, oppressive environments, unrealistic targets, and demands beyond our ability to cope. Nor are we free to be excused: to the point, sometimes, of exhaustion, depression, road rage, divorce, even suicide.

It is the selling of oneself and being sold, judged Karl Marx. In fact long has the debate raged as to whether we merely are marketable goods. However, while there is little doubt that this is so in the case of slavery and forced labour, in the best of situations we may be confused. If we are commodities, we are surely cherished commodities: valued colleagues, graciously accommodated, and thoughtfully motivated. Yet even so, in view of the heavy burdens which most of us bear, it seems hard to deny that we are in fact held – in many respects, at least – in bondage.

But things have been changing. The tide has been turning. Since the advent of modern economic theory, a simplistic view of employment has given way to a far more holistic view – and on this basis I shall, in a moment, suggest a way forward.

Economic theory, in its infancy, assumed that the goal of economics was growth of income per head. While there was growth indeed, there was, too, deepening poverty, social disintegration, and environmental destruction, worldwide. The sums did not translate into general well-being. This led then to much revision – welfare economics being the result. The welfare of individuals now moved to centre stage – where 'welfare' is defined as our being provided with adequate goods and services.

Yet we know that we need more than that. We need freedom, happiness, entertainment, rest, and so much more. The welfare model was (and is) inadequate. With this in mind, a more holistic successor emerged, although this is not yet widely applied. Called the Capability Approach, this blended economic theory aims to maximise workers' capability. That is, economics ought to assist us in becoming rounded human beings in a healthy society.

Let me now combine these thoughts. We see the tendency towards greater holism in economics. Put this together now with the bondages we have described. What is suggested is liberation from these bondages, in a holistic environment – above all, as affects our working lives. Yet how may this be done? Having created the monster, are we able to escape it?

Let us try a bold thought experiment – and turn current economic theories on their head. Supposing that we ought not to work, but to be set free from work – to follow a vocation – where 'vocation' is derived from the Latin vocare, to call. We are called, not driven. Supposing then that, in keeping with this, employees are rewarded with the purpose of releasing them from employment, into their vocations. The same has been practised for centuries by religious movements, which through a stipend set their clergy free from secular pursuits.

The goal of society, then, would be to remove impediments to its citizens' callings. Any number of impediments may (again) be named: traffic jams, red tape, unrealistic targets, as well as many further burdens which lie beyond the workplace. And for a moment thinking more broadly: it is not hard to see that the liberation of the individual may further release an entire population: from gridlock, bureaucracy, or disorganisation, to name but a few examples.

'Freedom' is the watchword – in this case freedom to work Yet unlike other economic theories, such as the Capability Approach, where freedom tends to be seen as extraneous to one's work, freedom in this case is central. Call it a Liberation Economics. The worker is no longer enfolded by an employer. And the individual's ability to serve a vocation to their full potential should permit – even encourage – service outside the confines of a particular working relationship, company, or state – to work for the benefit of the world.

Notice, too, a radical implication. In the workplace, and its environment, not only do we fight for something now. We fight against it. This gives such a Liberation Economics a revolutionary edge – if not a religious edge, with the suggestion of sin, and justice.

Finally, (post) modern economic theories are no longer self-adjusting, as the political economist Adam Smith once envisaged: namely, leave people to themselves, and the rest will follow. Holistic economic theories require the support of the society of which we all are a part.

The Capability Approach, as an example, presupposes constitutional guarantees, human rights legislation, and development policy, among other things. It need hardly be said that a Liberation Economics, here described, is in one sense idealistic. It will only survive in an economic environment which sustains it. In a selfish, competitive environment, it will die. Its principles would need to be protected by legislation which is written into the very groundwork of society.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Picture Post No. 3 The Holiday Photo: moments caught in amber...

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

Posted by Ben Hendriks and Tessa den Uyl

On the beach, Majorca, 1961
These are our mothers, before they became our mothers.

The strange thing is, that these two holidaymakers - our mothers  - seem to stay in the background of the Pepsi bottles they hold up and yet it is the decade that Pepsi launches its publicity: ‘Come alive, you’re in the Pepsi generation!’ Our mothers seem to have also provided, unconsciously, the perfect advertisement.

But we, their children, remember, when we saw this picture at a younger age how we were stuck by their joy rather then the Pepsi bottles. Maybe it was because it was taken before the stock value of  Pepsi would rise relentlessly, or maybe it was because we saw two familiar figures outside of their ordinary circumstances and we were intrigued at discovering them in a way which was somehow unknown, and evoked a sense of freedom to us... but certainly not that freedom Pepsi intended with its slogans. 


Was our reaction due to nostalgia for a decade we had not seen? Was it due to the two bottles being held up that symbolise a friendship? Or merely that it is our mothers captured in the moment? Or was it due to the composition of the photo that, with the two men in the background and the two trees at the outer left compose good diagonals with the smiling girls (behind their sunglasses, that un-identify them) plus the two bottles in the foreground, that makes the picture simply 'work'? Is this picture about our mothers  - or something else?

The past that is repeated and recognisable doesn’t need linguistic understanding nor cultural knowledge. This photo reflects commodity, but the suggested ideology wasn’t consciously present as it would be if we were to take the same picture today. We can understand this one though as a good stand-in for what it doesn’t represent. Might we then say that a photo can be a testimony to the history it has experienced? Then how reliable is our own perception?

Monday, 27 July 2015

We Need Animal Cognition, Not Neuroscience

Posted by Matthew Blakeway
A generation ago, it was thought that neuroscience held the promise of solving many philosophical problems. Looking back now over those lost decades, we are able to see that it failed to solve a single one, and arguably created a new one or two.
The purpose of this post is to introduce a single idea, painted with a large brush: As we see our hopes for answers from neuroscience fading, animal cognition may hold the promise of the future. 

Neuroscience, it was thought, would tell us many things: what a mind is, whether humans have freewill, or where in the brain we find these things. It would explain consciousness, morality, evil, or why humans tend to believe in prime-moving inter-galactic omnipotent fairies. While there are still philosophers who hold out hope for answers from neuroscience, the failure of progress is striking. An illustration reveals the way in which the arguments typically fail: in his book Freewill, cognitive neuroscientist Sam Harris argued that brain scans revealed a neural blip the moment before a subject was conscious of choosing to act. This, he considered, demonstrated that freewill is a myth, for the reason that the brain acts before we know it. Yet the argument is too easily neutralised. What was the blip? It may just as well have been one part of the brain going, 'OK, Freewill, this is one for your department.'

There are, on the contrary, significant problems that neuroscience has created. For example, its tendency to believe that the mind is nothing but the brain may open it up to a classic problem of logical systems, identified by the mathematical logician Kurt Gödel. Does Gödel's incompleteness theorem imply that the brain is unable to understand itself, so that neuroscience can have no achievable end-goal? Probably! The computer analogy of the brain is an old one, yet it is still useful. We have been inching towards a neuroscientific view that a brain is a biological computing device. Assuming that this is so, the study of the brain may reveal little about how the software works. In moving towards the view that a human mind has no animal spirits or ethereal magic in it, the consequence for neuroscience is that it is ever less in a position to solve philosophical problems – much as we would not have a hope of proving the Church-Turing thesis, or demonstrating why π is an irrational number, by shifting to a study of computer chips.

It may be more helpful for philosophers to turn to animal cognition as their primary input. This field is producing remarkable new finds, and philosophy would do well to absorb their implications. One of its most conspicuous aspects is the study of pro-social behaviour in animals – in contrast with what zoologist Robert Hinde calls 'human aggression in all its deviousness and complexity'. As a case in point, researchers demonstrated that a rat will help another rat in difficulty without needing a reward – if only humans could be relied upon to so act. While the 18th century philosophical view of humankind might be expressed (adopt a tone of pompous bloviation): 'It is the moral sense that separates men from the wild beasts which live in brutal ignorance,' humans do some pretty nasty things. My suggestion is that humans, while they, too, have inherited 'moral emotions', can out-think their own emotions and can manipulate their behaviour tactically. We need to turn the old view of humankind on its head. We don’t need to explain how we are biologically programmed. We need to understand the anomalies.

Such observations promise a rich new vein for philosophy, and it deserves our attentions. By way of illustration, now that we know that rats are compassionate, we may ask why so many bankers and politicians aren’t. Supposing that an economist should persuade bankers and politicians that everybody will become richer if they act in their own self-interest (as has been the case, starting with political philosopher Adam Smith) – then tactically, bankers and politicians may out-think their pro-social inclinations – to the detriment of the poor, and on an alarming scale at that. In this example alone, animal cognition suggests fresh explorations of morality, freewill, and belief, while the answers to the same may explain no less than why it is that our choices polarise all of humanity today.

Study notes:

Ben-Ami Bartal, I., Decety, J., & Mason, P. “Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats”. Science. 334, 2011. pp 1427-1430.
Hamilton, W. D. “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour”. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1964, 7 (1): 1–16. 

Monday, 20 July 2015

Poetry: The Making of Terror

A  poem by Chengde Chen

Terrible as terrorism is, should we be so terrified, just as terrorists want?

It’s much less frequent than road accidents that kill hundreds every day; nor scarier than psychopaths’ random attacks that are as unpredictable.
There’re greater chances of being killed by a common cold or diarrhoea.

It is the media that 'turns' a homemade bomb into a nuclear explosion.
It is the government that 'legalises' the fear of it by changing the laws.
It is the trembling public psyche that completes the process of terror –
a religion of fear, jointly founded by enemies in the name of war!

The Americans should invite their 32nd President (Roosevelt) back,
as he understood that 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself'.
Or they might consult successful or unsuccessful actors on Broadway,
who know only too well that a play can’t run long without audience

Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Art of War? Obama's Machiavellian Foreign Policy

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” 
- Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1513)

Is Obama a foreign policy genius - a modern day Machiavelli - or an inept ingénue

Consider some recent and some ongoing cases.

1. During the US presidential election campaign, Barack Obama mocked his opponent, Mitt Romney for saying that Russia was a threat  - opting instead to forgive Russia past transgressions, press the restart button and have 'business as usual' relations. China, he asserted, was the real threat, even as Chinese money kept the US economy afloat.

Yet, as has widely been pointed out, the Russian military interventions in Ukraine, which have led to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and to the entrenchment of separatist enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, directly challenge the post-Cold War consensus. Eastern Ukraine follows on other more tentative land-grabs, and in turn will be followed by greater prizes - Estonia, Lithuania… And if incursions there show the NATO lion cannot roar, why not further?

2. In Syria, faced with a choice between supporting the moderate rebels, and leaving the extremists to take over, he opted for the latter policy - with the result that the Assad government recovered lost ground and ISIS became a regional force. Originally, U.S. intelligence saw the terror group as a U.S. strategic asset. Now though, as David Kilcullen, the US military strategist said to have saved Iraq through the 'surge' has put it:
'Western countries have a clear interest in destroying ISIS, but counter-insurgency should not even be under discussion. This is a straight-up conventional fight against a state-like entity, and the goal should be to utterly annihilate ISIS as a state.' 
Just unfortunate then that ISIS has now become a force that would require a greater military effort than that of the original Iraq war. Your move, Professor!

3. But it is in Ukraine that his judgements seem most dangerous. Obama has apparently decided that there is no strategic significance to allowing Russia to annex parts of the former Soviet Union. Of course, the morality of this do not concern him - a man who says in one of his books that he learned his his ethics from the backs of cereal packets. In pursuit of this policy there have been so substantial sanctions, although there is a possibility that the US was involved in the Saudi policy of lowering the world price of oil - which has hurt the Russians. Under Obama there has been no access to arms and training, leaving the hopelessly amateurish and poorly equipped Ukrainian conscripts to be slaughtered in their thousands by the separatists backed by Russian special forces and the very best equipment that the Russians have.

4. In Egypt, Obama sided with the Egyptian military against the democracy movement, in due course helping to usher in a new and if anything even more vicious regime than that run by the US's client Hosni Mubarak.

5. As for the Palestine-Israel conflict, Obama has managed to present the US as both powerless and inept - threatening responses and laying down red lines which he never has any intention of following through on. The Israeli Prime Minster is encouraged to treat him with contempt.

6. And then, earlier this month, his international trade agenda was left in tatters after even the Democratic minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, voted against his plans to for a new bill, going directly against Obama less than three hours after the president begged his party’s caucus to support it.

7. Not to foget the War in Europe, entirely! The economic policies one between Greece and the Eurozone, that is.  Here, Obama weighed in on the side of Greece, ordering the rest of Europe to forgive its trangressions and, well, bend the Eurozone rules a little. Such advice might have been deeeply probematic for the Eurozone if followed - it certainly helped reduce the liklihood of the Greek's seeking a compromise. Result - this week - boom!

The fact is, Obama sees himself as a true Machiavellian Prince, one who presents one face to the world while acting in a quite different way in secret. He sees himself as enhancing US geopolitical and structural power; strengthening the American identity (hence the oft-repeated determination to stop the torture programme and release the extra-judicial prisoners such as those held at Guantanamo,  policies he has no intention of genuinely carrying out) and the search for domestic political consolidation.

According to former US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski:
'He’s not a softy. But he’s a person who tries to think through these events so you can draw some long-term conclusions.'
The longterm consequence of policy in the Middle East seems likely to be polarisation - between a US-backed series of kleptocracies and ultra-Islamists. In Europe, it is likely to be a 'hot war' between the Western Europeans and the Russians. In general, Obama seems to be sowing the seeds of global chaos - but a chaos in which perhaps for some it can be imagined that Continental United States will be immune. If that is indeed his aim, it is certainly a piece of cynicism worthy of the Italian master himself.

Further, or is it backwards? reading here

Primary colours

Sunday, 12 July 2015

STOP PRESS. Pluto IS a Planet

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
There has been no small commotion surrounding the reclassification – or demotion – of the former planet Pluto.  First to dwarf planet status, then to minor planet, and finally to plutoid. This post explores some of the philosophical aspects of the issue.
Following the discovery in the 1990's, that various bodies orbit the sun in the area of Pluto, Pluto was taken off the 'planets' list. The International Astronomical Union, in 2006, ruled that a planet had to be an object which met three basic criteria: 1. it orbited the sun, 2. it was rounded by its own gravity, and 3. it 'cleared the neighbourhood'. Pluto failed on the last criterion. It was one of a crowd, in the Kuiper belt.

The reaction to Pluto's demotion was 'hectic'. The California State Assembly declared it a 'scientific heresy', while the Illinois Senate ruled it 'unfair'. And when the Hayden Planetarium, in 2000, famously unveiled a new model of the solar system with only eight planets, the ensuing controversy was still making headlines a year later. In 2007, the American Dialect Society chose 'plutoed' as its 2006 Word of the Year – meaning 'to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto.' 

In terms of the philosophy of language, the reaction covered the whole gamut of linguistic interpretations. Most basically, there were those who fell in the 'prescriptive' camp – prescribing definitions: 'It's official,' or seeking to prescribe them: 'We've signed a petition to reverse it.'  On the other hand, there were those who fell in the 'descriptive' camp – describing words as we already use them: 'I've always called it a planet,' 'It looks like a planet,' 'It's only what some people say,' or 'Ask your heart.' Channel 4 News summed up this dichotomy simply: Some call it Planet X, some call it the ex planet.

This week, for the first time, the New Horizons probe saw the features of Pluto close up. As the … call it, 'object' came closer into view, Alan Stern, lead researcher of the New Horizons mission, gave a nine-fingered salute (a semiotic code, we call it) to indicate that the solar system has nine planets – not eight. @NASA tweeted, 'How about we call Pluto a planet again?' while the New York Post simply described our tour of 'all nine planets'. The 'Twitterverse' erupted in one great chorus: 'It's a planet!' while the prime mover behind the reclassification of Pluto (forbid that we should name him) was no longer said to drive a car, but a 'getaway car'.

Part of the trouble is that, the closer we look at the 'plutoid' definition, the faster it seems to flee away. The definition is dependent on other definitions – above all what it might mean that an object has 'cleared the neighbourhood'.  Francis Bacon recognised this difficulty four-hundred years ago. The definitions of things consist of words, and words beget words. For instance, if a planet has cleared the neighbourhood, then what is the neighbourhood? And if Pluto were moved to another neighbourhood, elsewhere in the solar system, would it still be a mere plutoid? The answer is by no means clear. Not to speak of the public suspicion that our definitions are too much what we choose to make them anyway.

The furore, at root, highlights the tension between prescriptive and descriptive definitions in our language. This became a major linguistic problem, for the first time, in recent generations.  'Prescriptive' is something which is prescribed. French and Afrikaans are examples of prescriptive languages (there are language boards which define them), while English is not. English is 'descriptive', in that it gains words and sheds words, the meanings of words morph all the time, and we simply describe what has happened to them. Our English language is no longer the Queen's English (prescriptive) but it is what it is (descriptive).

What is the real difference between 'prescriptive' and 'descriptive'? Prescriptivists will typically say that words have definite features, or components – the  International Astronomical Union's definition being an example:  a prescriptive definition of a planet says that it has three major features – basta. The descriptive definition is less well defined. Words are what they mean. But what do they mean? Does one know their meanings, too, by their features? Say, a planet is an object which orbits the sun, and is rounded by its own gravity, but it has cleared the neighbourhood.

Someone in the 'Twitterverse' suggested another possibility: words mean what we feel – and we feel that Pluto is a planet. But how might this look, more exactly? Take the example: 'Pluto is a planet. The mountains show it. Geological activity, too. And the atmosphere.' These sentences go hand in glove. We understand them instantly. Yet notice that, after the first full stop, we have made no explicit reference to Pluto.  No dictionary definition will show us that a planet has mountains – or geological activity or an atmosphere. These are what we call bridging inferences.  The strange thing is, therefore, that without referring to the planet, we all know that we are talking about the planet.

The fact that we know (or feel) that mountains, for instance, belong to a planet is all the more strikingly seen when we use a bridging inference which does not work: 'Pluto is a planet. The gearbox shows it.' This does not fit, simply because we do not ever infer that it does. All the time, in fact, we know what we are talking about only through inference. 'Keep the chicken livers off the table. The cat is in there' – yet one will find few clues about chicken livers in our dictionaries, and none which suggest that cats have anything to do with tables. Or, 'He had an apartment in the Bronx. The karma was bad.' The same applies.

Notice, then, that our descriptive definitions of words –  what they really are to us – comprise more than mere features. Rather, they are expansive, innovative, holistic. They explode the limits of dictionary definitions.  With this in mind, we might try to imagine a word as something like a spinning, shimmering ball of inferences. Such a conception of words belongs to a new world, which for us has just been coming into view – a world of infinite connections – not a place which is reduced to features and components which are the mechanical world of Newton and the past. Planets and mountains, cutlets and cats, apartments and karma, all intertwine.

We play a dangerous game with our reductions, slashing meanings off words this side and that to reach a hard, prescriptive core. And so we separate science from outcomes, politics from poverty, business from ecology.  On our university campuses, moreover, we put the humanities over there, the sciences over here.  At stake is not merely the definition of a planet, but the definition of definitions, and the whole way in which we look at our world, our emotions not excluded.

This is why Pluto is a planet.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

The Power of Man

Posted by Gregory Kyle Klug
      and Thomas Scarborough

What is man?  The answers to this question vary – typically according to the scientific discipline which asks it.  Chemistry, genetics, biology, psychology, history, or religion, all yield different answers as to what man is.  

In fact all of these disciplines are in some way symptomatic of the essence of man, and none should we dare to exclude from our explorations.  And then, too, since the middle of the 20th century, linguistics has joined the inquiry into the nature of 'man' – language being what we call a semiotic code which reveals (in coded form) much about the structure and function of the mind.  With this in mind, the purpose here is to reflect on the importance of a single word in our language in revealing what man is, namely: 'power'.

'Power' has one of the highest word frequencies in English.  According to research of the University of Central Lancashire, 'power' boasts 385 occurrences per million.  This makes it a word which is weightier than love and war and the weather.  It plays a bigger part in our language than dogs and cats, and hours and minutes. Plato, in fact, implied that this is the one word which defines man.  What he (or she) does with power, he wrote, is 'the measure of a man'.

At first sight,  it might seem difficult to discern any coherence in the many variant definitions of power.  In fact sociologists David and Julia Jary present it as a prime example of an 'essentially contested word'.  We speak of the power of an earthquake, one's power of mind, colonial power, a power pitcher, the power of a performance, even the power which one has over one's own self.  How might we derive, from all these many uses of 'power', a unified insight into the nature of 'man'?

Power is a 'transformational capacity', wrote the sociologist Anthony Giddens.  'Despite resistance', wrote the sociologist Max Weber.  In fact, on closer inspection, it is the triumph of power over resistance in all our human activities which would seem most appropriately to define it.  This is a definition, too, which we can universalise: power is 'the ability to overcome significant resistance in a relatively short period of time':
• Physical power: Military power overcomes the resistance of enemy forces. 
• Social power: A popular movement overcomes the resistance of history.
• Intellectual power: A theory resists being known, until the power of mind reveals it. 
• Moral power: We have the power to choose against the resistance of pain, and pleasure.
• Power of imagination: The imagination overcomes the resistance of familiarity.  And
• Sexual power:  All resistance crumbles (need we say more)?
Contrast this with the eighteenth century French philosopher Paul d'Holbach, the first to (scandalously) suggest that the laws of Newton now applied to man: '[Man] is unceasingly modified by causes, whether visible or concealed, over which he has no control.' Yet power, if we are to believe the linguistic evidence, belongs to the very essence of man, in virtually every sphere.  In fact, it is a theme of Biblical proportions.  The opening chapters of Genesis grandly portray not only the power of God, but man's procreative power, physical power, and intellectual power. 

Power is far more than the narrow conception of it which was extolled by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: namely, the 'will to power' which drives us to achieve.  Rather, it is to be found in all the ordinary moments of life.  And this is not who we may yet become, but who we are. 
O, it is excellent
To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
–William Shakespeare


A single post does not permit a survey of the many aspects and examples of power.  The author unfolds further thoughts on the subject at What is Power?

Monday, 6 July 2015

Picture Post No. 2: The Blue Dot

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

Posted by Martin Cohen

Somewhere near Saturn (image courtesy of NASA)
There's a famous image, taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts, of the Earth as a swirling, 'blue marble' hovering over the desolate grey soil of the Moon. The image is reputed to have created a new consciousness of humankind's fragility and transcience - and inspired a new determination to look after our planet. Well, that didn't last long!
When I first saw the 'Blue Marble', to be honest, it didn't have any kind of effect on me. After all, I was familiar with the idea of planets in space from numerous paintings and drawings. But this image just accidentally caught the Earth in the background.
Somehow, this time, I caught a hint of how those first space images might have changed perceptions back on Earth.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Not Really a Picture Post

I can't help thinking that this one is philosophical, but my mind is a complete blank ...  I took it at a parade.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Death, Philosophically

By Thomas Scarborough

'While I thought that I
was learning how to live,
I have been learning
how to die.'
Leonardo da Vinci

It would seem to be an all-important philosophical subject. Humans, wrote anthropologist Ernest Becker, contribute all of their waking actions to avoiding it or distracting themselves from the complete thought of it. No surprise, therefore, that philosophers tend to do the same.

The philosophical debate about death, whatever one might believe about it oneself, is most basically defined in terms of whether our present life is related to an afterlife, or not. The operative word is “related”. If indeed it is related to an afterlife, then we may ask on what basis this might be. And if not, then we may ask what the absence of such a relation might imply. With this in mind, we shall explore the subject of death from the point of view of Homo sapiens as a relation-tracing being.

Relation-tracing is what makes us human. We have the special ability to arrange our world, conceptually and materially. In fact, it is our relation-tracing ability which enables us to transcend space and time, to pursue ambitions and aspirations which lie completely beyond the scope of the animal kingdom. Such relation-tracing, further, has everything to do with motivation. Most basically, wherever we find that things are not arranged as we think they ought to be, we are motivated to act.

In thinking about death, it is important to understand that, if our relation-tracing has no reasonable prospect of fulfilment, this may ruin our motivation. Plans and ambitions generally need to have some prospect of completion, or we do not undertake them. And death, it need hardly be noted, may rob us of such fulfilment. While it may not take away every motivation in life, it would seem to take away any ultimate motivation we have. Philosopher Thomas Nagel writes, with this in mind, that we should best not let thoughts about such things enter our heads. 'The trick,' he writes, 'is to keep your eyes on what's in front of you.'

An important fact about death is that its moment is nearly always uncertain, more or less. As much as we might hope that we can control it today, we do not know at what point death will intervene in our lives. Therefore any arrangements which we make for the future (which is relation-tracing) will almost inevitably be cut short by death at some point. We are not going to finish all that we began. In fact, the bigger the ambitions we have, the more likely they are to be cut short by death. To this, philosopher Simon Blackburn comments: 'That might reasonably bother me a great deal.

Unless, that is, it should be possible in some way to continue our present activities after death. Rarely is it assumed that we will, but one does encounter the idea. More often than not, it is assumed that the story will continue in some other kind of way. Assume, for instance, that the real story of our life is not one of hopes and plans, but it is really one of sin and righteousness. What would matter then, for any continuation of the story, is whether I was a person of virtue in this life. Or, by way of contrast, the real story of our life may be one of faith and apostasy – and so on. Thus one may view continuation in a variety of terms.

This view would seem to present us with a respectable answer to the puzzle of death. With such prospects of continuation, we would retain our enthusiasm over the things of this life. Nothing would ever be lost – which is, nothing that really matters. It would not matter to us, therefore, if our hopes or our plans should be cut off in this life. However, there is an obvious difficulty with this view – for philosophers at any rate. There is no evidence – not that we can agree on anyway – as to whether there is continued consciousness after death.

But there may be other ways, in which we might find a continuation. Our plans and ambitions might leave a valuable legacy in this world. We might live on through our children, and their children again. And if we should want to be romantic about it, Edvard Munch (the Norwegian painter) wrote that we live on through the flowers which grow on our grave. This, too, might provide the motivation to carry on with the purposes of life, even though we might not personally survive to see them fulfilled. Of course one assumes – although it might seem presumptuous to some – that our purposes are worthwhile.

But perhaps we should not think too deeply on this option. No legacy lasts forever. No family line is eternal – and some have been short, with brutal ends. In fact, whatever might lie ahead of us, the stars, they say, will one day all go out. Realistically, we should think of our continuation merely for the time being, however long that might be. Yet this would seem to serve as a disincentive for anything that we might do. Let us perform a simple thought experiment. Would we continue to do what we do now if we knew with certainty that an all-powerful police state would frustrate and destroy it? Probably not.

We have a further possibility, however. Perhaps we may lose our own person, even while we are living. We may have no thoughts which are our own. We may lose ourselves in our society, or in our culture – to the extent that we do not exist. Our hopes, our desires, our intentions might not belong to us. The notion of death is, after all, a very personal thing, and would seem to be infinitely accentuated by our own self-awareness and self-importance. Might it not be possible to blend with a stream of consciousness from generations past to generations future? Or perhaps – it might not be culture with which we may blend, but the very universe. 'Forget yourself,' writes Yayoi Kusama. 'Become one with eternity.'

Is this a viable option? Is it potentially possible, not to take death into the heart of our reality? As Homo sapiens, we have said, we transcend space and time with our relation-tracing. We think all the time in terms which transcend our lives. We see beyond our beginnings and our ends. Not only this, but any escape from our individuality would seem to necessitate an exit from our society as we know it. Not only is our society dependent throughout on individualism: my rights and freedoms, my intentions and actions,seen apart from the group. It is so variegated and fragmented that any attempt to reunite it in a fusion of histories and beliefs and purposes seems beyond possible. The individual, say the philosophes, is prior to the group.

And then there is, of course, the option simply of living in tension – in terror, for some, of the end of all our dreams and designs. This is, after all, what many people do with death. 'Men fear it,' said Socrates, as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.' The fear of death may well be born of a rejection of death – in the sense that we decide to carry on with life with disregard, even defiance, in the face of death. The only way to carry on, we might say, is to forge ahead with all of our plans and ambitions, yet with terror, if we grasp the full reality of it. Unreconciled is how we should die, wrote philosopher Albert Camus.

Or perhaps there is a way – which the ancients could not fully have imagined. We may enter a phase of life, at the end of life, which we call retirement – in which there is nothing more to be done, nothing left to lose. This is the time of life where we deliberately set it all behind us, burn our bridges, and enjoy the afterglow. We have already died the coward's death – so that if we should die tonight, we might only miss a cup of filter coffee in the morning, or a game of golf in the afternoon sun.
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