Monday, 23 May 2022

Are There Limits to Human Knowledge?

By Keith Tidman

‘Any research that cannot be reduced to actual visual observation is excluded where the stars are concerned…. It is inconceivable that we should ever be able to study, by any means whatsoever, their chemical or mineralogical structure’.
A premature declaration of the end of knowledge, made by the French philosopher, Auguste Comte, in 1835.
People often take delight in saying dolphins are smart. Yet, does even the smartest dolphin in the ocean understand quantum theory? No. Will it ever understand the theory, no matter how hard it tries? Of course not. We have no difficulty accepting that dolphins have cognitive limitations, fixed by their brains’ biology. We do not anticipate dolphins even asking the right questions, let alone answering them.

Some people then conclude that for the same reason — built-in biological boundaries of our species’ brains — humans likewise have hard limits to knowledge. And that, therefore, although we acquired an understanding of quantum theory, which has eluded dolphins, we may not arrive at solutions to other riddles. Like the unification of quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity, both effective in their own dominions. Or a definitive understanding of how and from where within the brain that consciousness arises, and what a complete description of consciousness might look like.

The thinking isn’t that such unification of branches of physics is impossible or that consciousness doesn’t exist, but that supposedly we’ll never be able to fully explain either one, for want of natural cognitive capacity. It’s argued that because of our allegedly ill-equipped brains, some things will forever remain a mystery to us. Just as dolphins will never understand calculus or infinity or the dolphin genome, human brains are likewise closed off from categories of intractable concepts.

Or at least, as it has been said.

Some among these believers of this view have adopted the self-describing moniker ‘mysterians’. They assert that as a member of the animal kingdom, homo sapiens are subject to the same kinds of insuperable cognitive walls. And that it is hubris, self-deception, and pretension to proclaim otherwise. There’s a needless resignation.

After all, the fact that early hominids did not yet understand the natural order of the universe does not mean that they were ill-equipped to eventually acquire such understanding, or that they were suffering so-called ‘cognitive closure’. Early humans were not fixed solely on survival, subsistence, and reproduction, where existence was defined solely by a daily grind over the millennia in a struggle to hold onto the status quo.

Instead, we were endowed from the start with a remarkable evolutionary path that got us to where we are today, and to where we will be in the future. With dexterously intelligent minds that enable us to wonder, discover, model, and refine our understanding of the world around us. To ponder our species’ position within the cosmic order. To contemplate our meaning, purpose, and destiny. And to continue this evolutionary path for however long our biological selves ensure our survival as opposed to extinction at our own hand or by external factors.

How is it, then, that we even come to know things? There are sundry methods, including (but not limited to) these: Logical, which entails the laws (rules) of formal logic, as exemplified by the iconic syllogism where conclusion follow premises. Semantic, which entails the denotative and connotative definitions and context-based meanings of words. Systemic, which entails the use of symbols, words, and operations/functions related to the universally agreed-upon rules of mathematics. And empirical, which entails evidence, information, and observation that come to us through our senses and such tools like those below for analysis, to confirm or finetune or discard hypotheses.

Sometimes the resulting understanding is truly paradigm-shifting; other times it’s progressive, incremental, and cumulative — contributed to by multiple people assembling elements from previous theories, not infrequently stretching over generations. Either way, belief follows — that is, until the cycle of reflection and reinvention begins again. Even as one theory is substituted for another, we remain buoyed by belief in the commonsensical fundamentals of attempting to understand the natural order of things. Theories and methodologies might both change; nonetheless, we stay faithful to the task, embracing the search for knowledge. Knowledge acquisition is thus fluid, persistently fed by new and better ideas that inform our models of reality.

We are aided in this intellectual quest by five baskets of ‘implements’: Physical devices like quantum computers, space-based telescopes, DNA sequencers, and particle accelerators. Tools for smart simulation, like artificial intelligence, augmented reality, big data, and machine learning. Symbolic representations, like natural languages (spoken and written), imagery, and mathematical modeling. The multiplicative collaboration of human minds, functioning like a hive of powerful biological parallel processors. And, lastly, the nexus among these implements.

This nexus among implements continually expands, at a quickening pace; we are, after all, consummate crafters of tools and collaborators. We might fairly presume that the nexus will indeed lead to an understanding of the ‘brass ring’ of knowledge, human consciousness. The cause-and-effect dynamic is cyclic: theoretical knowledge driving empirical knowledge driving theoretical knowledge — and so on indefinitely, part of the conjectural froth in which we ask and answer the tough questions. Such explanations of reality must take account, in balance, of both the natural world and metaphysical world, in their respective multiplicity of forms.

My conclusion is that, uniquely, the human species has boundless cognitive access rather than bounded cognitive closure. Such that even the long-sought ‘theory of everything’ will actually be just another mile marker on our intellectual journey to the next theory of everything, and the next one — all transient placeholders, extending ad infinitum.

There will be no end to curiosity, questions, and reflection; there will be no end to the paradigm-shifting effects of imagination, creativity, rationalism, and what-ifs; and there will be no end to answers, as human knowledge incessantly accrues.

Monday, 16 May 2022

Nine Cool Ways to ‘Rethink Thinking’

Detail from the cover illustration for the book Rethinking Thinking

By Martin Cohen

I’ve been thinking lot about thinking a lot! Here’s some of my thoughts…

Rule Number One in thinking, via the classic text The Art of War, is don’t do things the clever way, nor even the smart way: do them the easy way. Because it doesn’t matter what you’re wondering about, or researching or doing - someone else has probably solved the problem for you already. Flip to the back of the book, find the answer. In fact, the great thing about the ancient Chinese book, The Art of War, is that it is not a brainy book at all. It is really just unvarnished advice expressed in what was then the plainest language. We need more of that. Thinking Skill Two is to avoid ‘black and white’ thinking, binary distinctions, ‘yes/no’ language and questions, and instead interact with people in a non-linear, less ‘directive’ manner. Take the tip from ‘design thinking’ that approaches rooted in notions of questions and answers are themselves limiting insight, because questions and answers are like a series of straight lines, when what is needed is shading, colours and, well, ‘pictures’. This is why it is sometimes better to go for narratives – which are conceptually more like shapes.

Tip Number Three, which, yes, is connected to the previous tips, and that’s a good thing too, is to look for the pattern in the data. (That’s what Google does, of course, and it hasn’t done them any harm.) More generally, as I say in chapter three, these days, scientists and psychologists say that humans beings are, fundamentally, pattern seekers. Every aspect of the world arrives via the senses as an undifferentiated mass of data, yet we are usually unaware of this as it is presented to our minds in organized form following an automated and wholly unconscious process of pattern solving. However, there’s a caution that has to come with advice to pattern match, because as we become attentive to some characteristics, we start to latch onto confirmatory evidence, and may neglect - maybe indeed suppress - other information that doesn’t fit our preconceptions. Put another way, patterns are powerful tools for making sense of the world (or other people), but they aren’t actually the world – which may be more subtle and complex than we imagine.

Thinking Skill Number Four, coming in quite a different direction, is ‘pump up the intuition’. Instead of thinking about ‘what is’, think about what might be. The ability to create imaginary worlds in our heads is perhaps our most extraordinary mental tool –yet so often neglected in the pursuit of mere observations and measurements. The ability, that is, as I explore in chapter four, to take any set of facts and play with them, to consider alternatives and hypotheticals. Being ‘playful’ is what the approach is all about, and something that probably the techniques’s greatest exponent – Einstein – stressed too.

My Tip Number Five actually looks more of a caution than a counsel: put all your cozy assumptions to one side and instead be ready to rigorously test and challenge every aspect of them. This is part of the solution to the age-old problem of 'thinking you know’, when, in fact, you don’t, which has been the task of philosophy ever since Socrates walked the streets of Ancient Athens challenging the arrogant young men to debate. 'Thinking you know everything' about an issue is invariably intermingled with the tendency to only see what you expect to see, likely because you have got caught up in a particular story. Exploring some of the stories that make up the amazing tale of the moon shows how this, ‘engineering’ approach, an approach we wrongly dismiss as rather dull, actually has enormous creative power. Socrates understood that: demolishing old certainties is not an end in itself, but a precursor to allowing new ideas.

Problem Solving Strategy Number Six, my favourite tip, is to doodle! Doodles, it turns out, are another kind of ‘intuition pumps’ (like thought experiments) and that gives you the clue as to what is valuable about doodling. It is emphatically NOT about the visuals – yes some people can draw beautiful doodles, many people to curious ones, and some of us do downright awful ones – but the value of doodling lies in the freedom it gives your subconscious mind - with apologies to all those specialists in psychology who will insist on some technical definition of the term. Ideas, as the Japanese designer Oki Sato says, start small - and can easily wither at the first critical assessment.

Doodling can be metaphorically compared to watering a thousand seeds scattered into a plant tray. You don't know at the outset which of the tiny seeds will be important - and you don't care. Instead, you give them all a chance to grow a little. Doodling, we might say, is similarly non-judgmental, and, at the same time, actively in praise of the importance of small thoughts. Of course, we do this all the time here at Philosophical Investigations!

Strategy Number Seven is about a very different kind of thinking. It's all about finding the explanatory key to make sense of complexity - the kid of complexity that is all around us at every level. Here, the thinking tools you need are an eye for detail along with an ability to see broader relationships. Put that way, it seems to require rather exceptional abilities But the thinking tool here is to stop trying to work out, and maybe even control a complex system from above. That's the conventional approach – where you gather all the information and then organise it.

No, the tip here is let the complexity organise itself - and you just concentrate on spotting the tell-tale signs of order. Watch for the 'emergent properties' that arise as a system organises itself and devote yourself to preserving the conditions in which the best solutions evolve. Put another way, if the cat wants food, it will keep pestering you. Be aware of the patterns in the data!

Tip Number Eight, is the computer programmer's cautionary motto: ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’. To illustrate this idea in the book, I looked at the science governing responses to the corona virus, which was indeed heavily driven not by real-world data, but by computer models. But forget that distinction for a moment, the point is really a very general one. In everything we do, be aware of the quality of the information you are acting on. It could be compared to decorating a room: before you apply the colorful paints, before you lay the expensive carpet, have you prepared the surfaces? Mended the floorboards? Because shortcuts in preparation carry disastrous costs down the line. It's the same thing with arguments and reasoning. That dodgy assumption you made in haste, or perhaps because checking seemed time-consuming (or just boring) to do – can easily undermine your entire strategy, causing it to fall apart like at the first brush with reality. Just as an elegant carpet is no use if the floorboard is creaking.

Thinking Strategy Nine, my last one here and the one ever so slightly paradoxically closing my book, is to use ‘emergent thinking’, by which I mean adopting strategies in life that involve exploring all the possibilities and then generating new ideas, concepts and solutions from out of combinations of those ideas which likely could not be found in them individually. Yes, the strategy sounds terribly simple, but that first stage - of exploring possibilities - can be terribly time consuming and literally, impractical. So there are a host of micro-strategies needed too, like learning how to find information quickly, and above all how to select just the useful stuff. This is why I call this strategy ‘thinking like a search engine’ in the book, but, as I explain there, search engines actually rely to a large extent on human judgements: about information relevance and quality.

You can't get away from it: sorting the garbage requires a little bit of skill along with the apparently trivial, routine procedures. Thinking requires a brain - whatever some researchers on mushrooms may tell you…

*Martin Cohen’s book Rethinking Thinking: Problem Solving from Sun Tzu to Google was published by Imprint on April 4th.

Monday, 9 May 2022

Peering into the World's Biggest Search Engine

 If you type “cat” into Google, sone of the top results are for Caterpillar machinery

By Martin Cohen and Keith Tidman

How does Google work? The biggest online search engine has long become ubiquitous in everyday personal and professional life, accounting for an astounding 70 percent of searches globally. It’s a trillion-plus-dollar company with the power to influence, even disrupt, other industries. And yet exactly how it works, beyond broad strokes, remains somewhat shrouded.

So, let’s pull back the curtain a little, if we can, to try observing the cogs whirring behind that friendly webpage interface. At one level, Google’s approach is every bit as simple as imagined. An obvious instance being that a lot of factual queries often simply direct you to Wikipedia on the upper portion of the first displayed page.

Of course, every second, Google performs extraordinary feats, such as searching billions of pages in the blink of an eye. However, that near-instantaneity on the computing dimension is, these days, arguably the easiest to get a handle on — and something we have long since taken for granted. What’s more nuanced is how the search engine appears to evaluate and weigh information.

That’s where web crawlers can screen what motivates: like possibly prioritizing commercial partners, and on occasion seeming to favor particular social and political messages. Or so it seems. Given the stakes in company revenue, those relationships are an understandable approach to running a business. Indeed, it has been reported that some 90% of earnings come from keyword-driven, targeted advertising.

It’s no wonder Google plays up the idea that its engineers are super-smart at what they do. What Google wants us to understand is that its algorithm is complex and constantly changing, for the better. We are allowed to know that when Google decides which search results are most important, pages are ranked by how many other sites link to them — with those sites in turn weighted in importance by their own links.

It’s also obvious that Google performs common-sense concordance searches on the exact text of your query. If you straightforwardly ask, “What is the capital of France?” you will reliably and just as straightforwardly be led to a page saying something like “Paris is the capital of France.” All well and good, and unpretentious, as far as those sorts of one-off queries go.

But what might raise eyebrows among some Google users is the placing of commercial sites above or at least sprinkled amidst factual ones. If you ask, “What do cats eat?” you are led to a cat food manufacturer’s website close to the top of the page, with other informational links surrounding it as if to boost credibility. And if you type “cat” into Google, the links that we recently found near the top of the first page took us not to anything furry and feline  –  but to clunking, great, Caterpillar machinery.

Meanwhile, take a subject that off and on over the last two-plus years has been highly polarizing and politicized — rousing ire, so-called conspiracy theories, and presumptuousness that cleave society across several fronts — like the topical query: “Do covid vaccines have side effects?” Let’s put aside for a moment what you might already be convinced is the answer, either way — whether a full-throated yea or nay.

As a general matter, people might want search engines to reflect the range of context and views — to let searchers ultimately do their own due diligence regarding conflicting opinions. Yet, the all-important first page at Google started, at the time of this particular search, with four sites identified as ads. Followed by several other authoritative links, bunched under ‘More results’, pointing to the vaccine indeed being safe. So, let’s say, you’ll be reassured, but have you been fully informed, to help you understand background and accordingly to make up your own mind?

When we put a similar query to Yahoo!, for comparison, the results were a bit more diverse. Sure, two links were from one of the same sources as Google’s, but a third link was quite a change of pace: a blog suggesting there might be some safety issues, including references to scholarly papers to make sense of the data and conclusions. Might one, in the spirit of avoiding prejudgment, conclude that diversity of information better honours searchers’ agency?

Some people suggest that the technology at Google is rooted in its procedural approach to the science behind it. As a result, it seems that user access to the best information may play second fiddle to mainstream opinion and commercialization, supported, as it has been said, by harvested user data. Yet, isn’t all that the adventurist economic and business model many countries embrace in the name of individual agency and national growth?

Google has been instrumental, of course, in globally democratising access to information in ways undreamt of by history’s cleverest minds. Impressively vast knowledge at the world’s fingertips. But as author Ken Auletta said, “Naïveté and passion make a potent mix; combine the two with power and you have an extraordinary force, one that can effect great change for good or for ill.” Caveat emptor, in other words, despite what one might conclude are good intentions.

Might the savvy technical and business-theoretical minds at Google therefore continue parsing company strategies and search outcomes, as they inventively reshape the search engine’s operational model? And will that continual reinvention help to validate users’ experiences in quests for information intended not only to provide definitive answers but to inform users’ own prioritization and decision-making?

Martin Cohen investigates ‘How Does Google Think’ in his new book, Rethinking Thinking: Problem Solving fro Sun Tzu to Google, which was published by Imprint Academic last month.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Picture Post #74 The Swimmers

'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 Martin Cohen

La Grotte des Nageurs
OK this is not exactly about the image, as much as the context. But then, that’s often what we end up talking most about here at Pi with our Picture Post series. ‘La Grotte des Nageurs’, or ancient cave of the swimmers, contains these unmistakable image of people swimming.  It was discovered in Egypt, near the border with Libya,  in 1933 and immediately caused much bafflement as it was located in one of the world’s least swimmable areas. Could it be that, say ten thousand years earlier, the Sahara had been a bit more like the seaside?

Seriously, it is thought that at this time, the area was indeed very different, a humid savanna replete with all sorts of wild animals, including gazelles, lions, gireaffes and elephants!

But back to the humans, and what I like about this picture is the way it conveys that curious lightness of being that can only be obtained by plunging into water while maybe holding something like a float, or catching a current. It’s a simple painting, by any standard, yet a curiously precise and delicate one.

The Grotte was portrayed in the novel The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, and in a film adaptation starring Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas – and the two diminuitive swimming figures.

Monday, 25 April 2022

The Dark Future of Freedom

by Emile Wolfaardt

Is freedom really our best option as we build a future enhanced by digital prompts, limits, and controls?

We have already surrendered many of our personal freedoms for the sake of safety – and yet we are just on the brink of a general transition to a society totally governed by instrumentation. Stop! Please read that sentence again! 

Consider for example how vehicles unlock automatically as authorised owners approach them, warn drivers when their driving is erratic, alter the braking system for the sake of safety and resist switching lanes unless the indicator is on. We are rapidly moving to a place where vehicles will not start if the driver has more alcohol in their system than is allowed, or if the license has expired or the monthly payments fall into arrears.

There is a proposal in the European Union to equip all new cars with a system that will monitor where people drive, when and above all, at what speed. The date will be transmitted in real time to the authorities.

Our surrender of freedoms, however, has advantages. Cell-phones alert us if those with contagions are close to us, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and smart algorithms now land our aeroplanes and park our cars. When it comes to driving, AI has a far better track record than humans. In a recent study, Google claimed that its autonomous cars were ‘10x safer than the best drivers,’ and ‘40x safer than teenagers.’ AI promises, reasonably, to provide health protection and disease detection. Today, hospitals are using solutions based on Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence to read scans. Researchers from Stanford developed an algorithm to assess chest X-rays for signs of disease. This algorithm can recognise up to fourteen types of medical condition – and was better at diagnosing pneumonia than several expert radiologists working together.

Not only that, but AI promises to both reduce human error and intervene in criminal behavior. PredPol is a US based company that uses Big Data and Machine Learning to predict the time and place of a potential offence. The software looks at existing data on past crimes and predicts when and where the next crime is most likely to happen – and has demonstrated a 7.4% reduction in crime across cities in the US and created a new avenue of study in Predictive Policing. It already knows the type of person who is likely to commit the crime and tracks their movement toward the place of anticipated criminal behavior.

Here is the challenge – this shift to AI, or ‘instrumentation’ as it is commonly called, has been both obfuscatious and ubiquitous. And here are the two big questions about this colossal shift that nobody is talking about.

Firstly, the entire move to the instrumentation of society is predicated on the wholesale surrender of personal data. Phone, watches, GPS systems, voicemails, e-mails, texts, online tracking, transactions records, and countless other instruments capture data about us all the time. This data is used to analyse, predict, influence, and control our behaviour. In the absence of any governing laws or regulation, the Googles, Amazons, and Facebooks of the world have obfuscated the fact that they collect hundreds of billions of bits of personal data every minute – including where you go, when you sleep, what you look at on your watch or phone or other device, which neighbour you speak to across the fence, how your pulse increases when you listen to a particular song, how many exclamation marks you put in your texts, etc. and they collect your data whether or not you want or allow them to.

Opting out is nothing more than donning the Emperor’s new clothes. Your personal data is collated and interpreted, and then sold on a massive scale to companies without your permission or remuneration. Not only are Google, Amazon and Facebook (etc.) marketing products to you, but they are altering you, based on their knowledge of you, to purchase the products they want you to purchase. Perhaps they know a user has a particular love for animals, and that she bought a Labrador after seeing it in the window of a pet store. She has fond memories of sitting in her living room talking to her Lab while ‘How Much is that Doggy in the Window’ played in the background. She then lost her beautiful Labrador to cancer. And would you know it – an ad ‘catches her attention’ on her phone or her Facebook feed with a Labrador just like hers, with a familiar voice singing a familiar song taking her back to her warm memories, and then the ad turns to collecting money for Canine Cancer. This is known as active priming.

According to Google, an elderly couple recently were caught in a life-threatening emergency and needed to get to the doctor urgently. They headed to the garage and climbed into their car – but because they were late on their payments, AI shut their car down – it would not start. We have moved from active priming into invasive control.

Secondly, data harvesting has become so essential to the business model that it is already past the point of reversal. It is ubiquitous. When challenged about this by the US House recently, Mark Zuckerberg offered that Facebook would be more conscientious about regulating themselves. The fox offered to guard the henhouse. Because this transition was both hidden and wholesale, by the time lawmakers started to see the trend it was too late. And too many Zuckerbucks had been ingested by the political system. The collaboration of big data has become irreversible – and now practically defies regulation.

We have transitioned from the Industrial Age where products were developed to ease our lives, to the Age of Capitalism where marketing is focused on attracting our attention by appealing to our innate desire to avoid pain or attract pleasure. We are now in what is defined as the Age of Surveillance Capitalism. In this sinister market we are being surveilled and adjusted to buy what AI tells us to buy. While it used to be true that ‘if the service is free, you are the product,’ it is now more accurately said that ‘if the service is free, you are the carcass ravaged of all of your personal data and freedom to choose.’ You are no longer the product, your data is the product, and you are simply the nameless carrier that funnels the data.

And all of this is marketed under the reasonable promise of a more cohesive and confluent society where poverty, disease, crime and human error is minimised, and a Global Base Income is being promised to everyone. We are told we are now safer than in a world where criminals have the freedom to act at will, dictators can obliterate their opponents, and human errors cost tens of millions of lives every year. Human behaviour is regulated and checked when necessary, disease is identified and cured before it ever proliferates, and resources are protected and maximised for the common betterment. We are now only free to act in conformity with the common good.

This is the dark future of freedom we are already committed to – albeit unknowingly. The only question remaining is this – whose common good are we free to act in conformity with? We may have come so far in the subtle and ubiquitous loss of our freedoms, but it may not be too late to take back control. We need to self-educate, stand together, and push back against the wholesale surrender of our freedom without our awareness.

Monday, 18 April 2022

What Is Love? An Inquiry Reexamined

By Keith Tidman

Someone might say, I love my wife or husband. I love my children and grandchildren. I love my extended family. I love my friends.

All the while, that same someone might also avidly announce, I love…

Conversation. Mozart’s music. Cherry blossoms. Travel abroad. Ethnic cuisine. Democracy. Memories of parents. Sipping espresso. Paradoxes. Animal kingdom. Mysteries of quantum theory. Hiking trails. Absence of war. A baby’s eye contact. Language of mathematics. Theatre performances. History. African savanna. Freedom. Daydreaming on the beach. Loving love. And, yes, philosophy.

We’re free to fill in the blanks with endless personal possibilities: people, events, occasions, experiences, and things we care deeply about, which happen providentially to get elevated by their singular meaning to us on an individual level. The neurons that get triggered in each of us, as-yet unexplainably making what you uniquely experience by way of love as different from what everyone else definably feels — the subjectivism of sensation.

A hazard in applying the word ‘love’ across manifold dimensions like this is that we may start to cloud the concept, making it harder to distinguish love from competitor sentiments — such as simply ‘liking’, ‘fancying a lot’, or maybe ‘yearning’. Uncertainty may intrude as we bracket sentiments. The situation is that love itself comes in many different kinds. Steeped in a historical, cultural, spiritual, scientific, rational, and emotional melding pot. Three of the best-known semantic variants for love, whose names originate from Greek, descend to us from early philosophers.

They are Eros (pictured above on his pedestal in London), which is intensely passionate, romantic, and sexual love (famously fêted by the arts). Intended also for species proliferation. Agape, which is a transcendent, reciprocated love for God and for all humanity, sometimes couched as a form of brotherly love. And philia, which is unconditional love for family and friends, and even one’s country. As well as ‘companionate’ love enjoyed, for example, by a couple later in life, when passion’s embers may have cooled. Philia evokes a mix of virtues, like integrity, fairness, parity, and acquaintance.

Those terms and definitions imply a rational tidiness that may not be deserved when it comes to the everyday, sometimes-fickle interpretation of love: when and how to appropriately apply the word. The reality is that people tend to parse ‘love’ along sundry lengths, widths, and heights, which can be subjective, even idiosyncratic, and often self-servingly changeable to suit the moment and the mood. Individual, family, and community values are influential here.

Love may even be outright ineffable: that is, beyond logical explanation and the search for the source of societal norms. Enough so, perhaps, to make the likes of Aristotle, St. Augustine, Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Bertrand Russell, and Simone de Bouvier — among other romantics and misanthropes, who thought about and critiqued the whimsicality of love — turn in their graves.

At the very least, we know that love, in its different kinds, can be heady, frenzied stuff, seemingly hard-wired, primal, and distractingly preoccupying. Of course, the category of love might shift — progressively, or abruptly — in accordance with evolving experiences, interactions, and relationships, as well as the sprouting of wholly novel circumstances. Arguably the biology, chemistry, and synapses of the brain, creating the complexities of mind, deterministically calling the shots.

Some contest that the love that others may claim to feel is not actually love, but something akin to it: either friendship, or impassioned obsession, or veneration, or lust, or appreciation of companionship, or esteem, or simply liking someone or something a whole lot. Distinctions between love and alternative sensations, as they wax and wane over time, are for the individual person to decide. We correctly accede to this element of individuality.

Love, as for all the other emotions just mentioned, has a flipside. Together, opposites make wholes — their serving as the source of what’s possible. Along with love can come dispiriting negatives, like possessiveness, insecurity, distrust, noxiousness, suspicion, sexist hindrances, jealousy, and objectification.

There can be a tension between these latter shadowy forces and such affirmative forces as bright-spiritedness, cleverness, romanticism, enchantment, physical attractiveness, empathy, humour, companionability, magnetism, kindness, and generosity. Such a tension usually lessens with the passage of time, as the distinctions between the good and the bad become less hazy and easier to sort from among.

There’s another form of tension, too: Individual values — acquired through personal reflection, and through family and community convictions, for example — may bump up against the stressors of love. Among love’s influences is sometimes having to rethink values. To refine norms in order to accommodate love. There may be justifiable reasons to believe we gain when we inspiringly and aspiringly love someone or something.

The gradations of moral and behavioural values challenge our autonomy — how we calculatedly manage life — as the effects of love invade our moment-to-moment decision-making. Choices become less intentional and less free, as we deferentially strive to preserve love. We might anxiously attempt to evade what we perceive, rightly or misguidedly, as the vulnerabilities of love.

When all is weighed, love appears wittingly compelling: not to cosset self-seeking indulgences, but rather to steer us toward a life affectionately moored to other people and experiences that serve as the fount of inspiration and authentic meaning. In this way, rationality and love become mutually inclusive.

Monday, 11 April 2022

Europe’s Deadly Ethical Dilemma: Energy or Ethics?

A political cartoon depicting Putin's relentless desire to crush democracy by any means, including using Russia's extensive oil profits to do so. Via

By Martin Cohen

Energy or ethics? On the morning of February 24, 2022, Russian forces invaded Ukraine after months of rising tensions and failing diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine. In the days that followed, Russia attacked from the air, land, and sea — killing thousands of people, mostly civilians, and devastating the lives of more than 44 million people.

Outside Russia and a handful of satellite countries, most people think that's plain wrong. But here’s the more tricky ethical dilemma: European countries pay about $850 million per day - repeat, per day! - for Russian oil and natural gas. Since February, this money has financed Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Teresa Ribera, Spain’s minister for Ecological Transition, was reported earlier this month saying that
‘It is very difficult to explain to European public opinion and Ukrainian society that we are still importing Russian energy that finances this war,’ and that such energy imports create ‘obvious moral tension’.
Indeed it does. And to reduce the ‘moral tension’, political leaders and an uncritical Western media have insisted that cutting the energy imports would be difficult, and would dramatically put up prices for consumers.

Take gas. The universal mantra about Europe needing Russian gas is misleading. Europe (like the US) has plenty of its own gas IF it stops burning it – to make electricity. Burning gas to make electricity is in any case a wasteful and short-term practice. 

Another argument offered for continuing to buy Russian energy is that Russia is a major supplier of diesel fuel and that if that supply were lost, operating diesel-powered trucks and farm equipment would become much more expensive. Journalists happily repeat such things. Yet typically, in Europe, the price of diesel is more than half made up of tax

Put another way, the choice is between continuing to fund atrocities like that in Bucha last week, in which the world saw "lifeless bodies, bloodied by bullets, and some with hands bound, had been left strewn about or shoveled into makeshift mass graves"  and a temporary interruption of government tax receipts. 

Diesel is only a small part of European energy from Russia though. The bigger questions are about coal, oil and above all gas.

Take coal. Today there is a a whopping carbon tax on coal: 42.33 Euro/t-CO₂ leading EU countries to drastically cut down their production and (to a lesser extent) their consumption of coal over the past two decades to meet climate change targets. However, rather hypocritically their reliance on imported coal, especially from Russia, has shot up. (The explanatory factor here is that European coal industries used to be unionised and expensive. Climate Change policy enabled governments to outmaneuver the powerful unions.) 

Nonetheless, the point is that today, as Alexander Bethe, chairman  of the German association of coal importers, has said, hard coal imports from Russia to Germany can easily be substituted. In a matter of months at most. Bethe named the US, Colombia, South Africa and Australia among the countries most likely to fill the gap.
‘There is a well-functioning world market. There are sufficient quantities available. Germany imported about 18 million tons of hard coal from Russia last year. That is only about 2% of the total world trade.’
Ethics is linked to what is possible. Cutting the flow of money to the Russians is seen in current circumstances as deeply troubling - and thus we are assured repeatedly that alternatives do not exist. Yet in fact they do. 

But what about Russian gas? As far as generating electricity goes, Europe has an internal market into which renewables, nuclear and coal could all - immediately - replace gas. The failure to do this is again a political decision.

Politicians seeking advice on what is possible in the energy sphere are being bamboozled by two powerful lobbies who are now blocking what on the face of it is the moral imperative to stop buying Russian energy. One lobby is the nuclear industry who have explicitly linked the ‘inability’ to stop buying Russian energy to their programme of new nuclear power stations: a message that the UK, for example, has eagerly adopted.

But the other lobby, particularly important in leading the otherwise liberal media away from campaigning to stop the energy imports from Russia… is the green one. It is the climate change lobby that insists that even now, power stations must run on imported Russian gas rather than European or American coal. The strength of the green lobby is so great that in the UK for example, the coal units of the country's largest power station, Drax, are idling now just when they could be operating and reducing the need for Russian gas. That said, during Boris Johnson's surprise visit with President Zelensky in Kyiv on April 9, the United Kingdom set an example for EU leaders of what can in fact be accomplished in sympathy with Ukraine, with the prime minister declaring an embargo on Russian energy.

More generally though in  Europe, the ‘virtuous’ carbon taxes have led electricity companies to burn (Russian) gas and coal rather than their own (as well as, of course, to use expensive renewable energies). 

The result is a strange kind of alliance that sociologists call a Baptist and Bootlegger coalition. The term describes the shared interests of the baptists who believe alcohol is evil, and the bootleggers who want scarcity to lead to higher profits. Bizarrely, at the moment, people who are convinced that they have to stop the world overheating have - whatever their intentions! - ended up on same side as a Russian army conducting a horrific ‘special operation’ on its neighbour. It’s a bitter irony indeed.

Monday, 4 April 2022

Picture Post #73 The Children's Hospital in Ukraine

'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 Martin Cohen

This is actually a still from a video, which is partly a matter of practicality – I was looking for a particular image to sum up the futility and horror of the Russian ‘Special Operation’ in Ukraine – but also a small aesthetic statement too. For today war-reporting, and news is seen more through moving images than still ones.

The trouble with that is that our attention is constantly distracted. We see terrible scenes but barely absorb them before (perhaps mercifully) the camera has moved on.

Anyway, this scene that creates this still image, is rather hidden in the video, which generally pans around the courtyard of the Maternity and Children’s Hospital in Mariupol, Ukraine. Indeed, most of the photographer’s attention is on several burning wrecks of cars and this sad figure just appears to the side, walking slowly with a body in wheelbarrow. I don’t know if the body is alive or dead – I assume the former from the care being taken with the sheets, but within such a tragic scene it hardly seems to matter.

Monday, 28 March 2022

Toute Médaille a Son Revers

by Allister John Marran

The way we form our ideas, and with that, take our place in the human family, is through critical debate—which is, to consider arguments both for and against our own point of view. 

The French have a saying, ‘Toute médaille a son revers.’ Every medal has its reverse. Yet all too often, the reverse side is blank. Like the medal, there are many intellectual and educational pursuits in life which, in fact, merely give us the illusion of critical debate.

It is not a form of critical debate to watch a YouTube content creator or network news show host talk about a topic, be it political or social or philosophical. It's a style of performative art which plays to a predefined audience to increase viewership or likes. Counter-intuitively, even university classes have served such purpose.

In the vacuum of a sterile single point studio there is no counter point, there is no objectivity. It's simply designed to tell an audience that already believes something that they are right. It serves as an echo chamber to bolster one’s preconceptions.

If one relies on this alone to form a holistic world view, to inform one’s opinions and to guide one’s sensibilities, one will be left far short as a person. One wouldn’t think of walking into a bank expecting to be told about the strengths of another bank. One wouldn't attend a Catholic Church wanting to find out about the teachings of the Buddha.

We are never sold the product we need. We are sold the product that the seller has in stock, or else they lose the sale. It is Business 101.

Why then do people tune in to biased news networks or YouTube shows, even enroll for classes, expecting to get factual and unbiased information? In reality, information itself has no bias. It's the slant of the deliverer, or the recipient, who through accent or omission or misrepresentation allows it to carry a biased weight and a crooked message.

Monday, 21 March 2022

Would You Plug Into Nozick’s ‘Experience Machine’?

Clockwork Eyes by Michael Ryan

By Keith Tidman


Life may have emotionally whipsawed you. Maybe to the extent that you begin to imagine how life’s experiences might somehow be ‘better’. And then you hear about a machine that ensures you experience only pleasure, and no pain. What not to like!

It was the American philosopher Robert Nozick who,  in 1974, hypothesised a way to fill in the blanks of our imaginings of a happier, more fulfilled life by creating his classic Experience Machine thought experiment.


According to this, we can choose to be hooked up to such a machine that ensures we experience only pleasure, and eliminates pain. Over the intervening years, Nozick offered different versions of the scenario, as did other writers, but here’s one that will serve our purposes:


‘Imagine a machine that could give you any experience (or sequence of experiences) you might desire. When connected to this experience machine [floating in a tank, with electrodes attached to your brain], you can have the experience of writing a great poem or bringing about world peace or loving someone and being loved in return. You can experience the felt pleasures of these things. . . . While in the tank you won’t know that you’re there; you’ll think it’s all actually happening’.


At which point, Nozick went on to ask the key question. If given such a choice, would you plug into the machine for the rest of your life?


Maybe if we assume that our view of the greatest intrinsic good is a state of general wellbeing, referred to as welfarism, then on utilitarian grounds it might make sense to plug into the machine. But this theory might itself be a naïve, incomplete summary of what we value — what deeply matters to us in living out our lives — and the totality of the upside and downside consequences of our desires, choices, and actions.


Our pursuit of wellbeing notwithstanding, Nozick expects most of us would rebuff his invitation and by extension rebuff ethical hedonism, with its origins reaching back millennia. Our opting instead to live a life ‘in contact with reality’, as Nozick put it. That is, to take part of experiences authentically of the world — reflecting a reality of greater consequence than a manufactured illusion. A choice that originates, at least in part, from a bias toward the status quo. This so-called status quo bias leads some people  if told to imagine their lives to date having been produced by an ‘experience machine’  to choose not to detach from the machine.


However, researchers have found many people are reluctant to plug into the machine. This seems to be due to several factors. Factors beyond individuals finding the thought of plugging in too scary, icky, or alien’, as philosopher Ben Bramble interestingly characterised the prospect. And beyond such prosaic grounds as apprehension of something askew happening. For example, either the complex technology could malfunction, or the technicians overseeing the process might be sloppy one day, or there might be malign human intrusion (along the lines of the ‘fundamentalist zealots’ that Bramble invented) — any of which might cause a person’s experience in the machine to go terribly awry.


A philosophical reason to refuse being plugged in is that we prefer to do things, not just experience things, the former bringing deeper meaning to life than simply figuring out how to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. So, for example, its more rewarding to objectively (actually) write great plays, visit a foreign land, win chess championships, make new friends, compose orchestral music, terraform Mars, love one’s children, have a conversation with Plato, or invent new thought experiments than only subjectively think we did. An intuitive preference we have for tangible achievements and experiences over machine-made, simulated sensations.


Another factor in choosing not to plug into the machine may be that we’re apprehensive about the resulting loss of autonomy and free will in sorting choices, making decisions, taking action, and being accountable for consequences. People don’t want to be deprived of the perceived dignity that comes from self-regulation and intentional behaviour. That is, we wouldn’t want to defer to the Experience Machine to make determinations about life on our behalf, such as how to excel at or enjoy activities, without giving us the opportunity to intervene, to veto, to remold as we see fit. An autonomy or agency we prefer, even if all that might cause far more aggrievement than the supposed bliss provided by Nozick’s thought experiment.


Further in that vein, sensations are often understood, appreciated, and made real by their opposites. That is to say, in order for us to feel pleasure, arguably we must also experience its contrast: some manner of disappointment, obstacles, sorrow, and pain. So, to feel the pride of hearing our original orchestral composition played to an audience’s adulation, our journey getting there might have been dotted by occasional stumbles, even occasionally critical reviews. Besides, it’s conceivable that a menu only of successes and pleasure might grow tedious, and less and less satisfying with time, in face of its interminable predictability.


Human connections deeply matter, too, of course, all part of a life that conforms with Nozick’s notion of maintaining ‘contact with reality’. Yes, as long as we’re plugged in we’d be unaware of the inauthenticity of relationships with the family members and friends simulated by the machine. But the nontrivial fact is that family and friends in the real world — outside the machine — would remain unreachable.


Because we’d be blithely unaware of the sadness of not being reachable by family and friends for as long as we’re hooked up to the electrodes, we would have no reason to be concerned once embedded in the experience machine. Yet real family and friends, in the outside world, whom we care about may indeed grieve. The anticipation of such grief by loved ones in the real world may well lead most of us to reject lowering ourselves into the machine for a life of counterfeit relationships.


In light of these sundry factors, especially the loss of relationships outside of the device, Nozick concludes that the pursuit of hedonic pleasure in the form of simulations — the constructs of the mind that the Experience Machine would provide in place of objective reality – makes plugging into the machine a lot less attractive. Indeed, he says, it begins to look more like ‘a kind of suicide’.


Monday, 14 March 2022

A Scientific Method of Holism

by Thomas O. Scarborough

Holistic thinking is much to be desired. It makes us more rounded, more balanced, and more skilled in every sphere, whether practical, structural, moral, intellectual, physical, emotional, or spiritual.

Yet how may we attain it?

Is holism something that we may merely hope for, merely aspire to, as we make our own best way forward—or is there a scientific method of pursuing it? Happily, yes, there is a scientific method of holism, although it is little known.

The video clip above, of 11 March 2022, gives us a classic example of the method—or rather, of one of its aspects. Here, CNN interviewer Alex Marquardt asks (so called) oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ‘Do they have any influence, these oligarchs ... any pressure, any sway, that they can put on President Putin?’

Khodorkovsky replies, ‘They cannot influence him. However, he can use them as a tool of influence, to influence the West.’

Notice, firstly, that the interviewer’s question is limited to the possibility of oligarchs influencing President Putin. It does not appear to cross his mind that influence could have another direction.

Khodorkovsky therefore brings a directional opposite into play, to reveal something that the interviewer does not see. In this way, he greatly expands our undertstanding of the situation. Khodorkovsky could have measured his answer to the question—'Do they have any influence ... on President Putin?’—but he did not. Instantly, he thought more holistically.

In linguistics, a directional opposite is one of several types of opposite—sometimes called oppositions. Directional opposites represent opposite directions on an axis: I influence you, you influence me; this goes up, that goes down, and so on. 

Two more familiar types of opposite are the antonym, which represents opposite extremes on a scale: that house is big, this house is small; we could seek war, we could seek peace. Then, there are heteronyms,* which represent alternatives within a given domain: Monday comes before Tuesday, which comes before Wednesday; we could travel by car, by boat, or by plane.

How then may we apply these types of opposite? 

In any given situation, we may examine the words which we use to describe it. Then we may search for their directional opposites, antonyms, heteronyms**—to consider how these may complement or expand the thoughts which we have thought so far.

As observed in the video clip above, this is not merely ‘semantics’. It genuinely opens up other possibilities to our thinking, and leads us into a greater holism. This applies in a multitude of fields, whether, for example, researching a subject, crafting an object, pursuing a goal, or solving a personal dilemma.

* Heteronyms may be variously defined. The linguist Sebastian Löbner defines them as 'members of a set'. This is how I define them here.
** One may add, in particular, complementaries and converses.

Monday, 7 March 2022

Picture Post #72 Steerage

'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 Martin Cohen

Stieglitz: steerage
The Steerage | Photogravure 1907

‘I stood spellbound for a while. I saw shapes related to one another—a picture of shapes, and underlying it, a new vision that held me’.

So wrote Alfred Stieglitz, 24 years after he had taken the photograph – counted as one of the conic moments in both photography and the 20th century. He was not a neutral observer, he was also part of the scene, as he had wandered down from the first-class deck to ‘survey the jumbled scene’ of passengers in the steerage, or economy class, section, which contrasted sharply with ‘the mob called the rich’ that he had left behind. 

He also described what appealed to him aesthetically in the scene:
‘The scene fascinated me: A round straw hat; the funnel leaning left, the stairway leaning right; the white drawbridge, its railings made of chain; white suspenders crossed on the back of a man below; circular iron machinery; a mast that cut into the sky, completing a triangle. I stood spellbound for a while. I saw shapes related to one another -- a picture of shapes, and underlying it, a new vision that held me...’

One of the most influential photographers of the 20th Century, Stieglitz argued that photography should be taken as seriously as an art form. His work helped to change the way many viewed photography while his galleries in New York featured many of the best photographers of the day.

This image, simply called ‘The Steerage’, not only encapsulates what he called ‘straight’ photography – offering a truthful take on the world – but also tries to give us a more complex understanding by conveying abstraction through shapes and their relationships to one another.

Sunday, 27 February 2022

Suffering and Assumptions about God

by John Hansen

1825. William Blake. Job Plate 11.

One of the perennial questions in philosophy is that, if God is both all-powerful and all-loving—assuming, that is, that he* exists—how is it that he permits suffering and evil in this world? We may imagine, for example, the gruesome suffering of a child, or a natural catastrophe.

One of the most influential thinkers in this area was John Hick (1922-2012), an American philosopher of religion and a theologian. Hick was an unconventional thinker, to the extent that he was twice the subject of heresy hearings. Yet his arguments on human suffering set the agenda. Hick held, to put it simply, that there is no evil in our suffering, but suffering improves our souls. That is, suffering is ultimately good, and merely appears to be evil.

There are multiple biblical references that suggest Hick's thesis: not only does God permit human suffering, but he actually endorses it. The story of Job is the prototype where God actually allows Satan to harm the righteous person (Job) in order to make him more ‘god-like’.

Since Hick, there have been new arguments, which Hick himself could hardly have imagined. Lately, there has been great interest in B.C. Johnson, who is not a theologian—yet through the strength of his arguments, has gained a large following. Johnson holds, to put it too simply, that everywhere, awful ‘accidents’ happen without the interventions of an all-powerful God. Therefore God is evil, or part good and part evil.

However, we find many unexamined assumptions, in both Hick and Johnson. We here examine some of them.

1. Both Hick and Johnson assume that God is personal—essentially, human in nature. Yet nowhere do they discuss this assumption. Is God human? If so, how? Thus they assign to God human codes of conduct. As a result, their discussion about God is essentially one about human morality. The question arises: do we justifiably refer to human morality, expecting God to conform with what is ‘human’?

2. Johnson assumes that God 'has refused to help' us in our sufferings -- and thus he must be evil. The assumption is that God would help us, unasked. One could conceive of an all-powerful, all-loving God who would not intervene in human affairs unless he was petitioned to do so—through a person with the requisite ‘faith’ to make the request. It would not be illogical to assume that God should be asked, by someone who believed that it was worth asking.

3. Almost every example that Johnson uses to question the goodness of God is found in his use of ‘accidents’. The assumption here, however, is that God has power over that realm. Even an all-powerful God could, presumably, leave some things alone. One could posit that a good God would not want to disturb the accidents of nature, because such intervention could disturb the flow of our environmental process. Perhaps he chooses rather to be all-powerful in the spiritual realm.

4. Hick, on the other hand, asks whether accidents can ever be called evil. In that case, can one assume a motive? A classic example is a hornet’s sting. Was there evil intent? Hick equates moral evil with human wickedness, and non-moral evil as equivalent to human pain and suffering from other sources. The distinction is important because Hick suggests that, in the case of human wickedness, we as free agents are in control. God himself may have no evil intent.

5. Johnson questions the theist’s ‘retreat to faith’ to explain God’s goodness. Such faith, he holds, cannot be justified in a wider context. When one casts an eye over history, God’s record is not good. Yet may it not be a category mistake? Faith is a matter of spiritual ascertainment and may make little sense when applied to human rules or philosophical analysis. Faith may not need to be ‘justifiable’ in terms of our own notions of right and wrong.

6. Skeptics may assume that God should have created the world as a hedonistic paradise devoid of human suffering. Suffering and evil may themselves be interpreted as good. God may have created the world to include pain and suffering. The necessity of such suffering, in turn, would bring about God-like characteristics that are necessary. According to Hick, if God were to eradicate all human suffering, we would drift through life aimlessly as if in a dream.

7. A final assumption of the skeptic is that God knows nothing of suffering. Yet an omnipotent, good God himself may have suffered throughout history, just as much as humanity has done, if not more. Such an all-powerful God may believe that it is necessary for human beings to suffer in a similar way as he has done, in order to become more like him, in a different state of existence.

Whether or not one agrees with Hick’s conclusions, it is submitted that his arguments are more plausible than Johnson’s, in that they do not attempt to analyse an unanalysable faith. We may have no better language to talk about it than this.

* I follow Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: ‘We refer to G-d using masculine terms simply for convenience's sake ...’

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