Monday, 14 October 2019

A New African Pragmatism

Natalia Goncharova, Exhilarating Cyclist, 1913.
By Sifiso Mkhonto *

Allister Marran, addressing himself to older people in these pages, wrote: 'Your time is over.'  Far from representing ageism, his attitude represents a new pragmatism in Africa. 

For the past few years, a question has lingered in my mind: are African political and business leaders concerned about the future of this continent, or are they concerned about their turn to eat, and how those in their lineage may benefit from the feast that is dished out in the back kitchen? Judging by the obvious evidence before us, we can only conclude that they are far too often unconcerned. 

We shall not delve into each problem, because history teaches us that we have a tendency to spend our resources and energy on discussing and unpacking problems, rather than executing the solution. In business, leaders do not appreciate you knocking at their door with a problem. They prefer a mere brief of the problem, and a detailed plan of the solution. This philosophy can and should be adapted to our approach to social issues that we face as a continent.

In my understanding, we should pragmatically ask at least four ‘whys’. These should be good enough to assist us in thinking of an amicable solution to major issues, among them the following:
• unemployment
• crime (including femicide, xenophobia, and gang violence)
• poverty, and
• lack of quality education
Here is a basic example of applying the first of these four points:
Why do we have such a high level of unemployment amongst the youth?
• Because there are no jobs.
Why are there no jobs?
• Because policy is not business-friendly, start-up businesses fail to create jobs, there’s too much red-tape, and young people studying in fields that are scarce of jobs.
Why, and why. All answers derived should lead us to basic solutions. We do not need ideology and political identity as a continent. These preoccupations set us ten steps back each time a pragmatic, sustainable solution is brought forth. It is the youth, today, which is determined, against all odds, to change the narrative of corrupt States, high crime levels, the stigma of stereotypical prejudices, and many other issues.

Against all the red tape, they still start businesses with no funding, they still pursue education with great sacrifice, to escape the reality of poverty. However, because of those who enjoy the buffet that is prepared and dished out in the back kitchen, many young lions and lionesses are doomed.

The solution is simple. Give young people the space they deserve – they think differently, and they are determined – to advance this continent into one of the most prosperous in the world. 'Grant an idea or belief to be true,' wrote William James, 'what concrete difference will its being true make in anyone's actual life?' Ideology and political identity have failed us. We need a new African pragmatism.



* Sifiso Mkhonto is a logistician and former student leader in South Africa.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Picture Post #49: Vision in a Suitcase



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


Posted by Tessa Den Uyl

Florence, 2019


The Venus by Botticelli, the David by Michelangelo, the Thinker by Rodin, names which resonate, and celebrate moments in our history which are now in the lap of technology. With new materials and with lasers, these images, and thus the names, are copied and cast into gadgets which we can grasp quickly and transport (even) in hand luggage.

These persons had a vision. In this light it just seems odd to exploit ready-mades for commerce that are not urinals, thinking of Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ and placing a non-art object in an art space.What happens in this shop window might be thought of as the reverse. The art (and its creator) are objects available to everyone. But nothing within these statues reminds us of a vision. They are vision-less, though apparently they remind us of something else.

Does this mean that, when we have merely heard about something, scraps of such something are enough to live through the original, with all its implications and compulsiveness, in which and for which the creation came into being?

Monday, 30 September 2019

What Place for Privacy in a Digital World?

C. S. Lewis, serene at his desk...

Posted by Keith Tidman

When Albert Camus offered this soothing advice in the first half of the twentieth century, ‘Opt for privacy. . . . You need to breathe. And you need to be’, life was still uncomplicated by digital technology. Since then, we have become just so many cogwheels in the global machinery that makes up the ‘Internet of things’ — the multifarious devices that simultaneously empower us and make us vulnerable.

We are alternately thrilled with the power that these devices shower on us — providing an interactive window onto the world, and giving us voice — even as we are dismayed to see our personal information scooped up, stowed, scrutinised for nuggets, reassembled, duplicated, and given up to others. That we may not see this too, that our lives are shared without our being aware, without our freely choosing, and without our being able to prevent their commodification and monetisation only makes it much worse.

Can a human right to privacy, assumed by Camus, still fit within this digitised reality?

Louis Brandeis, a former justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, defined the ‘right to be left alone’ as the ‘most comprehensive of rights, and the right most prized by civilised people’. But that was proffered some ninety years ago. If individuals and societies still value that principle, then today they are challenged to figure out how to balance the intrusively ubiquitous connectivity of digital technology, and the sanctity of personal information implicit in the ‘right to be left alone’. That is, the fundamental human right articulated by the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
‘No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home, or correspondence’.
It’s safe to assume that we’re not about to scrap our digital devices and nostalgically return to analog lives. To the contrary, inevitable shifts in society will require more dependence on increasingly sophisticated digital technology for a widening range of purposes. Participation in civic life will call for more and different devices, and greater vacuuming and moving around of information. Whether the latter will translate into further loss of the human right to privacy, as is risked, or that society manages change in order to preserve or even recover lost personal privacy, the draft of that narrative is still being written.

However, it’s important to acknowledge that intervention — by policymakers, regulators, technologists, sociologists, cultural anthropologists, and ethicists, among others — may coalesce to avoid the erosion of personal privacy taking a straight upward trajectory. Urgency, and a commitment to avoid and even reverse further erosion, will be key.

Some contemporary philosophers have argued that claims to a human right to privacy are redundant, for various reasons. An example is when privacy is presumed embedded in other human rights, such as personal property — distinguished from property held in common — and protection of our personal being. But this seems dubious; in fact, one might flip the argument on its head — that is, our founding other rights on the right of privacy, the latter being more fundamentally based in human dignity and moral values. It’s a more nuanced, ethics-based position that makes the one-dimensional assertion that ‘If you don’t have anything to hide, you have nothing to fear’ all the more specious.

Furthermore, without a right to privacy being carved out in concrete terms, such as codified in law and constitutions, it may simply get ignored, rendering it non-defendable. For all that, we value privacy, and with it to prevent other people’s intrusion and meddling in our lives. We cling to the notion of what has been dubbed the ‘inviolate personality’ — the quintessence of being a person. In endorsing this belief in individual interests, one is subscribing to Noam Chomsky’s caution that ‘It’s dangerous when people are willing to give up their privacy’. To Chomsky’s point, the informed, ‘willing’ acceptance of social media’s mining and monetising of our personal data provides a contrast.

One parallel factor is the push-pull between what may become normalised governmental access to our personal information and individuals’ assertion of confidentiality and the ‘reasonable expectation’ of privacy. The style of government — from liberal democracies to authoritarianism — matters to government access to personal information: whether for benign use or malign abuse. ‘In good conscience’ is a reasonable guiding principle in establishing the what, when, and how of government access. And in turn, it matters to a fundamental human right to privacy. Meantime, governments may see a need for tools to combat crime and terrorism, allowing surveillance and intelligence gathering through wiretaps and Internet monitoring.

Two and a half centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin foreshadowed this tension between the liberty implied in personal privacy and the safety implied in government’s interest in self-protection. He cautioned: 
‘Those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety’. 
Yet, however amorphous these contrary claims to rights might be, as a practical matter society has to resolve the risk-benefit equation and choose how to play its hand. What we conclude is the best solution will likely keep shifting, based on norms and emerging technology.

And the notions of a human right to privacy differ as markedly among cultures as they do among individuals. The definition of privacy and its value may differ both among and within cultures. It would perhaps prove unsurprising if a culture situated in Asia, a culture situated in Africa, a culture situated in Europe, and a culture situated in South or Central America were to frame personal privacy rights differently. But only insofar as both the burgeoning of digital technology and the nature of government influence the privacy-rights landscape.

The reflex may be to anticipate that privacy and human rights will take a straight, if thorny, path. The relentless and quickening emergence of digital technologies drives this impulse. The British writer and philosopher C. S. Lewis provides social context for this impulse, saying:
‘We live … in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private.’
Despite the invasion of people’s privacy, by white-hatted parties (with benign intent) and black-hatted parties (with malign intent), I believe our record thus far represents only an embryonic, inelegant attempt to explore — with perfunctory legal, regulatory, or principled restraint — the rich utility of digital technology.

Nonetheless, if we are to steer clear of the potentially unbridled erosion of privacy rights — to uphold the human right to privacy, however measured — then it will require repeatedly revisiting what one might call the ‘digital social contract’ the community adopts: and resolving the contradiction behind being both ‘citizen-creators’ and ‘citizen-users’ of digital technologies.

Monday, 23 September 2019

The Impossibility of Determinism


Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Indeed, free will and determinism. It is a classic problem of metaphysics. No matter what we may think about it, we know that we have a problem. We know that things are physically determined. I line up dominos in a row, and topple the first of them with my finger. It is certain that the whole row of dominos will fall.

Are people then subject to the same kind of determinism? Are we just so many powerless humanoid shapes waiting to be knocked down by circumstances? Or perhaps, to what extent are we subject to such determinism? Is it possible for us to escape our own inner person? Our own history? Our own future? Are we even free to choose our own thoughts—much less our actions? Are we even free to believe? Each of these questions would seem to present us with a range of mightily confusing answers.

I suggest that it may be helpful to try to view the question from a broader perspective—the particular one that comes from consideration of the phenomenon of cause and effect. If I am controlled by indomitable causes, then I am not free. Yet if I am (freely) the cause of my own thoughts and actions, then I am free. Which then is it? Once we understand the dynamics of cause and effect, we should be in a better position to understand free will and determinism.

What is cause and effect?

In our everyday descriptions of our world, we say that, to paraphrase Simon Blackburn, causation is the relation between two events. It holds when, given that one event occurs, ‘it produces, or brings forth, or necessitates the second’. The burrowing aardvark caused the dam to burst; the lightning strike caused the thatch to burn; the medicine caused the patient to rally, and so on. Yet we notice in this something that is immediately problematic—which is that in order to say that there is causality, we need to have carefully defined events before and after.

But such definition is a problem. The philosopher-statesman Francis Bacon wrote of the ‘evil’ we find in defining natural and material things. ‘The definitions themselves consist of words, and those words beget others.’ Aristotle wrote that words consist of features (say, the features of a house), and those features must stand in a certain relation to one another (rubble, say, is not a house). Therefore, not only do we have words within words, but features and relations, too.

Where does it all end? It all ends nowhere. It is an endless regress. Bacon’s ‘evil’ means that our definitions dissipate into the universe. It seems much like having money in a bank, which has its money in another bank, which has its money in another bank, and so on. It is not hard to see that one will never find the money. Full definitions ultimately reach into the void.

If we want to be consistent about it, there are no events. In order to obtain events, we need to set artificial limits to our words—and artificial limits to reality itself, by excluding unwanted influences on our various constructions. But that is not the way the world really is in its totality. More than this, these unwanted influences always seem to enter the picture again somewhere along the line. This is a big part of the problem in our world today.

Of course, cause and effect quite simply work: he lit the fire; I broke the urn; they split the atom. This is good as far as it goes—yet again, such explanations work because we define before and after—and that very definition strips away a lot of what is really going on.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us without a reason to believe in cause and effect—even if we are naturally disposed to thinking that way. There is no rational framework to support it.

Someone might object. Even if we have no befores and afters, we still have a reality which is bound by the laws of the universe. There is therefore some kind of something which is not free. Yet every scientific law is about events before and after. Whatever is out there, it has nothing in common—that we can know of anyway—with such a scheme.

This may be a new way of putting it, but it is not a new idea. Albert Einstein, as an example, said that determinism is a feature of theories, rather than any aspect of the world directly. While, at the end of this post, we cannot prove free will, we can state that notions of determinism are out of the question, in the world as we know it. The world is something else, which we have not yet understood.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Extinction Crisis? The solution may be privatisation

Endangered species can often be protected with comparatively tiny amounts 
of resources. Pictured, the critically endangered Black-flanked rock wallaby whose 
protection needs are measured in thousands of dollars - Image via WWF Australia

Posted by Martin Cohen

Looking around the world, there are so many problems that seem so intractable and the solutions so far off, that it can seem as if it is better to, well not look around the world. 'Climate change', for example, where it has been estimated by Danish statistician and reformed ‘skeptic’, Bjorn Lomborg, that the cost of reducing the world's temperature by the end of the century by a ‘grand total of three tenths of one degree’ is ... $100 trillion. That's not small beans. In terms of charitable donations, you'd need to find 100 million people ready to chip in a million each..

For any number of reasons, that cash ain't gonna be raised and those abatement measures - however worthy - are not going to be made.

Yet in fact there are a whole range of environmental problems which do have relatively straightforwards solutions - and require only tiny investments. These small but vital programmes are often starved of resources.

Take extinctions in Australia, for example, a topic I asked Friends of the Earth (UK) to campaign on back in the 1990s  mainly to highlight UK business links to forest clearance. To run a campaign might have costs a few thousand pounds but after discussions with the then Head of FoE and meeting the senior staff including the Biodiversities campaigner for a roundtable on the issues, I was told there were no resources for it. They offered to run a Press Release campaign if I wrote it instead. And then reneged on that too.

The point is not that I don't like Friends of the Earth much, in fact I think they do a lot of good work, (they helped me lead a campaign that saved the Yorkshire Moors from a four-lane motorway, probably the only time the organisation actually reversed a road scheme that had been formally approved) but that relying on environmentalists to save the world is a mistake. The economics points at a problem and a paradox: environmental pressure groups exist and make money out of environmental horror stories - they have no financial interest in saving anything. A campaign like Climate Change in which a bottomless pit of money must be raised suits certain people very well, even though it can never achieve its ends.

Meanwhile time is running out! Talk about an ‘extinction crisis’ ... It is there all right. But the solutions don't require grandiose schemes to control the world’s climate - they require small concrete actions to preserve habitat.

Half of all the species lost in modern time have been in Australia. In the last 150 years, one in eight of Australia's mammal species - which live(d) nowhere else on earth, have been driven out of existence, as the Australians literally bulldozed their forests into desert, in pursuit of grazing for sheep and cows. At the same time, the land value stolen from the defenceless animals and plundered form Australia's native people is actually tiny.

The Bramble Cay Melomys that lived only on a tiny island in the Torres Strait could have been saved if the island had but been bought and made into a sanctuary. Instead the fate of the little rodent was determined by red tape and political indifference.

Land clearing, invasive farming, extermination programs, lack of monitoring - all these are essentially money-driven failings with economic responses possible. To save the Spotted Tailed Quoll, for example, needs only to preserve a chunk of land from the insatiable thirst of Australia's farmers for land clearance. Likewise, the Black-flanked Rock-wallaby needs a small reserve declaring to cover it's now much diminished range. Such things essentially can be investments - yet the world's billionaire philanthropists - I'm looking at you Mr Gates, Mr Buffett! - have so far directed their wealthy and otherwise worthy Foundations only to talk about human needs - medicine, education, governance even. yet biodiversity and species preservation is surely just as much a vital part of our shred human shared inheritance as any other aspect of human life.

At the moment, attention is rightly focussed on the land clearance in the Amazon rainforest, land clearance often financed directly or indirectly by Western banks and institutions. Yet here's an idea for those with resources: buy up sections of the Amazon and hold them on behalf of their indigenous peoples as ecological parks, scientific resources and sustainably farmed forests. Such privately owned 'ecofarms' would be able to resist predation by those set on both genocide and ecocide. They only need investors!

It has already been done successfully for example in the conservation-driven Kruger Private Reserves in Africa. There, the connecting of habitats alone serves to improve the survival chances of many species in the region.

Monday, 9 September 2019

‘Just War’ Theory: Its Endurance Through the Ages


The Illustrious Hugo Grotius of the Law of Warre and Peace: 
With Annotations, III Parts, and Memorials of the Author’s Life and Death.
Book with title page engraving, printed in London, England, by T. Warren for William Lee in 1654.

Posted by Keith Tidman

To some people, the term ‘just war’ may have the distinct ring of an oxymoron, the more so to advocates of pacifism. After all, as the contention goes, how can the lethal violence and destruction unleashed in war ever be just? Yet, not all of the world’s contentiousness, neither historically nor today, lends itself to nonmilitary remedies. So, coming to grips with the realpolitik of humankind inevitability waging successive wars over several millennia, philosophers, dating back to ancient Greece and Rome — like Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero — have thought about when and how war might be justified.

Building on such early luminary thinkers, the thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas, in his influential text, Summa Theologica, advanced the principles of ‘just war’ to a whole other level. Aquinas’s foundational work led to the tradition of just-war principles, broken down into jus ad bellum (the right to resort to war to begin with) and jus in bello (the right way to fight once war is underway). Centuries later came a new doctrinal category, jus post bellum (the right way to act after war has ended).

The rules that govern going to war, jus ad bellum, include the following:
• just authority, meaning that only legitimate national rulers may declare war;

• just cause, meaning that a nation may wage war only for such purposes as self-defence, defence of other nations, and intervention against the gravest inhumanity;

• right intentions, meaning the warring state stays focused on the just cause and doesn’t veer toward illegitimate causes, such as material and economic gain, hegemonic expansionism, regime change, ideological-cultural-religious dissimilarities, or unbridled militarism;

• proportionality, meaning that as best can be determined, the anticipated goods outweigh the anticipated evil that war will cause;

• a high probability of success, meaning that the war’s aim is seen as highly achievable; 
and...

• last resort, meaning that viable, peaceful, diplomatic solutions have been explored — not just between potentially warring parties, but also with the intercession of supranational institutions, as fit — leaving no alternative to war in order to achieve the just cause.

The rules that govern the actual fighting of war, jus in bello, include the following: 
• discrimination, meaning to target only combatants and military objectives, and not civilians or fighters who have surrendered, been captured, or are injured; 

• proportionality, meaning that injury to lives and property must be in line with the military advantage to be gained; 

• responsibility, meaning that all participants in war are accountable for their behaviour; 
and... 
• necessity, meaning that the least-harmful military means, such as choice of weapons, tactics, and amount of force applied, must be resorted to.

The rules that govern behaviour following war’s end, jus post bellum, typically include the following: 
• proportionality, meaning the terms to end war and transition to peace should be reasonable and even-handed; 

• discrimination, meaning that the victor should treat the defeated party fairly and not unduly punitively; 

• restorative, meaning promoting stability, mapping infrastructural redevelopment, and guiding institutional, social, security, and legal order; 

and... 
• accountability, meaning that determination of culpability and retribution for wrongful actions (including atrocities) during hostilities are reasonable and measured.
Since the time of the early philosophers like Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and the ascribed ‘father of international law’ Hugo Grotius (The Law of War and Peace, frontispiece above), the principles tied to ‘just war’, and its basis in moral reciprocity, have shifted. One change has entailed the increasing secularisation of ‘just war’ from largely religious roots.

Meanwhile, the failure of the seventeenth-century Peace of Westphalia — which ended Europe’s devastating Thirty Years’ War and Eighty Years’ War, declaring that states would henceforth honour other nations’ sovereignty — has been particularly dreadful. As well intentioned as the treaty was, it failed to head off repeated militarily bloody incursions into others’ territory over the last three and a half centuries. Furthermore, the modern means of war have necessitated revisiting the principles of just wars — despite the theoretical rectitude of wars’ aims.

One factor is the extraordinary versatility, furtiveness, and lethality of modern means of war — and remarkably accelerating transformation. None of these ‘modern means’ were, of course, even imaginable as just-war doctrine was being developed over the centuries. The bristling technology is familiar: from precision (‘smart’) munitions to nuclear weapons, drones, cyber weapons, long-range missiles, stealthy designs, space-based systems, biological/chemical munitions, global power projection by sea and air, hypervelocity munitions, increasingly sophisticated, lethal, and hard-to-defeat AI weapons, and autonomous weapons (increasingly taking human controllers out of the picture). In their respective ways, these devices are intended to exacerbate the ‘friction and fog’ and lethality of war for the opponent, as well as to lessen exposure of one’s own combatants to threats. 

Weapons of a different ilk, like economic sanctions, are meant to coerce opponents into complying with demands and complying with certain behaviours, even if civilians are among the more direly affected. Tactics, too, range widely, from proxies to asymmetric conflicts, special-forces operations, terrorism (intrinsically episodic), psychological operations, targeted killings of individuals, and mercenary insertion.

So, what does this inventory of weapons and tactics portend regarding just-war principles? The answer hinges on the warring parties: who’s using which weapons in which conflict and with which tactics and objectives. The idea behind precision munitions, for example, is to pinpoint combatant targets while minimising harm to civilians and civilian property.

Intentions aren’t foolproof, however, as demonstrated in any number of currently ongoing wars. Yet, one might argue that, on balance, the results are ‘better’ than in earlier conflicts in which, for example, blankets of inaccurate gravity (‘dumb’) bombs were dropped, and where indifference among combatants as to the effects on innocents — impinging on noncombatant immunity — had become the rule rather than the exception.

There are current ‘hot’ conflicts to which one might readily apply just-war theory. Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Syria, Ukraine, India/Pakistan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, among sundry others, come to mind. (As well as brinkmanship, such as with Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela.) The nature of these conflicts ranges from international to civil to terrorist to hybrid. Their adherence to jus ad bellum and jus in bello narratives and prescriptions differ radically from one to another. These conflicts’ jus post bellum narratives — meaning the right way to act after war has ended — have still to reveal their final chapter in concrete treaties, as for example in the current negotiations between the Taliban and United States in Afghanistan, almost two decades into that wearyingly ongoing war. 

The reality is that the breach left by these sundry wars, either as they end abruptly or simply peter out in exhaustion, will be filled by another. As long as the realpolitik inevitability of war continues to haunt us, humanity needs Aquinas’s guidance.

Just-war doctrine, though developed in another age and necessarily having undergone evolutionary adaptation to parallel wars’ changes, remains enduringly relevant — not to anaesthetise the populace, let alone to entirely cleanse war ethically, but as a practical way to embed some measure of order in the otherwise unbridled messiness of war.

Monday, 2 September 2019

Picture Post #48: Gratifying Human Necessities



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


Posted by Tessa Den Uyl

Florence, May 2019

Horses have been bred to gratify human necessities.  For centuries, the horse has been the vehicle for transportation of goods and people.  Above all, it has been a symbol for war.  When motors were invented, the horse retired from its often ‘inhorse’ duties, and we could advance our propensities in other ways.

The picture has something to do with tourism, expansion, and war.  More deeply, it reflects something about the human mind, which flaunts its inventiveness -- turning everything into a tool.  In the prancing horse on the Ferrari logo, we may gaze and wonder:

            what or whom is served with this kind of human resourcefulness?

Monday, 26 August 2019

A Sense of Time

A piece of artwork Melissa Taylor says that she made using newspaper and 
charcoal, when inspired by the song ‘Time’ by Pink Floyd
Posted by Andrew Porter* 

Plato calls time the ‘moving image of eternity’. Most likely because time and eternity are all tied up together or because time and eternity are a dialectic, yet concurrently an organic whole.

Perhaps that esoteric word ‘eternity’ means exactly this: the melding of ‘time’ and ‘timelessness’ – a covenant, as it were, to let freedom/order live, to let rationality have process and identity, to let life have its optimal day, to sustain a universe that is true to the good and the beautiful.

Actual time, meaning time in the full sense, is local mixed with non-local, only seeming simply local. This non-locality that is very much a part of time is like non-locality and entanglement in quantum physics. Space-time reveals that distance and no-distance are both true. Time is not change, as such. It is constancy as much as change, identity as much as process. And the best way to express this is to say that actual time is a thorough union of the concepts of ‘time’ and ‘timelessness’.

In this view, God would be time/timelessness, or some less awkward term, such as ‘time-full-ness’. No wait, that's still awkward. God would not see all time as a single view, frozen and fixed, but would, as it were, take something else seriously: the thorough integration of ‘time’ aspects and ones of ‘timelessness’—to create an attainment in accord with His values. The Divine may be or see neither time as discrete moments in sequence nor timelessness described as an atemporal block.

One of the biggest conundrums in thought has been the relationship or presumed relationship between time and timelessness. Scientists, theologians, philosophers, and perhaps your next-door neighbour wrestle with the complexities therein. It seems to be relevant to today's world as people try to sort out a balance between doing and being, between stress or contentment. Are they gripped by time or actually freed from it?

The philosophical issue closely relates to what we consider, if anything, Becoming and Being. We tend to like these categories because we think it makes things clear. But our real problem is likely that we assume what ‘time’ and ‘timelessness’ are – and then run off in the wrong direction.
Timelessness seems to have the advantage of being free from plodding pace as a chain of moments, but what could timelessness be without the duration and dovetailing of one phase with another?

Time is physicality; this is a claim that can be clearly made. But we have too many presumptions about timelessness. Current thinking tends to relegate the 'timeless' to a ‘block universe’. If it can’t move it must be a frozen reality and a view, say, by God that sees the big whole all at once. I think this block universe—an atemporality ‘fixed’ as much as space is, and relative one ‘place’ to another, is an untenable view. It only arises as a counterpoint to what we experience as time-passage.

The core of the, I think, wrongheaded, distinction is that temporal and atemporal seem to compete, to diverge, be some kind of opposite. But this is what I encourage us to reconsider. Nature actually shows a contrary impetus: not a separation of time and timelessness, but a convergence. We see clues that nature appears determined to be a composition, of what would otherwise be a non-unity; that is, a consolidation of time's openness and newness, of timelessness' freedom from measure as movement.

All reality—physicality, laws, energy, dark matter, spiritual reality—gives strong indications that it, rather than a bifurcation, is an amalgam, a mix, of what are only conceptually time-as-sequence and timelessness as a vision of the entirety. A further argument would point out that reality is the way it is precisely because it is a threading of the needle between ‘time’ and ‘timelessness’. The emergence of the Lesser Grass Blue butterfly in Hawaii is a fact that supports the idea that there is a synthesis of continuity and newness, a kind of absolute blend of becoming and being, process and consistent identity. The species is replete with aspects that require time; in one and the same species, there is an equal requirement for a flexibility of action across time, or regardless of time.

This melding of what would otherwise be ‘time’ and ‘timelessness’ (a singularity which everything is) both frees you and orders. You are neither wholly beholden to time as change nor locked in a space–time block that shatters choice in the moment. You are, rather, free to make decisions in an open present, and ordered to optimise those choices or ways of life by the transcendence of time that is inherent in real, actual existence. With a newfound time sense, we can be more in the swing of things. 



Andrew Porter is a philosopher and educator who lives near Boston in the United States.
He can be contacted via email at <aporter344@gmail.com>

Monday, 19 August 2019

The Rhythm of Sentiment

Francisco Goya. The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters
Posted by Allister Marran 
If you are privileged enough to go to university straight out of school, as I did, you are greeted by disdainful lecturers who roll their eyes at your infantile exuberance, your unenlightened ignorance, and often plain stupidity.
You think you know it all, yet you lack the fundamental tools to appreciate the gravitas of the knowledge you are being fed. Everything is so simple when you know nothing.

Life experience creates perspective.

Social theory was particularly difficult. To my mind, in a world where there was only black and white, I could not grasp the grey areas.

Nazis, right wing racists, and communist dictators were bad. Progressives and capitalist democracies were good. Nothing else to see or say. You could never have a bad democratically elected president, could you? You could never explain the rise of nationalism in a way that made sense, could you?

And yet we now live in an age where democratically elected populists, who are right or left wing nationalists, are dominating the world political landscape, where they are verbosely racist and openly swear allegiance to military dictators and murderers. Trump, Johnson, Brazil, Venezuela, Spain, Austria. The list is long and shocking.

These are all democratically elected officials. The voice of the people has been heard. The people want leaders who allow them to chant 'Send her back,' and can question the nationality of anyone who is not white skinned (Trump), who diminishes the effects of colonialism on Africa (Zille), or promotes Islamophobia (Johnson), who actively promote racial tension and are anti gay rights (Bolsonaro).

A simple social theory was presented to us, called the social cycle theory, which may be described as follows:

Social cycle theories belong to the earliest of social theories. Unlike the theory of social evolutionism, which views the evolution of society as progressing in some direction(s), social cycle theory argues that events and stages of society typically repeat themselves in cycles. The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto wrote, 
'There is a rhythm of sentiment, which we can observe in ethics, in religion, and in politics.'
In the broader scope of having some greater perspective on life and politics over the last thirty years, if you subscribe to the social cycle theory, it is clear that we are heading into a very dangerous age, where political leaders are able to stoke their bases, and these supporters can wear their prejudices and their hatred of others with pride, knowing that there will be no accounting for their bigoted behavior.

As the chants become louder, the racists become more emboldened, stepping out of the shadows to add their voices to the cacophony of jeers and hate speech.

There is strength in numbers, and so they exhibit their most vigorous exuberance for resentment and loathing, of others not like them, when they are in groups. They wear hats and badges which are brightly coloured, so they can easily spot each other and seek each other out in the world, and can speak easily when in the company of similarly uniformed cadres. And they try to assimilate everyone in their orbit by jovial energy, brute force, or subterfuge.

I did not believe in the social cycle theory when I was younger. I believed that humankind evolved, moved forwards, and you can never look back. If the world was ruined and destroyed by the rise of white nationalism in World War II, surely people aren't stupid enough to fall for that again? Surely showing someone a video of the Nuremberg Rallies, or Mussolini speaking to his army, would be enough to guard them against rallying behind the hatred of a new nationalist cabal in the world?

Surely we are not destined to repeat the mistakes of the past ad infinitum, until mankind is no more, destroyed once and for all by their own hatred and prejudices?

In my old age I am slowly coming around to understanding that maybe the social cycle theory is the best way to explain humanity's stupidity after all.

Aside: The fate of the world rests with the youth. Their single-minded desire to cast off the sins of their forebears and parents, and to forge a new way could still save us. The depressing beauty of life is that death is certain for us all, and in that we renew with a potentially diverging purpose and direction.

The advice I give to older people is simple ... for you it is too late. Your time is over. Enjoy the memories, but don't impart your prejudices and bigotry on the younger generations.  Let them forge their own path, devoid of the hatred and darkness you have internalised.  Pass down your knowledge but not your bitterness.

Break the cycle. Make the future a better place for your children, and your children's children.

Monday, 12 August 2019

Pragmatism: its Conception of Unverified Truth #2

Essay by an anonymous contributor* reposted from Pi Alpha

 
In this, the second of two posts, Pi presents reflections on ‘Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth’, a title which William James chose in 1907 for a classic paper on pragmatism.
In last month’s post, we considered pragmatism’s conception of verified truth. However, many of our beliefs are either not verified, or are only partially so. Rather, the vast majority of the beliefs we live by are unverified.

William James uses the example of a clock:  we do not know how it works, nor have we seen the insides of it. ‘We let our notion pass for true, without an attempt to verify.’ We believe the clock to be keeping accurate track of time with its cogs and weights, but we do not really understand how.

This is not a problem for pragmatism, as James points out: ‘Just as we here assume Japan to exist without ever having been there, because it works to do so.’ So because of this, we assume that the thing hanging on the wall with the hands and a face is a clock which keeps accurate track of the passage of time, because it works for us to use it in such a way.

The verification of the assumption here means that our incorporation of this assumption does not contradict previously held beliefs, or is so overwhelmingly powerful that previous truths are altered (as little as possible) to make room for this new truth. The fact that we could verify that the cogs and weights actually do keep an accurate track of the passage of time counts in this case as verifiability. It is because we know previous truths about cogs and weights that we can believe that a series of them can count units of time. This information is useful to us in our new belief that the thing on the wall is a clock and functions as such. ‘We use it as a clock.’ That is what makes it useful to use in a situation where knowing the current time is helpful to us. In another situation, knowing the time may not be helpful to us. In this case it does not matter if the cogs and weights actually do keep an accurate track of time.

Another reason that James gives for us counting the possibility of verification as being just as good as actual verification is that ‘all things exist in kinds (groups) not singly’. When we verify a certain belief that we have, that verification can then be used to verify other beliefs of the same kind, or of the same type. ‘A mind that habitually discerns the kind of thing before it, and acts by the law of the kind immediately without pausing to verify, will be a “true” mind in 99% of cases, proved so by its conduct fitting everything it meets, and getting no refutation.’ These semi-verified or non-verified truths give us the same advantages of full verification, such as saving effort as we verify all our beliefs, which thus leads us to say that these beliefs are true.

Our actions (formed through beliefs), which allow us to willfully lead ourselves through persisting reality, form into habits of action. These habits of action are carried out at an almost unconscious level as most of our un-verified (but verify-able) beliefs form actions that we carry out every day.

Consider habits, as an example. Habits are things which we do every day, but do not really think about, like going to work or playing a certain card game. As long as these habits contain beliefs that are consistent with this persisting reality or realities, and lead us to moments worthwhile, they will be followed.
‘To “agree” in the widest sense with a reality, can only mean to be guided either straight up to it or into its surroundings, or to be put into such working touch with it as to handle either it or something connected with it better than if we disagreed.’ 
 Reality is not a set thing that our ideas either match up with (which is true ideas) or do not (which is false ideas), but it is made by us. In pragmatism, to copy a reality is one way of agreeing with it, but not essential. The essential part of agreement is how you use it to guide you through this persisting reality we seem to be experiencing. Names are just as true or false as our other ideas or what James calls definite mental pictures. Names are arbitrary, however once set they need to remain so or there would be confusion. Names are labels given to objects that have the same grouping or kind, and as long as we use the right name for the right object, our name is always true.
‘You are sure to get truth if you can but name the kind rightly, for your mental relations hold good of everything of that kind without exception.’
In the end, philosophy needs to give us a theory that will affect out lives, giving us something almost tangible that we can hold on to and use. Pragmatism is not strictly speaking a philosophical theory of itself, but more of a lens through which all other theories must pass. It grants an idea to be true, and then asks, so what? What definite difference will this idea make to me in my life, if I were to believe it or chose not to believe it. It must always be remembered that all previous truths must be affected as little as possible when incorporating new beliefs.
‘We must find a theory that will work, and that means something extremely difficult, for our theory must mediate between all previous truths and certain new experiences.’ 
 In science, there are often two or more competing theories which attempt to explain the same phenomenon or situation. In times like this, we should look as much as possible to the explanation that incorporates all previously held truths, while at the same time accurately predicting new experience. This is a rather easy thing to do. We are naturally disposed to incorporate the theory which conform to our preconceived notions, and thus reject the one which changes our previous truths more.

Truth has a certain ‘cash-value’ in pragmatism. Truths pay. They pay because they lead us towards some way of predicting our next experiences. The truths that pay more, help us more, by leading us towards worthwhile moments in our experience. Pragmatism is a name for a verification process of our ideas and beliefs: truth is largely made up of other truths. It is a lens through which all other theories must pass, in order for us to incorporate them into our belief system.

Experience has a way of ‘boiling over’, which is to say that it forces us to correct our beliefs due to new experiences happening, which do not conform to what we believed before. While the facts may change in our situations, our use of truth also does.
‘The “facts” themselves meanwhile are not true. They simply are. Truth is the function of the beliefs that start and terminate among them.’
 Beliefs make us act, and as they do so so, they bring with them new experiences which themselves redefine the belief’s guiding our actions. This may be likened to Berkeley’s descriptions of matter: people thought he was denying its existence. Similarly, pragmatism was accused of denying truth, but clearly just redefined the word to mean something other than copying a stagnant reality.

Copying reality is really not important. Who cares if our beliefs copy reality, if what we really want is to be able to use our beliefs to guide us to where we want to be? And to do so through this persisting reality that we seem to be experiencing through our sensory perceptions.



* This post is adapted from Pi Alpha, the first embodiment of Pi.  In the transition to Pi Beta, the name of the author was unfortunately lost.  His identity would be a welcome addition - if anyone can help.

Monday, 5 August 2019

PP #48: Philosophic Reflections on a Lunar View of Earth



This view taken  July 20, 1969,  from the Apollo 11 spacecraft shows the Earth rising
above the moon's horizon. (Image credit: NASA/JSC)

Posted by Keith Tidman

Half a century after the Apollo 11 astronauts stepped onto the heavily pockmarked moon, a quarter of a million miles away, much of the world has recently been savoring again the grandeur of the achievement. Reaffirmation of the ‘giant leap for mankind’ legendarily beamed back to Earth, and the ambitious revisualisation of our space-based destiny and vistas.

The feat symbolised humankind’s intrepid instincts. To venture into space, as Earth-bound explorers once riskily did across threatening oceans and landmasses. To satisfy a gnawing curiosity, placing footprints, as these resilient astronauts did, onto unknown and little-known shores. And in the doing, be in awe of the oneness and most-fundamental architecture of humanity — the very nature of our being.

From this comparatively short distance, Earth still looks startlingly small and lonely — even humble, given its cloaking by the atmosphere. Yet, humankind might discover it isn’t alone; the cosmos brims with habitable planets. In that endeavour, how might the image of our planet change, then, as cameras peel back even farther: from elsewhere in the Milky Way and well beyond? As distances in space turn into light-years.

As Earth shrinks with distance, does the meaningfulness of our planet and its inhabitants shrink in parallel, in the vast cosmic backdrop, contesting humankind’s immodestly self-styled honorific of ‘exceptional’? Does our reality change? Or do, say, the ‘volume and mass’ of what fundamentally matters about us — our purpose — rebelliously remain unaffected, defining our place in the larger scheme, no matter Earth’s size in the surrounding cold expanse? 

A rebelliousness that, one might submit, emerges from a web of human ‘consciousness’ that stretches around the planet — the neurons and synapses (connectomes) of seven-and-a-half billion people ceaselessly firing: the stuff of dreams, imaginings, creations. Integral, perhaps, to a larger cosmic consciousness: and again, the stuff of dreams, imaginings, creations.

The seeming peacefulness in the image at top is just that: ‘seeming’. The pacific panorama masks the true nature of Earth: roiling with both natural and human activity. The phantom tranquility conceals one of our instinctual human behaviours: successive wars filling millennia of history. One wonders what idiosyncratically in the human genome leads mankind to war to remedy differences and trifling grievances, as well as quench hegemonic cravings. All the while paradoxically juxtaposed with the astounding complexities of humankind’s diverse civilisations and cultures.

As we gaze, from moon’s vantage point, upon the orb of Earth, with its thin coating of air and water, we are reminded of how vulnerably brittle the Earth’s environment is. Especially at the environment’s intersections with not-uncommonly remorseless technology. Existential risks abound. We’re reminded of the responsibility humanity has as active (proactive) guardians, to nurture the planet as the planet symbiotically nurtures us. Critical, we might agree, to the survival and continued evolution of our species.

What happens if we misguidedly, even disinterestedly, poison or exhaust the planet, as it hangs precariously in space? Or might nature, perhaps indifferent to humanity and coolly subjecting us to its whim, itself render the planet uninhabitable — leading to another major extinction event? Are we only renters, not owners? Did the lunar visit introduce a new imperative: to leave Earth behind and inhabit somewhere else?

Is there a solemnity about the rearward-looking scene of a distanced Earth — an awe that prompts reflection? A scene made all the more evocative by our believing that Earth is immersed in a sort of cosmic sea — of dark matter, dark energy, quantum fluctuations, and more. Is there the perception of ‘aloneness’, too, our seemingly distanced from everyone and everything else in that cosmic sea? The silence of the gaping, inky space contrasts with the cacophony of Earth, the latter a hive of devices that magnify our voices and echo our presence. Will that cacophony continue, or ultimately go silent?

In that presence, we marvel that humankind, dwelling on the comparatively tiny planet seen from the lunar perspective, nevertheless has the cognitive wherewithal to ponder and increasingly understand the cosmology of the whole universe: its beginning, its evolution, its current circumstances, its future. A study in the making, propelled by an irresistible impulse to know.

Anyone whose culture might have included the pre-digital-age children’s game of marbles may nostalgically recognise, from this lunar distance, the surface appearance of Earth, with its gauzy, chaotically swirling patterns. We admire its familiarly abstract beauty. All the while suspecting that there’s order interweaving the deception of chaos. Surrounding this marble-like Earth is a bewildering stillness and blackness — a blackness majestically interrupted, however, by galaxies and stunning phenomena like the Pillars of Creation.

Future generations will grasp, better than us, how this one step on another cosmic body, however craggy and nearby the moon is, served to spur far more ambitious tours through space, whether by human beings or sophisticated thinking apparatuses — to face down the harsh environment of space as we inexorably scratch our exploratory itch.

Monday, 29 July 2019

Pragmatism: its Conception of Verified Truth #1

Essay by an anonymous contributor* reposted from Pi Alpha

In this, the first of two posts, Pi presents reflections on ‘Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth’, a title which William James chose in 1907 for a classic paper on pragmatism.
One of the most basic questions a philosopher can ask is: ‘What is truth?’ What does it mean for a thing to be ‘true’?

Truth, as a dictionary would tell you, is a property of our ideas. Their agreement (between our ideas and reality) is truth, where their disagreement is falsity. This tells us what the word ‘truth’ means in conversation, but a dictionary cannot tell us what is meant by the term ‘reality’ or the agreement of our ideas with this reality. A true idea, in the non-pragmatic sense, is an idea that accurately reflects reality. People would never believe something that they know to be false, so everyone’s beliefs are about something that they think is true. This does not really get at the heart of the problem, though, which demands what reality?

The great American philosopher (I think, the first great American philosopher) was William James. His development of the school known as pragmatism created for me America’s first original school of thought, and thus America’s first real contribution to the world of philosophy. Indeed, when James headed the Colombia philosophy department, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, whose interests spanned the logical structure of language, said it was one of the finest schools in the world. James did not like the Cartesian idea that truth is the correct reflection of reality, but instead insisted that truth is made by us through interactions with reality, although not one stagnant reality.

Previously in Europe, the pervasive school of thought was that if your idea could be said to be true, then ‘you are where you ought to be mentally’. However, pragmatism asserts that you should take a belief to be true, then ask:
‘What concrete differences will its (an idea’s) being true make in anyone’s actual life?’ 
This question becomes the foundation of pragmatism: what experiences with reality would be different if the belief were to be true or false? James then goes on to make his largest claim, that truth ideas are those that:
‘we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify’
This is the practical difference that true or false ideas have to us. Indeed, this process of assimilation, validation, corroboration, and verification allow us in effect to make an idea true or false. ‘Truth happens to an idea.’ This thought is in direct response to the European schools of thought that had a stagnant reality which true ideas correspond to and false ideas do not. In effect, James is claiming that ideas become true or are made true by actual events.

The possession of a true idea is not an end in of itself, but can be seen as a tool that allows us to function towards our desires and goals. James brings up an example that I shall use for the rest of this and the next post: imagine that you are lost in the woods and starved, but you come to what appears to be a track leading in some unknown direction. If you know that it is a cow track, and that cow tracks lead to farmers’ houses, then this information is useful to you. ‘The true thought (the one that the track is in fact a cow track) is useful here because the house (at the end of the track) which is its object is useful.’ In this scenario, the track is useful because of the situation you are in, which is being in need of food. But if the situation were slightly different, the usefulness of this truth is changed as well.

Let us say that the track that we come to appears to us to be made by a goat and not by a cow , along with the knowledge that cow tracks lead to farmers’ houses and goat tracks lead to large fields. This then changes the usefulness of the path, but does not change the fact that the information that we already knew is useful to us. Back to the cow tracks scenario, let us say that it is a cow path, not a goat one. The information that goat paths lead nowhere useful is in itself useful, although not right now. James calls these extra truths.

At this point I feel I need to stop and re-clarify the example. The reason we know that goat tracks lead nowhere is because before, in a different woods, we followed a goat track and it led us nowhere, whereas previously the cow tracks did lead to a safe house. This process is the verification process, that tells us what ideas we have are true and which ones are not. However, if say we had forgotten this previous adventure, and followed the goat tracks and they led to a house, then the truth that goat tracks do not lead to houses would be false.
‘Whenever such an extra truth becomes practically relevant to one of our emergencies, it passes from cold storage to do work in the world and our belief in it grows active.’ 
 This idea of goat tracks leading nowhere, but cow tracks leading to houses, can be said to be true because it is useful, but also can be useful because it is true. Both these things say the same thing, that ‘here is an idea that gets fulfilled and can be verified. ‘True’ is the name for whatever idea starts the verification process, ‘useful’ the name for its completed function in experience.’ True ideas obtain a certain value based on their usefulness to us in situations. Pragmatism’s general notion of truth is about the way one moment in our experience with reality may lead us towards similar desired moments. We as humans, with a finite unknown amount of time here, want moments that are worthwhile having. True ideas are those that get us to our destination of worthwhile moments.

Experience is filled with regularities. One moment can (and often does) influence the next moment we have. ‘Truth, in these cases, means nothing but eventual verification.’ This verification takes place when we interact with reality from one moment to the next moment (or what I call, existence through persisting reality) and our ideas are being used to influence this persisting reality.

Back to our scenario of the cow tracks: verification takes place when we follow the tracks and actually see the house and get food and rest inside. Or the goat tracks one: the verification process takes place when we get to the end of it, and there is no house to take shelter in or give us food. Verification can be positive or negative. If the cow tracks lead to a house, it is verified positively. If it leads nowhere, it is verified negatively. On the other hand, if the goat tracks actually lead to a house, then it can be said that our previous belief was false, or that its verification was negative. We have verified that our previously held belief was false.



* This post is adapted from Pi Alpha, the first embodiment of Pi.  In the transition to Pi Beta, the name of the author was unfortunately lost.  His identity would be a welcome addition - if anyone can help.

Monday, 22 July 2019

The Octave Illusion

Posted by Thomas Scarborough*



440Hz and 880Hz alternating R and L

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

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

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

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

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

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

identity, free will

things, events, properties

society, language

money

matter, force, energy

causes, physical laws...

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

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



* The author once designed a simple electronic unit to produce this effect. This is still obtainable from the publisher at https://www.elektormagazine.com/magazine/elektor-200411/17842

Monday, 15 July 2019

Is Beyoncé really an Existentialist?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 July 2019

Altruism: Is It Real?

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

Posted by Keith Tidman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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