Monday, 8 February 2016

An Information Society

A Proposal For a New 'Checks and Balances'

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
“Power checks power,” wrote Charles de Montesquieu.  Yet power, to check power, rests on the disclosure of information.
The political philosopher Montesquieu, in the early 18th century, developed the political theory of the separation of powers, and with it, of checks and balances.  Through such a separation of powers, a government would be divided into three separate branches, each of which would serve as a check and a balance to the other two. Subsequently, Montesquieu's ideas have had a major influence on political philosophy – so that, today, democratic governments will typically (though not always) separate their legislative, executive, and judicial branches to guarantee continued stability and good governance.  It may seem a primitive notion today – namely, that power checks power – yet it really is the only way that we have.

However, given such a separation of powers, how should a nation know that this arrangement is working? How should one assess it? How should one confirm it? Separate powers can unite. Individual powers can gain the ascendancy. The answer is plainly: each branch of government needs to know what the others are doing – not only in terms of the various decisions which they take, but in terms of keeping open account of the way in which these decisions are carried out. And this needs to be public, or one loses not only public accountability and confidence, but the rich resources which are public thinking.

To put it another way, it is as simple as the disclosure of information. In fact, without the disclosure of information, there really can be no separation of powers. Therefore, the requirement for information is prior to the separation of powers. For this very reason, the various branches of government publish their information through government printing works – and more recently, through web portals.

But now, notice something about this information, which is of crucial importance to a nation. One doesn't need to go banging down any doors to obtain it. One doesn't have to apply for it. One doesn't need to pay for it. The basic information of government is ours. Not only do we have the right to such information – we have the information.

If only all of society would work in this way, from top to bottom: public officials, civil servants, professions councils, board members, business people – in fact, throughout. We know, from recent empirical advances, that transparency greatly moderates the exploitative power of individuals – and in so doing, greatly reduces the distress of a nation. Yet today, by way of specific example which is by no means unique, access to a single page of information in my home town Cape Town, through the provisions of a liberal Access to Information Act, may cost R30 000 in counsel fees alone – if anybody should be feeling clingy. This is well above the average monthly income, and an impractical prospect for most.

Yet information is critical to society. In the words of the philosopher Frederick Adams, it enables us to get “a fix on the way the world is objectively configured”. We need information before we can manage and grow a nation in an informed, considered, and impartial way.

In fact it may be the difference between the success and failure of a state. Wherever information is concealed, politicians accumulate personal fortunes, crimes are swept under the carpet, buildings rise without permissions, the poor are exploited, foodstuffs are unsafe – and a thousand things besides. In my own country South Africa, a bubbly young reporter pushed her way into a country estate, where she discovered blueprints on a wall. It was Nkandla – the beginning of a major information scandal, and unprecedented turmoil in the national parliament.

It is therefore critically important that there should be a way to shed light – through the disclosure of information – on rules, plans, processes, and actions, throughout society. Which is, one needs to know the why, how, what, and how-much in every sphere.

How far should this go? It needs to go far. Yet the application of the principle would be for each society to negotiate in its own unique situation. The bottom line is the need for information – not merely the right to it. And for the first time in human history, in our information society, this has become a real possibility.

Parallel to a three-fold separation of powers, therefore, it would seem crucial to propose another kind of separation: the separation of information. Duplication of information is not enough. Alter one copy, or destroy it, and the value of the other may be lost. In triplicate, information is secure. Three separate information databases would seem essential to secure the disclosure of vital information.

This should not be confused with a surveillance state, where the few have special access to information, and the power to exploit it. By and large, the concealment of information holds greater dangers than genuinely opening it up.

In early societies, houses and huts were often arranged in circles. So, too, were wigwams pitched in an oval, and wagons drawn up in a laager. Everyone was able to see into the heart of everyone else's world.  Yet through the course of history, this changed – and in many ways it has been to our detriment. While it is impossible, now, to return to such a society, it is possible to recreate one of its central features: namely, transparency. Nations, in order to thrive and survive, must have a high order of transparency.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Picture Post No. 9: Balloons Floating into the Philosophical Dimension













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


Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Al-Azhar mosque, Cairo
Photo credit: AP via Guardian


Human beings have long been trying to explain the unknown. We have constructed grand theories, separated doctrines and invented names all in a bid to create systematic order out of the  unknown. In the process, we have been so enthusiastic in our examination of the mysterious and so hopeful to tame our reality within our notions of proof, that even when our logic no longer fits, we still believe it is present. After all, building edifices upon that lack of proof, just like proving stories  never happened, can be even more powerful than finding evidence for those that actually did.

In this image, perhaps the child’s innocent play shows in a single gesture the impossibility of stepping outside our essential humanity.

This girl and the balloon are so completely embedded in life itself that it is difficult not to recognise in the image this human urge to investigate. Yet, in the human search for knowledge, the tendency to  build walls has never outreached that clarity this girl and the balloon hand back to us.

When does something become intelligible?

Is there some kind of archaic intuition that determines when a relation becomes timeless within a spatial dimension? Could the girl and the balloon  have been pictured like this in front of a row of policemen,  or a church, in the desert - or even in Cairo's  busy traffic Instead,  the balloon seems to descend like another world that the girl is waiting to receive.


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Sunday, 31 January 2016

The Death of Rationalism

By Thomas Scarborough
We shall inhabit, for a moment, the world of the German philosophers Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen.  In 1973, Kamlah and Lorenzen co-authored the 'Logische Propädeutic' – an obscure title, with a dull brown cover, and ragged text hammered out on an electric typewriter. Yet it soon became a best-seller.
At its heart lies the concept of the predicator, which Kamlah and Lorenzen thought (in their definition of it) to be the key to a disciplined scientific and philosophical language. A predicator, to borrow a term from Gottlob Frege, 'saturates' the object. For example, in the sentence 'This is a Persian cat,' 'Persian cat' is the predicator. The technical definition: 'We assert a predicator of an object when we state something about the object.' A predicator, too, properly belongs only to a very limited range of predicators. For instance, one can point to a Cheshire cat and say, 'This is an animal,' although one cannot point to a Cheshire cat and say, 'This is a bicycle.' Predicators which are legitimately available for our use occur in chains, webs, or networks. For example:

    Cheshire cat → cat → animal → living thing
    Mountain bike → bicycle → vehicle → non-living thing

Note that, even at the end of such predicator chains, we may not arrive at anything common. To put this another way, a Cheshire cat and a mountain bike will rarely turn up in the same conversation. Therefore, the words which we speak fit comfortably into certain predicator chains, webs, or networks (we shall simply call them 'networks' here). Whether we speak about chemistry, ecclesiology, or philosophy, or anything else under the sun, our words fit comfortably into the subject under discussion. Yet even at the same time, most predicators will fail to fit into our conversation at any given time. For instance, while we are permitted to say, 'The maid carries the pail,' we cannot say, 'The maid carries the moon,' or anything of that sort.

In fact, our language is tightly constrained – so tightly constrained that when we put pen to paper, in whichever direction we cast our thoughts, we tend to be able only to construct networks of predicators which are agreeble to our starting point. Kamlah and Lorenzen observe, 'Predicators always stand in such a tightly woven nexus that any one tends to appear with others.' And briefly, they suggest a 'thought-provoking example': philosophy from Augustine to Leibniz was 'determined' by philosophers' understanding of predicators.

A philosophy has ambitions to think in every direction. Yet as it does so, it follows predicator rules (which resemble set theory), and is tightly bound by these rules. Thus Kamlah and Lorenzen note that we are 'thoroughly dominated by an unacknowledged metaphysics'. Therefore, as philosophers sat down in the past to write their philosophies, words were attracted to words – much as magnets snap to magnets – and so predicator networks produced philosophies. One merely needs to posit a starting point – the will to power, for instance – and snap-snap-snap, one has a philosophy. In short, philosophies self-assemble.

It happens through the very nature of words and their attractional forces. We all have experience of the same. Drop an origin into the middle of a pool of thought – or a starting point, a kernel, whatever one may call it – and a system grows. We sit down with a group of people in a hotel lobby. Our talk revolves around the tasteful furnishings and elegant décor. Then I drop a comment that I am doing fascinating research into elephants. From this, a string of conversation results which occupies the whole group for some time – until a concierge interrupts us with a message. I wonder then at my powers of influence. Yet it lies in the very nature of language, which click-click-clicks together in keeping with predicator rules.

Therefore, while philosophising may represent a more systematic pursuit than any casual combinations of words, philosophers have represented little more than the inclinations of the philosophers and their culture. All were bound by centuries of 'unacknowledged metaphysics' – namely, predicator rules. In fact, the same must apply to religion, politics, ethics. Predicator networks, even with the passage of time, remain largely intact. Is there an American in the house? The massacres of the Red Indians are in you, and you were in them. Is there a German? Adolf Hitler inhabits your mind, and you inhabited his. Is there a South African? Apartheid is in your heart, and you were in apartheid's heart.

Of course, we need not think so narrowly. There have been many Americans, Germans, and South Africans, as there have been people of many nations and cultures. A changed environment, too, means changed behaviour for the same hapless creatures. Even predicator networks will change. In this, Kamlah and Lorenzen set their hope. If we take a close look at the system and structure of our language over generations, indeed we may discern faint traces of change, if we focus hard enough.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Poem: Friendship

Posted by Theo Olivet *

Original painting by T.A. Marrison
A central question of life is that of where may I find firm ground as I search for my own position? Subsidiary ones are: Does friendship help? Is it possible to obtain support through common suffering? Or to define one's future position? And to what extent may one find strength through the weaknesses of others? 

Friendship
Translated from the original German by Pi Editors

Come, let the two of us bow down
at this, our so familiar place,
so many stubs you stubbed out here,
the white smoke rising from your face.

And then, in that deep silence
to which we often yielded,
A raw cough I coughed
and my eyes from yours I shielded.

At times a gentle word fell,
'I run from me, tomorrow.'
And you in turn, said frankly:
'My man has not been found, though,
I guess I am my own first foe ...'
I asked:  'You mean, above, below?'
Then we wept aloud.

Those were the days! I tell myself.
So awesome! they won't come again,
yet we stood there, all four feet
in a sea of tar then …

Come, give me one of yours
since mine are dull in taste,
I am changing, it would seem to me,
this house has all but gone to waste,
my doors are much a'rattling,
oh, were my sails by new wind chased.

The cigarette, yeah …  I say thank you,
the way it tastes, the smoke reminds me
how oft you fingered stubs and drew.
You … yes you … I wish once more to be
with you



* Theo Olivet is an author, artist, and retired judge in Schleswig-Holstein
The original German language poem appears at Gedicht: Freundschaft

Sunday, 24 January 2016

The Thing-in-Itself


By Thomas Scarborough

Benjamin Lee Whorf, the American linguist, made a puzzling observation which, for no patent reason, has held our fascination for nearly eighty years. Whorf wrote it in simple language, and briefly:
'Around a storage of what are called 'gasoline (petrol) drums', behavior will tend to a certain type, that is, great care will be exercised; while around a storage of what are called 'empty gasoline drums' it will tend to be different-careless, with little repression of smoking or of tossing cigarette stubs about. Yet the 'empty' drums are perhaps the more dangerous, since they contain explosive vapor.'
Whorf, I here suggest, had stumbled upon the core problem of the thing-in-itself, and with that, the core problem of the thinking of our entire Western civilisation. The interpretation of the thing-in-itself is not critical here.  It is sufficient to understand it most simply as any 'object of inquiry'. Let us begin at the beginning.

First, the Scottish philosopher David Hume observed that all knowledge may be subdivided into relations of ideas on the one hand, and matters of fact on the other. That is, one begins with a handful of facts (which includes objects), and these facts stand in a certain relation to one another.

This view has remained engraved on metaphysicians' minds ever since. Generations later, Bertrand Russell wrote that many philosophers, following Immanuel Kant, have maintained that relations are the work of the mind, and that things-in-themselves have no relations. While this is not to say exactly the same, the thought is not far from Hume's.

A marble is a thing. A house is a thing. Even gravity, ideology, taxonomy are things (we call them constructs), which may in turn be related to other things. In a sense, even a unicorn is a 'thing', although one is unlikely ever to find one. Of course, our 'things' may not be exactly the same as we perceive them – but the point will be clear.

Things-in-themselves are not, of course, facts. They first need to be involved in what we call truth conditions – which is, they need to be inserted into statements. Then one may affirm or deny such statements, which is an essential condition of facts. For example, we insert the thing 'marble' into a statement: 'A marble sinks' – or the thing 'unicorn': 'The Scots keep unicorns.'

On the surface of it, our world is filled with such facts: 'There's a car,' 'A bird has wings,' or 'The square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides.'

But there is a mistake. There are no things, there are no objects, and therefore there are no facts. Hume got it wrong, and so did every philosopher since. One finds only relations. The mind is incapable of comprehending anything else. No mind can ever settle on a 'thing' alone.

Someone might object: 'But this is a coffee cup, and that's a fact!' But is it really? Take away the table on which the coffee cup rests, and what does one have? One has a coffee cup which rests on nothing.  If we ever found such a thing, we would marvel that it exists.  One would have scientists queuing up at the door to see it.  Further, the table, on which the coffee cup rests, stands on the floor, and this in turn rests on the earth, and so on.

The same is true if we down-scale our thinking as it were. Supposing that we should say, 'This coffee cup has a handle.' The same applies. We have to have a mind for a whole world of relations to be able to speak of a handle.

We never worried about this much – before the publication of Samuel Johnson's great dictionary of 1755.  But since then, our 'things' have been defined, and they have been defined (if implicitly) as things-in-themselves. But this they are not, as we have seen.

This now promises to explain Benjamin Whorf's puzzlement over the dangerous way in which people went about with empty petrol drums, and our continuing fascination with the same today. We have come to see petrol drums today as things-in-themselves, without the obvious relations in which they are involved.

One might wonder at the possible significance of it all. Quite simply, when we speak of the world today, our language causes us to view it as people viewed Whorf's petrol drums, namely, as a profusion of things-in-themselves.  Yet we deal with things far more dangerous than petrol drums.

Sunday, 17 January 2016

If Aristotle Visited Us Today

Posted by Eugene Alper
The term 'metaphysics' was born with Aristotle. He was the first who aspired to gathering together all previous philosophical knowledge, and integrating it in a single great work.
Perhaps he felt hopeful – as one might feel on a fresh morning in the woods, with the first rays of the sun filtering through the trees. Although he was teased by a few outstanding questions, perhaps Aristotle felt that the end was truly in sight.

Yet if Aristotle visited us today, he might conclude that philosophy is in major crisis. For we have been asking the same fundamental questions – the same perennial questions – for two and a half millennia. And because of that, he might note, we are in a less enviable position than he was. For accumulated knowledge without obvious fruit affects one’s sense of self-confidence. It also undermines hope: the more knowledge, the less hope.

It is natural for the teenager – by way of analogy – to be hopeful about the future, to think that by the age of forty she will certainly know how to live a life, as opposed to her parents who, for some reasons, still do not. But when the age comes, and the former teenager asks the same question and still finds no answer, and suspects something even worse—that at the age of fifty and sixty and seventy she may still have no answer—a sense of unease dawns on her. This is what they call midlife crisis.

One wonders whether Aristotle might see, in the philosophic state of humankind today, the same sort of midlife crisis. He himself had a limited literature or recorded history to look back upon – but we, he might observe, have 2 500 years. This long view of the well-recorded past might give him – as it gives us – a deep sense of unease.

On the one hand, seeing so much treasure accumulated in literature, poetry, drama, philosophy, one can reasonably say, 'Look at the baggage of fine thought we are bringing along. Does this not give hope that its accumulation in the future may be even greater, and that, just as we have seen in technology, there may soon come a qualitative breakthrough? Isn’t this the evidence that we may be onto something? Just one more step, just one more realisation, and we may understand what the good life is?'

On the other hand, this very outlook on the past shows that our thinking, in the most fundamental ways, does not improve with time. Like the bird which greets each morning with the same old song, we fail to recognise that there is nothing new, that our questions are not different from the questions already asked by Aristotle long ago, or better than the answers he already gave.

Our baggage today, Aristotle might observe, is dubious and heavy, for the very ability to know the past and to observe the distance one has travelled without much philosophic growth may make one lose heart. Our human thinking, he might conclude, is somewhat defective, somewhat limited by nature. It could be that, by nature, our mind is incapable of going beyond the Biblical God, Plato’s One, or Aristotle’s Primary Cause. Or it could be that, by nature, our mind does better when dealing with things measurable, yet not so well with things abstract.

Perhaps, then, there is no exiting from the loop, no jumping out of the rut. On the most fundamental issues we will still think in inescapable circles, resembling the fish in the bowl, who thinks it is moving forward while sliding along the concave glass.

Monday, 11 January 2016

Time and Timers: A Good Resolutions Post for 2016




Posted by Perig Gouanvic

Some say that the Internet age is deleterious for our brains, that we have become scattered and shallow; others applaud this change, insisting that we are simply adapting to a new and better age of connectivity and openness. Being prone, from birth, to being scattered, I would have some advice for those who are starting to wonder what their brains are becoming in the Internet age.

I made the discovery of a technique (wait, this is not promotional material -- I have nothing to sell!) that is based on the hypotheses that the brain is not really capable of focusing, to its best, on a single thing for more than 25 minutes maximum (on average) and that hearing and controlling a timer can help exorcise the anguish of time. I did not try this technique to boost my "brain power" but rather because I was intrigued by the idea of devoting such short periods of time to the 10 or 15 different things that I have in mind everyday (15 times 25 minutes fits in a single day). These things are extremely different one from the other, and it is the fact that they kept nagging me, even becoming intrusive, one idea coming into conflict with the other one, that caused me to be mentally too exhausted to do anything at all.

I guess this is how most of us feel when they have about 15 different tabs open in their browser.

Only a few days after I started to practice the first elements of this pomodoro technique (that's how its called; tomato in Italian, because timers often are tomato-shaped down there), the heap of other things to do stopped bothering me and I could focus for about 20 minutes on a single thing. And then on another one. And so forth.

After a few days I had to stop using this technique because it had changed my personality  rather profoundly. I drew several lessons from this tomato-free day. But the most important is that there is a time to be frantically scattered and superficial. It is the daytime version of REM (random eye movement) sleep, and it is as important. The only problem is that we are REM awake too often, these days, because of the Internet; ultimately this REM awakeness becomes counterproductive. Learning to manage my own inner tabs not only helps me to be more structured, but to be more positively scattered, more intuitive, when I decide to stop structuring myself.


Sunday, 10 January 2016

The Bridging Inference

A Pi Special Investigation into the workings of language

How is a definition defined? Much may depend on the answer to this simple question—including, arguably, the shape of our entire (post)modern society today. But more of this in a moment.

The way that one typically defines a word is with the most economical statement of its descriptive meaning. Therefore the Oxford English Dictionary defines a 'dog' as 'a domesticated, carnivorous mammal'.

However, not every linguist would agree that this is how one should go about definition. Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen took a suspicious view of this notion—considering that such definition is necessary but inadequate 1. It is, they suggested, 'a mere abbreviation'. A true definition of a word would require so much more.

But so it is: In terms of classical linguistics, in order to define a word, one enumerates its 'necessary and sufficient features' 2. Such definition may also be referred to as the denotative meaning of a word, or its 'hard core of meaning'—as opposed to its 'meanings around the edges', or its connotative meaning 3.

How is a definition defined?

In probing the answer to the question here, the linguistic feature the anaphora provides a useful starting point. The anaphora, in turn, is related to a lesser-known linguistic feature, the bridging inference. This promises to be more useful still.

But first, the anaphora.

The Anaphora

The anaphora, according to linguists Simon Botley and Tony McEnery, is particularly useful in telling us 'some things about how language is understood and processed' 4. That is, it opens windows into the inner workings of our language, which would normally seem closed to us.

The anaphora is called a referring expression—for the reason that it refers to another linguistic element in a text. Typically, it refers back. An example: 'Aristotle owned a house. He lived in it.' Here, 'He' refers back to Aristotle, while 'it' refers back to his house. Both 'He' and 'it', therefore, are anaphoras.

A fact less emphasised is that the meaning of the anaphora must match the meaning of the linguistic element which it refers to—otherwise an anaphora is 'unresolved'. For example: 'Aristotle owned a house. It popped,' or: 'Aristotle owned a house. It chased rabbits.' In these two examples, the meaning of the anaphora and the meaning of the referent do not coincide—as they ought to.

This deserves special emphasis: the anaphora refers to a linguistic element which is well defined, on the surface of it reflecting its denotative meaning.

 So a house is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as 'a building used for human habitation,' or (Collins) 'a building used as a home,' or (Macmillan) 'a building for living in'. Thus the anaphora 'it', above, takes on the definition of a house—or so it would seem.

Thus far with the anaphora.

The Bridging Inference

Closely related to the anaphora is the lesser known referring expression the bridging inference. Like the anaphora, this typically refers back.
Here follows an example of a bridging inference: 'Aristotle owned a house. The plumbing was blocked.' At first glance, this might seem identical to the anaphora—yet it is quite different.

While no one should have a problem understanding these two sentences, the house is now no longer in explicit focus 5. Or to put it another way: one typically recognises a bridging inference by the fact that one cannot replace it with a pronoun. One cannot say, for instance: 'Aristotle owned a house. It was blocked.'

In the above example, the inference is that a house contains plumbing. However, there is something apparently inexplicable that meets us here. No definition of a house includes plumbing. The bridging inference assumes that when one speaks about a house, one knows something that one should not know, or does not need to know.

In fact, we intuitively relate many things to a house: 'Aristotle owned a house. The karma was bad,' or: 'Aristotle owned a house. The ceilings were sagging,' or: 'Aristotle owned a house. The valuation was too low.' In all of these examples and more, a house is intuitively understood to have karma, ceilings, value, and so on. To put it simply, all of these sentences work—in spite of having nothing to do with the definition of a house, as one finds it in the dictionary.

This is important. If something has nothing to do with the definition of a house, yet is intuitively understood to be a part of what it is, then we have a problem with the common notion of a definition.

The ease with which one uses inferences is all the more appreciated when incompatible inferences are made: 'Aristotle owned a house. The crank shaft was broken,' or: 'Aristotle owned a house. The preservative was vinegar.' One sees here, all the more clearly, how inferences are dependent on the meaning of the referent.

We return now to the anaphora.

The Anaphora Again

On the surface of it, the anaphora would seem to refer to the stock standard definition of a word—namely, its 'necessary and sufficient features'—while the bridging inference would seem to stray into 'meanings around the edges'. That is to say, on the surface of it the anaphora has more to do with the denotative meaning of a word, while the bridging inference has more to do with its connotative meaning.

Yet does this hold true?

If it does not, then there may be many more inferences in our language than we have supposed. Or to put it another way: the features of our definitions of words may not be as 'necessary' or 'sufficient' as they seem.

By way of experiment, consider what happens when one converts some of the bridging inferences above to anaphoras: 'Aristotle owned a house. It had bad karma,' or: 'Aristotle owned a house. It had sagging ceilings.'

At first glance, there may seem to be no inferences here: the anaphora 'It' would seem, in each case, to refer back to the house. However, it becomes clear that one is dealing with inferences as soon as one tries some false ones. For example: 'Aristotle owned a house. It had a broken crank shaft,' or: 'Aristotle owned a house. It was preserved with vinegar.'

What we see here is that the anaphora has to be compatible with various inferences which relate to a house. It is a precondition for the anaphora to work.

In fact we might go so far as to say that the English language depends on innumerable inferences. Both the bridging inference and the anaphora reveal that we make inferences which exceed the definition of a word—and with that, 'play old Harry' with the notion of the denotative meaning of the word.

'Every utterance, no matter how laboured,' said philosopher and linguist Max Black, 'trails clouds of implication' 6.

For what reason, then, might the bridging inference and the anaphora instantly be understood—where they have nothing to do with the definition of a thing?

Here follow some broad suggestions:

The Definition of a Definition

An answer to the puzzle may lie in what we have already seen, although it might seem alien to our analytical thinking today:

If there is any apparent relation between two things—between a house, say, and the plumbing—or between a house and its karma—then these will inevitably have something to do with each other's definition. If there is no apparent relation—between a house and a crank shaft, say, or a house and its preservative—then these will have nothing to do with each other's definition.

This has an important corollary.

It has to mean that the definitions of words are relational, not analytic: definitions are not first about features, they are about relations—and there may be a great many relations.

In fact it was Aristotle who first suggested that definitions are not features 'piled in a heap', but that they are 'disposed in a certain way' 7. That is, their features stand in a certain relationship with one another—as many as these may be.

Now if linguistics is a descriptive endeavour, not prescriptive—if it is about 'how people actually speak or write' 8—then what shall we do with the customary definition of a definition?

If definitions are relational, not analytic—then it may be suggested, on the basis of the way that we use words today, that the (post)modern era has gone vastly astray. Is it not our dissection of reality—rather than our being able to see its relatedness—that has led to environmental degradation, social disintegration, and a host of other ills?

The analytical view of the world should be compensated by a relational one. This may begin with the way that we see language. Or to put it another way: the way that we see language today may shape the entire society in which we live.



Matters arising - and some notes


Saturday, 9 January 2016

Painting Change

Will Kemp Art School: How to Paint Over an Acrylic Painting

Posted by Tessa den Uyl, with Pi
We all arrange the world in our minds. I should say, our world in our minds. I am a painter – so let me speak rather of 'painting' our world in our minds. 
We paint our village streets in our minds -- to remember them and make sense of them. We paint our supermarket shelves and bus routes there. We paint social networks and personal schedules. We even paint university curricula and religious beliefs there. In short, we paint a vast number of things, which we place upon the easel of our minds for easy reference.

Yet as we paint this painting, we find that everywhere the subjects of our painting are changing. From year to year, even day to day, the painting no longer matches the world we are fixing in paint. The ubiquity of the word 'change' in our language says it all: 'The times are changing,' and 'We change with the times' – it's 'a change of tack,' or 'a change of pace' – 'Let's change the channel,' and 'Let's change the subject' – 'Ring in the changes!' and 'Plus ça change!'

And even as we paint our world in our own minds, we are aware, too, that other people have other paintings of the world in theirs. While my painting is my own – their painting, too, is theirs. This becomes a problem both for me and for them, in equal measure. Let me explain.

This morning, in a small village in Morocco, I went out to buy a washing powder called 'Tide'. Ilias understands 'tête' (which is paté) instead of 'Tide'. Now why would one buy tête in a shop where they sell products for the home? For more than two years, Ilias and I have continued our dispute over misunderstandings surrounding pronunciation. His French is not my French, and my French is not his French. I try to apprehend his pronunciation, I speak slowly – but we’re still on the same track where we started off.

Now what does this small situation have to do with 'change'? It goes to the heart of the problem of change, insofar as to communicate profitably, both parties need to pay attention, not to pronunciations of 'Tide' or 'tête', but to the painting of the world in the other one's mind – to different cultures and perceptions, different languages and foci. They have to look at another painting, instead of their own.

How overly simplistic this example might sound – but it presents the difficulty of finding mutual understanding, to change something in each other's understanding – so that my lack may become his lack, and his lack may become mine. Ilias thinks that I should learn to speak better French – which means, from my point of view: his French. It is the problem of who will leave the territory in which the 'proper' conviction lies.

There is always a defence of the 'proper' vision. We think that one painting is more preferable than another. How then can we change? Change probably only can come about through the genuine awareness of diversity. To put it another way, truth does not have common ground. A change – or rather, a transformation of attitude – always faces the problem of 'property': the 'ownership' of truth. To change something means to let go of the ownership of the painting in my mind, and the effects that it has on me.

An example. A Yemeni woman exclaims: 'Sometimes I hope a missile will just blow us all away' (meaning her and her family). The woman’s desire for the impossible, to resolve her suffering, is the desire to obtain consolation over a painting of the world which is lost. And this present desire is based on the same painting which the woman painted back then. It is a double painting of the same scene – a painting painted twice.

We recognise it when we lose control of something – that it is about a painting of our world in my mind. Losing control is due to a present idea that doesn’t correspond to the first idea any longer. This is what makes change difficult. Change poses the problem of a reconstruction within a previously painted painting.

No thoughts are uprooted while change is based upon the logic of some existing principle. Such 'change' merely serves the function of that principle. We desire change without the desire to discard the painting we painted previously. We want to continue to recognise something, while including within that something the yet-to-be experience of change – forgetting that change cannot happen that way.

Change is not adapting to previous notions. Perhaps this is why the Yemeni woman 'desires' death. She senses that only through death can real change come to be.

Can change be thought? And if change is something that does not conform to the world that we know, then where is it found? That which is changing, we do not yet know. It can only exist in an unknown space in our psyche. One might say that our nature evolves continually in 'the instability of our stability'. How contradictory our being is!

And yet, if change needs to be something truly new, then how wonderful it may be – meaning: full of wonder. Because change is about more than we can subtract. It is not about painting over an existing painting, or obliterating it. It is about new colours and composition, new moods and perspective, new connections. It is everything new – or it cannot be called 'change'.

While we cannot forget all the previous strokes of the brush, we can understand the brush's potential for more. We can come to see new directions, new perceptions, new affections – destabilising the old, as we look not so much to the painting which we had, as to intuitions which lie within. And when there is a meeting of hearts which so desire change, it is the beginning of all possibilities.

Friday, 8 January 2016

NEW VERSION How the Body Keeps Human Nature in Check

From Bauentwurfslehre, 1936, by Ernst Neufert
Posted by Eugene Alper, with Pi
One of the greatest problems of our time is the problem as to how ethics may be incorporated into metaphysics. The problem was first brought to the fore by David Hume, and became acute with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who famously wrote, 'Whereof we cannot speak, we must remain silent.'   He was referring to ethics.  
Yet beyond Hume and Wittgenstein – beyond Plato, Immanuel Kant, George Moore, and many others – beyond ethical naturalism, objectivism, rationalism – beyond all philosophy and all theory – it may be as simple as the human body. 

Imagine, with me, a man (or a woman) who is dropped into this world from the sky – not knowing anything at all.

He would very quickly discover that his body needs to be fed every five hours, and put to sleep every sixteen.  His skin, he would notice, is sensitive to cold, heat, and many kinds of pain.  He would find that food is not readily available – that it is dangerous to have to fight for it with other people and animals.  He would find that it is helpful to cultivate plants and domesticate animals – and counter-productive to wantonly destroy them.

He would find that blankets need to be of a certain size and thickness – being predicted, too, by the size and function of his body.  He would find that door handles need to be mounted at a certain height, and made for fingers such as his.  He would find that his body predicts the dimensions of many things: the size of a soccer ball, the shape of a boat – even the location of a university, or the power of rocket boosters.

He would find that it is troublesome to anger others – and to find a new shelter every night, to evade them.  He would soon guess that it is more energy efficient to get into a peaceful exchange with others, where he could trade for food something of his own – a thing or a service, or even a promise to be fulfilled in future.  He would find that his own body, with its vulnerabilities and frequent needs, force him to cooperate with others rather than destroy them.

He would find that, even if he were the biggest and strongest of all, he could not be big and strong twenty-four hours a day. For some eight hours daily he would be as defenseless as a baby, and would have to have someone trusted next to him not to get hurt. Even the meanest tyrant with the worst kind of human nature could not be bad all the time under these circumstances. The vulnerability of his own body in sleep and its dependence on non-poisonous food would make him be good at least to his closest circle.

In short, personal ethics, social ethics, political ethics, aesthetic values – building codes, agricultural norms, communications networks, and everything under the sun – would be governed by the body in which this man found himself at the start.  And not only that, but whatever his nature may be – whether 'good' or 'bad' – he would find that his needy body kept it under control.

It is not a new idea.  Theologians proposed it many centuries ago – namely, that a person is designed for certain ends – of whom Thomas Aquinas was the pre-eminent proponent.  Yet it may be precisely because it was a theological idea that it did not gain much traction.  The theology – whether true or false – may be set aside, yet the situation of this man remains the same, who fell from the sky.

We make no moral prescriptions here – no judgements, no commands, no commitments.  We simply leave a description of what a man (or a woman) is.  And whatever it may mean that he has a body or a soul, it finally comes down to this: 'Don't be too cocky', says the body, 'or you will get hurt.'

Monday, 4 January 2016

Not Really a Picture Post






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


Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Command prompt

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


Monday, 28 December 2015

Understanding the Geneva Convention

“No physical or mental torture may be inflicted on prisoners of war
to secure from them information of any kind whatever.” – Article 17,
Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War ”




A poem by Chengde Chen 

Yugoslavia, sometime in World War II. A refugee family in Serbia

Understanding the Geneva Convention


We are enemies –
why can we kill in war but allow no torture?

Does physiology regard death better than pain –
the struggle for survival is a race to the end?
Or philosophy holds ends higher than means –
loving God requires rushing to heaven?
Anyone who can prove either of these
proves Geneva is larger than the world; otherwise,
aren’t the Conventions like the RSPCA of carnivores –
protection ensures slaughtering only the undamaged?

This humanitarian law, solemn and noble as it is,
is just a desperate supplement to a Platonic maxim.
Although “only the dead have seen the end of war”,
let’s conduct barbarity in the most civilised manner –

seeing the gaps between battles as peace, or the seconds
between drawing the sword and striking as kindness.
War, however, has to be the war animal’s way of life –
no matter how we pursue “off-battlefield humanity”.
Part-time animals are animals still, hence a red cross
to acknowledge the bloodiness of humanitarianism!

Words can’t redeem the mountains of white bones,
because ideals can’t domesticate genes.
Our ability to idealise ourselves
can only deepen the tragedy of civilisation.

Oh, the ever extending ripples of Lake Geneva,
you are not leisure waves by wind flirting with water,
but man’s unending hopelessness about human nature.
If you aren’t the longest sighs of the hopeless,
you must be the deepest sadness of the sighs.



Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems. Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here

Monday, 21 December 2015

Rationalism and Relationality in Roman Catholicism

The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas.
Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Thomas Scarborough unravels links between metaphysics and theology in the writings of Fr. Cornelis (Kees) Thönissen.
About the size of a modern A4 sheet of paper, a painting of Benozzo Gozzoli (1471) hangs in the Louvre in Paris. Titled The Triumph of St. Thomas Aquinas, it depicts St. Thomas, seated with a completed metaphysic on his lap, flanked by Aristotle on the left, and Plato on the right. At his feet lies the Arabic philosopher Averroes.
It happened chiefly through the influence of St. Thomas Aquinas. Through Aquinas' writing, the thought of the Roman Catholic Church was tainted by barren metaphysics – which further opened the door, in time, to Enlightenment rationalism and scientific-technological reason. Such reason is linear, mathematical, geometric, and finally, analytic. It is epitomised by Newtonian logic, which works on universal laws. This means that everything rests on experiment, and thus the (observing) senses.

Such rationality, while it is rightly a part of the universal structure of what we are and who we are, has limitations of narrowness. Reason in its fulness, wrote Pope Benedict XVI, is far larger than that. It is the all-meaning logos, which is the reason of the mind of God. This includes the reason which asks: What is the meaning of all things? Why do things ‘hold together’ in the way that they do? Why are we here? To what personal purpose, and what end?

We may approach such questions in two ways:
1. By broadening our idea of what reason really is, and
2. By taking into account our human relationality.

THE FIRST APPROACH: Is our reason really capable, through the mind alone, of finding the ‘big’ answers tolife? The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally held: Yes. Yet what kind of ‘reason’ might this be? It cannot be the same as the narrow reason we have just described. Or does the Church's ‘reason’ really include insight as intuition – into and behind reality? Such a human capacity would lie beyond linear reason – beyond physics – a capacity which was partly perceived by Aristotle in his Meta-physics.

What then should we call this capacity or faculty ‘beyond reason’ – this something that we naturally, innately possess – this capacity which is somehow tied back to the ‘Being’ behind the universe: the religious spirit, the Jewish heart, the Greek pneuma, the breath of life, and the Christian soul? Aha, now we have passed further than the ‘mind alone,’ so that we need to rethink how we are constituted by our anthropological capacities, which are more than just a brain and a body.

The Roman Catholic tradition, when it speaks of reason, has failed to adequately distinguish reason in its fulness, as logos, from narrow Enlightenment reason or scientific-technological reason. Yet ‘reason’ clearly includes the insightful, spiritual capacities, or spiritual intuition. And there’s the debate set out for us! If we are content with rationalism coupled to our brains, we fool ourselves into shallowness. And such shallowness, as postmodernism has pointed out, cannot save us, or our planet.

What, then, is ‘the more’ of me and you about?

THE SECOND APPROACH: Most of all, each of us is heavily involved in relationships – or relationality. We find that what is most precious to us is our relations, which is the foci (persons!) that consume our energies. Aristotle and St. Thomas were more involved in things. So was Kant. Thus the category of relation was downgraded. So why has the Church pressed so heavily for thinking ourselves towards God (although this is valuable as far as it goes)?

We can think about relationships, but we do not think them. Those who are ‘in love’ don’t start there. They start with the experience of self-giving. The Judaeo-Christian religion begins with the Revelation of God, set in human history – above all through the Son of God on earth. A fresh, ‘humble’ metaphysics begins, not so much with God in himself as we think about him, but with God who is in relationship with me. It reverses the Church's traditional path. Through reason in its fulness, as logos, we may know God directly. This even a child can do. We’ve only made it hard because we double-think everything.

Relationality holds everything together in meaning. Therefore relationality has to be an essential category of our existence. Relations, then, occur in our experience – which makes experience an essential category, too. And we need to be able to intuit these relations, which requires a spiritual intuition or capacity beyond the brute force of narrow reason. Spiritual intuition, therefore, is as basic to our existence as scientific-technological reason.


A seven-hundred page dissertation by Fr. Dr. Cornelis (Kees) Thönissen OFM Cap. may be accessed (free) atThönissen C.J. 2015. Foundations for Spirituality: A 'Hermeneutic of Reform' for a Church Facing Crises Inspired by St. Francis of Assisi. Pretoria: UNISA.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Terrorists, Secret Services and Private Incomes

Sceptical reflections and conspiracy theories relating to the politics surrounding the killings at Charlie Hebdo and the recent massacre in Saint Denis

https://scontent-cdg2-1.xx.fbcdn.net/hprofile-xat1/v/t1.0-1/c69.0.160.160/p160x160/1376586_371236496351770_694481459_n.jpg?oh=a85492416faba3df9305e767cb60daee&oe=56DF19B1 

The shooting at the start of this year of the cartoonists at the Parisian satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo has all the hallmarks of a CIA inspired brutal incident. November's massacre at Saint Denis looks much more like an attempt to replay, in the center of European social life, similar deadly outrages to those committed in towns and cities across the Middle East. Colin Kirk* teases out the links.

That most of the perpetrators of these atrocities were known to French secret services is now admitted. There are even several indications of what may have been secret service and police assistance to the Charlie Hebdo incident. Help apparently given to the get-away vehicle and discovery of the driving license dropped by the driver recalls some aspects of the slaughter of over 3000 people on the ninth of November 2001 in New York.

Charlie Hebdo was a satirical magazine before it got its current name after an atrocity in Northern France that resulted in over a couple of dozen deaths was reported in Paris as 28 dead in Northern France. It caused little stir compared with mourning for De Gaulle, who died a few days later. Un homme mort à Paris was the bold, black cover of what was thereafter called Charlie Hebdo.

President Charles De Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in his own image with draconian rights of state surveillance of its citizens that are not dissimilar to those afforded by the American Patriot Act. The State of Emergency currently in force allows police entry without warrant and arrest without charge. There really isn’t any further to go in state legal rights of citizen control, is there?

The CIA is known to have funded media to promote certain political messages in America, Britain and France in particular. On his own account, Stephen Spender, the editor of the British literary magazine Encounter, originally founded by the poet Stephen Spender, resigned  when he discovered the source of much of its 'well-wisher' donations.

Satirical media and those critical of the state were important to western democracies to demonstrate state toleration of dissent in comparison with actions of totalitarian states. Egalité and Fraternité were far less important to politicians than the sacred notion of Liberté.


Monday, 7 December 2015

Picture Post No. 7: The Rug Turned Over


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


Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen
  
Kurdistan, Iraq 2011
Photo credit, Azad Nanakeli
On a rainy night in Arbil, attention is particularly drawn to this eclectic assemblage of handmade carpets, hung here on a wall, used for decoration or prayer.

Marvellous, idyllic images, singers and politicians are celebrated next to religious figures on the carpets, becoming a metaphor on social habits and aesthetics. The sacred space of the carpet reveals change.

Is it our sense of our own lack of veracity that leads us to appropriate gifts in order to remind ourselves of ideals we cannot attain?

Everything seeks distinctiveness in the form of the authenticity of its inauthenticity

Within the rugs, a human possibility is woven into our fragile enthusiasm in order to give movement to our own souls.


Monday, 30 November 2015

How to help the French living under Terror and their own Terreur

Posted by Perig Gouanvic

"Inside a Revolutionary Committee under Terreur (1793-1794)"
Finger pointing and cleansing the public discourse is not new In France
In France, there are very old beliefs, reminiscent of the Terreur era, about religion and minorities that should never be questioned. Multiculturalism is considered a danger. Let's consider, for instance, the fact that the Paris attacks terrorists, who were born an raised in France or Belgium have more in common with the skinheads of the 1980s than with the fundamentalists we see on TV. They drink alcohol, smoke pot, play murder rampage video games, and really have the "no future" belief system of other teenagers 20 years ago. Several observers witted that religion would actually be a pacifying, structuring, influence for these young people. In other words, supporting the strength of religious communities, not just stopping humiliating them, might actually prevent terrorism. At the present moment, the orthodoxy says that we should not limit "free speech" - especially the Charlie* kind - and even that we should celebrate humiliation of religion as the most exquisite mark of French Freedom and Rationality.


A French anti-terrorism judge also lamented that, as the laïcité laws became more rigid, the whole Muslim community felt so alienated they stopped collaborating with the police to denounce potential terrorism suspects. But, again, don't try to convince the authorities and intellectuals that supporting communities, especially the Muslim community, as such (not as a community with socioeconomical problems, but as a community whose customs and religion are positive contributions to France) is a positive step towards the elimination of terrorism. Supporting ethnic, religious or cultural minorities, in France, is called "communautarism". Another word for multiculturalism? Yes, except that it must be said with a grin of disgust. The French feminist sociologist Christine Delphy, who has been widely vilified for her opposition to the French scarf-banning laws, offers the rest of us a definition :
The French definition of communautarism is the fact that people who are discriminated, who are assigned with prejudices, to whom equal chances are denied, etc. these people – who have often been parked in the same neighborhoods – these people hang out and talk to each other. This is communautarism, it's bad, it means that they want to part from the rest of society and, instead of looking for well seen people, people who have privileges, for example, for Blacks and Arabs instead of reaching out for Whites and beg them to come and talk with them, they talk to each other. That would be communautarism.
Yet the fact remains that cultivating friendly and respectful relationships with communities, acknowledging their contribution to civil society, is one of the time-tested ways to prevent ostracism and extremism.​ Yet in france, too often individual members of minorities talking to each other are considered potential enemies of the state. Just imagine how dangerous it would be for the French State if it decided to approach these communities and recognize them as such!

I don't think most people are aware of the mental straightjacket in which the French have placed themselves for the last 30 years. It encompasses more than the issue of ethno-religious groups. Some probably know that the French have some very strange philosophers such as Finkelkraut and BHL**, and some very despicable intellectuals such as Michel Houellebecq, who recently wrote a book describing France becoming an Islamic republic, and became a National obsession in the wake of the Charlie attacks. These public figures pretend to be victims of political correctness, although they occupy most of the media. One thing that might not be as well known is that there also exists, in parallel, a whole swamp of dissident intellectuals that are actively maintained in the margins of the French discourse. In France, they are called the "confusionnists", "cryptofascists", and so on, so forth.

The slippery slope argument and guilt by association have become commonplace in France. In this mixed bag, you will find true far right people, but also anarchists, radical critics of NATO, Israel, etc. As an example, France has been able to outlaw the boycott campaign against Israel, which makes it more repressive of boycott calls than Israel itself. Don't try to protest: if you are not called an anti-Semite you will be called an objective supporter of anti-Semites. There is no way out. These kinds of large-scale paranoid delusions are reminiscent of the arbitrary denunciations of French Revolution's Terreur, described in the above 1797 illustration.


Finally, journalism too is constrained in this straightjacket. There are only a few journalists left who analyze the terror events in depth. They have pointed out in the past the same thing that was pointed out about the Bush administration (foreknowledge, and the presence of elements in the intelligence services who rather preferred terrorist attacks to happen, for instance to impose mass surveillance (of course these theses are not mainstream but they are still more audible in the anglophone world than in France)). But they are marginalized, and quickly become part of this "cryptofascist", "conspiracy theorizing" swamp I was talking about. The result is that compelling elements of inquiry are missed not only in France but abroad. For example, Hicham Hamza, a French journalist, has investigated the local ramifications of a Times of Israel article covering a warning by "officials" to France's "Jewish community", on the morning of the attacks. His resources are thin,  his site is regularly under cyberattacks and of course most would not approach him with a tad pole, because of the usual name-calling.

The same could be said of the Charlie Hebdo attacks - and further in the past --  of Rwanda, about which the BBC aired a documentary that would be swiftly thrown in the holocaust denying, cryptofasisct swamp in France. These elements do circulate in the French blogosphere. But guess what: France now has the right to shut down any website it judges problematic. What might be judged problematic is quite broad:

[It’s] a heterogeneous movement, heavily entangled with the Holocaust denial movement, and which combines admirers of Hugo Chavez and fans of Vladimir Putin. An underworld that consist of former left-wing activists or extreme leftists, former "malcontents", sovereignists, revolutionary nationalists, ultra-nationalists, nostalgists of the Third Reich, anti-vaccination activists, supporters of drawing straws, September 11th revisionists, anti-Zionists, Afrocentricists, survivalists, followers of "alternative medicine", agents of influence of the Iranian regime, Bacharists, Catholic or Islamic fundamentalists. « Conspirationnisme : un état des lieux », par Rudy Reichstadt, Observatoire des radicalités politiques, Fondation Jean-Jaurès, Parti socialiste, 24 février 2015.

(Welcome to the conspiracy theorist movement.)

Even so, of course, it cannot prevent us from thinking and inquiring. The French population really needs a breath of fresh air right now. They need fresh insights, serious journalism, and the freedom to discuss outside of their mentally and legally censored world. I don't have specific suggestions to solve those issues. I just think that the rest of the world should be aware that the French prison of ideas is not always self imposed and that there are many people who just wish they could escape. Many do: I can see that in Quebec.


*The Charlie Hebdo satiricial magazine whose cartoonists were murdered in January.
** Bernard Henri Levy, a self-styled philosophe.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

The Man who Invented Climate Change (and then disowned it)

Posted by Martin Cohen
The man who started it all off - Herbert Lamb. Source WP:NFCC#4
History, as ever gives an insight into the Climate Change debate. The historian of science, Bernie Lewin, has researched the views of the British scientist who for many years struggled to persuade governments that actually, yes, climate did change. Hubert Lamb, an academic and the founder of the influential Climatic Research Unit (better known by its acronym ‘CRU’) at the University of East Anglia in the UK, is conventionally credited with putting manmade Climate Change on the world agenda. He doesn't get many mentions though - because he came to detest the poltical abuses of his ideas.

Lamb was once described by one of his successors at the CRU, Trevor Davies ( probably self-servingly) as ‘the greatest climatologist of his time’. Davies credits him with ‘convincing the remaining doubters of the reality of climate variation on time-scales of decades and centuries’ and an obituary in Nature offers his great achievement as overturning the ‘old orthodoxy’ of climate stability. Other scientific admirers suggest that it was Lamb who first introduced the idea that climatic change has happened, and is still happening, on human time scales. But Bernie Lewin has no doubt that much of this is political fiction, noting that Lamb was far from the first to introduce the idea of a constantly changing climate. And where Lamb’s successor at his climate research centre found it, ‘ironic’ that even as the world became ‘acutely aware of global climate change’, Lamb maintained a guarded attitude to the importance of greenhouse warming, Lewin sees nothing odd in the position of a scientist advocating the idea of natural climate change being ‘guarded’ about the evidence of a global human influence. Awareness of past variability would rather tend towards scepticism of claims to have identified a single, new and extraordinary cause of climate change.

Hubert Lamb, in fact, was an old-school meteorologist, and there was something of a clash of cultures between those like him brought up on geology and weather records, and the new kinds of ‘climate scientists’ only recently tempted by research money into applying their mathematical skills to the natural world. Lamb expressed open scepticism of the theoretical physics used now to predict future climate trends noting that often the models failed to match reality. He argued for:

* the existence of negative feedbacks dampening warming trends where the climate modellers allowed only positive feedbacks amplifying them;
* that 20th century climate variation was better explained by natural factors (such as solar and volcanic effects);
* wonders how accurate the figures relied on for identifying relatively tiny temperature trends even were.

Such doubts led him to spend time analysing the political impetus for the new climate science, including vested interests, and the reasons why climate modelling in particular received so much support. Lamb completed his memoirs in 1997, just a few months before Kyoto, the international summit in which man-made Climate Change was given it preeminent role. In these memoirs he laments:
‘It is unfortunate that studies produced nowadays treat these and other matters related to changes of climate as if they are always, and only, attributable to the activities of Man and side-effects on the climate.’

This post is lightly adapted from Martin Cohen's book:
Paradigm Shift: How expert opinions keep changing on life, the universe, and everything




Monday, 23 November 2015

A Philosophy of Untruth

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
Untruth has to do, not with greed or with need, compulsion or coercion, but with my life-view – and my life-view begins with my conception of the world. From this arises every untruth.
Psychologist Richard Gregory puts it in a word: we, as humans, are motivated by the “unexpected”. That is, whenever and wherever I hold up my personal conception of the world to the world itself, and there discover a disjoint, I am moved to act. Therefore, prior to all of my actions is the way in which I arrange the world in my mind.

Supposing then that, in my imagination, my life is a happy family in suburbia – a friendly dog, fresh muffins on the table, and daisy-chains and laughs. Then I look from my kitchen window, to see my little girl with her face down in the grass. Suddenly there is a disjoint, and I spring into action. Of course, different people will spring into action for different reasons, and this reveals their various conceptions of the world. Some may not want a happy family in suburbia, or a dog, or fresh muffins on the table. Some may want to be loose and wild, and some may want to immerse themselves in figures. The possibilities are as many as the people.

And so, on the one hand, our conception of the world may be balanced and broad – or on the other hand, short-sighted, self-interested, and parochial. Some will live a “large” life, which is well-rounded and meaningful – while others will live a small-time existence, a self-destructive life, as fools or bunglers. In short, some will become wise, and some will become fools. With these simple observations, we may now describe the first of three forms of untruth we shall survey: namely, foolishness. Foolishness is rooted in the “small” view life – and where we find it, we tend to pity it, laugh at it, or denigrate it.  But we don't much take it to heart. It matters little to the rest of us.

Now consider that all of us arrange our worlds differently in our minds. And, again, from these conceptions of our world, our motivations arise. But now, given different conceptions of our world, and different motivations, it stands to reason that my own motivations may come into conflict with the motivations of another.  And if I do not yield to the other, then the other must yield to me. This must mean that if the other cannot, through natural processes, change my own conceptual arrangement of the world, they may yet be able to change the conceptual stuff that I have to work with. With a few targeted ruses, they may change the world I think I live in.

I may feel passionate about the village duckpond, for instance, while another person wants to build a helipad there. But if they cannot overcome my passion for the pond, by fairly changing my own conceptual arrangement of the world, they may tamper with the conceptual stuff I have to work with. They may tell me (falsely) that permission for their helipad has been granted on high authority, or that duckponds are death-traps for children. This now differs from mere foolishness, in that it seeks to manipulate what I know – and it happens all the time, whether on the personal level of lies, or on the political level of propaganda. It is our second form of untruth: namely, lies and deceit.

But further than this.  Not only may one change the way in which I arrange the world in my mind. One may change the world itself – through force and through violence, or comparable actions. Think again on the person who wishes to create the helipad. In the dark of night now, they send a small-time crook with a dump truck, to fill in the duckpond in one dramatic act. Now my conceptual arrangement of the world must change, because the world itself has changed. I have no pond left to defend, and no more purpose in opposing a helipad.

The dynamics of course may be more complex in the real world. It may be easy to see that a pond was filled in on the orders of the person who had a vested interest in it. It may be less easy to see that running me out of town with false rumours had to do with the pond, or that someone now drives a new Bentley on this account. And so the world of untruth may become tangled and dark, and as vast as the ocean. One finds it in lies and in half-truths, bluff and deceit, rationalisation and subterfuge – and now, thirdly, in violence of many kinds: physical, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual.

Now notice what has happened in the course of this short post. By means of some basic principles, all manner of evils in this world have been reconciled. Whether someone is reckoned to be a fool, a liar, or a thug, these are all basically one and the same. It is through a false conceptual arrangement of the world that people fall prey to each one. And notice something else: something about human nature, which seems to speak louder than words. Our moral integrity (or not) lies beyond our immediate control. It lies beyond all moralism and legalism. It changes only if our very life-view changes.
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