Monday, 15 January 2018

What Are ‘Facts’?

On the trail of the Higgs Boson
Posted by Keith Tidman

What are 'facts'? The ages-long history of deception and sleights of hand and mind — including propaganda and political and psychological legerdemain — demonstrates just one of the many applications of false facts. But similar presentations of falsities meant to deceive, sow discord, or distract have been even more rife today, via the handiness and global ubiquity of the Internet. An enabler is the too-frequent lack of judicious curation and vetting of facts. And, in the process of democratizing access to facts, self-serving individuals may take advantage of those consumers of information who are ill-equipped or disinclined (unmotivated) to discern whether or not content is true. Spurious facts dot the Internet landscape, steering beliefs, driving confirmation bias, and conjuring tangible outcomes such as voting decisions. Interpretations of facts become all the more confounding in political arenas, where interpretations (the understanding) of facts among differently minded politicians becomes muddled, and ‘what’s actually the case’ remains opaque.

And yet surely it is the total anthology of facts — meaning things (their properties), concepts, and their interrelationships — that composes reality. Facts have multiple dimensions, including what one knows (epistemological aspects), how one semantically describes what’s known (linguistic aspects), and what meaning and purpose one attributes to what’s known (metaphysical aspects).

Facts are known on a sliding scale of certainty. An example that seems compelling to me comes from just a few years ago, when scientists announced that they had confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, whose field generates mass through its interaction with other particles. The Higgs’s existence had been postulated earlier in mathematical terms, but empirical evidence was tantalizingly sought over a few decades. The ultimate confirmation was given a certainty of ‘five sigma’: that there was less than 1 chance in 3.5 million that what was detected was instead a random fluctuation. Impressive enough from an empirical standpoint to conclude discovery (a fact), yet still short of absolute certainty. With resort to empiricism, there is no case where some measure of doubt (of a counterfactual), no matter how infinitesimally small, is excluded.

Mathematics, meantime, provides an even higher level of certainty (rigor of method and of results) in applying facts to describe reality: Newtonian, Einsteinian, quantum theoretical, and other models of scientific realism. Indeed, mathematics, in its precise syntax, universal vocabulary, and singular purpose, is sometimes referred to as the language of reality. Indeed, as opposed to the world’s many natural languages (whose known shortcomings limit understanding), mathematics is the best, and sometimes the only, language for describing select facts of science (mathematical Platonism) — whereby mathematics is less invented than it is discovered as a special case of realism.

Facts are also contingent. Consider another example from science: Immediately following the singularity of the Big Bang, an inflationary period occurred (lasting a tiny fraction of a second). During that inflationary period, the universe — that is, the edges of space-time (not the things within space-time) — expanded faster than the speed of light, resulting in the first step toward the cosmos’s eventual lumpiness, in the form of galaxies, stars, planets. The laws — that is, the facts — of physics were different during the inflation than what scientists are familiar with today — today’s laws of physics breaking down as one looks back closer and closer to the singularity. In this cosmological paradigm, facts are contingent on the peculiar circumstances of the inflationary epoch. This realization points broadly to something capable of being a fact even if we don’t fully understand it.

The sliding scale of certainty and facts’ contingency apply all the more acutely when venturing into other fields. Specifically, the recording of historical events, personages, and ideas, no matter the scholarly intent, often contain biases — judgments, symbols, interpretations — brought to the page by those historians whose contemporaneous accounts may be tailored to self-serving purposes, tilting facts and analyses. In natural course, follow-on historians inadvertently adopt those original biases while not uncommonly folding in their own. Add to this mix the dynamic, complex, and unpredictable (chaotic) nature of human affairs, and the result is all the more shambolic. The accretion of biases over the decades, centuries, and millennia doesn’t of course change reality as such— what happened historically has an underlying matter-of-factness, even if it lingers between hard and impossible to tease out. But the accretion does distort (and on occasion even falsify) what’s understood.

This latter point suggests that what’s a fact and what’s true might either intersect or diverge; nothing excludes either possibility. That is, facts may be true (describe reality) or false (don’t describe reality), depending on their content. (Fairies don’t exist in physical form — in that sense, are false — but do exist nonetheless, legendarily woven into elaborate cultural lore — and in that sense, are true.) What’s true or false will always necessitate the presence of facts, to aid determinations about truth-values. Whereas facts simply stand out there: entirely indifferent to what’s true or false, or what’s believed or known, or what’s formally proven, or what’s wanted and sought after, or what’s observable. That is, absent litmus tests of verifiability. In this sense, given that facts don’t necessarily have to be about something that exists, ‘facts’ and ‘statements’ serve interchangeably.

Facts’ contingency also hinges in some measured, relativistic way on culture. Not as a universally  normative standard for all facts or for all that’s true, of course, but in ways that matter and give shared purpose to citizens of a particular society. Acknowledged facts as to core values — good versus evil, spirituality, integrity, humanitarianism, honesty, trustworthiness, love, environmental stewardship, fairness, justice, and so forth — often become rooted in society. Accordingly, not everyone’s facts are everyone else’s: facts are shaped and shaded both by society and by the individual. The result is the culture-specific normalising of values — what one ‘ought’ to do, ideally. As such, there is no fact-value dilemma. In this vein, values don’t have to be objective to be factual — foundational beliefs, for example, suffice. Facts related to moral realism, unlike scientific and mathematical realism, have to be invented; they’re not discoverable as already-existing phenomena.

Facts are indispensable to describing reality, in both its idealistic (abstract) and realistic (physical) forms. There is no single, exclusive way to define facts; rationalism, empiricism, and idealism all pertain. Yet subsets of facts, and their multifaceted relationships that intricately bear on each other’s truth or falsity, enable knowledge and meaning (purpose) to emerge — an understanding, however imperfect, of slices of abstract and physical reality that our minds piece together as a mosaic. 

In short, the complete anthology of facts relates to all possible forms of reality, ranging the breadth of possibilities, from figments to suppositions to the verifiable phenomenal world.

Monday, 8 January 2018

Q&A On the Status of the Speed of Light

Pi’s New Year Q&A: Is the One-way Speed of Light a Convention?

Martin Cohen and former Pi contributor, Muneeb Faiq explore one of the claimed certainties of physics.

To introduce the issue, here's blogger Burt Jordaan wondering, way back in January 2010, about why the 'speed of light' suddenly became the one true measure of all things scientific.

Burt writes:
'In order to measure any one-way velocity, we essentially need two clocks: one at the start and one at the end. Obviously, the two clocks need to be synchronized and run at the same rate (and to be sure, they must not be moving relative to each other and also be at the same gravitational potential). Let we reasonably assume that the two clocks run at the same rate, at least close enough for all practical purposes. Now we need to synchronize the two clocks to read the same at the same moment. How is this done?'
Recall that Einstein himself clearly admits, in his 1905 paper on Special Relativity, that: "We have not defined a common 'time' for A and B, for the latter cannot be defined at all unless we establish by definition that the 'time' required by light to travel from A to B equals the 'time' it requires to travel from B to A."

Burt says from this that what Einstein terms as being 'by definition' is equally 'by convention'*. Consider: Is the radius of space's curvature related to the speed of light?

The Q&A

Martin: That's a four-guinea question, innit? I believe conventional accounts make space into 'space-time' and the speed of light is allowed to determine things like that, yes.
Muneeb: I don't understand why Einstein established a religion of special abilities and qualities of light. Though there are ways to measure the speed of light but there is no reason to believe that nothing can travel faster. I think a few thought experiments should be propounded to at least break the myth that light owns special physics and light makes nature asymmetric.

There is a lot of confusion about the harmony between the classical and quantum definitions of speed, for example. If both quantum speed and classical speed mean the same then a very interesting difficulty comes to the front. Suppose there exists only one body in the universe. Just a single 'point-mass' and space. Is it at rest or in motion? If, however, there come out two photons of light moving parallel to each other. Now what speed are they moving at? If an observer is stationed on the point-mass, then both the photons are moving with the velocity of light. Yet, suppose, all of a sudden, the point-mass ceases to exist. Now there are only two photons moving with same speed parallel to each other. After all, nothing else exists except space. Before, when the point-mass existed, the two photons were moving with the velocity of light. After, when it has ceased to exist, they seem to not be moving at all! And yet nothing has changed regarding the photons. I hope I have made my point!
Martin: Yes, I get your point... I've wondered about this sort of thing too!

Isn't the usual idea that the universe started with a single point, 'the singularity', and at this time indeed none of the usual laws applied. Then there seems to be a suggestion that the speed of light may not have become 'defined' in the key moments of the first 'explosions'.

Now what this caused me to puzzle a little about, is that if, in fact, the singularity was one particle - as you say, a photon - and if it travels, by definition, at the speed of light, then surely it can be everywhere at the same instant, because of those peculiar Einsteinian laws. In other words, could it be that the universe consists of just one photon, which is everywhere, creating both space and time?

Bear with me! Suppose this is the universe, then why would it matter what speed the photon travelled at, any more than where it was or when? Nothing would be meant by these comparative terms.
What do you think? Can we put our ramblings into a form that would make a suitable webpage? I'd like to try, PI is a good way to organise and explore ideas.
Muneeb: There is an interesting point to note: what are usual laws? Why are they usual? Are the laws of physics really laws in the first place - because if they would really be laws; then they should never fail to explain behaviour of everything that exists. This difficulty hovered around the intellect of many great physicists - including Einstein - and that is why he spent so many years in search of a unified theory that he hoped would explain everything.

Mathematics, theory and philosophy should go hand-in-hand in order to get a further insight into reality. Otherwise we all have to be convinced (like Stephen Hawkings) that there can never be a grand unified theory. But I am afraid in that case, then we have to be convinced that there are no governing laws at all. All physics will melt away.

Instead, let physicists, philosophers and mathematicians come together and work in harmony in an open-hearted, interdisciplinary manner to understand what none of these disciplines will ever be able to get grasp of independently.
Martin:   Well, y'know, this is certainly a good question, but I'm not sure it is quite as clear a distinction as you imply. For example, we might say it is a law of physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, no? Without being obliged to throw that principle away just because (eg) some neutrinos evidently don't want to be part of the present theory about cosmic speed limits?
Muneeb:   Yes. You are right. We, of course, can say it is a law of physics that energy can neither be created nor destroyed without being obliged to throw that principle away just because some neutrinos evidently don't want to be part of the present theory about cosmic speed limits. But what is the applicability percentage of these well established laws? If energy and matter can neither be created nor destroyed, then from where did it blast into existence? Shall we then opt for the principle of first cause where these laws fail altogether? No Newtonian law holds good when we discuss atoms and sub-atomic particles. Einstein himself said that quantum mechanics (which is again a set of laws)is not absolute. Furthermore- quantum and classical worlds are composed of same material and, therefore, some basic underlying principles must be obeyed which we have not yet been able to discover. It is not the question of neutrinos only because most of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy which was concealed from over imagination for hundreds of years because of the over emphasis paid by physicists on the laws that are collectively described as quantum and classical mechanics.

The portion of the universes that the currently available laws explain is negligible as compared to the great splendour of dark matter and dark energy that fill the universes (previously we concieved only one universe but now we say universes). There may be some "extra-bright matter" and "extra-bright energy" awaiting our discovery. For that, we again have to wait for the failure of currently known laws of physics and those great mathematical equations that terrify all those who are not physicists and mathematicians. Once we fortunately fail, we will be obliged to look for an explanation for the failure and may consequently theorize existence of very weird materials and phenomena faintly conceivable as of now within the delineated perimeters of quantum and classical conditioning. That is why I emphasize on first understanding what makes the universe (what material and quality of materials and types thereof constitute everything), then we need to classify all that material and non material on some sound basis.

We also have to classify on the basis of discovered and not-discovered. Then we have to understand their behaviour. On the basis of the theory generated; we then can develope mathematics which explains things and helps us to imagine what we cant with the help of mere theory. I hope I don't sound insane!
Martin:   Mmmm, absolutely, I do agree that physics is full of 'black holes' to pun little! But I just want us to avoid addressing ill-founded assertions in conventional science with our own ill-founded assertions. For example, the 'dark matter' mystery - is this not a theoretical construct itself, intended to plug an experimental hole in current theory? You speak of it as a discovered reality, but isn't that to fall into the same way of thinking as the people you are critiquing?

Thinking about the 'problem' of where the energy in the universe came from, isn't it perfectly logical to simply say that there is no 'before' to be dealt with or explained?

Over to you, or anyone reading?
Muneeb: Haha! I am caught in a loop.I am not smart enough for arguments. However, though my writing apparently reveals that dark matter is a reality but I don't mean that. That is why I have guessed the existence of extra-bright matter and energy. What I am doing is to use the discoveries of physics to prove the inconsistencies in physics itself.

I should put a caveat here that I am not anti-science or anti physics. Dark matter was discovered by science to plug the black holes (as you say)and may be some other matter and energy will sooner or later be discovered which disproves everything. Does it mean that we should try to adjust our current theories without revising our basic understanding of the universes. Science has made aeroplanes fly etc. but that does not mean science is correct everywhere. Regarding your question of Un-important "before", please allow me to disagree with you because "before" is of great importance.

First question is; what time-point in the evolution of universes is the beginning? Why is a particular scale of past not a "before" and why all of a sudden we think of something as "before"? Cant it be that this "before" may give us inkling into the evolution of the behaviour of everything that apparently exists. What happened before big bang seems to me as important as what happened afterwards. This is because if we come to know the state, status and behaviour of matter, energy, space, time, void etc.before big bang, we will surely get some idea about how matter, space and time evolves to a better extent than if we stop at big bang. Thanks!

Monday, 1 January 2018

Picture Post #32 The Family Snapshot

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

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Archive image: Stalin with his children

Ah, what could be more innocent than a fond family portrait of a parent seated, relaxing with their children.

Indeed, we all have such snaps and maybe there is a little bit of a story lurking untold behind the smiles. But here, with Josef Stalin, ‘Uncle Joe’ to a nation, there is rather too much of a story. Should Stalin be denied the right to be considered a fond parent? And his children: what role do they play in this picture? Are they participating in a fraud, or are they wholly innocent particpants caught up in a story they never asked for nor could influence?

According to the author, Jay Nordinger, conservative commentator and author of a book on the sons and daughters of dictators, Stalin had one daughter and two sons, Yakov and Vasily, one from each of his wives. The young woman in the image is Svetlana, who died compratively recently, in 2011, aged 85. And she died not in Russia, but in the United States.

The story of Svanidze’s mother is rather tragic. She was, or so Mr. Nordinger tells us, Stalin’s great love. They wed in 1906 and had been married only 16 months when she died of typhus – while her son was still only nine months old. Her death greatly affected the future dictator. Revolutionary comrades, worried for his sanity, took away his revolver for fear he might put the gun to his temple. At her funeral, a grief-stricken Stalin told a friend, ‘This creature softened my heart of stone. She died and with her died my last warm feelings for humanity’.

Colley notes that, deprived of his father’s affections and upset by a failed romance, Yakov once tried to shoot himself, and that even as he lay bleeding, his father scathingly remarked, ‘He can’t even shoot straight’.

Dzhugashvili, by the way, was Stalin’s real name. ‘Stalin’ was his revolutionary non de plume, meaning ‘Man of Steel’.

Yakov fought in the Red Army in the Second Wolrd War, but was captured by the Germans, which Stalin considered (like the Japanese) to be a disgrace. Indeed, under Stalin the families of captured prisoners where shamed. ‘There are no prisoners of war,’ he once said, ‘only traitors to their homeland’. When Stalin was offered his son’s release in return for a senior German officer, he refused the swap saying ‘I will not trade a Marshal for a Lieutenant’.

Yakov had married a Jewish woman, called Julia, and she was arrested, and sent to the gulag. She was perhaps allowed the small privilege of release two years later.

But it is Vasily who is in the picture. He was the son of Stalin’s second wife, Nadezhda, who bore  his daughter five years later.  In November 1932, Nadezhda, suffering from depression, shot herself.

Vasily seems to have been shallow and vain. He continually used his father’sname to further his career, to obtain perks and seduce women - much to Stalin’s anger. He had no sense of responsibility and Stalin once had to intervene by sacking his colonel son for ‘debauchery and corrupting the regiment’. Despite all this, Vasily rose to the lofty heights of Major-General in 1946, a rank far beyond his ability but his drinking and temper made him both unpopular.

Rarely have facts so coloured an image...  and yet there is a certain family intimacy there, or should we say, a shared complicity.

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Land Rover Problem

By Thomas Scarborough

Imagine that I hold in my hand a single part of a 1958 Land Rover – say, a rear stub axle. Being an open-minded sort of person, I try to fit this part to any which motor parts I may find in the whole world. I continue to fit such parts together until I reach the complete termination of my plan. Not surprisingly, I end up with a 1958 Land Rover, complete in itself. Of course, I say to myself – being an enlightened man – that the appearence of a 1958 Land Rover might well have been pure chance. I therefore start all over again – only to end up with a 1958 Land Rover, again.

I shall call it The Land Rover Problem. It is, in my view, the biggest problem that the 21st century philosopher needs to overcome, before we may create a new metaphysic or total philosophy – a philosophy which describes not merely aspects of reality, but the whole of it. No matter where we start, and no matter how far our search reaches into all of reality, the end result is as pre-determined as the 1958 Land Rover. The problem lies in the method of starting with a single part – or in some cases, ending up with it. We might, after all, disassemble a 1958 Land Rover, to see which of its many parts remains in our hands in the end.

The philosopher-theologian Søren Kierkegaard might have been the first to understand this, when he wrote in Either/Or that ‘people of experience maintain that it is very sensible to start from a principle.' Say, boredom. Thus he demonstrated how one (arbitrary) principle will explain the whole world. Just over a century later, the philosophers Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen wrote that we are 'thoroughly dominated by an unacknowledged metaphysics'. Even before we set out on a metaphysic, they wrote, we already have one. It is in the nature of the parts to deliver the result. More recently, the philosopher Jacques Derrida famously defined the problem as ‘a process of giving [reality] a centre or referring it to a point of presence, a fixed origin’.

How then shall we overcome this problem?

Basically, the trouble lies in the way that we attach the parts one to another – in philosophy, our concepts. We are stuck with a Land Rover model of philosophy. This applies both to moderns and to postmoderns, with the difference that postmoderns, while they do not have a way out, are more acutely aware of the problem: ultimately, no matter where we start, and no matter how far our search reaches into all of reality, our thoughts deliver relatively useless constructions – complete in themselves, yet like the 1958 Land Rover, giving us little indication as to their real scope or merit.

Logically, there is only one way of escape, and no other. Instead of constructing philosophies by attaching concept to concept, we may stand back, as it were, to view all the concepts in the world from a distance. Imagine that we scatter every conceivable motor part of every make and model – the 1958 Land Rover, the 1961 Beetle, the 2005 Mustang, the 2008 Roadster, and of many thousands of assemblages more, over a practically infinite expanse. If then we could recognise any patterns or insights here, in this expanse – call them meta-features – we may discover another way of seeing things.

What might we then see?

Of course, we would see that no assemblage is ultimate. The 1958 Land Rover, as an example, would merely be one possible construction among many. We would recognise, too, that if we were to build only a 1958 Land Rover, we would exclude every other assemblage – or to apply this to philosophy, every competing metaphysic. These are core insights of postmodernism. Yet we would see far more than this. Once we have grasped that we are dealing with an innumerable totality of parts – which is concepts – we shall no longer be satisfied with a self-centred or parochial view of the world, but shall think expansively and holistically. Nor shall we interpret our world from a narrow point of view: ethnic, religious, ideological, economic, or scientific, among many more. We shall reject the narrow view.

Further, instead of standing self-importantly beside a 1958 Land Rover, we shall see that our construction, in the context of an innumerable totality of parts – which is concepts – is very limited. A practical infinity of concepts lies beyond our power to explain, and beyond our control. This has obvious consequences. There will always be things without number which lie beyond our own arrangement of concepts, which set a limit to our powers. Therefore any ideas of progress, advancement, development, even utopia, open the door to hubris, and failure. Similarly, we shall recognise that, to overcome our finitude, we shall (impossibly) need infinite control. This drives totalising urges: totalitarianism, fundamentalism, and over-legislation, to give but a few examples – which have led to damaged lives and disasters without number.

Much more may be said, but the point is this: on the basis of the meta-features of the totality of parts, it is possible to reach definite conclusions about the most important things in life. There is a way forward for philosophy, if we will only abandon the Land Rover model, step back, view our world as an infinite expanse of concepts, and see what we may discern through this.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Representing Reality: Magritte on Words and Images

Representing reality*

By Martin Cohen

What is the relationship of words and paintings to mental representations - and 'reality' itself? The surrealist artist, René Magritte, is a philosophical favorite (along with Escher whose line drawings depict impossible staircases and infinite spirals) because so many of his pictures play with philosophical themes. Yet, less well appreciated, is his painting rests on a substantial theoretical base and a consistent personal effort to address the key philosophical question - through art - of the relationship of language, thought and reality.

In the Second Surrealist Manifesto, René Magritte offers 18 sketches, each illustrating a supposed 3-way relationship with words and 'reality. This page explores each image in turn. 

Unlike other artists of the Surrealist school, Magritte's style is highly realistic - but this is only a meant to later undermine the authority and certainty of 'appearance' - of our knowledge of the external world. As Magritte puts it:
"We see the world as being outside ourselves, although it is only a mental representation of it that we experience inside ourselves." [1]
Les Mots et Les Images

An object is not so attached to its name that one cannot find for it another one which is more suitable [2] The handwritten words 'le canon' is usually just translated as 'the gun' -but could this in itself be a play on the sense of 'the canon', the 'thing setting the standard', especially of beauty?

There are objects which can do without a name.
The French word for the rowing boat is 'canot' - but the play on words...?

A word sometimes serves only to designate itself.
'Ciel' is sky... but?

An object encounters its image, and objects encounters its name. It happens that the image and the name of this object encounter each other.
As opposed to the later cases,

Sometimes the name of an object occupies the place of an image.
A hand, a box and a rock?

A word can take the place of an object in reality.
The dame is saying 'sunshine'. Or 'the sun' if you like. Does it link to the next image?

An image can take the place of a word in a sentence. [3]
Well, yes, but logically the sun should be hidden, no?

An object can suggest that there are other objects behind it.
The wall does not make me think there is anything behind it. The sun? The dame?

Everything tends to make us think that there is little relationship between an object and that which represents it.  [4] Confusingly, the 'real' and the 'image' are of course the same here...

The words which serve to indicate two different objects do not show what may divide these objects from one another. The 'surreal' labelling in French translates as 'person with memory loss' and 'woman's body'.

In a painting the words are of the same substance as the images.
But are they?

You can perceive words and images differently in a painting.
Is Magritte saying a new meaning can be created by juxtapositions like this?

A shape can replace the image of an object for any reson.
A very confusing play on shapes here...

An object never serves the same purpose as either its name or its image does.
The man is calling his horse - or is he calling his horse 'horse'?

Sometimes the visible shapes of objects, in real life, form a mosaic
René seems to have drifted somewhat from his original theme here...

Vague or unclear shapes have a precise significance every bit as necessary as that of perfect shapes.
Again, the example has left language slightly out of the debate. But the point could be extended...

Sometimes, the names written in a picture designate precise things, while the images are vague.
Well... yes...

Or equally, the opposite:
But is the word 'fog' (brouillard) itself imprecise?

Decoding Magritte

The images above all appeared in an article by Magritte entitled, rather literally, 'Les mots et les images' (Words and Images), in La Révolution surréaliste in December 1927. The series is intended to introduce the theme of all Magritte's painting, namely that of the ambiguity of the connections between real objects, their image and their name. The fifth statement here: "sometimes the name of an object stands for an image" he went on to illustrate with this image:

This is one of a series of 'alphabet paintings' or 'word paintings' produced by Magritte during his time in Paris from 1927 to 1930. Here, the words 'foliage', 'horse', 'mirror', 'convoy', written on the canvas, replace the image they designate. 'Placed at the tip of the points of a mysterious star and each inscribed on a brown stain, "any form whatsoever that can replace the image of an object", these words play a full part in the spatial composition of a new fantasy image. This painting undoes the connection that we spontaneously establish between objects, images and words.' [5]

Another clue as to Magritte's philosophy is provided by a series of paintings dealing with the concept of 'categories'. In The Palace of Curtains (1929) two frames contain respectively the word ciel ('sky') and a pictorial representation of a blue 'sky'. Magritte's point is that both the word and image 'represent' the 'real thing' - one works by resemblance while the other is only by an intellectual - arbitary - association.

Les Mots et Les Images

In two pictures called Empty Mask (a 'mask' being a 'frame', here) Magritte again makes a point about what 'represents' what. In the first picture the frame is empty by virtue of nothing being painted in the spaces, but equally in the second frame, full of characteristic Magritte images, the frame is still empty because these fragments do not represent anything. Or so at least art historians theorise. [6]
'The dividedness, the fragmented quality and the separateness of their components deprive them of anything that resembles reality, destroys all narrative content' (says one, Bart Ottinger).

Another image, The Threshold of Liberty (1929), adds a gun, threatening in surrealist fashion to destroy the conventional representations.

In the Key to Dreams series, which this page starts with an image of, Magritte uses images in the style of a schoolroom reading text, probably based on the Petit Larousse, texts in which an obvious and exact correspondence is implied. Thus his simple images pack a subversive message.

It is, as one art critic says, a school reading primer gone wrong - yet sometimes, not completely wrong, for example in the image opposite (Key to Dreams,1930) the lower right-hand cell is correct.

In the six panel image above, none of the nouns (the acacia, moon, snow, ceiling, storm, desert) match up.

The title, 'Key to Dreams' (La clef des songes) however implies that there may be deeper, hidden connections.

So are we any nearer to decoding that meaning? Not really. However, Michel Foucault knew Magritte and discussed these ideas in an essay 'Ceci n'est pas une pipe' (This is not a Pipe). Foucault has some definite suggestions on the matter.

*This essay originally appeared on the now disappeared Pi Alpha. It has been slightly updated here.


• 1 This much quoted line comes from a lecture Magritte gave, entitled, 'La Ligne de vie' - how should we translate that though?
• 2 The first 12 translations are based on that at
• 3 This is NOT the translation at - which uses 'propositon' - ridiculous!
• 4 This is slightly better than the translation at
• 5 As explained here:
• 6 For example, this interestingand informative essay here:

Monday, 11 December 2017

Discerning the Intent of State Power

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
The fear of losing State Power corrupts those who wield it, and the fear of the scourge of State Power corrupts those who are subject to it. It is not State Power which corrupts, therefore, but fear: fear within the State, and fear among those who are subject to it.
How does one measure such fear? One measures it by the State’s dependency on the favour of the people, and by the people’s dependency of the favour of the State.  Such dependency further determines, on both sides, people’s ability to attain the things they desire.

The State, then, having a dependent people, may come to see itself as having Power in itself. But this is an illusion. Even if the State looks invincible, it is always dependent. It must mobilise, among other things, economic, social, and political forces in order to achieve a result.

This dependency may be good or it may be bad – depending on the reasons for the State’s dependency – and again, the reasons for the dependency of the people it governs.

In the country of my birth, South Africa, the State desires the seductions of power, while the people desire excessive goods and wealth. On both sides, we find a narcissistic impulse, therefore, which defines the reasons for dependency. This has gone so far as to earn the description ‘State Capture’ – in which the people, too, find themselves captured. 

In a sense, a new balance of power has been created, which is driven by people’s passions on both sides. This has so advanced that the traditional balance of legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government seems lost. Instead, one finds a balance of desires: the State on one side, the people on the other.

There is a critical difference, however, between the dependency and desires of the State, and the dependency and desires of the people.

The dependency and desires of the State – and with that, the source of its Power – may be largely unknown and unseen. When a new government is installed, this waits to be revealed. Besides which, the State has the means and the power to withhold and frustrate such revelation, up to a point.

Society, on the other hand, has little means of hiding its transparency from the State. Its power – that which it has – is exposed at all times, because it is exercised in the open. Also, unlike the State, its power is not defined by its ability to prevent people from doing things, but includes an open process of self-definition and lifestyle preferences.

What to do, then, where there is an unhealthy dependency on the part of the State, not to speak of the people?

In such a situation, enlightening the State as to its true and noble purpose is futile. Informing bad Power about good Power is giving truth to those who do not love it. Besides, a State which is bad Power has already created the dependency on bad powers which perpetuate its desires – a further reminder that State Power is dependent, and only has the illusion of power.

Where could a solution lie?

The solution may lie in the distinction just traced above.  While the source of State Power may be unknown and unseen, that of the people is at all times laid bare, and is subordinate to the State. If there were no such openness among the people, the State would risk insurrection for its lack of knowledge.  At the same time, without openness on the part of the State, a nation risks a corrupt State.

What is true of the people needs to be true of the State. To obliterate the myths and assumptions which underlie a State corrupted by fear, we need truth – truth of the kind which reveals the true dynamics of State Power. More important even than the democratic process, the separation of powers, the rights of the people, may be the transparency of the State.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Picture Post # 31: Small Chains and Big Chains

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

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen

Picture credit: 'We Buy Gold' by Robert Saltzman

In the mirror, hanging on the right wall inside the shop, the salesman is physically reflected. He examines a piece of jewellery. Our eyes are then led diagonally to the hand of the woman in the foreground, who touches her face. And then we discover the girl in the midst holding her hand on her left shoulder. In this way, a triangle is drawn by the gestures of three persons, or rather four, because the man reflected in the mirror is diagonally redrawing a line with the two women and vertically with himself.

The image binds its three main characters in a particular way. Each gesture links in a long chain with another. Similarly one may say that a smaller circuit chains a bigger one.

In the foreground, the woman looks as if she is looking into a mirror of memories. In the midst, the younger woman looks at us through the camera lens, which forms ‘a mirror’ through which we can see her, and she can see ‘us’. The shop window mirrors reflections of the merchandise. The merchant ‘mirrors’ the value of a piece of jewellery.

In this landscape of glittering tokens, of symbols and expressions concerning desire, in these obvious links, there are gaps. We have to move towards the unseen within the image to skip the self-evidence of the trust in our sight.

 For where do we start or end?

Do we end in the outline of our body, or in the ring on our finger, or perhaps in the person who gave that ring to you? Or maybe in looking at this picture, in the depicted person’s or in the merchandise made by other hands, other gestures, in other living materials?

An image moves between an inner and outer world and backwards in time and presents a chain of messages in which we might, if we could follow them all, discover a vaster world.

Monday, 27 November 2017

The Challenge of Soft Misogyny

Hickey Heart by Carolin.
By Emile Wolfaardt
Nature is often harsh, and the predilection for survival ingrained so deeply that if left to itself, it will be unacceptably destructive and unimaginably violent. Like humans, nature sometimes deceives in order to survive, and preys on weakness to target a good meal. Ask any carnivore. Consequently, we have local and international laws to protect the vulnerable and temper the arrogant for the sake of the common good.
Subtler, but just as inappropriate, is the misogynistic prejudice that typifies much of the patriarchal bias in society, modern or otherwise. Men may no longer be brutal, as in depictions of the Stone Age, but society has bought into a softer version of misogyny that has become the global norm. All over the world, women deal with inappropriate attention from men every day of their lives. How does it feel to grow up like that?

There is an equal drive in each one of us to survive. Along with nature we are all genetically tapped to survive at all costs. That is the circle of life and the pecking order of the food chain. However, we need to properly manage that drive, especially in our human interactions. When held in balance, our strengths lead to a healthy relationship of cooperation and mutual benefit. The stronger protect the weaker and all live together in peace and harmony. When unchecked, it leads to conflict, and the stronger dominate the weaker. From unwanted classroom sexualisation to workplace harassment, from demanding rights in the relationship (like access to e-mail and phone passwords, but not revealing his) to normalizing ‘bitch’ as an acceptable term, from date rape to intimacy that focuses more on his needs than hers, this malady is rampant.

This is the essence of misogyny.

The social commentator Gretchen Kelly wrote recently, ‘Maybe they don’t know that at the tender age of 13 we had to brush off adult men staring at our breasts. Maybe they don’t know that men our dad’s age actually came on to us while we were working the cash register. They probably don’t know that the guy in English class who asked us out sent angry messages just because we turned him down. They may not be aware that our supervisor regularly pats us on the ass ... these things have become routine … we hardly notice it any more.’ 1

What restrains most of us men is not primarily the richness of respect but rather the influence of expediency and consequences. Perhaps we have changed not because we have seen the light, but rather because we have felt the heat. In hidden ways that happen in secret fantasies, or in ‘guy talk’, or even unwanted sexual advances, we rob women of their value by objectifying them. It is not that being aware of beauty is wrong, or sexual attraction abnormal. Nor is it realistic to expect men to stop fantasising. But we must realise that it may come at the cost of objectifying women.

The misperception is that misogyny is only wrong if it expresses itself in extreme ways, like rape, or violence, or ‘pussy grabbing’, and so on. It may present simply as a devaluing bias in our minds. We mask this aberration because it is only palatable if we redefine it as normal, or masculine predisposition, or transfer the blame to those we victimise. But the uncomfortable truth is that, if unhampered, even soft misogyny is horrendous, as it causes many women to grow up with a warped sense of value, a lifestyle of de-escalation and protection essential to their security – because if they don’t, they could suffer rejection and possible violence. This silent onslaught on women is so egregious that it spans the circumference of the globe across the entire stage of history. 

Let’s bring it home. If I take even a superficial look at my own life, I am disgusted to see this soft misogynistic bias evident in me in countless ways albeit hidden behind the mask of managed professional congeniality. Sure, my desire is to honor all women generally, and my acquaintances and friends specifically. Nevertheless, there is an ego based bias that is ever present. While I may not be guilty of the hideous gropings and dehumanising physical assaults that tragically take place on a daily basis, the cause of those is the same bias in me – unmanaged. I share the responsibility for the systemic crisis, and for those who have had to grow up with defensiveness so deeply ingrained in their psyche that they live it out every day of their lives.

So – what am I calling for? I am asking my generation of men who identify with the challenge women in our world face to do the following …
Honestly evaluate our own life, and identify the areas we may have contributed to the crisis, even if only in the privacy of our mind. We, as men, are not simply a part of the problem, we are the source of it.
Recognise the challenge that every woman around us faces on a daily basis, and choose deliberately to treat them with respect and dignity. Listen carefully to their stories, and trust them should they choose to share their pain with us.
Show up as an Advocate. Speak for honour and fairness – and start to right the wrongs of misogyny. It may cost us something, but our silence has cost us much more. 
Honour women when we have the opportunity, both by celebrating their beauty, and uplifting their value. Make that a life norm, a social function we pursue with joy and pride.
We cannot change the world out there, but we can change the one we live in. We can choose to uplift the lives of those we have had the privilege of connecting with. Where our soft misogyny may have been silent in many ways, let our response be loud and clear. Let’s advocate for women, not at the expense of masculinity, but as an expression of it.

1. Kelly, Gretchen – THE THING ALL WOMAN DO THAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT – The Huffington Post.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Freedom of Speech in the Public Square

Posted by Keith Tidman

Free to read the New York Times forever, in Times Square
What should be the policy of free society toward the public expression of opinion? The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution required few words to make its point:
‘Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.’
It reveals much about the republic, and the philosophical primacy of freedom of speech, that this was the first of the ten constitutional amendments collectively referred to as the Bill of Rights.

As much as we like to convince ourselves, however, that the public square in the United States is always a bastion of unbridled free speech, lamentably sometimes it’s not. Although we (rightly) find solace in our free-speech rights, at times and in every forum we are too eager to restrict someone else’s privilege, particularly where monopolistic and individualistic thinking may collide. Hot-button issues have flared time and again to test forbearance and deny common ground.

And it is not only liberal ideas but also conservative ones that have come under assault in recent years. When it comes to an absence of tolerance of opinion, there’s ample responsibility to share, across the ideological continuum. Our reaction to an opinion often is swayed by whose philosophical ox is being gored rather than by the rigor of argument. The Enlightenment thinker Voltaire purportedly pushed back against this parochial attitude, coining this famous declaration:

‘I don’t agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.’
Yet still, the avalanche of majority opinion, and overwrought claims to ‘unique wisdom’, poses a hazard to the fundamental protection of minority and individual points of view — including beliefs that others might find specious, or even disagreeable.

To be clear, these observations about intolerance in the public square are not intended to advance moral relativism or equivalency. There may indeed be, for want of a better term, ‘absolute truths’ that stand above others, even in the everyday affairs of political, academic, and social policymaking. This reality should not fall prey to pressure from the more clamorous claims of free speech: that the loudest, angriest voices are somehow the truest, as if decibel count and snarling expressions mattered to the urgency and legitimacy of one’s ideas.

Thomas Jefferson like-mindedly referred to ‘the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it’. The key is not to fear others’ ideas, as blinkered censorship concedes defeat: that one’s own facts, logic, and ideas are not up to the task of effectively put others’ opinions to the test, without resort to vitriol or violence.

The risk to society of capriciously shutting down the free flow of ideas was powerfully warned against some one hundred fifty years ago by that Father of Liberalism, the English philosopher John Stuart Mill:
‘Strange it is that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free speech but object to their being “pushed to an extreme”, not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.’
Mill’s observation is still germane to today’s society: from the halls of government to university campuses to self-appointed bully pulpits to city streets, and venues in-between.

Indeed, as recently as the summer of 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court underscored Mill’s point, setting a high bar in affirming bedrock constitutional protections of even offensive speech. Justice Anthony Kennedy, considered a moderate, wrote:
‘A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. . . . The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.’
It is worth noting that the high court opinion was unanimous: both liberal and conservative justices concurred. The long and short of it is that even the shards of hate speech are protected.

As to this issue of forbearance, the 20th-century philosopher Karl Popper introduced his paradox of tolerance: ‘Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance’. Popper goes on to assert, with some ambiguity,
‘I do not imply . . . that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force’.
The philosopher John Rawls agreed, asserting that a just society must tolerate the intolerant, to avoid itself becoming guilty of intolerance and appearing unjust. However, Rawls evoked reasonable limits ‘when the tolerant sincerely and with reason believe that their own security and that of the institutions of liberty are in danger’. Precisely where that line would be drawn is unclear — left to Supreme Court justices to dissect and delineate, case by case.

Open-mindedness — honoring ideas of all vintages — is a cornerstone of an enlightened society. It allows for the intellectual challenge of contrarian thinking. Contrarians might at times represent a large cohort of society; at other times they simply remain minority (yet influential) iconoclasts. Either way, the power of contrarians’ nonconformance is in serving as a catalyst for transformational thinking in deciding society’s path leading into the future.

That’s intellectually healthier than the sides of debates getting caught up in their respective bubbles, with tired ideas ricocheting around without discernible purpose or prediction.

Rather than cynicism and finger pointing across the philosophical divide, the unfettered churn of diverse ideas enriches citizens’ minds, informs dialogue, nourishes curiosity, and makes democracy more enlightened and sustainable. In the face of simplistic patriarchal, authoritarian alternatives, free speech releases and channels the flow of ideas. Hyperbole that shuts off the spigot of ideas dampens inventiveness; no one’s ideas are infallible, so no one should have a hand at the ready to close that spigot. As Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s Founding Fathers, prophetically and plainly pronounced in the Pennsylvania Gazette, 17 November 1737:
‘Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government.’
Adding that ‘... when this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins’. Franklin’s point is that the erosion or denial of unfettered speech threatens the foundation of a constitutional, free nation that holds government accountable.

With determination, the unencumbered flow of ideas, leavened by tolerance, can again prevail as the standard of every public square — unshackling discourse, allowing dissent, sowing enlightenment, and delivering a foundational example and legacy of what’s possible by way of public discourse.