Monday, 20 March 2017

The Trouble With Fallacy

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
‘That’s fallacious!’ people say, and no greater fault can be laid at the foot of philosophers, or anyone else who offers arguments. And yet, outside its tidy logical definition, the term ‘fallacycomes with many far from straightforward assumptions ...
The first thinker in the Western world to approach the concept of fallacy in a systematic way was Aristotle, and his thinking on the matter, set out in a work known as On Sophistical Refutations, remains a touchstone on the subject to this day. Yet Aristotle's work shows us just how far we have drifted—and, it is argued here, lost our way:
• For Aristotle, the point of identifying fallacy was to avoid ‘the semblance of wisdom without the reality’. Today, the emphasis is rather on syllogistic reasoning (see below), and reasoning would seem to have become an end in itself. In the words of philosophy writer Tim Ruggiero, ‘the focus is the method’. That is, Aristotle, in his time, placed a far greater emphasis on what one would hope to produce through sound reasoning, rather than the reasoning itself.

• Aristotle set no limits to what fallacy might include. Fallacy had to do with getting at the truth, and wherever the truth was impeded, there was fallacy. Aristotle was interested in ‘reasoning about any theme put before us from the most generally accepted premisses that there are’. Today, however, fallacies tend to be ruled in or out by rules that are technical. Philosophy professor Robert Audi notes that if we do not have an argument—even as we subvert the goal which is wisdom—this may not qualify as a fallacy today.

• Aristotle considered that a fallacy has either to do with ‘silly’ mistakes, or with the failure to take account of all of reality. Fallacy, he noted, occurs either through ‘stupidity’, or ‘whenever some question is left out’. That is, all fallacy, unless it is ‘stupid’, fails to take something into consideration. Today, by way of contrast, the emphasis on that which is left out would seem to be all but completely overlooked.
These three points are, in fact, intertwined. The goal of sound reasoning is wisdom, wisdom takes everything into account, and where one fails to take everything into account, one falls short of the wisdom that one seeks—apart from the 'silly' mistakes, that is. The implication is that fallacies occur where our minds fail to range broadly through our world.

By contrast, formal fallacies, today, generally concern only classical syllogisms without variables. A well known example of a valid syllogism is this:
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore Socrates is mortal
And an example of an invalid syllogism is this:
Socrates has two legs
Birds have two legs
Therefore Socrates is a bird
As with many fallacies, we immediately feel that something is wrong with the second example, yet it may be hard to define just what.

But then, in fact, it may be said that every fallacy leaves something out of consideration. The ad hominem fallacy, for example—the argument that rests on a criticism of whoever has uttered it—fails to consider the facts of the matter; the fallacy of denying the antecedent fails to consider the excluded set; the genetic fallacy fails to consider the present reality, and so on.

Fallacy, then, is not merely about its more recent focus—correct syllogisms and sound conclusions, among other things. Rather, it is about what we leave out of our thinking. There may be nothing more needful in our time:
What is it that has been left out of our economic thinking that has led to social inequality? What is it that has been omitted from our technological thinking that has led to ecological ruin? What is it that has been left out of our political thinking that has led to our transgressions of human rights?
Fallacy, wherever it is found, comes down to a kind of short-sightedness that fails to range through all the world. In an important sense, it is not about mere ‘reasoning’ alone.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Six Problems in Standard Physics

By Muneeb Faiq

Reposted from Pi alpha
Is certainty the proper aim for science – or a misleading vanity?
The human mind seems to have a tendency always to try to understand everything to the level to which comprehension reaches. The natural laws which govern the behavior of everything in universe and the experiences gained by mankind out of the pursuit to understand that behavior summed up and eventually came to be known as Physics.

It is perhaps both the beautiful inquisitive nature of human mind as well as its frailties that paved way for the beauty of theoretical physics. Mind is equipped with faculties of inquisitiveness and understanding but its power of understanding has its own limits to which limitations in our abilities to expalin and communicate must be added in turn.

The dismissive, 'no-no' attitude of much of modern physics towards innovative ideas and the discipline's alienation from pure philosophy has added to this inherent defect. Every intellectual pursuit in physics is a question (or a set of related questions) built upon certain understandings and theoretical explanations. Worse, as the human mind seeks to answer one question, another appears ready to confront and to confound; more complex than the original one and more difficult to address.

Many physicists have made valiant attempts to tackle such questions and solve these ever-growing mysteries but known and unknown factors alike have instead contributed to the great asymmetries that the physics of today suffers from. This problem is made much worse because the world of physics seems to have closed its doors to genuine philosophers and other thinkers who could potentially contribute in much needed domains of this subject.

We are told instead that a physicist’s guess is a great pearl of wisdom while the same guess by someone else is an unworthy idea. This attitude is stalwartly discouraging and may in the long run prove fatal to this beautiful science particularly as many of these 'guesses' are beyond the bounds of conventional logic, thereby making of physics an illogical trade. With such guesses, logical asymmetries cannot but keep on increasing and have now precipitated serious problems in physics - even at the most basic level. The questions arising from the predictions made beyond the boundaries of standard logics need to be answerered.

1. Physics as recursive analysis

Physics is justifiably considered to be one of the most fundamental yet complex sciences but this science proves to be an incomplete description or reality at the fundamental level. In physics, we have been earnestly inquisitive to reach the smaller and smaller sizes of the scale. This has helped us to know and identify a plethora of elementary particles with postulation of many previously unknown forces and interactions. But so far we have not reached the smallest particle despite a lot experimentation and artistic work of fiction build to explain the observed phenomena.

Physics deals with many physical and fundamental quantities but it is interesting to note that a satisfactorily complete definition of any physical quantity has not been identified. This may seem a little weird yet it is true.
Mass is defined as matter and matter is defined as mass. 
Time is defined as period (or something related) and period is defined as time.
Definitions in physical quantities are just verbal synonyms. This is the example of limits of explanation which in a circular manner limits our understanding. It is a typical linguistic problem but precipitates great hitches in physics. Imperfections in understanding lead to miscommunication which creates problems into domains of explanation which in turn lead to further weaknesses in understanding.*

It seems to be a linguistic game but it is not so. The following discussion will reveal that. In order to understand a brick, first one has to understand all the properties mentioned in its definition. In order to find the definition of one property it gives rise to many more terms which in turn are to be understood and process carries on and our idea of understanding a brick becomes complex in consequence. The same is the case with physics or, should we say, throughout the whole of science.

While answering one question many more questions arise which are more difficult to answer and our intention of understanding any scientific point remains stuck at its place and is paralyzed. Our notions in physics to fabricate complete definition of physical quantities are still very far from being practical. The difficulties in our definitions pose as greater hurdles in our understandings and communication which in a “Loop amplificative” manner create more difficulties. These difficulties have grown with time and have concealed the mechanism and exact status of many facts in universe. We are still very eager to know the answer of the question as; how and by what means the present state has been achieved by the universe. Many ideas (some including terrifying mathematics while others complex theoretical basis) have been put forward but even today none is satisfactory to the extent it should have been. And the tradition of plugging the holes with new supporting hypotheses rather than revisiting the previous one has added fuel to the fire.

2. Gravity as ungrounded postulates

Newton’s universal law of gravitation is a blazing idea which although doesnt prove but explains why an object when dropped freely falls to earth. Not only this, the law also explains the planetary motion et cetera.

When Newton put forth the idea of gravitation he tried to escape the difficulties by certain postulates which were taken to be true as such and without any argumentation. For example; if gravitation exists and everytime it is attractive then universe should fall to a single point, which doesn’t happen. This thing would have put universal law of gravitation to rejection as soon as it was hypothesized but Newton supported his ideas with other supporting postulates. He escaped this difficulty by saying that for such a fall there should be a centre of gravity where all the stars should fall but there is none and the centre of gravity is uniformly distributed throughout the universe. This postulate is neither true nor false. This is an over complex concept requiring far greater amount of mathematics and comprehension physics has yet reached to. So everyone agreed to universal law of gravitation in the disguise. This additional postulate masked the weaknesses and asymmetries in the universal law of gravitation.

Many properties of gravitation have been theorized as the gravitational force is a long range force; this force is always attractive etc. But one question spoils all the knowledge we have about it. The question is; where from does this force come? What is the origin of this force and what is the mechanism of its generation? Coming back to the origin and mechanism of generation of gravitational force; this problem has not been adequately addressed yet. Of course, the origin of this force i.e. the gravitational force is said to be a particle called graviton but unfortunately graviton is an act of faith and here is an example when science becomes religion. The graviton is a hypothetical particle assumed to be existing but has not been observed to date.

3. The unexplained quantitization of charge

Robert Andrew Milikan has been one of the greatest experimentalists of all time. He is thought to have estimated the fundamental value of charge by his famous oil drop experiment. Many experiments alongwith Milikan’s oil drop experiment revealed that charge cannot have any arbitrary value except the integral multiples of its fundamental value. The fundamental value of charge was found to be 1.6x10-19 coloumbs. This meant that charge is quantized. The concept of quantization of charge is unproblematic but classical as well as the concepts of modern physics have not been able to explain as why is charge quantized. Milikan postulated the granularity of charge on the basis of his experiment but there was always a chance that his experiment was limited with a certain degree of scale for observation beyond which he could not achieve any results.

Smaller quantities of charge were not probably observable by his experimental setup but his findings were never revealing of the postulate that charge cannot have any smaller value. As soon as he observed his charge quantities the multiples of 1.6x10-19 coloumbs, he took no time in postulating that charge cannot have any smaller value. This was a presumptuous hypothesis and we know in the modern day physics that even smaller quanta of charge do exist. Our experimental setups and our power of observation has its limits beyond which we need to be careful in deducing and explaining things.

Maybe we might reach to smaller and smaller quantas of charge but it does not mean that the smallest we observe today is really the smallest. There is room for observation of even smaller quantas. And why quantization at all? Why not a smooth distribution of charge without any granularity? There is another problem other than this “why granularity”; an exception to the concept of quantization of charge has arisen. Assumption of the existence of particles called quarks has violated the symmetry of the concept of quantization itself. The concept of quantization of charge may be bolstered by many phenonema like structure of atom, thermionic and photoelectric emission, Milikan’s oil drop experiment etc. But the existence of quarks makes the concept asymmetric. Now there are two problems with the concept of quantization of charge. One that modern as well as classical physical has not been able to explain why charge is quantized. And second that the same concept is not perfectly symmetric due to the existence of quarks.**

4. Problems with photons

The photoelectric equation described above is unable to tell us whether the photon is a particle or a wave. If the photoelectric effect is instantaneous (which it is) then the incident photon is a particle because the whole bunch of energy hits the electron at once instantaneously and the electron is ejected without any delay. We should, therefore, regard a photon as a particle. But the double slit experiment does not allow us to do that because of the fringes of constructive and destructive interference observed (typical of wave behaviour). The photoelectric effect does not allow us to consider photons as waves while the double slit experiment does not allow us to consider photons as particles.

What exactly are photons? Everytime we go through the concepts and arguments, we see physicists thinking in terms of either particles or waves without realizing that a third possibility is not forbidden. The mind of physics as a whole seems to be closed to a third possibility. Both double slit experiment and photoelectric effect are practical facts but antagonistic to each other. What actually a photon is? This question still remains. This question is a mystery and clearly reveals the asymmetry of both the practical facts both as regarding the photoelectric effect and as regards the double slit experiment. This reveals that somewhere inconsistency lies in our understanding of the nature of existent things in the universe.

We know a great deal about the properties of an electron, say it has particle as well as wave behavior. An electron has resinous i.e. negative charge equal to 1.6x10-19 coloumbs. We also know e/m or specific charge of an electron, we know all the quantum numbers belonging to it etc. Then why can’t we imagine the picture of an electron. As we know all the properties of an electron, we should be able to make a mental picture of the same. Most of the people think of electron as spherical ball having the tendency to attract positive charge. But this is the picture of a localized thing; a spherical ball. In imagining so, we clearly, put a gag on its delocalization property. We can’t even imagine both the properties that is wave and particle, simultaneously because it violates the logic and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle does not allow us to do so. This argument clearly indicates that somewhere in discovering the properties of say an electron, an imprecise logical deduction clearly lies.

5. Unanswered questions on motion

Motion is one of the most important and significant natural and physical phenomenon. Motion creates everything in the universe which includes even “time”. Newton’s laws of motion give a good insight into the understanding of motion. First law states, “every object in the universe will continue in its state of uniform motion or of rest for ever unless and until disturbed by some external force.” A simple question as; “who has seen ever?” poses a great problem to the integrity of this law. If we take this law as universally true then there is a problem with the existence of universe. What caused the Big Bang? Was it an external force? If yes then we need to reformulate the theories of evolution of universe. If no then Newtonian mechanics needs to be amended. Stephen Hawkings might be happy to discuss this because he seems consider big bang as the beginning saying that there is no significant before (in his book: The Theory of Everything).

The third law of motion, “to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” says that action and reaction are simultaneous thereby violating the principles of relativity. The third law reveals that force signals travel at infinite speed which relativity does not allow. The antagonistic nature of the third law of motion and relativity reveals the problems in our understanding of the behavior of matter. We are not yet clear what reality actually is? This is one of the strong questions in the world of physics.

Physics (and mathematics) is the study of qualitative as well as quantitative measurements. One of the most fundamental aims of physics is to record the measurements and observations. Many rules have been constructed in order to record measurements. The concept of significant figures has proved to be a boon to scientists. This idea has provided a lot of help to scientists of all times. But there is a difficulty with it; no one in the world of science can record his measurements with hundred percent accuracy. No measurements and records are accurate, some degree of uncertainty lies in the measurements.

Coming back to motion, one of the paradoxes called the Zeno paradox does not allow motion. In the case of motion, an object is shifted from one place to another.

Zeno's aargument seeks to reveal that somewhere in our understanding of time and space the asymmetry has jumped in. Understanding matter, mass, energy, time, space is yet a dream and we are still far away to make this dream a reality. The laws of science allow us to divide a line segment into infinite number of points which makes any motion impossible.

6. On infinity

There is a problem with our understanding of infinity. Maybe the number of points in a line segment (which forms the displacement of an object in motion) are infinite but this infinity is a “limited infinity” [ref] and it obviously has to be a “limited infinity” in order to be true because to cross and complete this infinity (in displacement from one place to another), it is merely a matter of few seconds. The infinite number of points in a length on a few meters can be completed in a few seconds. This means that the infinite points in a length of few meters are finite. Though this is an intellectual confusion but it is true. A similar concept was put forth by a great mathematician (who unfortunately was never recognized and had to spend the last days of life in a mental asylum) named Cantor in his continuum hypothesis in which he says that there are smaller infinities and then there are bigger infinities. This is the time to revisit his continuum hypothesis and adopt insights from his mathematical explanations to understand what infinity means and how can smaller and larger infinities be brought to conceptual and practical use.

Up until now many of the nuclear properties have been discovered and many intranuclear particles like photons, electrons, protons etc. have been observed. Many facts and properties belonging to these elementary particles have been deciphered. For examples photons have mass of zero million electron volts, leptons (including electrons, muons and neutrinos) have charge, spin etc.; mesons including pions and kaons and protons, neutrons, sigma hyperons, omega hyperons are all baryons. We know many properties belonging to above listed elementary particles. In addition to this, physics has 'discovered' many forces like gravitational forces, electrostatic forces, weak forces and nuclear forces and their properties and consequences inside the nucleus. In spite of all these discoveries made, a complete description of the structure of nucleus remains a challenging question.

Many attempts are being made to discover the actual facts involved in physical, chemical or biological phenomena. The origin of universe is still doubtful. The modern society is covered with scientific atmosphere yet science has not made us able to define say matter or mass. I am not anti-physics but I want to reveal the inability of human intellect and the closed attitude of physics towards imbibing inspirations and explanations from other potentially contributive sources. Physics, even in the modern day development still needs a philosophical paradigm and a subject of “philosophical physics” should find its establishment in at least some good universities and/or research centers in the world. Meetings should be organized for “interdisciplinary physics” where non-physicists from many areas will have their contributions and opportunities to comment.

Scientists deserve recognition and acknowledgement and that no one can deny them. But at the same time science should be guarded against becoming an act of faith where present theory is taken as heavenly law. Every theory is subject to revision, particularly if it does not give complete explanation (and how can any theory do that?) irrespective of the authority or brilliance of the scientist who propounded it.

The main and original text for this article is drawn from an essay by Muneeb Faiq. He is currently an ICMR Senior Research Fellow at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi.

*The term “Loop amplification” has been used for such phenomena. Physics is incapable of defining any physical quantity (of which it boasts to be the complete explanation) unless and until it takes the route of and help from its properties. What is that? An example should work here. For instance, if I ask what a “brick” is; what will be the answer? It seems to be simple that a brick is a somewhat red, cuboidal, hard substance used in construction of houses. The definition seems to be fairly good and has a nice face value but we have invited many questions to our mind by this definition. We have defined brick by only relating its properties to it. The definition mentions its colour but not what it is. The definition says that a brick is cuboidal in shape but still does not make it clear that what a brick is. So the definitions tend to give all the properties of a physical quantity (a brick in this case) but are not able to tell what that physical quantity is.

**In the case of the photoelectric effect (explaining which fetched a Nobel Prize to Einstein) electrons are ejected by the incident photons. The photoelectric equation can be written as:

hν = φ + KE

where “h” is Plank’s constant, “ν” is frequency, “φ” is the work function of the metal and “KE” is the kinetic energy of the ejected electron. Now the question is; if ‘ν’ is the frequency which a quantum object can have and ‘KE’ is the kinetic energy (1/2mass X velocity2) which only a classical object can posses (because it contains mass in its mathematical expression) then how do we relate quantum and classical mechanics.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Picture Post #22 From Snapshots to Selfies

'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

USA, early 1900’s, photographer unknown. (Pvt. Collection).

Today the talk is all about ‘Selfies’ and the rise of ‘look at me’ photography, but the early Twentieth Century snapshot also raised many questions about how we like to think of ourselves, how we see our place in the world and, hence too, the universe. The arrival of box cameras and chemically coated film in the roaring American century, provided a cheap medium in which not only to share beautiful scenes, but also to depict ‘the ugly’, the immediate, the unimportant, in playful, short, spontaneous resemblances.

Nonetheless, in a world of Selfies, we all too easily overlook how things only really become banal when the acceptance of a message is taken from within a specific context and is not granted further thought.

Goethe's gentle observation that beauty can never obtain clarity about itself, and that things remain true in their nature when veiled, seems to be briskly wiped away by the deceptive promises of modern photography to depict spontaneous resemblance. Instead, when we view pictures like the one above, we have to imagine ourselves a bit back in time, when being portrayed was as unusual for the ‘common man’ as eating caviar.

If, within a visible document, we can do this, then the urge to express a voyage towards self-interpretation simply explodes. How do we like to think of ourselves? How do we see our place in the world, and hence too, the universe? The ‘snapshot’ provided the possibility to create a culture of your own, and one might even come to think, for the American citizen, a way to break away from older, European traditions, escaping through the eye of a lens.

One of the main distinctions the snapshot has made, although it may have slipped into our consciousness without being noticed, is the difference between resemblance and semblance: to be like, and to seem like. If there is one thing about the snapshot we cannot ignore, it is this insubordination concerning the fragile commitment to semblance.

Nor is it only our perception about beauty that is transformed. The truth about what we see becomes more real than ever in the represented moment, and this taste of realness, of revealing immediacy, helps create a social conformity built from identification. Today’s ‘Selfies’ are the outcome of something that is now mainstream yet started from a movement more than a century ago, that ever since has not only been shaping us, but changing us, too.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Affirmative Reflections

Posted by Emile Wolfaardt
Are we in danger of suffocating in the ever-shrinking world of parochial narcissism in which we are systematically enclosing ourselves? The sidewalks of history are littered with the carcasses of isolated nations (like Nazi Germany) and individuals (like Jim Jones) who lost the value of objective feedback. We, however, have access to rounded thinking like no generation ever has. At the click of a button one can summon the official and unofficial libraries of the world and the individual and collective wisdom of the ages.
But this access, ironically, may come at a price which is steeper than we want to afford. This is because digital marketing has gone and muddied the waters of our newfound informational freedom. The first quarter of 2016 saw an increase of new revenue in the digital marketing space of $5 billion. And that was gobbled up essentially by two marketing giants -– Google (about 60%) and Facebook (about 40%). Neither of them produced any of the content that generated that income. Instead, it was accomplished with ads that other people or organisations placed in their space. Since the 800 plus commercial TV channels in the USA are owned by roughly a dozen companies, and the 11 000 plus national digital publications are owned by only half of that, what we read online and offline is in the hands of eighteen major sources, who are motivated not by the objectivity of news, but rather by profitability.

Marketing Gurus have long known that the way to generate ‘click revenue’ through their digital marketing is to place their ads in the articles that the masses are reading -– it is the Law of Large Numbers. But here is the twist. They have also learned that people naturally tend to read articles that are congruent with their thinking. The mind, with its innate bias toward self-aggrandizement, typically tends to filter out those that challenge their thinking.

After all, since human nature could not make us perfect, it did the next best thing –- it made us blind to our imperfections. Besides, isn’t it easier to believe the lie we want to than the truth we don’t? In other words, we naturally filter out perspectives that disagree with our own, and focus on those that affirm what we already believe.

Marketers have cottoned on to that big time. Traditional ‘Objective Journalism’ has bowed out to the more financially viable ‘Popular Journalism.’ If journalists want to eat (and many of them do), they must be read. To be read, they must report popular news – news that people want to read – and articles that agree with their thinking. And nestled in those articles is the potential for ‘click revenue.’ The Internet has become a place of hostile comfort built on the deception that the world is as we want it to be –- that indeed, it is the universe we believed in all along.

This begs the rather disturbing question: are we in danger of losing the richness of objective thinking? If we are surrounded by congruent thought, and our perspectives are seldom challenged, we will never rise above the limitation of our current thinking, as perceptions become absolute, and have no gauge of right and wrong, Now that the digital media overwhelms us with warm fuzzy feelings of congruity, we have no easy way of reaching beyond the low ceiling of what we currently see.

One of the great African values, ‘Ubuntu’, suggests that I can only know myself as I see myself through your eyes. Digital marketing recognizes that I tend to read those things that agree with me. Popular journalism is attracting me by letting me see myself and my world through my own eyes. And the result is that I believe in myself even more blindly. As I typically surround myself with people who agree with me, expose myself to media that tends to agree with me, and live in a digital world that leans a bias in my direction, I am slowly working myself deeper and deeper into the deception of comfortable parochial isolation.

It is a dangerous deception -- the examples of Nazi Germany and Jim Jones being just two examples in the vast tragicomedy of our world. Today, while we may have lost the divide between news and entertainment, we do not have to sacrifice the process of objective processing. As Mark Twain famously quipped, “It ain’t what you don’t know that will kill you. It’s what you know that just ain’t so!” This individualised Internet may just have morphed into one giant selfie of deceptive affirmation and fatal comfort. Instead of allowing the frog to slowly succumb in the deception of his ever-warming pot, try these three things to secure your place in reality:

  • Have one friend who fundamentally disagrees with you on most things, and actually ‘hear’ him (you know the one) 
  • Read one book a month on a topic you are somewhat unfamiliar with, and 
  • For one day every two weeks, genuinely take and defend a position that is normally in opposition to yours. The research will either firm up your perspective, or help balance it with a different set of truths.

Monday, 20 February 2017

How Does Identity Politics Infuse Political Discourse?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Chameleon – Image acknowledgement: National Geographic
The great English political philosopher, John Locke, observed:
“We are like chameleons, we take our hue and the colour of our moral character, from those who are around us.”
Locke’s insight into human tendencies and the effects of relationships applies as much to identity politics — and the behaviours, aspirations, and goals of group affiliation — as to society as a whole.

Identity politics has been making increasingly recurrent global appearances, announced with bold headlines: In the United States, legal and constitutional grappling over a ban on incoming travelers from select countries; in the United Kingdom, a vote to leave the European Union, at least in part inspired by unrest over borders and immigration; in the Netherlands, calls heard for those who do not ‘agree with us’ to leave. The examples are plenty; the social and political lines are clearly and often-fervidly drawn.

This brand of politics typically pulls in groups whose allied members self-identify on the basis of assorted social identifiers and causes — race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, social background, disability, religion, economic class, generational cohort, education, indigenous provenance, language, and others. Identity politics also pulls in policymakers disposed sympathetically to reach out to, understand, and advocate on behalf of these groups’ interests — as well as policymakers who, rooted in their own conviction, don’t and won’t. The glue that binds members of self-identified alliances is wariness over the specter of coercion and disapproval, as seen to be normalised by the dominant demographic of society.

‘Identity politics’ is a loaded term, fraught with powerful emotions and symbols. Members of these subgroups, apprehensive of diminished power in their personal and public lives, share the belief that clear-cut identifiers set them up for potential distrust and discrimination. Those reactions by ‘outsiders’, whose judgement may at times be tinged with nativism, fuel a sense of marginalisation and disenfranchisement. The distinctive ‘otherness’ of these self-identified subgroups may prove a handicap not just to acceptance by the mainstream, but to opportunities to fully partake of the benefits that society routinely offers to the majority—or, perhaps more often, that the majority offers to itself.

Group constituents feel deprived of opportunities to determine — at their own discretion, undiminished by reactionary elements — even the larger, existential contours of their lives: their role, their purpose, their future. Through group consciousness and identity, the groups’ struggle has a cosmopolitan ring: communities with shared values, sometimes philosophically disagreeing with one another as ideas churn and contradictions slowly get untangled through a healthy dialectic, often subsequently guided by a written or at least implied platform. Moreover, collaboration across groups may be seen as a viable strategy to amplify their individual voices. Good ideas, after all, are not a zero-sum currency, so aggregating ideas across groups is to their collective advantage.

Perhaps it’s too easy to shoehorn people into social categories with their own demographic markers, but that seems the reality — with the potential for wedge issues to spur spirited differences of opinion about leadership, principles, and methods. The latter being a beneficial dynamic, however. Identity politics serves as a force multiplier in burnishing the groups’ philosophy and ideology, and in the process taking it public. This includes their grievances, their claim to rights and redress, and their petitions to political representatives for systemic, institutional change. Like-minded political representatives may act as the advance guard, taking to the bully pulpit, as well as legislating to replace discriminatory policy with positive policy — practical, actionable policy, not just feel-good nostrums.

Collective action and voice are aimed at repudiating and pushing back against recursive incidents of stereotyping and stigmatizing. Such action and voice provide the bedrock for defying what arguably bodes the worst for members of these subgroups: that is, the threat of irrelevance. And they are aimed at harnessing the energy to successfully counter the narratives that deepen the social fissures and attempt not only to carve out a lesser status in society for group members, but also deprive people of undiminished expression of their equality and value in an otherwise often heterogeneous society.

Identify politics is neither a conservative nor a liberal phenomenon; it falls on both sides of that (reductive) divide. Populism, for example, comes in both political flavors — as continues to be seen in countries around the world. One category that fits under either the liberal or conservative rubric is ‘social background’ — where a sense of victimhood is more important to group members than is simple demographic labeling. People resorting to a crude, reflexive branding of groups may wield any ideology on the political continuum, from the far left to the far right. It’s whatever proves handy in the moment, however one may be philosophically predisposed — where actions, not just reimagined theory, matter, serving as an accelerant for change.

Accordingly, those who disapprove of what they see and hear may seize upon both conservative and liberal identifiers as a framework and animating principles for their cause. Social groups that fall into either category must reclaim their history and draft their own narrative, shouldering how they wish to be defined — outside the orbit of cultural hegemony, accepted non-judgementally for who and what they are and for what they want to become. Societies benefit by allowing room for both conservative and liberal identities to thrive, serving as a bulwark for the best of democracy and its organising principles, even as the balance between the two ideologies might shift back and forth in turns.

Whether identity politics — largely unmoored from mainstream politics — is an effective strategy for politicians campaigning and legislating is an ongoing debate. Legislators, strategists, political pundits, academics, and the public have weighed in. Concerns include, at the core, whether the focus on identity politics atomises audiences with very different identities and needs, and in so doing risks diluting broader-based political messaging.

Those opposed to identity politics argue that messaging would be more effective if the targeted audience is only ever all society — hoping to hit the broader themes of greatest concern to the greatest number of people for the greatest return. Preferably as much outside of a partisan framework as possible, notwithstanding policymakers’ predisposition toward political expediency. Yet, an ambitiously inclusive message risks misfiring in the minds of many self-identified groups, whose platforms, expectations, and anxieties need to be spoken to in a tailored way in order to resonate most productively. Ideally, the greatest effectiveness would emerge from a fusion of both identity messaging and mainstream messaging. Coffers and personnel permitting, it doesn’t have to be either-or.

As the contemporary political philosopher, Sonia Kruks, puts it, how today’s identity politics steers a materially different path from earlier forms of the politics of recognition is the “demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied” — race, gender, ethnicity, and so forth.

This key, enabling ‘demand’ goes beyond the mere superficialities of unsatisfying, insufficient protectionism. Rather, it conjures proactivity, self-assuredness, articulateness, and an embrace of the legitimacy of one’s identity through shared experiences. Locke’s enlightened spirit fits this endeavour, valuing everyone (irrespective of ‘social tribe’) as “equal and independent,” free from “harm” — where the restorative powers of human and civil liberties take an ever-firm hold.

Monday, 13 February 2017

The Decline of Materialism

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
Materialism is the theory that matter alone exists – however this is too simple. Let us assume, rather, that materialism is the arranging of our world in our minds – and since we are speaking of materialism, we do this on the basis of what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. 
That is, in speaking of materialism, we are speaking of all that we learn about a material world through our senses – either directly, or through the instruments which we use. And so defined, materialism may seem to promise us a complete understanding of our world. We have certainly made enormous strides. We are able to tease apart the sub-atomic world, see billions of years back in time, and map and manipulate the complex genetic code – among many other things. However, there are at least four limiting and complicating factors to a materialistic outlook, each of which vastly reduces its scope and its power:
• It is one thing to discover the laws of nature, yet quite another to predict their outcomes. We see an analogy in the game of chess. While the rules of the game are simple – a pawn advances like this, and a king like that – the outcome of these rules is another matter altogether. A chess board, which is simplicity itself in the scheme of things – a mere sixty-four squares and thirty-two pieces – taxes the human mind to the very limits of its powers. It is the easy part, one might say, to design a supercomputer, or to plot a trajectory to Pluto. The impossible part is to predict the ripples on a pond, or to anticipate the path of a snail on a wall. Worse than this, we too often fail to foresee the negative outcomes of laws we imagined we had mastered.

• If materialism is the arranging of a material world in our minds on the basis of what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, consider then that others, too, arrange the world in their minds – and these others enter my world and my considerations. It is not I alone now, who seek to arrange the world in my mind. As soon as I factor another human being into my thinking – let alone a few, even hundreds, not to speak of a million more – the complexity of knowing my world becomes unthinkable. It is beyond imagination on the graph of intrinsic complexity.  We therefore separate out such situations from the ‘natural sciences’, and call them ‘human sciences’. It happens wherever others enter the picture.

• The natural sciences are, in a sense, an open book. Yet in order to understand the human sciences, we need to understand how others arrange their worlds in their minds. In order to accomplish this, we now find that we need to understand how they communicate this – and we must infer it from semiotic codes.  A plethora of views, an ocean of feelings, vast beyond our comprehension, is expressed with facial expressions, nuances of speech, gestures, postures, behavioural codes, ideological codes, and so much more – all of them full of variation and caprice.  This takes us another quantum leap away from that materialism which advances through the senses.

• But the way that we use these semiotic codes, noted Jacques Derrida, we are continually deferring meaning.  Francis Bacon put it like this: words beget words (which beget words).  It is much like having money in a bank, which has its money in another bank, which has its money in another bank, and so on. It is easy to see that one will never access one's money. Which is to say that, while the things of sense seem concrete, our words merely hover over the surface of reality.  If mind and matter were to correspond in a one-to-one relationship, we would have to be mere ‘machines’. Yet suppose now that all living forms have such ‘hovering’ minds.  We may in fact be living in a vast, teeming world which is wakeful in every part.
Materialism, we said, is the arranging of our world in our minds, on the basis of what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. On the surface of it, this promises us a complete understanding of our world.  Yet then we come up against the problem of outcomes. Further, we come up against the problem of others – through which we separate out the human sciences. Then we discover that we need to engage with complex and subtle semiotic codes. And finally, we might need to account for a world which is populated not merely with seven billion human beings, but with living agents beyond number or knowing. One by one, each of these four steps, in quantum leaps, diminishes the usefulness of materialism. By and large, our advancing understanding of the world would seem to be taking us further and further away from the materialism the philosophers once knew.

Monday, 6 February 2017

Picture Post #21 Where Do Ideas Come From?

'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

Le lac El Mansour Eddahbi, Morocco Photo credit: Tessa den Uyl

An horizon, form, movement and colours softly scale to inspire the poet, incidentally but gently. Or is it the composer, the scientist, the choreographer, the sculptor - or the philosopher? The muse carries along inspiration naturally between the old and the new world.

To be inspired is of such subtlety, like a breath indeed, that we can hardly understand how it happens. In its place, we simply recognise the sensation when it comes to us, like a thin thread, solidly spun, that triggers a powerful, yet uncontrolled sensation and offers the mind an opportunity to float on the ribs of the river, to muse thereupon.

Innocent and timeless is that moment in which the muse breaks down the schism between the real and unreal and in this ‘lawless’ state of being she unfolds something unnoticed that is suddenly seen, felt, appreciated, related. The muse chains creativity like toppling dominoes, yet touches the one ahead, in the space of time.

To receive a vision is an experience of great excitement.

Originally, nine Greek goddesses protected the arts and the sciences and were called upon by their name to draw forth different pieces for the poets' verses. The name of Mnemosyne (the mother of the muses), like the word muse, both derive from the verb mnaomai, meaning to be mindful.

Seen through more modern eyes, the muse seems connected with something sensual, passive - perhaps like a model posing for the visual artist. The meaning of memory, in its juxtaposition to remembering (the verse) and becoming future reminiscence, it has been transformed. Within this certainty, it is this uncertainty, to not be certain:

How will the memory source for an artist’s inspiration, the muse, survive in a cybernetic world?

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Poor to the Rich: Stand by Me

Posted by Tioti Timon *
The debt of developing countries refers to the external debt which is incurred by their governments, typically in amounts beyond their governments' ability to repay. Therefore there have been ongoing calls for lifting this burden of debt, with significant debt cancellation having been granted in 2006.
However, it is not merely a matter of lifting the burden of the debt which poor nations have towards the rich.  I argue here that the rich nations have a debt towards the poor, on the basis of the disastrous effects of those activities which have made them rich.  The subject is vast, and the debate is obscured by many factors.  I begin therefore with a description of my personal experience, which reflects the overriding concern of my own Pacific nation. 

Casting my mind back over many years, the palm trees where I once played and climbed as a child have gone. What little fresh water there was is now contaminated by salt. There is no rain, and all the low lying land is being washed away. With a lack of fresh water, our children suffer from dysentery. The graveyards of our relatives are being swallowed up by the sea. For the old people this is very hard. Our culture and our history is being washed away. 

It is a story which may be told in many different forms, in many different places.  Life is degraded through the so-called progress of humanity, and those on the receiving end find themselves helpless.

As the world merges into the technological age, what future is there for the powerless, innocent people struggling to get on with life?  Whom shall we blame, and would the perpetrator accept their being blamed?  Or is blame even necessary to motivate compassion?  Parliamentarians speak easily of justice, peace, security, and a higher standard of living in their campaigns.  Is it bringing justice to the lowly and powerless who have no say?  Everything in this world is a race to be seen, and be ranked at the top of all human powers. 

Why do developed, rich countries give aid to developing countries, yet fail to make the changes which matter most?

Are there any lessons we can draw from traditional Christian teachings? When Jesus came to the world, He brought justice with a new set of rules.  Love one another as you love yourself—a new commandment not only for the individual, but to level everyone on the hierarchy of standards, and to bring peace within the world nations.  Many of the global countries profess to be Christian countries, whether through heritage or through living faith.  Why not use the new commandment of Christ, and care for our helplessness on washed out islands during these times?

The people of Kiribati, who are at the top of the list of nations endangered by global developments, cry for the world to have compassion, and to think of us, a Third World struggling nation who have no say, and have no power to protect ourselves from the side-effects of the technological age.  The fact that our government needed at all to beg the larger countries at Copenhagen shows the ignorance of the world with regard to their tiny younger brother begging for help in times of need.

A cry for justice may be scoffed at with ignorance, as our cry would hold back bigger countries in their race for the most powerful position.  Our cry is a mere bump on the road for them, but we pray to our loving heavenly Father that someone will emerge with a plan, to convince our big brother nations to help and stand by us this time.

We call for nations not merely to think in terms of others’ debt towards them, or the neutralisation of that debt, but to think of their own debt towards others.  I conclude by quoting the preamble of a statement by the Australian Uniting Church on Human Rights: 
‘We believe that God has given humanity gifts and skills for the benefit of the earth and humanity itself. These gifts include the capacity for love, compassion, wisdom, generosity, and moral choice.  They come with the responsibility to ensure the health and wellbeing of present and future generations and the earth.’

* Tioti Timon is a bishop in the Kiribati Uniting Church.