Monday, 10 December 2018

Plastic, Pachyderms and Profit

The critically endangered Hawksbill turtle
(Source: Aquaimages, Wikimedia Commons)

Plastic, Pachyderms* and Profit 
In Search of Solutions for a Sustainable Future

Posted by Matthew Edward Scarborough and Lina Scarborough

Before the advent of rifle-armed hunters, the African continent was home to tens of millions of elephants. By 1920 however, there are estimated to have been less than two hundred of them left in all of South Africa. Fast-forward to today, when there are once more thriving (though increasingly poached) populations of thousands of elephants. What saved elephants from extinction? A growing concern for the environment? The creation of national parks? Yes … but not only. There is also a more unexpected reason for elephants doing much better today: Materials Science.

A century ago, ivory was used in all manner of household objects: piano keys, combs, chess-pieces, bracelets, buttons and billiard-balls. Billiard-balls in particular were one of the main causes and largest culprits for the decline in elephant populations: in Sri Lanka in particular, elephant populations were decimated in order to produce the much sought-after billiard-balls. Fashionable as ivory was, it soon became apparent that demand well exceeded supply. In 1907 however, a scientist developed a substance named Bakelite: a hard, durable, ivory-like plastic which can now be found in many everyday objects. But since then plastics have also become ubiquitous -- we use them daily to the point that escaping plastic feels impossible.

This is where you fit into the challenge.

Today no one would dream of shooting an elephant to make a piano keyboard -- and it was ironically plastic that helped save the elephant. It is now high time we changed our behaviour once again, as plastic itself becomes a threat to the environment and its flora and fauna.

But is plastic really so bad?

Speak to our friend Talitha Noble, who works at the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town. She is a marine biologist who spends most days rehabilitating turtles stranded on our South African beaches -- loggerhead and leatherback, green, the petite olive ridley and hawksbill turtles, all of which wash up on our shores in a poor state. It is not uncommon to find plastics (especially micro-plastics) being passed from their digestive systems.

Although Talitha is a dispassionate scientist, it’s hard not to develop an attachment to individual turtles. One turtle in particular – called Bob, arrived at the aquarium in a poor condition. He wasn’t eating or diving, tragically developed meningitis, brain damage, and even went partially blind. After being in rehabilitation for several months he passed a lot of plastic, including the remains of bags and a balloon. When he passed the plastic, it was a turning-point in his recovery. Bob is now a poster-child for plastic awareness, but there are countless other turtles: a large loggerhead called Noci even had a piece of plastic in his tummy which had travelled all the way from China.

The convenience of plastic, unfortunately, often trumps values. Those tools of convenience bear the flip-side of potentially being tools of mass destruction, fuelled by brand and consumer apathy. We can’t wait for the eventual launch of the next big materials invention. Act now by using the available alternatives.

For example, re-usable and handy mesh bags are easily bought online, or from modern eco-friendly shops. It doesn’t take much effort to purchase and keep one’s own re-usable cloth bags in the car, in comparison to the process it takes to make plastic, and then deal with its catastrophic consequences.

Plastics are derived from either crude oil or natural gasses which, geologically-speaking, took millions of years of form. We consumers in contrast typically use said plastic for the relatively short time taken from the grocery shop to our homes, before throwing the plastic packets and styrofoam boxes away for good.

But being thrown out is far from the end of your plastic. Plastic on the tops of landfills are often carried far away by the wind. If it doesn’t end up wafting up and down your street or in the stomach of an animal, it’ll evntually go into the ground, even if it is recycled (recycling can only be done so many times before the recycled plastic too needs to be discarded). Trillions of tiny pieces of plastic (so-called micro-plastics) now fill our oceans and have infiltrated our food-chains, causing massive (if largely unseen) ecological damage. So the best way to curb single-use plastic pollution is therefore to reduce your personal plastic consumption in the first place.

Yet all the research in the world might not be powerful enough to change our collective consumer psyche. It’s up to us individuals to put pressure on shops to adapt to the modern reality of wasted resources. It’s up to the shops to do their role to respond and offer initiatives and awareness. Together this mess was created, and together it must be fixed.

Consumers -- we must take the initiative and buy or make our own grocery bags for fruit and nuts, and cut the styrofoam out once and for all. I try to encourage the shopper next to me in line to do the same. Brand owners and supermarkets -- why not put up placards creating awareness so that consumers start bringing their own re-usable bags for loose fruits and nuts? Add a small surcharge on offering single-use plastics – as much as 50 cents often sways consumers, as it registers with them that there is a cost involved. If the costs are out of sight (such as the dead or injured marine animals somewhere out there), then it’s also out of mind.

All the knowledge in the world might not be powerful enough to change the consumer psyche. When all has been said, art and poetry may help to convey a sense of the bigger picture. In the poem A World Without Plastic, Stephen Katona writes:

It would be fantastic,
If we stopped using plastic,
And eased the world's pain,
With a healthy food chain.
Turtles would no longer gag,
On a supermarket's bag.

We can choose change from today with things wrapped the right way:

Rethink the bag – ban the balloon – and bring your own bakkie#. Together we can have a sustainable future with much less plastic (and happy turtles!).


*Pronounced patchi-derms: A large mammal with thick skin, especially an elephant, rhinoceros, or hippopotamus. 

#A South Africanism for an ice-cream box or similar re-usable container. 

And a bit about the authors:  

Matthew is a Zoology PhD student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, where he researches the evolution of extinct elephants and mammoths. Lina Scarborough (formerly Ufimtseva) is a project manager at a German language agency in Cape Town with an interest in linguistics and ecology (Lina and Matthew got married in June this year).

Monday, 3 December 2018

Picture Post 41: Playing with Shadows

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

Posted by Martin Cohen

Sabine Weiss  Chairs, Paris, 1952

I like this simple image, to me a trompe l’oeil, or trick on the eye, although literally the phrase refers to things like those doorways to imaginary gardens painted on walls.

I managed to find out a little about the photographer in this case. Sabine Weiss, born in 1924 in Switzerland and still alive, living there although since 1995 a French citizen, is described as a representative of the ‘French Humanist photography movement’ — which showcases ‘Les villes, la rue, l'autre.’

Ah, ‘the other’... The French do seem to always return to that theme.For these two iron frame chairs, ‘the other’ certainly lurks just behind them changing their sense and indeed ‘presence’.

The French Humanist photographers claim to document their surroundings through an unbiased and non-critical lens. A guide for one exhibiton explains that she is praised for making ‘full of light, making play with shadows and blurred areas’ and, above all, for her ‘reconciliation with reality’.

I suppose a photographer should do that.

Monday, 26 November 2018

How Language Connects Mind, World, and Reality

The Chinese characters for not only ‘meaning’ but for ‘connotation, denotation, import, gist, substance, significance, signification, implication, suggestion, consequence, worth, nuance, association, subtext, sense’  and more!

Posted by Keith Tidman

‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’, observed the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein in his 1922 book Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. To that point, we might ask: How does language relate to the world? And, more particularly, does language shape human experience — our shared reality and our individual reality? Built into these questions is another — about how language connects mind and world, and in doing so arbitrates our experience of what’s around us.

At a fundamental level, words and ideas describe the world through things (people, horses, pomegranates), properties (purple, octagon, scratchy surface), relations (the moon is 384,000 kilometres from Earth, the flu virus infects millions of people globally, the calamari sits on her mezze plate), and abstractions (thought, value, meaning, belief). That is, language serves to create and aggregate knowledge, understanding, and experience. That’s broadly how we know what we know about reality. But language — the sounds made as people talk and the inscriptions made as they write — is more than just, say, a meta-tool for informational exchanges.

That is, people issue commands, share jokes, welcome visitors, pledge allegiances, pose questions, admonish, lie, explain feelings, threaten, share stories, exaggerate, sing, and so on. Body language (a suddenly raised eyebrow, perhaps) and tone (gruffness or ecstasy, perhaps) add an important layer. An observation by Willard Van Orman Quine, the 20th-century American philosopher, that ‘Language is a social art’, rightly captures this function of language in our lives. There’s a complex harmonising between what we infer and internalize about purported reality and the various kinds of things, properties, and relations that actually exist.

Language thus shapes our thoughts and changes how we think. The relation between thought (mind) and language is synergistic — that is, the combined effect of language and thought is greater than their separate effects. In this manner, a Chickasaw speaker, a Tagalog speaker, an Urdu speaker, a Russian speaker, and an English speaker perceive reality differently — the fundamental building blocks of which are words. As the British philosopher J.L. Austin noted:
‘Going back into the history of a word . . . we come back pretty commonly to pictures or models of how things happen or are done’.
The tie, we might say, between language and perceptions (‘pictures’ and ‘models’) — both concrete and abstract — of how reality, in all its nuance and complexity, plays out.

Correspondingly, the many subtle differences across the world’s roughly 7,000 languages — across vocabularies and other linguistic elements — frame and constrain the way we experience the world. That is, languages differ enough to lead to singularly dissimilar views of reality. Word choice, meaning (both denotation and connotation), syntax, metaphors, grammar, gender, figures of speech, correlation and causality, intent and expectation, and context all influence our perception of the world.

It is thus understandable, amidst this mix of languages’ ingredients, for the German-American philosopher Rudolf Carnap, writing in the mid-20th century,  to have counseled, ‘Let us . . . be tolerant in permitting linguistic forms’. Whether despite or because of this mix, language directly influences culture, which in turn bears on how we talk and what we talk about. Cultural norms influence this process. Yet, notwithstanding the power of perceptions, there is a world independent of language — empirically knowable — even if external reality may not be independent of observation and measurement. Galaxies and microbes exist.

As one illustration where language intervenes upon reality, it has been pointed out that the Native American language Nootka has actions as its principal classification of words. Emphasis is on verbs that describe reality not as physical objects (where subjects act upon objects) but as transitory occurrences — like ‘a meal occurs’ — or longer lived — like ‘shelter occurs’. The result ‘delineates’ the Nootka notion of reality, distinguishing it from others’. It is in the context of this rather expansive view of language that Noam Chomsky, the American linguist, is surely right in saying:
‘A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language’.
Extending this theme, of tying together usage and perspective, in some languages there is no front, back, left, and right; instead, there is north, south, east, or west of something — a geographical kind of view of place. Two languages with just such a sense of location and cardinal direction are Guugu Yimithirr, which is an aboriginal language from Australia, and Sambali, spoken in a province of the Philippines. Another example entails agency for an accidental action: ‘Sebastian, the lead lab scientist, dropped the test tube’ (agency pinpointed, as in English) versus ‘The test tube dropped’ (agency hidden, as in Japanese). These rich differences among languages have implications that ripple across society, affecting, for example, values, norms, law, economics, and political policy.

We might argue that the plasticity of language — and the consequential differences in how language, over time, shapes our understanding of reality — affects how the mind distinguishes between fact and fiction. This observation hints at the subjectivity associated with postmodernism in defining the truth and falsity of perceived reality — at least in a linguistic context. In this view, a subjectively conscious reality — differing among the native speakers of diverse languages — and the external world do not intersect, or if they do, it is but imperfectly.

As such, purported knowledge, understanding, and belief are likely to be contested among partisan cultures, each embracing its own conventions regarding how the mind might describe the world. Writing in the mid-20th century, Algerian-French philosopher Jacques Derrida pointed to this issue of defensively shielding one’s own language, saying:
‘No one gets angry at . . . someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather with someone who tampers with your own language’.
And yet, with Derrida’s cautionary words in mind, whose truth and falsity is it? And whose perspective is valid, or at least the most valid (that is, the least flawed)? Does it come down to simply a catalogue of rules for usage prescribed within each community speaking and writing a particular language? Perhaps J.L. Austin got it right in opining, ‘Sentences are not as such either true or false’.

Perhaps, too, it is as Humpty Dumpty famously declared in Lewis Carroll’s book, Through the Looking Glass, when he said:
 ‘When I use a word,  it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less’.
That’s not too far off from the latest thinking about language, actually. Why so? It’s not only that different languages seem to lead to a different knowledge, understanding, and experience of reality within the mind. Rather, the effects of language seem more granular than that: Users within each of the world’s thousands of languages have different understanding of reality than even their fellow native speakers of those languages.

There are thus two levels of reality in the mind’s eye: one based on shared languages, such as NorwegianKhmer, and Maori. And one based on individuals within each language group whose personalised understanding and application of language uniquely and subtly differs from one person to another — quite apart from the differences in how, as individuals, we stamp our customs and norms on language.

Monday, 19 November 2018

Doublethink: Raising the Dead

Pi is pleased to present a bonus episode of
 Youngjin Kang's Doublethink

Monday, 12 November 2018

Butter Nonsense

Posted by Martin Cohen

Last week saw President Trump throwing out a CNN reporter from the White House Press Pool for disagreeing with him about ‘the facts’.

CNN called it an attack on press freedom, but the collective response from other journalists has been muted. And no wonder, because these days the press are themselves heavily into ‘denying’ certain views. We've all heard about ‘Climate deniers’ and how evil they are, but this last month saw a vehement attack on Cholesterol deniers!

Sarah Boseley, longtime health editor of the supposedly liberal UK newspaper, The Guardian, launched the attack with a piece called:

Butter nonsense: the rise of the cholesterol deniers

The stand-first sums up the piece accurately:
‘A group of scientists has been challenging everything we know about cholesterol, saying we should eat fat and stop taking statins. This is not just bad science – it will cost lives, say experts’.
The back story is that The Guardian, has long been very chummy to the pharmaceutical industry and regularly promotes the case for expensive drugs and mocks campaigners. Its longtime medical writer, Ben Goldacre, under the heading we just saw reused by Ms Bosely of ‘bad science’, regularly wrote in favour of Big Pharma and against alternative medicine let alone common-sense approaches without ever declaring his own links. There were family links as well as a career one via the Institute of Psychiatry to many of the industries favoured by the arguments in his articles.

‘Big Phama’, firms like Unilever; SmithKline Beecham and Pfizer Limited (two producers of antidepressant drugs); Novartis Pharmaceuticals (previously Ceiba Geigy); Lilly Industries Ltd (the manufacturers of Prozac); Hoescht Marion Roussell; GlaxoSmithKline (vaccine manufacturers) … and so on smiled on his work. Goldacre even received an award for ‘science journalism’ in 2003 - the award that year being sponsored by GlaxoSmithKline.

It’s enough to make you cynical, as is the fact that in the early years of 2000, the Institute of Psychiatry held over 200 research grants with an annual value of around £14.5 million. Its second highest source of funding was the pharmaceutical industry. The Institute is part of King’s College London, and part of the UK’s public education system. Yet for all the money the public devotes to universities, and for all the special status of university academics, private money like this drives research findings.

But back to butter, and the new money-spinner today is prescribing drugs called statins in order to reduce cholesterol. Justin Smith estimated in a piece for Statin Nation that the market for these drugs was more than $19 billion and rising. In The Guardian piece, Boseley says ‘statins are out of patent and therefore no longer make money for the companies that originally put them on the market’.

Note those ‘weasel words’, ‘for the companies that originally put them on the market’.

I looked at the cholesterol debate - I could hardly NOT do - in my food book published this month *. It is (chemically speaking) a very 'complex' area (all diet things seem to be when you get into them), but there are some studies that can be talked about in a broader sense, including several iconic long-term studies of low-cholesterol diets which do seem to demonstrate:
(a) that it is effectively impossible to isolate one factor in a dietary study, (alteration of one factor disguises changes in other factors too) and

(b) in as much as it is possible, not only that there is no evidence to support the 'low cholesterol diet' approach, there are indications that it might actually increase the risk of heart disease!
The Guardian piece makes little attempt to present a 'debate' but instead pushes the view that there is an argument for refusing to give cholesterol-deniers a platform, just as some will no longer debate with climate change sceptics. The position is summed up by one of Prof Rory Collins of Oxford University, a professor of epidemiology who says quite unashamedly that by cholesterol deniers he means people who dispute the claim that diets high in cholesterol are dangerous for heart health. As Sarah Boseley puts it here, these are people saying butter is safe and statins are dangerous. BAD PEOPLE!

No real evidence is actually offered in the piece, and when I asked Ms Boseley for any background studies she might have used, she did not respond to the request.

In fact, the available evidence is very different. One small study of Australian men found swapping from butter to margarine, for example, found the death rate from heart disease went up amongst the margarine eaters. Another study, in Denmark, that put people on a low-salt diet precisely to protect heart health, found that perversely it led to cholesterol levels shooting up!

Surveying the research, some 20 years ago now, Dr Laura Corr a cardiologist at Guys Hospital in London concluded that :

‘The commonly-held belief that the best diet for prevention of coronary heart disease is a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet is not supported by the available evidence from clinical trials"

However, seven years ago, an influential meta-analysis by the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists found that:
‘Observational studies show that there is a continuous positive relation between coronary disease risk and blood cholesterol concentrations [and] larger reductions in LDL cholesterol [the so-called 'bad cholesterol'] might well produce larger reductions in risk.’
In 2015, another systemic review by researchers from various international institutions in Japan, Sweden, UK, Ireland, US and Italy, published in the BMJ, insisted that - on the contrary! - as LDL cholesterol went down, all-cause mortality went up while higher levels of ‘bad ’ were apparently linked to living longer.

Don’t ask for new studies, as there have been so many, and yet analysis of what they prove remains completely partisan. It has been noted that the actual trial data held by the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ Collaboration on behalf of the industry sponsor has not been made available to other researchers, despite multiple requests over many years.

Since then, rather than demonstrate their case through persuasive research, advocates of the low-fat, low-cholesterol diets have sought to shut-down debate even trailing that new term cholesterol deniers...

After reading all the evidence, my feeling is that cholesterol levels are not simple, one dimensional values to be turned up or down like a thermostat and attempts to shoehorn it into a Manichean (good / evil) view of dietary factors risks actually harming human health. Attempts by governments and media to rule definitively on it are unwise and a distraction from practical steps that can be taken.

* ‘I Think Therefore I Eat’ is published by Turner in the U.S. on November 20

Monday, 5 November 2018

PP #40 The Noble Savage

'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 Thomas Scarborough

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) -- a painter whose legacy is not only disputed today, but increasingly disputed.  An interesting feature of Gauguin's paintings in his 'Pacific phase' was their great beauty on the surface of it, while in the background lurked death, suffering, and cruelty.

In seminary, they taught us like this: Gauguin travelled to Tahiti, hoping to find untrammelled freedom in the ideal of the 'noble savage', but instead he discovered death, suffering, and cruelty.  Therefore it was a false ideal.

The photo reminds me of the art of Paul Gauguin.  I am the boy on the left -- in my own 'Pacific phase' in childhood.  On the surface of it, the photo shows healthy, happy people.  But as in the art of Gauguin, a deformed man crouches in their midst.  I was fearful of him then.

Yet he was in the photo because he was included.  He was loved.  He was cared for.  Is this what Gauguin saw?  Did his fascination with the 'dark side' originate, not in his disillusionment with the ideal, but in the strange goodness of the 'noble savage'?

Monday, 29 October 2018

How Life Has Value, Even Absent Overarching Purpose

Wherein lies value?
Posted by Keith Tidman

Among the most-common questions from philosophy is, ‘What is the purpose of life?’ After all, as Plato pithily said, humans are ‘beings in search of meaning’. But what might be the real reason for the question about the purpose of life? I suggest that what fundamentally lurks behind this age-old head-scratcher is an alternative query: Might not life still have value, even if there is no sublimely overarching purpose? So, instead, let’s start with ‘purpose’ and only then work our way to ‘value’.

Is an individual's existence best understood scientifically — more particularly, in biological terms? The purpose of biological life, in strictly scientific terms, might be reduced to survival and passing along genes — to propagate, for continuation of the familial line and (largely unconsciously) the species. More broadly, scientists have typically steered clear of deducing ‘higher purpose’ and are more comfortable restricting themselves to explanations of empirically, rationally grounded physical models — however inspiring those peeks into presumed reality may be — that relate to the ‘what’ and ‘how’ of existence. The list is familiar:
  • the heliocentric construct of Copernicus and the mechanistic universes of René Descartes and Isaac Newton
  • the Darwinian theories of evolution and natural selection
  • the laws of thermodynamics and the theory of general relativity of Albert Einstein 
  • the quantum mechanics of Niels Bohr, Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, and Erwin Schrödinger. 
But grand as these theories are, they still don’t provide us with purpose.

Rather, such theories focus on better understanding the emergence and evolution of the cosmos and humankind, in all their wonder and complexity. The (not uncommonly murky) initial conditions and necessary parameters to make intelligent life possible add a challenge to relying on conclusions from the models. As to this point about believability and deductions drawn, David Hume weighed in during the 18th century, advising,

             ‘A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence’.

Meanwhile, modern physics doesn’t yet rule in or rule out some transcendent, otherworldly dimension of the universe — disproof is always tough, as we know, and thus the problem is perhaps unanswerable — but the physical–spiritual dualism implied by such an ethereal dimension is extraordinarily questionable. Yet one cannot deduce meaning or purpose, exceptional or ordinary, simply from mere wonder and complexity; the latter are not enough. Suggested social science insights — about such things as interactions among people, examining behaviours and means to optimise social constructs — arguably add only a pixel here and a pixel there to the larger picture of life’s quintessential meaning.

Religious belief — from the perspectives of revelation, enlightenment, and doctrine — is an obvious place to turn to next in this discussion. Theists start with a conviciton that God exists — and conclude that it was God who therefore planted the human species amidst the rest of His creation of the vast universe. In this way, God grants humankind an exalted overarching purpose. In no-nonsense fashion, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza took the point to another declarative level, writing:
‘Whatever is, is in God, and without God nothing can be, or be conceived’. 
This kind of presumed God-given plan or purpose seems to instill in humankind an inspirational level of exceptionalism. This exceptionalism in turn leads human beings toward such grand purposes as undiminished love toward and worship of God, fruitful procreation, and dominion over the Earth (with all the environmental repercussions of that dominion), among other things. These purposes include an implied contract of adding value to the world, within one’s abilities, as prescribed by religious tenets.

One takeaway may be a comfortable feeling that humankind, and each member of our species, has meaning — and, in a soul-based model, a roadmap for redemption, perhaps to an eternal afterlife. As to that, in the mid-20th century, Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in characteristically unsparing fashion:
‘Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal’. 
Universes constructed around a belief in God, thereby, attempt to allay the dread of mortality and the terror of dying and of death. Yet, even where God is the prime mover of everything, is it unreasonable to conceive of humankind as perhaps still lacking any lofty purpose, after all? Might, for example, humankind share the universe with other brainy species on our own planet — or even much brainier ones cosmically farther flung?

Because if humankind has no majestically overarching purpose — or put another way, even if existentially it might not materially matter to the cosmos if the human species happened to tip into extinction — we can, crucially, still have value. Ultimately value, not exceptionalism or eternity, is what matters. There’s an important difference between ‘purpose’ — an exalted reason that soars orders of magnitude above ordinary explanations of why we’re riding the rollercoaster of creation — and value, which for an individual might only need a benevolent role in continuously improving the lot of humankind, or perhaps other animals and the ecosphere. It may come through empathically good acts without the expectation of any manner of reward. Socrates hewed close to those principles, succinctly pointing out,

            ‘Not life, but a good life, is to be chiefly valued’.

Value, then, is anchored to our serving as playwrights scribbling, if you will, on pieces of paper how our individual, familial, community, and global destiny unfolds into the future. And what the quality of that future is, writ large. At minimum, we have value based on humanistic grounds: people striving for natural, reciprocal connections, to achieve hope and a range of benefits — the well-being of all — and disposing of conceits to instead embrace our interdependence in order not only to survive but, better, to thrive. This defines the intrinsic nature of ‘value’; and perhaps it is to this that we owe our humanity.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Fact and Value: The False Dichotomy

Image credit: The Guardian.
Posted by Thomas Scarborough
The fact-value distinction is one of the most important problems of philosophy.  The Scottish philosopher David Hume gave it its classical formulation: it is impossible to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.  That is, it is impossible to establish any value amidst an ocean of facts. 
On the surface of it, Hume would seem to be unimpeachably right.  The facts cannot tell us what to do.  But here is a problem.  Neither can value.  While one cannot derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’, neither can one derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘ought’, as it were.

Take, as an example, a statement of fact: ‘We are ready to hoist the spinnaker.’  Such a statement gives us no idea as to whether we should hoist the spinnaker.

Yet we find no difference with a statement of value: ‘We ought now to hoist the spinnaker.’  Why ought we to?  What gives us the authority to say so?  We find that such a statement is quite adrift, and equally unable to tell us whether we should or not.

What, then, was Hume thinking when he wrote about ‘ought’? 

It would seem to me that Hume made a lazy assumption, of the kind that philosophers fail to examine any further, on thinking that they have gained a special insight.  The assumption would be something like this: that there is a certainty which lies in value which fact does not possess.  Thus Hume equated value with a ground for our behaviour—if one should ever find it. 

To put it another way, Hume’s fact-value distinction would seem to be a false dichotomy.

What is it, then, that fact and value have in common, that neither will deliver ‘value’—in the sense of a ground for our behaviour?

I would propose that the scope of both fact and value is too limited for either to deliver universal truth.  Both statements of fact and statements of value exist in limited contexts, without being referenced to any fixed points except their own—while the question of certainty lies beyond this, in something which is far more expansive.

It may be easy to see, for instance, that I should hoist a spinnaker if I wish to win the race—and this I may state both as an ‘is’ and as an ‘ought’:

Given such and such conditions, the spinnaker will secure a win—alternatively, I ought to hoist the spinnaker to clinch it.  In both cases, it would be true and compelling that I need a spinnaker—yet not if I should expand my horizon, to ask whether I should have entered this race at all.

How then might we reference statements to something broader than simple fact and value?  An analogy might help.

I am in a boat on the ocean, to anchor a buoy.  If I reference its position to the seaweed I see underneath it, or the birds which circle overhead, I have in this case an unstable reference.  Or I may reference it to a spit of land that I see in the distance.  This would seem to be more stable, though not completely so—the wind and the waves may change it.  Or I may reference it to the stars—but even the stars will move. 

Ideally, my buoy would be referenced to everything.

This may not be as absurd as it sounds.  If the context is big enough—and if we should know just what kind of a context this should be—we may well be able to ground both fact and value.

If we reference everything to everything, there may be a way forward.  While space does not allow me to explore this further here, readers may refer to a post in which I sketched some thoughts on how this might be done: How Shall We Re-Establish Ethics in Our Time?

Monday, 15 October 2018

Land Ownership: Real or Perceived?

Mower, by Kazimir Malevich, 1930
Posted by Simon Thomas
It is not very often that moderns make distinctions between what is ‘truly stated’, and a ‘statement of truth’. While many write this off as wordplay, the distinction is important, because it draws the line between knowledge that has its base in truth, and knowledge that has its base in presuppositions. 
I apply this to the land question – a question which has been at issue throughout the world, and is at this historical juncture particularly pressing in my home country South Africa.  That is, I here consider how one may approach the issue philosophically.

An assumption is often made without historical reference – namely that the land simply belongs to ‘the people’.  A second assumption goes with it – namely that those who are currently living on it stole it from them. Now when people make these assertions, what they are stating is ‘truly stated’.

It is truly stated because they truly believe what they hold to be true. It is true because they believe it is true. It is not necessarily true because it has its basis in historical fact – rather, it is what they perceive as fact.

But this is to put it too simply. Our perceptions of reality are multi-varied things. One may say, for example, ‘The cat is brown.’ This is a statement based in a perceived reality. Yes, the cat might appear to be brown, but in reality, it is a tortoiseshell – a mixture of colours that merely make it look that way. One could advance many such examples. 

In the case of the land question, a group of persons, or a person, may lay claim to any piece of real estate merely because they say their claim to it is based in prior ownership. In reality, the issue is somewhat ambiguous – like the cat. In truth, while a person may have rights to the land for a given period of time, this is not synonymous with the whole idea of ownership. Land in itself belongs to no one, but it is often confused by the issue of who has rights to the land.

Consider that ownership is the moral right to categorically control something. More often than not, therefore, it is the person who has put in the work who has the greatest right to land. Therefore while it can be correctly stated that land belongs to the people, that is in fact never the case. Land cannot be owned in perpetuity, since it cannot be owned. It must ‘belong’ to those who work it.

And then only as the benefit of the ones who actually work it. Those who merely want to have the benefit of ownership while letting the land lie fallow should step aside for those who want to work the land for the benefit of others.

Ownership is therefore the moral right to control or manipulate the land, and only own it on the basis that the ones owning it are actually working it. The perceived truth, therefore, that the person who has claimed a deed to the land has the right to it, becomes rather obscure, and the one who puts in the labour becomes the actual owner.

So it can be seen that while a thing may be perceived as true, it might not be true in reality.  And while we perceive that something is true, it might only be true within the framework of our knowledge about it. These philosophical issues need to be sifted one from the other.

Not only that, but we need to work within the framework of our worldview, and in many cases, our spiritual understanding, which for many is that humanity is not merely hurtling headlong into space, but has a predetermined goal that is gradually unfolding.

Monday, 8 October 2018

BOOK REVIEW: I Think, Therefore I Eat

Reviewed by Colin Kirk
‘Felling rain forests to free up land for growing animals and vegetables, pulverized into so called foods, nightmarish..’ PICTURE: Lowland rainforest in Sulawesi's Tangkoko Reserve, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Martin Cohen is well known to generations of budding philosophers for his ‘101’ books. Amongst many other productions Political Philosophy from Plato to Mao stands out for critical analysis presented with lucidity and humor. I Think Therefore I Eat is a worthy successor to these seminal texts.

In an age when most journalism is no more than regurgitation of the PR blurb of commercial and political interests, philosophy regains its rightful place as investigator. This account, not simply of food its production and marketing but of the constituents of the human body that result, is unique and unlikely to be surpassed.

These days experts contribute to the human horror story. It requires philosophy to correct their ever changing sound bites with straightforward examination of the facts. Witty and readable, I Think Therefore I Eat will shock food experts of all kinds but the rest of us will think carefully before we eat. We’ll improve our life styles and extend our life expectancy as a result.

This book is almost impossible to classify. The philosophy is certainly in evidence but unobtrusively, amongst careful description of the grotesque constituents of junk food and their effects on the human body and mind, interspersed with unusual recipes that rush one into the kitchen.

There is structure to this bizarre conglomeration that meanders through the food fashions of the past hundred years with reference back to the eating habits of philosophers over the previous two and a half millennia.

Not all the foodies referred to are generally regarded as philosophers nor are their eating habits necessarily sound, quite the reverse. Hitler exemplifies these peculiarities of some of the thinkers selected. Mein Kampf is a work of philosophy but a diet of macerated boiled vegetables was not a healthy choice, nor were the concomitant medical interventions designed to ease the Fuhrer’s resultant flatulence.

One great strength of this book is the exposure of the appalling practices of free market exploiters of the environment both around us and inside us. Felling rain forests to free up land for growing animals and vegetables, pulverized into so called foods, contaminated with all manner of chemical contrivances to extract the last fast buck, is nightmarish reading.

These are not scenes in a horror movie from some way-out, backward, banana republic but day by day activities of world brand agricultural, chemical, pharmaceutical, food and drinks manufacturing industries that fuel economic growth for the few and ill health for the many.

Even when there were active Food and Drug Administrations in Western Democracies, well healed lawyers, scientists and medics ensured they had little actual clout against conglomerate industries with turnovers measured in billions of dollars or euros. The quality of expertise applied to such matters is low and the price charged by such experts extremely high. These are business models of the worse kind applied to the basic essentials of life.

Every page of this book contains good advice but it leads to no overall conclusion of the one-size-fits-all variety, with the possible exception of the seal of approval given to real chocolate. Most of what’s sold unfortunately isn’t.

At heart this is a work of philosophy and its conclusion is the usual one. Be yourself, it’s up to you. Examine all facts directly yourself, not the conclusions of characters who claim to be experts. Interpret the facts as best as you can and decide a course of action that suits you.

We all know that we are what we eat but we apply that knowledge as our appetite dictates. However, we now know that our appetites are massively influenced by advertisements, chemicals, manufactured flavors and plasticized finishes that do us no good and a great deal of harm. The golden delicious chips at McDonald’s are a prime example.

Western Democracy, the political model we live in, is designed by and for multibillionaires and their bureaucratic and expert camp- followers, who are paid handsomely to betray us into horrid eating habits as they transfer our money into their pockets.

Fidel Castro, another philosopher not usually thought of as such, was forced, by the collapse of Russian Communism in 1989 and the total American blockade of Cuba that ensued, to cultivate every square meter of land capable of growing food. The city of Havana and every other city, town and village became fruit and vegetable gardens. The Cubans did not starve to death as intended but became more healthy and versatile.

The problem with doing the right thing by growing your own food, should that be your conclusion, is that it requires a great deal of thought and planning. Further, success follows a series of disheartening failures as one learns by experience. For good health, fitness and longevity it’s worth it.

This is not a reference book as such but you’ll refer to it time and again in your pursuit of good eating habits. You’ll more likely find it on the shelf of recipe books in the kitchen than along with Kant and Kierkegaard.

Colin Kirk is the author of Life in Poetry.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Picture Post #38 What Happened Next to the White Rabbit

'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

A shop window in Paris, captured en passant by Tessa den Uyl
This cozy scene reminiscient of Lewis Carroll's imaginary ‘wonderland’, is in fact, something rather more grim.

No surprise would fall upon us to discover a boar’s head hanging on the wall in a hunter’s lodge. But most often today, to encounter embalmed animals in non-rural houses reminds of gestures of excess that echo as non-virtuous.

This shop window in the centre of Paris offers a sitting room full of real dead animals. Yet perhaps it is not the embalmed animals that particularly draw the attention here, but rather the way that they are displayed with more or less anthropomorphic features.

The White Rabbit, in Lewis Carroll's famous story, Alice in Wonderland, occupies a particular role: he appears at the very beginning of the book, in chapter one, wearing a waistcoat, carrying a pocket watch, and in a great hurry muttering ‘Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!’ And Alice encounters him again at a stressful moment in the adventure when she finds herself trapped in his house after growing too large.

Most emblematic of all though, the Rabbit  reappears as a servant of the King and Queen of Hearts in the closing chapters of the book, reading out bizarre verses as ‘evidence' against Alice. In this scene, the stuffed white rabbit, too, seems to have a prosecutorial air, rather as though the animal is a judge surrounded by courtroom flunkeys.

In Alice’s case, the White Rabbit’s case for the prosecution is so convincing that the Queen of Hearts immediately announces ‘Off with her head!’ at which point, mercifully, Alice wakes up. In this real-life shop, too, a similar return to earth is marked by a neatly framed message held by the only fake animal in the shop.  It notifies the observer that all the animals have died naturally in zoos or zoological parks. Potential clients can presumably put their consciences to ease.

Aristotle mentioned that art is a representation of life, of character, of emotion and actions, and in contemporary art, animals in formaldehyde are exhibited in famous museums for world-scaring prizes. So why not admire a similar thing by looking into this shop window? Yet there is a repulsion.

Is it a reduction of the animal - or is it rather the excess - the building up of animals into fine decor for homes? Or is the display less commercial than in itself an artistic exploration? Or is it more a philosophical challenge, something to do with Aristotle’s notion that we seek to discover the universal hidden in a world of the everyday and particular?

Monday, 24 September 2018

Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

For scientists, space is not empty but full of quantum energy
Posted by Keith Tidman

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz introduced this inquiry more than three hundred years ago, saying, ‘The first question that should rightly be asked is, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”’ Since then, many philosophers and scientists have likewise pondered this question. Perhaps the most famous restatement of it came in 1929 when the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, placed it at the heart of his book What Is Metaphysics?: ‘Why are there beings at all, and why not rather nothing?’

Of course, many people around the world turn to a god as a sufficient reason (explanation) for the universe’s existence. Aristotle believed, as did his forerunner Heraclitus, that the world was mutable — everything undergoing perpetual change — which he characterised as movement. He argued that there was a sequence of predecessor causes that led back deep into the past, until reaching an unmoved mover, or Prime Mover (God). An eternal, immaterial, unchanging god exists necessarily, Aristotle believed, itself independent of cause and change.

In the 13th century Saint Thomas Aquinas, a Christian friar, advanced this so-called cosmological view of universal beginnings, likewise perceiving God as the First Cause. Leibniz, in fact, was only proposing something similar, with his Contingency Argument, in the 17th century:

‘The sufficient reason [for the existence of the universe] which needs not further reason must be outside of this series of contingent things and is found in a substance which . . . is a necessary being bearing the reason for its existence within itself. . . .  This final reason for things is called God’ — Leibniz, The Principles of Nature and Grace

However, evoking God as the prime mover or first cause or noncontingent being — arbitrarily, on a priori rather than empirical grounds — does not inescapably make it so. Far from it. The common counterargument maintains that a god correspondingly raises the question that, if a god exists — has a presence — what was its cause? Assuming, that is, that any thing — ‘nothing’ being the sole exception — must have a cause. So we are still left with the question, famously posed by the theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, ‘What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe?’ To posit the existence of a god does not, as such, get around the ‘hard problem’: why there is a universe at all, not just why our universe is the way it is.

Some go so far as to say that nothingness is unstable, hence again impossible.

Science has not fared much better in this challenge. The British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell ended up merely declaring in 1948, ‘I should say that the universe is just there, and that’s all’. A ‘brute fact’, as some have called it. Many scientists have embraced similar sentiments: concluding that ‘something’ was inevitable, and that ‘nothingness’ would be impossible. Some go so far as to say that nothingness is unstable, hence again impossible. But these are difficult positions to support unquestionally, given that, as with many scientific and philosophical predecessors and contemporaries, they do not adequately explain why and how. This was, for example, the outlook of Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch philosopher who maintained that the universe (with its innumerable initial conditions and subsequent properties) had to exist. Leaping forward to the 20th century, Albert Einstein, himself an admirer of Spinoza’s philosophy, seemed to concur.

Quantum mechanics poses an interesting illustration of the science debate, informing us that empty space is not really empty — not in any absolute sense, anyway. Even what we might consider the most perfect vacuum is actually filled by churning virtual particles — quantum fluctuations — that almost instantaneously flit in and out of existence. Some theoretical physicists have suggested that this so-called ‘quantum vacuum’ is as close to nothingness as we might get. But quantum fluctuations do not equate to nothingness; they are not some modern-day-science equivalent of the non-contingent Prime Mover discussed above. Rather, no matter however flitting and insubstantial, virtual quantum particles are still something.

It is therefore reasonable to inquire into the necessary origins of these quantum fluctuations — an inquiry that requires us to return to an Aristotelian-like chain of causes upon causes, traceable back in time. The notion of a supposed quantum vacuum still doesn’t get us to what might have garnered something from nothing. Hence, the hypothesis that there has always been something — that the quantum vacuum was the universe’s nursery — peels away as an unsupportable claim. Meanwhile, other scientific hypotheses, such as string theory, bid to take the place of Prime Mover. At the heart of the theory is the hypothesis that the fundamental particles of physics are not really ‘points’ as such but rather differently vibrating energy ‘strings’ existing in many more than the familiar dimensions of space-time. Yet these strings, too, do not get us over the hump of something in place of nothing; strings are still ‘something’, whose origins (causes) would beg to be explained.

In addressing these questions, we are not talking about something emerging from nothing, as nothingness by definition would preclude the initial conditions required for the emergence of a universe. Also, ‘nothingness’ is not the mere absence (or opposite) of something; rather, it is possible to regard ‘nothingness’ as theoretically having been just as possible as ‘something’. In light of such modern-day challenges in both science and philosophy, Lugdwig Wittgenstein was at least partially right in saying, early in the 20th century (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, section 6.4 on what he calls ‘the mystical’), that the real mystery was, ‘Not how the world is . . . but that it is’.

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