Monday, 13 September 2021

The Play of Old and New

by Andrew Porter
In trying to figure out what's valuable in the old and the new, what should we keep or discard? Should change be invited or checked?
We know there is a relationship between the old and the new. It's both complex and fascinating. What is established may stay in place, or it may be replaced and perish.

If we want to help change society, or government, or ourselves for the better, how much of the old should we keep, and how much discard? Is modest reform in order, or a revolution? Should the depletion of, say, rain forests be allowed or prevented?

Aristotle delineated 'potential' as material, and 'actual' as form. We gather, therefore, that what exists is often on its way to completion, whereas the goal is the actual. This contrasts with the view that what exists is the 'actual', while future possibilities are 'potential'. Added to this is the fact that the old was once new, and the new will become old.

It might help us clarify the relationship if we can articulate the flow of old to new in real time.

Should we see it as a flow, or as a fixed contrast? What does a dynamic tension mean in this case? Is the new a rejection of the ossification of the old, or is it in harmony with it? How do old and new relate to the metaphysical principles of Order and Freedom? Are the old and the new in a dance with each other, the new emerging from the potentiality which already exists? Does novelty merely help advance and develop what has been?

Something that goes on throughout nature may sort much of this out. We regenerate skin and bone and muscle tissue, while certain sets of brain cells endure past these changes. It is all us. We are old and new.

Take a reformer, in politics or elsewhere, who wants to enact significant change. They have to deal both with the old and with the new. Existing patterns to overcome, new ideas to consider and implement. How will society change? How much hold ought it to have? The old is a mixed bag. How justified is the new? Potential beckons, but is it in that which exists, or in the ends at which a process aims?

Old and new act as permeable membranes to each other, each in flux in relation to the other. Novelty is in the potential of current things. A reformer usually tries to jettison a large chunk of the old, but, like their own body, must keep a substantial part of it. Imagine if both current existents and new emergences followed a reason. Would it be different in nature than in human life?

I'll skip away now with the questions. I blithely leave the answers to you.

Photo credit GharPedia

Monday, 6 September 2021

Picture Post #67 Unperturbed

by Nada Spencer *

Sculpture by Nada Spencer, 2020.

It was the first of three COVID-19 lockdowns which moved me to create this sculptural piece. 

The ropes bind tightly around the figure, thereby symbolising the anxiety we feel while facing a worldwide pandemic. Not only do the ropes wrap tightly around the torso, but they have become part of the figure, punching deeply through the skin. These ropes are the same colour as the skin, which further blurs the lines of external struggles and internal personal identity. 

The face, however, is thoughtful and calm, and not in anguish, as we might expect. This signals that, despite the pressures and struggles of life, we can retain hope and persevere. ‘Sometimes even to live is an act of courage,’ wrote Seneca, but ‘he who is brave is free.’

* Nada Spencer is a ceramicist in Cape Town.

Monday, 30 August 2021

On the Terrorism of Suicide

by Chengde Chen *

Approaching the 20th Anniversary Commemoration of 9/11, Pi is pleased to bring you a poem which originally appeared in The Guardian, in 2001. It is as relevant now as it was thena poem, wrote Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, to help us commemorate and try to understand.

When released from the fear of death

men can be MC² times more powerful

Once they turn their mass into energy

the power is as great as our fear

The terrorism of killing with suicide

is different from that of only killing

Killing is terror

while suicide is a philosophy


Men who don't fear death are dead men

because fearing death is part of life

But by cancelling this premise of psychology

they have invalidated all we can do


We may talk to ordinary terrorism with war

but it makes the suicidal one more suicidal

If a death sentence is a home-delivery gift for them

cruise missiles would answer the wrong question


The way to conquer the suicidal

is to make them fear death again

That is to find the reason why they don't

and to eliminate it as a psychiatrist would


* Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems, and of the novel: The Thought-read Revolution.

Monday, 23 August 2021

The Case of Hilbert’s Hotel and Infinity

In Hilberts infinite hotel, a room can always be found for newly arriving guests.

Posted by Keith Tidman


‘No vacancies. Rooms available’. That might as well be the contradictory sign outside the Hilbert Hotel of legend. Yet, is the sign really as nonsensical as it first seems?


The Hilbert Hotel paradox was made famous by the German mathematician David Hilbert in the 1920s. The paradox tells of an imaginary hotel with infinite rooms. All the rooms were occupied by an infinite number of guests.


However, a traveller wondered if a room might still be available, and approached the receptionist. The receptionist answered that the hotel could indeed accommodate him. To make the solution work, the receptionist asked all the current guests simply to move to the next room, making it possible to assign the new guest to Room 1.


This was a scalable maneuver, accommodating any number of new lodgers, whether a hundred, a hundred million, or far more. Because of the infinite rooms, importantly there was no last room; the receptionist could therefore keep moving the current guests to higher room numbers.


But the challenge was to get a bit harder. What showed up next was an infinitely large coach occupied by an infinite number of vacationers. To accommodate these guests, the receptionist shifted people so that only the infinite even-numbered rooms were occupied. 


Increasingly complex scenarios arose. Such as when an infinite number of coaches, each carrying infinite travellers, pulled into the hotel’s infinite parking lot. But we don’t need, for our purposes here, to delve into all the mathematical solutions. Suffice it to say that any number of new travellers could be lodged.


The larger significance of Hilbert’s thought experiment was that an ‘actual infinite’ is indeed logically consistent, even if on the surface it’s counterintuitive. As with Hilbert’s hotel, the infinite exists. Infinity’s logical consistency has further consequence, tying the thought experiment to the cosmological notion of an infinite past. 


That is, a beginningless reality. A reality in which our own universe, like infinite other universes, is one bounded part. An unlimited reality that extends even to the ‘far side’ of the Big Bang that gave rise to our universe almost fourteen billion years ago. A universe located within the continuum of the infinite. And a universe in which change gives us the illusion of time’s passage.


A common argument in cosmology (origins) is that the string of causes must start with the Big Bang. Or, rooted in a theological origin story, that it must start with a noncontingent divine creator, or so-called ‘first cause’. The claim of such arguments is that reality doesn’t reach back indefinitely into the past, but has a starting point.


‘Our minds are finite, and yet even in these circumstances of finitude,

we are surrounded by possibilities that are infinite’.

Alfred North Whitehead, philosopher and mathematician

 There are no grounds, however, to believe that our universe, with its time-stamped beginning (the Big Bang) and its one-way life-cycle toward net disorder, is the entirety of existence. Rather, an infinite history before the Big Bang, or beginningless reality, does make sense. As does the other bookend to that reality, an endless future, where infinity describes both before and after the fleetingly present moment, or what we might think of as the ‘now’. Nothing rules out or contradicts that unlimited scope of reality.


With an unchangeable beginningless reality, there is no need to evoke the concept of ‘something coming into being from nothing’; there is no need to interrupt the different laws of physics, or of time, governing each universe’s own separate reality; there is no time zero or insupportable moment of all creation. It’s infinity ‘all the way down’, to paraphrase British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s whimsical reference to infinite regress.  


We ought to avoid conflating the emergence of things within our bounded universe (like the making of new galaxies, of which there is a finite number) with the emergence of things within the infinite (like the formation of new universes, of which there is an infinite variety, each with its unique properties, life cycle, and natural laws).


‘No other question [than the infinite] has ever moved so profoundly the spirit of man; no other idea has so fruitfully stimulated his intellect’, declared David Hilbert. Our bounded universe is simply one part of that infinite, that is, part of beginningless reality. Our universe existing among infinite others, like the infinite rooms in Hilbert’s hotel.

Monday, 16 August 2021

New Critical Theory

by Thomas Scarborough

Critical theory has been all in the news of late. In fact it goes back a long way. First developed in the 1930s, I myself studied critical theory in the 1970s. I may own the first paperback edition, too, of a dictionary of critical theory, published in 2001.

Critical Theory has become increasingly important. This is theory which ‘reveals and challenges power structures’, which is oppression. It is ‘critical’ because it is not neutral. It is normative. Professor Robert M. Seiler of the University of Calgary writes that ‘criticism involves ... judgments for the purpose of bringing about positive change’.

I here propose that critical theory, in fact, goes back to the ancients, in its core characteristics—and to something both deeper and broader than we have supposed.

Socrates, in defining the virtuous life, said, ‘Choose the mean, and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible,’ while Aristotle thought of ethics as ‘the golden mean’—the balanced life. Thus ethics represents the achievement of balance in the human person—and, of course, in society. Balance between unity and diversity, novelty and tradition, thought and feeling, economy and community, and so much more. It is not hard to see how this coincides with critical theory—which seeks to bring balance to social inequalities of various kinds.

What is this balance, so beloved of the ancients? It stands to reason that, as we seek to balance all things, we have knowledge of those things. We are informed of them before we begin. In fact, if information is lacking, as we make judgements about our society, our resulting balance must be askew. While imbalances may come about simply through apathy, they may come about deliberately, too. In the case of lies, deceit, and propaganda, one simply removes information from the balance—or adds it. Or, worse, if one cannot get one’s way, one turns to violence and oppression, eliminating unwanted individuals, or seizing control of systems, to neutralise the information which is not wanted.

Oppression therefore rests on the suppression of information. Alternatively, it rests on the failure of an uptake of information. One may have systems which seem perfectly friendly towards all information, yet in practice fail to take it up. Information itself goes hand in hand with its reception, incorporation, and, of course, pursuant action.

This has three implications for critical theory.

Firstly, where information is suppressed, this may not in every case happen along recognised class lines—or lines of race, gender, privilege, and so on. This is my first reservation concerning critical theory today. In reality, information is suppressed along all kinds of lines, which critical theory may fail to identify—because it fails to identify and analyse the suppression of information. It may miss oppression which we had not imagined, or which lies beyond familiar categories. This should not be understood as a rejection of critical theory. Rather, critical theory as we know it does not drive deep enough.

Secondly, when one speaks in terms of the suppression of information, one broadens the scope of critical theory. One may also speak of such suppression—therefore oppression—in connection with the environment. Where we fail to include the environment in our thinking, we oppress wetlands, insects, elephants, forests, fish, and so much more. Critical theory today is not equal to such forms of oppression, precisely at a time where they threaten the ruination of our world. Again, this should not be understood as a rejection of critical theory. Far from it. Current critical theory, I maintain, does not go broad enough.

Thirdly, critical theory has often been associated with ‘cancel culture’. The purpose here is not to discuss the merits or demerits of cancel culture, but to note that one should be careful that cancel culture does not limit the freedom of information. The loss of such information to the system could signal oppression.

Let us now notice: in terms of philosophical categories, my view goes down to bedrock. It goes down to the things-relations distinction, which originated with the ancient Greeks. This is a distinction which philosophers have accepted almost universally, among them Aristotle, Hume, and Wittgenstein—with some exceptions.* According to such philosophers, philosophy deals with things and the relations between them—at best, expansively and holistically. Therefore we oppose the suppression of information.

Oppression may now be defined as a loss of information to the system, through various kinds of pressure, including physical coercion. In short, this describes critical theory, which exposes oppression—yet more than critical theory, it goes to the very heart of reality, which is the relatedness of all things. It goes beyond human oppression, too, and includes our long and sorry oppression of the environment, where we failed to take into account all the information we should have done. I shall call this New Critical Theory. 

An important exception is F.H. Bradley, perhaps the foremost philosopher of the 19th Century. 

Monday, 9 August 2021

Poem: Speculating on Providence

Posted by Chengde Chen

Woodcut by Hans Schäufelein, Augsburg 1513.
Christ and Mary as intercessors /
God the Father shooting plague arrows.


Besides the known causes of the Covid pandemic

I suspect that God had a few more intentions

A coincidence cannot be counted as providence

But causality deserves logical proof nevertheless


He must have wanted to help us fight climate change

Otherwise why did Covid bring a hidden green hope?

We had almost lost our confidence in reducing CO2

The pandemic dropped it decisively to an ideal level


Galileo’s telescope showed Jupiter’s satellite system

Letting people 'see' how the solar system works

Isn’t Covid like a low-carbon possibility experiment

Demonstrating the non-inevitability of global warming?


He must have wanted us to cope with the lockdown

Otherwise why did Covid arrive behind the Internet?

People of the Net can be isolated without isolation

Meeting across the Earth redefines time and space


The lights of myriad families light up screens wherever

The digitalised joys or sorrows are shared whenever

Without the personal contacts in this semi-real space

The half-dead world may have been dead completely!


He must have also wanted Covid to warn science

Otherwise why was it as massacring as bio-weapons?

If a virus can turn the world upside down like this

Won’t genetic engineering threaten our existence?


Inside those labs capable of manipulating molecules

They are full of the scientific urge to take such risks

Human self-destruction has been a matter of time

Can the Creator not worry if His work is to be wasted?


It's hard to say if these were really His thinking

But, believing or not, you'd better so assume

So as to understand the philosophy of providence –

Turning empirical logic into the rationality of faith!


(Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems, and of the novel: The Thought-read )

Monday, 2 August 2021

Picture Post #66 What a Can Can Do

'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

Malaga, Spain  2021

Unlike randomly dropped trash, this Coca Cola can seems to have been placed in cardinal Ángel Herrera Oria's hand very carefully. Tiny gestures, what thoughts do they provoke? The photo seems to conjure up three phases in time:

  • Materially, the alloy metal of the bronze statue and the aluminium can link together. The originally clay molded figure reveals striped structures on the cloak of the statueand somehow striped movements are very human gestures indeed. These connect to the stripes of the bar code on the industrial can.  
  • The deformed horizontally placed can offers more dynamism to the inclined direction of the Cardinal’s hand. The sky, a stone church in the background, the bronze statue, the can and the bar code together offer a kind of idea about a tangible timeline. So far, we can follow it.
  • But lately, when thinking of algorithms, or something like crypto currencies, digital data creates ‘new images’ which are mostly only comprehensible to programmers, and for a vast majority of people remain invisible. No tiny tangible innocent gestures can interfere there, and perhaps we’ve come to the time in which: what a can, cannot do…

Monday, 26 July 2021

Identity: the Interminable Struggle for Right

by Thomas Scarborough

Social psychologist Peter Weinreich wrote that one’s identity is ‘the totality of one's self-construal’. To put it in the simplest philosophical terms, it is about the way that individuals relate things to things. Therefore, identity is ordinary. It lies neither in great things, nor in special characteristics, but in all the detail of my daily existence.

In former times, the subject of identity was not much considered. A hundred years ago, the very concept ‘identity’ was virtually unknown. The reason for this is simple. In former times there was, by and large, no other race, no other religion, no other language, no other role to play. Further, there was little choice in the matter. The very survival of the family, and of the larger clan and society, often depended on fairly fixed identities.

Today, this has changed. A global mix of cultures has driven the diversification, even proliferation of identities, while at the same time, economic and social necessity has retreated.

An obvious question now arises: what should we do with identities? More than that, what should we do with conflicts of identity?

As things stand, we have set ourselves up for serious conflict. On the one hand, we have embraced social pluralism which, according to philosophy professor Calvin Schrag, may be described as ‘diversity rather than homogeneity, multiplicity rather than unity, difference rather than sameness’. On the other hand, we have adopted the doctrine of absolute rights, which in the words of philosophy professor Carl Wellman, ‘always hold, that is, disadvantage some second party, within their scope’.

Such pluralism, writes the sociologist Ronald Fletcher, makes 'the problem of preserving order and freedom very great'. On our current views, we set ourselves up for interminable wrangling and conflict.

Within the limited space which is afforded to me here, I propose an alternative to our present, call it ‘trench warfare’.

On the one hand, we must reject the levelling of identities—if that was ever possible. This, on the basis that identity is about the way that individuals relate things to things. It is about the arrangement of the world in our minds—therefore identity represents a kind of virtue ethics. It comes from within. We reject, too, the policing of norms by the state, since authoritarianism skews the way in which things are naturally ordered, and so can prove perilous. Nor can groups or institutions, of course, compete with the state. 

This has the following corollaries.

  • A citizen, as a citizen, has the right to their identity, and the right to protection from abuse. Such ideas are familiar to us today. 
  • An identity-bearer, as an identity-bearer, has the right not to be involved in another person’s identity, or to have their own identity transgressed. This differs from the present status quo, which regularly penalises or disadvantages some second party. 
  • Beyond this—apart from this—the state applies principles which transcend identity, and provide a sense of security to all identities. Within reason, of course.*

Someone may object. These corollaries, these principles, may solve some problems, but potentially leave discrimination in place. Conflicts are inevitable. One or the other identity must yield, or suffer the consequences.  Punitive measures are essential.  No one may refuse, on the basis of their beliefs, culture, traditions, ethics, or conscience, to be involved in another person’s identity, or to have their own identity transgressed. 

This is 'problematic', writes Oxford researcher Alberto Giubilini—namely the 'freedom to act, or to refrain from acting'. He advances, as examples, the refusal of military service or the denial of medical procedures—conversely, the compulsion which brings about the objection in the first place. There would be many more examples, involving event catering, child discipline, traditional rites, or censorship, among other things.** 

We may, however, imagine a different scenario. While the state continues to protect identities against abuse, as it generally does, where there is loss for reason of identity—which need not be synonymous with abuse—the state may develop a system of equality benefits. That is, in cases where there are penalties today, benefits may take their place, which are provided by the state. Thus losses would be offset by the state.***

The approach is a positive one, to help and enable those who could be disadvantaged by their identity. In theology (it is a theological problem, too), this may be reconciled with common grace—a grace which applies to all humankind, regardless of their identity, or what one may think of it. More than this, it affirms the value of diversity and mixing, and enriches the common experience. Perhaps such principles would help turn down the temperature. 

* In some cases, identity may not serve the common good—alternatively, will do harm to all. Where this becomes apparent, the state will need to act in the interests of the greater good. 

** One modern justice system (South Africa) puts it like this: No one, on the basis of identity, may 'impose burdens or withhold benefits or opportunities'. The proposal here is that the state alleviates burdens, or provides that which is withheld.

*** If one is faced with loss without warning, however, this may cross the line of discrimination. Identities need to be sufficiently transparent to prevent conflict by surprise.

Monday, 19 July 2021

The ‘Common Good’ and Equality of Opportunity

Adam Smith, the 19th-century Scottish philosopher, warned against both
monopoly interests and government intervention in private economic arrangements.

Posted by Keith Tidman

Every nation grapples with balancing things that benefit the community as a whole — the common good — and those that benefit individuals — the private good. Untangling which things fall under each of the two rubrics is just one of the challenges. Decisions hinge on a nation’s history, political philosophy, approach to governance, and the general will of its citizenry.


At the core is recognition that community, civic relationships, and interdependencies matter in building a just society, as what is ‘just’ is a shared enterprise based on liberal Enlightenment principles around rights and ethics. Acting on this recognition drives whether a nation’s social system allows for every individual to benefit impartially from its bounty.


Although capitalism has proven to be the most-dynamic engine of nations’ wealth in terms of gross domestic product, it also commonly fosters gaping inequality between the multibillionaires and the many tens of millions of people left destitute. There are those left without homes, without food, without medical care — and without hope. As philosopher and political economist Adam Smith observed: 

‘Wherever there is great property there is great inequality. For one very rich man there must be at least five hundred poor, and the affluence of the few supposes the indigence of the many’.

Today, this gap between the two extreme poles in wealth inequality is widening and becoming uglier in both material and moral terms. Among the worst injustices, however, is inequality not only of income or of wealth — the two traditional standards of inequality — but (underlying them both) inequality of opportunity. Opportunity as in access to education or training, meaningful work, a home in which to raise a family, leisure activity, the chance to excel unhampered by caste or discrimination. Such benefits ultimately stem from opportunity, without which there is little by way of quality of life.


I would argue that the presence or absence of opportunity in life is the root of whether society is fair and just and moral. The notion of the common good, as a civically moral imperative, reaches back to the ancient world, adjusting in accordance with the passage and rhythm of history and the gyrations of social composition. Aristotle stated in the Politics that ‘governments, which have a regard to the common interest, are constituted in accordance with strict principles of justice’.


The cornerstone of the common good is shared conditions, facilities, and establishments that redound to every citizen’s benefit. A foundation where freedom, autonomy, agency, and self-governance are realised through collective participation. Not as atomised citizens, with narrow self-interests. And not where society myopically hails populist individual rights and liberties. But rather through communal action in the spirit of liberalised markets and liberalised constitutional government institutions.


Common examples include law courts and an impartial system of justice, accessible public healthcare, civic-minded policing and order, affordable and sufficient food, thriving economic system, national defense to safeguard peace, well-maintained infrastructure, responsive system of governance, accessible public education, libraries and museums, protection of the environment, and public transportation.


The cornerstone of the private good is individual rights, with which the common good must be seeded and counterweighted. These rights, or civic liberties, commonly include those of free speech, conscience, public assembly, and religion. As well as rights to life, personal property, petition of the government, privacy, fair trial (due process), movement, and safety. That is, natural, inalienable human rights that governments ought not attempt to take away but rather ought always to protect.


One challenge is how to manage the potential pluralism of a society, where there are dissimilar interest groups (constituencies) whose objectives might conflict. In modern societies, these dissimilar groups are many, divided along lines of race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, religion, and socioeconomic rank. Establishing a common good from such a mix is something society may find difficult.


A second challenge is how to settle the predictable differences of opinion over the relative worth of those values that align with the common good and the private good. When it comes to ‘best’ government and social policy, there must be caution not to allow the shrillest voices, whether among the majority or minority of society, to crowd out others’ opinions. The risk is in opportunity undeservedly accruing to one group in society.


Just as the common good requires that everyone has access to it, it requires that all of us must help to sustain it. The common good commands effort, including a sharing of burdens and occasional sacrifice. When people benefit from, but choose not to help sustain it (perhaps like a manufacturer’s operators ignoring their civic obligation and polluting air and water, even as they expect access themselves to clean resources), they freeload.


Merit will always matter, of course, but as only one variable in the calculus of opportunity. And so, to mitigate inequality of opportunity, the common good may call for a ‘distributive’ element. Distributive justice emphasises the allocation of shared outcomes and benefits. To uplift the least-advantaged members of society, based on access, participation, proportionality, need, and impartiality.


Government policy and social conscience are both pivotal in ensuring that merit doesn’t recklessly eclipse or cancel equality of opportunity. Solutions for access to improved education, work, healthcare, legal justice, and myriad other necessities to establish a floor to quality of life are as much political as social. It is through such measures that we see how sincere society’s concerns really are — for the common good.

Monday, 12 July 2021

Rankism on Social Media

by Allister John Marran

Charles Colton once said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Yet what happens when the imitator does not get the acknowledgement or admiration they so dearly crave from the originator, when the genesis and creator does not give a pat on the back or even realise their shadow exists?

Many things start off as innocent and unassuming. Experience success in a sport, in a relationship, in life or business or any other public sphere, and settle in to reap the rewards of a job well done. 

Privately you can be proud of your accomplishments, and you may need to tip a hat to any plaudits that come your way, but generally you keep to yourself, sharing your victories with close friends and family and getting on with life.

A photo here and there may leak onto the social media landscape, which acts as a megaphone, amplifying your successes (and failures), spreading faster than a virus at spring break. 

People take notice. Beware, says the OECD*, in a recent report on ‘personhood’: ‘Disclosure of identity information in an improper context ... can cause harm’. Ethnicity, say, or sexual orientation. One could add ageism, classism, homophobia, and a whole lot more. In fact, anything under the sun, depending on the context -- and rankism. 

Many people look at you and believe that they can emulate your work, your skills, your talent, and abilities. They believe they have the knowledge and the skills and fortitude to replicate your path through life. But your journey took hard work, sacrifice and savvy, and those wishing to be you are not willing to walk the same path to success. Shortcuts and cheap knockoffs are hardly a means to greatness.

Not everyone who follows you is friendly, most Twitter profiles and Facebook privacy settings are completely open for all to see -- and some become fixated. Some people watching from afar may be insecure, others jealous, and others still may be truly hostile and narcissistic. 

Public people deal with this on a daily basis. YouTubers with millions of subs get constant hate mail. Movie stars and musicians have to hire bodyguards. The more their successes grow, the more they attract detractors.

Jealousy is a powerful emotion. When your fans want praise for aspiring to become a 'mini-me' and you don't know they exist, it can lead to anger, frustration, and eventually hostility. The rapper, Eminem, wrote a hugely popular song, which was certified gold and platinum many times over. It is about a young man called Stan, an obsessive fan who could not let go. Not receiving the attention he wanted from the singer, this led ultimately to his own destruction, and the destruction of the one he loved.

There is a lesson and warning to everyone who reads this post, as by simply reading this you prove that you have a public profile and online persona. Be careful who you accept as a friend, and don't publish your successes for all to see. You never know who is watching, or where rankism will break out. 

Insecurity and jealousy can easily lead to hatred and aggression. You can alienate someone you have never met, that you don't even know exists. So set all your posts to private. Allow only your closest of allies to celebrate your life with you. It only takes one ‘crazy’ to become infatuated, get triggered, and then decide to make you acknowledge them when they don't deserve it. It happens all the time.

In the age of instant messaging and influencers, Charles Colton would never have said what I started this piece by quoting. Instead, he might have said something like this: ‘Be careful of your imitators, they just might be a Stan -- the attention-seeking fan, above.’ 

* OECD. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development: At a Crossroads: 'Personhood' and Digital Identity in the Information Society (a DOC download).

Monday, 5 July 2021

Picture Post #65 The Cell

'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

‘Cellular landscape cross-section through a eukaryotic cell’
by Evan Ingersoll and Gael McGill. 
I was struck by the artificial, even ‘mathematical’ nature of this image, which is, on the contrary, a glimpse into something entirely natural and, if it is mathematical, it is a very strange kind of mathematics. It is in fact, a human cell at some fabulous magnification (maybe the colours have been added). It is, in other words, something both quite natural and yet completely unnatural – for human beings were never supposed to see such details. Or were we? There the philosophers might wrangle…

For what it's worth, the creators of the image used “X-ray, nuclear magnetic resonance, and cryo-electron microscopy datasets” for all of its “molecular actors”. And it is apparently less complex than a real cell. And one other detail is interesting about the image: it was inspired by the stunning art of David Goodsell, an Associate Professor in the Department of Integrative Structural and Computational Biology, where he says that he currently divides his time between research and science outreach… the outreach centred on the power of these other-worldly images.

Monday, 28 June 2021

Our Impulse Toward Anthropomorphism

Animals in the film Animal Farm
‘Animal Farm’, as imagined in the 1954 film, actually described human politics.

Posted by Keith Tidman


The Caterpillar and Alice looked at each other for some time in silence: at last, the Caterpillar took the hookah out of its mouth and addressed her in a languid, sleepy voice.

    ‘Who are YOU?’ said the Caterpillar.

    This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation. Alice replied, rather shyly, ‘I--I hardly know, sir, just at present  at least I know who I WAS when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.’

    ‘What do you mean by that?’ said the Caterpillar sternly. ‘Explain yourself!’

    ‘I can't explain MYSELF, I’m afraid, sir,’ said Alice, ‘because I’m not myself, you see.’


Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, is just one example of the book’s rich portrayal of nonhumans — like the Caterpillar — all of whom exhibit humanlike properties and behaviours. A literary device that is also a form of anthropomorphism — from the Greek anthropos, meaning ‘human’, and morphe, meaning form or shape. Humans have a long history of attributing both physical and mental human qualities to a wide array of things, ranging from animals to inanimate objects and gods. Such anthropomorphism has been common even since the earliest mythologies.


Anthropomorphism has also been grounded in commonplace usage as metaphor. We ‘see’ agency, intentionality, understanding, thought, and humanlike conduct in all sorts of things: pets, cars, computers, tools, musical instruments, boats, favourite toys, and so forth. These are often items with which we grow a special rapport: and that we soon regard as possessing the deliberateness and quirkiness of human instinct. Items with which we ‘socialise’, such as through affectionate communication; to which we appoint names that express their character; that we blame for vexing us if, for example, they don’t work according to expectations; and that, in the case of gadgets, we might view as extensions of our own personhood.


Today, we’ve become accustomed to thinking of technology as having humanlike agency and features — and we behave accordingly. Common examples in our device-centric lives include assigning a human name to a car, robot, or ‘digital personal assistant’. Siri pops up here, Alexa there… This penchant has become all the more acute in light of the ‘cleverness’ of computers and artificial intelligence. We react to ‘capriciousness’ and ‘letdowns’: beseeching a car to start in the bitter cold, expressing anger toward a smart phone that fell and shattered, or imploring the electricity to come back on during a storm. 


Anthropomorphism has been deployed in art and literature throughout the ages to portray natural objects, such as animals and plants, as speaking, reasoning, feeling beings with human qualities. Even to have conscious minds. One aim is to turn the unfamiliar into the comfortably familiar; another to pique curiosity and achieve dramatic effect; another to build relatability; another to distinguish friend from foe; and yet another simply to explain natural phenomena.

Take George Orwell’s Animal Farm as another example. The 1945 book’s characters, though complexly nuanced, are animals representing people, or perhaps, to be more precise, political and social groups. The cast includes pigs, horses, dogs, a goat, sheep, a raven, and chickens, among others, with human language, emotions, intentions, personalities, and thoughts. The aim is to warn of the consolidation of power, denial of rights, manipulation of language, and exploitation and control of the masses associated with authoritarianism. The characters are empathetic and relatable in both positive and flawed ways. Pigs, so often portrayed negatively, indeed are the bad guys here too: they represent key members of the Soviet Union’s Bolshevik leadership. Napoleon represents Joseph Stalin, Snowball represents Leon Trotsky, and Squealer represents Vyacheslav Molotov. 

Children's stories, familiar to parents having read to their young children, abound with simpler examples. Among the many favourites are the fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter, and Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne. Such stories often have didactic purposes, to convey lessons about life, such as ethical choices, while remaining accessible, interpretable, and affable to young minds. The use of animal characters aids this purpose.


More generally, too, the predisposition toward anthropomorphism undergirds some religions. Indeed, anthropomorphic gods appear in assorted artifacts, thousands of years old, unearthed by archeologists across the globe. This notion of gods possessing human attributes came to full expression among the ancient Greeks.


Their pantheon of deities exhibited qualities of both appearance and thought resembling those of everyday people: wrath, jealously, lust, greed, vengeance, quarrelsomeness, and deception. Or they represented valued attributes like fertility, love, war, wisdom, power, and beauty. These qualities, both admirable and sometimes dreadful, make the gods oddly approachable, even if warily.


As to this, the eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume, in his wide-reaching reproach of religions, struggled to come to grips with the faithful lauding and symbolically putting deities on pedestals, all the while incongruously ascribing flawed human emotions to them.


In the fifth century BCE, the philosopher Xenophanes also recoiled from the practice of anthropomorphism, observing, ‘Mortals deem that the gods are begotten as they are [in their own likeness], and have clothes like theirs, and voice and form’. He underscored his point about partiality — modeling deities’ features on humans’ features by observing that ‘Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and black; Thracians that they are pale and red-haired’. Xenophanes concluded that ‘the greatest God’ resembles people ‘neither in form nor in mind’.


That said, this penchant toward seeing a god in humans’ own likeness, moored to familiar humanlike qualities, rather than as an unmanifested, metaphysical abstraction whose reality lies forever and inalterably out of reach (whether by human imagination, definition, or description), has long been favoured by many societies.


We see it up close in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament, where it says: ‘So God created humankind in His image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them’, as well as frequently elsewhere in the Bible. Such reductionism to human qualities, while still somehow allowing for God to be transcendent, makes it easier to rationalise and shed light on perplexing, even inexplicable, events in the world and in our lives.


In this way, anthropomorphism is a stratagem for navigating life. It reduces reality to accessible metaphors and reduces complexity to safe, easy-to-digest analogues, where intentions and causes become both more vivid and easier to make sense of. Above all, anthropomorphism is often how we arrive at empathy, affiliation, and understanding.


Monday, 21 June 2021

How to Defy Weaponised Media Narratives

Posted by Jeremy Dyer

The 2000 Yard Stare’

A 1944 illustration by Thomas C. Lea III

depicting World War II.

It’s just bad news, it will pass, right? But why does it make me feel so depressed? Why does it eat away at my peace and happiness? Why do I constantly feel this uneasiness? Why can I not shake off this feeling of impending doom? You are mercilessly and relentlessly pressured to adopt one of the binary positions of ideological narratives.  Ideological violence is in fact a war, with real-world consequences. 

At this time in history, suicides are rising – I won’t post the references, but it is logical. So. For those people, the stress became unbearable. I saw someone have a major Coronaphobia freak out at the grocery store a few days ago. What is unquestionably all around, is:

Personal financial fear

Concern for the future of the world

Rampaging looting, stealing, and killing

Stress around lockdowns and regulations

Lack of normal outlets such as gym, restaurants, and social gatherings

A media onslaught of negativity


You can look after yourself, stop watching the news – or schedule a time for it – eat healthy, start a plan for a better job, cut your social media time wastage, exercise in some other way, chat with positive friends ... yet in the face of the war, it is a daily effort and discipline, isn’t it? It is exactly like fighting a mental war every day. 

You war with the things you have to do physically. 

You war with the people you come into contact with (I was a teacher, so I know).

And then there is that fuzzy, insidious pyscho-ideological war. On this last point, I am referring to the tsunami of negative, emotionally-driven ‘news’ and more importantly the ‘narratives’ (ideological viewpoints) that inform such news. Memes, articles, sound bites, and so on.

What is going on?

It is this ideological war that drives most of the depressing news – 5G is killing you, you are a racist, the planet is dying, history is all wrong, magical love is the answer to everything, coconut and cannabis oil cure all illness, socialism is better than capitalism, the normals must worship the weirdos and awfuls, another virus is being created to kill us, a murderous Uhuru is coming, vegans are better than carnivores, BDSM is better sex, world food is running out, all GM food is poisonous, the government controls you, the media is all lies ... 

It’s a long list covering a lot of issues.

The thing to note is that each of these messages is absolute and crystalised – very little shades of grey in any of them. Each intrusive narrative is polarised, like the Dems and ’Pubs in the USA. You are mercilessly and relentlessly pressured to adopt one of the binary positions in each of these ideological narratives. They are now ‘weaponised’, and they seek to enforce compliance in you – join the riots, burn the 5G towers, boycott Chinese goods, buy a gun, eat only vegetables, stock up on food, hate men, hate women, wear a face-mask, don’t wear a face mask ...

Doubt, fear, uncertainty ... depression and anxiety. This is logical when confronted with ‘evidence’ from both sides of these aggressive narratives. The whiplash from the changing evidence of experts alone – on life, the universe, and everything – leaves us all in need of physiotherapy.

‘What is revolt?’ asked Albert Camus. ‘Simply defined, it is the Sisyphean spirit of defiance in the face of the Absurd … in that day-to-day revolt he gives proof of his only truth, which is defiance.’ What kind of defiance remains, then, which will not find you caught up in the war? 

One has to either sift through all these narratives, to find one’s position on any number of issues… (Some people are able to do this, but many are too ADD or incapable. Some choose to believe the fictions of conspiracy theories instead, because it is simpler and easier. Facts and science are irrelevant after all, only opinion matters in what you choose to believe. Wow, talk about dangerous.) 

Or ...

Cultivate an attitude of defiance! 

Look after your own wellbeing. Mind, body and spirit. Reject mental poison.

Do the things that make you happy.

Pursue your meaning.

Say to yourself :

Siss China!

Siss the face masks!

Siss the vegans!

Siss MAGA!

Siss Antifa!

Siss the 5G towers! 

Go fishing. Go swimming. Get seriously sceptical. Take a news fast. Find a lover. Get an awesome sense of humour – loads for free on the internet if you need priming. Be unconventional, meet cool people, do new stuff. Be cheeky, be awesome! Be a thought leader, not a follower. Hey! Find God, if that is what it takes!

Siss the news!

Siss the conspiracies!

Siss depression and negativity!

Recent Comments