Monday, 3 August 2015

Picture Post No. 3 The Holiday Photo: moments caught in amber...

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

Posted by Ben Hendriks and Tessa den Uyl

On the beach, Majorca, 1961
These are our mothers, before they became our mothers.

The strange thing is, that these two holidaymakers - our mothers  - seem to stay in the background of the Pepsi bottles they hold up and yet it is the decade that Pepsi launches its publicity: ‘Come alive, you’re in the Pepsi generation!’ Our mothers seem to have also provided, unconsciously, the perfect advertisement.

But we, their children, remember, when we saw this picture at a younger age how we were stuck by their joy rather then the Pepsi bottles. Maybe it was because it was taken before the stock value of  Pepsi would rise relentlessly, or maybe it was because we saw two familiar figures outside of their ordinary circumstances and we were intrigued at discovering them in a way which was somehow unknown, and evoked a sense of freedom to us... but certainly not that freedom Pepsi intended with its slogans. 


Was our reaction due to nostalgia for a decade we had not seen? Was it due to the two bottles being held up that symbolise a friendship? Or merely that it is our mothers captured in the moment? Or was it due to the composition of the photo that, with the two men in the background and the two trees at the outer left compose good diagonals with the smiling girls (behind their sunglasses, that un-identify them) plus the two bottles in the foreground, that makes the picture simply 'work'? Is this picture about our mothers  - or something else?

The past that is repeated and recognisable doesn’t need linguistic understanding nor cultural knowledge. This photo reflects commodity, but the suggested ideology wasn’t consciously present as it would be if we were to take the same picture today. We can understand this one though as a good stand-in for what it doesn’t represent. Might we then say that a photo can be a testimony to the history it has experienced? Then how reliable is our own perception?

Monday, 27 July 2015

We Need Animal Cognition, Not Neuroscience

Posted by Matthew Blakeway
A generation ago, it was thought that neuroscience held the promise of solving many philosophical problems. Looking back now over those lost decades, we are able to see that it failed to solve a single one, and arguably created a new one or two.
The purpose of this post is to introduce a single idea, painted with a large brush: As we see our hopes for answers from neuroscience fading, animal cognition may hold the promise of the future. 

Neuroscience, it was thought, would tell us many things: what a mind is, whether humans have freewill, or where in the brain we find these things. It would explain consciousness, morality, evil, or why humans tend to believe in prime-moving inter-galactic omnipotent fairies. While there are still philosophers who hold out hope for answers from neuroscience, the failure of progress is striking. An illustration reveals the way in which the arguments typically fail: in his book Freewill, cognitive neuroscientist Sam Harris argued that brain scans revealed a neural blip the moment before a subject was conscious of choosing to act. This, he considered, demonstrated that freewill is a myth, for the reason that the brain acts before we know it. Yet the argument is too easily neutralised. What was the blip? It may just as well have been one part of the brain going, 'OK, Freewill, this is one for your department.'

There are, on the contrary, significant problems that neuroscience has created. For example, its tendency to believe that the mind is nothing but the brain may open it up to a classic problem of logical systems, identified by the mathematical logician Kurt Gödel. Does Gödel's incompleteness theorem imply that the brain is unable to understand itself, so that neuroscience can have no achievable end-goal? Probably! The computer analogy of the brain is an old one, yet it is still useful. We have been inching towards a neuroscientific view that a brain is a biological computing device. Assuming that this is so, the study of the brain may reveal little about how the software works. In moving towards the view that a human mind has no animal spirits or ethereal magic in it, the consequence for neuroscience is that it is ever less in a position to solve philosophical problems – much as we would not have a hope of proving the Church-Turing thesis, or demonstrating why π is an irrational number, by shifting to a study of computer chips.

It may be more helpful for philosophers to turn to animal cognition as their primary input. This field is producing remarkable new finds, and philosophy would do well to absorb their implications. One of its most conspicuous aspects is the study of pro-social behaviour in animals – in contrast with what zoologist Robert Hinde calls 'human aggression in all its deviousness and complexity'. As a case in point, researchers demonstrated that a rat will help another rat in difficulty without needing a reward – if only humans could be relied upon to so act. While the 18th century philosophical view of humankind might be expressed (adopt a tone of pompous bloviation): 'It is the moral sense that separates men from the wild beasts which live in brutal ignorance,' humans do some pretty nasty things. My suggestion is that humans, while they, too, have inherited 'moral emotions', can out-think their own emotions and can manipulate their behaviour tactically. We need to turn the old view of humankind on its head. We don’t need to explain how we are biologically programmed. We need to understand the anomalies.

Such observations promise a rich new vein for philosophy, and it deserves our attentions. By way of illustration, now that we know that rats are compassionate, we may ask why so many bankers and politicians aren’t. Supposing that an economist should persuade bankers and politicians that everybody will become richer if they act in their own self-interest (as has been the case, starting with political philosopher Adam Smith) – then tactically, bankers and politicians may out-think their pro-social inclinations – to the detriment of the poor, and on an alarming scale at that. In this example alone, animal cognition suggests fresh explorations of morality, freewill, and belief, while the answers to the same may explain no less than why it is that our choices polarise all of humanity today.

Study notes:

Ben-Ami Bartal, I., Decety, J., & Mason, P. “Empathy and pro-social behavior in rats”. Science. 334, 2011. pp 1427-1430.
Hamilton, W. D. “The Genetical Evolution of Social Behaviour”. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1964, 7 (1): 1–16. 

Monday, 20 July 2015

Poetry: The Making of Terror

A  poem by Chengde Chen

Terrible as terrorism is, should we be so terrified, just as terrorists want?

It’s much less frequent than road accidents that kill hundreds every day; nor scarier than psychopaths’ random attacks that are as unpredictable.
There’re greater chances of being killed by a common cold or diarrhoea.

It is the media that 'turns' a homemade bomb into a nuclear explosion.
It is the government that 'legalises' the fear of it by changing the laws.
It is the trembling public psyche that completes the process of terror –
a religion of fear, jointly founded by enemies in the name of war!

The Americans should invite their 32nd President (Roosevelt) back,
as he understood that 'the only thing we have to fear is fear itself'.
Or they might consult successful or unsuccessful actors on Broadway,
who know only too well that a play can’t run long without audience

Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here

Monday, 13 July 2015

The Art of War? Obama's Machiavellian Foreign Policy

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” 
- Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince (1513)

Is Obama a foreign policy genius - a modern day Machiavelli - or an inept ingénue

Consider some recent and some ongoing cases.

1. During the US presidential election campaign, Barack Obama mocked his opponent, Mitt Romney for saying that Russia was a threat  - opting instead to forgive Russia past transgressions, press the restart button and have 'business as usual' relations. China, he asserted, was the real threat, even as Chinese money kept the US economy afloat.

Yet, as has widely been pointed out, the Russian military interventions in Ukraine, which have led to the annexation of the Crimean peninsula and to the entrenchment of separatist enclaves in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, directly challenge the post-Cold War consensus. Eastern Ukraine follows on other more tentative land-grabs, and in turn will be followed by greater prizes - Estonia, Lithuania… And if incursions there show the NATO lion cannot roar, why not further?

2. In Syria, faced with a choice between supporting the moderate rebels, and leaving the extremists to take over, he opted for the latter policy - with the result that the Assad government recovered lost ground and ISIS became a regional force. Originally, U.S. intelligence saw the terror group as a U.S. strategic asset. Now though, as David Kilcullen, the US military strategist said to have saved Iraq through the 'surge' has put it:
'Western countries have a clear interest in destroying ISIS, but counter-insurgency should not even be under discussion. This is a straight-up conventional fight against a state-like entity, and the goal should be to utterly annihilate ISIS as a state.' 
Just unfortunate then that ISIS has now become a force that would require a greater military effort than that of the original Iraq war. Your move, Professor!

3. But it is in Ukraine that his judgements seem most dangerous. Obama has apparently decided that there is no strategic significance to allowing Russia to annex parts of the former Soviet Union. Of course, the morality of this do not concern him - a man who says in one of his books that he learned his his ethics from the backs of cereal packets. In pursuit of this policy there have been so substantial sanctions, although there is a possibility that the US was involved in the Saudi policy of lowering the world price of oil - which has hurt the Russians. Under Obama there has been no access to arms and training, leaving the hopelessly amateurish and poorly equipped Ukrainian conscripts to be slaughtered in their thousands by the separatists backed by Russian special forces and the very best equipment that the Russians have.

4. In Egypt, Obama sided with the Egyptian military against the democracy movement, in due course helping to usher in a new and if anything even more vicious regime than that run by the US's client Hosni Mubarak.

5. As for the Palestine-Israel conflict, Obama has managed to present the US as both powerless and inept - threatening responses and laying down red lines which he never has any intention of following through on. The Israeli Prime Minster is encouraged to treat him with contempt.

6. And then, earlier this month, his international trade agenda was left in tatters after even the Democratic minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, voted against his plans to for a new bill, going directly against Obama less than three hours after the president begged his party’s caucus to support it.

7. Not to foget the War in Europe, entirely! The economic policies one between Greece and the Eurozone, that is.  Here, Obama weighed in on the side of Greece, ordering the rest of Europe to forgive its trangressions and, well, bend the Eurozone rules a little. Such advice might have been deeeply probematic for the Eurozone if followed - it certainly helped reduce the liklihood of the Greek's seeking a compromise. Result - this week - boom!

The fact is, Obama sees himself as a true Machiavellian Prince, one who presents one face to the world while acting in a quite different way in secret. He sees himself as enhancing US geopolitical and structural power; strengthening the American identity (hence the oft-repeated determination to stop the torture programme and release the extra-judicial prisoners such as those held at Guantanamo,  policies he has no intention of genuinely carrying out) and the search for domestic political consolidation.

According to former US national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski:
'He’s not a softy. But he’s a person who tries to think through these events so you can draw some long-term conclusions.'
The longterm consequence of policy in the Middle East seems likely to be polarisation - between a US-backed series of kleptocracies and ultra-Islamists. In Europe, it is likely to be a 'hot war' between the Western Europeans and the Russians. In general, Obama seems to be sowing the seeds of global chaos - but a chaos in which perhaps for some it can be imagined that Continental United States will be immune. If that is indeed his aim, it is certainly a piece of cynicism worthy of the Italian master himself.

Further, or is it backwards? reading here

Primary colours

Sunday, 12 July 2015

STOP PRESS. Pluto IS a Planet

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
There has been no small commotion surrounding the reclassification – or demotion – of the former planet Pluto.  First to dwarf planet status, then to minor planet, and finally to plutoid. This post explores some of the philosophical aspects of the issue.
Following the discovery in the 1990's, that various bodies orbit the sun in the area of Pluto, Pluto was taken off the 'planets' list. The International Astronomical Union, in 2006, ruled that a planet had to be an object which met three basic criteria: 1. it orbited the sun, 2. it was rounded by its own gravity, and 3. it 'cleared the neighbourhood'. Pluto failed on the last criterion. It was one of a crowd, in the Kuiper belt.

The reaction to Pluto's demotion was 'hectic'. The California State Assembly declared it a 'scientific heresy', while the Illinois Senate ruled it 'unfair'. And when the Hayden Planetarium, in 2000, famously unveiled a new model of the solar system with only eight planets, the ensuing controversy was still making headlines a year later. In 2007, the American Dialect Society chose 'plutoed' as its 2006 Word of the Year – meaning 'to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto.' 

In terms of the philosophy of language, the reaction covered the whole gamut of linguistic interpretations. Most basically, there were those who fell in the 'prescriptive' camp – prescribing definitions: 'It's official,' or seeking to prescribe them: 'We've signed a petition to reverse it.'  On the other hand, there were those who fell in the 'descriptive' camp – describing words as we already use them: 'I've always called it a planet,' 'It looks like a planet,' 'It's only what some people say,' or 'Ask your heart.' Channel 4 News summed up this dichotomy simply: Some call it Planet X, some call it the ex planet.

This week, for the first time, the New Horizons probe saw the features of Pluto close up. As the … call it, 'object' came closer into view, Alan Stern, lead researcher of the New Horizons mission, gave a nine-fingered salute (a semiotic code, we call it) to indicate that the solar system has nine planets – not eight. @NASA tweeted, 'How about we call Pluto a planet again?' while the New York Post simply described our tour of 'all nine planets'. The 'Twitterverse' erupted in one great chorus: 'It's a planet!' while the prime mover behind the reclassification of Pluto (forbid that we should name him) was no longer said to drive a car, but a 'getaway car'.

Part of the trouble is that, the closer we look at the 'plutoid' definition, the faster it seems to flee away. The definition is dependent on other definitions – above all what it might mean that an object has 'cleared the neighbourhood'.  Francis Bacon recognised this difficulty four-hundred years ago. The definitions of things consist of words, and words beget words. For instance, if a planet has cleared the neighbourhood, then what is the neighbourhood? And if Pluto were moved to another neighbourhood, elsewhere in the solar system, would it still be a mere plutoid? The answer is by no means clear. Not to speak of the public suspicion that our definitions are too much what we choose to make them anyway.

The furore, at root, highlights the tension between prescriptive and descriptive definitions in our language. This became a major linguistic problem, for the first time, in recent generations.  'Prescriptive' is something which is prescribed. French and Afrikaans are examples of prescriptive languages (there are language boards which define them), while English is not. English is 'descriptive', in that it gains words and sheds words, the meanings of words morph all the time, and we simply describe what has happened to them. Our English language is no longer the Queen's English (prescriptive) but it is what it is (descriptive).

What is the real difference between 'prescriptive' and 'descriptive'? Prescriptivists will typically say that words have definite features, or components – the  International Astronomical Union's definition being an example:  a prescriptive definition of a planet says that it has three major features – basta. The descriptive definition is less well defined. Words are what they mean. But what do they mean? Does one know their meanings, too, by their features? Say, a planet is an object which orbits the sun, and is rounded by its own gravity, but it has cleared the neighbourhood.

Someone in the 'Twitterverse' suggested another possibility: words mean what we feel – and we feel that Pluto is a planet. But how might this look, more exactly? Take the example: 'Pluto is a planet. The mountains show it. Geological activity, too. And the atmosphere.' These sentences go hand in glove. We understand them instantly. Yet notice that, after the first full stop, we have made no explicit reference to Pluto.  No dictionary definition will show us that a planet has mountains – or geological activity or an atmosphere. These are what we call bridging inferences.  The strange thing is, therefore, that without referring to the planet, we all know that we are talking about the planet.

The fact that we know (or feel) that mountains, for instance, belong to a planet is all the more strikingly seen when we use a bridging inference which does not work: 'Pluto is a planet. The gearbox shows it.' This does not fit, simply because we do not ever infer that it does. All the time, in fact, we know what we are talking about only through inference. 'Keep the chicken livers off the table. The cat is in there' – yet one will find few clues about chicken livers in our dictionaries, and none which suggest that cats have anything to do with tables. Or, 'He had an apartment in the Bronx. The karma was bad.' The same applies.

Notice, then, that our descriptive definitions of words –  what they really are to us – comprise more than mere features. Rather, they are expansive, innovative, holistic. They explode the limits of dictionary definitions.  With this in mind, we might try to imagine a word as something like a spinning, shimmering ball of inferences. Such a conception of words belongs to a new world, which for us has just been coming into view – a world of infinite connections – not a place which is reduced to features and components which are the mechanical world of Newton and the past. Planets and mountains, cutlets and cats, apartments and karma, all intertwine.

We play a dangerous game with our reductions, slashing meanings off words this side and that to reach a hard, prescriptive core. And so we separate science from outcomes, politics from poverty, business from ecology.  On our university campuses, moreover, we put the humanities over there, the sciences over here.  At stake is not merely the definition of a planet, but the definition of definitions, and the whole way in which we look at our world, our emotions not excluded.

This is why Pluto is a planet.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Picture Post No. 2: The Blue Dot

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

Posted by Martin Cohen

Somewhere near Saturn (image courtesy of NASA)
There's a famous image, taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts, of the Earth as a swirling, 'blue marble' hovering over the desolate grey soil of the Moon. The image is reputed to have created a new consciousness of humankind's fragility and transcience - and inspired a new determination to look after our planet. Well, that didn't last long!
When I first saw the 'Blue Marble', to be honest, it didn't have any kind of effect on me. After all, I was familiar with the idea of planets in space from numerous paintings and drawings. But this image just accidentally caught the Earth in the background.
Somehow, this time, I caught a hint of how those first space images might have changed perceptions back on Earth.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Picture Post

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

Monday, 29 June 2015

Death, Philosophically

By Thomas Scarborough

'While I thought that I
was learning how to live,
I have been learning
how to die.'
Leonardo da Vinci

It would seem to be an all-important philosophical subject. Humans, wrote anthropologist Ernest Becker, contribute all of their waking actions to avoiding it or distracting themselves from the complete thought of it. No surprise, therefore, that philosophers tend to do the same.

The philosophical debate about death, whatever one might believe about it oneself, is most basically defined in terms of whether our present life is related to an afterlife, or not. The operative word is “related”. If indeed it is related to an afterlife, then we may ask on what basis this might be. And if not, then we may ask what the absence of such a relation might imply. With this in mind, we shall explore the subject of death from the point of view of Homo sapiens as a relation-tracing being.

Relation-tracing is what makes us human. We have the special ability to arrange our world, conceptually and materially. In fact, it is our relation-tracing ability which enables us to transcend space and time, to pursue ambitions and aspirations which lie completely beyond the scope of the animal kingdom. Such relation-tracing, further, has everything to do with motivation. Most basically, wherever we find that things are not arranged as we think they ought to be, we are motivated to act.

In thinking about death, it is important to understand that, if our relation-tracing has no reasonable prospect of fulfilment, this may ruin our motivation. Plans and ambitions generally need to have some prospect of completion, or we do not undertake them. And death, it need hardly be noted, may rob us of such fulfilment. While it may not take away every motivation in life, it would seem to take away any ultimate motivation we have. Philosopher Thomas Nagel writes, with this in mind, that we should best not let thoughts about such things enter our heads. 'The trick,' he writes, 'is to keep your eyes on what's in front of you.'

An important fact about death is that its moment is nearly always uncertain, more or less. As much as we might hope that we can control it today, we do not know at what point death will intervene in our lives. Therefore any arrangements which we make for the future (which is relation-tracing) will almost inevitably be cut short by death at some point. We are not going to finish all that we began. In fact, the bigger the ambitions we have, the more likely they are to be cut short by death. To this, philosopher Simon Blackburn comments: 'That might reasonably bother me a great deal.

Unless, that is, it should be possible in some way to continue our present activities after death. Rarely is it assumed that we will, but one does encounter the idea. More often than not, it is assumed that the story will continue in some other kind of way. Assume, for instance, that the real story of our life is not one of hopes and plans, but it is really one of sin and righteousness. What would matter then, for any continuation of the story, is whether I was a person of virtue in this life. Or, by way of contrast, the real story of our life may be one of faith and apostasy – and so on. Thus one may view continuation in a variety of terms.

This view would seem to present us with a respectable answer to the puzzle of death. With such prospects of continuation, we would retain our enthusiasm over the things of this life. Nothing would ever be lost – which is, nothing that really matters. It would not matter to us, therefore, if our hopes or our plans should be cut off in this life. However, there is an obvious difficulty with this view – for philosophers at any rate. There is no evidence – not that we can agree on anyway – as to whether there is continued consciousness after death.

But there may be other ways, in which we might find a continuation. Our plans and ambitions might leave a valuable legacy in this world. We might live on through our children, and their children again. And if we should want to be romantic about it, Edvard Munch (the Norwegian painter) wrote that we live on through the flowers which grow on our grave. This, too, might provide the motivation to carry on with the purposes of life, even though we might not personally survive to see them fulfilled. Of course one assumes – although it might seem presumptuous to some – that our purposes are worthwhile.

But perhaps we should not think too deeply on this option. No legacy lasts forever. No family line is eternal – and some have been short, with brutal ends. In fact, whatever might lie ahead of us, the stars, they say, will one day all go out. Realistically, we should think of our continuation merely for the time being, however long that might be. Yet this would seem to serve as a disincentive for anything that we might do. Let us perform a simple thought experiment. Would we continue to do what we do now if we knew with certainty that an all-powerful police state would frustrate and destroy it? Probably not.

We have a further possibility, however. Perhaps we may lose our own person, even while we are living. We may have no thoughts which are our own. We may lose ourselves in our society, or in our culture – to the extent that we do not exist. Our hopes, our desires, our intentions might not belong to us. The notion of death is, after all, a very personal thing, and would seem to be infinitely accentuated by our own self-awareness and self-importance. Might it not be possible to blend with a stream of consciousness from generations past to generations future? Or perhaps – it might not be culture with which we may blend, but the very universe. 'Forget yourself,' writes Yayoi Kusama. 'Become one with eternity.'

Is this a viable option? Is it potentially possible, not to take death into the heart of our reality? As Homo sapiens, we have said, we transcend space and time with our relation-tracing. We think all the time in terms which transcend our lives. We see beyond our beginnings and our ends. Not only this, but any escape from our individuality would seem to necessitate an exit from our society as we know it. Not only is our society dependent throughout on individualism: my rights and freedoms, my intentions and actions,seen apart from the group. It is so variegated and fragmented that any attempt to reunite it in a fusion of histories and beliefs and purposes seems beyond possible. The individual, say the philosophes, is prior to the group.

And then there is, of course, the option simply of living in tension – in terror, for some, of the end of all our dreams and designs. This is, after all, what many people do with death. 'Men fear it,' said Socrates, as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.' The fear of death may well be born of a rejection of death – in the sense that we decide to carry on with life with disregard, even defiance, in the face of death. The only way to carry on, we might say, is to forge ahead with all of our plans and ambitions, yet with terror, if we grasp the full reality of it. Unreconciled is how we should die, wrote philosopher Albert Camus.

Or perhaps there is a way – which the ancients could not fully have imagined. We may enter a phase of life, at the end of life, which we call retirement – in which there is nothing more to be done, nothing left to lose. This is the time of life where we deliberately set it all behind us, burn our bridges, and enjoy the afterglow. We have already died the coward's death – so that if we should die tonight, we might only miss a cup of filter coffee in the morning, or a game of golf in the afternoon sun.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Philosophers and Truthiness

By Matthew Blakeway

The comedian and political commentator Stephen Colbert coined the term truthiness* . This is a way of mocking politicians who claim to know something intuitively but fail to put forward any evidence to support their assertion. Too often in political rhetoric, truthiness presents as fact what is merely an ideological belief – not a real truth, but a truth that we want to exist. As Colbert put it ‘Anyone can read the news to you. I promise to feel the news at you.’

Over the last few weeks, academic economists have started the share the fun. The equivalent term that Paul Romer coined to mock his less-than-rigorous colleagues is mathiness. This, he says, is an argument that looks like robust mathematics and sounds like robust mathematics, but actually isn’t. Sloppy economists create arguments that use terms that are mathematically defined elsewhere but which have subtly different meanings in the argument presented. In this way, an ideological position (e.g. if welfare is cut, the unemployed will all find jobs) can be presented as a solid economic argument. As Romer says: 
‘Academic politics, like any other type of politics, is better served by words that are evocative and ambiguous, but if an argument is transparently political, economists interested in science will simply ignore it.’ 
Mathematical theories, like those created by academic economists, should only be trusted when each term is precisely defined and consistently used. Only then can the conclusions of such arguments be empirically demonstrated to be either true or false. The example that he gives is growth theory, where competing versions all appear to be clearly stated, yet show no converging consensus.

And now that creating words to mock woolly thinking is in danger of becoming an epidemic. It occurs to me that the humanities need one of their own. Or, as Stephen Colbert might say, ‘truthiness’ and ‘mathiness’ just don’t feel right in our context. So I propose that we adopt the word ‘explaininess’ because I think this is a problem that is pervasive throughout writing in philosophy and human sciences. Explaininess is an intellectual Ponzi scheme where one nebulous notion is needed to explain another nebulous notion, but the cumulative whole is presented as an explanation.

For example, in connection with a current project of mine, I recently spent a two miserable weeks reading all the recent academic theories explaining various forms of mental illness. In one paper summarising four theories of borderline personality disorder, I was left struggling to succinctly state the difference between Theory B and Theory C. These used terms like ‘maternal imprinting’, ‘suppressed memory’, ‘learned anxiety’ and ‘secondary emotion’. At least an example was given for the last one: anger turns to shame. But I was left asking: is that normal? I certainly don’t think it happens that way with me, so if we are to talk about how that happens at all, we at least need a box and arrow diagram with meaningful things in the boxes and understandable causal relationships. Otherwise, the existence of secondary emotions is questionable and their causality is entirely unknown. Yet in the world of explaininess, this is a theory of a mental illness where competing theories don’t converge towards consensus because none of them are empirically verifiable.

In philosophy, explaininess is rampant. A particularly egregious example is Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstruction, based around two terms that Derrida coined differance and presance. These are two perfectly reasonable words intentionally misspelt by just one letter. Geddit? But he tells us that these terms can’t be defined; so how am I supposed to know that my understanding of them is the same as his? After a period of hair-tearing frustration, I was reassured to discover that Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault had both stated that they didn’t understand it either. In this case, if you admit you don’t understand it, then you are in more elite company than if you pretend that you do.

Derrida is famous for his obscurity, but explaininess exists everywhere in philosophy. There are hundreds of books on ‘freewill’, for another example, but few of them offer a robust hypothesis as to what it is. If you are writing a book claiming that this concept is useful, then the burden falls on you to explain to your readers what it is. Too often, writers just presume that I understand the term, but actually I don’t. If freewill is a piece of brain hardware, then that is alright because eventually a neuroscientist will find it in the hypothalamus or somewhere. And if it is a piece of mental software, then eventually some mathy person will build a model of it so that we can all understand how it works; so that is all good as well. But if it is a part of your aura or something that is beamed to you through the aether, then I suggest that some academic philosophers should be seeking alternative employment. Oh, the joys of tenure!

The problem is that if we ban explaininess in philosophy, then there isn’t much left for us to talk about. But I think this points to the real objective of philosophy. Too often, people say that philosophy’s role is to ask questions, but it ends up with us talking ad infinitum about all the questions that can’t be answered – the things that scientists can’t be bothered with. If, on the other hand, philosophy’s objective is to answer questions, then we would all have given up in the 3rd century BC, by which time it was already clear that almost no progress would be made in concrete terms. My suggestions is that the objective of philosophy should be to take unanswerable questions and try to change them into ones that can be addressed in a scientific fashion. For example, if nobody can tell us what freewill actually is, then maybe we should change the question into ‘what is the cause of a human action?’ Already that is starting to sound like a scientific question, rather than a philosophical one. I'd say, pull off that trick, and true progress will have been made.

* More on 'Truthiness'  and on 'Mathiness' - as a PDF*

Saturday, 20 June 2015



Yes, I do like this slightly different style, Youngjin. First point is, though, the idea is far from novel...  you are representing a debate that has perhaps been aired pretty heavily. Is it possible thus to add something extra here? Or do you feel it is enough to represent the debate in this new way?

Second point, a practical one, is you really can't break words like this. Biol ogical and so on. Hyphenation has its own conventions, but in a cartoon really you want to avid breaking any words. It destroys the 'magic' of the medium! So I don't think these pictures can be published like this. I could join up the words for you if you wanted, using Photoshop.

As per Chatroll, we could make this a weekly, but we  need to work out how and where it would fit in. It would be really nice to have you here on a regular basis, that's for sure!



I know... By changing the theme into science fiction, I am presenting ideas that are not as original as before. Many of these episodes are telling things that closely resemble already existing ideas.
The thing is, however, that giving up part of one's originality is a price worth paying for the entertainment of the audience. It might sound way too secular, but I do think that a good taste is an essential part of philosophy because, after all, the ultimate reason why we love philosophy is that it makes us feel good.
By letting the cartoons "dumb down" a bit and stacking them over and over again, someday we will see the cumulative effect which will turn out to be something original.

And yes, word breaks are a quite annoying feature in the comics. I don't think, though, that editing character positions will work because:
     1. It is too time-consuming,
     2. It is impossible to seamlessly edit it because the frames are drawn by hand,
     3. There might be confusion as to which one is the original copy.
An alternative solution might be to join each pair of left/right frames into one, so that each frame will have text lines that are twice as long as before (thus greatly reducing the risk of cutting words in the middle).

Maybe we could add an index of the most recent post titles on top of the main page. This way the audience will be able to quickly see what kinds of posts are there on the website.

By the way, I don't really mind where the comics get posted :)


Martin Monday

That sounds basically fine really, Yougjin. I suggest we post one at the end then, so it comes just before the Chatroll, with advice to click on the label to see all the others mentioned in it - and Thomas I hope will put a link to the current one in the left box? An index is adding too much clutter - but if you add sci-fi cartoons as a label, then when someone clicks on that label they get the full list of posts.

The technicality of rejoining some of the broken words is I really think not so great - and I could do it myself if you like. At least we should start with some nice clean episodes! The broken words are very off-putting to me, and I suspect they may be to others.

So you would be in charge of posting each new episode, but would set the date for the first one at, say,  01.00 14 MARCH 2015, and the second at 02.00 14 MARCH 2015. We won't stack them on the front page though - only have the current cartoon. Someone will take the older cartoons and make them into 'pages' which are permanently on the site but you access through the links/ labels not by scrolling down the front page.

Does this sound okay? We should have a logo for the cartoons too - something that mentions their for Pi perhaps, and of course the concept of 'Science Fiction'.



I added 5 extra examples below. This will broaden the choice of which one to publish.
And there is a potential post with the title "Doublethink" down there as well :)
You can edit the comics in whatever manner you like.


MARTIN: Okay! Let's go with the Lead Balloons!



I just posted the second draft of the post. This one, I think, is much better than the previous yellowish one because its overall size and design fit the comics perfectly.

By the way, in the "Lead Balloons" post, I see only the second half of the episode. The first image is missing, I suppose.

I posted a new one titled "Doublethink 1 - Lead Balloons" as the alternative to the post you published.

Monday, 15 June 2015

BREAKING NEWS! Three ignominious Greek 'firsts'

Posted by Martin Cohen

Unfortunately, Icarus flew too near the sun, and the heat caused the wax and feathers to melt. The feathers fell off, and Icarus plummeted to the sea.

Here are Three Ignominious Greek 'Firsts'.
1. In a diplomatic first, March 2015, the Greek defence and foreign ministers threatened to unleash a “wave of millions of economic migrants” and jihadis on Europe unless the eurozone backed down on austerity demands.

2. In an international grade, damn lies and statistics, first, the country was only able to enter the currency bloc after brazenly claiming its deficit was less than 1 percent of gross domestic product, cocking a snook at the bloc’s 3 percent threshold. However, European Commission reports  reveal that Greece’s budget hasn’t been within the 3 percent limit a single year since its accession. Financial tricks have included failing to count gigantic military expenditures, or billions in hospital debt. Other countries fudged the figures to gain entry to the euro, but ten years on the Greeks had turned into a fudge factory - the deficit had expanded to 12 per cent. Part of the methodology for achieving this financial disaster in the face of the European Union rules, was expensive advice on concealing its trail from investment banks like Goldman Sachs. Goldman, who also played a helpful role in bringing the US banking system to its knees, arranged complex currency swaps for the Greek government which on magicked the debts off into the future.
3. And now the third unfortunate first is to be the first country excluded from the Euro.

Long, long ago, I wrote a piece (for the Guardian*) on how ethics - not economics - was the real sticking point on solving the Grexit Euro crisis...

Well, time has moved on and really now all the facts are in and the answer is that Greece is on the way out of the single currency, as Reuters posted on Sunday 14th June -  bar a theoretically possible change of heart amongst the Finance minsters in Luxembourg on Thursday. But there won't be a change of heart and here's why.

My take (as a philosopher and social scientist)  is very different from what the academic economists like Andrew Farlow even last week insisted was the logical situation.

Yes, the Greeks are victims - but not of the ECB or Germany - of their own splintered and dysfunctional society. 'Austerity' never touched the military budget, at 2.5% one of Europe's highest, and  the wealth of the Greek Orthodox Church remains, well, sacrosanct - the church is exempt normal taxes.

The fact is, that Greece is one of the most unequal societies in Europe, and one of the most corrupt. It has money for the Generals to have new warships, and to pay train drivers on rural routes that in the rest of Europe would long ago be closed down, salaries of $130 000 and retire at 50. It is both very poor and very affluent - with some of the highest rates of second home and luxury car ownership in Europe - indicators harder to falsify. But not entirely!

A few months ago, (per reports) the Greek traffic police caught Michalis Liapis, a former transportation minister, driving his luxury sport utility vehicle through a stop sign in the seaside town of Loutsa outside of Athens.

It turned out that the former 'New Democracy' minister was driving with fake plates and no insurance, characteristic of the tax avoidance endemic in Greece

“I am a pensioner, and I, too, have been affected by the crisis,” he told reporters, prompting Greek papers to print their own estimates of Mr. Liapis’s net worth, which appears substantial and certainly includes owning 20 properties. A mock “Free Liapis” Twitter campaign sprang up, and the former minister was jeered as he came to court in December. But in the West, too many take such self-serving accounts uncritically.

Okay, but wouldn't it be the end of the Euro if the Greeks go bust? Why should it be? The Greeks are tiddlers in this fishpond - a mere Bear Stearns or Northern Rock or Halifax. Crude geopolitics allowed them into the Euro despite not meeting the criteria, it must not try to keep them there.

Update, Thursday 18 June 2015 - the day of the Luxembourg Showdown

There's an old Eastern European joke that gives a profound psychological insight into the Greek mindset. Part of the problem with the interminable Greece-Eurozone negotiations has been that it is Western Europe talking to Eastern Europe - Mars to Venus!

Anyway, here's the joke:
A man receives a visit from his fairy godmother and she says he can have whatever he wishes for. But of course, there's a catch, which is that whatever it is that he wishes for... will be given to his worst enemy two-fold – twice as good! (So if the Greek President wishes for a new car - the German one will have two lovely new cars...)
So what does the man request? Why, that one of his eyes be gouged out.

And here's todays quote from Dimitris Stratoulis, the Greek Social Security Minister, for comparison:
“If we are forced to say the big no the difficulties will last for a few months …. but the consequences will be much worse for Europe.”

UPDATE2! July 10

The new Greek proposals look acceptable. They should do, as they were written by the French using insights from what the Germans thought were confidential discussions between Hollande and Merkel on what would make the next Greek proposal acceptable. Proud Mr Tsipras could not quite bring himself to sign them though, nor Mr Varoufakis to vote for it (citing 'family commitments')...

The battle remains as it ever was, between spendthrift European governments, led by France, and those who make the Euro work - led by Germany. And  the billion euro question for the Eurozone remains not what the proposals say, but the willingness to implement them. That is clearly... nil.

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