Monday, 20 February 2017

How Does Identity Politics Infuse Political Discourse?

Posted by Keith Tidman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Monday, 13 February 2017

The Decline of Materialism

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

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

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

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

Monday, 6 February 2017

Picture Post #20 Where Do Ideas Come From?









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

Posted by Tessa den Uyl and Martin Cohen


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

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

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

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

To receive a vision is an experience of great excitement.

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

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

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

Monday, 30 January 2017

The Poor to the Rich: Stand by Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Monday, 23 January 2017

Particles Dreaming

By Perig Gouanvic
Reposted from Pi alpha

Reflecting on the Double Slit Experiment

What do particles know?

The so-called ‘double-slit experiment’ is a demonstration that light and matter can display characteristics of both classically defined waves and particles. It is also said that it displays the 'fundamentally probabilistic nature' of the universe at the quantum scale.

The original intuition of Thomas Young (back in 1802) was to reproduce the cancellation of water waves, but with light; the double slit was simply used to yield two exactly identical light sources (the same, divided in two). Notice the straight lines that seem to radiate from the source of the water waves: they are made of the cancellation of each other, and are analogous to the dark regions on the five-step picture (below), a true depiction of the impact of electrons in an experiment made by Tanamura.

In the de Broglie–Bohm theory (also called the Bohm interpretation) of quantum physics, the reason why single particles seem to interfere ‘with themselves’, in other words, the reason why, in the double-slit experiment, even single particles ultimately form a figure of interference despite of the fact that they are not emitted as beams but one after the other (see the 5-step process, below), is because each of these particles have a kind of pilot wave which does interfere with itself in some circumstances like the double slit apparatus. The analogy of the sonar helps to explain the phenomenon : picture a dolphin who would have to echolocate through two holes and you get the picture!

Bohm had many analogies for the quantum potential, his revised version of the pilot wave. The sonar is one of them. The information given by the surroundings guides the dolphin, it is called 'active information'

However, what this analogy leaves unattended is the fact that particles do not "send" signals to the surrounding and do not "wait" for this signal to bounce back. Another analogy far remote from the sonar one, was given by Bohm : each particle is like a piece of an hologram, each contains information about the whole, but each is concretised in a specific context.

The 'echolocation' process would be more like a pulsation between the particle as a located entity and the particle as one concretion of the whole. Pulsating infinitely rapidly between being-discrete and being-the-whole, the particle would be more like a process taking the form of an object.
What kind of "thing" can be everything half of the time and something the rest of the time?

Humans, for starters. We, as particles, tend to forget that we also are the whole, each night. We dream.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Are We All Scientists?

Posted by Thomas Scarborough
What is it that separates scientific discourse from our ordinary, everyday discourse? Do the two represent separate, independent languages? Or are they fundamentally the same? Are we all scientists?
I first became aware of this question – not that it was new then – when I witnessed a boatsman surfing a reef at high tide. The timing was a special skill that depended on an intimate knowledge of the regularity of the waves which bombarded the reef. Basically, said the boatsman, the waves came in threes – although it was more complex than that. Was this science? In fact, where did science begin and where did it end?

Many thinkers suppose that there are two kinds of discourse in this world: the language of science, and the language of mind. The fundamental difference, writes philosophy professor Michael Luntley, is that the language of science allows only for the physical properties of things, while the language of mind has to do with perspective.

This distinction may not in fact be necessary. Is it not a matter of perspective  as to how we arrange the physical properties of things?

The novelist and critic Samuel Butler considered (to put it too simply) that science merely has to do with the conventions on which people act, and these conventions vary. This merely needs to be noted, however. It is not of great importance to this post, other than to show that it has been considered. More important is individuation:

Our reality – if we try to imagine it before our minds make any sense of it – has been variously described as an undifferentiated stream of experience, a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions, or a swirling cloud without any determinate shape. William James famously wrote of ‘one great blooming, buzzing confusion’.

To make sense of this confusion, then, we need to break up the undifferentiated stream of experience – sounds and sights, surfaces and motions – into individual units. And while the process of doing so may seem to be quite natural and simple to us, what actually happens is extraordinarily complex.

From our earliest childhood, we begin to individuate people, playthings, animals, and a great many things besides. Before long, we begin to look at picture books in which individuated things are represented in pictures, with their names printed underneath: dog, cat, apple, orange, sun, moon – and so on.

Importantly, during this process, we strip off many of the relations which are associated with a thing, and seek instead to create something which is self-contained. In Hegelian-style philosophy, such individuated ‘things’ are said to be abstract, insofar as they are thought of in isolaton from the whole to which they belong.

Take the example of a ‘horse’. When we speak of a horse as an individuated thing, we have little interest in what it eats, or if it sleeps, or even whether it has four legs or three. It is something else that makes it a ‘horse’. To put it another way, when we individuate something, it loses some of its informational content. While in reality, it is impossible to imagine a horse without air, or food, or something to stand on – and innumerable things besides – the individuated ‘horse’ needs none of this.

Even at the same time, however, we carry all of the associations of individuated things in the back of our minds. They are present with us even as we exclude them. That is, we do not completely forget what these things are in their totality, even though we individuate them.

Consider the statement, ‘The horse fell from the top of the cliff.’ While we all know that it is likely that the horse is now dead or seriously injured, the individuated unit ‘horse’ does not obviously contain such information. To put it another way, to individuate something does not mean that we truly and completely individuate it. It may be more accurate to say that we allow some aspects of it to recede yet not to leave the picture.

In fact, this is very much what we do with scientific research. In our experiments, in order to make any progress, we screen out unwanted influences on independent variables. Physics, wrote the 20th century linguists Wilhelm Kamlah and Paul Lorenzen, investigates processes by progressively screening things out. That is, we ignore unwanted relations.

Whether we say, “This cake needs thirty minutes in a hot oven” (a highly abstracted statement), or “I wonder whether it will rain today,” we are doing what the scientist does. We are removing informational content, to relate abstract things, one to the other.

With this in mind, we ‘do science’ all day long. There is little difference, in the most fundamental way, between the Hegelian-style abstraction of our everyday thinking and our scientific pursuits – except that, with science, we make a more rigorous effort to put out of our minds the relations which are unwanted.

Our scientific discourse, therefore, is closely related our ordinary, everyday discourse. We are all ‘scientists’.

‘Ordinarily, hypotheses used in science are more precise
and less vague than those adopted in everyday affairs.”
—W.V. Quine and J.S. Ullian.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Is Consciousness Bound Inextricably by the Brain?

From Qualia to Comprehension

Posted by Keith Tidman
According to the contemporary American philosopher, Daniel Dennett, consciousness is the ‘last surviving mystery’ humankind faces.
Well, that may be overstating human achievements, but at the very least, consciousness ranks among the most consequential mysteries. With its importance acknowledged, does the genesis of conscious experience rest solely in the brain? That is, should investigations of consciousness adhere to the simplest, most direct explanation, where neurophysiological activity accounts for this core feature of our being?

Consciousness is a fundamental property of life—an empirical connection to the phenomenal. Conscious states entail a wide range of (mechanistic) experiences, such as wakefulness, cognition, awareness of self and others, sentience, imagination, presence in time and space, perception, emotions, focused attention, information processing, vision of what can be, self-optimisation, memories, opinions—and much more. An element of consciousness is its ability to orchestrate how these intrinsic states of consciousness express themselves.

None of these states, however, requires the presence of a mysterious dynamic—a ‘mind’ operating dualistically separate from the neuronal, synaptic activity of the brain. In that vein, ‘Consciousness is real and irreducible’, as Dennett's contempoary, John Searle, observed in pointing out the seat of consciousness being the brain; ‘you can’t get rid of it’. Accordingly, Cartesian dualism—the mind-body distinction—has long since been displaced by today’s neuroscience, physics, mathematical descriptions, and philosophy.

Of significance, here, is that the list of conscious experiences in the neurophysiology of the brain includes colour awareness (‘blueness’ of eyes), pain from illness, happiness in children’s company, sight of northern lights, pleasure in another’s touch, hunger before a meal, smell of a petunia, sound of a violin concerto, taste of a macaroon, and myriad others. These sensations fall into a category dubbed qualia, their being the subjective, qualitative, ‘introspective’ properties of experience.

Qualia might well constitute, in the words of the Australian cognitive scientist, David Chalmers, the ‘hard problem’ in understanding consciousness; but, I would suggest, they’re not in any manner the ‘insoluble problem’. Qualia indeed pose an enigma for consciousness, but a tractable one. The reality of these experiences—what’s going on, where and how—has not yet yielded to research; however, it’s early. Qualia are likely—with time, new technologies, fresh methodologies, innovative paradigms—to also be traced back to brain activity.

In other words, these experiences are not just correlated to the neurophysiology of the brain serving as a substrate for conscious processes, they are inextricably linked to and caused by brain activity. Or, put another way, neurophysiological activity doesn’t merely represent consciousness, it is consciousness—both necessary and sufficient.

Consciousness is not unique to humans, of course. There’s a hierarchy to consciousness, tagged approximately to the biological sophistication of a species. How aware, sentient, deliberative, coherent, and complexly arranged that any one species might be, consciousness varies down to the simplest organisms. The cutoff point of consciousness, if any, is debatable. Also, if aliens of radically different intelligences and physiologies, including different brain substrates, are going about their lives in solar systems scattered throughout the universe, they likewise share properties of consciousness.

This universal presence of consciousness is different than the ‘strong’ version of panpsychism, which assigns consciousness (‘mind’) to everything—from stars to rocks to atoms. Although some philosophers through history have subscribed to this notion, there is nothing empirical (measurable) to support it—future investigation notwithstanding, of course. A takeaway from the broader discussion is that the distributed presence of conscious experience precludes any one species, human or alien, from staking its claim to ‘exceptionalism’.

Consciousness, while universal, isn’t unbounded. That said, consciousness might prove roughly analogous to physics’ dark matter, dark energy, force fields, and fundamental particles. It’s possible that the consciousness of intelligent species (with higher-order cognition) is ‘entangled’—that is, one person’s consciousness instantaneously influences that of others across space without regard to distance and time. In that sense, one person’s conscious state may not end where someone else’s begins; instead, consciousness is an integrated, universal grid.

All that said, the universe doesn’t seem to pulse as a single conscious entity or ‘living organism’. At least, it doesn't to modern physicists. On a fundamental and necessary level, however, the presence of consciousness gives the universe meaning—it provides reasons for an extraordinarily complex universe like ours to exist, allowing for what ‘awareness’ brings to the presence of intelligent, sentient, reflective species... like humans.

Yet might not hyper-capable machines too eventually attain consciousness? Powerful artificial intelligence might endow machines with the analog of ‘whole-brain’ capabilities, and thus consciousness. With time and breakthroughs, such machines might enter reality—though not posing the ‘existential threat’ some philosophers and scientists have publicly articulated. Such machines might well achieve supreme complexity—in awareness, cognition, ideation, sentience, imagination, critical thinking, volition, self-optimisation, for example—translatable to proximate ‘personhood’, exhibiting proximate consciousness.

Among what remains of the deep mysteries is this task of achiveing a better grasp of the relationship between brain properties and phenomenal properties. The promise is that in the process of developing a better understanding of consciousness, humanity will be provided with a vital key for unlocking what makes us us.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Picture Post #20 Olber's Paradox raising insoluble questions



'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 and Tessa den Uyl

A NASA  image from the Hubble Telescope looking into the 'Deep Field'
This is a patch of BLACK sky - empty when initially seen - even through the largest earthbound telescopes. Yet, with the  Hubble space telescope and a long-enough exposure time, even the darkness of space soon comes to glowing life. The point is, every bit of sky is actually packed with light - not merely with stars but with uncountable distant galaxies.

Heinrich Olbers (1758–1840) was a Viennese doctor who only did astronomy in his spare time, but realised that there was a bit of a logical problem about the night sky. And ‘O’ is for ‘Olbers Paradox’*,  which can be summed up by saying that if the universe is really infinite in size, the the night sky should not only be bright – but should be infinitely bright. Put short, we should see stars everywhere we look. So why don't we and why isn't the night sky all lit up ?

The paradox touches upon profound issues in cosmology, or the study and theory of the origins of the universe. Simply saying that most of the stars are too far away to see is not enough. Certainly it is true that starlight, like any other kind of light, dims as a function of distance, but at the same time, the number of light sources in the ‘cone of vision’ increases – at exactly the same rate. In fact, on the mathematics of it, given an infinite universe, with galaxies and stars distributed uniformly, the whole night sky should appear to be not black, not speckled, but white!

Olbers’ paradox is a ‘thought experiment’ in the very good sense that most of the reasoning is done by hypotheticals. What if the universe is infinitely large? And infinitely old? If the stars and galaxies are (on average) spread out evenly?

Various possible explanations have been offered to explain the paradox. Such as that stars and galaxies are not distributed randomly, but rather clumped together leaving most of space completely empty. So, for example, there could be a lot of stars, but they hide behind one another. But in fact, observations reveal galaxies and stars to be quite evenly spread out.

What then, if perhaps the universe has only a finite number of stars and galaxies? Yet the number of stars, finite or not, is definitely still large enough to light up the entire sky…

Another idea is that there may be too much dust in space to see the distant stars? This seems tempting, but ignores known facts. Like that the dust would heat up too, and that space would have a much higher. The astronomers who took this image claim it shows some kind of spectral shift into the red specturm. Or is it only the dust? The questions are not really resolved, even yet.

So what is the best answer to Olbers’ riddle? The favoured explanation today is that although the universe may be infinitely large, it is not infinitely old, meaning that the galaxies beyond a certain distance will simply not have had enough time to send their light over to fill our night sky. If the universe is, say, 15 billion years old, then only stars and galaxies less than 15 billion light years away are going to be visible. Add to which, astronomers say that the phenomenon of red shift may mean some galaxies are receding from us so fast that their light has been ‘shifted’ beyond the visible spectrum.

After reading this, and then standing here on planet Earth and watching the night sky, one might feel a little trapped by the questions. Our sight is limited and it always will be but maybe this is our hope for we can continue to philosophise: afte rall, what are we thinking? The picture above might as well represent pieces of coloured glass, under water visions where fluorescent life flows in deep dark sees, a pattern for printed cloth. Our brain only represents what we think we see, not necessarily the reality in which we live? In the incredible immensity of space, mankind has always been aware of this, even if, once in a while, the tendency is to forget.


* Although the paradox carries Olbers’ name,  it can really be traced back to Johannes Kepler in 1610.  In Wittgenstein's Beetle and Other Classic Thought Experiments, Martin’s book, which talks a little more about all this, 

Monday, 26 December 2016

Disruptive Finance

  Posted by Martin Cohen 
It seems like every day, President-elect Trump announces some outrageous new strategy, abandons some long-standing tenet of policy, or upsets long-standing conventions. And that’s of course BEFORE becoming President!
You’d maybe have thought, as a businessman, that he’d appreciate the need for research, consultation, and caution,. But if so, you’d not understand the kind of business circles that Donald Trump moves in. He’s not so much a shopkeeper, in the mold of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, whose father was called (albeit misleadingly) a corner-store grocer and whose motto was expenditures must match savings – as a financier in the mold of, well, Jordan Belfort - the wolf of Wall Street.

Trump is part one of a new breed of super-wealthy and totally unscrupulous financiers whose motto is DISRUPTION. I followed the activities of some of them in the UK, such as Edi Truell, founder and CEO of Disruptive Capital Finance, and the path led eventually to the spreading chaos (and high stock market prices) that is Britain leaving the EU. Where Trump’s plans will go is anyone’s guess – and that’s exactly how he likes it. Because in uncertainly – and upheaval – disruptive financiers make millions.

The film is based on the true story of Belfort - who ultimately came a cropper. But there’s no reason to suppose that possibility is worrying Trump or his circle of friends and advisors – like Britain’s Nigel Farage. To Americans, Farage is the man who persuaded Britons to vote to leave the European Union – but to those who know him better, Farage is a commodities trader whose worked in both London and New York. And Farage’s campaign to get Britain to up-end all its economic and political commitments was supported by a range of other figures from high finance.

Take Richard Tice, CEO and a partner at Quidnet Capital. and co-chair of Leave.EU the official campaign for ‘Brexit’.

Tice, of course. still insists that leaving the EU can be pulled off without upending the economy. The former head of CLS Holdings Plc, a major property-investment firm, calls it a "very simple process" in which the EU would negotiate a new accord with a separate Britain in one to two years. "I don’t think there’d be any disruption at all." Fellow Brexit campaigners Crispin Odey, founding partner of Odey Asset Management, and former Tory party treasurer Peter Cruddas, founder of online trading company CMC Markets, all look to a new order in which financier s are freed from regulation. Do you remember the financial crisis of 2007-8 – the one that almost brought the Western world to collapse? Well, they evidently don’t. Instead their manta is about seizing control of the levers of political power in order to increase the ability of speculators to make money.

As Vote Leave chief executive Matthew Elliott has said: “Far from the picture of gloom painted by the Government, it is clear the City of London would not only retain its pre-eminence as the world’s most important financial centre, but would also thrive after freeing herself from the EU’s regulatory shackles.”

In both the UK and the US, an influential cadre of super-rich have clear professional reasons for wanting to change the political norms: a dislike for what they regard as overburdensome – and profit-reducing – regulation.

According to one source close to the industry: “I think there’s a genuine conviction they have that all regulation is rubbish.” But, he says, the profit potential from leaving is also a factor: “They love taking a view ... Market dislocation is fine if you’re a hedge fund guy.”

Trump is not so much a reaction to the Obama presidency – as he is to the flood of regulation that followed the 2008 financial crash. And so, to understand what’s coming next ignore all the angry tweets and photo opportunities and instead recall that classic piece of political advice: follow the money. There may be more logic to Trump and his newly assembled band of bankers and financiers’ desire to shake things up than people give him credit for. But it’s the opposite logic to what he claimed to stand for.



And a poem

one drizzled day
donald and nigel
over buttered egos
and hot crumpet
thought to exchange keys

‘you live in my house
& i in yours donald’
said nigel
‘on the contrary
i in mine you inside’
replied donald


From: the booklet: 45th President Elect, by Ken Sequin


Monday, 19 December 2016

Is Violence Therapeutic?

Posted by Bohdana Kurylo
In his book, The Wretched of the Earth, the theorist of colonialism Frantz Fanon provides an unprecedented legitimation of violence – passing beyond mere self-defence or the removal of an oppressive social system. Violence becomes a necessary therapy to address the ‘systemised negation of the other’. Yet to what extent is violence really therapeutic? There seems to be a fine line between its utility and its harm.
Fanon offered three major reasons as to why violence is crucial for resistance:

• Violence may be a liberating force. From his observations of the behaviour of the colonisers, he concluded that the oppressed are not considered to be of equal human value. In contexts where one party possesses a clear dominance over another, universal values, such as justice or equality, apply only to the more powerful. Within this context, nonviolence is not an option, since it simply sustains the violence of the oppressors, whether physical or mental. The struggle, for the oppressed, is only a distraction from the concrete demands of emancipation.

• Violence may be a cleansing force. It rids the oppressed of their inferiority complex. Fanon claimed that the belief that emancipation must be achieved by force originates intuitively among the oppressed. He observed that, through generations, the oppressed internalise the tag of worthlessness. Anger at their powerlessness eats them from the inside, begging for an outlet. Violence becomes psychologically desirable, as it proves to the oppressed that they are as powerful and as capable as the oppressor. It forces respect – but more importantly, it gives the oppressed a sense of self-respect. By cleansing them of their inferiority complex, violence reinstates them as human beings.

• Violence may be a productive force. On a grander scale, Fanon saw violence as the means of creating a new world. Through violence, a new humanity can be achieved. Violence is instrumental in raising collective consciousness and building solidarity in the struggle for freedom. This creative characteristic of violence could bring a new political reality that comprised the creation of new values.

Ends justify means for Fanon, who accepts even absolute violence for the purposes of liberation and regeneration. Although he built on the specific case of colonial oppression, his ideas can be applied to violence against any regime in which a group’s rights are severely and systematically violated, whether there be cultural, gender, or economic oppression.

The Irish Republican Army (IRA) often referred to Fanon to justify its terrorist violence. One may recall how the partition of Ireland was followed by social, political, and economic discrimination against the Catholic population of Northern Ireland. The attempts of the British government to suppress the IRA by force only reinforced the need to find an outlet for the accumulated frustration and internalised violence. Indeed, Fanon himself claimed that terrorism may be an ‘unfortunate necessity’ to counter the retaliation of a regime after the initial revolt of the oppressed.

Nevertheless, to the extent that the violence of the IRA can be explained by Fanon, this case also disproves Fanon. In particular, the IRA experience disproves the justification of the use of violence as the only means of creating a new culture of politics. Lasting for more than thirty years, the Northern Ireland conflict shows that violence often leads to stalemate, and is unable to deliver the desired results.

The eventual willingness of the British government to recognise the legitimacy of the insurgents’ demands, however limited, offered more possibilities for creating a new culture of politics than continued bloodshed. After all, the fact that Algeria is still torn apart by violence today illustrates that the efficacy of violence in the short term can be mistaken for its efficacy in general. The danger is that the means may overwhelm the ends. Thus Fanon’s belief that, after a period of confrontation, the door would eventually be open for a modern and peaceful society seems unrealistic.

Most importantly, Fanon failed to see that reusing the methods of the oppressor is antagonistic to the idea of creating new values. For Fanon, violence signals the point of no return to the dehumanised past. Yet he was vague as to how a capitulation to anger can help establish a new humanity, for there is nothing new about the use of violence to achieve one’s aims. In fact, is it not merely an imitation of the enemy? A new system of values is rotten from the inside if it is founded on mimicking the perpetrator’s actions.

Monday, 12 December 2016

Poetry: The Name Card


The Name Card



 A poem by Chengde Chen 


Attending a conference,
you receive some name cards.
Sorting through them, you care about
not the name, but the title,
which is the weight of the card.

From it, you assess the function,
estimating the time and place
for any possible uses.
If there is no direct application,
indirect values are explored.
For instance, to refer it to a friend –
there may be a potential return
of some kind in future…

To imagine a relationship from a card
is unlike fantasizing sex from pornography,
which is, more or less, poetic.
The most non-poetic essence
of imagination
is to have interests deduced
from symbols!




Chengde Chen is the author of Five Themes of Today: philosophical poems. Readers can find out more about Chengde and his poems here