Monday, 17 February 2020

The Quiet Revolution That is Replacing Traditional Financing Models?

'The Moneylender and His Wife' by Quentin Metsys, 1514.

Posted by Emile Wolfaardt

Around the circumference of the globe and across the stage of history, the engines of almost all labor and commerce enterprises turn with one common goal in mind – to be financially profitable. This is true individually and collectively. We go to work each day with the goal of making money – of acquiring some sort of currency that we can use to exchange for goods or services. We earn ‘purchasing power’ – or units that we can exchange for something we want or need.

While most of us use some sort of currency, these units of purchasing power have not always been in the forms of coins and bills. Shells, stones, metals, and other animate and inanimate objects have been used in our history. And for the most part – the value is assigned as opposed to being intrinsic. Paper money is said to have assigned value and precious metal and gems intrinsic value. Yet, if sand was scarcer than diamonds, and was necessary – it would have an even greater value than diamonds - so perhaps all value is assigned.

But some people today claim that there is a revolution taking place in the financial world. Up to now – currency and purchasing power has been controlled by governments and financial institutions. Currency is determined to be ‘legal tender’ but it belongs to the government. In most countries, it is illegal to damage currency - it is considered damage to government property. The government and the financial institutions charge you to use the money. You pay when you deposit it, when you withdraw it, when you borrow it and when you are given it. Some banks will waive some of these fees under certain conditions and the government will waive taxes or reduce them in certain circumstances. In this model, Providers have custody of the wealth and grant access to the owners. This is called Banking. 

But a new form of financing has emerged that is not controlled by the government or the financial institutions. Rather, it is peer to peer financing – and it is structured around blockchain, and the currency is called crypto currency. Bitcoin is the largest of these and it constitutes about 80% of the market. In Blockchain, Owners have custody of the wealth and grant access to Providers. It's supporters say that instead of being controlled centrally by some body, it is ‘decentralised’ and controlled by the millions of people who own it.
Bitcoin was founded in in 2009. The first few years of cryptocurrencies were hectic, and the investment opportunities were more like gambling. Lots of people made millions of dollars, but many more lost their money. As more and more people became interested in a blockchain financing model, the governments and financial institutions started to rail against it. Financial institutions like JP Morgan, Morgan Stanly, the IMF, Barclays Bank etc. all condemned them. 

Nonetheless, in 2019, it was institutional money and the Whales of Wall Street that were the biggest investors in Crypto Currency. Apparently, the FBI is the second largest holder of Bitcoin in the world (although their holdings do not come from investments). Currently, the big institutions are spending millions of dollars on crypto investments, and many countries are embracing it – some as a replacement currency to their own. Many mainline vendors like Apple, Google, etc. now accept Bitcoin as legitimate payment. And yet governments are recognising they do not have the ability to control it. Mike Crapo, United States Senate Chairman of the Banking Committee:
'If the United States were to decide ... we don’t want cryptocurrency to happen in the United States ... we couldn’t succeed in doing that because this is a global innovation.'
Not everyone is an enthusiast for the new money. Writing at, Saeed Elnaj says:
“Bitcoin’s promise was to bypass the centralized economic system and enable peer-to-peer exchange of value using the digital currency. But with the fluctuating price of Bitcoin, it is very hard to buy a cup of coffee or an album online. It is also impractical given the delay required to complete time-sensitive transactions. In fact, since Bitcoin’s astronomical rise in December 2017, the number of Bitcoin transactions has dramatically plunged.”
 And he suggests that rather the primary attraction of the currency is irrational.
“It seems that Bitcoin will likely cease to have meaningful value, defeating the whole point and philosophy imagined by Satoshi Nakamoto, the alleged inventor of Bitcoin. Its current value appears to be purely psychological, and the hype seems to be driven by irrational exuberance, greed and speculation.”
Money has gone through several revolutions, among them barter, precious metals, paper money, banking, money wires, credit cards ... and now, cryptocurrencies. Will this be a true revolution? Or a false dawn? Time will tell.

Monday, 10 February 2020

What Is It to Be Human?

Hello, world!
Posted by Keith Tidman

Consciousness is the mental anchor to which we attach our larger sense of reality.

We are conscious of ourselves — our minds pondering themselves in a curiously human manner — as well as being intimately conscious of other people, other species, and everything around us, near and remote.

We’re also aware that in reflecting upon ourselves and upon our surroundings, we process experiences absorbed through our senses — even if filtered and imagined imperfectly. This intrinsically empirical nature of our being is core, nourishing our experience of being human. It is our cue: to think about thinking. To ponder the past, present, and future. To deliberate upon reality. And to wonder — leaving no stone unturned: from the littlest (subatomic particles) to the cosmic whole. To inspire and be inspired. To intuit. To poke into the possible beginning, middle, and end of the cosmos. To reflect on whether we behave freely or predeterminedly. To conceptualise and pick from alternative futures. To learn from being wrong as well as from being right. To contemplate our mortality. And to tease out the possibility of purpose from it all.

Perception, memory, interpretation, imagination, emotion, logic, and reason are among our many tools for extracting order out of disorder, to quell chaos. These and other properties, collectively essential to distinguishing humanity, enable us to model reality, as best we can.

There is perhaps no more fundamental investigation than this into consciousness touching upon what it means to be human.

To translate the world in which we’re thoroughly immersed. To use our rational minds as the gateway to that understanding — to grasp the dimensions of reality. For humans, the transmission of thought, through the representational symbols of language, gestures, and expressions — representative cognition — provides a tool for chiseling out our place in the world. In the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein laconically but pointedly framed the germaneness of these ideas:
‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’.
Crucially, Wittgenstein grounds language as a tool for communication in shared experiences. 

Language provides not only an opening through which to peer into human nature but also combines  with other cognitive attributes, fueling and informing what we believe and know. Well, at least what we believe we know. The power of language — paradoxically both revered and feared, yet imperative to our success — stems from its channeling human instincts: fundamentally, what we think we need and want.

Language, to the extraordinary, singular level of complexity humankind has developed and learned to use it as a manifestation of human thought, emanates from a form of social leaning. That is, we experiment with language in utilitarian fashion, for best effect; use it to construct and contemplate what-ifs, venturing into the concrete and abstract to unspool reality; and observe, interact with, and learn from each other in associative manner. Accumulative adaptation and innovation. It’s how humanity has progressed — sometimes incrementally, sometimes by great bounds; sometimes as individuals, sometimes as elaborate networks. Calibrating and recalibrating along the way. Accomplished, deceptively simply, by humans emitting sounds and scribbling streams of symbols to drive progress — in a manner that makes us unique.

Language — sophisticated, nuanced, and elastic — enables us to meaningfully absorb what our brains take in. Language helps us to decode and make sense of the world, and recode the information for imaginatively different purposes and gain. To interpret and reinterpret the assembly of information in order to shape the mind’s new perspectives on what’s real — well, at least the glowing embers of what’s real — in ways that may be shared to benefit humankind on a global, community, and individual level. Synaptic-like, social connections of which we are an integral part.

Fittingly, we see ourselves simultaneously as points connected to others, while also as distinct identities for which language proves essential in tangibly describing how we self-identify. Human nature is such that we have individual and communal stakes. The larger scaffolding is the singularly different cultures where we dwell, find our place, and seek meaning — a dynamically frothing environment, where we both react to and shape culture, with its assortment of both durably lasting and other times shifting norms.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Picture Post #53 Buckled Rails

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

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Buckled railway line near Glasgow, 25 June 2018.

The thermal expansion of railway lines is governed most simply by the formula

Δ L ≈ α L Δ T

This formula failed near Glasgow on 25 June 2018, when railway lines buckled in the heat. In fact they buckled in heatwaves all across Europe in the 2010s.  Why?  The answer is simple.  This formula, and versions of it, failed to include environmental factors—at least, not those which mattered.

It is not only railway lines which buckle.  Oceans are polluted, glaciers retreat, bees are poisoned, toads go blind, groundwater is poisoned, people suffocate—in fact, thousands if not millions of things go wrong besides—all without their being included in the formulae.

Here is the problem.  We take at face value that physical laws are true of this world.  It is the heresy of Plato.  Ordinary things, held Plato, imitate forms.  We hold up forms to reality, which is formulae: 'This is how it is!'  It is not.  And so the world is continually bedevilled by negative consequences.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Doublethink #28 Planetary Domains

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

Monday, 20 January 2020

Environmental Ethics and Climate Change

Posted by Keith Tidman

The signals of a degrading environment are many and on an existential scale, imperilling the world’s ecosystems. Rising surface temperature. Warming oceans. Sinking Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Glacial retreat. Decreased snow cover. Sea-level rise. Declining Arctic sea ice. Increased atmospheric water vapour. Permafrost thawing. Ocean acidification. And not least, supercharged weather events (more often, longer lasting, more intense).

Proxy (indirect) measurements — ice cores, tree rings, corals, ocean sediment — of carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas that plays an important role in creating the greenhouse effect on Earth, have spiked dramatically since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. The measurements underscore that the recent increase far exceeds the natural ups and downs of the previous several hundred thousand years. Human activity — use of fossil fuels to generate energy and run industry, deforestation, cement production, land use changes, modes of travel, and much more — continues to be the accelerant.

The reports of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, contributed to by some 1,300 independent scientists and other researchers from more than 190 countries worldwide, reported that concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides ‘have increased to levels unprecedented in at least 800,000 years’. The level of certainty of human activity being the leading cause, referred to as anthropogenic cause, has been placed at more than 95 percent.

That probability figure has legs, in terms of scientific method. Early logical positivists like A.J. Ayer had asserted that for validity, a scientific proposition must be capable of proof — that is, ‘verification’. Later, however, Karl Popper, in his The Logic of Scientific Discovery, argued that in the case of verification, no number of observations can be conclusive. As Popper said, no matter how many instances of white swans we may have observed, this does not justify the conclusion that all swans are white. (Lo and behold, a black swan shows up.) Instead, Popper said, the scientific test must be whether in principle the proposition can be disproved — referred to as ‘falsification’. Perhaps, then, the appropriate test is not ability to prove that mankind has affected the Earth’s climate; rather, it’s incumbent upon challengers to disprove (falsify) such claims. Something that  hasn’t happened and likely never will.

As for the ethics of human intervention into the environment, utilitarianism is the usual measure. That is to say, the consequences of human activity upon the environment govern the ethical judgments one makes of behavioural outcomes to nature. However, we must be cautious not to translate consequences solely in terms of benefits or disadvantages to humankind’s welfare; our welfare appropriately matters, of course, but not to the exclusion of all else in our environment. A bias to which we have often repeatedly succumbed.

The danger of such skewed calculations may be in sliding into what the philosopher Peter Singer coined ‘speciesism’. This is where, hierarchically, we place the worth of humans above all else in nature, as if the latter is solely at our beck and call. This anthropocentric favouring of ourselves is, I suggest, arbitrary and too narrow. The bias is also arguably misguided, especially if it disregards other species — depriving them of autonomy and inherent rights — irrespective of the sophistication of their consciousness. To this point, the 18th/19th-century utilitarian Jeremy Bentham asserted, ‘Can [animals] feel? If they can, then they deserve moral consideration’.

Assuredly, human beings are endowed with cognition that’s in many ways vastly more sophisticated than that of other species. Yet, without lapsing into speciesism, there seem to be distinct limits to the comparison, to avoid committing what’s referred to as a ‘category mistake’ — in this instance, assigning qualities to species (from orangutans and porpoises to snails and amoebas) that belong only to humans. In other words, an overwrought egalitarianism. Importantly, however, that’s not the be-all of the issue. Our planet is teeming not just with life, but with other features — from mountains to oceans to rainforest — that are arguably more than mere accouterments for simply enriching our existence. Such features have ‘intrinsic’ or inherent value — that is, they have independent value, apart from the utilitarianism of satisfying our needs and wants.

For perspective, perhaps it would be better to regard humans as nodes in what we consider a complex ‘bionet’. We are integral to nature; nature is integral to us; in their entirety, the two are indissoluble. Hence, while skirting implications of panpsychism — where everything material is thought to have at least an element of consciousness — there should be prima facie respect for all creation: from animate to inanimate. These elements have more than just the ‘instrumental’ value of satisfying the purposes of humans; all of nature is itself intrinsically the ends, not merely the means. Considerations of aesthetics, culture, and science, though important and necessary, aren’t sufficient.

As such, there is an intrinsic moral imperative not only to preserve Earth, but for it and us jointly to flourish — per Aristotle’s notion of ‘virtue’, with respect and care, including for the natural world. It’s a holistic view that concedes, on both the utilitarian and intrinsic sides of the moral equation, mutually serving roles. This position accordingly pushes back against the hubristic idea that human-centricism makes sense if the rest of nature collectively amounts only to a backstage for our purposes. That is, a backstage that provides us with a handy venue where we act out our roles, whose circumstances we try to manage (sometimes ham-fistedly) for self-satisfying purposes, where we tinker ostensibly to improve, and whose worth (virtue) we believe we’re in a position to judge rationally and bias-free.

It’s worth reflecting on a thought experiment, dubbed ‘the last man’, that the Australian philosopher Richard Routley introduced in the 1970s. He envisioned a single person surviving ‘the collapse of the world system’, choosing to go about eliminating ‘every living thing, animal and plant’, knowing that there’s no other person alive to be affected. Routley concluded that ‘one does not have to be committed to esoteric values to regard Mr. Last Man as behaving badly’. Whether Last Man was, or wasn’t, behaving unethically goes to the heart of intrinsic versus utilitarian values regarding nature —and presumptions about human supremacy in that larger calculus.

Groups like the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have laid down markers as to tipping points beyond which extreme weather events might lead to disastrously runaway effects on the environment and humanity. Instincts related to the ‘tragedy of the commons’ — where people rapaciously consume natural resources and pollute, disregarding the good of humanity at large — have not yet been surmounted. That some other person, or other community, or other country will shoulder accountability for turning back the wave of environmental destruction and the upward-spiking curve of climate extremes has hampered the adequacy of attempted progress. Nature has thrown down the gauntlet. Will humanity pick it up in time?

Monday, 13 January 2020

A Modest Proposal for Science

Posted by Andrew Porter

For several centuries, modern science has banked on and prided itself in ‘the scientific method’. This scheme of hypothesis and experiment has been useful and effective in countering superstition. Discoveries of all sorts have been made and verified, from the circumference of orbits to the range of elements to the function of organelles and proteins in a cell. Confirmation from experiment seems like a clear way to separate fact from fiction. But it is crucial to note that the scientific method also fails.

Recent conundrums of physicality, consciousness, entanglement, dark matter, and the nature of natural laws have spurred many to rethink assumptions and even findings. Our search for what is real and natural needs a new method, one that is in keeping with the natural facts themselves – natural facts not as reduced or squeezed or contorted by the scientific method, but as their own holistic selves. The method of approach and apprehending that seems to offer the most promising advance is that which consists of a whole person in a whole natural environment.

Why do I emphasise wholeness? Because facts shrink away at the first sign of partiality or limited agenda. Truth, conversely, tends to open itself to an apt seeker, to a method that goes whole at a host of levels. Nature tends to recognise her own, it seems.

Kristin Coyne, in an article called ‘Science on the Edge’ in the February 17, 2017 issue of the magazine, Fields: Science, Discovery & Magnetism, writes:
‘At the dividing line between two things, there’s often no hard line at all. Rather, there’s a system, phenomenon or region rich in diversity or novel behavior – something entirely different from the two things that created it.’
She offers various examples of the same: fringe physics, borderline biology, and crossover chemistry. Such ‘science on the edge’ is one aspect of the changes typical science is undergoing. Other researchers in areas such as telepathy and theoretical physics are pushing the bounds of science while arguing that it certainly is science, just a deeper form.

This suggested new method, that would largely overturn contemporary science, would measure, as it were, by that of nature’s measurements: it is anti-reductionist; it is synthetic more than analytic. As we are learning, it may not be too much to say that one has to be the facts to know the facts, to be a synergy of ‘observer’ and ‘observed’ at all levels. The knowledge gleaned from wholeness is like a star’s heat and light understood, not just the hydrogen and helium involved.

This idea of the ‘scientist’ in tune with nature in a thorough way would be the human equivalent of a goshawk whose instincts are a portion of Earth-wide wildness. No disjunct with results that turn self-referential and untrue. If one is studying an ecosystem, for instance, he or she, or his or her team, must, by the requirements of nature, be of the same stuff and of the same conceptions as the individualities, relations, and wholes of that ecosystem. So much more of the actuality reveals itself to the sympathetic, of-a-piece ‘observer’. If we ignore or shunt aside the question of what is a whole person, how can we ever expect to discern the deeper reality of nature?

It seems to hold true that the more receptive the subject is to the essence and character of the object, the better it is understood. Who knows one’s dog better: a sympathetic owner or an objective voice? If the dog is sick, perhaps the latter, but all the time the dog is exuberantly healthy, the former is the one who comprehends.

The goal, of course, is to elucidate facts, to unite in some meaningful way with reality. Delusion is all too easy, and partial truths sustain centuries of institutions, positions, governments, and cultures. Modern science started out as reactionary in the sense of being hostile to things like superstition or intuition or revelation. It substituted experiment and observation, keeping the studied apart from those who studied. This is fine for shallow comprehension, but it only gets you so far. It obscures another possibility, that is somewhat similar to the communion and connection between the quantum realm and the macro world.

I suggest that deep facts only reveal themselves to a person metamorphosed, as it were, into ways of being in keeping with the parts or portions of nature studied. All nature may be of this type, open to human comprehension only as that comprehension is within a whole person. What a complete person is and what a fullness of nature is might not only be a philosopher’s job, but the focus of science itself, re-trained to benefit from its transformed method.

The hint in current puzzlements is that science in the 21st century and beyond may benefit significantly by re-crafting itself. A transformed method might yield deeper or actual knowledge. That is, knowing as opposed to seeming to know, may require a new approach.

Jacob Needleman and David Applebaum wrote, ‘Unless scientific progress is balanced by another kind of enquiry, it will inevitably become an instrument of self-destruction.’

The ‘objective’ revolution need not be the last. In today’s world, we have the ball-and-chain of modern scientific ways and even scientism weighting our thinking; it would be good to free ourselves from this. But we are confused. About what of objectivity is liberating or limiting, and what of subjectivity is useful or obfuscatory.

Monday, 6 January 2020

Picture Post #52 - The Township

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

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

Hastily boarded-up window 
at New Rest, in South Africa's Eastern Cape
It is hard to know where to begin, describing the township here.

Many houses, the doors or windows have been taken. Including the neighbour's, twice. Severely damaged through crime, he put in reinforced concrete frames. It did no good. They made off with his ceiling, plumbing, and much of the plaster, too. Every second house, broken glass is replaced with broken boards, carpet tiles, plastic.

A resident came round yesterday. Someone tried to batter down his door, he said, when he was in bed. The door was ruined, but they didn't get in. He armed himself. Then a sergeant came round. If they found someone dead on his floor, he said, he would go straight to jail. My host sleeps with a loaded rifle next to his bed.

A few nights ago, criminals mounted a vast raid on a group of townships, including this one. I had two locks on my car damaged. A friend had a window smashed, too. The same day, in front of me, a man flew off a pickup truck which swerved recklessly to avoid potholes, and those are filled with water from broken pipes. He hit the tar at speed, and lay motionless in a storm gutter. I was the only one to help him, and was astonished that he could (slowly) get up, although he was bloodied all over.

Plastic waste tumbles down the hillsides, and recently carved ravines scar the earth. People are gaunt, their teeth are out, their clothes are ragged. Even the neighbour came begging for bread.

Monday, 30 December 2019

Canvassing the Evidence with Hume

Posted by Allister Marran
I have seen it a hundred times, with people both close to me and those who are simply on the periphery of my social orbit.
The recipe is simple. Take someone with a very slight lean or interest towards an ideology, interest or political affiliation and then attack them for this belief. Show them their folly and use reason and facts to challenge their personal choices.

Fence sitters may fall either way, sometimes adjusting their world view to come into line with the group pressuring them, or more likely they begin stoically digging in and taking a more active interest in what previously was only a minor distraction.

Very quickly you will radicalise the very people you are trying to deprogram.

 The Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote,
‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’
And, hardly remembered, he wrote in the same paragraph, 
'Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse.’
When a person feels cornered they feel immense cognitive dissonance, and usually revert back to an instinctual basic point of reference. This includes feelings of anger, aggression, confusion and often bigotry, as one turns to similar minded people and groups to defend oneself in an us vs. them strategy.

Russia and China (among others) are looking for a competitive advantage in the world, and are struggling to find traction and relevance when on a level footing with established democratic countries and capitalist trading blocks.

They have realised that they can leverage social media to destabilise Western democracy and use the confusion and chaos to up their own standing economically and politically.

All they have done is use a Twitter bot army and a few strategically placed and paid for Facebook campaigns to decimate social cohesion in the west.

Let me tell you, Russia has no interest in who wins the US election, or who is the UK Prime Minister. They just want the citizens of the old democratic order fighting amongst each other.

Mission accomplished.

In retrospect, maybe they should not have pursued President Trump's impeachment, but rather Republicans and Democrats should have passed laws to stop the radicalisation of splinter groups through social media. Fight Russia through unity instead of division.

If you look at the world and see where radicalisation ends in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Syria and many other countries with massive disenfranchised and radicalised populations or minorities, it's easy to see how minor policy disagreements and political disparities could end up escalating into something far worse, akin to a civil war or revolution.

What would Hume have said to it all, the philosopher of whom the economist Adam Smith thought of as 'approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man' as he thought possible? 

Hume was wary of contrary impulses, of the kind we have just surveyed. He wrote,
‘Does a man of sense ... canvass particularly the evidence? I never knew anyone, that examined and deliberated about nonsense who did not believe it before the end of his enquiries.’
Hume might have told us to make an end to the contest over people's opinions. There are more important things to do, which are dealt with more profitably and practically. It's time to move on.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Poetry: The Mathematical State of Love

Posted by Chengde Chen *

Some say love is mathematically positive
Like the state of ‘having’
Because only those who have can give
Man can love because he has feelings
God can love because He has power

Some say love is mathematically negative
Like the state of ‘owing’
The deeper one loves, the more one owes
Hence parents’ willing and uncomplaining
And lovers’ risking death for one another

In fact, the mathematical state of love is zero
When you are not giving, it doesn’t exist
When you are giving, it doesn’t decrease
Whether by multiplication or by division
It turns what is not into itself

* Chengde Chen is the author of the philosophical poems collection: Five Themes of Today, Open Gate Press, London.

Monday, 16 December 2019

Redefining Race: It’s Collaboration That Counts

Posted by Sifiso Mkhonto
Historically, under the category of race, White colonisers of Africa used race for greed and exploitation, enslaving the continent's Black races for innumerable reasons, such as labour, land, resources, pleasure, etc.
While it is true that Arab races exploited Black races, and Black exploited Arab – and Black exploited Black, and so on – a mere cursory look at the colonial map of Africa reveals that most Black races were dominated by White colonisers, and as a result were exploited by them. There were (arguably) just two exceptions: Ethiopia and Liberia.

While the colonial era now lies behind us in Africa – at least in its overt forms – racial prejudice continues to be a major issue. As we approach the 20s of the 20s decade in the Common Era, we come to realise that racial superiority, if not domination, has continued in the form of individualism.

I propose that collaboration is the true opposite of racism, while a failure to collaborate is its chief characteristic.

Race, like all the causes of prejudice, is merely a classificatory term, a social construct, rather than a genuine biological category. It indicates a group which is characterised by closeness of common descent, and some shared physical distinctiveness such as colour of skin – but can this still be relevant when one speaks in terms of collaboration?  Collaboration is concrete.  It advances beyond the theoretical constructs of race, and gives us a measurable and meaningful term.  It is a concept we can work with.

Presently, in Africa, including my own nation South Africa, the category of race is used as a tool for redress. However, we find a failure to measure its success. This begs the question – is the concept of race effective, or is it a hindrance to progress?  If there is one thing about race, it is that your individual fortunes can be turned in the direction you wish – if you know how to bargain with it – and those who know how to bargain with it use it to lay a solid foundation for their fortunes.

It is great to admire the beauty of your ethnicity, but to do it at the expense of diminishing another uncovers insecurities about your own successes and failures. The agenda which puts Black races on their own should be torn to shreds, because the truth is that everyone is on their own. The only difference between each ethnicity is collaboration.  This is the level where true non-racialism is measured.

It seems as if real interracial collaboration faded with the struggle for independence and self-determination. The chances of having a genuine partnership for empowerment, or to fight a system of oppression with a person of your opposite race, was higher during the tough times, compared to the present. Times are still tough economically, politically, and socially, but behind the curtain of some delusionary interracial collaborations, we find terms and conditions that do not move us forward.

In his book of 1725, Logic: The Right Use of Reason in the Inquiry After Truth, Isaac Watts says,
‘Do not always imagine that there are ideas wheresoever there are names; for though mankind hath so many millions of ideas more than they have of names, yet so foolish and lavish are we, that too often we use some words in mere waste, and have no ideas for them; or at least our ideas are so exceedingly scattered and confused, broken and blended, various and unsettled, that they can signify nothing toward the improvement of the understanding.’
Race is an issue – along with other forms of prejudice – where concepts are used ‘in mere waste’. We attach a lot of ideas to mere words. Some of these words have no real definition which belongs to them. What then are the concepts which really matter? In the case of ‘racism’, it is about collaboration, above all.

This is how we should define the issue going forward. This is the true opposite of racial prejudice. In everything we do, from day to day, we should keep this first and foremost.

Monday, 9 December 2019

Is Torture Morally Defensible?

Posted by Keith Tidman

Far from being unconscionable, today one metric of how societies have universalised torture is that, according to Amnesty International, some 140 countries resort to it: whether for use by domestic police, intelligence agencies, military forces, or other institutions. Incongruously, many of these countries are signatories to the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the one that forbids torture, whether domestic or outsourced to countries where torture is legal (by so-called renditions).

Philosophers too are ambivalent, conjuring up difficult scenarios in which torture seems somehow the only reasonable response:
An anarchist knows the whereabouts of a powerful bomb set to kill scores of civilians.
A kidnapper has hidden a four-year-old in a makeshift underground box, holding out for a ransom.
Or perhaps an authoritarian government, feeling threatened, has identified the ringleader of swelling political street opposition, and wants to know his accomplices’ names. Soldiers have a high-ranking captive, who knows details of the enemy’s plans to launch a counteroffensive. A kingpin drug supplier, and his metastasized network of street traffickers, routinely distributes highly contaminated drugs, resulting in a rash of deaths...

Do any of these hypothetical and real-world events, where information needs to be extracted for urgent purposes, rise to the level of resorting to torture? Are there other examples to which society ought morally consent to torture? If so, for what purposes? Or is torture never morally justified?

One common opinion is that if the outcome of torture is information that saves innocent lives, the practice is morally justified. I would argue that there are at least three aspects to this claim:
  • the multiple lives that will be saved (traded off against the fewer), sometimes referred to as ‘instrumental harm’; 
  • the collective innocence, in contrast to any aspect of culpability, of those people saved from harm; and
  • the overall benefit to society, as best can credibly be predicted with information at hand.
The 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s famous phrase that ‘It is the greatest good for the greatest number of people which is the measure of right and wrong’ seems to apply here. Historically, many people have found, rightly or not, that this principle of ‘greatest good for the greater number’ rises to the level of common sense, as well as proving simpler to apply in establishing one’s own life doctrine than from competitive standards — such as discounting outcomes for chosen behaviours.

Other thinkers, such as Joseph Priestley (18th century) and John Stuart Mill (19th century), expressed similar utilitarian arguments, though using the word ‘happiness’ rather than ‘benefit’. (Both terms might, however, strike one as equally cryptic.) Here, the standard of morality is not a rulebook rooted in solemnised creed, but a standard based in everyday principles of usefulness to the many. Torture, too, may be looked at in those lights, speaking to factors like human rights and dignity — or whether individuals, by virtue of the perceived threat, forfeit those rights.

Utilitarianism has been criticised, however, for its obtuse ‘the ends justify the means’ mentality — an approach complicated by the difficulty of predicting consequences. Similarly, some ‘bills of rights’ have attempted to provide pushback against the simple calculus of benefiting the greatest number. Instead, they advance legal positions aimed at protecting the welfare of the few (the minority) against the possible tyranny of the many (the majority). ‘Natural rights’ — the right to life and liberty — inform these protective constitutional provisions.

If torture is approved of in some situations — ‘extreme cases’ or ‘emergencies’, as society might tell itself — the bar in some cases might lower. As a possible fast track in remedying a threat — maybe an extra–judicial fast track — torture is tempting, especially when used ‘for defence’. However, the uneasiness is in torture turning into an obligation — if shrouded in an alleged moral imperative, perhaps to exploit a permissive legal system. This dynamic may prove alluring if society finds it expeditious to shoehorn more cases into the hard-to-parse ‘existential risk’.

What remains key is whether society can be trusted to make such grim moral choices — such as those requiring the resort to torture. This blurriness has propelled some toward an ‘absolutist’ stance, censuring torture in all circumstances. The French poet Charles Baudelaire felt that ‘Torture, as the art of discovering truth, is barbaric nonsense’. Paradoxically, however, absolutism in the total ban on torture might itself be regarded as immoral, if the result is death of a kidnapped child or of scores of civilians. That said, there’s no escaping the reality that torture inflicts pain (physical and/or mental), shreds human dignity, and curbs personal sovereignty. To some, many even, it thus must be viewed as reprehensible and irredeemable — decoupled from outcomes.

This is especially apparent if torture is administered to inflict pain, terrorise, humiliate, or dehumanise for purposes of deterrence or punishment. But even if torture is used to extract information — information perhaps vital, as per the scenarios listed at the beginning — there is a problem: the information acquired is suspect, tales invented just to stop pain. Long ago, Aristotle stressed this point, saying plainly: ‘Evidence from torture may be considered utterly untrustworthy’. Even absolutists, however, cannot skip being involved in defining what rises to the threshold of clearer-cut torture and what perhaps falls just below  grist for considerable contentious debate.

The question remains: can torture ever be justified? And, linked to this, which moral principles might society want to normalise? Is it true, as the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre noted, that ‘Torture is senseless violence, born in fear’? As societies grapple with these questions, they reduce the alternatives to two: blanket condemnation of torture (and acceptance of possible dire, even existential consequences of inaction); or instead acceptance of the utility of torture in certain situations, coupled with controversial claims about the correct definitions of the practice.

I would argue one might morally come down on the side of the defensible utility of the practice  albeit in agreed-upon circumstances (like some of those listed above), where human rights are robustly aired side by side with the exigent dangers, potential aftermaths of inertia, and hard choices societies face.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Picture Post #51: Nobody Excluded

'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.' 

Paris, October 2019.
Picture credit: Olivia Galisson

Posted by Tessa den Uyl

Activists draw attention to global ecological devastation in front of the fountain of Place du Châtelet. This monument was ordered by Napoleon in 1806, and built by the sculptor Boizet. It pays tribute to the victories achieved in battle, and reminds us of Napoleon’s decision to provide free drinking water to all Parisians.

Victories bring along statues, which serve historical commemoration -- though foremost, symbolically, they are built upon the idea of a future. A future that, seen from a once-upon-a-time perspective, might not have been that imaginable, as to how it would turn out.

The beginning of the world alike the end is not new to our imagination. But things have changed. We have interfered too much in the flux of ecology, for profit. We might think we are smart, but how smart we truly are will have to be proven. For neither rage nor love might provide a statue to remember.

This planet does not care about our extinction. Though we are this planet -- for without it, we simply wouldn’t be. This is not new to our imagination. More recent, instead, is the question whether our extinction is truly a problem, or do we make it a problem because we have created a mess? This time, what is foreseen is that nobody is excluded.

Monday, 25 November 2019

Prosthetics of the Brain

Posted by Emile Wolfaardt

Some creatures are able to regrow lost limbs (like crayfish, salamanders, starfish and some spiders). As humans, we are not as advanced in that department. But we can create such limbs – conventional prosthetics – artificial limbs or organs designed to provide (some) return of function. Some replacements, like glass eyes, don’t even provide that – they don’t see better, they simply look better. But a new wave of smart prosthetics is busy changing all that.

Bionic eyes are surgically implanted, and connect with retina neurons, recreating the transduction of light information back to the brain – so the brain can once again ‘see’. Bionic lenses provide augmented abilities, enabling eyes to see three times better than ‘perfect vision’. Bionic eyes will have all the abilities of modern visual technology like night vision, heat sensors, distant, infra-red and x-ray vision - and other augmented abilities. Likewise, other prosthetics will become smart, enhancing the human experience with enhanced reality.

The latest innovation in prosthetics is the revolutionary addition of machine learning and AI. Here, the wave of change is going to be of tsunamic proportion. Bioengineers are impressively pushing into this frontier, merging the human experience with superhuman abilities. The new field of development is the power of ‘smart brains’ – or neuro-mechanical algorithmic collaboration - where artificial intelligence, machine learning, and the human brain interface to create a brand-new human experience.

Neuro-mechanical algorithmic collaboration may sound like a huge tongue twister – but you already know what it means. Let’s parse it. Neuro- (of the brain), mechanical (of machines) algorithmic (all information, human or machine, is processed by way of algorithms) collaboration (working together). These BMIs (Brain Machine Interfaces) will become the norm of our future. What does that look like? The end result is the human brain having access to any and all information instantly, being able to share it with others seamlessly, and interpolating it into the situation appropriately.

For instance, a doctor in the middle of a surgery observes an unexpected bleed, instantly pulls up in his brain the last 20 occurrences of that bleed in similar situations, and is able to select the best cause and solution. Or you and I could have this conversation brain to brain, without the use of telephones or devices - simply using brain to brain communication. While that seems like a huge concept, in one sense it is not very different to what we do all the time. We use technology – the cell-phone – to communicate thoughts from one brain to another brain. Imagine if we could use technology to negate the need for the cell-phone. That is brain to brain communication.

There is a rat in a cage in Duke University, USA. In front of him are two glass doors that cannot open. He has a probe in his brain that links to a computer. In Brazil, there is another rat with a similar probe in his brain. In front of him are two wooden doors that he cannot see through. Then place a treat behind one of the glass doors in front of the rat in the USA, and his brain tells the rat in Brazil which door to open. That is brain to brain communication. Remove the probe (go wireless) and we have innate brain to brain communication.

There are many, many challenges before this can become a functional reality – but it is within sight. Amongst the biggest challenges are mapping the human brain sufficiently so we know what neurons to fire up, and creating a broad enough wireless connection to relay the enormous amount of information required to transmit even a single thought. We are making progress. Elon Musk is one of the innovators in this field. He is currently suggesting he can make changes to the brain to address Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Autism and other brain disorders.

Scientists can control the movement of a rat with a PlayStation remote type control, have it climb a ladder, jump off a ledge that is higher than it would comfortably jump from, then inject endorphins into the rat’s brain that made the jump feel good.

Who knows – perhaps the opportunity lies ahead to correct socially disruptive behaviour, or criminal thinking? Would that be more effective than incarceration? Who knows - perhaps couples will be able to release endorphins into each other’s brains to establish a sense of bliss? Who knows – perhaps we will be able enhance our brains so that our knowledge is infinite, our character impeccable, and our reality phenomenal? If so, we shall be able to create our own reality, a world in which we and others live in peace and happiness. We can have the life we want in the world we choose.

Who would not want that? Or would they?

Further reading:

Monday, 18 November 2019

Getting the Ethics Right: Life and Death Decisions by Self-Driving Cars

Yes, the ethics of driverless cars are complicated.
Image credit: Iyad Rahwan
Posted by Keith Tidman

In 1967, the British philosopher Philippa Foot, daughter of a British Army major and sometime flatmate of the novelist Iris Murdoch,  published an iconic thought experiment illustrating what forever after would be known as ‘the trolley problem’. These are problems that probe our intuitions about whether it is permissible to kill one person to save many.

The issue has intrigued ethicists, sociologists, psychologists, neuroscientists, legal experts, anthropologists, and technologists alike, with recent discussions highlighting its potential relevance to future robots, drones, and self-driving cars, among other ‘smart’, increasingly autonomous technologies.

The classic version of the thought experiment goes along these lines: The driver of a runaway trolley (tram) sees that five people are ahead, working on the main track. He knows that the trolley, if left to continue straight ahead, will kill the five workers. However, the driver spots a side track, where he can choose to redirect the trolley. The catch is that a single worker is toiling on that side track, who will be killed if the driver redirects the trolley. The ethical conundrum is whether the driver should allow the trolley to stay the course and kill the five workers, or alternatively redirect the trolley and kill the single worker.

Many twists on the thought experiment have been explored. One, introduced by the American philosopher Judith Thomson a decade after Foot, involves an observer, aware of the runaway trolley, who sees a person on a bridge above the track. The observer knows that if he pushes the person onto the track, the person’s body will stop the trolley, though killing him. The ethical conundrum is whether the observer should do nothing, allowing the trolley to kill the five workers. Or push the person from the bridge, killing him alone. (Might a person choose, instead, to sacrifice himself for the greater good by leaping from the bridge onto the track?)

The ‘utilitarian’ choice, where consequences matter, is to redirect the trolley and kill the lone worker — or in the second scenario, to push the person from the bridge onto the track. This ‘consequentialist’ calculation, as it’s also known, results in the fewest deaths. On the other hand, the ‘deontological’ choice, where the morality of the act itself matters most, obliges the driver not to redirect the trolley because the act would be immoral — despite the larger number of resulting deaths. The same calculus applies to not pushing the person from the bridge — again, despite the resulting multiple deaths. Where, then, does one’s higher moral obligation lie; is it in acting, or in not acting?

The ‘doctrine of double effect’ might prove germane here. The principle, introduced by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century, says that an act that causes harm, such as injuring or killing someone as a side effect (‘double effect’), may still be moral as long as it promotes some good end (as, let’s say, saving five lives rather than just the one).

Empirical research has shown that redirecting the runaway trolley toward the one worker is considered an easier choice — utilitarianism basis — whereas overwhelmingly visceral unease in pushing a person off the bridge is strong — deontological basis. Although both acts involve intentionality — resulting in killing one rather than five — it’s seemingly less morally offensive to impersonally pull a lever to redirect the trolley than to place hands on a person to push him off the bridge, sacrificing him for the good of the many.

In similar practical spirit, neuroscience has interestingly connected these reactions to regions of the brain, to show neuronal bases, by viewing subjects in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine as they thought about trolley-type scenarios. Choosing, through deliberation, to steer the trolley onto the side track, reducing loss of life, resulted in more activity in the prefrontal cortex. Thinking about pushing the person from the bridge onto the track, with the attendant imagery and emotions, resulted in the amygdala showing greater activity. Follow-on studies have shown similar responses.

So, let’s now fast forward to the 21st century, to look at just one way this thought experiment might, intriguingly, become pertinent to modern technology: self-driving cars. The aim is to marry function and increasingly smart, deep-learning technology. The longer-range goal is for driverless cars to consistently outperform humans along various critical dimensions, especially human error (the latter estimated to account for some ninety percent of accidents) — while nontrivially easing congestion, improving fuel mileage, and polluting less.

As developers step toward what’s called ‘strong’ artificial intelligence — where AI (machine learning and big data) becomes increasingly capable of human-like functionality — automakers might find it prudent to fold ethics into their thinking. That is, to consider the risks on the road posed to self, passengers, drivers of other vehicles, pedestrians, and property. With the trolley problem in mind, ought, for example, the car’s ‘brain’ favour saving the driver over a pedestrian? A pedestrian over the driver? The young over the old? Women over men? Children over adults? Groups over an individual? And so forth — teasing apart the myriad conceivable circumstances. Societies, drawing from their own cultural norms, might call upon the ethicists and other experts mentioned in the opening paragraph to help get these moral choices ‘right’, in collaboration with policymakers, regulators, and manufacturers.

Thought experiments like this have gained new traction in our techno-centric world, including the forward-leaning development of ‘strong’ AI, big data, and powerful machine-learning algorithms for driverless cars: vital tools needed to address conflicting moral priorities as we venture into the longer-range future.

Monday, 11 November 2019

God: a New Argument from Design

The game of our universe does not reveal sameness

Posted by Thomas Scarborough

The venerable ‘argument from design’ proposes that the creation reveals a Creator. More than this, that the creation reveals the power and glory of God. Isaac Newton was one among many who believed it—stating in an appendix to his 1637 Principia or Principles of Mathematics:
‘This most elegant system of the sun, planets, and comets could not have arisen without the design and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.’
The trouble is, there are alternative explanations for design—in fact complete, coherent explanations. To put it in a nutshell, there are other ways that order and design can come about. So, today, the argument is often said to be inconclusive. The evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, writes that it is ‘unanswerable'—which is not to say, however, that it is disproven.

Yet suppose that we push the whole argument back—back beyond all talk of power and glory—back beyond the simplest conceptions of design, to a core, a point of ‘ground zero'. Here we find the first and most basic characteristic of design: it is more than chaos or, alternatively, it is more than featurelessness.

On the surface of it, our universe ought to be only one or the other. Our universe is governed by laws which ought not to produce any more than chaos on the one hand, or featurelessness on the other. We might use the analogy of a chess game, although the analogy only goes so far.* A careful observer of a chess match reports that the entire game is governed by rules, and there is no departure from such rules.

Yet there is clearly, at the same time, something happening in the game at a different level. Games get won, and games get lost, and games play out in different ways each time. There is something beyond the laws. We may even infer that there is intelligence behind each game – but let us not rush to go that far.

However, without seeing the players, one could assume that they must exist—or something which resembles them. To put it as basically as we can: the game lacks sameness from game to game—whether this be the sameness of chaos or the sameness of featurelessness. Something else is happening there. Now apply this to our universe. We ought to see complete chaos, or we ought to see complete featurelessness. We ought not to see asymmetry or diversity, or anything of that sort—let alone anything which could resemble design.

The problem is familiar to science. The physicist, Stephen Hawking, wrote:
‘Why is it (the universe) not in a state of complete disorder at all times? After all, this might seem more probable.’
That is, there is no good explanation for it. Given the laws of nature, we cannot derive from them a universe which is as complex as the one we see. On the other hand, biologist Stuart Kauffman writes,
‘We have no adequate theory for why our universe is complex.’
This is the opposite view. We ought not to see any complexity emerging. No matter what degree of complexity we find today, whether it be Newton's system of the universe, or the basic fact that complexity exists, it should not happen. It is as if there is more than the rules—because the game of our universe does not reveal sameness.

This idea of ‘more’—of different levels of reality—has been seriously entertained by various scientists. The  science writer Natalie Wolchover says, ‘Space-time may be a translation of some other description of reality,’ and while she does not propose the existence of the supernatural, the idea of some other description of reality could open the door to this.

Call this the ‘ground zero’, the epicentre of the argument from design. There is something going on, at a level we do not see, which we may never discover by examining the rules. In the analogy of the chess game, where we observe something beyond the rules, we may not be able to tell what that something is—yet it is clear that it is.

This argument differs from the familiar version of the theological argument from design, which generally assumes that God created the rules which the design displays. On the contrary, this argument proposes that God may exist beyond the rules, through the very fact that we see order.

* A problem with the analogy is that a chess game manifests complexity to begin with. The important point is, however, that the game reveals more than it should.

Monday, 4 November 2019

'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 Jeremy Dyer *

This is a detail from a great work of art. Which one? Whose? We are expected to admire it, to marvel and to learn. 

What if I told you that it was a detail from one of Pollock's works? Would you then try to 'see' the elusive essence of it? On the other hand, what if I told you it was merely a photo from above the urinal in a late-night restaurant? Does that make it any more or less 'art'? 

If everything is art—the sacred mantrathen the reverse corollary must also be true. Nothing is art.

* Jeremy Dyer is an acclaimed Cape Town artist.

Monday, 28 October 2019

The Politics of the Bridge

Posted by Martin Cohen

Bridges are the stuff of superlatives and parlour games. Which is the longest bridge in the world? The tallest? The most expensive? And then there's also a prize which few seem to compete for - the prize for being the most political. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson’s. surprise proposal in September for a feasibility study for a bridge to Ireland threatens to scoop the pot.

But then, what is it about bridges and Mr. Johnson? Fresh from the disaster, at least in public relations terms, of his ‘Garden bridge’ (pictured above) over the river Thames, the one that Joanna Lumley said would be a “floating paradise”, the “tiara on the head of our fabulous city” and was forecast to cost £200 million before the plug was pulled on it (leaving Londoners with bills of £48 million for nothing), he announces a new bridge - this time connecting Northern Ireland across seas a thousand feet deep to Stranraer in Scotland. This one would cost a bit too - albeit Johnson suggests it would be value for money at no more than £15 billion.

If Londoners choked on a minuscule fraction of that for their new bridge, it is hard to see how exactly this new one could have been afforded. Particularly as costs of large-scale public works don't exactly have a good reputation in terms of coming in within budget.
The 55-kilometre bridge–tunnel system of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge that opened last year was constructed only after delays, corruption and accidents had put its cost up to 48 billion Yuan (about £5.4 billion).

When wear and tear to the eastern span of the iconic San Francisco Bay bridge became too bad to keep patching, an entirely new bridge was built to replace it, at a final price tag of $6.5 billion (about £5.2 billion), a remarkable sum in its own right but all more indigestible because it represented a 2,500% cost overrun from the original estimate of $250 million.
Grand public works are always political. For a start, there is the money to be made on the contract, but there is also the money to be made from interest on the loans obtained. Money borrowed at a low rate from governments, can be relent at a higher rate. Even when they are run scrupulously, bridges are, like so many large construction projects, moneygorounds.

And yet, bridges have a good image, certainly compared to walls. They are said to unite, where barriers divide. "Praise the bridge that carried you safe over" says Lady Duberly at breakfast, in George Colman's play The Heir at Law. But surface appearances can be deceptive. Bridges, as recent history has shown, have a special power to divide.

That Hong Kong bridge is also a way of projecting mainland Chinese power onto its fractious new family member. President Putin's $3.7 billion Kerch Strait Bridge joining Crimea to Russia was hardly likely, as he put it, to bring “all of us closer together”. Ukrainians and the wider international community considered Russia's the bridge to be reinforcing Russian annexation of the peninsula. And if bridges are often favourably contrasted with walls, this one, it soon emerged, functioned as both: no sooner was the bridge completed than shipping trying to sail under it began to be obstructed. No wonder that Ukraine believes that there was an entirely negative and carefully secret political rationale for the bridge: to impose an economic stranglehold over Ukraine and cripple its commercial shipping industry in the Azov Sea.

In this sense, a bridge to Northern Ireland seems anything but a friendly gesture by the British, rather it smacks of old-style colonialism.

But perhaps the saddest bridge of them all was the sixteenth century Old Bridge at Mostar, commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1557 and connecting the two sides of the old city. Upon its completion it was the widest man-made arch in the world, towering forty meters (130 feet) over the river. Yet it was constructed and bound not with cement but with egg whites. No wonder, according to legend, the builder, Mimar Hayruddin, whose conditions of employment apparently included his being hanged if the bridge collapsed, carefully prepared for his own funeral on the day the scaffolding was finally removed from the completed structure.

In fact, the bridge was a fantastic piece of engineering and stood proud - until that is, in 1993 when Croatian nationalists, intent on dividing the communities either side of the river, collapsed it in a barrage of artillery shells. Thus the bridge once compared with a ‘rainbow rising up to the Milky Way’ became instead a tragic monument to hatred.

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