Monday, 21 January 2019

Poetry: The Thought-Reader Revolution

Posted by Chengde Chen *


The Way to Root out Evil?
Thought reading: curing human nature with instinct

Why have the thousands of years of moral efforts,
– Religion, education, and the rule of law –
Not cured the human evil of harming others for gain?
Because faith, reason and justice, powerful as they are,
Cannot outdo the ultimate selfishness of human nature.
Kant said, ‘Out of the crooked timber of humanity,
No straight thing was ever made.’

But, what is more fundamental is human instinct –
The self-preservation based only on physiology.
As thoughts are invisible, one can deceive –
One’s evil intentions may not do harm to oneself,
Hence permitted by instinct, hence possible for evil.
If, by a ‘thought-reader’, thoughts become visible,
Any intention to harm others would harm oneself,
Hence prevented by instinct, hence impossible for evil.

Whether thoughts are visible is, in fact, a moral valve,
Controlling whether there is the possibility of evil.
The invisibility of thought = the possibility of evil;
The visibility of thought = the impossibility of evil.

To make thoughts visible makes morality an instinct,
And men “good men” who can’t be bad.

As the invisibility of thought is the cause of evil,
The truly effective way to root-out evil
Is not the moral classics from Plato to Marx,
But seeing thoughts, to cure human nature with instinct.
Instinct is water, to serve or flood depending on the river.
Only in the canal of truthfulness dredged by the machine,
Can the boat of coexistence sail freely with human dynamics.


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

Monday, 14 January 2019

Taking the ‘Mono’ Out of Monogamy

Posted by Emile Sorensen

The Garden of Earthly Delights, by Hieronymus Bosch, circa 1500
Monogamy has failed -- by all reasonable metrics -– and we have been unwilling to ask monogamy the hard questions. The divorce rate amongst Baby Boomers is pushing upward of 50% and if one includes the more than 30% of married men and women who will succumb to secret dalliance at some point, the rate is way worse than that.

If 50% of an investment fund turned belly up or half the airplanes that took off each day crashed and burned, we would consider them intrinsically flawed and publicly unsafe. According to Psychology Today, ‘... in the U.S. 50% percent of first marriages, 67% of second, and 73% of third marriages end in divorce. It is now becoming unusual to find two people who remain married to each other for their entire lives.

The word monogamy itself has changed. Just a few decades ago it described the practice of marrying only once during a lifetime. Now it is also used to describes the practice of having only one sexual partner at any given time (as per the definition in the Oxford Dictionary). Anyway, the title ‘monogamous’ is often simply a veneer hiding a complex compromise of temptation, emotional affairs, suppressed regret and hidden unfaithfulness.

Young people are often misled into thinking that marriage can provide them with a lifetime of sexual fulfillment and emotional security – and invariably hit a wall of rude awakening when reality falls short of their expectations and temptation redefines their truth. Even when we verbally advocate monogamy, in reality we tend to deviate from it. And so traditional family structures are being challenged on many fronts. Where relationships were historically based on a sense of religious or social obligation, they are now more apt to be an expression of self-authentication. And the ‘thou shalt not’ from the pulpit has failed to stem this social shift from a ‘theocentric’ or family-centric worldview to one that is egocentric.

As the deception and pain in cheating are still recognised as distasteful and immoral (in the US military adultery is still criminal), social creativity has sought ethical alternatives to infidelity -- and consequently, there has been a commensurate rise in non-traditional relationships. We are seeing a social and cultural evolution taking place regarding the kinds of relationships men and women seek, and what they find fulfilling. It is not uncommon to meet people who have been married two or three times, or more.

As the deception and pain in cheating is still recognised as distasteful and immoral (in the US military adultery is still criminal), social creativity has sought ethical alternatives to infidelity – and consequently, there has been a commensurate rise in non-traditional relationships. We are seeing a social and cultural evolution taking place regarding the kinds of relationships men and women seek, and what they find fulfilling.

Homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexual, polyamory, polyfidelity, polysensual, open relationships, monogamish (mostly monogamous) relationships, swinging, kinky, the lifestyle, serial monogamy and consensual non-monogamy and many others have all become terms we must navigate as we talk intelligently about healthy consensual adult relationships. While most of these relational constructs are still invisible legally, they are undeniably here to stay socially. For example, one Canadian based ‘kink’ websites boasts over seven million members.

Should we abandon monogamy as a great idea whose season has come and gone? What is the new normal? Is there even such a thing as normal any more? We must individually explore where we fit into (or do not fit into) these new social constructs. Ought polyamory, serial monogamy or consensual non-monogamy be recognised as an ‘orientation’ in the same way that homosexuality or lesbianism are?

Ann Tweedy, of Hamline University School of Law recently explained why we may speak of orientation. ‘Sexual orientation,’ she says, ‘is defined as attraction to either the same sex, the opposite sex or both sexes – but it could be broadened to include other sexual preferences that are entwined with identity.’ These alternatives must be addressed as we forge the social pathway forwards. And possible even deeper, we must understand why traditional monogamy is unravelling, what to do with this antiquated system that was the ‘gold standard’ of society, and how to engage the new norms as we live in the real world.

What then has caused the ‘gold standard’ to topple? What has caused this shift, and how should we respond? What is bringing monogamy to its knees? An in depth look at the cause reaches beyond the limitations of this post -- but here are considerations to start the discussion.

Fundamental to understanding our change in behavior surely must be a dialogue about our shifting roles. The marketplace has now been enriched by equality – and with that, sexual temptations and opportunities proliferate for both sexes. Women have come of age and emerged as equal vyers for their share of the economic pie. We work more and travel more – and are connected to and are communicating with others more. On top of that the media bombard our sensual appetites consistently – stimulation overload. And exhaustion!

Online pornography and internet dating have not served traditional structures well. Ashley Maddison, a ‘married dating site’, boasts almost eight million members with about sixteen thousand sign-ups every day – half of whom are women.
It is said that modern technology has fostered an immediate gratification mindset – and if sexual appetite and opportunity is out there – why not? Social conservatism – as espoused by the religious front – is losing traction, even amongst the faithful, as society embraces a more open mindset. And it seems we are not having affairs as much because we are looking for someone else as much as we are looking to authenticate ourselves.

Yet interestingly, the one thing that has not changed -- that threads itself consistently through every style, type and description of relationship -- is the destructive power of deception and the fundamental need for trust. It seems no matter what your preference of relationship structure is – monogamy or otherwise – deception is still the killer and cheating is still cheating. Yes, the structure and context of relationships may be changing. How we understand our needs and the creative ways we give expression to our sexuality may be shifting, but fundamentally – we are still the same. We still look for relationships we can trust, and people we can enjoy the richness of mutual connection and exploration with. We still find satisfaction in the consistency of respect. Monogamy may have fallen on hard days – but faithfulness has not.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Picture Post #42: Space in a Nutshell



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

Posted by Tessa den Uyl

Picture credit:  A Mundzuku Ka Hina, communication workshop, Maputo, Mozambique
   
Things might look a bit disorientating in this picture. Who’s going where? All move and get blocked. To unblock, one needs movement. 


But where does movement occur? When there is space. And is the suggestion of space not primarily evoked by the idea of chaos? 




Back to the picture above. All were moving to a point that ultimately leads into an impasse. ‘The road’ no longer exists, so to speak. 
Symbolically, this image reflects the Taoist notion that the essence of life consists in never stopping the flow, for no point will ever reward us.




Then perhaps chaos is chaotic only by a misconception about space?


Monday, 31 December 2018

Breaking the Universal Speed Limit?


Well, how do you measure the speed of light - and thus check that everything is observing this ‘universal speed limit’? Seven years ago, the closing months of 2011 saw much excitement in sciencey circles with the highly mediatized announcement that researchers at CERN, the world's most expensive physics laboratory, had detected sub-atomic particles apparently travelling faster than the speed of light. This, the papers assured us, was in defiance of Einstein and all the rules of relativity. Yet the plain ‘fact’ of the matter is that the speed of light is not magically ‘out there’ but merely a human convention. In a relativistic universe, how could it be otherwise?

Here the point is put nicely by Burt Jordaan in a blog posting of January 25, 2010. Burt writes:
‘In order to measure any one-way velocity, we essentially need two clocks: one at the start and one at the end. Obviously, the two clocks need to be synchronized and run at the same rate (and to be sure, they must not be moving relative to each other and also be at the same gravitational potential). Yet we reasonably assume that the two clocks run at the same rate, at least close enough for all practical purposes. Now we need to synchronize the two clocks to read the same at the same moment. How is this done?


In his 1905 paper on Special Relativity, Einstein says: “We have not defined a common ‘time’ for A and B, for the latter cannot be defined at all unless we establish by definition that the ‘time’ required by light to travel from A to B equals the ‘time’ it requires to travel from B to A”.

One can reasonably read Einstein's ‘by definition’ as ‘by convention’. 
Using Einstein’s convention to set the distant clock at a known distance, call it ‘D’, in empty space, we send a light signal at (say) time zero and when the distant clock detects the signal, it sets its time to D/c sec (the light travel time), where c is the standard speed of light in vacuum.

Now we can measure the speed of any object moving between the two clocks. We can also use the two clocks to measure the one-way speed of light, but we are obviously guaranteed to always get c. In this sense, we get the speed of any object only relative to c and not absolutely. 
In this way, the one-way speed of light is a convention, depending on the convention for clock synchronization."
Burt concludes by observing that there is a general belief system prevailing in physics that ‘whatever is known exists and rest is non-existent’. It is because of this belief system that scientists tend to fill  these existence-nonexistence gaps by cofficients. Yet there can be much more existent and important entities quite apart from the usual quantitites of space and time which physicist are led to ignore. This attitude is the reason that the existence of Dark Matter was unimaginable for four hundred years. As to the spped of light itslef, Burt says explicitly that he cannot understand why Einstein established a ‘religion of special abilities and qualities’ for light. Specifcally, he objects tha even though there are ways to measure the speed of light, there is no reason to believe that nothing can travel faster.

Our own correspondent, Muneeb Faiq, took up the issue for Pi too. Here he offers a thought experiment which again shows the arbitariness of the ‘speed of light’.
‘In fact, there is a lot of confusion about the harmony between the classical and quantum definitions of speed.If both quantum speed and classical speed mean the same then a very interesting difficulty comes to the front.

Suppose there exists only one body in the universe. Just a single point mass and space. Is it at rest or in motion? If, however, there come out two photons of light moving parallel to each other. What speed are they moving at? If an observor is stationed on the point mass, then both the photons are moving with the velocity of light. Suppose, all of a sudden, the point mass ceases to exist. Now there are two photons moving with same speed parallel to each other. Nothing else exists except space. Are these two photons moving now because they are at same position in relation to each other which will be defined as the state of rest.

It is interesting to note that before the point mass existed, the two photons were moving with the velocity of light. Now since the point mass has ceased to exist but nothing changed about the photons, they are not supposed to be moving now even if they are moving with the same previous speed.’

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Homeopaths, Holocaust Deniers and 'Philosophers of Science'

On January 20, 2010, at 10:23 (Oxford time, we may suppose), thousands of brilliant minds tried to prove, by guzzling homeopathy pills, that homeopathic remedies could not kill people, and thus that homeopathy doesn't work (and that "there's nothing in it"). A magnificient demonstration of public adherence to the scientific method!
Reposted and updated from Pi Alpha. Edited by Martin Cohen with original research by Perig Gouanvic


“The misrepresentations of history presented by Holocaust deniers and other pseudo-historians are very similar in nature to the misrepresentations of natural science promoted by creationists and homeopaths. ... we find a wide variety of movements and doctrines, such as creationism, astrology, homeopathy, and Holocaust denialism that are in conflict with results and methods that are generally accepted in the community of knowledge disciplines. ”

- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


The Mass Suicide of Homeopathy Skeptics

Almost all of the systematic reviews in conventional journals start on a skeptical note. Indeed, nine out of ten of the articles begin with a statement that questions the scientific plausibility of homeopathy. Some of the articles use relatively strong language to make the point. For example, one by ‘Ernst and Pittler’ suggests that it is the use of ‘highly diluted material that overtly flies in the face of science and has caused homeopathy to be regarded as placebo therapy at best and quackery at worst’.

But to get a good sense of what the masses, including those who make up ‘the scientific consensus’, really think, Wikipedia is a passable indicator. Wikipedians, amongst them, in such articles, we find watchdogs of ‘reason’, including various hired professionals from the ‘Public Understanding of Science’ (and their trusted mercenaries) love to indulge in this dusty old strawman argument:
‘a 12C [homeopathic] solution is equivalent to a 'pinch of salt in both the North and South Atlantic Oceans'... One third of a drop of some original substance diluted into all the water on earth would produce a remedy with a concentration of about 13C.’
This is a stunning demonstration of the lack of intelligence not only of the ‘scientific consensus’, but of the democratic process of knowledge itself. And leading the process is Wikipedia, which turns donkeys into horses on a daily basis, as Socrates would say, while in the background is the poor state of debate between the Orthodoxy and the scientists and philosophers who are trying to make sense of homeopathy. Hahnemann spoke about a ‘forc’ that remained after dilutions and succussions, but pseudoskeptics have kept making the same strawman argument for the last 200 years.

The reality is that Hahnemann wrote a great deal and never shied away from philosophical questions. He argues:
‘A substance divided into ever so many parts must still contain in its smallest conceivable parts always some of this substance, and that the smallest conceivable part does not cease to be some of this substance and cannot possibly become nothing; - let them, if they are capable of being taught, hear from natural philosophers that there are enormously, powerful things (forces) which are perfectly destitute of weight.’
You may not agree, but it is not foolish stuff. Indeed, these days, the ‘homeopathic force’, for instance, could be described in a context of systems biology.

According to Ilya Prigogine, a Russian-born Belgian chemist best known for his definition of dissipative structures ‘and their role in thermodynamic systems far from equilibrium’(work that led him being awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977), in the domain of deterministic physics, all processes are time-reversible, meaning that they can proceed backward as well as forward through time. As Prigogine explains, determinism is fundamentally a denial of the arrow of time. With no arrow of time, there is no longer a privileged moment known as the ‘present’, which follows a determined ‘past’ and precedes an undetermined ‘future’. Instead, all of time is simply a given, with the future just as determined as the past. With irreversibility, the arrow of time is reintroduced to physics. Prigogine notes numerous examples of irreversibility, including diffusion, radioactive decay, solar radiation, weather and the emergence and evolution of life.

This applies especially well to homeopathy. Orthodox scientists evaluate homeopathy through the lens of the results (it’s only water/alcohol!) and tirelessly calculate oceanographic metaphors to deride what they believe is homeopathy, oblivious of the fact that dilution is conceived as a process leading to a change in the way the molecules of the solvent behave together — a change in the structure of water and a concurrent change in the forces likely to make these structures possible.


Brian Josephson, Nobel laureate of physics, has commented on a typical debunking exercise made by the New Scientist journal that:
‘criticisms [of homeopathy] centred around the vanishingly small number of solute molecules present in a solution after it has been repeatedly diluted are beside the point, since advocates of homeopathic remedies attribute their effects not to molecules present in the water, but to modifications of the water's structure. Simple-minded analysis may suggest that water, being a fluid, cannot have a structure of the kind that such a picture would demand. But cases such as that of liquid crystals, which while flowing like an ordinary fluid can maintain an ordered structure over macroscopic distances, show the limitations of such ways of thinking. There have not, to the best of my knowledge, been any refutations of homeopathy that remain valid after this particular point is taken into account.’
The particular homeopathic claim that water can ‘remember’ substances with which it has been in contact, and that such memory might be mediated by hydrogen bonds has also been criticised, typically on theoretical grounds. Many such arguments involve the short duration of individual hydrogen bonds in liquid water ( which is about a picosecond).

However, it is not to be assumed that the mesoscale structure of water must change on the same time scale. For example, in ice, hydrogen bonds are also very shortlived but an ice sculpture can ‘remember’ its shape over extended periods. (Here our essay assumes a suitbly seasonal feel - Editor.) On a smaller scale, cation hydrates are commonly described with particular structure (for example,  the octahedral Na+(H2O)6 ion) even though the individual water molecules making up such structures have very brief residence times (measured in microseconds).

Such arguments ignore the fact that the behaviour of a large population of water molecules may be retained even if that of individual molecules is constantly changing, just as a wave can cross an ocean, remaining a wave although its molecular content is continuously changing.

Evidence denying the long life of water clusters is mostly based on computer simulations but these cover only nanoseconds of simulated time. Such short periods are insufficient to show longer temporal relationships, for example those produced by oscillating reactions. They also involve relatively few water molecules and small (nanometre) dimensions, insufficient to show mesoscale (micron) effects. In short, they use models of the water molecule whose predictions correspond poorly to the real properties of water.

Certain 'memory' effects in water are well established and uncontroversial: for instance the formation of clathrate hydrates from aqueous solutions whereby previously frozen clathrates within the solution, when subsequently melted, predispose later to more rapid clathrate formation. This is explained by the presence of nanobubbles, extended chain silicates or induced clathrate initiators.

Can a homeopathic remedy work if it contains none of the original curative substance?

John Dalton (1776 - 1844) was able to estimate relative atomic masses of various molecules, the smallest unit that a chemical can exist in without losing its identity. His values were soon improved by Amadeo Avogadro (1776 - 1856), in 1811. Avogadro made the very important proposal that the volume of a gas (strictly, of an ideal gas ) is proportional to the number of atoms or molecules that are present. Hence, the relative molecular mass of a gas can be calculated from the mass of a sample of known volume. BUT neither Avogadro nor Dalton knew how many molecules there were in a given mass of a substance.  This is historically significant because it means that, although Hahnemann realised that there was a limit to the dilutions that could be used, he had no way of knowing what that limit was. An historical curiousity - or confirmation of the importance of the homeopathic principle? - is the fact that Darwin tested out ultrahigh dilutions on carnivorous plants. In Insectivorous Plants (1875) he writes:
‘The reader will best realize this degree of dilution by remembering that 5,000 ounces would more than fill a thirty-one gallon cask [barrel]; and that to this large body of water one grain of the salt was added; only half a drachm, or thirty minims, of the solution being poured over a leaf. Yet this amount sufficed to cause the inflection of almost every tentacle, and often the blade of the leaf. … My results were for a long time incredible, even to myself, and I anxiously sought for every source of error. … The observations were repeated during several years. Two of my sons, who were as incredulous as myself, compared several lots of leaves simultaneously immersed in the weaker solutions and in water, and declared that there could be no doubt about the difference in their appearance. … In fact every time that we perceive an odor, we have evidence that infinitely smaller particles act on our nerves.’
But we have to be careful; homeopathy was not the declared, explicit, subject of this text, although it may have been an underlying riddle for Darwin (we know that he visited an homeopath, out of despair about his condition, and felt better after).

In any case, in the Sixth edition of Hahnemann's Organon, which is the ‘Bible’ for practising homeopaths, Hahnmann explicitly moves beyond ‘physical’ cause and effect into the mystical world of mesmerism - or healing by the mystical agency of the so-called vital force (popular at the time and perhaps similar to the notion of chi in Chinese medicine.)
‘I find it necessary to allude here to animal magnetism, as it is termed, or rather mesmerism (as it should be called, out of gratitude to Mesmer, its first founder), which differs so much in its nature from all other therapeutic agents. 
 
This curative power, often so stupidly denied, which streams upon a patient by the contact of a well-intentioned person powerfully exerting his will, either acts homoeopathically, by the production of symptoms similar to those of the diseased state to be cured; and for this purpose a single pass made, without much exertion of the will, with the palms of the hands not too slowly from the top of the head downwards over the body to the tips of the toes, is serviceable in, for instance, uterine haemorrhages, even in the last stage when death seems approaching; or it is useful by distributing the vital force uniformly throughout the organism, when it is in abnormal excess in one part and deficient in other parts, for example, in rush of blood to the head and sleepless, anxious restlessness of weakly persons, etc., by means of a similar, single, but somewhat stronger pass; or for the immediate communication and restoration of the vital force to some one weakened part or to the whole organism, - an object that cannot be attained so certainly and with so little interference with the other medicinal treatment by any other agent besides mesmerism.’
According to the German newspaper Bild, a seventh edition of the Organon was recently unearthed in his native Germany, and this reveals that the doctor had continued his work on replacing dilutions with mesmerism and had completed experiments on the resuscitation of dead dogs. Alas, as the newspaper puts it, ‘He died shortly afterwards.’

The bottom line is that homeopathic dilution has not been shown o work, but nor yet has it been shown to be impossible. Some will say ‘well, you cannot prove a negative’ which may be true, but clearly the history of science is of things that people rejected as impossible becoming accepted in the light on new and more sophisticated understandings. The same could yet be said for the mystery of homeopathic dilution.

Monday, 17 December 2018

The Gift of Misunderstanding

Posted by Tessa den Uyl
In Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Alice speaks to a tiger lily—and is quite astonished when it speaks back to her. She remarks that she has never heard flowers speak before—upon which the tiger lily explains that the flowerbeds are made too soft, which keeps them always asleep. 
Metaphorically, when you are embedded in a language, you have become acquainted to the connotations of that language alone—and usually when you are in it, you will not be in a position to see it. Each of us is born within a pre-existent conceptual scheme, and each of us develops a language of a specific kind.  The way we see the world depends on how we are endorsed by this language.

What happens to Alice in her encounters in Wonderland is that she is forced to wonder about the appropriateness of her way of thinking—and this comes about, to a large extent, through miscommunication.

The language which each of us holds, upholds within itself the truth of itself—there is an explanatory force which is implicit in the language we know—but it is not therefore more true.  When a misunderstanding occurs, it may well represent, not an isolated linguistic niggle, but a difference between our signifying schemes, in which my premeditation of meaning cannot be confirmed.  Something is added to my habitual use of language.  And then, I may react like Alice:
‘How am I to get in?’ asked Alice again in a louder tone. ‘Are you to get in at all?’ said the Foot-man. ‘That’s the first question, you know.’  ‘Oh, there’s no use in talking to him,’ said Alice desperately: ‘he’s perfectly idiotic!’ And she opened the door and went in.*
What we believe as true, is always internal to a conceptualized signifying scheme.  Thus when we correct misunderstandings, we admit to cohere to a subjective scheme. With 7.53 billion people living, to think that understanding is something in which we find only isolated linguistic niggles, creates a fairly fragile support for understanding.  For where comprehension lacks is not that obvious, if we do not question where the boundaries for our intentionality of meaning have been put within our own conceptualising scheme.

Miscommunication thus highlights the confusion that is created within our understanding when the demand is to understand differently.  As soon as these connotations are questioned, not the language we use is put at stake but how we know life, and then we ourselves are put at stake! When you are embedded in a preferred language, you also admit to live a preferred reality.

But is not our language controlled by an external reality?  In fact as soon as we name our reality, we only secure the reality of a phenomenon with language, but not the phenomenon itself.  With language we cut life into pieces, and afterwards think that that reality is made out of different worlds, a real one and an unreal one.  But no, the word something, either indicating something real or unreal is only determined in psycho-linguistic terms.
'But I'm not a serpent, I tell you!' said Alice. 'I'm a — I'm a — 'Well! What are you?' said the Pigeon. 'I can see you're trying to invent something!'  'I — I'm a little girl,' said Alice, rather doubtfully, as she remembered the number of changes she had gone through that day.**
This is how we are able to understand stories—the adventures of Alice being one example.  In fiction we can accept the ‘unreal’, while in daily life we uphold an idea of what it means to conform to ‘the real’.  We think then that this is altogether quite sensible.  But language is enclosed within itself.  Language is uniquely language.  So we can fall asleep, as it were, in the flowerbed of a story.

Both miscommunication and ‘unreal’ stories share this in common: when we deconstruct their linguistic norms, we can see that neither is as fictive or erroneous as we would like to believe. Nor do stories pertain to some mysterious other language or other world. When we recognise how we are entangled in language, we can also recognise how both stories and miscommunication have a hard time affirming their reality, or reason its own unreality. 

But there is in all this a hidden serendipity.  Once we understand how our comprehension works—above all that misunderstanding requires a shift in our entire conceptual scheme, we may see it as a precious gift, enabling us truly to step back from a fixed pattern of thinking, and to recognise our own subjectivity:
‘Visit either you like, they’re both mad,’ [said the Cat].  ‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.  ‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here.  I’m mad.  You’re mad.’  ‘How do you know I’m mad?’ said Alice.  ‘You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’***

-------------------

*Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.
**ibid
***ibid

Monday, 10 December 2018

Plastic, Pachyderms and Profit

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

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


Posted by Matthew Edward Scarborough and Lina Scarborough

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

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

This is where you fit into the challenge.

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

But is plastic really so bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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





Notes


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

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

And a bit about the authors:  

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

Monday, 3 December 2018

Picture Post 41: Playing with Shadows











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

Posted by Martin Cohen


Sabine Weiss  Chairs, Paris, 1952

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

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

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

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

I suppose a photographer should do that.

Monday, 26 November 2018

How Language Connects Mind, World, and Reality


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

Posted by Keith Tidman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 19 November 2018

Doublethink: Raising the Dead


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

Monday, 12 November 2018

Butter Nonsense


Posted by Martin Cohen


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

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

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

Butter nonsense: the rise of the cholesterol deniers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Surveying the research, some 20 years ago now, Dr Laura Corr a cardiologist at Guys Hospital in London concluded that :
‘The commonly-held belief that the best diet for prevention of coronary heart disease is a low saturated fat, low cholesterol diet is not supported by the available evidence from clinical trials"
However, seven years ago, an influential meta-analysis by the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists found that:
‘Observational studies show that there is a continuous positive relation between coronary disease risk and blood cholesterol concentrations [and] larger reductions in LDL cholesterol [the so-called 'bad cholesterol'] might well produce larger reductions in risk.’
In 2015, another systemic review by researchers from various international institutions in Japan, Sweden, UK, Ireland, US and Italy, published in the BMJ, insisted that - on the contrary! - as LDL cholesterol went down, all-cause mortality went up while higher levels of ‘bad ’ were apparently linked to living longer.

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

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

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

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

Monday, 5 November 2018

PP #40 The Noble Savage












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

Posted by Thomas Scarborough



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

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

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

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

Monday, 29 October 2018

How Life Has Value, Even Absent Overarching Purpose

Wherein lies value?
Posted by Keith Tidman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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