Friday, April 18, 2014

I'm now 'officially' a philosopher

Or something kind of like that.

Here's my take on fakery in aesthetics at philosopher Massimo Pigliucci's new long-form science and philosophy site. I already have a follow-up on this issue in the works, and hope to do some other occasional writing there.

The follow-up will be about the work of developing artists as public intellectuals. As such, it will focus on funding, via the National Endowment of the Arts and other organizations, better K-12 arts programs, within the context of improved academics in general, and more.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Ray Kurzweil is not my savior


I uploaded my life to the cloud.
Ray Kurzweil said I could reinvent myself
As an immortal Singularitan.

Beyond not believing this was possible,
I didn’t know what I would do,
Or what it might feel like,
If it were the case.

What if the power went off?
Would I then not be immortal?
If I were rebooted, would I remember the down time?
A man’s cybermolecules scattered all across the damned universe,
Would I feel like “Immortal, Interrupted”?

What if I didn’t get a software upgrade
In a timely fashion?
What if I were on a slow connection speed?
Would I feel like “Immortal, Second Class”?
Ditto for all my necessary hardware.

What if resource wars break out
Because everybody else likes Kurzweil’s opportunity?
Will our planet run dry?
Will Kurzweil’s Fordies kill the rest of us, or make us drones?

These were only a few of the many questions
That wandered through my mind.
So I shut the lid to Pandora’s laptop
And toddled off to face a strange, unsettled sleep.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ethics thoughts on utilitarianism, contractualism, deontology, Kant and Rawls

This overview of theories of ethics by Massimo Pigliucci, followed by this particular one on contractarian versions of ethics, and this specific one on John Rawls' veil of ignorance, reminded me of a few things, some of which I've specifically articulated either here or on Massimo's blog, but others that have ben just wandering in my head.

They are, in no particular order after No. 1 —

1. John Rawls is overrated;
2. Rawls is, if not a classical utilitarian, some sort of consequentialist;
3. The veil of ignorance is really just a specialized view of the utilitarian "view from nowhere";
4. Though I'm not a system builder, ethics in my philosophical mindset depends much more on a correspondence theory of truth, contra Massimo, who allows more room for the coherence theory of truth to guide ethics. (As I posted on his blog recently, that may be part of what explains his love for virtue ethics.)

I'm going to unpack 1-3 more, with the unpacking of 2 and 3 explicating No. 1, which means I'll unpack them first.

No. 2 comes from Rawls' own famous "justice = fairness" phrase. What is that if not some sort of consequentialist? Now, he may put that in a contractarian background, but I believe that if push had ever come to shove (assuming Rawls accepted either one of the labels as applying to himself) he would have called himself a consequentialist first.

Now, some people will criticize me for this, the same who criticize the a few of my book reviews, but I came to hold that Rawls was overrated by reading about him more and before actually reading him.

The linchpin? Walter Kaufmann's "Without Guilt and Justice," which simply blows Rawls' "justice = fairness" ideas out of the water. 

Kaufmann starts with the obvious, which I will slightly rephrase to fit into terms of the current discussion.

That is that the "veil of ignorance," or the more general "view from nowhere," is an idealized abstraction which isn't even close to achievable in reality.

Oh, sure, we strive for it, and sometimes obtain it in some special issues that have at least a degree of ethical freight. An obvious example is the practice of major symphony orchestras to give tryouts to new players by having them play from behind a screen. This is designed to screen out, pun intended in some way, any female bias from the conductor, the principal chair in the section with the opening, and others involved. (And, yes, such bias was real, and huge, before the screens were raised.)

But, that's not what the likes of Rawls are getting at. He, and followers, act under the idea that we can take this veiled view out into situations outside the original setting, including settings where, Kaufmann charges, it's not only impossible to remain veiled, but where some people will demand we become unveiled.

Ergo, it's a thought experiment with little relation to reality. (Short of some Brave New World future which would entail some overseers controlling the veils.)

Or, to put it more pithily, there are always oxen being gored — and sometimes, their owners' complaints are rightfully made.

Or, even more to Kaufmann's point, there are always oxen being gored — and sometimes, some people think with good reason their owners' complaints are rightfully made, and other people think with good reason these complaints are out of bounds.

So, contra Pigliucci, no, Rawls' idea doesn't grow on me. The Platonic cave and the Theory of Ideas once did grow on me, but I was less than half the age then that I am now, and still a conservative evangelical Christian.

To me, Rawls' thought experiment only grows on people who, in terms of political philosophy, do not  put "skeptical" in front of "liberal" or "left-liberal." (Unlike yours truly.)

Now, to the degree a view from nowhere might seem to be an unveiled, but theoretically detached, utilitarianism. However, this is where consequentialism in general fails.

Human life, like space-time, has four dimensions. Humans are, of course, not temporally omniscient. Therefore, we can never say that our utilitarian judgments are correct. For all we know, maybe we should have let Hitler kill more people, if one wants to stake out a deliberately Godwin-like position.

Beyond that, utilitarianism fails in other ways. The hedonic calculus does so even without the view from nowhere falling short. On matters of taste, and hedonic benefit, it runs smack into the old Latin maxim: "De gustibus non disputandum." On this account, shouldn't the National Endowment for the Arts give more money to punk rock bands and less to symphony orchestras?

And, no, the arts aren't the same as ethics. The above question is in part rhetorical, but not entirely so.

On ethical issues, we have a certain natural compass from biology. The arts? Not so much. Let's stay within fine arts. A lot of people don't call what Picasso does "art," or what Schoenberg does "music." So, somebody else might say, no, we shouldn't give NEA money to punk rock, but, we shouldn't give it to a symphony orchestra, either, unless it pledges itself to not play any post-1900 music. 

And, not in terms of NEA money, but in terms of ticket sales, exactly that happens. Blue-haired ladies around the country refuse to plunk down money for classical concerts that have serial music on the program. A few of the largest cities in our country have orchestras that specialize in modern music, but they struggle.


As a sidebar note, this is a good example of why I identify myself as a skeptical left-liberal on this blog, and elsewhere. I'd love it if Rawls were right, but I just don't see that.

Monday, February 03, 2014

Renee Fleming crushes my Super Bowl hopes

Even more than the showdown between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos, even more than the showdown between Peyton Manning and what a win would mean for his legacy, there was one other thing that piqued my attention (even if a late afternoon nap had me miss it and much of the first half).

That was glorious-voiced, and lovely looking, if I may, Renee Fleming, singing the National Anthem.

"Finally!" I thought. "We'll get it sung right at a major sporting event."

Sadly, not quite so.

Fleming didn't fully butcher "The Star Spangled Banner," unlike the typical big-time sports event singer, tis true but she did at least one-third maul it. I had hoped that she would just, you know, sing it like it's written.

If you can't clock it in under 2 minutes flat, on the time, you blew it. If you can't sing it straight up (if you're sober, since it was originally a drinking song tune) without all sorts of hitches and adornments, you blew it.

Fleming didn't have as much of that as your typical rock, rap, R&B, country, pop, or imitation Slim Whitman star, but she had enough of that to have blown it.

When I heard the first syllables on YouTube, I knew my hopes had been sadly crushed. And, I didn't care for the "reverb" chorus behind her, either. That hurt the clock time a bit. She might have completed the 2-minute drill correctly as far as flat time, if not for that, but it would have had enough issues otherwise to be a one-fifth mauling.

I do salute her for not lip-synching, even if it seems that the cold sapped her lungs, and tone, both a bit.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Authentic modern culture vs fakery

Is there such a thing as fake culture? Roger Scruton has a very interesting essay in which he discusses these issues in depth. As somewhat an appreciator of modern art, and a huge one of modern classical music, I can appreciate just where he's coming from.

And, he names names in his list of real vs fake modernists, in literature, music, art and philosophy. In the first three categories, as the prime creatives and innovators, he lists Eliot, Stravinsky and Picasso.

That said, Roger, I'm very surprised Dali's not in here. I would see him as someone who was earlier in life an actual modernist innovator, but later descended into schlock. (There's a great book I read a couple of years ago, which also describes how almost all of Dali's late life works were fakes. And, no, not assistants filling in the details after he did the basics, like a Renaissance "school of Dali," but, pretty much from the ground up fakes.) Richard Strauss offers a parallel example, perhaps, in classical music. Barbara Tuchman once described much of his later work as "schlock."

So, with the link, and the few examples provided, who would you list as the top real and fake modernists in these three areas?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Philosophers without gods

Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular LifePhilosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life by Louise M. Antony

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A great book of essays, each running from around 10 to 20 pages in length, about issues of "deconversion" to non-theism, all by people who are now professional philosophers.

Only one, Dan Dennett, is an outright Gnu Atheist. Only a few others might be called "evangelizing atheists." But none is a shirking violet as to how they address these issues.

Some spend more time on their actual deconversion and how that appears from a philosophic angle. Others, whether evangelizers or not, focus on their current relations with religion in general, or conservative apologists for the religion of their childhood, either Christianity or Judaism. (The one small down point: no ex-Muslim atheist philosopher seems to be in this book.) On this issue, the different philosophers vary within themselves on issues such as "respect" for Christianity in general (I'm taking this as the "default" in America and Britain alike), or how much respect, or whatever, more liberal versions of Christianity deserve.

Others focus more on their post-deconversion lives, including with bits of wistfulness, though not full regret, for some parts of their past.  One, Paul Farrell, whom has promised me some materials via snail mail, talks about second-order values and applying those in a secular way after having learned to in a Catholic way when younger. (I found this triggered thoughts of Catholic, and Lutheran in my case, "vocation," and also got me to thinking about Aristotelian flourishing, among other things.)

Anyway, per that last comment, you'll probably gather, if you're someone who follows my reviews, that this is a book to read. There's no formal logic or anything else even very close to being technical or jargonistic.

View all my reviews

Friday, November 08, 2013

Happy 100th to Albert Camus

Albert Camus/From Wikipedia
I missed the centennial birthday anniversary of Albert Camus yesterday, somehow.

But, it's never too late to commemorate a great philosopher and a great human being.

To talk about that latter part, while at the same time refuting recent rumors I've seen online that he was Jewish, please read this excellent piece, which talks about his Jewish friendships, his work in the French Resistance during WWII, and his support for the formation of the state of Israel.

Camus didn't always walk a perfect line between support for Israel and anti-Arab occasional sentiments. Even before the start of the Algerian civil war, his stance toward Arabs was surely part of his pied-noir Algerian native heritage.

But, in general? Per  Wikipedia's comment on his Nobel Prize award, his literature:
(W)ith clear-sighted earnestness illuminates the problems of the human conscience in our times."
Can't say it better myself.

And, speaking of:

The video is in French, but has English subtitles if you turn on the captions. It's from this tribute, which has selected quotes:
 For myself, I cannot live without my art. But I have never placed it above everything. If, on the other hand, I need it, it is because it cannot be separated from my fellow men, and it allows me to live, such as I am, on one level with them. It is a means of stirring the greatest number of people by offering them a privileged picture of common joys and sufferings. It obliges the artist not to keep himself apart; it subjects him to the most humble and the most universal truth.
The full speech, translated, is here. Camus' justification for why he wrote, and more, still speaks to us today:
Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself. Heir to a corrupt history, in which are mingled fallen revolutions, technology gone mad, dead gods, and worn-out ideologies, where mediocre powers can destroy all yet no longer know how to convince, where intelligence has debased itself to become the servant of hatred and oppression, this generation starting from its own negations has had to re-establish, both within and without, a little of that which constitutes the dignity of life and death.
That said, he and Sartre, who met during Resistance work, eventually became alienated when they didn't see eye to eye on how to address these issues. Why?

Camus "saw through" the reality of the Soviet Union early on, while Sartre remained, essentially, a "fellow traveler" all of his life. Sartre's blank-check support for the Munich Olympics kidnappers and Che Guevara only  further illustrate that.

That said, again per  Wiki, on Camus:
In the 1950s, Camus devoted his efforts to human rights. In 1952, he resigned from his work for UNESCO when the UN accepted Spain as a member under the leadership of General Franco. In 1953, he criticized Soviet methods to crush a workers' strike in East Berlin. In 1956, he protested against similar methods in Poland (protests in Poznań) and the Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolution in October.

Camus maintained his pacifism and resisted capital punishment anywhere in the world. He wrote an essay against capital punishment in collaboration with Arthur Koestler, the writer, intellectual and founder of the League Against Capital Punishment. He was consistent in his call for non-aggression in Algeria.
And, even if his birth might have left him a bit indisposed toward Arabs at times, it didn't do that much:
Although favouring greater Algerian autonomy or even federation, though not full-scale independence, he believed that the pied-noirs and Arabs could co-exist. During the war he advocated a civil truce that would spare the civilians, which was rejected by both sides, who regarded it as foolish. Behind the scenes, he began to work for imprisoned Algerians who faced the death penalty.
So, happy birthday, Mr. Absurdist. Speaking of that, here's some earlier blogging of mine about his absurdism, what he saw as philosophically separating him as an absurdist from existentialism and why, and more. (It's somewhat similar to why Stravinsky, and rightly, rejected the label of "neoclassicist" because that lumped him with Prokofiev. And, for more of my thoughts on THAT issue, and a level of a mix of jealousy and outright contempt that goes beyond Sartre on Camus, go here.)

I see in Camus, beyond philosopher and litterateur, a humanist, a man of and  for humanity.Add

Add to that this great piece from Columbia Journalism Review about how Albert Camus' career as a journalist, and his writing on real-life events, ties in with his work as a philosopher, especially on ethics and related issues.

As part of that, I see a person of integrity. By that, I mean far more than honesty, but someone "integrated" within himself. If we think about the idea of Aristotelian flourishing, Camus seemed to have exemplified this in many ways, and to have done so without being anywhere the rich slave-owning upper-class Athenian of Aristotle's day, to whom he limited the idea and possibility of such flourishing.

This idea of integrity, and an updated version of Aristotelian flourishing, is something I understand more, and aspire to more, as I get older. 

And, on Google Plus, a friend of mine talked about the desired Venn diagram overlap of atheism (in a non-Gnu Atheist way), true liberalism (with a humanist bent) and skepticism. I don't know how much of a science-type skeptic Camus was, but he certainly punched the ticket on the first and second.

American philosophy has certainly produced nothing exactly like Camus, in part because the true non-Communist leftist class in America generally has not produced such intellectuals, in part because it's so thin, and some have veered beyond that "non-Communist" part, or at least to a semi-reflex anti-American part. And,  even more, America hasn't produced a Camus because of the broader anti-intellectualism of much of America, per Richard Hofstadter.

That said, per his falling out with Sartre, Europe in some ways really hasn't produced anyone exactly like him.