Category Archives: Philosophy

Yglesias on Blogging

Matthew Yglesias, in response to a gripe about blogging and him in particular wrote a ludicrously self-efacing response where he horribly insults his main benefactors in his readers and employers at the Atlantic, and followed it up with another article expressing his regret that he doesn’t have a greater mastery of Middle eastern languages to add depth to his opinions on the matter.

Part of the reason that so many of us like reading Yglesias is that he comes up with this kind of stuff that might not be always comfortable to read but it sure makes you think—the mark of a philosopher, and the real reason for reading good bloggers.

Clearly if you are going to comment on an area, some mastery of it is required, but anyone who seriously believes that a mastery of Persian, Arabic and Hebrew is necessary to comment on US foreign policy in the Middle East is exhibiting worrying signs of narrowness.  Yglesias finishes his second missive on the subject with a beautiful observation about the Pakistani understanding of US culture and language will make them much more effective in manipulating US policy makers than the reverse.  It is this kind of awareness that makes Yglesias’s commentary so valuable.

Just yesterday Yglesias observed that many commentator’s advocacy of bombing Iran show signs of people with a solution in search of a problem.  I used to work in the tech sector and we learned to recognise this kind of thinking, and Yglesisas is of course dead right.  It is this ability to condense into a short article a critical insight  that makes them so valuable.  Yglesias says that thanks to his shortcommings ‘the overwhelming majority of Americans have never read this blog and never will’ but this is exactly wrong.  It is the chalenging (i.e., worthwhile) aspects of his blog that will act as the barier.  I wish perhaps more of the pundits that populate the mainstream media would read, and, more importantly, understand what he says in his blog.  We would not be in half the mess we are if they did.

The Black Swan: All in the Mind?

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Penguin, 2007.

I had a mixed reaction to this book, spending much of it trying to avoid being suffocated by Taleb’s ego. More serious was the ignoring of Taleb’s bar-room philosophy (see my previous article) as he pontificated on anything that lurched into view on his meander to the meat of the book in part 3 (p. 213). He says that he gets emotional (p. 252) because of the irrationality of those around him in not coming round to he is way of thinking (and he does have a point) but there is nothing rational about being ’emotional’ and the various rage fits he seems to enjoy provoking in others (p. 64) or indulging in himself (p. 128). Interestingly Taleb’s mother elicits the most revealing passage:

I am reminded of a measure my mother concocted, as a joke, when I decided to become a businessman. Being ironic about my (perceived) confidence, though not necessarily unconvinced of my abilities, she found a way for me to make a killing. How? Someone who could figure out how to buy me at the price I am truly worth and sell me at the price I think I am worth would be able to pocket a huge difference. Though I keep trying to convince her of my internal humility and insecurity concealed under a confident exterior; though I keep telling her I am an introspector–she remain skeptical. Introspector shmintrospector, she still jokes at the time of writing that I am still a little ahead of myself.

Why don’t we all listen to our mothers more. As this article is not nearly flattering enough I guess it will never be read but should Taleb ever read these words I really think he should find out just what humility, what its cause are and what it looks like. Humility comes from inner confidence but bluster comes from insecurity. We all have to do battle with our insecurities and arrogant demons but it is going to be much more difficult if these categories are confused.

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The Causation Debate

I have been discussing causation over at Crooked Timber and despite a couple of attempts to explain myself I am not being understood. Having chucked a simple textbook example at me folks seem to have just ignored my point which I find interesting. To recap the point at issue is when does a set of correlations become a cause? I have proposed that it becomes a cause when some of those correlations lie in the future, when there are predictions involved and the correlation is surprising—i.e., is the correlation is true it adds to our knowledge of the world (see here; my thinking here has been entirely shaped by the late, great Richard Feynman). So if I claim that when you jump up and down on one leg while picking your noes, your tooth ache will always disappear then you can try it out and see it is it works—see if you observe this correlation the next time you get a tooth ache. If you do (and repeatedly so) then you have some new tentative causal knowledge that will become strengthened as you reliably see the correlation in a variety of circumstances. The textbook example that people have been throwing at me is that if I take causation is correlation too seriously then I will be forced to conclude that cock’s crows cause sun to rise, but this isn’t a problem here. Suns rising after cocks crowing isn’t surprising to me—I am not looking to explain that correlation having a perfectly satisfactory set of causal relationships to explain it (but thanks anyway).

I prodded noen (a commentator of this blog) and noen was good enough take pity on me and explain what nobody had thought worth spelling out to me:

I’m not sure what you’re getting at Chris. Discovering a correlation is an invitation to further study. One shouldn’t leap to conclusions. The problem is that no matter how fine grained our mechanism is there will always be a leap involved. So we are left with observing that B follows A and concluding that A causes B. We call that deduction but there is a gap in our understanding. There always will be.

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The Mac Droids (The Register)

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here The Register) on my blog-roll; see the about page. ]

With The Register reporting in its usual scurrilous style Microsoft’s ongoing difficulties in killing Windows XP, Bill Gates stepping down as the head of Microsoft and Taleb making an instructive blunder on the Mac-versus-Windows religious wars I thought I would indulge myself in a rare techie post.

It is also part of the review Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan.

Windows 3.0 (1990)

One of the many interesting (and instructive) observations that Taleb made in The Black Swans was the following.

A person can get slightly ahead for entirely random reasons; because we like to imitate one another, we will flock to him. The world of contagion is so underestimated.

As I am writing these lines I am using a Macintosh, by Apple, after years of using Microsoft-based products. The Apple technology is vastly better, yet the inferior software won the day. Why? Luck.

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Clarke’s Statement

John Cole makes a good point; it is not as if you need to trawl through hours of debate to reconstruct the context.

SCHIEFFER: Can I just interrupt you? I have to say, Barack Obama hasn’t had any of these experiences either, nor has he ridden in a fighter plane and gotten shot down.

CLARK: I don’t think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president.

That sure is a mean and vicious swiftboating.

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Clark’s Recklessness?

Ambinder from the Atlantic reckons it better left unsaid and Lopez from the NRO the calls it a smear on McCain. We are of course talking about General Wesley Clark’s comments on Sunday.

“I don’t think getting in a fighter plane and getting shot down is a qualification to become president.”

The hyperventilating is quite predictable and Obama will no doubt remind everyone of McCain’s proud and honourable service. But the problem is that Clark was careful to do this himself once you look at the context. Clark is no Wright! He has a much more distinguished military record himself even if it didn’t involve a tour of the Hanoi Hilton. The risk for McCain and the republicans in overreacting like this is that they will give Clark and Obama the opportunity to drive home the point that Clark is trying to get across. That ‘getting into a fighter plane and being shot down’ isn’t a qualification for becoming president, something that McCain supporters don’t seem to understand. To be sure it does no harm, but it isn’t a qualification, and to say so is not to smear McCain (unlike John Kerry’s swift-boating).

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Of Causation and History (Crooked Timber)

[Part of a series of articles reviewing blogs and websites (here Crooked Timber) on my blog-roll; see the about page.]

I have completed Taleb’s The Black Swan and will say more about it later but I first want to take him to task on one of his opinions (one that he doesn’t really hold as it turns out). From page 171:

Popper’s insight concerns the limitations in forecasting historical events and the need to downgrade “soft” areas such as history and social science to a level slightly above aesthetics and entertainment, like butterfly or coin collecting. (Popper who received a classical Viennese education didn’t go quite so far; I do. I am from Amioun.) What we call the soft historical sciences are narrative dependent studies.

To confuse historicism and history is a horrible conflation, and no claims to rural roots should excuse this kind of boorishness. As Aristotle by way of Aquinas and Schumacher reminds us,

‘the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.'(*) ‘Slender’ knowledge is here put in opposition to ‘certain’ knowledge, and indicates uncertainty.

(*) Aquinas, Summa theologica, I, 1, 5 ad 1.

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Metaphysical Bloviation (II)

The Ducks have challenged me on my pleas for metaphysical tolerance and Hey Skipper has posted some reflections on an Economist article, When Religions Talk, asserting “By definition, religions assert mutually exclusive metaphysical claims”.

Robert Duquette strikes close to the heart of the issue in his comment on my article:

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Ye shall know them by their fruits (I am back!)

I hit quite a block after posting that acknowledgment of what a superior blogger Yglesias is. To what extent was it ego? I don’t know: it is difficult to be sure, but I suspect it was one of several factors.

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This is NOT Compassion

Well, not necessarily.  We have no reason to believe that when Obama comforts the student when she breaks down 5:15 that this is an act of compassion.

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Metaphysical Bloviation?

Over at talkingphilosophy blog Jeff Mason has an elegant essay on metaphysics that takes the Kantian view that the physical sciences are the source of all knowledge and everything else is mere speculation. My problem with this essay, and Kant’s critique, is that they are the worst examples of the very thing that they are complaining about—making, as they do, grandiose excessively-general statements about the nature of reality that are quite immune from empirical or logical examination, the most extravagant metaphysical conceit of them all. The genre really should be called metametaphysics as it installs itself as the last arbiter on truth and preemptively disqualifies, tout court, anything that could offer an alternative to its dogmatically positivistic understanding of reality.

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Diana Effect?

Marc Ambinder:

In the wake of Tim Russert’s I’ve noticed among a lot of my journalistic friends an enormous amount of introspection and self-assessment, even among those who, like me, did not know Tim well. It is a perfectly appropriate to remark upon and even to criticize, the fact that the media treats a death in its family like a death in its family. But Tim’s death seems to have hit the Washington political community by an order of magnitude greater than the passing of a loved one.

Is Marc really saying that the impact of the death of Tim Russert is an order of magnitude greater than the death of a partner or parent?

On a Wing and Prayer

Andrew Sullivan on the news of Tim Russert’s death last week asked his readers:

Say a prayer for his family, if prayer is your thing. Especially his dad, for whom this coming Sunday may be extremely painful.

As prayer was my thing I indeed took up his suggestion, but only afterwards realized of the possible incongruity of a Buddhist responding to a Christian’s exhortation to pray.  Some of you may be wondering whether it makes any sense for Buddhists to pray, as prayer is asking God to fix something and Buddhists don’t believe in God, right.

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The Love Buzz

I am aware that my article on Ahmadinejad will probably be comprehensible and attract much ridicule in some quarters (as may my earlier articles, On Zionism, though in different quarters). That is not a problem but it would be a shame. The whole issue is actually intimately related to my recent essay On Love and many other articles on the need to keep head and hart unified, to avoid allowing our ethical judgments be dominated by sentiment (the modern mistake and the central theme of Sense and Sensibility and all of Jane Austen’s novels in my view). Here I will try to draw these themes together and fulfill a promise to reply to a fellow blogger.

Robert Duquette, commenting on my essay, On Love, questioned this effort do all this loving through the intellect, and encapsulated Taleb’s idea (explained in his book, The Black Swan) that our memory, and indeed our whole way of understanding reality, is narrative driven, leading us to simply ignoring or immediately forgetting information that fails to fit the narratives that makes up our understanding of reality. Taleb’s idea makes perfect sense to me and is compatible with what my Buddhist teachers have taught me (as I have understood them).

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On Love

In our Thursday evening meditation group at The Bodhi Garden we looked at the chapter on Meditation on Love from Kathleen McDonald’s How to Meditate. Each chapter in this book has been a revelation to us: McDonald’s simple and clear prose has a depth that can be easily missed. Here is the first paragraph that we looked at in the Thursday group.

Love, also called “loving-kindness,” is wanting others to be happy. It is a natural quality of mind, but until we develop it through meditation and other practices it remains limited, reserved for a few select individuals—usually those we are attached to. Genuine love is universal in scope, extending to everyone, without exception.

Buddhists have for the most part have given up on the word ‘love’ and an inspection of the entry on love Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy shows us why. Even sticking to the philosophical definitions of love we can see extreme confusion, without going anywhere near the ideas of love held by the benighted and unphilosophical.

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Back Home : Local Literature and Philosophy Conference

I have returned back home to Brighton. I have a couple of articles on Iran which i will post tonight, after which I really do want to get out some posts on the Mansfield Park blog.

Tomorrow I will go and have a look at the Philosophy and Literature conference at Sussex University and report back here. It is interesting to me that the local university should have just set up such an interdisciplinary research group and that they seem to have no interest in Jane Austen considering she lived locally (just across the border) and that Brighton features quite prominently in her writing.

In Defence of Motherhood

Jean Kazez has an interesting article at Talking Philosophy, Are Kids Green?, where she discusses the ethical dilemma of having children (for an atheist). As Kazez makes clear, and this is an argument that the Chinese government has made, children are not environmentally friendly, so how do you ethically justify having children. The article is brutally honest, and Kazez rightly argues for the common sense position.

But that’s not how I read it. I think in discussions of morality there’s usually an unstated assumption that moral imperatives take priority. Either you do what you should, morally, or you hang your head in shame…you lose your right to self-respect. In the lingo of metaethics, this is the view that moral considerations are overriding.

But I think not. Morality is a very important part of what we aim for, but not all of what we aim for, and not first priority all of the time, over absolutely anything else. What can compete with morality? A variety of things, but one is the sense of having one life to live. I will do what’s critically important to me before I die, and I won’t hang my head for that.

On another meta-point, I agree with Kazez allowing common sense to take precedence here. If your philosophy is contradicting reality then this is interesting, but you must give the benefit of the doubt reality and assume the philosophy has gone wrong somewhere (at least until the reason for the paradox has become clear). I think there is a paradox here as ethics is a guide to actions and why shouldn’t ethics guide the decisions over how many children to have. The environmental logic is difficult to escape yet it is plainly barmy to conclude that it is ethically dubious for a couple to have a child. Kazez is clearly interested in grown-up real-world honest philosophy, which can’t but command respect.

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Mansfield Park and The Culture Wars

After a hiatus I have posted an article, Everything of Higher Consequence, on my Mansfield Park blog. Here I have brought together some of my thinking on the novel which also intersects with some recent thoughts on what makes progressives and conservatives tick. Given that the two stream of thought originated with the French revolution and Edmund Burke’s reaction to it, and the way that the baby-boomer culture wars have been fought out in Austen criticism (see Conservatives and Progressives) and Barack Obama’s objective to move beyond these culture wars (see about half of the posts on Andrew Sullivan’s blog), you can see strong convergence in these seemingly disparate areas covering philosophy and the enlightenment, Jane Austen’s writing and contemporary politics.

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The Two Cultures

The Daily Duck wants to know why the seemingly perpetual interest in inter-disciplinary scholarship, especially when comes to jamming fields as disparate as the arts and sciences together.

More to the point, what’s the problem? Is literature suffering from it’s distance from science? Is science suffering? No. There is no magical middle ground between science and art where some mystical synergy kicks in to enable fantastic realms of new possibilities. Like most border areas it is a dead zone, a no-man’s land of barbed wire and trenches. That’s what keeps Germans in Germany and what keeps scientists productive.

Apparently C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures is being cited as an inspiration for this. This I think is highly ironic as I agree with F. R. Levis’s critique, that Snow was neither especially proficient in the arts or the sciences, and in any case most of the Two Cultures was poorly thought through, the Two Cultures being itself an illustration of why simply ramming the arts and sciences together is unlikely to produce much of lasting value.

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Subjective Truth and The Rationality of Religion

[The discussion thread for Julian Baggini’s Karma’s heart of Stone at Talking Philosophy took off and produced an interesting discussion of how atheists should critique religion. I was making the case that atheists were far too prone to satisfy themselves with critiquing the crudest religious expositions but that they should be gunning for the most sophisticated critiques. It produced a long and interesting discussion thread that broached many subjects. It is a shame that this kind of discussion between atheists and religious people doesn’t happen more often instead of the stock bun fights were people get to reiterate their stale positions.

One of the more interesting interchanges concerned a discussion of ‘subjective truth’. This illustrated for me another area in which atheists and those adhering to religious philosophies are inhabiting different mental universes. I have lightly edited the discussion into the following.]

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