Thursday, November 29, 2007

I'll be there

Just a few lines to say that I'm feeling RS at present, having been bed-ridden for the past couple of days, after a period of hard work, which they say never killed anybody. I've got an important task, and a few not so important taks to get out of the way over the next few days, after which I hope to be able to blog long and hard.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

there's life in them there lies

I've just finished the previously-mentioned Lies we live by, by Eduardo Giannetti, one of the better books I've read in recent times, for its deliciously quotable quotes, for the lively style, and for its general perspective on ethics, politics and the relationship between them. For example, he clearly endorses the findings of Pinker in The Blank Slate, though neither Pinker nor the slate are mentioned. He puts it very succinctly near the end of his book:
The moral equipment of the human animal is what it is. To imagine that it might be radically improved or regenerated, whether by means of sermons, intensive training courses and inspired exhortations, or by political engineering and new modes of production, is to embrace fantasies that may provide short-lived consolation but have no validity. If well-intentioned speeches, leaps forward or violent breaks with the past could produce the doubtful miracle of a 'moral regeneration of man', then the promise of a 'new man'- whatever the 'new human nature' that we want to put into him - would have occurred innumerable times in the course of history.

Since I have to take this book back to the library, I'd like to squeeze out as many quotes from it as I can beforehand.

Francis Bacon: The faculty of wise interrogating is half knowledge.

Fernando Pessoa: Although I have been a voracious, avid reader, I don't remember any book I have read, to such a degree were my readings states of my own mind, dreams of mine, and, even more, the things which kindled my dreams.

Denis Diderot: It's at times when everything is false that people love what is true, it's when everything is corrupt that the theatre is at its most refined. A citizen who goes to the Comédie leaves all his vices at the door and picks them up
again as he goes out. Once inside, he's just, impartial, a good father, a good friend, a lover of virtue; and I've often seen, sitting next to me, rogues who get deeply indignant at actions they would certainly have committed if they'd been in the same position as that in which the poet placed the character they detested.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: Nothing is so difficult as not deceiving oneself.

Friedrich Nietzsche: That which, from the earliest times to the present moment, men have found so hard to understand is their ignorance of themselves! Not only in regard to good and evil, but in regard to what is much more essential! The primeval delusion still lives on that one knows, and knows quite precisely in every case, how human action is brought about... Actions are never what they appear to us to be! We have expended so much labour on learning that external things are not as they appear to us to be - very well! the case is the same with the inner world!... So we are necessarily strangers to ourselves, we do not comprehend ourselves, we have to misunderstand ourselves, for us the law ''Each is furthest from himself'' applies to all eternity - we are not 'men of knowledge' with respect to ourselves.

Charles Darwin: He who would understand the baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke. [to which Giannetti shrewdly adds True enough. The only trouble is finding out how to get rid of metaphysics in our attempts to understand the baboon'.]

The two Delphic inscriptions:
Know thyself.
Nothing in excess.

Duc de la Rochefoucauld: We are so used to disguising ourselves from others that we end by disguising ourselves from ourselves.

William Shakespeare:
I do believe you think what now you speak;
But what we do determine, oft we break.
Purpose is but the slave to memory,
Of violent birth but poor validity,
Which now, the fruit unripe, sticks on the tree,
But fall unshaken when they mellow be .
Most necessary 'tis that we forget
To pay ourselves what to ourselves is debt.
What to ourselves in passion we propose,
The passion ending, doth the purpose lose.
[from Hamlet]

And finally that bobbydazzlingly discombobulating conundrum
When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies
[sonnet 138]

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Saturday, November 17, 2007

I do not compute

Am having much internet trouble, my browser having slowed to almost nothing because I've reached the limit of my 'unlimited' monthly downloads, largely to do with my foster-kid's constant down loads of games, game-related stuff and videos. It's great to have someone else to blame. I've ticked him off, as I've done before, and now I have to wait three days before I'm back at full speed.

I'm not a great a visitor of the blogs of others and I rarely comment on them, being a strangely anti-social type who always complains about lack of social contact, but also because the technology of blogging and computer shite in general is unfamiliar to me. I don't even know what a tag is, or not clearly. Having somehow arrived at this charming writerly blog, I've found out a bit more, though I don't think I'll ever be much into the memetagging thing. My top five movies, books, songs, dining experiences, whatever, I hate being asked those questions, they require me to be too decisive. It's as if you've defined yourself, however provisionally, and you immediately want to break free from the definition. And yet I'm tempted and I've occasionally drawn up such lists...

But what exactly is tagging? Is it like a cyberchain letter? I've read wikipedia's piece on tagging and I'm none the wiser.

I'm also having trouble just changing the design of my own blog. I wanted to 'come out' and put a real picture of myself in my profile, but I've not been able to make the switch after about a half a day of playing around with it. I need to have an affair with a sexy computer geek.


Wednesday, November 14, 2007

a hodgepodge of claptrap

Over the past couple of weeks I've been teaching basic computing to a very affable elderly gentleman who appears to be a retired businessman with an interest in science and technology, but he also has another interest-cum-obsession, which he's been smoothly and persistently haranguing me about. That is, the collusion of world political leaders in bringing down financial markets and thereby, somehow, enslaving us all. Apparently, the world is on the brink of collapse but everything's hush-hush. George Bush is really a communist [as are all the rest] and Alan Greenspan is in prison, unbeknown to the world, and some hundreds of the American banking fraternity have been spirited out of the country. It's all somehow to do with the fact that money isn't worth the paper it's printed on any more [since some fateful decision made in the seventies], it's all 'fiat money', he likes to say, and it all goes back to Lenin, who got the ball rolling.

Confused? The delightful thing about conspiracy theorists is that they can so steep themselves in their pet theories that, to the outsider, they come across as knowledgeable, articulate and convincing, so much so that only afterwards do you stop and think 'did he really say that?' My 'informant' appeared to know something about finance - he stopped in his pursuit of the miscreants of global capital to give me a little lecture on the founding of the Commonwealth Bank, which he described as the greatest banking institution in the world in its time. It was able to create money just like that, my informant told me, so that Australia emerged from World War One debt-free, but when its founder continued to create money 'they' turned on him and murdered him.

Of course, I could only nod and express surprise and regret at his revelations, knowing nothing about them, but I've decided to probe his claims a bit further, especially after discussion with the co-ordinator of the Community Centre at which I teach. My informant had also confided the parlous state of world financial markets to him, and they'd had a discussion about taxation. Unsurprisingly, my gentleman informant was a tax defaulter who claimed that tax money didn't need to be spent on services because most services were self-maintaining. No doubt he would also claim that, since all political leaders are crooks, criminals and communists, it would be itself a crime to provide them with your own hard-earned money. In other words, not skulking off from your responsibilities but doing the noble thing and wearing it like a badge of honour.

So I've been getting increasingly annoyed with this smooth talker. I challenged him a little this week, but he was deft and deferential while always dragging me into areas in which he had all the expertise, at least for that moment, even suggesting that I really read The Communist Manifesto and compare its contents with what's happening today. I have read The Communist Manifesto [a long time ago] and can't recall much mention of high finance in it. In any case, my informant's claims were so ludicrous that I was rendered quite speechless. No doubt if I had responded he would've come up with yet another unexpected conversation-stopper from out of right field. He was, it seems, accustomed to engineering one-way traffic scenarios.

It took me no more than five minutes on the net to discover the truth, all written by one Christopher Story:
You will have noticed many references to the World Revolution on these websites. Didn’t you know that this is what we are all experiencing? Who are the ‘dark actors playing games’ to which poor Dr Kelly, the brilliant British microbiologist who was ‘suicided’ in 2003, referred shortly before his death? Did you not know that certain over-powerful intelligence services, protected by long-standing legislation that they use as a cover for their open-ended organised criminal activities, are in control, out of control and need urgently to be brought under control, before they deal their suffocating death blow to democracy?

The guy's clearly mad as a witch's hat full of arseholes, but like my informant, he writes with a great deal of surface plausibility [for example, his grammar is impeccable, rare indeed among conspiracy theorists]. His routinely alarmist 'reports' have been largely ignored, except by my informant and his hopefully not too numerous ilk, but there is a site here that mocks and demolishes.

At first I thought that the communist plot was my own informant's twist on events, but no, it's all here from The Editor, Christopher Story. How can one man know so much? How burdened he must feel. The Story stories appear to be a variant of Illuminati PCTs [Paranoid Conspiracy Theories], all of which can be handily sourced from here. Good luck.

My only real question is whether to confront this elderly chap or just leave him to stew in his concerns. He's currently embroiled in a court case, and I'm wondering if it has to do with nonpayment of taxes. The community centre co-ordinator has asked me pointedly 'how does he get away with not paying taxes?' I'm wondering if he's wondering if he's breaking the law. That's to say, he's a criminal who, at the very least, shouldn't be helping himself to the community centre's taxpayer-funded services.

Of course, what I should reveal to him is that as the founding secretary of the new ussr, I'm the source of all his nightmares. To have power at last....


Wednesday, November 07, 2007

passions, promises and pretence

I'm trying to divest myself of stuff so I can write more here, but this is temporarily creating more work. What I'm doing may also lead to a considerably reduced income and a redirecting of attention to the domestic sphere, which may be a good thing, but who knows.

With the assistance of a fascinating book, Lies we live by, by Brazilian writer Eduardo Gianetti, I'm reflecting on self-deception and self-knowledge, a theme I've also followed through the writings of Pinker and others. Gianetti plays on the Delphic prescription to know thyself. The Greeks apparently knew a thing or two when they put that one up for consideration. Some even knew that such knowledge was essentially impossible. Aristotle once wrote that nobody should be judge in his own cause, and let's face it, we all know that autobiography is generally less reliable, if often more entertaining and even enriching, than biography, and that the last person we would go to to find out about a person's character is the person herself. Gianetti takes us on a stimulating tour of ideas about self-knowledge, introspection and privileged access, noting some intriguing paradoxes and problematic entrapments in the battle for self-knowledge as self-improvement. He checks out some old favourite writers of mine - take this from Montaigne:
Not only does the wind of chance events shake me about as it lists, but I also shake and disturb myself by the instability of my stance: anyone who turns his prime attention on to himself will hardly ever find himself in the same state twice. I give my soul this face or that, depending on which side I lay it down on. I speak about myself in diverse ways: that is because I look at myself in diverse ways. Every sort of contradiction can be found in me, depending on some twist or attribute: timid, insolent; chaste, lecherous; talkative, taciturn; tough, sickly; clever, dull, brooding, affable, lying, truthful, learned, ignorant; generous, miserly and then prodigal - I can see something of all that in myself, depending on how I gyrate; and anyone who studies himself attentively finds in himself and in his very judgment this whirring about and this discordance. There is nothing I can say about myself as a whole simply and completely, without intermingling and admixture.

We are whole worlds, in which the best and worst can be found, so that our failures can always be pasted over with other successes or memories or attempts, or reduced to a place in a far distant corner of the buzzing enterprise of the self.

Gianetti is fascinated by the paradox of our endless capacity for self-deception [nothing is more difficult than not deceiving ourselves, Wittgenstein has written] together with our immediate, certain self-knowledge [nobody else can feel our pain]. That enormous enterprise and treasury of the self is our exclusive possession - the rest of the humanity is forever locked out of it. Their only access is via our reporting. And we're forever locked in, only able to enter other minds through their reports and actions. Along the way he outlines the work of American philosopher Thomas Nagel, who effectively put a spanner in the work of the identity state theorists, those who have it that memories dreams and reflections are identical with brain states. I might post further on this after reading some of Nagel's work directly.

It's a wide-ranging book, full of deliciously quotable quotes, engendering an enthusiasm for the original works of many thinkers. I hope to mine it thoroughly before sending it back to the library. For now though I'll focus on self-deception in the political sphere, since it's so topical.

Amongst the many enterprises we engage in - trying to be successful in the world, trying to get laid regularly, trying to win all the arguments and so forth - one is the satisfaction of our curiosity about how the world works. A search for the truth about the world, if you will. This search requires that we keep an open mind and listen to and take on board other perspectives than our own, for the world - we surely know this - is multi-faceted and complex. Nothing could be more of a barrier to our search for truth than the conviction that we already know what it is. And yet, in the world of politics, we expect and demand such conviction - or at least politicians believe that we do, for nothing is more important, especially come election time, than that an air of absolute certainty and self-confidence regarding party policies is preserved. This creates a double image of the politician, as a source of strength and deception. It may be that we don't even mind our politicians lying, as long as they do so convincingly, but many of us, too, are uncomfortable with these displays of certitude, mindful of the Yeats line about the politics of his day - ''the best lacked all conviction, the worst were full of passionate intensity''.

This is where self-deception comes in. Better to be convinced yourself that your policies are the best thing since sliced bread than to simply present a veneer of confidence over a mass of doubts. That part of politics which is the art of persuasion - and it's a large part - militates against true reflective analysis of the efficacy of your policies and those of your opponents. Certainly this kind of analysis, the common wisdom has it, can never be conducted in public. The danger of all this, of course, is that you can sweep others into your deception, seduced by your self-confidence, at great cost [think of Nazism, but also of the invasion of Iraq], with the destruction of politicians' reputations for truth-telling being the least destructive of all the destructions that result.

All of this makes election time the most uncomfortable and often distasteful period for the philosophically inclined. Some of us - myself certainly - might look forward to a change of government - but we want to get the embarrassing beauty contest over with as quickly as possible.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

back in the USSR

Happy days - me and me mates at the inaugural meeting of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics [that's me at the back somewhere]

I'm trying to find a way to get back to more regular writing - offloading other work, getting regular possession of my computer back from my foster-kid etc - but in the meantime I've decided to abandon the daily illustrated title, as it's so far from daily, and because I want to get back to the USSR, so to speak. So I'm returning to my original, and I think far superior blog title, the new USSR. Hopefully the message will gradually trickle through to the Happy Few.


Thursday, November 01, 2007

on harmless deism

ceci n'est pas Dieu

As mentioned in a recent post, I have qualms about focusing too much on the religion issue to the neglect of so much else, being one with a perverse antipathy to specialisation in any case, but since I do love a bit of an argument, and since I've kind of committed myself, I''ll have a look at an apparently innocuous, even 'kindly' liberal religious belief - here in the form of the professed beliefs of a writer, one John Hewitt. In order to make my exploration easier to follow, I've pasted the beliefs here rather than linking to them. The only change I've made is to enumerate the beliefs for ease of reference. The numbers don't represent any order of importance.

My beliefs

  • 1. I believe that God is infinitely wise and intelligent.
  • 2. I believe that because God is infinitely wise and intelligent, God knows that even if God wrote down for us exactly what we should and should not believe or do, we would misinterpret it.
  • 3. I believe that because God knows this, God has never written a single word of guidance for us.
  • 4. I believe that humans, inspired by the presence of God, have written many words about God. Sometimes those words are wise and sometimes they are not, but those words are interpretations of God by humans and not the word of God.
  • 5. I believe that God is very interested in us, but that we are not God’s sole concern. The Earth and mankind are a tiny part of a much larger creation with goals that the human race will probably never fully understand.
  • 6. I believe that God occasionally steps in to guide or help the human race, or even individuals, but that God does so quietly and it is impossible to know for sure whether something was God’s work or our own work or blind chance.
  • 7. I believe that because it is always possible that God did step in and help out in any given situation, it is all right to be grateful when you think God has helped you or others.
  • 8. I believe that overall, God prefers that we fix our own problems.
  • 9. I believe that the universe, while a creation of God, was built to follow rules of science.
  • 10. I believe that because God’s creation of the universe followed the rules of science, the scientific explanation of the creation of the universe does not in any way require a discussion of God’s role, which we cannot fully understand anyway.
  • 11. I believe that when science and our interpretation of God are at odds, science is generally right and our interpretation of God is generally wrong.
  • 12. I believe that religion, like most intoxicating things, is fine when used in moderation but dangerous when used in excess.

Now, I've been challenged to find anything objectionable about Hewitt's beliefs. My first response is to say that I find them philosophically objectionable, in the sense that I find Kant's more or less arbitrary positing of a noumenal world outside the realm of the perceived physical world objectionable. That's to say, it just seems too obviously a construction, one that cannot by its nature be provable, and it serves no useful explanatory purpose. It offends against Okham's razor [do not multiply concepts beyond necessity], and just adds more air to windy metaphysical speculation. Kant's move, designed apparently to answer Hume's famous problem of induction,
has aptly been called a version of the 'worst argument in the world', the invention of an unknowable world to somehow explain our limitation to the world we can only know. The obvious rejoinder is that Kant doesn't know anything of this noumenal world, including whether it exists or not. Bad though the argument is, it's really the only argument believers have left.

Hewitt's beliefs are another version of this worst of all arguments, a sort of personalised version of Kant's noumena [which, incidentally, comes from the Latin numena, meaning spirits]. We humans, trapped in the phenomenal world, can never really 'get at' God. Everything written about God [Hewitt cleverly avoids giving his deity a gender] is more or less wrong, a misinterpretation, or at best a mere interpretation, which gropes well short of the Reality [beliefs 2, 5 and 10]. This of course invokes God's mystery, the eternal escape clause. For example, quite apart from the long list of God's misdeeds related in the Bible, the cruelty and wastefulness of the evolutionary process might suggest a capricious or even an incompetent God, but no no, belief 5 more or less covers that, the fault is in our understanding, never in God.

Is Hewitt a Christian? Presumably not. In belief 4 he dismisses the claims of all the world's 'sacred texts' to be the word of God. This releases him from all traditional, text-based beliefs about God and our relationship to God. His God is apparently ahistorical, but surely only apparently, for Hewitt hasn't derived his belief from nothing. For example, the fact that he believes in one God rather than many reveals modern theological influences. It's fashionable to believe that monotheism is an advance on polytheism, though I've heard no convincing argument to this effect. The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians were hardly unsophisticated. In fact, I would argue that Hewitt manages to keep his God as ahistorical, as generalised as possible by avoiding some of the tough questions. He makes no mention of the soul - does it exist, do only humans have one? Nor does he say anything about the afterlife. Does he believe in it? If not, what can he make of a God that creates all these creatures with a finite span of life between infinitudes of nothingness? It's a mystery.

There are other questions to be looked at here. Can a personal god be reconciled with the theory of evolution? Can we really rip gods from their historical context and expect them to have a living reality to most people, who like their gods anthropomorphised and nearby? Isn't there a problem with the remoteness and reduced space allowed for God by the advancement of science? I might look further at these questions later, or I might not.

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pavlov's cat