Twilight of the idols of good writing

For a long time I have thought of my job as mostly a teacher of writing. I teach philosophy too, but most of what I teach in that domain is soon forgotten. What my students will keep with them (or so I tell myself) are enhanced abilities to read, think, and write. These skills, I hope, will continue to be exercised in whatever walks of life my students discover for themselves, because our society needs and values people who can survey complicated situations and describe them clearly and accurately.

Less so nowadays. The internet broadens the public square, and allows many more people to participate in the exchange of ideas (or, failing that, memes). This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, more participation means a more vibrant and eclectic breeding ground for culture: more diversity, more creativity, more involvement, and more communication, which are all good things. On the other hand, the “moremoremore” tends to drive shorter attention spans and shallower content.

The emblem of both results is Twitter: each day of Twittering would fill up a 10 million page book. Each tweet is limited to only 280 characters, but that has proven to be ample, as the average tweet is only 33 characters (so I learn from a quick Google search). A great many of our social media posts feature a central image, and the verbal component is an accessory or a punchline. Emails are beginning to represent the epic works of popular culture, by contrast – so much text, so few images! – but obviously they are not much to brag about in terms of thoughtfulness, for the most part.

All in all, writing matters less. To my old school way of thinking, this means thinking and reading also matter less. I once heard Jonathan Bennett opine that there are no purely stylistic difficulties; every problem in expression betokens a failure to have thought all the way through what one wants to say. If we are more lax in our expectations for our writing and the writing of others, this means expecting less in thinking and reading. Good writing is mental discipline, and that discipline carries over, or fails to carry over, into all attempts to process content.

Now I am not sure this is a bad thing. Maybe the art of nuanced and disciplined writing has had its day, just as sonnets and lyric poems have had their day. Out with the old. Time moves on, mostly indifferent to tradition, and my grousing about it is purely epiphenomenal. If human culture as a whole is getting by just fine with silly little tweets, what’s the problem? Things change. I don’t intend to be the grumpy old guy in his shed complaining about the demise of the good old days. (And yet, here I am….)

So it may not much matter, but I do think we are at the twilight of the job I have been taking myself to do, namely, teaching writing. I probably have been on the losing side of this issue for some time. I try to coach my students into making a clear plan for what they are going to write, to offer clear signposts along the way, and to write in complete sentences. I ask them to “level up” their prose into a more academic style, mainly because writing more formally forces you to be more precise in what you say. They should use the little words that suggest contrast, or implication, or example. I expect subjects and verbs to agree with each other. It’s pretty standard, orthodox stuff. (Basically, the stuff you see me do here, I try to teach them to do: monkey me, monkey you.) I understand the arguments that there are many ways to write, and that I’m privileging one particular brand of “white establishment” writing. My defense is that students should learn how to write in a great variety of styles, from the homespun to the soaring to the soullessly impersonal; but one such style (one, I have supposed, with bankable career benefits) is the style I’m teaching. My hope has been that the skills I try to impart would help give them advantages in their careers.

But there are signs that I’m falling behind the times. College courses in composition seem to be more about liberating authentic voices than about refraining from comma splices, so I end up encouraging students to use to catch their more obvious mistakes. An increasing number of papers I receive appear to be not typed but dictated into voice recognition software (for that’s the only explanation for some of the bizarre things I read), and presumably someone will soon find a way to integrate that software with grammarly or whatever else so as to mechanically produce decent prose from verbal hash. So, in short, the skills I’m trying to teach can be outsourced to apps. And with regard to the ability to read and think, which are integrally connected to the ability to write (say I), the need for those skills is already waning, as the virality of tweets and the fecundity of meme generation overwhelm the need for insightful explanations. So it goes. More and more, I am training in students the skills needed for hitching up a buggy.

It’s only twilight, so there will still be some utility in teaching good writing for the rest of my working days, most likely. After that, you’re all on your own, which is as it should be and always has been.

Posted in Items of the academy / learning | 11 Comments

3QD: Monkeys in our treehouse

How we are able to talk — the surprisingly effortless channeling of thoughts into words made available for public consumption — is a startling mystery. The next time you find yourself jabbering, see if you can direct some unemployed part of your mind toward observing just how it is you know what word to put next. Within seven seconds you will find yourself tongue-tied and bewildered as to how you do it. Words come to us, and usually we, like everyone else, do not know exactly what’s coming until we hear it from our own mouths. 

One likely theory is that we have a bunch of monkeys in our treehouse whose job it is to come up with stuff for us to say. They’re a creative bunch and not always keen on relevancy, so there must be some other unit — a panel of straight-faced orangutans, perhaps — that rejects the craziest proposals put forth by the monkeys and shapes what isn’t rejected into something that, for the most part, is not an unreasonable thing to say. The monkeys are enthusiastic but clueless, so they propose a wild array of sayable things; the orangutans tend to be more sensitive to local conditions, and take up the proposals that seem likely to accomplish whatever it is we think we might want to accomplish by making our noises. (Lack of sleep, alcohol, and the presence of someone you’d like to impress all skew the orangutans’ judgment, as is well known.)

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3QD: Science and magic

I think it is fair to say that we usually see science and magic as opposed to one another. In science we make bold hypotheses, subject them to rigorous testing against experience, and tentatively accept whatever survives the testing as true – pending future revisions and challenges, of course. But in magic we just believe what we want to be true, and then we demonstrate irrational exuberance when our beliefs are borne out by experience, and in other cases we explain away the falsifications in one way or another. Science means letting what nature does shape what we believe, while magic means framing our interpretations of experience so that we can keep on believing what feels groovy.

But this belief – that we can clearly distinguish between magic and science – turns out itself to be an instance of framing our interpretations so as to allow us to keep on believing something that makes us feel good. In other words, the relation between magic and science is far more complicated, and magic is not so easily brushed aside.

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Teaching history (and philosophy) of the knowledge of nature and (history of) “the philosophy of science”

I have been teaching university philosophy classes for something like 78 years. (At some point, when you can’t summon the energy to figure out how old you are, and what year something happened, and then do a bit of subtraction, then the point you were going to make can be made just as well by making up an absurdly large number and putting it in the slot.) An intelligent person would already have prepared every standard course they would ever teach, and when the time for that course came around, they would just pop off the lid, reheat, and serve the course once again. But I have never been able to do that. For whatever reason – I think it has to do with having a very limited attention span – did you know imaginary numbers are actually used by engineers in their calculations? – I constantly seem to reinvent a course every time I teach it.

So this coming academic term I am teaching two courses, Epistemology and Philosophy of Science. Epistemology is always a frustrating puzzle for me to solve, and I’m trying to solve it this go-around by writing my own textbook. I’ll probably discuss that on another occasion. Philosophy of Science is a course I have not usually taught, so I have less experience continually reinventing it, which makes it a fresher puzzle. My initial thought was to grab a standard textbook and use it as a sort of master plan, fitting in extra remarks, questions, and tangents along the way.

But as I read the text I grew increasingly antsy and frustrated. Philosophy of science is a large and important subdiscipline within philosophy, and it has attracted some very bright and clever thinkers like Carl Hempel, Karl Popper, Nelson Goodman, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, Bas van Fraassen, and so on and so forth. But, like nearly every subdomain of contemporary academic philosophy, it has been severely blinkered by refusing to look at anything outside a very narrow reading list; in particular, it has not joined in any serious way with history and the broad array of scholarship contained under the heading of “science studies”. Moreover, it usually has been surprisingly silent about any sort of thinking about nature prior to Copernicus (and, post-Copernicus, the world seems to have been populated by about ten or so figures in science, if you base your guess on philosophers’ discussions).

Such a view of science is willfully ignorant, obviously. At the same time, it is the stuff one should sort of expect to see in an undergraduate class surveying the philosophy of science. But it is willfully ignorant! But it is the stuff. But there are so many other interesting things to know! But it’s what everyone else teaches. But!!!

These frustrating concerns have been wrestling in my head for a few weeks until a sleepless episode a few nights ago in which I realized, for about the one hundred millionth time, that I could do things differently.

What I realized was that the course could consist of two big chunks. The first chunk is what I can call “the history (and philosophy) of knowledge of nature”. This chunk is a very long story about how people have understood nature and how that understanding relates to philosophical subjects like metaphysics, religion, morality, and the meaning of life. We read and think about the pre-Socratics, Aristotle, Plato, some neo-Aristotelians, various figures in the early modern period including philosophers and magic enthusiasts, Darwin, Einstein, and quantum mechanics, and we think about the metaphysics of each view, how it connects to their surrounding culture, and what such a view says about our place in the universe: big picture stuff. Obviously, this chunk could be infinite, as there is so much to explore in it. And I wish I had greater competence to explore more of the so-called “non-western” stuff.

The second chunk is a comparatively shorter story. It concerns the history of an academic subdiscipline that calls itself “the philosophy of science”, which got its start early in the 20th century and continues today. There are important concepts and problems and insights in this subdiscipline, but it has to be framed as a relative newcomer to the historical stage, and just as much conditioned by cultural forces as anything else humans come up with.

This seems to be something I can really get behind. (At least until the next time I teach the course.) Students, I think, are extremely interested in thinking through “big picture” metaphysics, which is exactly what we find in the first chunk of the class. And the content of the second chunk will I think become deeper and more insightful, but at the same time more obviously limited and skewed, by having the broad picture offered by the first chunk serving as a frame of reference. Well: we’ll see how it goes.

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3QD: Bigger knowledge, bigger problems

In a slogan: our hard problems require more smarter people than the hard problems of the past. The tightrope we are walking keeps getting steeper and more slippery and higher off the ground – requiring even better tightrope walkers, tightrope walkers “more better” than the rest of us than has been required in the past. Put more simply, there’s some acceleration going on, both with our levels of expertise and our levels of problems.

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For the sake of discussion

People argue

We know all too well how easy it is to write something to someone online that we would never say face to face, and conversely how much more effort it takes to write online with the general kindness we employ in our real life interactions. It is tempting to let fly with that zinger, press “enter”, and make a quick escape; or to grind on and on trading insult with insult, madly googling for easy factoids with which to bludgeon our opponent. But that sort of toxic online activity never makes us feel better – or at least I hope it doesn’t. I hope that in all of us there remains some human decency that steadily disapproves of being a jerk. Once that fails us, we’re sunk.

So it is worth bearing in mind what attitudes we should adopt for the sake of discussion. There is of course the general rule that we should act online as if we were acting face to face, or do unto others online as you would have them do unto you F2F, or other web-directed reformulations of the golden rule (call it “the silicon rule”, I guess). But I don’t find that rule easy to keep in mind, probably because every time it is employed I have to work through an unlikely counterfactual scenario that takes too much effort to process (“If I were standing in line at Walmart, talking to my neighbor about how widespread esoteric beliefs were in the middle ages, would I say this to them?”). I would instead suggest adopting a frame of mind when engaging online, one that you remind yourself to adopt before you type anything to anyone.

So suppose I’m flitting around the internet and some story or article or post grabs my attention and I feel like participating. I need to first take a breath and ask myself, “Is this likely to be a serious engagement of ideas?” If not, it’s better to just move on. If that’s too hard, then type the zinger you really want to express, take a moment to revel in its sting – and then delete it, and move on. You will feel a burst of pride for having acted like an adult.

If it is – if there is a chance for a real conversation – then you need to adopt an “input” attitude governing what you read, and an “output” attitude governing what you type.

As you read others’ comments, the attitude should be that the person you are reading might be right, or half right, or a little bit right. Focus on what’s right. Ask yourself whether you really know that the other parts of what they are saying that seem wrong really are wrong. Don’t reflexively google up refutations. Take a moment to consider what they are saying, and whether it might be true, for all you know. Try to see the main point they are making, and give them a free pass if they make mistakes about tangential points, or if they misspell words or names. As in a real conversation, focus on the real substance of what’s being said. The general attitude is this: put yourself in the frame of learning.

Once you feel you have a solid and fair grip on what another person has written, if you feel you have something to say in return (and if you don’t, move on), your attitude should be one of engaged friendliness. Point out what you think the other person is right about. Then move the conversation further – by raising a difficulty with what they have said, or pointing out a relevant counterexample, or suggesting a different way of looking at things. Or you might simply point out a further complication that you yourself are not sure what to think of. Be clear in what you say, but sprinkle in a few qualifiers like “it seems to me” or “maybe” or “I think” – not in a sarcastic tone as you go on to point out something blazingly obvious, but in a truthful tone, since whatever you are writing is in indeed qualified by it seeming so to you. You in fact might be wrong. You, like the other person, are steering by your best available sense of the world. The general attitude is this: put yourself in the frame of furthering the discussion, not finishing it.

Putting the two together, your frame of mind should be: I am here to learn and to further the discussion.

Now obviously this advice does not guarantee success. Your conversational partner might be affected by the civil tone you have adopted, and adopt a similar one, which is great. But they might not, and they might go on to behave like a jerk. If that happens, move on. Not with a parting shot. Not even with an innocent “I was hoping for a civil discussion, but alas, my friend, you have disappointed me.” Just move on. Let them have their last word. If your partner thinks about the exchange at all, waiting for your response that never comes, they might reflect on the difference in tone between your notes and theirs, and perhaps will recognize that they have been a jerk. Either that, or they will believe that their final zinger really got you, and you’ve gone off to lick your wounds. It doesn’t really matter. You will have done your part to make online conversations better. Sometimes even your best efforts will fail, but it will still be important that you have made them.

Adopting this attitude is a two marshmallow effort. You lose out on an immediate thrill coming from virtual confrontation, but you are rewarded over a longer term by knowing that you have tried to be a decent person.

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Mad-Dog Everettianism, probability, and a little bit of Hume

One of the great upsides of the generally miserable or horrific pandemic is that more recordings of fascinating intellectual discussions are being made available to wider audiences. Recently I watched a set of talks hosted by an outfit called the “Harvard Foundations of Physics Workshop Series”, grouped together under the name “Mini-Workshop on the Many Worlds of Everettian Quantum Theory”. I am interested in this topic, but I have no more than amateurish competency. In what follows I’m going to offer what I think I understand; but if I get stuff wrong, just blame me, of course, and none of the presenters in this workshop.

Sean Carroll was one of the featured speakers, as his recent book Something Deeply Hidden champions the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. The basic idea of the many worlds interpretation (hereafter, MWI) is that when we have some sort of quantum situation in which a system is in a superposition of many different states (think of the Schrödinger’s Cat example), at some point that system “decoheres” in such a way that each of those states becomes a real, actual state of the system in one world or some other world. This world-splitting includes any observers who are entangled with these quantum systems – they too branch into separate selves, living in separate worlds, each as real as the next. This happens many, many times every second, in case you haven’t noticed.

(from As Sean Carroll notes, however, human decisions don’t cause worlds to split – quantum events do.)

It is a brave view, and Carroll compellingly argues that it is in some ways the most basic, straight-ahead interpretation of quantum mechanics. Every other “more sensible” interpretation requires adding extra-theoretical elements to the theory, just so that we can feel more comfortable with it. But the simplest, no-frills, most straight-ahead version of quantum mechanics is just MWI (or what Carroll calls “Mad-Dog Everettianism”). This particular mini-workshop was aiming at whether we really can live with the many worlds interpretation – in other words, whether we really can make it square with seemingly obvious parts of our own experience, as well as deeply ingrained presuppositions of science.


A basic objection to raise against MWI is whether it can make sense of probabilities. Here is the problem. In some typical sort of quantum experiment, we can assess the probabilities of the outcomes. Let’s say there is a 90% chance that A will result, and a 10% chance that B will result. But according to the MWI, every outcome happens in some world or other, and all of these worlds are equally real. So what do “90%” and “10%” mean?

Initially we might say that the percentages express the chance that the initial world will evolve into one world or another world. At first we are in world 1, and then we do the experiment, and there is a 90% chance we will end up in world 2, and a 10% chance we will end up in world 3. But here is the problem: who is the “we”? The observers in world 2 are every much as continuously identical with the observers in the original world 1 as the observers in world 3 are. There is no pride of place in the multiverse. “We” end up in both worlds, fully and completely. So, once again: what do “90%” and “10%” mean?

Carroll’s own answer is that the 90% and 10% should be understood as the epistemic probabilities of self-location, after the experiment has taken place. That’s a mouthful, so here is what it means. Let’s say we have done the experiment, but have not yet checked to see whether A or B has been the result. (We haven’t opened the box.) We pause and ask ourselves, “What world are we in?” If we are rational, says Carroll, we ought to be 90% sure we are in world A, and 10% sure we are in world B. The percentages track what our levels of confidence ought to be, not our chances of surviving the splitting of worlds in one world versus another. We might run the experiment a few times to assure ourselves we are assigning the right probabilities to these outcomes, and over time, we will be assured. That’s been our experience over the last century, anyway.

The Easier Objection

It is at this point that philosopher David Albert raises an objection. Suppose we repeat this experiment many times over, with the worlds splitting every time. In the end there will be a large population of observers who have found themselves to be in worlds where A happens 90% of the time and B happens 10% of the time. Good for them (and for us). But these aren’t all the worlds there are. There will also be worlds where A happens all the time; worlds where B happens all the time; worlds where A and B happen with equal frequency; and all the possibilities in between. These observers are not going to come to the conclusion, based on their empirical evidence, that A should happen 90% of the time, and B should happen 10% of the time. They will get quantum mechanics quite wrong – or at the very least they will be quite astonished at how often “improbable” events happen in their world.

Carroll’s response is, basically, that it stinks to be them. They live in bad luck worlds that fail to confirm the true physics of the world. But that’s just the way the quantum cookie crumbles.

At this point Albert complains that this runs afoul of a deeply-entrenched scientific ideal, namely that the laws of nature are the regularities all observers should come to discover with enough time, patience, and rationality. Science represents the truths different observers converge upon, precisely because they are all governed by the same laws of nature. The MWI makes it absolutely certain that some observers, in some worlds, will never converge upon the true laws of nature, and not because they haven’t enough time, patience, or rationality. They just haven’t enough good luck to live in a world in which their experience reflects the true order of things. 

Carroll’s reply to this is that, as science goes along, we should expect to have our minds changed, even about deeply-entrenched ideals of science. Perhaps we once thought that the probabilities in quantum mechanics reflected how likely certain events would take place in the world. But now, with MWI, we are realizing that probabilities measure something else; and perhaps along with that we are also realizing that reality really stinks for some scientists out there in the multiverse (or, as Carroll points out, it stinks even for some scientists in our universe, if it is so big to include a sufficient number of quantum scientists on other planets doing similar experiments). 

The Harder Objection

But David Albert raises a deeper objection as well, which requires more care and effort to explain. According to Carroll, as we have seen, percentages reflect how much confidence observers should have regarding which world they are in. “There is a 90% chance that A will happen” really means “If I were in a world in which this experiment had just taken place, I should be 90% sure that A was the result.” Albert’s objection is, basically, why the universe should care about what percentages human beings would assign to being in this or that situation after doing an experiment.

There are lots of ways for human beings to assign probabilities. They could roll percentile dice. They could throw darts. They could take the temperature of the nearest wombat, divide by 2, and subtract from 100. Or they could follow the Born rule, which is the official quantum mechanics method for assigning probabilities. Experts agree that this is the best way to go.

So why is the Born rule the best way to go? We might initially say that it’s because it’s the rule that nature itself follows as it figures out what should happen next. That is a natural thing to say, but it is precisely not what an MWI theorist can say. Probabilities, remember, do not track genuine chance, since all chances get taken up in some world or other. Instead, probabilities track how much confidence observers should have about which world they are in.

And why should observers have one level of confidence rather than another? Again, why should they follow the Born rule, as opposed to any other rule? We might try this second answer: observers who have done this sort of experiment a whole bunch of times just happen to have found empirically that following the Born rule is more successful than any other known method of assigning probabilities to outcomes. Other observers in other worlds have no doubt come up with other rules that match their experience more closely, and still other observers have been pulling out their hair trying to find some pattern in the mess they are experiencing. But in our world the Born rule has worked extremely well.

In other words, in the unimaginably vast multiverse, there have to be some possible worlds in which the Born rule holds; just as there have to be worlds where the Shmorn rule holds, and the Blorn rule, and the Florn rule, and on and on. Every rule holds in some world or other, and in some worlds there is no rule that can be discerned at all. We just happen to find ourselves in a Born rule world.

But hold on. The Born rule is not supposed to be just one assignment of probabilities running alongside many other possible assignments of probabilities. It is supposed to be the right one, or the one we ought to follow if we want to be rational in making our predictions about what we shall see when we open the box. (Indeed, the Born rule is the right one to follow, or the rational one to follow, for all observers on all branches, even if some unlucky observers on some branches can be forgiven for not thinking so.) But now, in trying to make sense of all this, we are finding that there is an endless variety in rules that rational, empirically-minded observers will end up adopting in their different worlds, and each one of them can loudly brag about itself: “So far, so good.” The fact that the Born rule can brag about this success in our world does not make it the rational rule to follow in other worlds.

It gets worse. For why should we think that the Born rule is a good one to adopt even just within the confines of our world? Maybe our world is one that will suddenly turn anti-Bornian tomorrow at noon (we know, after all, that such worlds exist; and absolutely none of our evidence tells us that we are not in one of those worlds). All sorts of skeptical scenarios threaten to undermine our confidence in our predictions – and these threats should be taken seriously so long as our predictions are based on a principle that is assumed to be only an accidental regularity. To set aside such bothersome scenarios, we need to have some reason to believe that Born is no accident – that it actually does govern how things turn out, in all worlds that share our laws of nature. But this is an assurance that MWI cannot possibly give. (Or at least, so far as my amateur understanding can see!) 

A Humean Observation

Overall, I am struck by the Humean sensibility of MWI. The most austere version of Hume’s account of the human situation is that nature chugs along following its rules (or maybe sometimes following no rules, who knows) in some fashion that is utterly opaque to us. When patterns and regularities emerge, we quickly get used to them, and we expect nature to continue to follow them. But nature is not obligated to follow our expectations; there is nothing in our experience or reason that tells us we are justified in expecting nature to keep doing the same sort of thing. So we plod along and hope for the best.

If MWI is true, then many observers across the many worlds are living Humean nightmares. Their worlds rudely surprise them with violations of the most common regularities. Other observers are quickly getting used to weird regularities never to be seen in our world. In our world – so far, anyway – we are not experiencing those rude surprises, and nature seems to follow the patterns we expect to see followed. That’s nice, if a little boring. And we think we have a theory that both explains our experience and explains the misfortunes of our colleagues in other worlds. What our colleagues believe, and what they think about us, God only knows.

But then again, maybe we are in a slightly nightmarish Humean world after all. There is quantum mechanics, after all. As odd as it may sound, if MWI is true, then some of our counterparts in other worlds never discovered quantum mechanics, and have been able to explain all events in terms of classical mechanics. We would say they were wrong – though it would be harder to say whether their experience has been lucky or unlucky. As it happens, in our world, we see nature do funny things in the quantum arena, and that complicates our science of nature, and gives rise to the complications mentioned in this essay, along with so many others. Maybe, if MWI is true, it might have been nicer for us never to have had to have come up with MWI in the first place?

(Thanks to Richard Harvey for comments on an earlier draft, though any remaining mistakes are entirely my own.)

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3QD: The Monas Hieroglyphica, Feynman Diagrams, And The Voynich Manuscript

One of the strangest books to come out of Europe in the sixteenth century – and that is saying a lot – is John Dee’s Monas Hieroglyphica (1564). Dee was an English mathematician, court astrologer, diplomat, and spy. He was also a wizard, or at least an aspirant to wizardry. Like many European intellectuals of the 16th century, Dee devoted himself to what we identify today as esoteric studies, which means an interdisciplinary effort to discern a primordial truth through the study of ancient texts, alchemy, astrology, philosophy, theology, and magical practices. Ancient texts such as the Corpus Hermeticum and the Emerald Tablet promised a brand of wisdom that had made the ancient ages more powerful and knowledgeable than any age since, and their introduction into western Europe during the Renaissance gave scholars a hope of recovering ancient wisdom and restoring human nature to the perfection it had once enjoyed in the Garden of Eden, before – well, that part of the story you probably know already.

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3QD: A Dialogue on Politics as Game

Bill: Can you believe these Republicans?! Just four years after swearing up and down that no nominee for the Supreme Court should ever be approved in an election year for the president, and promising on their mothers’ graves that they would never do such a thing, here they are doing exactly that!

Alice: Why are you surprised, Bill? They are doing exactly what they should be doing. And the Democrats are doing what they should be doing – grandstanding about principles, and declaring that they would never go back on their word, and decrying the demise of American politics, and so forth and so on. Everything is going as it should.

Bill: How can you say that? The Republicans – and, okay, I admit it, the Democrats too, to some extent – are being hypocritical, and just saying whatever they think they need to say to score their own political points.

Alice: Well, yes. Isn’t that their job?

More here…

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3QD: The Tale of the Eloi and the Morlocks

H. G. Wells’ novella, The Time Machine, traces the evolutionary results of a severely unequal society. The Traveller journeys not just to the year 2000 or 5000, but all the way to the year 802,701, where he witnesses the long-term evolutionary consequences of Victorian inequality.

The human race has evolved into two distinct species. The first one we encounter is the Eloi, a population of large-eyed and fair-haired children who are loving and gentle, but otherwise pretty much useless. They flit from distraction to distraction and feed upon juicy fruits that fall from the trees. “I never met people more indolent or more easily fatigued,” observes the Traveller. “A queer thing I soon discovered about my little hosts, and that was their lack of interest. They would come to me with eager cries of astonishment, like children, but, like children they would soon stop examining me, and wander away after some other toy.”

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3QD: Too many books

It is commonplace to observe just how marvelous books are. Some person, perhaps from long ago, makes inky marks onto processed pulp from old trees. The ensuing artifact is tossed from hand to hand, carrying its cargo of characters, plots, ideas, and poems across the rough seas of time, until it comes to you. And now you have the chance to share in a tradition of readers stretching back to the author, a transtemporal book club who communicate with one another only by terse comments scratched into the margins of this leather-bound vessel.

But, boy, do they pile up over time! ….

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3QD: Why materialism is false

Euclid msMaterialism is the view that everything that exists is made of matter. What’s matter? It’s hard to say with both precision and completeness, but it can’t be far off to think of matter as whatever can engage causally with the known forces of nature: gravity, electromagnetism, and atomic forces (strong and weak). If a thing responds to any of those forces, that thing is material. Of course, maybe there are some unknown forces of nature, and we’ll have to revise as they become known, but right now, this seems to be an adequate criterion for judging what counts as matter.

But I don’t think materialism is true, and it’s not because I believe in spirits or love or imagination or magic. It’s because of math. Math is a science of form: it explores the possible forms or properties or systems that are possible. Some of these possible structures, of course, describe the real systems we come across in our world, which is neat, and makes physics possible. But there are many, many more possibilities than are actual. It doesn’t take many beers before a gang of interested mathematicians will start describing all sorts of things that could never come to exist in our puny world because they are too big or complicated.

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Should you return to college in the fall?

I doubt this post will reach many among its intended audience, but in case it helps anyone, I’ll try to offer some advice.

First, to set the stage. In this pandemic, nobody really knows what they are doing. Scientists have the best available insights, but they will be the first to admit that our situation has many unknowns that can change quickly in unknown ways – so it’s a day-by-day guess, even for the experts. The further away you get from a PhD in some science, the further away you get from even this much knowledge. Politicians are shooting from the hip, with one eye on their re-election campaign, and the other one on their re-election campaign.

Basically, the only thing we know for sure is that, in a pandemic, breathing on each other is bad.

Colleges can mitigate the degree to which students and professors and staff breathe on each other, but only so much – unless, of course, the classes go entirely online. Nevertheless, many colleges are offering mixed options, in which classes will meet partially face to face, and partially online. Why are they doing this?

Two main reasons. First, colleges need tuition dollars and many need to sell housing contracts. If everything goes online, students will seek cheaper online education venues, or not enroll at all. So, the promise of face-to-face classes brings in the money colleges need to stay afloat. Second, many students really need a face-to-face component to any class to stay motivated and engaged. College isn’t just downloading info. It’s a social experience, and social experiences require faces and spatial proximity, it turns out. Online education, for the most part, and with some narrow exceptions, stinks. The only people who claim otherwise are those seeking to earn money from it.

So what should you do? There may be some exceptional situations, to be discussed below, but my basic advice is this: take classes online this year if you are a good online learner, and otherwise take the year off.

Okay, there may be a narrow range of cases in which pursuing the face-to-face-but-sometimes-online option may be safe and workable. Not if you have any issues with your breathing or immune systems. Not if you are in any state where the governor’s policies are based on wishful thinking. Not if your college, in the emails they are sending you now, sounds more confident than anyone with a PhD has any right to be. But if, by happy chance, you are a robust young person, in that rare place where the disease is being met by enforced and effective social policies, and your college is sounding pretty severe and cautious about the whole thing, then it might make sense to go.

So think about these things: Am I free of health concerns? (NOTE: only a “no” answer to this question is significant. A “yes” answer is insignificant, since your health and seeming immortality provide no guarantee whatsoever that this disease cannot kick you down the stairs.) Are the state authorities responding intelligently to the pandemic? Is the college enacting serious restrictions? A “no” to any of these questions means you should wait a year.

But if your answer to all these questions is yes, one further consideration is whether online education works for you. If it just doesn’t – if you really need the face-to-face component to stay engaged and motivated – then delay for a year. For it is perfectly possible, and even likely, that classes next year will end up going entirely online, even if they are now being advertised as being face-to-face. So if you know now that online classes don’t work for you, it is smarter to press the “pause” button. I know, putting your college experience on hold for a year really sucks. But so does having to use a ventilator.

On the other hand, if you’re okay with learning online, but sort of want the possibility of some face-to-face (or, really, mask-to-mask) social interaction, and your governor and college administrators are all behaving like responsible agents, then going to college this fall might be okay. I hope.





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3QD: Protective Living Communities

By 2025, protective living communities (PLCs) had started to form. The earliest PLCs, such as New Promise and New New Babylon, based themselves on rationalist doctrines: decisions informed by best available science, and either utilitarian ethics or Rawlsian principles of justice (principally, respect for individual autonomy and a concern to improve the lives of those most disadvantaged). Membership in these communities was exclusive and tightly guarded, and they had the advantage of the relatively higher levels of wealth controlled by their members.

More here….

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Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’

Reading: Paul White, Thomas Huxley: Making the ‘Man of Science’ (CUP 2002).

220px-T.H.Huxley(Woodburytype)In a sense, this book is about the term “scientist”. Thomas Huxley regarded it as a crass Americanism, a term that belittled anyone who devoted their life toward gaining an objective understanding of nature, and who tried to base moral and political principles on that understanding. He preferred the more exalted title, “man of science”. But one ironic consequence of his boisterous life was that he helped make it possible to be a scientist – or one who sought the facts without weighing in on issues of value.

Paul White’s book is not a biography. It does not provide a list of the sequence of events in Huxley’s life. Instead, it provides an overview of how his life and character came to be shaped by social, cultural, and economic forces. As the title suggests, it is about how Huxley was made, not about what he did. This is a valuable approach to a figure, as it helps us understand a context, and the deeper currents shaping a life. It serves to remind us that lives can’t just be boxed up and lifted into other times. 

Early on, as a young man, Huxley worked out his identity in several spheres at once. He served with manly nautical men aboard the HMS Rattlesnake. He exchanged thoughtful and sensitive letters with his Australian fiancée, Henrietta Heathorn. He began to envision his trajectory along the lines of a new career arc, that of what we might now call a research scientist. His challenge was to find a way to build a solvent career that combined “manly virtues” with a spirit dedicated toward the disinterested pursuit of natural truths. He wasn’t going to be able to become a university don (he lacked the credentials) or a churchman (he lacked the faith) – but this left little else, in terms of available careers. 

Once he returned to England, Huxley made the acquaintance of Edward Forbes and Joseph Owen, who were able to help him build a career, as they could provide recommendations, influence, and entrance to societies and clubs. Men like him, without estates, had to grasp jobs at museums, institutes, and hospitals while doing their scientific work. In the beginning, Owen supported Huxley, though their relationship was complicated: Owen was becoming prominent as a museum curator and dramatic lecturer, and adopted a lordly attitude toward everyone, including Huxley.

When Darwin came along, Huxley championed his theory of evolution by natural selection, and used it to promote a different view of science: rather than a community of polite gentlemen clustered around museums, and maintaining a strict social order within Victorian society, Huxley viewed science entirely in meritocratic terms, and was quick to excoriate anyone who offered pious platitudes for the sake of “getting along” rather than actually pursuing the truth. This led to the sharp disputes between Owen and Huxley. Huxley favored laboratories over museums, and rough and tumble arguments over measured and polite consensus. He called himself “Darwin’s bulldog”. 

As he gained notoriety, Huxley began to publish essays on broader cultural themes in popular journals. He eventually turned to educational reform, promoting more science and less literature and languages in the curriculum. But in so doing, his public persona was negotiated among literary artists, critics, and scientists. He opposed both the elitist and religious sentiments of Oxbridge scholars and the industrialist attitudes of more crass reformers. He thought all students should be trained to think as scientists, and to value literature and the arts as an important decoration to their minds. He joined cause to some extent with Matthew Arnold, who also sought to democratize education, though with more importance placed upon literature and the arts than Huxley allowed.

As he offered social criticism, a confrontation with religion was inevitable. But Huxley’s relation to religion is complicated. He wrote vehemently against high church dogmatism that insisted upon its doctrines and the shortcomings of science. He despised superstitious thinking and the social pressures enlisted to enforce religious dogmas. He was friendlier to liberal clergymen who adopted a more tolerant, experimental attitude toward religious truths, and he coined the term “agnosticism” to name a more open-ended and less prejudicial attitude toward all truths, including religious truths.

But many of his friends and supporters were liberal clergymen, and Huxley himself adopted many methods of religious instruction, such as sermon-like essays and public addresses, and certainly treated science as something like a holy order. So one might say on his behalf: “Science is the one true god, and to the extent that religious thinking can be made consistent with science, in approach and with efforts toward verification, it is permissible.” Huxley worked alongside clergymen in a plan for public schools, and in that case he advocated some measure of Biblical instruction, particularly parts of the Bible which did not conflict with science and were appropriate for the moral formation of the children of lower classes.

As a man of science, Huxley feigned a public indifference to money, and wrote against crass industrialism, but later in his life he came to the defense of capitalism and private industry, and against the formation of labor unions, redistribution of land and wealth, and assertions of workers’ rights.

Interesting intellectual tensions were at play in this period. Herbert Spencer had argued that clever and strong men had exerted their force to seize capital and subjugate lesser men to their rule, following the laws of social darwinism. But workers now used that argument to show that the wealthy had stolen their capital and were thus not entitled to it. Spencer backpedaled, retracting some of what he had written. Others like Huxley argued in defense of the status quo, and criticized labor movements for being based on ignorance and passion – in a word, “degeneration” – instead of clear thinking. They also argued that England was in economic war with America and other imperial nations, and for this war a disciplined class of workers was required – even for the sake of the workers. We know what happened: labor unions gained some ground through force and violence, but in time the power of money and land overwhelmed the opposition.

The fight for workers’ rights was coupled with a fundamentalist Christianity in the book of William Booth which helped to promote the Salvation Army, In Darkest England and the Way Out (1890). Booth argued for a Christian brand of agrarian communism, or a return to the land and communities ruled by their devout members. Huxley argued against such religious fanaticism, and wrote a series of letters and essays targeting Booth and the Army. Nevertheless, at the end of his life, Huxley seemed to believe that science could not provide an ethics, and in fact nature was profoundly amoral, and ethical foundations would have to be gained from other sources.

It would not be far off to see Huxley as the grandfather of the people today (New Atheists, secular humanists, etc.) who see science as the sole purveyor of truth, and who take dim views of anything that doesn’t fold neatly into its doctrines. But what needs to be taken into mind is that this general attitude evolved in historical circumstances that included social class, economics, gender roles, religion, and politics – all of which could have been otherwise. The study of nature is framed within a contingent human context.


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