Plato’s suggestions, Christmas edition!

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

Do we live in the area of information overload? Turns out we have been doing that at the least since the time of Socrates. The real problem, argues this article, isn’t too much information, but the lack of a paradigm to sort it out and extract meaning from it.

Do Christians and Muslims (and Jews, for that matter) worship the same God? I seriously don’t have a bone in this fight, but it does highlight interesting things about theology and belief.

Roy Scranton argues that we (meaning, civilization as we know it) are doomed. And the best thing to do is to take a page from Nietzsche’s positive philosophical project.

30% of Republicans and 19% of Democrats want to bomb the (non-existent) city of Agrabah, where Disney’s Aladdin lives. Perhaps more problematically, 80% of Americans support “mandatory labels on foods containing DNA.”

A very sobering history of American anger and xenophobia. It was there from the beginning, it’s as American as Apple Pie.

64 thoughts on “Plato’s suggestions, Christmas edition!

  1. SocraticGadfly

    Thomas, actually, although people think of Capra as a New Dealer, he was a “winger” who hated Roosevelt. That’s another reason, in addition to seeing the movie as all “white picket fences,” I’ve moved beyond it.


    GMOs? Until 20 years ago, GMOs were allowable as part of organic ag here in the US. They still are in the EU, for crops where the EU allows GMOs to be grown.


  2. Thomas Jones

    I’ll have to reread Scranton’s and Furedi’s again. These were the best of the lot in my opinion, with Furedi’s probably the most well-done-while admittedly the longest–of them all. As to, “Anger: An American History,” okay, some interesting events in a short list of a long and continuing historical list that ends on a rather flat note:

    “The homegrown history in no way justifies the incendiary language. But it reminds us that the demonic plots are unlikely to vanish anytime soon. Anxiety produces specters; sensing ourselves lost, disenfranchised, dwarfed, we take reckless aim.”

    Worth pointing out, I suppose. And there’s that word “anxiety” that assumes fuller treatment, with different focus, in Furedi’s essay.

    There is a bit of a common motif in all these. It’s as if Dickens decided, “frick it. It was the bloody worst of times” as he wrote “A Tale of Two cities.”


  3. Thomas Jones

    Socratic, whether one views Capra’s politics as FDR’s co-opting of collectivism or Teddy’s corporate trust busting, doesn’t interest me anymore than the rather strained attempts at broad cultural critique of the Star Wars saga today. (Even a newspaper in the Vatican has weighed in on that.) It’s entertainment in 1946. It’s really not an X-mas story per se. There’s an easily identifiable villain, Potter, and a struggling, post WWII, American middle-class hero, Bailey. Some people like to see this film as presaging the 1% vs 99% current debates. Certainly, there are political and economic elements present, but that’s simply a historic by-product of being produced in a certain time and place. As I suggested above, the most intriguing–some might say flawed–character in the film to me is Clarence, who seems uninterested in Bailey except as a “project,” the success of which might earn him his “wings” and higher status. 🙂

    Re GMO’s, I’m not anti-GMO. So far, the most credible criticisms have been from independent farmers who claim that Dupont is unduly profiting in their pressure and sales of GMO products.


  4. SocraticGadfly

    Thomas, I don’t know about Dupont. That said, on Monsanto, while not claiming it’s as pure as the driven snow, I do know that a “behemoth” it is not. It’s only one-third the market capitalization of Starbucks.


    On IAWL, per the one critic in the 1990s bio of Capra, Bailey killing himself, actually, would have been a better movie turn. I see it as post-war saccharine schmaltz, or sclag. It’s worth noting that it was less than a hit at the box office, and that, after that, Capra turned out formulaic crap.

    As for his politics, I actually think they’re relevant. Don’t forget that in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” the Washington he was railing against, at the actual time of the movie, was in the middle of the New Deal.


  5. Robin Herbert

    I agree that you will probably never sell a thoroughgoing materialism to the public. And in fact I doubt that materialism even makes sense.

    On the other hand a solution to global warming has to be technological, unless we are going to make up our minds to a catastrophic reduction in human population by some hundreds of millions by disease, starvation or natural disaster. We passed the stage where we could choose a non-industrial era long ago. If that is what Scranton means by “willing our fate” then I am having nothing of it.


  6. Daniel Kaufman

    Robin Herbert:

    If that is what Scranton means by “willing our fate” then I am having nothing of it.


    Don’t see what you could do about it, if most people aren’t buying, as currently, they seem not to be.


  7. Robin Herbert

    The way I see it is this, whatever small chance we have of averting catastrophe and to what degree we can do this then we try.

    If we fail then the fate that Scranton would have us will upon ourselves, will be upon us anyway and it won’t be any the worse for our not having willed it beforehand.


  8. Daniel Kaufman

    There is a hilarious — and somewhat disturbing, given the nature of the article — mistake in the “information overload” essay, and that’s when the poor author refers to the second part of the Talmud — the Gemara — as the “Gemorrah,” which, of course, is something very, very different.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Brodix,

    It looks like I’ve now become freed up to get back to you. Furthermore, yes I am happy that I was able to say the piece I was contemplating without being jumped all over. But then I suppose that the patrons of Plato’s Footnote happen to be far more educated than, say, what you’re likely to meet at a standard cocktail party. Virtually all have probably heard the sort of argument which I just presented, if not in many different contexts. And even if some did find it objectionable, apparently none so far have developed a clear way to challenge my position. This does serve my purposes for now.

    I didn’t quite get what you were saying above until the latter end, so I’ll go through that.

    So, yes, happiness is, by definition, good…

    Well not inherently, no, though I personally do find it useful to define the term this way regarding the conscious entity.

    …but if that was all there was, we would still be just swimming around in the muck, as there never would have been any reason to go beyond it…

    Well no, I don’t think this at all. You’ve presented these conscious fish things which are not simply “robots,” but rather are punished and rewarded given the various sensations which they experience. Evolution thus forces them to figure out how to do what they need to, or face potentially dire personal consequences! Where a non-conscious fish has no reason to go beyond, these quite autonomous forms of life do indeed have such reason — like pain!

    …as many people today find it difficult to go beyond their comfort zones and consequently only do it when circumstances force them to…

    I agree that we can get too complacent.

    …The future is always part of the fringe of the present and only time [will] clarify what direction we will be carried.

    I agree with this as well, and of course do happen to be a fringe which might ultimately become mainstream. Nevertheless, it will do me absolutely no good to eschew politics.


  10. Thomas Jones

    Okay, Socratic, let’s drop the “It’s a Wonderful Life” BS, which you introduced yourself, has nothing to do with any of the articles, but that for some reason you want to slant the way you want to slant it. The guy’s public persona was as a film maker. If I mention liking a poem by Pound or his influence on 20th century poetry,would you somehow feel impelled to discuss his Fascism or stay at St. Elizabeth’s to create another irrelevant sidebar?

    As for Dupont (which is currently merging with DOW), I can assure you that they are as deeply involved in GMO seeds and chemistry as is Monsanto. But you are correct to suggest that DOW, not Dupont, manufactured Agent Orange for the military’s use in Vietnam.


  11. SocraticGadfly

    Yes, I did link that, on IAWL, and I’ll drop it.

    And, as you know, on T.S. Eliot, I have mentioned other parts of his personal background. So, we’ll agree to disagree, or just disagree, on both.


    On GMOs, I’ve heard some farmers make similar complaints about Monsanto. And others, about glyphosphate weed resistance. That said, other farmers say that those farmers simply need to rotate crops more and do other things.

    To the degree that’s true, and that Monsanto, or Dupont, are banking on, well, on a certain degree of laziness from some modern farmers, that’s no more their fault than other capitalist companies doing the same with other customers.


  12. Philip Thrift

    Following on with my references to Jane Bennett’s “Vibrant Materialism” above, there is her “Green Materialism” (in “Nature as a Force: Scientists, Social Scientists, and Ethicists in a Dialogue of Hope”), a more “hopeful” approach to environmentalism.


  13. brodix


    “Evolution thus forces them to figure out how to do what they need to, or face potentially dire personal consequences!”

    I think we are somewhat in agreement here, that happiness is part of the punishment/reward aspect of biological reality.

    That said, I would disagree with what you consider utilitarian, as it would seem to have no further utility, than positive stimulation. These life forms would be the very equivalent of “swimming around in the muck.” Why would they even need complex reasoning facilities, as that would only lead to boredom and thus the need to add further stimulation? Which will eventually prove to be destabilizing, as all structure is necessarily bounded. Which is why we have both up and down. Light out, gravity in. Happiness and sadness. If it didn’t hurt when you lose it, it wouldn’t have been real in the first place.

    Now would not I eschew politics either, but I do think there are underlaying dynamics, in that liberalism is generally an expression of social expansionism, while conservatism is (originally) civil consolidation. Now these two are deeply intertwined, so that such concepts as political correctness would be an effort to consolidate the gains of social growth and institute it as law and thus civil form. While libertarianism would be an expansion of economic potential, beyond its civic foundations, which necessarily leads to a breakdown of that structural foundation, but still an inevitable part of the cycles of creation and destruction.
    To just add a footnote of further explanation, the premise of a “free market” seem to overlook that the playing field on which the market functions, is monetary and so, unless the monetary mechanism is publicly controlled, those owning it will effectively own the markets based on it, as we have today.


  14. Philosopher Eric

    OK Brodix, good to know that we’ve developed some similar beliefs. Furthermore, no I also don’t believe that those fish swimming around in the muck have complex reasoning abilities. They might not even be conscious at all, which I believe Massimo suspects. But if we are given that they’re conscious rather than just programmed “robots,” consider the added variety of function they’d have. If a mutation came along where a given fish developed sensations of frustration and boredom with its lot in life, it should also generally behave with somewhat greater “ambition,” and so might get itself killed before passing genes along. But then sometimes such fish should find new ways of getting food and such, and so promote the evolutionary theme of change. Such traits sprinkled in over enough generations, surely must have lead to feet!

    What consciousness does for evolution, I think, is promote autonomy. Instead of evolution just writing billions of lines of programming code such as, “If this happens, then do this…” it also added consciousness, or something by which an entity must figure things out for itself. Why? Because apparently “straight programming” wasn’t sufficient — diverse environments mandated “personal” decisions be made, and there are no personal decisions without punishment/reward. Without punishment/reward, existence remains just as inconsequential as we presume it to be for robots.

    Beyond that however, what did you think of my “repugnant” scenario? Instead of going out and “living life,” and so making our planet progressively more inhospitable to standard life forms, what if we ultimately solve our problems by developing autonomous confined environments where we receive “pure happiness”? You have my permission to take that one to a cocktail party, that is if you wouldn’t mind pissing off a few “selfless hippies.” Ah, but then that’s me eschewing politics again. No I like hippies too!


  15. brodix


    How would you further elaborate on “pure happiness?” What would love mean, if we had no conception of loneliness? What would happiness be worth, if there was no sadness to compare it? I have to say, that in my world, pain and pleasure frequently get themselves mixed up. Ever be having one of those days when things are just muddled and you are not really clicking, then something just knocks you over and you have to laugh?

    I grew up as a younger child and so there were lots of hand me downs and stuck in lines, but it taught me quite a lot about how to make the most of what I did have. So for me, it really isn’t about having the bigger house or shinier toy, or being the big guy, but being able to see all the connections and flow of life. So how would that be replaced by living in a cocoon, with measured doses of stimulants? (Not that I haven’t had my share of those as well. Brave New World)

    Yes, we are living life Before the Fall, but nature works like that. If there were no ups and downs, it would be a flatline. So yes, humanity has created an enormous bubble and the aftermath will be equally significant, but those who survive it will have grown depths of knowledge that our surface oriented world cannot conceive. Humanity will find itself, what remains, bonded to its world and making the best of it, not detached in our own little cubicles and cocoons.

    Then generations will start to branch out and explore the possibilities, but the lessons we will leave, will not be forgotten too quickly.

    We might think ourselves autonomous, but that really is just another form of groupthink, that serves the purposes of those pulling our strings, both economically and intellectually, as it serves to keep us atomized and packaged according to the needs of those at the top. That dimple in the middle of your stomach is little different than the one on the top of an apple.


  16. brodix

    as it serves to keep us atomized and packaged according to the needs of those at the top.”

    As the energy is sucked out of us, as payment for the brands of packaging we are forced to buy, in order to co-exist with the other, autonomous individuals, to which we wish to remain connected. The medium of this atomized existence is monetized and taxed. Go figure.


  17. Massimo Post author


    “So the environment could be horrible from our perspective, but if there were robots maintaining billions of amazingly happy people in a controlled manner, “outside” wouldn’t much matter, would it?”

    So you are suggesting that happiness consists in a life of happy hallucinations induced by a drug? No thanks, I’ll take the red pill any time.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Robin Herbert

    I read a bit of “Vital Matter” it sounds closer to Vitalism or Panpsychism that Materialism.

    And the red pill? Well I don’t know. We can’t determine if this reality is not a simulation, we can’t even work out any rough probability or likelihood about the matter.

    So with any offered hallucination I would only ask, “How good is it?”


  19. brodix


    To repeat one of my recent arguments, we have trying to explain reality as objective matter for at least a century now and the result is infinitesimal point particles, either statistically co-existing as phantom probability waves, or even smaller strings vibrating, in 99+% empty space.

    What if we gave up on “matter” and considered it as waves of energy, with mass, gravity, force, kinetic energy, etc, that give matter its substance, as just emergent from this holographic sea of energy?

    Then “spooky action at a distance” would be the same wavelength. Gravity, instead of being its own force, would be a cumulative effect of full spectrum wave contraction, such that it is an overall effect of energy coalescing into this more substantial state called matter. Then we wouldn’t have to be looking for dark matter, but more as connections in the radioactive parts of the spectrum.

    Which would make it all a hallucination.


  20. SocraticGadfly

    Eric, no, my real objection to utilitarianism is far more than that. It’s that, as I’ve stated here many a time, the so-called “view from nowhere” is fictive and not actually attainable. As the necessity for such a view is the core of determining utilitarian ethics, the project, as a system, falls flat on its face.

    If one is willing to give a utilitarian tweak to virtue ethics, or on something like murder, to deontological ethics, that’s one thing. Utilitarianism as a system is another thing entirely.

    Why do you think Bentham dreamed up the Panopticon, which itself (besides Massimo’s “red pill” comment) should say plenty about the problems of utilitarianism.

    After all, the idea of a panopticon (no actual device) plus an equivalent for the pill, namely soma, is what drives the plot of “Brave New World.”


  21. Robin Herbert

    I would suggest that every moral or ethical system is, in some way, utilitarian and conseqentialist, just as every moral system depends, ultimately, on intuitions.

    Beyond that it is all a matter of what weighting we put oneach of these factors.


  22. Robin Herbert

    Hi Biodiversity,

    “we have trying to explain reality as objective matter for at least a century now”

    Not so, the dominant philosophy of science in the early part of the 20th century was Positivism which held that any statement pertaining to an external reality was meaningless. Bohr, for example, more or less held this view.exist Schroedinger, matter did not exist, only mind.

    Talking of “waves of energy” is, ontologically, no different from talking of “matter”, you are still making an unwarranted metaphysical assumption. How do you know that there is anything but perceptions of these.


  23. Philip Thrift

    Robin Herbert says, “We can’t determine if this reality is not a simulation, we can’t even work out any rough probability or likelihood about the matter.”

    Even if that were the case, every (computer) simulation is a material thing composed (for example) of electrons traveling through circuits and pixels lighting up on screens. So you still can’t escape being matter!


  24. Philosopher Eric

    Hi Brodix,

    Yes, what I meant by “pure happiness” was probably a bit unclear. I’m saying that conceptually there are “sensations” that the conscious entity experiences which drives conscious function, and that this is what separates perfectly “irrelevant” personal existence, from that which does “matter.” So what do we call these sensations in practice? For the human on the negative side (and this side has the most concise terms) there is: pain, frustration, worry, hatred, fear, confusion, disrespect, jealousy, hunger, thirst, envy, loneliness, and so on. These things feel bad to us, or contribute units of punishment to us. In general you can say they make us unhappy. On the positive side we can flip most of the above (since associated terms often don’t exist). Furthermore there is: pleasure, joy, gratefulness, enjoyment, respect, love, friendship, pride, curiosity, productivity, and so on. The field of economics defines units of this stuff as “utils,” but has little further to say about it, and certainly doesn’t worry about developing neurological scales of measurement.

    Though modern science does remain quite inept in this regard, this doesn’t mean that we can’t explore the concept of good/bad existence. I do suspect that in the next thousand years (or probably hundred) neuroscientists dinking around with the brains of various animals will find ways to invoke tremendous happiness in them (or the opposite) while seated on the table. So if you could in this manner provide a lifetime of “pure,” or “extreme” happiness to a given rabbit, this would theoretically be amazingly good for it. Thus the “repugnant” scenario which I’ve provided above.

    Hi Massimo,

    I had to look this up:

    “The red pill and its opposite, the blue pill, are popular culture symbols representing the choice between embracing the sometimes painful truth of reality (red pill) and the blissful ignorance of illusion (blue pill).”

    Wonderful terms! But as far as I can tell, I serve nothing but “red pills.” The theory is that “sensations” are all that matter throughout existence, and if true, the epitome of “red.” If you have a seperate theory regarding that which ultimately matters, however, then we could indeed consider this.

    Furthermore we might talk about what the hippies are serving at their parties. Shall we address that which is “moral”?


  25. Daniel Kaufman

    Robin Herbert wrote:

    I would suggest that every moral or ethical system is, in some way, utilitarian and conseqentialist, just as every moral system depends, ultimately, on intuitions.

    I’m sorry, but this is just completely wrong. (The consequentialist part, not the intuitional part.)

    Read Ross’s “The Right and the Good.” While considerations of utility are *one* source of obligation and duty, Ross identifies many others, which clearly are not.

    Mill, of course, tried to argue in Utilitarianism that Kant was really a consequentialist, but all he succeeded in doing was embarrassing himself. His remarks reveal either (a) that he doesn’t understand Kant or (b) that he is disingenuous.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Daniel Kaufman

    Ross very ably identifies one of the chief problems with Utilitarianism — namely, that it mistakenly presumes that the relationship of benefactor to beneficiary is the only morally significant relationship that we have to one another, and this is clearly false.


  27. brodix


    “How do you know that there is anything but perceptions of these.”

    Which goes to the issue of perception. There would seem to be the act of perceiving/mind and that which is perceived/thoughts.

    Mind exists in/as the present, while particular thoughts/perceptions come and go. Creating the effect of time. We could then accord these perceptions various qualities and quantifications, such as amount of energy/activity, form, complexity, organization, etc.
    So it would seem two of the primary properties of these perceptions are the amount of energy/amplitude, by which they are expressed and the forms and patterns expressed by/in them.

    Mass, it would seem is a combination of both energy and form/pattern. No energy and it would be void/nothing perceived. No form and the act of perception is either being overwhelmed/white noise, or underwhelmed/void.

    So, yes, it is all just perception, but then the question is as to what we perceive. I would argue the bottom up creation of this perception is what we would most effectively describe as energy and the top down form assigned to it would include those qualities associated with mass.


    It is interesting you find some emotional states don’t have a clear corollary. Possibly that is because it describes a particular mental focusing, in which the polar opposite would be a more expansive, less focused state and so one less intellectually distinct.

    I would have to second Socratic’s objection, in that you are assuming an objective point of view, from which these states can be clearly distinguished. The classic problem with pleasure seeking is that it is a process, not an end state, so that it requires more to sustain the high and the longer it goes, the bigger the hangover.


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