Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsOur regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

How does ignorance spread? Welcome to the field of agnotology.

Reading is good, right? Well, not always. Some books can sap your soul and infect you with bad thoughts.

The history of magical thinking and its relationship to science.

The four-dimensional human: 3D + social networking.

The horrible confusion between two Wheaton Colleges: academic freedom, religious freedom, and the age of spewing hate.

47 thoughts on “Plato’s weekend suggestions

  1. Robin Herbert

    Funny, when you talked of books that could sap your soul, I thought it was going to be the kind of book, famously described by Clive James:

    “Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead. There is no author’s name on the title page, merely a modest line of italic type advising us that Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev’s ‘short biography’ has been composed ‘by the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, CPSU Central Committee’. This is the one statement in the entire opus which is undeniably true. Only an Institute could write like this:

    Monumental progress in building communism has been made by the Soviet people under the leadership of the Communist Party, its Central Committee and Politburo headed by the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee, LEONID ILYICH BREZHNEV.”


  2. Philosopher Eric

    From the first article:

    Agnotology is the study of wilful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favour.

    Great term! I would add not just political uses for it, but legal uses as well. Whether for criminal cases or business disputes, one side will naturally attempt to spread confusion and deceit in order to prevail over the other. Sure being “right” may not mandate that you push the limits in this regard, but a legal team which is less versed in the study and practical use of “agnotol,” should be disadvantaged to a proportion degree.


  3. SocraticGadfly

    1. Surprised that in the first piece, the book “Merchants of Doubt” wasn’t even mentioned.
    2. I’ve read about the Mersault Investigation, but haven’t yet had the chance to read it.
    3. Couldn’t read the third piece because of having AdBlock ….
    4. The 4-D person? Sounds like the book could be interesting, but also sounds like it could be a bit breathless.
    5. The Wheaton angle? Doesn’t this tie directly with No. 4? That “fourth dimension” is often one of ignorance.
    That said, throwing of flames aside, I agree with Wheaton/Illinois. It’s a private institution that has the right to hold faculty to a faith-based code of conduct. Also, this is not the first time that particular professor has pushed the envelope on that. John Paul II may have said Christians and Muslims worship the same god, but most conservative evangelicals disagree.


  4. Massimo Post author


    “I agree with Wheaton/Illinois. It’s a private institution that has the right to hold faculty to a faith-based code of conduct”

    Yes, technically you (and they) are right. That said, I despise the whole idea of faith-based conduct at a place that fancy itself a university.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Daniel Kaufman

    Also, this is not the first time that particular professor has pushed the envelope on that. John Paul II may have said Christians and Muslims worship the same god, but most conservative evangelicals disagree.


    Seems pretty ignorant. There’s a reason why Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are called the three Abrahamic religions.

    You’re right about “rights.” Wheaton has a “right” to display itself as an institution run by ignorant boobs. But one wonders why a college would want to do that, regardless of its affiliation.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. brodix

    Having managed to watch the first half hour of the Republican debate last night, I do wonder if we haven’t always been ruled by ignorance and only manage to deceive ourselves that we are anymore than slightly less than clueless.

    Someone should tell Ted Cruz there is only one Dick Cheney and he already ran the bus off the cliff. That’s why we are at the bottom of it, picking through the wreckage of failed states, so carpet bombing anyone who looks at us cross eyed is really not a logical or even halfway intelligent response.

    Sanders seems to be the only one with the sense we might be due for a reset of some sort. That old linear thinking only goes so far, before the reaction sets in.

    Then again, we have a still have a cosmology built around a narrative timeline, so expecting deep thinking out of the politicians is certainly wishful thinking.


  7. Daniel Kaufman

    Yes, technically you (and they) are right. That said, I despise the whole idea of faith-based conduct at a place that fancy itself a university.


    Really? For a period of about 6 years, I was going to Oxford to give papers at the annual British Society of Aesthetics meeting. Every day, I would attend Evensong services at Christ Church Cathedral, which is on the campus of Christ Church college. Indeed, all of the musical performances I attended, were parts of church services in chapels on the various college campuses. I can only describe them as magical experiences.

    Seems like you are being rather quick on this — and broad-brushed. Not all faith based activity on a college campus is of the knuckle-dragging evangelical variety.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. SocraticGadfly

    Daniel, in high school, in St. Louis, Raymond Leppard served as guest conductor of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, and did “Messiah.” The local classical station asked how, as a secularist, he could do that, and he said, in essence, “I may not belief the beliefs behind it but I can appreciate the spirit that informed those beliefs and the composing.”

    As a conservative Lutheran at the time, I didn’t “get it” then.

    Now, that’s my answer to New Atheists when they ask about the 20 or so Requiems in my YouTube library, plus other non-Requiem masses, and Mihaud’s Sacred Service, Stravinsky’s Abraham and Isaac, etc.


  9. Massimo Post author


    sorry, I did not mean to condemn all faith-based activity on campus. I was referring specifically of the requirement to ask faculty to follow particular faith-based doctrines in their teachings and in regulating their academic freedom. I think we agree on this point, as one of your earlier points suggests.


  10. ejwinner

    The problem with Agnotology, is that, if it becomes an established academic field, business people and politicians will flock to the courses to learn how to do it better!

    Burton’s Romanticized notions of reading practices is unsupportable – nobody reads novels in the way claimed. The main line of her argument was first developed by Barthes through a weird marriage of Levi-Strauss and Lacan; but all Barthes achieved through this was revelation of certain personal issues of his (an “erotics of the text”?), and the “Death of the Author,” announcement of which proved premature. But on some level Barthes – a good reader of Saussure – knew that he was playing a game with his readers and a game with history; he won the first, but lost the second, as we all do.

    At any rate, the clear French influence on Burton explains her endeavor to avoid a literary aesthetic, and produce a meta-aesthetic psychology of reading, jumbling reading approaches to respected classics with those to genre trash.

    And here’s one way we know that Burton is largely wrong: “Twilight” is to young girls of the past decade of so, what “I, the Jury” was to certain young, blue-collar readers of the early ’50’s – and likely manufactured in the same way: the writers of these books recognized certain desires on the part of their targeted audience, and delivered a commodity to satisfy those desires. (I don’t know what Meyer has ever said about her books, but to his credit, Spillane never pretended to be other than a particularly successful hack.)

    Finally, having been trained to read essays like Burton’s in graduate school, flags fly when claims like hers rope in “Dorian Grey” and “Madame Bovary,” ancient touch-stones for paranoia concerning novels – and for hopes that novels can be “subversive.” I’m afraid novels are nowhere near as powerful as Burton makes them appear, nor can they ever be “subversive, unless the center of a ’cause celebre,’ like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” – which is not one of the best written prose texts of the English language. (That reminds us that novels and their reading practices need to be contextualized in broader, deeper manner than Burton suggests.)

    My point is that there are many kinds of novels, and many ways to read them. (There’s some evidence that many readers don’t even ‘read’ novels – word for word – but rather skim through them.)


    Need to re-read the Williams review of Copenhaver (which I quite like, because it engages an interesting topic, as well as the book itself), and Tavris’ review of Scott (which I really don’t care for, since I’m not particularly interested in “social media” culture or anything it means for us – eventually the newness of it will wear-off, and we’ll find we’re the same apes we ever were, grooming each other verbally or snarling to make ourselves seem more important than we are).


    Finally, for now, Hanno’s call for civility is well-spoken, and well-taken. If there is any way digital media has changed us, it is that it has made a great number of us less thoughtful at grooming, and quicker to snarl, than we’ve ever been before.


  11. michaelfugate

    Finally, for now, Hanno’s call for civility is well-spoken, and well-taken. If there is any way digital media has changed us, it is that it has made a great number of us less thoughtful at grooming, and quicker to snarl, than we’ve ever been before.

    I am not so sure things have changed that much – this reply to Ben Carson’s appeal for more civility on the internet as case in point. Insults are easy and our best and brightest have always used them.


  12. SocraticGadfly

    Michael, agreed. I’m working, on my blog, on an occasionally updated post, as a modern version of Ambrose Bierce’s “Devil’s Dictionary.”

    I prefer being civll on initial approach, but at some point, especially with public figures, civility is wasted.


  13. labnut

    From the Wheaton article:

    It is not only possible to express disagreement on a matter of principle without resorting to personal attacks and harassment, it should be expected.


  14. Philosopher Eric


    The magical experience that you remember from Oxford was certainly something to treasure. This reminded me how much I miss our good friend Labnut. But then as I went to publish, I did find that he was actually here. 🙂


    I hadn’t thought of “Agnotology” as an actual academic discipline. What an amazing thought! So here in addition to the high minded moral studies of law, finance, politics, marketing, and so on, students would begin learning how such occupations are practiced in the real world. Well I’m game — I value honesty far more than publicly stated ideals. But ironically it’s because the real world does demand such dishonesty, I think, that a formal discipline from which to teach students the art of deception, will not occur. Instead such real world skills shall remain “on the job training.”

    To this I suspect most to say “Good!” But what if an academy which (dishonestly?) denies such realities in favor of judgementally focusing upon high minded moral notions, does thereby remain unable to understand much about human dynamics themselves? Mightn’t this circumstance address the “softness” of our behavior and mental sciences?


  15. Robin Herbert

    “Agnotology is a poor coinage for something that is described as the study of deceit. Apatology would be better, if it is not already taken. There a difference between lack of knowledge and being deceived


  16. labnut

    …but at some point, especially with public figures, civility is wasted.

    Incivility is a form of emotional violence that is situated on a continuum that segues into physical violence. So lets call a spade a spade and recognise it for what it is, a form of violence. Violence has the simple objective of imposing one’s will on another person. It may be be motivated, for example, by a need for revenge, a desire to change another’s behaviour by silencing, intimidation, coercion or punishment, or it may be motivated by schadenfreude, an inner need to inflict pain on another person.

    The motivation for violence, whether it be emotional, physical or structural, is always ugly and and the consequences are invariably bad. The great leap forward that our species has made is to substitute negotiation for violence, compromise for domination and respect for hostility.

    This is a fragile gain that wars with our tribal nature. Each person that engages in emotional violence should look carefully into their soul and honestly recognise the ugliness they see there. Then they should ask whether the damage to themselves and the cost to society are worth the personal emotional reward. For one cannot engage in emotional violence without poisoning a part of oneself and poisoning the society whose tolerance has enabled one’s behaviour. One has then become a freerider, benefitting from the gains in society while poisoning it for personal emotional benefit.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. marc levesque

    On Wheaton and conflict, I’m glad the author mentioned symptoms like the rise in road rage and didn’t only concentrate ‘social’ media and youth. If there really is a rise in ‘public’ conflict I think its causes include the ongoing increase in social disparity, the past 10-15 years rise in minority bashing by public figures, the rise of exposure to minority views that used to be traded ‘under the carpet’, and media dramatization and selectivity.


  18. Robin Herbert

    It is strange to me that we complain, at one moment, that we have become a culture of offence, with people taking offence at the drop of a hat, and then, at the very next moment, complain that we have become a culture of incivility.

    It seems to me that we need to make up our mind on this matter.

    At the moment we seem to say “You must not be offended at the things we say” on the one hand and “You must be civil to us” on the other.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Robin Herbert

    I wonder if, one day, we will come to terms with the fact that we are the human race, rather than waking up each day with that sad realisation and the incorrigible impression that it cannot always have been so. Surely, we think, we were a kinder gentler race in times past.

    But no. We were and are the human race.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Coel

    Hi Robin,

    At the moment we seem to say “You must not be offended at the things we say” on the one hand and “You must be civil to us” on the other.

    Good point. Perhaps the solution is that we should try to be as critical as we like towards ideas but respectful of people. People should not take it as a personal attack or get offended if someone criticises an idea that they hold. On the other hand, that’s not an excuse for being personally incivil to someone.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. labnut

    it is the manner of the criticism that makes all the difference. It can be snide, snarky and hyperbolic or it can be thoughtful, informed, measured and balanced.

    What determines that is the critic’s intent. Is his intent to be productive and contributive? Or is his intent an emotional expression of violence? We must choose who or what we want to be. Massimo has chosen and as a result turned his back on assault rhetoric(to use his notable phrase).

    Reasonable people may reasonably differ and that can be an enjoyable process.

    Our society is built on the twin understanding that no-one owns the truth and that we have differing, or conflicting needs. Society has adopted a regulated adversary process to resolve conflicting understanding of the truth and conflicting needs. If we accept and respect this understanding and this process we have the basis for respectful interaction.

    The foundation of respectful intercourse is to know and accept that others believe differently and have different needs. None of us have a monopoly on the truth and no-one’s needs have priority over those of others.

    Accept this and the debate changes subtly for it no longer makes sense to win because there is no victory to be had. Instead the debate moves to another plane: why does the other person hold those beliefs? What is the history and the context of those beliefs? What may I learn from them? What can I do to promote understanding of my position? How may we reconcile our beliefs, or, at the very least, live alongside each other?

    Or, am I just going to be another thug? Intellectual thuggery exists on the same continuum as physical thuggery.


  22. Coel

    Hi labnut,

    What determines that is the critic’s intent. Is his intent to be productive and contributive?

    Speaking for myself, my intent is always to be contributive in the sense of promoting and defending what I consider to be right.

    As for tone, that is trickier to assess. British newspapers routinely carry satirical cartoons, of a cutting and scathing nature, about politicians and others in the news, and most people consider that this is valuable to society in holding influential ideas and influential people to account.

    If one wants to promote ideas as influential in society, then one must surely expect this sort of scrutiny in return. What is not healthy is if any idea system can control criticism of itself by only allowing criticism made with the approved tone.

    People of a New Atheist disposition like myself often criticise religion, but then in return New Atheists are among the most derided and disparaged groups around (not only from the religious, but also from the “I’m an atheist, but …” crowd).


  23. brodix

    I’d have to say that on further examination, I find much, if not most violence, disrespect, abuse, etc, is more a function of the insecurities of the party indulging in it and their taking advantage of those perceived to be weaker is more a function of opportunism, than any grand calculation.

    As such, possibly some longer term solution is to educate people to the fundamental frailty of life and that strength is more a function of one’s larger connectivity, to both each other and the larger flow of nature in general. Then people might be more instinctively empathetic, rather than suspicious and re-ative.


  24. Philosopher Eric

    I struggle to find true irony in the PC culture, though it does still disturb me. But as Robin implies, we surely are now and were in the past, simply human. So then the real task should be to figure out what “human” effectively means? This question can be quite difficult I think, because at least I believe that our modern mental and behavioral sciences (primarily psychology) remain quite primitive. I do appreciate Coel’s focus upon ideas rather than people, and Labnut’s focus upon civility in general, though in practice such plans do seem to fail given the competing interests which naturally do surface between us. So my view is that the “immorality of reality” is what has left our mental and behavioral sciences so primitive — they’ve been unable to acknowledge our natural selfishness, given how immoral selfishness does happen to be.

    So what should we do? I believe that we must found these sciences upon a perfectly subjective version of total utilitarianism. (For practical reasons the science of economics did this long ago, with the stipulation that it never formally state “Happiness is good.”) Once these fields are able to theorize the realities of good/bad for any given subject, I believe that their assent will finally begin. Suffice it to say that the mechanisms behind PC culture would then become obvious, but I also believe that cognitive scientists would finally be able to develop a functional model of the human mind from which to work.

    Please do consider this simple question: If existence can be good/bad for us, and if our mental/behavioral sciences are not yet permitted to acknowledge what is ultimately good/bad for us, then how the hell are they suppose to figure out what we are?


  25. Daniel Kaufman

    On the civility issue:

    There seems to be a (to me weird) presumption, here, that one *has* to talk to someone. They don’t. And if I find the other person’s conversation unpleasant, then why would I want to engage in it? Conversation is as much a social activity as one in which one acquires information, which can be obtained through solitary research. I engage in it as much for pleasure as for finding things out. So, I have zero interest in conversing with people who, to my sensibility, come across as jerks.

    The problem with civility rules is that people don’t agree on what counts as it. I was constantly running into this on Scientia, where what I found to be uncivil was permitted and what I thought was perfectly within civil bounds was often rejected. And this is part of why I comment so much less here. I want to (a) avoid conversations that I find unpleasant and (b) not run afoul of Massimo’s conception of civility, as it is his magazine. The solution, in short, is for a person to understand the venue he/she is in and decide the degree to which he can participate wihout (1) personal discomfort and (2) within what the venue owner conceives of as civil.

    With respect to Robin and why we can’t just see each other as human, differences matter. Life is short, social engagement with others is precious, and I see no reason to do it with people whose company and conversation I find unappealing.


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