Plato’s weekend suggestions

readingsHere it is, our regular Friday diet of suggested readings for the weekend:

The economy as a traffic system, not a market. Brilliant!

Someone paid to be a public intellectual criticizes generic public intellectualism by constructing an easy-to-burn strawman.

Is the idea that life can be treated as a narrative dangerous? Maybe, but I didn’t see an argument in this essay by Galen Stawson.

And here comes a pretty seriously misguided essay “against sustainability.”

Astronomer Arthur Eddington probably didn’t fudge data in order to support Einstein’s theory, contra to what alleged by a pair of sociologists of science.

Misunderstanding Ockham: “The value of keeping assumptions to a minimum is cognitive, not ontological.”

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Categories: Plato's Suggestions

198 replies

  1. The APA has no such power. That is the courts. The courts require that the shrinks who treat you will be properly qualified. Most will be members of APA, I would think, but it’s not a requirement.
    You’re unlikely to be treated by a Freudian or Jungian. If you’re halcuintating you’re likely to be treated with drugs.

    According to an article in Aeon a week or so back the drugs will likely bring you around quickly, but there’s startng to be evidence that you’d be better of in the long run w/o taking them or taking them for a very short time. . You might be better off with a Frreudian or a Homeopath who would let nature take it course (though perhaps not depending on what’s going on).

    Double blind studies have been done for the drugs, but mostly they don’t follow patients up very long.

    Dan is certainly not threatening you.

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  2. Synred, of course the APA has no such power! Didn’t you read my post? It’s just that Dan said something stupid here, and in this particular forum we are held accountable for the stupid things that we say. As you know Mr. Kaufman is a very clever man, and I certainly relish his retribution on the very next occasion that I say something stupid in his presence.

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  3. Hi Massimo,

    Bit late to comment on this, but here I go.

    I didn’t find the article against sustainability to be seriously misguided, nor did I find it to be really against sustainability itself (despite the title) but about how we talk and think about sustainability and our assumed moral duty to nature.

    but to say that, you know what we do is natural so it’s okay is utter bullshit.

    I don’t think the article says that.

    Yes, human beings are “natural.” But what we do is so quantitatively outsided compared to what any other species can do

    With dbholmes, I’m concerned that you’re falling victim to the appeal to nature fallacy here. We can agree that what human beings do is natural without any inference or implication that what human beings do is good. The point being made here is that we shouldn’t see nature as being outside humans, as a God to be worshipped or a victim to be protected. We are part of it. As such, it is not really any more tragic for humans to be the agent of an extinction than for any other animal to be the agent of an extinction. Both are equally natural events. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to prevent extinctions — we may have good reasons not to be without having to paint humans as being destroyers of nature from without.

    Consider two hypothetical scenarios. In one, rats are introduced by humans to an island and proceed to wipe out an indigenous species of parrot. In another, rats get to the island by natural means (e.g. on driftwood) and proceed to wipe out an indigenous species of parrot. The problem with seeing humans as outside nature is that we feel a profound duty to intervene in the former case but perhaps not as much in the latter case, seeing it as nature running its course. But whether we intervene or not should have nothing to do with whether humans are the cause of the situation. We should decide whether or not to try to save the parrot based on considerations like how much we value the parrot and how practical it is to do so and not on whether the extinction of the parrot is natural or anthropogenic.

    The article expresses thoughts similar to my own. We don’t have a moral duty to nature. Nature doesn’t care what we do to it. “Harming” nature (actually I would dispute the literal interpretation of this phrasing but it is a useful shorthand for disrupting ecosystems and causing extinctions) is not an obvious moral evil in itself, at least not to me.

    That doesn’t mean that harming nature is not often a moral evil in particular cases, but only that we need to provide some justification for why we should hold them to be evil by appeal to other moral principles which we can agree on.

    If you subscribe to virtue ethics, then I guess we’re out of luck, because you can just arbitrarily add “environmental-friendliness” to your list of virtues and that’s the end of the discussion, because I don’t have it on my list of virtues. This is why I don’t like virtue ethics very much as a basis for these kinds of discussions (although it’s not bad as a way to guide daily living). However, on a more fundamental framework like utilitarianism, we can have a more productive debate.

    Take the possible extinction of the panda as an example. I would suggest that pandas don’t care if they go extinct. Pandas only care about sex and food and the other things animals care about. They don’t care about the survival of their species. They don’t even have a concept of the survival of their species. So it seems to me that the harms that come to pandas from the extinction of their species boils down to harms to individual animals, which in the great scheme of things is not that big a deal. If the extinction were brought about simply by diminishing birth rates and failure to breed, it’s not clear that there is any suffering at all. These harms are basically equivalent to the harms that would accrue to beef cattle if we stopped eating beef — these cattle would more or less disappear, but at least fewer cattle would be suffering in the meat industry, which is what your stereotypical vegan animal-lover wants.

    But there sure are a lot of human beings who would think it a shame if pandas disappeared. Pandas are cute and entertaining and good for attracting people to zoos and so on. So there is a harm in the extinction of pandas, but it is not a harm to pandas but a harm to people. This gives a basis for arguing that protecting pandas is a moral duty.

    Should we protect malaria- (or zika-) bearing mosquitoes? I would say only to the extent that they are required to sustain their ecoysystems by providing food for birds and so on, and then only to the extent that the harm to their ecosystems would be experienced by humans and individual animals as worse than the consequences of allowing them to continue to exist.

    Should we protect diseases such as smallpox? Almost certainly no. It’s hard to see what benefits these might bring to any animal.

    So whether we should protect particular species or ecosystems, it seems to me, depends on the consequences of losing them. Conservation for the sake of conservation is not a good in itself (or else we would want to conserve smallpox), though it often (perhaps usually) is good because of these consequences. In particular, because we don’t know what the consequences might be, we should probably err on the side of caution and conservation. As such, I don’t see the article as against the promotion of sustainable practices, but against seeing the conservation of nature as a good in itself.

    We should protect rainforests because they are a natural resource, both for nature-lovers and for their biodiversity which holds secrets of great value to future pharmacists and material scientists and so on. We should use renewable energy because we’re going to run out of oil and we need alternatives. We should try to limit global warming because global warming will cause harm to people. We should place limits on fishing to protect fish stocks for future fishing. We should keep the environment clean because people benefit from a clean environment and we should protect the wilderness because people want there to be wild places even in the modern world.

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  4. Dan, your comment about being locked up by a Court while shouting pseudoscience was chilling indeed. But my point remains: sure, American courts have the power to enforce pseudoscientific notions, if they wish. No different from the Soviet government enforcing Lysenko’s ideas on their farmers in the ’60/. The result was utter disaster, lots of suffering, and loss of much wealth. Nothing to cheer about.

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  5. Again, the problem with the “Against Sustainability” article was the central straw man. When most people talk about sustainability they don’t mean anything about “perfect ordered nature” or assume that the planet is a video game landscape programmed by God, or any of the other bizarre characterisations the author offers.

    Most people who use the term use it to mean just what it says, practices that don’t have a use-by date. Adaptability will come into that to, for example if we start adopting sustainable practices we will have to adapt to them.

    But the idea that we should speak of adaptability “instead of” sustainability makes no sense to me. We should speak of what makes sense for our future. If we need to adapt then we should speak of adaptability. If we need to adopt methods of sustaining the population that don’t have a use by date then we should speak of sustainability. Most likely the most effective solutions will require both.

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  6. I think you can overthink the map-landscape stuff in physics. Practically everything that is directly referred to in physics is a calculational tool, but by convention most people speak of the calculational tool to also refer to the reality it is describing. Thus when Sean Carroll says that the Universe is a pseudo-Riemann manifold he does not really think that we are living in a rule for relating generalisations of numbers. Similarly when he says that it is a Hilbert Space.

    So fields, operators, vectors, tensors, I can’t think of them as anything but mathematical rules – not that I am denying the reality of what they are employed in physics to describe, just that the ontological reality is something less clear cut to me.

    But someone with different mental habits might see it differently.

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  7. Hi Robin,

    Again, the problem with the “Against Sustainability” article was the central straw man.

    I don’t think it is a straw man. I think there are plenty of environmentalists who think that human beings are harming nature, and even some extremists that think that it would be a good thing because of this if human beings became extinct.

    I understand the intuitive impulse that is an inherent moral wrong for damage to be done to the environment of for a species to become extinct. I feel this impulse too. But I think it is hard to defend and questionable when we think about it a little more closely.

    I think the article is more concerned with arguing against that impulse than with replacing the term “sustainability” with “adaptability”, which is what you’re focusing on.

    Most people who use the term use it to mean just what it says, practices that don’t have a use-by date.

    I don’t think the author has anything against those people.

    But the idea that we should speak of adaptability “instead of” sustainability makes no sense to me.

    For the author, “sustainability” has connotations associated with that romantic environmentalist mindset he and I disagree wtih. That’s the only reason he prefers “adaptability”. I’m with you in being skeptical of the value of these linguistic moves, but I see these as an aside rather than the core idea of the piece.

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  8. Hi DM,

    I don’t think it is a straw man. I think there are plenty of environmentalists who think that human beings are harming nature, and even some extremists that think that it would be a good thing because of this if human beings became extinct.

    Yes and in my first response to the article, back on the first page I acknowledged that the author had a point with respect to a significant number of environmentalists. But there are flakes in any field, the correct strategy is not to dismiss a particular approach because you happen to associate that approach in your mind to the flakes.

    For the author, “sustainability” has connotations associated with that romantic environmentalist mindset he and I disagree wtih. That’s the only reason he prefers “adaptability”. I’m with you in being skeptical of the value of these linguistic moves, but I see these as an aside rather than the core idea of the piece.

    But I am pointing “adaptability” and “sustainability” are not substitutes, they refer to different aspects of the approach.

    So it makes no sense at all to say “The word ‘sustainability’ has certain negative connotations to me, so I will substitute the word ‘adaptability’.”

    That is not a change in terminology. That is a change in approach.

    I don’t think the author has anything against those people

    We will never know because he never acknowledges that group. In effect he has poisoned the well against anyone who uses the term ‘sustainability’ because he has identified this term to a particular group when in reality most people who use the term are not part of that group.

    And in any case he is being inaccurate. When people talk of keeping nature the same as it has always been they use the word ‘conservation’ not ‘sustainability’. In fact conservation and sustainability are not always consistent goals.

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  9. Hi Robin,

    You have a point. He seems to be talking more about conservation than sustainability. So I’ll agree with you that he may be a bit confused about his language, but it seems we both agree he has a point with regard to the view of environmentalism espoused by some.

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  10. Yes, I think that the term ‘environmentalism’ is itself tainted by the words and actions of a significant group of environmentalists.

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  11. Robin, DM,

    If you have an organism with an intravenous needle stuck into one of its major arteries and blood was being extracted at about or slightly faster than the body could produce more blood, that body would not be concerned with the sustainability of its environment and all adaptions would be geared to producing more blood. As money functions as the medium of exchange, i.e., blood of the economy, which is based on the environment, until this issue can be addressed, any talk of helping the environment is mostly just talk. Yes, some things can be done around the edges, but they only serve as bandaids over some of the more obvious wounds.

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  12. Analytics vs. continentals; a good Existential Comics! http://existentialcomics.com/comic/146

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  13. I remember watching on CourtTV Steven Lucas go down for murdering is mother based largely on in correct testimony about angular momentum by the states (Texas) expert on ‘body mechanics’ who had been qualified by the court, doubtless belong to the appropriate associations and was completely wrong, but the jury believed him.

    There are plenty of shrinks hat will say whatever you pay them to say. John Hinckley is getting out of the nut house…and by all accounts is still pretty nuts. Those w/o money go to jail and stay put.

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  14. In the recent back and forth between DM and Robin I agree whole heartedly with both their points. Butman’s attempt may have been to make the excellent points on the matter that DM’s has skillfully laid out, but Butman was sloppy, misleading, and therefore not very helpful, and rightly called out for it by Robin. It is the minority (vast minority in my opinion) who suffer from the kind of delusional nature romanticism Butman seems concerned with. He should have mentioned that at the very least if that’s what he believes.

    As for virtue ethics I think it works well on environmentalism, for me anyway. Achieving eudaimonia requires taking care of the environment for all of the practical reasons laid out by DM. I can’t see where virtue ethics comes into conflict at all with anything DM is saying. I don’t think a virtue ethicist needs to switch to utilitarianism to make a case for smart environmentalism. There’s already a little utilitarianism built into certain brands of virtue ethics.

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  15. And Bridix makes the excellent point that when it comes to the environment $$$$$$ is the prime deluder.

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  16. As for a “significant” group of environmentalists tainting things, no more and no less than Queer Nation & Act Up on gay rights in the US, you know?

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  17. No offense, DM. But I’d bet on the parrots. 🙂

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  18. Just worth saying that I have never heard Dan say anything even remotely stupid here or elsewhere.

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