Plato’s reading suggestions, episode 90

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

Nobody ever wrote a best selling novel about Raphael, and yet…

Don’t believe in God? Try UFOs instead.

Monopoly was actually invented to demonstrate the evils of capitalism.

Take a cold shower, it’s a really good idea (but ignore what the author says about Stoicism, he’s got it wrong, as usual).

What cultural taste for chili peppers tells us about the evolution of social norms.

Umberto Eco and the 14 defining characteristics of fascism. See how many you can spot in the current Republican leader.

Want to be happy? Buy whatever makes you save time.

The problem of meaningless academic language.

Parenthood not recommended.

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Please notice that the duration of the comments window is three days (including publication day), and that comments are moderated for relevance (to the post one is allegedly commenting on), redundancy (not good), and tone (constructive is what we aim for). This applies to both the suggested readings and the regular posts. Thanks!

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Categories: Plato's Suggestions

85 replies

  1. Actually, if one does not wave Wittgenstein’s flag too firmly in a Western dual-omni definition of the word “god,” something like Deism is NOT that irrational.

    Or some version of polytheism; see the original Star Trek episode where the Enterprise eventually meets “Apollo” on another planet.

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  2. OK, on to another item, as Massimo likes us to mix it up! 😉 The “be happy” piece.

    It’s based on privilege, and no, Dan and people who look even more askance than Massimo at SJWs, not all privilege is race, gender, etc. Some of it is good old class issues, which IMO stand behind that issue.

    Poor people can’t afford to pay maids to clean their apartments, or the slumlord houses that are the only non-apartment places they have to rent. They’re often working multiple jobs to boot, and most in need of more free time.

    On top of the income inequality and hypercapitalism of America, add in the “good old Protestant work ethic” as another compounder of this problem.

    If we had a $12-$15 hr min wage, a 35-hour work week, the min wage indexed to inflation, etc.? People would have more free time naturally.

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    • >Poor people can’t afford to pay maids to clean their apartments

      We once say an example of what the right was calling welfare cheating in Chicago. When our daughter was born, Margaret took her into down show her off, to her colleagues at Northwester Law School library. She went in on the train from Hinsdale (a very repub town).

      On the way into the station early in the morning, we got stuck behind a long line of Caddy’s and Mercedes – they were picking up black ladies coming out from the City.

      They were welfare cheaters trying to make ends meet. Welfare was a subsidy for maids for the rich of Hinsdale.

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  3. The thing that annoyed me about Krauss’s claim is that he implied that philosophers would be naive on this question, which is not the case, and has never been the case to my knowledge.

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  4. “That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups. In our time, when the old “proletarians” are becoming petty bourgeois (and the lumpen are largely excluded from the political scene), the fascism of tomorrow will find its audience in this new majority.”

    If anything, the “lumpen” are being cast as Trump believers. Remember Hillary’s “deplorable” comment.

    “Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.”

    The military, industrial complex is using the Russia obsession, not Trump and family.

    I suspect, looking at the political dynamic, real totalitarianism is brewing in the reaction to Trump and he will be used as the fall guy.

    More Yeltsin, than Putin.

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  5. “The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful.”

    I think this is spot on – and I don’t think this is just a problem for atheists and agnostics. Many religious believers themselves find it difficult to believe strongly in an increasingly secular society.

    This demonstrates itself in a variety of ways. UFO belief is an interesting one. Another is in the euthanasia debate – euthanasia being the topic of a proposed law here in Victoria, Australia.

    Many want euthanasia to be legalised to end the suffering of the terminally ill. But I’ve read before that much of the time, physical suffering is only part of the motivation here. Among the terminally ill, it’s those who are lonely or depressed who want to die, regardless of the level of suffering involved.

    People are able to endure much suffering if they can see a good reason for doing so, but since the less religious are less likely to have such a reason, there is more demand for legal euthanasia.

    The lack of a sense of meaning must also mean that it’s hard to see any point in living whenever it gets difficult.

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    • >“The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful.”

      Maybe so, but that’s just the way things are. Their sense of ‘meaning’ is based on a delusion.

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  6. Calling Trump a fascist is just a way of saying that you have no legitimate argument against him. Fascism is not well-defined, and Trump is no more fascist than Obama and others.

    I looked this supposed Krauss admission that his book title was chosen to attract sales. He says: “If I’d just titled the book “A Marvelous Universe,” not as many people would have been attracted to it. But it’s hard to know.”

    Is that it? Did you want him to put the word “quantum” in the title? Or maybe you prefer “vacuum” instead of “nothing”? Are there any philosophers who actually read the book, or just the title?

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  7. Hi synred,

    Does ‘illusion’ mean something different to Philospher Dennett [a] than it does to me?

    Oxford English Dictionary: “illusion”: “An instance of a wrong or misinterpreted perception of a sensory experience”. Dennett is arguing that we misinterpret consciousness, he is not arguing that we are not conscious and not experiencing anything. The latter is so obviously, ludicrously wrong that isn’t it obvious that that’s not what Dennett means? (We don’t use the word “illusion” when we mean “doesn’t exist at all”; for example we don’t say that unicorns “are illusions” we say they don’t exist.)

    I’m rapidly concluding that much of the disagreement on this blog comes from simply misinterpreting each other’s intent. To go with the Dennett/illusion example, here are some other examples, all from recent threads (I’m not trying to re-hash any of these, but am simply making a meta point about miscommunication):

    Example 2) Alex Rosenberg’s “nihilism” is a rejection of objective moral values, yet others (such as Baggini and Massimo) interpret it as a rejection of all moral values, subjective or objective. (Again, the idea that humans don’t have subjective values is so obviously, ludicrously wrong that isn’t it obvious that that’s not what Rosenberg means?)

    Example 3) When such as Pinker, Krauss et al defend “scientism” they get interpreted (e.g. by Baggini, Massimo) as adopting a view of science as narrowly about empirical evidence only, whereas their intention is a much broader conception of science that includes reason and concepts.

    Example 4) What counts as “reductionism”, and the various methods of inquiry that a reductionist outlook would lead to or allow, seems to be interpreted very differently from those who regard themselves as reductionists versus those who reject and criticise reductionism.

    Example 5) There have been extensive discussions here about whether morality is “objective”. I’m now concluding that the disagreement derives from a lack of agreement over what the very word “objective” means and what it means for something to be “objective”. Without common understanding on that point, the disputants talk past each other.

    A couple more points: it is natural and inevitable that somebody reading someone they are largely in agreement with will read them sympathetically, and so will likely be best placed to discern their intent. Someone who largely disagrees with someone is more likely to misinterpret them, doing so partly (and subconsciously) as a means of making their position easier to reject.

    Conclusion: much apparent disagreement is instead miscommunication and recognising that would reduce unprofitable exchanges; different people’s positions are often closer to each other than it might appear.

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    • Coel, the connotation of illusion is ‘does not really exist’. Now you might reasonably say the ‘content’ of consciousness is an illusion, but to say consciousness is an illusion is self-contradictory even if the content is illusory.

      In science we depend on there being some underlying relation or correlation with and underlying reality even though we know that our conscious perceptions our not direct but constructed.

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  8. Re Krauss and “nothing”.

    People are being unfair to him. The theme of the book was that there is a range of meanings of “nothing” and a range of degrees of “nothingness”, and he was seeing to what extent he could strip down to absolute nothingness.

    … it turned out he really didn’t mean “nothing” by “nothing.” He meant a pre-existing quantum field.

    First response. Are you suggesting that a quantum field is ontological? I know that ontology gets pretty weird at the particle physics level, but regarding a quantum field as ontological seems one of the least attractive options, since it is such an abstract mathematical concept. It may be that a “quantum field” is a useful mathematical fiction for doing calculations, but that “things” (particles) really do appear from (absolutely) nothing. Criticising Krauss by just assuming that a quantum field is ontological seems to me just as naive as people are accusing Krauss of being.

    Second response. Krauss did address this in the book. The point is that if a quantum field really is ontological and so “exists”, then it is a property of space itself. Then, given that a quantum gravity fluctuation would create space as well as particles, then the quantum fields, along with space, would be created in the quantum-gravity fluctuation, and thus a fluctuation really could arise from absolutely nothing. (This of course is speculative, since we don’t have a working theory of quantum gravity, but is a valid path to pursue.)

    As for the title, it seems a fair enough encapsulation of the theme that the book discusses.

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    • Particles are more like wave’s than particles. They are excitations in quantum fields. It’s the fields that are waving.

      If the fields don’t exist, one is in effect adopting Tegmark’s (or DM) mathematical universe.

      This has problems for science. If the equations of the Fridman Universe can take on values that allow for a near flat universe like ours, you have no need to look for inflation to explain why it’s so flat. A flat Fridman universe will ‘exist’ mere because it’s mathematically possible — there’s no need to explain it (or the uncountable infinity of minor variations).

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  9. Via Brad DeLong
    “Hard neoliberals: Mont Pelerin—the market giveth, the market taketh away, blessed be the name of the market!
    “Soft neoliberals: Washington Monthly—harness market means to attainable social democratic redistributive ends where those can be accomplished at low cost, and otherwise to focus on growth to lift all boats.
    “Cultural neoliberals: New Republic—we don’t like Blacks, especially young Blacks, and extra especially Jesse Jackson. We don’t like women much when they move out of their place. We think unions are yucky. We think Arabs are bad.”

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    • Hard neoliberals: Mont Pelerin—the market giveth, the market taketh away, blessed be the name of the market!

      Of course you can raise mean income and still lower median. Bill Gates walks into a bar.

      Water is a poor metaphor for the economy.

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  10. Hi saphsin

    A distinction I’ve heard is between nothing (physical absence of “something”) and nothing”ness” (non-being, an incoherent concept) and that although it’s counterintuitive, a pre-quantum field that’s at a minimal state of energy IS physically nothing, it’s just not nothing”ness” and that perhaps the old chestnut “Is there something rather than nothing” is just an incoherent & nonsensical philosophical question in the first place.

    Are you aware of any philosopher having asked the question?

    Some people seem to think that this is something philosophers have pondered through the centuries, but I have found precious little evidence of people doing so.

    I have searched for the original of this, and the closest that I can find is from Leibniz, who asked something like “Why is there something rather than nothing or, given that there must be something, why is it the way it is rather than some other way?”. This question is only asked as a step in an argument about something else, he doesn’t dwell on it and the only point is to say that there is a reason, not to ask what the reason is.

    The next closest is the principle “From nothing, nothing can come” which has been used by some philosophers from time to time. Aristotle addresses this and says that, in a sense, something can come from nothing, if by “nothing” you mean something undifferentiated, then differentiations can arise and thus at a fundamental level, something really can come from nothing. This appears to be not too different to what Krauss was saying.

    Aristotle also held that the concept of absolute nothingness was incoherent and this was the reason that he felt that any movement that occurred must occur through a medium.

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    • I once wrote for a paper in high school, that if there was nothing, including now rules or laws, then there’s no reason something could come to be. I did not know about QM at the time.

      Silly I know.

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  11. Schlafly,

    I have plenty of arguments against Trump. A truckload, in fact. That doesn’t change the fact that he does encapsulates several aspects of fascism.

    As for Krauss, yes, that’s the bit. What makes him intellectually dishonest is not that he chose a title that would sell, everyone does that. But that he got seriously upset (up to and including pressuring Neil deGrasse Tyson into disinviting Albert from an official American Museum of Natural History event at the Planetarium) when someone pointed out that the content of his book did not reflect the title. He argued he does. So, which one is it? Is the title just a matter of convenience, or does it reflect the content? It can’t be both, in this case.

    Coel,

    I’m not going to argue point-by-point with your latest because we’ve done it plenty of time. I will only note that you seem to be turning Wittgensteinian on us, trying to reduce all disagreement to a matter of cross-understanding.

    But both you and Wittgenstein are wrong here. There are substantive disagreements, and if they seem “only” questions of semantics to you is because many on the scientistic side engage in precisely the sort of game that Alan Sokal called the postmodernists one: shifting between two meanings of whatever they say; the first being true but trivial (consciousness is an illusion in the sense that it isn’t what it appears to be), the second interesting but clearly false (consciousness really is an illusion, in the pejorative sense of the term).

    I will not allow further comments on this particular topic, by the way, on the grounds that it has been beaten to death, and then some.

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  12. Gee, Schlafly, I am shocked that you’re so kindly disposed toward Trump. You actually missed the best counterargument to Massimo, and that is that Trump is too disorganized mentally to be a real fascist.

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  13. Robin Herbert

    Maybe it hasn’t come up for questioning in major texts in those exact terms but the Cosmological Argument is well known and shows up in introductory books for philosophy, because it’s a matter most philosophers and those interested in the field have wondered about and taken seriously at one point. So far, most of the responses to it has been on the basis of there being something wrong about the answer rather than the question behind it. My guess it that people have some intuitive feeling that there’s something wrong with the question, but don’t really break down what the problem actually is. If anyone else here had different observations, I’d be happy to hear it.

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  14. Shlafly,
    I am considering Trump in light of Umberto Eco’s article outlining the defining features of Fascism (and Eco was a child in Mussolini’s Italy and has some direct experience in the matter). And the question here is only whether Trumps meets any or all of the criteria Eco suggests – enough to allow one to call Trump a fascist. I think that clearly the case. As Massimo remarks, there are of course many arguments one can make against Trump, more appropriate in another time and place.

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  15. Not be polemical, but often — even tough not always — are continental philosophers (and who is ispired by them) who write in a bad prose, within the humanities.

    Philosophy has already the problem of not having a common vocabulary; to this one are added those thinkers persuaded by the idea of elaborate writing as a “deeper” and more significant way to express concepts. For istance Deleuze, Derrida, Agamben but also Judith Butler quoted in the article. Moreover, I remember the well-known joke of the randomly-generated paper submitted to and accepted by Bordieu Studies journal. This is one of the trends, in my opinion, which is damaging philosophy’s reputation as meticulous research field, among public audience.

    In this case, it is quite difficult to not agree with Wittgenstein, when he underlined that most part of our misunderstandings rise from a bad use of language: if you know something, then you are as well capable of expound it clearly — at least it what analytic philosophy (and my father, when I used to write highschool papers!) taught to me.

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  16. Alessio Persichetti

    Deleuze is actually capable of writing in perfectly readable prose. His secondary literature scholarship on Nietzsche & Spinoza are written just fine actually and are recommended. It’s his own primary work that reads like complete gibberish.

    What has bothered me about these p0m0 writers isn’t just the what or how they go about their work, but why. I know people who personally write in readable prose but highly appreciate these philosophers, and they were never able to give a good reason why these books are written the way they do. I often hear something along the lines of the complaints being exaggerated when there’s a lot of Analytic Philosophy that’s difficult to read & interpret too, and people just didn”t make enough effort to understand what they dismiss at first hand. That might be true to a certain extent but I always find the denials of obscurity bizarre.

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  17. Oh and also, there are plenty of Continental Philosophers, both historical and contemporary, who are not p0m0 and are much easier to read with some effort. I’ve seen some batching them all up together in the comments above and those characterizations are just completely inaccurate.

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  18. Hi saphsin

    Maybe it hasn’t come up for questioning in major texts in those exact terms but the Cosmological Argument is well known and shows up in introductory books for philosophy, because it’s a matter most philosophers and those interested in the field have wondered about and taken seriously at one point.

    Again, I see no evidence that most philosophers have either wondered about this or taken it seriously.

    Plato didn’t wonder about this, as far as I am aware. Aristotle, as I said, pointed out that there was something wrong with the question and thought the idea of absolute nothing was incoherent (isn’t Aristotle normally considered to have been somewhat influential?) Did Kant ever wonder about this? I know that none of the Logical Positivists or their fellow travellers ever did. Does any modern philosopher who is not a religious apologist ask it?

    Are you basing your opinion about this on any research?

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  19. Hi saphsin

    My guess it that people have some intuitive feeling that there’s something wrong with the question, but don’t really break down what the problem actually is. If anyone else here had different observations, I’d be happy to hear it.

    As I said, Aristotle went into quite a bit of detail in Physics about what was wrong with “From nothing, nothing can come”. He said that it depends on what you mean by “nothing” and gave examples of the kinds of nothing from which something can come.

    But as I said, I have looked and have found very few philosophers who have addressed it since in any terms. It seems to be pretty much a fringe issue outside the apologists.

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  20. OK, let’s mix it up more on another piece.

    The chiles (sic! if you grew up in New Mexico, not Texas) piece is interesting. The study of cultural evolution is, yes, generally new. But dietary issues, at least moral ones, and debate about them, certainly is not, though non-moral dietary issues and scientific discussion may be newer.

    Specific to the article, before the “Columbian Revolution,” Thais didn’t have chiles. So, “heat” had to come from the spices in curries and similar.

    Second, the value of spices as antimicrobials is generally overrated. Humans used them to mask decaying food flavors first and foremost, while perhaps believing they also had preservative powers. Salt (not normally considered a spice) whether alone or in conjunction with smoking, brining or fermenting, is the only reliable food preservative from antiquity.

    Third, for many earlier cooking techniques, while they were transmitted culturally, and not of course by biological evolution, nonetheless, the culture was Homo sapiens as a species, not individual cultures. Leavening of bread, whether by yeasts or soda, is one obvious example, Production of alcoholic beverages is another.

    Also, things like Icelandic and Norwegian fermented shark meat (hakarl, which in the bygone past had the fermentation aided by urine), the semi-fermentation that occurs with blubber (muktuk) of Inuit and other things, partially undercut the claim that hot climates eat spicy food.

    Technically, these foods may not be “spicy,” but they’re DEFINITELY not bland. The high, very high, pungency of hakarl is known to gourmands the world round.

    At the other end of the geographic scale, the relatively bland diet of many sub-Saharan Africans, with lots of millet and yams, does the same.

    Beyond the dubious assertions of individual food levels of this piece, I’m also dubious on individual cultures’ food foci as conductive to cultural evolution, at least if cultural evolution, unlike biological evolution, is meant to entail the idea of progress.

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  21. Peter Turchin: “Let’s step back for a moment. The expansion of human brain size during the last two millions of years and the expansion of hippocampus in London cab drivers are, of course, very different processes. One is a slow evolutionary change of a particular group of organisms, the other is a fast developmental response in one particular organism (well, not so fast—it takes four years to acquire the Knowledge). ”

    Not to mention that the first example is heritable and the second is not, a distinction that seems to be often blurred in accounts of cultural evolution.

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  22. On the flourishing of neo-opaquism in contemporaneous academic literary phenomena (etc., etc.):

    I often think that an occasional concrete example would be helpful. I become discouraged when confronted by page after page of abstract terms defined in other abstract terms.

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  23. I agree with Coel that much of the disagreement on this blog comes from simply misinterpreting each other’s intent.

    I wasn’t taking sides on Trump here, except to note that calling someone fascist, deplorable, “disorganized mentally”, racist, like Hitler, bigoted, etc. are just meaningless epithets that are only used in the lack of a genuine argument. I am not being original here. Godwin’s Law says something similar. It is common to call someone Hitler while bailing out of a losing argument.

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  24. Schlafly, Godwin’s Law, like reference to Hume’s “is ≠ ought,” can also be used as a deliberate conversation stopper. And, that is itself another tool for

    (B)ailing out of a losing argument.

    “If the shoe fits” may be a cliché, to take another angle, but clichés, like generalizations, are still sometimes, to semi-often, true.

    Would you have advised the Socialist Party Deutschland, circa fall 1933, to not call Adolf Hitler “Adolf Hitler”?

    As for disorganized mentally? Trump’s own Tweetstreem is empirical evidence to that statement. So, no, not a meaningless epithet. That said, given the generally science free stance of much of modern American conservativism, if you really do want to ignore empirical evidence, it wouldn’t surprise me.

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  25. On the arts piece, Raphael as an artist never floated my boat as much as either Michelangelo or Leonard. Or the century later El Greco, for that matter. And, I think that all of them have novelistically compelling lives.

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  26. It should also be noted, re facile attempts to claim that someone else is engaging in Godwin’s Law, that Massimo, and other commenters here, have not used the word “Hitler.” A simple, empirical use of the Command-F key to search comments here will demonstrate that.

    It should also be noted that not all fascists were genocidal or quasi-genocidal. Franco and Juan Peron, both widely considered to be fascists, come immediately to mind.

    That said, I’m still not sure in my own mind that Trump is a fascist.

    Is Steve Bannon, though? Yes, I am convinced of that.

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  27. Robin Herbert

    I don’t know the motives of the ones mentioned, whether it’s because they had zero interest or if they just gave up answering the question. Maybe someone else around here has an idea.

    Socratic

    With regards to the article on chili peppers, I still don’t understand how the author jumped to the conclusion that the reason why chili peppers became widely used in their culture because it was naturally selected for better health. Is there evidence that appears in those books that I’m missing that the author wasn’t clear about or is this jumping to conclusions?

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  28. Socratic: “That said, I’m still not sure in my own mind that Trump is a fascist.

    Is Steve Bannon, though? Yes, I am convinced of that.”

    So is Bannon, evidently: cf. Joshua Green, “Inside the Secret”, Vanity Fair, July 15, 2017.

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  29. If the vast majority of philosophers did not mention this matter in their writing then I think the reasonable conclusion is that this matter did not interest them.

    Maybe it wasn’t their area. Maybe it was because they thoughr they couldn’t improve on what Aristotle said on the subject and since even a modern day physicist can’t conceptually improve on what he said on this particular subject then perhaps they were right to leave it alone.

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  30. But it boils down to the fact that Parminedes principle, that “from nothing, something cannot come” is still perfectly sound, because if nothingness is an incoherent concept then that is all the more reason it can’t be the source of anything.

    So when someone claims that the Universe created itself from nothing then, by “Universe” they can’t mean “everything that there is”.

    Every “Universe,from nothing” claim simply translates to “Universe from something”

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