Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The GOP and Crazy - latest episode


A philosopher's intellectual calm and patience can be stretched only so far before insults and/or damnation become the only appropriate response.

This isn't about the morality of abortion, but about a simple, anti-science, anti-reason, anti-fact rewriting of reality.  "Fetal life" in Arizona now begins at a point when fetal life does not - in reality - begin.

(To pile crazy on top of crazy, this new law is titled "The Women's Health and Safety Act.")

I don't know what's more crazy, this, or the notion that Sarah Palin was remotely qualified to be president.

Only ignorance and/or bad faith can explain these phenomena.  One can only hope that these intellectual mutants will be correctly acknowledged as such in the light of history - assuming the mutants don't already destroy us all before we get there.  That's right: fucking mutants.

EDIT: On a more constructive note, perhaps in the coming days I will lay out some thoughts on the abortion matter.  In the meantime, let us note one thing about the goddamned "pro-life" right-wingers in America, who have mutated even well beyond what they were in 1976 when Miss Rand had already called them goddamned so-and-sos: Their fierce defense of "the sanctity of life" in the form of the unborn cannot even come close to be taken as a cognitively unbiased (if not downright hypocritical) position on the sanctity of life - not when they show such stark indifference toward children in poverty (now standing at 22% in America - and rising), toward death-row inmates (who pose no threat to society when locked up, and who may or may not have been wrongfully convicted, or who may be mentally retarded), or toward the many children killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, to which these fucking mutants have decided to turn a blind eye while chanting about how the USA is "the greatest country on earth" because of its nationalism and militarism and anti-intellectualism, i.e., because of mutants like themselves.  I have no doubt that a dedicated individual could come up with instance after instance of the mutants' double-standards on "the sanctity of life."  (Just human life, I suppose, too.  Many of these same mutants don't think twice about scarfing down enormous amounts of factory-farmed meat and diminishing their own health in the process.  And what about the sanctity of the lives of members of future generations who may very well have to suffer the consequences of these mutants' epistemologically-fucked environmental negligence?)  That being said, there are legitimate moral concerns and arguments about abortion that need to be addressed to those of good faith, cognitive balance, and epistemic-intellectual sanity.  It is just too bad that it is not these folks who dominate American political discourse today.  (Speaking of which, how the fuck does presidential hopeful Mitt Romney get away with releasing only two years - tops - of tax returns?  What, am I the crazy one here?)

EDIT #2: Aaaaand yet more insanity from the past couple days.  I wonder how the pro-freedom, small-government Tea Partiers might react to this GOP-platform proposal for gratuitous federal meddling into people's private choices, choices made using their own hard-earned money no less?  Are the feds supposed to be conducting this frivolous meddling before addressing real problems this country faces?  Who are these fucking idiots?  (Note, further, that the Romney campaign has vowed to crack down on the porn menace, in addition to the vow to fight tooth and nail the same-sex marriage menace.  All while not releasing more than two years of tax returns because "it's none of our business."  Words fail at this point.)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Notes on teleology

Off-the-cuff here, but need to get the thoughts down on (digital) paper.

It's hard to imagine how one would become The Ultimate Philosopher without having devoted serious amounts of time and thought over the years to the subject of teleology.  The most famous exponent of a teleological interpretation of (at least some) natural phenomena is Aristotle.  The so-called conventional wisdom is that Aristotle's teleology was abandoned by philosophers after the middle ages and the rise of the scientific age.  It turns out that the subject of teleological concepts in biology is of interest to some philosophical sub-specialists today.

Now, to get to what just now had me to thinking (yet again) on the subject of teleology.

The use of the term "teleology" in Objectivist/Randian circles is not altogether clear(ly consistent).  I'll first take the original statement on the matter from the Lexicon, which appeared in a footnote:

When applied to physical phenomena, such as the automatic functions of an organism, the term “goal-directed” is not to be taken to mean “purposive” (a concept applicable only to the actions of a consciousness) and is not to imply the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature. I use the term “goal-directed,” in this context, to designate the fact that the automatic functions of living organisms are actions whose nature is such that they result in the preservation of an organism’s life.
First off, I'd like to indicate what Rand got right: "Goal-directed" should not be taken to imply the existence of any teleological principle operating in insentient nature.  Then the confusion begins: "goal" here is to be understood in terms of the automatic functions of living organisms such that they achieve a "result."  Rand doesn't provide any further explanation of this point, but it's a big one, because it is central to understanding her meta-ethics.  It all has to do with living organisms facing a fundamental life/death alternative and that this alternative makes sense out of speaking of goals; where there are no alternatives, there are no goals.  This last part sounds correct.  However, we also have an apparent conflation of the meanings of "goal" and of "value," a value being that which one acts to gain and/or keep.  Accepting this definition of "value" for the moment (I am not clear on what would compel us to do so, and never really have been), we get concretizations from Rand about, chiefly, the activities of plants and of animals.  In her terms, valuation in plants would involve (for instance) movements to maximize exposure to sunlight, the sunlight being valuable to their photosynthesis activities; or, for another example, valuation would involve the activities of cellular metabolism.  With animals you have obvious examples such as feeding (and the other three F's, the last of which throws a wrench into everything, as I'll address in a moment).  Where the primary "goal" (or value) of the plant, is directed toward gathering energy and nutrients, the alternative is malfunction, disease, death.

So, how do we respond to all this?  Well, in addition to the two statements above which I've indicated make good sense, it also makes sense to say that the activities of (say) a plant are such that they are organizationally and functionally ordered toward the production of a result.  What I don't see that implying is that they are goal-directed.  This gets us to an accounting of "goals," which in my view are related to the term "value" (which has to do with valuing something, which doesn't mean "value" is defined as "that which one acts to gain and/or keep;" rather, value is used here in the sense of actual or potential utility in satisfying a desire, or something close to this idea).  Much as I have tried (and gone back and forth) over the years on understanding "goal" as applied to insentient nature, I think the term "goal" is applicable only to sentient activity.  Likewise, I think "value" has meaning only in application to sentient activity.  What's more, I think the fundamental meta-ethical term "goodness" is applicable only to sentient activity - which is to say, that I do not accept Rand's conception of goodness as applied to living organisms generally.  (N.B.: I do not think that this is fatal to the central thrust of Rand's argument in "The Objectivist Ethics."  I think much the same ethical conclusions could be derived from restricting the concept of "goodness" to the well-being of sentient entities [which for all we know must be biological entities, though that's a philosophy-of-mind issue].)

Here's where we are so far:

"Goal" is applicable only to sentient activity.  (I'll explain this shortly.)

"Value" is applicable only to sentient activity.  (Ditto)

"Result" is applicable to living entities in terms of how their biological organization functionally "directs" their activities.

Something's being a result in the above sense does not make it a goal.

Rand uses "goal-directed" so as not to imply a teleological principle operating in an insentient nature (or "tpoiain," for short).  What is not determined from this statement is how she does apply the concept of teleology.  Apparently "goal-directed"-not-implying-a-tpoiain would indicate that she doesn't think there is any such thing as a tpoiain, but that's not made explicit.

Since this is off-the-cuff, I'll mention Harry Binswanger's work on teleology at this point.  His Columbia doctoral thesis, later turned into a book published by ARI, is titled "The Biological Basis of Teleological Concepts."  On the face of it, such a title does imply the endorsement of the idea of a tpoiain, as it applies not only to humans and other animals, but to plants, to fungi, to amoeba, to bacteria, any biological organism you can name.  At the same time, we would be reasonable to assume that Rand, with whom Binswanger was closely associated, was familiar with this thesis and its contents and agreed that it is consistent with her meta-ethics.  (Peikoff references Binswanger's thesis/book in OPAR, as well.)  And so we're back to the confusions.  We're back to asking whether a bacterium plausibly "pursues goals," "has values," or "faces a life/death alternative," and whether the concept "good" or "bad/evil" apply to the outcomes/results of its activities.  So, to continue . . .

"Goal" is only applicable to a sentient being.  (I may be stipulating word-usage here, but it's hard to see how Rand/Objectivists aren't doing the same.)  Here's how I think that's plausible: It does not make sense to speak of having a goal unless there is an awareness of an alternative.  Now, "awareness of an alternative" might be thought to involve considerable foresight, planning, and so forth.  Here, I'll mention something that Rand herself brings up: the pleasure/pain mechanism.  Even in that very basic form - as it obtains even at the level of mentally primitive animals - there is some basic awareness of the alternative involved here.  The goal, then, for such non-cognitively-advanced beings is to pursue that which provides an automatic guide to . . . well, to what?  For Rand, the automatic pleasure-pain mechanism directs an animal to that which "sustains, furthers, and promotes its life."  For contemporary biology, however, the automatic guide directs animals toward something called "inclusive fitness" - and hence why the last of the four F's is so highly related to pleasure.  Rand is at odds with contemporary biology; I don't know any other way to put it.  This means that Rand is almost surely mistaken as to what the basic functions (or "natural ends") of living organisms are.  She cannot derive her (plausible) ethical conclusions from her (implausible) biological claims.  (Her "man's life qua man" modification on "life as the standard of value" - rather than, well, psychological well-being as the standard of value - can be converted quite simply to: "the activities based on principles required for the proper functioning of a rational being," which translates both conceptually and causally to: eudaimonia.)

So, what's the point, then, of bringing up the pleasure/pain mechanism?  It's to make a less ambitious but more plausible claim than Rand does: that the pleasure/pain mechanism provides automatic guidance to animals as to what promotes their good, i.e., their psychological well-being.  I think it's necessary to add in here: "Other things being equal."  However, it's basically only cognitively-advanced beings such as humans that are able to grasp the "other things being equal" part and to take that into deliberative account.

So "goal," at the very minimum, involves an awareness-in-mind of an alternative.  It also makes sense to say that an animal pursues goals in the sense that the animal has desires, drives, etc. that can be satisfied or frustrated.

I think "value" basically operates in the same fashion.  The concept  "value" is based on the phenomenon of having desires, drives, etc. that can be satisfied or frustrated.  This needn't involve conflating the meanings of "goal" and of "value," even though they are obviously very closely related.

So, now we have:

"Result" is present where there are functional life-processes.

Biological "function" is defined in terms of inclusive fitness.

"Goal" and "value" are defined in terms of what is pursued by a sentient being.  (Binswanger's term "value-significance" applies at this level.)

"Teleology" pertains to goal-directedness, which operates only in sentient parts of nature.

The specifically human form of goal-directedness is defined in terms of purpose or end, or something indicating the rational and deliberative element in human goal-pursuit or valuation.

"Standard of value" pertains to successful goal-directed action, success being defined in terms of what is good for the valuer.

"Good" is that which promotes psychological well-being.

"Well-being" may very well apply to the health and successful life activities of non-sentient organisms, but that doesn't imply "goodness," "value," "goal."

Psychological well-being in humans translates (at least closely) to eudaimonia.  Or more precisely: psychological well-being exists on a (teleologically?) measurable continuum, represented by some variant or other of the Maslow hierarchy of needs (beginning with the vegetative, then animal, then human-specific needs with their own ordering), with maximal well-being or self-actualization being concurrent with eudaimonia.

Or something along these lines.  (If I've left some strands hanging in the above, I'll leave that as an exercise for myself and the reader.)

Whew.  Glad to get all that cleared up.  What next? :-)

UPDATE: A dialecticizing of all the items here just came under consideration.  It'd be time-consuming as fuck, but the payoff might well be worth it.  Or maybe not.  Better things to do?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

An Aristotelian Utopia?

While the most prominent economist on today's public scene spends his scarce time going apeshit over the Paul Ryan-Ayn Rand connection, complete with laughable commentary on Rand/Galt/Atlas, my thoughts turn more toward the long-term and to subjects of the greatest and furthest-reaching scope.  That's what I do, see.  That's all I do.  And I absolutely will not stop, ever, until I am dead.

So, without further ado, I direct your attention to a blog commentary (Part 1) (Part 2) on Prof. Marcia Homiak's essay, "An Aristotelian Life" (a chapter in the collection Philosophers Without Gods [Louise M. Antony, ed., OUP, 2007]).  The collection as a whole is okay, but the one essay that stuck in my mind was this one.  The basic idea of her essay is that a society built along essentially Aristotelian lines would fulfill all the needs that many human beings think requires belief in a god or gods to fulfill. It wouldn't be an atheistic or secular society by necessity or default - for all we know, a rigorously-philosophically-informed theism may be a prominent feature in such a society - but the point would be that belief in god(s) would not be necessary for the society to function in a, well, pretty fucking awesome manner.

I wish to go a step or so beyond the envisioned social order outlined by Prof. Homiak and consider certain questions.  These include: (1) How realistic is it that such a society might be actualized?  (2) Were such a society to be actualized, wouldn't the benefits of a philosophically-enriched citizenry have a snowball effect, leading to ever-better social discourse and, in turn, to ever-better solutions to major challenges facing humanity?  (3) Would this not hasten the onset of the technological singularity?  (4) Is such a social order, properly speaking, utopian?  Breaking that question down further: Is the society envisioned by Homiak already utopian, or would we need the aforementioned snowballing effect to reach utopia?  (5) What exactly is the difference between perfection (in this context, a utopian society) and excellence (an awesome society), anyway?

Well, I think the chief question here is (1).  I think once such a society were realized, the snowball effect and the rest follow quite logically - that is, unless humanity is already doomed.  Is humanity doomed?  I don't know.  But what's a pretty fucking awesome way to hedge our bets on that?  Or go out with a bang if the end really is near?  Could it get any better - could we do any better - than an Aristotelian society (be it to stave off extinction, or just because that's the best way to go regardless)?  If we could do better, that's what the Man himself would recommend we do, of course!  (You can't refute perfectivism. :-)  So, now: what about (1).  Is such a society a realistic goal?  Let me turn the tables here: Is it not a realistic goal, and if not, why?

The strategy here isn't difficult to figure out.  (It's tactics used to carry out the strategy that need some big-time investigation, I think.  How are memes optimally propagated in this day and age?)  The strategy is to get as many people turned on to this Aristotelian idea as soon as possible.  This has a number of things going for it.  For one thing, Aristotle is canonized.  Ayn Rand, on the other hand, deservedly or not, is not canonized.  Even though I think Aristotle and Rand would converge on support for the Aristotelian program, using Rand's ideas as the vehicle for such a social change would be something of a non-starter.  I think that comes after the Aristotelianization (great word!), which would enable the folks to actually understand what the hell Rand has been getting at all this time.  Or, perhaps, the Aristotelianized citizenry would tear Objectivism apart (if not ignore/scoff at it), as the current genius-packed academy-consensus would believe.  (I'd be happy to take bets on that.  But one philosopher against a million; what chance do I stand?)  But that's really quite beside the point.  The point is to have a citizenry that is maximally intellectually tutored and let the chips fall where they may.  (Again, I'm happy to take bets on how well Rand pans out in such a scenario.  But hell, we'd all be winners in that scenario.  I'd just want to be a bigger winner. ;-)

So, a maximally intellectually-tutored citizenry.  How can that be achieved?  Well, I said the strategy would be fairly simple and straightforward: Get as many people as possible understanding Aristotelianism as soon as possible.  Especially rationality as the highest virtue, and the progressive activity that is eudaimonia (involving self-actualization) the good life.  A citizenry devoted to learning and growing and deriving enjoyment from doing so.  Higher aesthetic standards in the public sphere.  Stupidity in politics scorned rather than celebrated.  A people "conditioned" to think eudaimonically and therefore looking down on lying, cheating, and stealing as purported means of getting ahead in life. Growing bonds of trust.  Capitalism with businesspeople actually of the character of Randian heroes, rather than the sociopathic unprincipled cutthroat philistinic cronyist assholes that dominate the business scene too much today. Violence scorned rather than celebrated.  And on and on and on.  Like I said, fucking awesome.

So how does that ball get rolling?  Is it realistic for the ball just to get rolling?  Well, is it not realistic, and if not, why?  How does a people concerned with their survival and well-being reject Aristotle?

Say that it's achievable in principle.  Better yet, say that it's at least plausible.  (If not, why not?)  In that case, it comes down to a matter of time: just how long would it take before Prof. Homiak's (admittedly ambitious) vision is achieved?  And why not sooner rather than later?

A couple other twists to the narrative above:

(1) Jesus of Nazareth can still play a key role in all this.  Think of this combination as the possible citizen-ideal: Having the head of Aristotle and the heart of Jesus.  (Do keep in mind what Aristotle had to say about intellectual activity as expressing what is "divine" in man, and ask yourself how Jesus could possibly object to the maximal use of one's cognitive faculty.)

(2) Cannabis legalization would speed all of the above way up, for the reasons Carl Sagan explained.

More to come, of course . . .

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Rand and the 'national narrative'

Once we take a comprehensive look at the state of America today compared to its state 60 years ago (while Atlas Shrugged was being composed), how much can we say - as many left-wing analysts contend - Rand has had a major influence over American culture?  Well, first, let's observe that Rand's vision of good human beings is symbolized by Howard Roark and Dagny Taggart.  The charge against her, though, is that her philosophy appeals primarily to Wall Street "banksters," if we're going to name people who are highly unfluential on the country's state of affairs.  Meanwhile, if you were to compare the lifestyles of the Wall Street "banksters" with those of real-life Objectivists (the ones who knew Rand, or listened to the Peikoff lecture courses, or attend the conferences, or have an "insider" level of familiarity with Objectivist teachings), you'd probably not find a whole lot of overlap.  Look at Peikoff himself.  He lives too much like an Aristotelian to behave like a shallow dickhead investment banker.

Say that a bunch of super-rich assholes decide they dig Rand because they like the "survival of the fittest idea" and think Rand is a great source for that idea (clue: Rand doesn't endorse that idea), and so they behave like assholes and screw the masses of Americans over.  I don't see how Rand is to be blamed for their intellectual faults.  Quite true; she estimated the intelligence of her typical reader to be that of a quality-college-educated history major with a considerable degree of interest in large-scale, long-range issues that philosophy is there to study.  She didn't expect her readers to be philosophy-autodidacts like herself, but she did expect a great deal of intellectual attentiveness; otherwise, what's the point of writing for the public?  So, given the sad state of education and much of mass culture in America today, the widespread anti-intellectualism or intellectual laziness, the widespread hypocrisy, the screaming injustices so many just come to accept as part of normal life, etc., Rand may very well have assumed too much of her (future) readers.

More to the point: These left-wing criticisms of Rand's purported intellectual influence are rife with bias.  Blaming Rand for the behavior of super-rich assholes is comparable in silliness to blaming Marx for the behavior of the Stalin regime, something that the very same left-wing critics wouldn't put up with for a minute.  It's that fucking stupid.

The idea is to have a country of people who behave like Aristotelians - intellectual curiosity (i.e., rationality in the Randian sense, which Rand-haters are clueless about) being the chief and fundamental virtue in human living, along with an emotional life characterized by benevolence.  (Hint: Rand was an uber-advocate of benevolence.  You can see it in her characterization of Roark.  "In the name of the best within us..." (Atlas)  So lefties, stop being so stupid and superficial about Rand, huh?  Get a clue or two.)

The bigger question these lefty critics or any other intellectuals ought to be concerned with is: What are the causes of our society not being a society of people who behave like Aristotelians, where a mind like Chomsky's is an exception rather than the rule?  Because that, after all, is the root of our ills today.  How can the publication of Atlas Shrugged come remotely close to playing a causal role in these ills?  It defies all common sense.  So what have these lefties been doing up there in that ivory tower, then, besides snubbing the business ethos? :-)

More to come, of course . . .

Next up: Dialectizin' with Aristotle?

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Legalize It

UPDATE below

A Compelling Argument - one among many

A recommended link - I think you might be amazed by what transpires there in the possibly near future.  Hard to predict these kinds of things, though.

UPDATE: Some additional links: (1) Sagan (2) semantic priming

Possible motto: "If you're old enough (18) to serve and die for your country, you should be able to grow weed or buy it in a store."  That simple.

Vote for candidates who endorse legalization or against candidates who oppose it.  Get organized to sway the election if need be.  Exploit the potential of mass internet social media not under corporate content-control, to win with the power of ideas over million-dollar campaign contributions.  (I'm working on this latter part as we speak.  Plus this is just the beginning of popular reforms we desperately need to see in this country and worldwide.  Chief on the agenda are philosophical education, ecosystem preservation, mass cognitive creativity, and love.  "In the name of the best within us...")

Stay tuned for more . . .

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Sight and Sound 2012 poll results released

It's an event for cinephiles somewhat akin (or perhaps not) to the World Cup for soccer/football fans.  In the British Film Institute magazine's survey of hundreds of critics and filmmakers conducted every ten years, Vertigo has unseated Citizen Kane from the long-held top spot.  These poll-results could very well lead to a new round of obsessive (pun intended) number-crunching by the very dedicated, as they did for me the last time around.  Or, one could just let others do all the number-crunching and save one the trouble.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Question(s) for the day

How many accomplished novelists do you know of, who later went on to pen fairly technical works on epistemology, the most difficult subject in philosophy?

Such a phenomenon seems highly unusual.  What qualities of mind would have to be involved to pull that sort of thing off?  Could such qualities go unappreciated by many people over a long period of time for one reason or another?