Archive for the 'philosophy' Category

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A Particular Kind of a Cold Day

We only seem to talk about big data in terms of predicting buying patterns and targeting consumers. This kind of data analysis is about making invisible patterns visible and transferring information from much larger scales of existence into the scale of human understanding. Climate and the warming of the biosphere may be the most important way we use big data techniques. Amidst the report from the NY Times that 2014 was the hottest year since 1880, when they began to keep records, was this observation:

“February 1985 was the last time global surface temperatures fell below the 20th century average for a given month, meaning that no one younger than 30 has ever lived through a below average month. The last full year that was colder than the 20th century average was 1976.”

We've marked the successive generations based on cultural markers and consuming patterns. But this under-30 generation is the first to experience a specific kind of earth. In this earth, there are no “below average” temperatures. Of course, no one experiences an “average temperature.” One day will be colder than another, and a particular day will be the coldest one ever experienced. But this generation will live out their lives in a fundamentally different possibility space.

What the data tells us is that the set of possible temperatures is slowly moving into a higher range. It's something we can can contemplate in our understanding, but not something we can directly experience. This is the difficulty of direct action with regard to global warming. When we drive our cars, or build a fire in the fireplace it appears to have no effect whatsoever on climate. It's only when you scale it up to the whole human species across the entire planet that the effects are visible. And only then indirectly, using a complex array of sensors, a large historical data set, and a sophisticated simulation of earth's climate.

Hollywood teaches us that there is supposed to be a large explosive event that marks the turning point with climate. We perpetually imagine that event to be in the future, as though it were a ticking time bomb. There's always time for the hero to intercede and change the course of history. One day, we look up from our newspapers and realize that every human under 30 years of age is already living in that permanently changed world. The possibility of that particular kind of cold day has been foreclosed. It wasn't ever a change that we would directly feel or experience that we should have been looking for; it was a change in what it was possible to experience.


Turning Anthropocentrism Up to 11


It's often pointed out that when we say “Save the Earth”, what we mean is “Save the Earth (for humans)”. There has been, and will be, an earth without humans. That earth apparently doesn't require saving. This has lead to a new trope in discourse about global warming and the sixth mass extinction. It's the “if you won't do it for the earth, do it for yourselves” argument. The earth will be fine either way, but humans will face a catastrophe in the biosphere and widespread extinction. When the dust settles, there will still be some form of the planet earth.

In a New York Times Op-Ed, Alan Lightman recently put it this way:

Mother Earth doesn't care about you at all. So save yourselves.

Lightman wants to disabuse us of the notion that nature is a sentient larger whole with which we humans can become one. He prefers this view of nature:

Nature is purposeless. Nature simply is. We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept. We feel such a strong connection to nature. But the relationship between nature and us is one-sided. There is no reciprocity. There is no mind on the other side of the wall.

Lightman is a physicist who teaches humanities at M.I.T., and here he seems to present us with a hard-headed realist position. Nature is an unraveling of mindless patterns and algorithms, it will not save us from our self-made catastrophe. Forget nature, save the humans. If we can't be made to care about the planet, perhaps we can spurred to action with the idea of saving ourselves.

Of course, the wealthy 1% will experience catastrophic climate change, due to global warming, much differently than the other 99%. When we say “humans,” and great deal depends on who is speaking and what groups they refer to when uttering that word.

Lightman's position is the ne plus ultra of nihilist idealism. Nothing exists but the human mind, its constructions and a purposeless chaos. It's an interesting position for a scientist to take. It also points to the reason that scientists could benefit from a dialogue with philosophers. Lightman seems unaware of the philosophical ideas he's enacting.

The physicist (who teaches humanities) sees our position in the universe as a lonely one. It's only us. A simple refutation of Lightman would be to look at anyone who has ever had a dog or a cat as a pet. We co-exist with a dog, and the dog is an other, not a mental construction.

This concept that there are only humans, or what is more commonly called anthropocentrism, is precisely the reason that we face a catastrophe in the biosphere. Lightman thinks we can escape our fate by turning our anthropocentrism from 10 up to 11. I suggest we wake from that nightmare to see the other entities all around us. It's not just us we will destroy.


Rick Holland: Clicking the Link of the Real


We begin to think of this as an age of gluttony when we realize we’ve stopped tasting the food. Sure there’s a foodie culture that seeks out the best coffee and beer, the best this and the best that — but it’s not the culture in the main. And even “the best” ends up becoming a strange kind of commodity as it becomes mass produced and commonplace. We only taste its “bestness”, not its flavor. In domains where there are economics of abundance, quantity becomes the only measure.


Our senses have been made the target an endless barrage of synthetic stimulation. Even our sleep is turned into “lucid dreaming“, so we can increase the gape of our maw. When we multi-task while we multi-task, only to pause for a moment to multi-task, we lack the distance to perceive how the span of our attention has been doubled and tripled and stretched all the way to the horizon to maximize the programmable surface of our being. Our gluttony is optimized.

The poet Rick Holland attempts to think through the predicament of meditating “on our technological predicament in a crowd of people discussing Facebook.” The classic move when attempting thought while faced with an over-abundance of stimulation was made by John Milton. In his introduction to the second printing of “Paradise Lost” he was asked to explain his choice of unrhymed iambic pentameter — also called “blank verse” or “heroic verse”.

THE Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin; Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac’t indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them. Not without cause therefore some both Italian, and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rhime both in longer and shorter Works, as have also long since our best English Tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, triveal, and of no true musical delight; which consists only in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoyded by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. This neglect then of Rhime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem’d an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover’d to heroic Poem from the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing.

Milton’s desire to throw off the chains of the “modern bondage of Rimeing” was an appeal to the intellect of the reader. The “jingling sound of like endings” would not serve for a poetry that attempted a theodicy — justifying the ways of God to men. This most serious project required “judicious ears”. Poetry not simply read or heard, but heard, read, marked, learned and inwardly digested. Such that a judgement on this theodicy could be rendered.

The philosopher Tim Morton talks about how we’ve come to view poetry as the candy sprinkles stuck to the surface of the scientifically real. Like the rest of the humanities, it’s something that can easily be chucked overboard when it comes time to tighten budgets. Poetry is booked into the balance sheet as a “nice to have” in a bottom-line world. But for Morton “poetry is the blood of causality”, there’s nothing optional about the aesthetic dimension. He thinks that when you do art, you are directly messing with causality.

When one hears the question, “Where does poetry begin?” one is prone to visualize things chugging along in their way, and poetry somehow arising out of the chugging, or being sprinkled along the surface of the chugging like sparks flying out of a complex grinding mechanism. But contemporary physics — going back now to 1900 — tells us that the aesthetic dimension is not some kind of optional fireworks that happen if you’re lucky and happen to have (human) ears, eyes and so on. Poetry is the blood of causality. A fruit fly smells not by inhaling some volatile chemical, but by detecting the quantum signature of a molecule: its shape, which is transmitted nonlocally to receptors in the fly’s olfactory system. Shape, which Aristotle calls morphē, just is what Aristotle thinks as the essence of a thing. This ice cream, right here, this one in my hand — its essence is its form, not an idea in my head or in some transcendental ice cream parlor of the beyond. Somehow we have forgotten how important form is. Form got flushed out of the modern way of thinking about things as pure extension and nothing else — maybe with some accidental candy sprinkles here and there — machinating away in the void.

Rick Holland, among others, is searching for a way for poetry to get a seat at the table. One strategy is to become ultra-serious and austere. With the frivolity of rhyming cast aside, the candy sprinkles are brushed off to reveal the real and serious candy sprinkles underneath, and now the verse is ready for judicious ears. Another method attempts to stop your heart with the beautiful. In the midst of a swirl of sensuality, entice the reader to click the link, to open the door, to go down the rabbit hole. Beauty, so beautiful, it cannot be resisted.

The poet Rachel McKibbens reminds us that the stories we receive aren’t all from search engine results pages or Facebook and Twitter streams. While Morton may think of poetry as a kind of “Realist Magic“, McKibbens says “poetry is a kind of witchcraft“. Both seem to see poetry as a technology for messing with causality.

LM: In her essay, “The Semiotics of Sex,” Jeanette Winterson says, “It is the poet who goes further than any human scientist.  The poet who with her dredging net must haul up difficult things and return them to the present.” Do you?
RM: But aren’t the “difficult things” always present? We’ve been taught how to see past the difficult. To bury it. It is why we must constantly name and re-name things, why we spell cast, testify, gift and unbury. Poetry is a kind of witchcraft. We have the power to manifest, to call forth, to make what didn’t happen, happen. I think of the griots who delivered stories from town to town, the soothsayers and playwrights and brujas, all the ceremonies and dedications and incantations and proclamations, everything that starts with the word. And how the word gains its power by being spoken and handed to the next person and how what we write will last longer than our skins, our poems are the truest husks of our former selves.

And so, Rick Holland stands in front of a crowd with a microphone in his hand. The noise of the bar swirls and melds with his voice. Thinking through the idea that metaphor and metonymy may be the original hyperlinks. The musicians take their places, ready to lay down the groove. Old Man Diode is welcomed to the stage. Imagining what life might be like outside of the machine. Bringing back the tradition of the rhapsode… Telling us through the interdigtal blaze that the “linking magic” is our ability to directly mess with causality.

Rick Holland and Old Man Diode

My name is,
as I’m the self consumer of my woes
tonight they self-consume,
to rise and vanish in oblivious host.
a creature breathing nothings with the waves
and there is nothing here to take away
no words, no beats, no breaks
except the rising surge and wave
to surge, to die, to surge again,
so please welcome Old Man Diode to the stage
with Wampa, Fya, Plummer, Beth, Onallee, Chris James
yourselves, the wider crowd, and this the linking age
this is the linking magic we all dive deep to save
children of the interdigital age
interdigitally ablaze
these the waves we came to pave as moving floors
and all of us together

{Track : Clearing Song}
Squall gone
Shoal left
Moon wrapped
These bits left
These bits
A tech lift horizon
blend free
a Clearing Song
Mapped out there
Where the machines left us
Ran out
Out here
It’s me and you out here

The Strict Hypocrite’s Diet


Because we live in an age where we believe in the goodness of clarity and purity, much of the work we do takes the form of “optimization.” Our ideologues, of whatever stripe, push us toward the purest form of an idea. As we stake out the extremes of purity, we decry the moral weakness and hypocrisy of those who fail the tests of purity. Hypocrite! It’s the insult par excellence for our age. Once we get a simple agreement that something is good in principle, we then go about exploring how the great unwashed public, or alternatively our leaders, fall short of that ideal. Every aspect of our lives becomes political, every action measured against a larger political agenda.

Food writer Mark Bittman has written a diet book called “VB6”. “VB6” stands for Vegan Before 6pm. The brilliance of this “diet” is that it’s hypocritical. Surely to be a vegan is to be a vegan all of the time. How else can you genuinely be a vegan? If you cheat, if you break the rules, if you don’t live up to the ideal, you aren’t really a vegan. It’s the same with all diets. A diet is a set of rules, if you break the rules you aren’t really on the diet. Rule breaking translates into a form of weakness.

Bittman’s VB6 has an interesting relationship to rules. Here’s Bittman on his “diet”.

Nor will I tell you that you must eat foods that you don’t want to eat, or to ignore your body’s legitimate cravings and desires, or to stop eating before you’re full. I am, after all, someone who has built an entire career on my love of cooking and eating good food. And VB6 is the way I eat now, and have for six years.

There are three very basic aspects to VB6. First, you make a commitment to eat more plant foods — fruit, vegetables, whole grains, beans … you know what I’m talking about. Second, you make a commitment to eat fewer animal products and highly processed foods, like white bread. And third, you all but eliminate junk foods, most of which are barely foods in the strict sense of the word anyway. (I say “all but eliminate” because everyone needs to break the rules occasionally.)

Mark Bittman is a food writer. When his doctor suggested that he become a vegan to head off some potential health problems, Bittman was faced with a dilemma. VB6 was his solution, and so far, it’s worked for him. This approach to the rules of diet can be instructive across a whole range of activities. He teaches us something about the nature of rules themselves. Bittman also rejects our current fascination with personal data.

To make matters worse, many diets bury you in data, requiring you to count calories, points, or grams of fat or carbohydrates. Counting calories can of course be an effective dieting strategy; if you consume fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight. But it turns eating into a clinical, obsessive exercise, reduces food to numbers, eliminates pleasure, and makes the diet unsustainable. No one wants to count calories his or her whole life, while all the time following a program that eliminates huge groups of foods.

No hard and fast rules, no counting. What kind of diet is that? How can you be a part time vegan? Isn’t that like vegetarians who eat fish? If you think it’s good to be a vegan, why aren’t you a vegan all the time? Of course, Bittman’s diet isn’t about being a vegan, it’s about developing a sustainable, enjoyable way of living that helps him lose weight and improve his health. Although Bittman isn’t blind to the larger implications of food:

…Food touches everything. You can’t discuss it without considering the environment, health, the role of animals other than humans in this world, the economy, politics, trade, globalization, or most other important issues. This includes such unlikely and seemingly unrelated matters as global warming: Industrialized livestock production, for example, appears to be accountable for a fifth or more of the greenhouse gases that are causing climate change.

Fear of hypocrisy is a common rationale for taking no action whatsoever. Unless a solution is perfectly clear and pure, there’s no sense in ever trying. And once you understand that pure solution, you must adhere to it without fail. That’s what we call “being good”. The fragility of a pure solution is that a single deviation from it ruins the purity upon with the solution depends. As Nassim Taleb as noticed, the more you optimize (purify) a system, the more fragile it becomes. The cynic / nihilist takes the position that since there is no perfect position, no position is worth taking. Since all positions can be criticized, I’ll take the position of criticizing positions.

Philosopher Tim Morton takes on the cynical position by pointing out that the cynic is hypocritical about his hypocrisy:

I’d rather be a straight-forward hypocrite than a hypocritical hypocrite. Now we’ve gotten rid of cynicism, because now there’s only two options: there’s hypocrisy or there’s hypocritical hypocrisy.

In a 2006 interview, the black metal band Wolves in the Throne Room made the observation that “we’re all hypocrites and failures.” As human beings there is no position outside of hypocrisy. In our morality we’ve defined “good” as a pure state and “bad” as an impure state that looks a lot like hypocrisy. You’re in the wrong when you’ve violated a rule you know to be good. Morton gives us the basis to think about ethics in the age of self-conscious hypocrisy. Being “good” looks a lot more like being a straight-forward hypocrite; while being bad looks like the hypocritically hypocritical. This kind of ethical practice has been difficult to articulate. Mark Bittman with his VB6 diet gives us a beautiful example of what being straight-forwardly hypocritical could look like.

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