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Posts Tagged ‘philosophy

“One of the biggest obstacles to making a start on climate change is that it has become a cliche before it has even been understood”*…




Once upon a time in Europe, the winters got very very cold and the summers got unbearably hot. “The spring of this year was like winter, cold and wet, the wine blossom terrible, and the harvest bad,” wrote the Swiss theologian Heinrich Bullinger in 1570.

Initially, this seemed like a temporary problem, just one bad year. So across the continent, cultivators shrugged off their poor harvests, and vintners sold wine made of sour grapes which consumers drank angrily as they contemplated rising grain prices.

But the extreme weather continued, season after season after season, until abnormal became the new normal. As William Shakespeare put it in the 1593 play Richard III, “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

In his book Nature’s Mutiny, German journalist Philipp Blom posits that Shakespeare wrote those words as a literal description of the string of difficult winters he’d just endured. This period of extreme weather, which would continue for more than 100 years, is now known as the “Little Ice Age,” and Blom argues that if we look back at its effects in Europe—where they were best documented—we’ll better understand how we got to where we are today and anticipate what’s ahead as climate change increasingly affects our lives…

Lots of cautions– with an optimistic kicker– at: “What the 17th century’s “Little Ice Age” teaches us about climate change.”

* Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth


As we bundle up, we might send absolutist birthday greetings to Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury; he was born on this date in 1588.  A father of political philosophy and political science, Hobbes developed some of the fundamentals of European liberal thought: the right of the individual; the natural equality of all men; the artificial character of the political order (which led to the later distinction between civil society and the state); the view that all legitimate political power must be “representative” and based on the consent of the people; and a liberal interpretation of law which leaves people free to do whatever the law does not explicitly forbid– all this, though Hobbes was, on rational grounds, a champion of absolutism for the sovereign.  It was that, Hobbes reasoned, or the bloody chaos of a “war of all against all.”  His 1651 book Leviathan established social contract theory, the foundation of most later Western political philosophy.



“The welfare of a nation can scarcely be inferred from a measurement of national income as defined by the GDP”*…




Is the world becoming increasingly prosperous? It would be hard to answer “yes” right now, at least so far as the leading high-income economies are concerned. Yet the longstanding bellwether of economic progress – inflation-adjusted GDP – has been growing across most of the OECD since 2010, suggesting that everything is fine.

Some 80 years after GDP was introduced, nearly everyone (apart from the indicator’s stewards) has concluded that it is  of economic progress. But there is no consensus yet on a possible replacement. Reaching agreement on an alternative will require a new concept of prosperity and a new way to measure whether living standards are improving…

Over eight decades after its introduction, there is a widespread consensus that GDP is no longer a useful measure of economic progress.  Its successor will need to be compelling and tell a persuasive story, consistent with experience, of what is happening in our economies.  Diane Coyle offers some leads on possible successors: “What Will Succeed GDP?

* Simon Kuznets


As we grope for good gauges, we might recall that it was on this date in 1848 that a political pamphlet by the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, was published.  Commissioned by the Communist League and written in German, it appeared as the Revolutions of 1848 began to erupt.  Subsequently, of course, Marx elaborated on his argument (with Engel’s help, after Marx’s death) in Das Kapital.


Cover of the first edition



Written by LW

February 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities”*…



With the appearance of the first rays of the sun from Cerro Huantajaya in Alto Hospicio, northern Chile, people celebrate the arrival of the Aymara New Year, Machaq Mara, and the arrival of new energies.


For centuries, Inuit hunters navigated the Arctic by consulting wind, snow and sky. Now they use GPS. Speakers of the aboriginal language Gurindji, in northern Australia, used to command 28 variants of each cardinal direction. Children there now use the four basic terms, and they don’t use them very well. In the arid heights of the Andes, the Aymara developed an unusual way of understanding time, imagining the past as in front of them, and the future at their backs. But for the youngest generation of Aymara speakers – increasingly influenced by Spanish – the future lies ahead.

These are not just isolated changes. On all continents, even in the world’s remotest regions, indigenous people are swapping their distinctive ways of parsing the world for Western, globalised ones. As a result, human cognitive diversity is dwindling – and, sadly, those of us who study the mind had only just begun to appreciate it.

In 2010, a paper titled ‘The Weirdest People in the World?’ gave the field of cognitive science a seismic shock. Its authors, led by the psychologist Joe Henrich at the University of British Columbia, made two fundamental points. The first was that researchers in the behavioural sciences had almost exclusively focused on a small sliver of humanity: people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, democratic societies. The second was that this sliver is not representative of the larger whole, but that people in London, Buenos Aires and Seattle were, in an acronym, WEIRD.

But there is a third fundamental point, and it was the psychologist Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania who made it. In his commentary on the 2010 article, Rozin noted that this same WEIRD slice of humanity was ‘a harbinger of the future of the world’. He had seen this trend in his own research. Where he found cross-cultural differences, they were more pronounced in older generations. The world’s young people, in other words, are converging. The signs are unmistakable: the age of global WEIRDing is upon us….

Are we breeding a global cultural and cognitive monoculture?  More at: “What happens to cognitive diversity when everyone is more WEIRD?.”

* Stephen R. Covey


As we delight in difference, we might send utilitarian birthday greetings to Jeremy Bentham; the author, jurist, philosopher, and legal and social reformer was born on this date in 1748.  Bentham is considered a founder of modern Utilitarianism (via his own work, and that of his students, including James Mill and his son, John Stuart Mill); he actively advocated individual and economic freedom, the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and the decriminalizing of homosexual acts. He argued for the abolition of slavery and the death penalty, and for the abolition of physical punishment, including that of children.

Bentham was involved in the founding of University College (then, the University of London), the first in England to admit all, regardless of race, creed, or political belief.  On his death, he was dissected as part of a public anatomy lecture– as he specified in his will.  Afterward– again, as Bentham’s will specified– the skeleton and head were preserved and stored in a wooden cabinet called the “Auto-icon”, with the skeleton stuffed out with hay and dressed in Bentham’s clothes.  Bentham had intended the Auto-icon to incorporate his actual head, preserved to resemble its appearance in life.  But experimental efforts at mummification, though technically successful, left the head looking alarmingly macabre, with dried and darkened skin stretched tautly over the skull.  So the Auto-icon was given a wax head, fitted with some of Bentham’s own hair.

It is normally kept on public display at the end of the South Cloisters in the main building of University College.  The real head was displayed in the same case as the Auto-icon for many years, but became the target of repeated student pranks, so is now locked away.

 see a virtual, 360-degree rotatable version here


“The secret of my influence has always been that it remained secret”*…



Edward Bernays, second right, with other delegates of the Committee on Public Information to the Paris Peace Talks, 1917


Edward Bernays, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, began his professional life as a press agent.  But with the advent of World War I, he found his true calling when he served on the Committee on Public Information, the war-time propaganda office, in the Wilson administration.  After the armistice, he took his experience in shaping public opinion, as guided by his uncle’s emerging theories, into the private sector, helping to establish “public relations” (and later modern advertising) as professions…

Bernays’ methods… opened a new chapter in public relations, a profession that he and others pioneered in the 1920s. Bernays was not the first man in the field. There were a handful of others before and beside him, notably his great rival Ivy Lee. Bernays, however, may have had the greatest impact. He bolstered the new profession with theory, gave it a philosophical framework and processed the findings of the blossoming psychological disciplines by coming up with new methods of manipulating the public. Although practically invisible to the outside world, Bernays became an influential architect of modern mass persuasion techniques, which continue to inspire the PR industry. Harold Burson, CEO of Burson-Marsteller, one of the world’s largest PR enterprises, was quoted in the 1990s as saying: ‘We’re still singing off the hymn book that Bernays gave us.’

Bernays was related to Sigmund Freud on two sides: Freud’s sister Anna was Bernays’ mother and his father Ely, a grain merchant, was the brother of Freud’s wife Martha. Bernays was born in Vienna in 1891 and emigrated to the US with his parents a year later. He was to die on March 9th, 1995 at the age of 103 in Massachusetts. Another member of the Freud family followed in his footsteps: Matthew Freud, who is considered one of Britain’s most successful PR men.

Influenced by his famous uncle, with whom he corresponded regularly, Bernays got to understand the power of the unconscious, of universal longings, of emotions and instinct. He exploited them for whatever he had to sell: artificial flowers, racehorses, gramophones, politicians, ideologies. No matter what it was, he often worked according to a certain dramaturgy, which his biographer Larry Tye described thus: ‘He generated events, the events generated news, and the news generated a demand for whatever he happened to be selling.’ In Bernays’ eyes, generating events was one of if not the most important task of a PR adviser. He himself labelled it as the ‘creation of circumstances’, the staging of apparently spontaneous events to influence people’s behaviour, according to the wishes of the clients. This was genuinely innovative, because until then business advertising was relatively straightforward: extolling the product and its functional advantages. Bernays, by contrast, aimed at the unconscious and trusted in the indirect method. ‘It’s like shooting billiards’, he once pointed out, ‘where you bounce the ball off cushions, as opposed to pool, where you aim directly for the pockets.’…

More on the uncanny ability to mould public desire that made Edward Bernays one of the 20th century’s most influential – yet invisible – characters, the architect of modern mass manipulation: “The Original Influencer.”

And for more, both on Bernays and on the world that he did so much to create, see Adam Curtis’ award-winning documentary Century of Self.  It’s available in four hour-long “chapters” or here, in its entirety.  Either way, it’s eminently worthy of a watch:

* Salvador Dali


As we muse on our motives, we might spare a thought for a man who had absolutely no time for lies of any sort, Immanuel Kant; he died on this date in 1804.  One of the central figures of modern philosophy, Kant is remembered primarily for his efforts to unite reason with experience (e.g., Critique of Pure Reason [Kritik der reinen Vernunft], 1781), and for his work on ethics (e.g., Metaphysics of Morals [Die Metaphysik der Sitten], 1797) and aesthetics (e.g., Critique of Judgment [Kritik der Urteilskraft], 1790).  But he made important contributions to mathematics and astronomy as well; for example: Kant’s argument that mathematical truths are a form of synthetic a priori knowledge was cited by Einstein as an important early influence on his work.  And his description of the Milky Way as a lens-shaped collection of stars that represented only one of many “island universes,” was later shown to be accurate by Herschel.

There is … only a single categorical imperative and it is this: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.

– Chapter 11, Metaphysics of Morals



Written by LW

February 12, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Friends share things”*…


Black header

Readers may recall that (R)D has contemplated black before [and here], more particularly, the emergence of the (then) “blackest black,” Vantablack.  Here, via the always-amazing Imperica, an update:

I’ve featured Stuart Semple and his work in here quite a lot over the past few years; this is the latest in his gloriously petty (but also actually sort of serious) one-man project to annoy Anish Kapoor by creating a paint as-black as Kapoor’s famously VERY black Vantablack (if you want the background to the story you can read all about it [at the link below], but basically Semple thinks that Kapoor is a pompous, self-important arsehole and, by all accounts, Semple is absolutely 100% right). Anyway, if you want the chance to own some of the blackest paint EVER MADE, here’s your chance – the Kickstarter for it is 3x funded with over a month left to go, so this is definitely happening, and it’s worth backing it purely to have the chance to draw ACME-style Wil E Coyote-esque fake tunnels on walls all over London…

Semple says, “we’ve created a paint that absorbs 98-99% of visible light, we want to share this black hole in a bottle with all artists and creators.” Learn more– and but some of your own– at “The blackest black paint in the world! Black 3.0.”

* Pythagoras


As we get dark, we might spare a thought for a man who did his best to dispel a different kind of darkness:  René Descartes, the French philosopher and mathematician who thought and therefore was; he died on this date in 1650.

Many contemporaries (perhaps most notably, Pascal) rejected his famous conclusion, the dualist separation of mind and body; more (Voltaire, et al.), since.  But Descartes’ emphasis on method and analysis, his disciplined integration of philosophy and physical science, his insistence on the importance of consciousness in epistemology, and perhaps most fundamentally, his the questioning of tradition and authority had a transformative– and lasting– effect on Western thought, and has earned him the “title” of Father of Modern Philosophy.

“In order to improve the mind, we ought less to learn than to contemplate.”
– Rene Descartes

Frans Hals’ portrait of Descartes, c. 1649



Written by LW

February 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The Universe is under no obligation to make sense to you”*…



Uppsala University researchers have devised a new model for the Universe – one that may solve the enigma of dark energy. Their new article, published in Physical Review Letters, proposes a new structural concept, including dark energy, for a universe that rides on an expanding bubble in an additional dimension.

We have known for the past 20 years that the Universe is expanding at an ever accelerating rate. The explanation is the “dark energy” that permeates it throughout, pushing it to expand. Understanding the nature of this dark energy is one of the paramount enigmas of fundamental physics.

It has long been hoped that string theory will provide the answer. According to string theory, all matter consists of tiny, vibrating “stringlike” entities. The theory also requires there to be more spatial dimensions than the three that are already part of everyday knowledge. For 15 years, there have been models in string theory that have been thought to give rise to dark energy. However, these have come in for increasingly harsh criticism, and several researchers are now asserting that none of the models proposed to date are workable.

In their article, the scientists propose a new model with dark energy and our Universe riding on an expanding bubble in an extra dimension. The whole Universe is accommodated on the edge of this expanding bubble. All existing matter in the Universe corresponds to the ends of strings that extend out into the extra dimension. The researchers also show that expanding bubbles of this kind can come into existence within the framework of string theory. It is conceivable that there are more bubbles than ours, corresponding to other universes.

The Uppsala scientists’ model provides a new, different picture of the creation and future fate of the Universe, while it may also pave the way for methods of testing string theory…

Via AAAS Eureka Alerts

(For a different emerging new theory– that may or may not be contradictory– see “Our universe has antimatter partner on the other side of the Big Bang.”)

* Neil deGrasse Tyson


As we fumble with the fundamentals, we might send carefully-deduced birthday greetings to Richard Bevan Braithwaite; he was born on this date in 1900.  A Cambridge philosopher who specialized in the philosophy of science, he focused on the logical features common to all sciences.  Braithwaite was concerned with the impact of science on our beliefs about the world and the appropriate responses to that impact.  He was especially interested in probability (and its applications in decision theory and games theory) and in the statistical sciences.  He was president of the Aristotelian Society from 1946 to 1947, and was a Fellow of the British Academy.

It was Braithwaite’s poker that Ludwig Wittgenstein reportedly brandished at Karl Popper during their confrontation at a Moral Sciences Club meeting in Braithwaite’s rooms in King’s. The implement subsequently disappeared. (See here.)



Written by LW

January 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens”*…



You might think that digital technologies, often considered a product of ‘the West,’ would hasten the divergence of Eastern and Western philosophies. But within the study of Vedanta, an ancient Indian school of thought, I see the opposite effect at work. Thanks to our growing familiarity with computing, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI), ‘modern’ societies are now better placed than ever to grasp the insights of this tradition.

Vedanta summarises the metaphysics of the Upanishads, a clutch of Sanskrit religious texts, likely written between 800 and 500 BCE. They form the basis for the many philosophical, spiritual and mystical traditions of the Indian sub-continent. The Upanishads were also a source of inspiration for some modern scientists, including Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger and Werner Heisenberg, as they struggled to comprehend quantum physics of the 20th century…

Philosopher and Vaishnava Hindu theologian Akhandadhi Das. a member of the Science and Philosophy Initiative, explains how “Modern technology is akin to the metaphysics of Vedanta.”

* Jimi Hendrix


As we muse on metaphor, we might send carefully-constructed birthday greetings to Donald Knuth; he was born on this date in 1938. A computer scientist, mathematician, and professor emeritus at Stanford, he made numerous substantive contributions to computer science, both practically and theoretically.  But he is probably best known as the author of the multi-volume work The Art of Computer Programming, which he began in 1962, began to publish in 1968… and has (via multiple revisions/additions) still not finished.  Called by the New York Times “the profession’s defining treatise,” it won Knuth the Turing Award in 1974.

That said, it’s surely worth noting Knuth’s other major contribution to our modern zeitgeist: his “Potrzebie System of Weights and Measures,” published in Issue 33 of Mad Magazine when he was 19 years old.

192px-knuthatopencontentalliance source


Written by LW

January 10, 2019 at 1:01 am

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