Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

The truth about UFOs

July 22, 2021

They’re out there! It’s real! The government finally admits it!

Um, no.

For all the media frenzy, the actual story is a big nothingburger. The Pentagon produced a document saying reports of “unidentified aerial phenomena” by U.S. military personnel are for real. Meaning that, yes, some military people did report such unexplained sightings.

Which tells us nothing about what the explanations might be. The Pentagon says it cannot rule out extraterrestrial explanations. That tells us nothing either. Actually, it’s overwhelmingly likely that the true explanations are prosaic.

Many people have always reported witnessing all sorts of strange, seemingly inexplicable phenomena. Often their senses deceived them, something extremely commonplace. Or their stories were embellished. Or simply didn’t happen. Many people telling such tales have a screw loose. Or dishonest motives. (Another whole category is in the religious sphere.)

I always apply Occam’s Razor, also known as the principle of parsimony. Telling us that the simplest, most mundane explanation for anything is the likeliest. When a story is seemingly inexplicable, the likeliest explanation is that the facts are somehow wrong, or misinterpreted.

I recall seeing a remarkable UFO video. Real, not doctored. Filmed through an airplane window, it appeared to show a bright saucer-like object flying beside the plane and making weird zigzag maneuvers defying the laws of physics.

Unexplainable? Turned out to be just a bizarre reflection of a cabin light from inside the plane.

My UFO skepticism is very great. I actually consider it likely that intelligent life has evolved elsewhere. But the distances between stars are stupendous, and planet hopping would be a formidable challenge for even the most scientifically advanced civilization. Would they make such a prodigious journey — merely to lurk silently in our skies, doing nothing? Or, even less plausible, to abduct occasional humans for proctology exams? As if beings with the capability of traversing the cosmos would have anything to learn that way.

If UFOs were really visiting us, there’d be no mystery about it. We would know it. (Just like if there really were a God, there’d be no mystery.)

The voting rights fight: Is humanity ready for democracy?

July 19, 2021

I believe in democracy. That might sound platitudinous, but it’s actually a carefully developed philosophical stance, grounded in a utilitarian concept of the greatest good for the greatest number.

America led the way in 1776, with our democratic manifesto. Eventually the idea caught on in many other countries, and for good reason. As Francis Fukuyama explained, it serves a fundamental thirst for recognition of one’s human dignity (which he gave the Greek word thymos).

But America’s own democracy is now in trouble. Almost half our citizens in a movement in effect seeing democracy as an impediment to goals they value more. (Mainly preservation of white Christian cultural domination.)

Thus the battle over voting rights. Republican rhetoric about ballot integrity is simply dishonest. We have no ballot integrity problem. It’s a smokescreen for their real aim, to win by any means necessary. They don’t expect to win fair elections. The larger the vote, the lower their chances, so they want to prevent as many citizens as possible from voting. Especially targeting minorities who overwhelmingly vote against them.

Such voter suppression is nasty enough. But even scarier is the push, in many states, to shift authority over vote counting to Republican-controlled political bodies.

We’ve seen this movie too many times across the world. This is how dictatorships hold onto power. It doesn’t actually matter how people vote, if you control the count. You just make up the results.

Iranian President Ahmadinejad was almost certainly trounced for re-election in 2009, but the regime simply said otherwise, then brutally crushed widespread protests. In Congo’s 2018 presidential election, Fayulu apparently got three times more votes than Tshisekedi, yet Tshisekedi was declared the winner. And in Belarus, reviled dictator Lukashenko surely lost to his challenger, but here again announced the opposite result, and unleashed ultra-violence when the citizenry erupted in protest.*

Can it happen here? January 6 was an effort to overturn the 2020 election result. That violent attempt failed, but now Republicans are laying the groundwork for doing it under color of law. What if Trump loses Georgia in 2024 but the vote counting authority, set up by the Republican-controlled state legislature and staffed with its operatives, simply announces different numbers? If you doubt they could be that dishonest — where have you been for five years?

Yet almost half the country supports this gang. Fervently. That’s the scariest thing of all.

I was thrilled visiting Russia in the ’90s. A democratic Russia! The triumph of my ideals. It seemed democracy was busting out all over. Since then, it’s gone the other way. Autocrats learned to adapt to today’s world — with a lot of help from foolish voters. While finagling elections does help too, unfortunately many people are suckers for political snake oil.

Take Italy. Its electorate is divided among a bunch of parties — one more crackpot than another. Old-fashioned sober serious parties can no longer compete.

India used to be heralded as the world’s biggest democracy. Now Narendra Modi is consolidating the classic authoritarian model, giving democracy the death of a thousand cuts. Press freedom is almost entirely extinguished. A new “Unlawful Activities Prevention Act” empowers the regime to jail anyone it doesn’t like, no specific charges even needed. The law is being utilized with gusto. A recent victim was an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and human rights advocate, Stan Swamy, with no criminal record. Denied bail, and medical care, he died in his cell.

Worse yet, this Hindu nationalist regime seems bent on making non-citizens of India’s hundred million Muslims. An insane folly if there ever was one.

India’s voters might have stepped back from the brink in the last national election. Instead they gave Modi a stonking majority.

So this is the problem of democracy: voters. I still believe a nation is better off with democracy than dictatorship. I do not believe in Plato’s idea of a philosopher king knowing best. But I increasingly worry whether enough people have the mature wisdom to vote sensibly.

Religion is part of the problem, scrambling minds into pathways of irrationalism. India is again a prime exemplar: Hindus actually thinking it’s a good idea to enflame intercommunal conflict. Such irrationalism also characterizes America’s quasi-religious Trump cult. As long as religion continues to mess up so many minds, I question whether humanity is ready for democracy.

* It’s a tribute to the power of the democratic idea that even dictators feel they need to have elections — even if phony ones.

How many brains do you have?

July 13, 2021

Though some people are called brainless, most would say they have one brain. But how many minds do you have? Perhaps a trickier question. You might say you’re “of two minds” about an issue. There’s even a phenomenon called “split personality” (or “multiple personality disorder”).

While we do talk of “the brain” as a unit, we also speak of right and left brains with differing functionalities. The left brain being more logical, the right more intuitive and creative, and so forth. But there have been cases of people losing one hemisphere, yet able to live fairly normally, the remaining hemisphere taking over the other’s duties. On the other hand, I’ve written about a stroke victim whose damage was in the right hemisphere, enabling the left to become more dominant, changing her personality.*

But it gets yet more interesting.

The two hemispheres are really quite separate physically, being connected only by a clutch of fibers called the corpus callosum. A conduit for messaging between them. Now, it’s been found some epileptics can be helped by severing the corpus callosum, keeping seizures from passing between hemispheres. The patients seemingly unharmed.

They’ve been the subject of experiments testing the effects of thusly splitting the brain. Each hemisphere controls the opposite side the body. You can show each eye different things. In one experiment, the right eye saw a snow scene, the left a chicken claw. Next, the subject was asked to choose something related from among a group of various pictures. One hand picked a snow shovel; the other a chicken. Logical enough.

But then the subject was asked why he’d picked the shovel, which he could see he’d done. However, the speech center is in the right hemisphere, so it does the talking. And the right hemisphere was unaware of the left’s (through the right eye) having previously seen a snow picture. So he answered, “The shovel is to clean up the chicken shit.” In other words, having no access to the real reason, lodged in the other half of his brain, the half that answered made up something plausible.

This shows just how separate our two hemispheres can be. And the import can be greater than mere choosing among pictures. In one case, a man’s arm reached to hug his wife, while the other arm punched her! Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran reports a patient whose right brain professed a religious belief while the left said he’s an atheist (logically enough). One can imagine two hands fighting over an election ballot.

The real-life model for the character played by Dustin Hoffman in the film Rain Man was found to have been born without a corpus callosum. He could read two pages of a book simultaneously, one with each eye. Memorizing each too, instantly.

All this helps us regarding the problem of understanding consciousness and the self. Which in fact science has not yet cracked. The split-brain stuff reminds me of Daniel Dennett’s concept in his (optimistically titled) book Consciousness Explained. He rejected our commonplace notion of some sort of captain at the helm in our minds, the “I,” who makes decisions. Dennett said it’s more like a scrum of mates fighting over control of the wheel. And it does seem that a lot of competing and often contradictory notions bubble up out of various modules in the brain each running their own separate sequences, until one dominates sufficiently to cause an action to be performed.

Some see the split-brain experiments as showing we are all actually “split personalities.” That we really do have two separate minds co-existing within our skulls, one in each hemisphere.

But let’s remember that literal split-brain is a very special case. Most of us have an intact corpus callosum enabling the two hemispheres to coordinate. Like in a marriage, only more so. I think that normally the two hemispheres work things out. When they can’t, that’s mental illness.

* https://rationaloptimist.wordpress.com/2017/02/25/a-stroke-of-insight/

What is America’s real story?

July 9, 2021

Attending Albany’s July 4 fireworks is always thrilling. This year’s was especially celebratory, with the pandemic (mostly) behind us, as well as (for now) that other unspeakable vileness. Though my exultation was tempered by remembering 600,000 dead.

Times-Union columnist Chris Churchill reflected on this celebration of America — and where we are at. Some on the left see the country as irredeemably unjust and rotten. And the other side, while wrapping itself in a flag of patriotism, is in revolt against modern America’s actuality — likewise rotten in their eyes. “[S]o rotten that a presidential election could be stolen in plain sight . . . No authority or reported fact can be trusted. This democracy is a sham.” Both sides actually think that, for incompatible reasons.

So, queries Churchill, what is there to be patriotic about or celebrate? However, he says, “[t]he good news is that most Americans don’t feel that way. Most know that claims of a stolen election are untrue. And most recognize that this country is uniquely wonderful, exceptional even, despite its division and continuing injustices.” A “glorious, messy, loud, eccentric, restless, frustrating, exhilarating, sprawling and magnificent country.” With “so much to love, so much beauty and freedom and dynamism, all of which helps explain why people from around the world remain so eager to join us. And America, undeniably fairer and more just than it was even decades ago, is getting better.”

That’s what lifts my heart on July 4.

The next day’s David Brooks column took a different tack. We’re having an epistemic crisis; one might say it’s basically truth against lies. Which is so, actually, but Brooks steps back to see a bigger picture. With two great reservoirs of knowledge. One is factual. But the other contains the stories we tell about ourselves: “who we are as a people, how we got here . . . what kind of world we hope to build together.”

Some, Brooks notes, think our system of producing factual knowledge is breaking down. However, he says, “Trump doesn’t get away with lies because his followers flunked Epistemology 101,” but “because he tells stories of dispossession that feel true to many of them.” On the other side, says Brooks, the “woke” lefties “aren’t censorious and intolerant because they lack analytic skills. They feel entrapped by a moral order that feels unsafe and unjust.”

The real problem, he writes, “is in our system of producing shared stories. If a country can’t tell narratives in which everybody finds an honorable place, then righteous rage will drive people toward tribal narratives that tear it apart.” And he notes that current ideological warfare over school curricula (the right trying to whitewash our history, the left painting it black) show “how debauched and brutalized our historical storytelling skills have become.”

Brooks concludes: “It is unfashionable to say so, but America has the greatest story to tell about itself, if we have the maturity to tell it honestly.”

At home after the fireworks, we watched one of those climate change documentaries saying humanity is cooked. Yes, we face severe challenges. But people have managed to thrive in the Arctic and the Sahara — without modern scientific knowledge. Don’t tell me we can’t cope with changing climate.

It’s not just America I love, but all humanity. A species put here naked and with nothing, except brains. And oh how we’ve used them, in a stupendous undertaking to make good lives. Spectacularly successful. America its highest embodiment.

So why the “all consuming cynicism” that Churchill says isn’t rational? Reading his column made me think of Barry Schwartz’s book, The Paradox of Choice. One thing it explains is the “adaptation effect.” People attaining improved circumstances come to take them for granted as “the new normal,” rather than riding on Cloud-9. Focusing not on what they’ve gained, but instead the next desire — and feeling dissatisfied till it’s achieved. Also called the “hedonic treadmill.”

So too, all the progress American society has made — and indeed all the titanic achievements of human civilization — are likewise taken for granted. Pocketed with only fleeting appreciation. And we thunder at the cosmos, with shaking fist: what have you done for me lately?

Memento Mori – Thinking about death

July 1, 2021

Each night at midnight, I close the book I’m reading, go upstairs, piss, enter the bedroom, climb into bed.

Thinking: Here I am, doing this again. Deja vu? Groundhog Day? It feels like I’d only just performed the exact same actions, moments ago. However, unlike in Groundhog Day, it’s not an endless loop, but inexorably consuming a finite supply of days. Now another one is gone.

That feeling intensifies as I age. The hourglass an increasingly apt metaphor. Indeed, more reality than metaphor.

Except that it actually seems to speed up. When you’re ten, a year is a tenth of your life, and feels like forever. At 73, a year is only a tiny sliver, and disappears like quicksilver.

Old European paintings often included a skull. This was called “memento mori,” meaning “remember you will die.” And, in those times, likely soon. But those people all supposedly believed they’d go to Heaven. Yet deep down they must have feared it wasn’t true.

I’m certain it’s not, and have a strong sense of memento mori. My wife and I watch a lot of science shows, often depicting ancient skeletons crumbling to dust. In them, I always see myself someday.

With that “someday” nearing with each passing hour. For most of my life the end seemed so far distant I could almost pretend it was never. Now at 73 it feels more like closing in.

Does that frighten me? My wife and I recently had this conversation. “Fright” is not exactly the right word, implying some doubt about the outcome. Instead it’s mindfulness of impending loss, both certain and total. It’s not dying I fear so much as what comes after. Though I won’t be around to experience it. The ultimate philosophical conundrum. People liken death to the eternity of nonexistence preceding one’s birth. But of course that entailed no loss. Whereas loss is quintessential in death.

It’s the loss of everything one loves. All one’s human connections; possessions; prideful accomplishments. All become as those crumbling skeletons in those documentaries. But most importantly it’s one’s aliveness, having experiences, thoughts, sensations, feelings. I’ve been very fortunate to live a wonderful life, which of course makes the loss all the greater.

My mother died recently (not unexpected, at 100). A key feeling I have is that I’m alive and she’s not. Her death is a loss to me but so much greater a loss to her. A life so deeply lived is now simply over. Making me savor all the more my own aliveness. Which only accentuates its coming loss.

It’s impossible to truly grasp that condition of nonexistence. And I try not to. Ordinarily I avoid it, stopping myself if I start thinking too concretely about it. Even here, I’m writing this as an intellectual exercise, while trying to steer clear of the existential quicksand of actually modeling nonexistence in my mind.

Yet even if I keep it vague it’s still there. Sometimes while going about in the world, I’m conscious that when I’m gone it will all continue merrily along just as before. A few people might miss me. A little. For a while. Seeing a newspaper obituary of someone I knew gives me a brief frisson. And then I turn the page. Projecting myself into that place is a weird feeling.

Picasso was someone who really lived life to the fullest. He did a famous self-portrait when he knew he was nearing death. Confronting it was starkly imprinted on his face. I can see myself in his place. But then I think that maybe when I’m, say, 100, I’ll already be “sans everything,” without much of life’s pleasure; it will have grown harder, frustrating, even painful; or I’ll have simply grown tired of it, difficult though that is to imagine. Meantime, as long as it’s at least years away, it can still feel distant enough that I don’t really have to confront it. Indeed, to avoid that kind of stark Picasso-like confrontation, I think I’d actually prefer to fade away gradually and gently, my selfhood dissolving without my realizing it.

Meantime too, I counterpose all this with another fundamental understanding. Existence is not something I take for granted. Not at all; to the contrary, looking at the cosmos, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that there should exist an entity such as me, with a consciousness, a sense of self — something which indeed our science, far advanced though it is, cannot totally account for. Thus I see my existence as a virtually miraculous gift.

What a churl I’d be to have this gift while griping that it’s not forever. That is the gift’s conditionality. That’s the deal. I accept it because it’s a good deal. And because there is literally no alternative to accepting it.

The Four Americas: Is there any hope?

June 27, 2021

Some people see America divided in two. George Packer sees four Americas. He’s a leading journalist and author, whose new book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal, is distilled into an essay in The Atlantic.*

The 2016 election shattered my understanding of this country. I’ve since struggled to rebuild it. Packer offers some good insights. He actually pinpoints 2014 as the year America’s character changed. Though that refers to only one of what he sees as really four stories. Four different mentalities that have evolved, each sparking reverberations in the others. He labels them Free, Smart, Real, and Just America.

Free America originally wove together Enlightenment libertarianism with traditionalist conservatism. Opposing big bossy government; “speak[ing] to the American myth of the self-made man and the lonely pioneer on the plains.” This became the Republican party’s ideology.

Packer says “libertarians made common cause with segregationists, and racism informed their political movement from the beginning,” with the 1964 Goldwater campaign. That raised my hackles. I was active in that effort and didn’t observe racism being part of it. We had other ideological fish to fry. Though we did welcome any support we could get, including from segregationists who had their own reasons.

That was then. Packer says that after Reagan, “Free America’s” leadership went downhill. Gingrich being the key political figure of the era, turning politics into scorched-earth war. Then from Gingrich to Cruz to Hannity, “with no bottom.” Government was still the bête noire, but this was no longer a matter of Enlightenment philosophy, but rather of tribal blood-and-soil white caste assertiveness. Republicans “mobilized anger and despair while [only] offering up scapegoats. The party thought it could control these dark energies . . . instead they would consume it.” Culminating in January 6.

Smart America —a core of today’s Democratic party — refers to a relatively new elite class of educated professionals, whose cosmopolitanism somewhat overlaps with Free America’s libertarian streak. Both have a meritocratic ethos, believing talent and effort should determine reward, thus both having limited sympathy for the underclass. Packer says meritocrats no longer feel part of the same country — Smart America having withdrawn, as it were, into its gated communities, disengaged from some larger national project. Seeing patriotism as vulgar, thus leaving it the province of yahoos.

Sarah Palin embodied what Packer labels Real America (which is how it sees itself). Its anti-intellectualism has deep antecedents, standing in opposition to the elites of Smart America. Which, Packer says, discredited themselves with the Iraq mess and then the 2008 financial crisis. “Real America” also reviles “other” people it sees as both alien and unworthy. Its heart is white Christian nationalism (with Christianity more salient as a tribal cultural signifier than as a religious creed).

Those “Real Americans” seized upon Trump as their voice, which he channeled with (I’d say unwitting) “reptilian genius.” If the elites considered them ignorant, crass, and bigoted, “then Trump was going to shove it in [their] smug faces.” Thus did his vileness actually, perversely, work for him.

Free and Real America seem hard to disentangle today; the latter having really subsumed the former. Smothering its principled antecedents, now confined to an impotent rump of Republicanism.

Packer fingers 2014, the year of Ferguson, as a hinge point, a sort of coming-out party for his fourth cohort — Just America — as in “social justice,” with its abiding idea really being Unjust America. Upending universal Enlightenment values of rationalism in favor of a subjectivity seeing everything in terms of power relationships and modalities of oppression (gosh, I’m starting to sound like them). We know by now how insufferably intolerant these “woke” people can be, trolling everywhere for pretexts to assert putative moral superiority over others. (An analog of sorts to white supremacism.) Which, Packer says, does nothing to actually address the kinds of societal problems they spout about.

While Packer divides us into the four groups, the fourth doesn’t seem on a par with the rest, which comprise big population segments. Just America, for all its shrillness and undeniable cultural intimidation, is actually only a small minority. Meantime Packer ultimately sees a dichotomy, putting Free and Real America together in one bucket, Smart and Just America in another. That latter linkage is dubious.

I see the real divide as between, on one hand, Trump cultists in an ugly alternate reality together with the hard left “woke” totalitarians — Crazed America — and, on the other hand, contrastingly reasonable and rational folks of good will. Sane America. Among whom differences of opinion are comparatively benign.

Anyhow, Packer says the societal division “emerged from America’s failure to sustain and enlarge the middle-class democracy of the postwar years.” (Actually the picture is much more complex than the conventional wisdom of a “disappearing middle class” would have it.) Packer holds that each of his four groups “offers a value that the others need and lacks ones that the others have. Free America celebrates the energy of the unencumbered individual. Smart America respects intelligence and welcomes change. Real America commits itself to a place and has a sense of limits. Just America demands a confrontation with what the others want to avoid.”

I found that too a bit forced. However, says Packer, they all impinge upon each other, pitting tribe against tribe vying for status, pushing each into ever more extreme versions of themselves.

But he says America isn’t dying. We have no choice but living together. And a “way forward that tries to make us Equal Americans, all with the same rights and opportunities — the only basis for shared citizenship and self-government — is a road that connects our past and our future.”

Those words sound like platitudinous moonshine. And his concluding ones contradict them: “we remain trapped in two countries . . . the tensions within each country will persist even as the cold civil war between them rages on.”

That’s closer to reality. The “crisis” of Packer’s book title is clear enough; the “renewal” part much less so.

* https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/07/george-packer-four-americas/619012/. All quotes are from the essay. (I thank Robyn Blumner of the Center for Inquiry for pointing me to it.)

Between Two Kingdoms

June 19, 2021

Suleika Jaouad’s book is one of those cancer memoirs. But with a difference.

She had it bad. A lot of health red flags that she ignored, and then doctors misdiagnosed, until it was almost too late. At 22, she had a particularly nasty kind of Leukemia. If I weren’t reading her memoir, I’d have bet she died.

The book gives a vivid, unsparing, brutal account of the long ordeal. With treatments failing, she was put on an experimental one. (I’d have liked more info about that.) But her only real chance was a bone marrow transplant, a dicey proposition. Luckily her brother was a tissue match.

Through it all, her relations with other people — many fellow sufferers — were also center stage. Being much more introverted myself, I was impressed at her breadth of connections, mustering the psychic energy for them while dealing with her own really unimaginable shit. It helped that she even got herself a New York Times column chronicling her experiences.

Suleika’s key relationship was with boyfriend Will. It started before her diagnosis, in New York. Then only weeks later she leaves for a job in Paris. And Will follows. And sticks with her as the hospital nightmare soon unfolds. At 27, he hadn’t originally signed up for three years of hell as a practically full time care-giver, but he embraces it, seemingly almost unreservedly. For nearly the whole saga, Will is a saint who gives Suleika 99%.

But oh, that 1% is a killer.

Well, maybe it was 5% or even 10%. As light appears at the end of the tunnel, he starts taking some breaks from the pressure cooker. But Suleika can’t accept a 90/10 deal. She insists on 100%. Not getting it, she finally blows him off.

Perhaps my take on this was colored by my own decade of hell struggling with a woman’s issues, until she left me to marry a pen-pal. Suleika’s behavior might seem crazily unjustifiable and self-sabotaging. Yet maybe it can be understood, sort of. A normal love relationship is give-and-take, but Suleika’s circumstances were not normal — grotesquely skewed by her illness’s extremis. She did need 100%, and in her mind, anything less was a betrayal.

That’s only the book’s first half. The second concerns her journey between the two kingdoms of the title — the realms of the sick and the well (following Susan Sontag). Suleika does recover. But her years of illness were so all-consuming that a return to the other kingdom was difficult to negotiate. She makes it a literal journey, embarking on a cross-country road trip, with her dog, to meet people who’d connected with her about her Times column.

I was reminded of Cheryl Strayed’s big hike in Wild, likewise a personal journey. With both gals not exactly prepared for the rigors of their undertakings.

Toward the end, Suleika finally returns to thoughts of Will. She’s actually been considering him the bad guy in the story, with great resentment at what she saw as his ultimate failure to fulfill her immense need. But then, she says, her anger finally drains away; and “in its place, I am able to feel what anger hasn’t allowed me to feel.” That he was there for her when it counted. Now she wants to ask forgiveness. To tell him how much she misses him.

“If this were a movie,” Suleika writes, “I would call Will from the road right now. Maybe, we’d even find our way back to each other.”

I recalled Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, where near the end I was practically shouting at Patty to just get in her car and go to Walter. And she does.

But Between Two Kingdoms is not a Franzen novel, nor a movie. It’s real life, in all its exasperating humanness. Suleika doesn’t call.

Kurt Vonnegut’s last and worst novel

June 11, 2021

Kurt Vonnegut (1922-2007) was one of my favorite writers. One short story really resonated: Harrison Bergeron, who lives in a society so egalitarian that talented people are assigned (by the nation’s Handicapper-General) literal handicaps to hold them back. Harrison’s is being chained to a mass of heavy junk. Naturally he rebels. Vonnegut was a left-winger, but this parable should be required reading for today’s social justice warriors.

At a yard sale I found Vonnegut’s Timequake. I’d thought I’d read all his novels, but this seemed unfamiliar. Actually written in 1997, subsequent to my Vonnegut phase; his final novel. He should have quit while he was ahead.

Like I did, leaving my professional career at 49. Knowing myself as a loose cannon, I figured something would eventually blow up on me if I continued. I’d already had some close calls. So I bowed out.

Vonnegut actually addresses this himself, introducing Timequake as his last novel. Noting that he’d long been working on one “which did not work, which had no point, which had never wanted to be written in the first place.” Its premise was that in February 2001, Time was reset back to 1991, and everyone had to relive the decade exactly as before. Without free will to do anything differently. (Unlike in the 1993 film Groundhog Day, which Vonnegut doesn’t mention.)

Vonnegut refers to that aborted opus as Timequake One, and the actually published work as Timequake Two, calling the latter a stew made from the best parts salvaged from the former. If these are the best parts, it’s good we’re spared the rest.

He describes at some length the chaos ensuing when the “timequake” ends, and free will “kicks back in,” with people now unused to it. Many transport disasters because they didn’t realize they’d have to actively steer, rather than being on the automatic pilot of repeating the past. Amusing perhaps — but actually illogical. Had the prior decade indeed been a perfect repeat, that would have included people making decisions, like steering, which they’d do again. So nothing would have changed. This might raise the eternal philosophical issue of whether free will ever really obtains, with human actions always having causes outside conscious control. But never mind that.

Meantime I wouldn’t call this a novel at all. The timequake stuff is only part of it. Mostly it’s a pastiche of personal self-indulgences, brief riffs that Vonnegut may have imagined being clever and insightful — actually an insipid mishmash of dyspeptic cynical pessimism. The overall message: “Life is a crock of shit.” That’s a quote. All together, the book amounts to nothing much, not only tendentious but tedious. Painful to read for its being a sad coda to what had been a brilliant oeuvre. (Only fairness made me finish reading it, since I’d decided to write about it.)

Just one line in the book almost made me laugh: reference to “a birth control pill that takes all the pleasure out of sex, so teenagers won’t copulate.” My amusement lasted the quarter second it took to wonder who would take such a pill. But pondering, I realized some people actually would: those whose attitudes about sex are messed up by religion.

Vonnegut didn’t pursue that thought, but it’s a segue to noting my two degrees of separation: he does mention his honorary presidency of the American Humanist Association and its being headquartered in Amherst, New York. Where there’s also the connected Center for Inquiry, whose Secular Rescue program (an “underground railroad” for persecuted religious dissenters in mostly Muslim countries) I’ve been funding.

Vonnegut’s humanism, though, is less than full-throated. “Humanists,” he says, “by and large educated, comfortably middle class persons with rewarding lives like [his], find rapture enough in secular knowledge and hope. Most people can’t.”

There again is Vonnegut’s cynical pessimism. And it’s insufferably elitist to think humanism is good for elevated people like him but not the benighted masses. In fact, religious faith has collapsed among most European proletarians. And the evil consequences that preachers eternally warned against are conspicuous for their absence. Non-believing Europeans are fine, well-adjusted, basically happy people, with lesser levels of the “immoral” social pathologies that have actually been more prevalent in more religious societies throughout history. That’s because religion actually does mess up one’s head, with false ideas, in relating to the world. Humanists find that an outlook grounded in reality provides a better path to live well, meaningfully, and morally.

Manifesto for a new political party

June 4, 2021

We have a two-party system. Except that one is no longer a responsible legitimate party. After 53 years as a Republican, I became a Democrat as the only sane option. But I still hanker for a good second party, and I’ve thought about what it might stand for. I have no illusions that it could spring forth in today’s America. But, as an exercise in political imagination, here is the platform:

1. Truth and honesty. This even being on the list — let alone as #1 — is a sad commentary on today’s Republicans. Inhabiting an alternate reality of lies. Many Republicans know it. Bad faith pervades the party.

2. Civic virtues — democracy, decency, civility, tolerance, fairness, compassion. Sad too that this requires stating. We’d thought our democracy was secure. Now we know it needs defending. This includes the right to vote itself.

3. Science acceptance — this goes with #1. Science is not just another viewpoint, it’s how we know things. Republican rejection of science — on evolution, climate change, covid, you name it — makes it a party of fools.

4. Racial comity. Our history of slavery still afflicts us, its legacy a factor in Black Americans, on average, living less well than whites. Most fundamentally, many still feel they’re not accepted or treated as fully equal. Simply put, we must ensure such treatment. This certainly means no tolerance for racist or white supremacist views. Or police abuse. It’s not “law and order” (and not “freedom”) when police — armed government enforcers — overstep their authority.

5. Freedom of speech. Democrats are too tolerant of intolerance. True, some viewpoints can be deemed beyond the pale (See #4). But most such issues concern what should be matters of legitimate debate. We must end the McCarthyism of punishing people for their opinions. Republicans do it too, persecuting apostates from Trump worship.

6. Free market capitalism. It’s not some system thought up by ideologues, it’s how people interact economically absent interference. And businesses trying to make a buck by selling stuff gives us the goods and services underpinning our advanced living standard. Of course there must be laws and regulations to prevent abuse (we have laws against jaywalking) and there are some functions the market cannot fulfill. Otherwise, consumers and society reap the bulk of the wealth created, when markets are competitive. Anti-competitive government actions and regulatory capture are key problems.

Many Democrats romanticize government running everything. Such a concentration of power would be the antithesis of democracy.

7. A caring society. America is a very rich country. We can amply ensure every citizen has at least minimally decent health care, shelter, nutrition, etc. Don’t call it socialism or “social justice,” it’s simply recognition of our common humanity.

8. Equal education opportunity. Its lack is central to inequality. People born in disadvantaged circumstances are put further behind by rotten schools, that tend to go with the territory. Democrats have a poor record here. School choice would help. By failing to invest in all our children, we make adults who are burdens rather than productive citizens.

9. Global human rights. Remember George W. Bush’s second inaugural, casting America as the global promoter of democracy and human rights — widely mocked by cynics? But being seen as standing for what’s right, and for humanity’s highest aspirations, is key to America’s own global standing. And a more democratic and thus more peaceful and prosperous world benefits America.

10. Free trade. Both parties have lost their way, succumbing to narrow interests at cost to our national interest. Free trade does hurt some people, but makes us collectively richer. If other countries harm themselves with protectionism, we shouldn’t respond by doing likewise. It’s not a zero-sum world; freer trade globally makes all countries richer — again good for America.

11. Global engagement. In both the above respects, “America First” should not mean America alone, retreating behind walls. Since 1945, we led the way building a rules-based world order aided by a network of alliances with nations sharing our values and aspirations for human betterment. We have benefited hugely, yet again making a world in which America itself can best flourish.

12. Church-state separation. One of America’s greatest blessings. Freedom of religion shouldn’t mean government favoritism toward religion — a source of woe throughout history. Church-state separation has benefited religions, it’s a key reason why they remain so strong in America compared to Europe. Those trying to tear it down play with fire.

13. Gun control. All rights are subject to reasonable regulation to protect the public, and that includes gun rights.* America’s unique proliferation of guns is a major contributor to violent crime. We must act to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people, and ban military style assault weapons.

14. End the “War on Drugs.” Drug use should be a medical matter, not a criminal one. The drug war itself harms society vastly more than drug use ever could. While achieving almost nothing. (Psst Republicans: this is another “freedom” issue.)

15. A welcoming country. America, uniquely among nations, is blessed by the diversity of enterprising people who chose to live here. They enrich us, culturally, economically, and spiritually. As Ronald Reagan said, America is a shining city upon a hill — whose wall has a great big door.

This platform distills a lifetime of thinking and political engagement. Is it so radical? Radically reasonable and rational perhaps. Yet can we imagine an American political party with such a program — and winning elections?

*The Supreme Court seems headed for an insane contrary ruling.

What’s the big deal with Wittgenstein?

May 18, 2021

I was tickled when my publisher’s catalog displayed my book opposite one by philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. As if we’re on a par. Just name-drop Wittgenstein to sound intellectually pretentious. 

The title of his big book was Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. (A take-off on Spinoza.) Talk about intellectual pretentiousness. That seems a common malady for book titles in this genre. I prefer ones that actually say something. Like Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its EnemiesThat lays down a gauntlet. (Mine was The Case for Rational Optimism.) 

I also prefer a book that actually says something. What is philosophy really for? It should help us grapple with the fundamental problems of existence, human life, and society. I’ve read some Wittgenstein, finding there nothing of the sort. That’s true of much of modern academic philosophy, going down esoteric rabbit holes, with scant relevance to real human concerns. 

Wittgenstein’s main focus was language. Language and its use in human thought does raise important conceptual issues worthy of exploration. But can that help us much in figuring out how to understand the cosmos and live our lives?

Wittgenstein actually said, “The reason why philosophical problems are posed at all is owing to a misunderstanding of language.” And he dismissed past philosophizing as just verbal trickery trying to answer unanswerable questions; while our life problems have their roots in linguistic confusion. I think those assertions themselves epitomize the very thing Wittgenstein was denigrating. Our essential dilemmas are real, even if we have trouble finding the words to express and address them.

This leads to Wittgenstein’s own central concern — the correspondence between reality and language. He theorized language being formulated to correspond to actual “states of affairs” like a map corresponds to a landscape. But Wittgenstein finally decided that’s impossible; we’re prisoners of our language. There is no “meta language” that could transcend that. After all, in what except language could we even talk about this problem? He ultimately saw no way of firmly connecting language to the external world.

Meantime, Wittgenstein regarded most philosophical arguments as really resolving into disputes over the meaning of words. “Is abortion murder?” depends on exactly what meanings we attach to those operative words. But meaning is itself an elusive concept. He famously cited the word “game,” which he said can have a multitude of different meanings. 

To which I say: so what? Yes, words can have different meanings, and languages aren’t always logical. Simply because they evolve organically, through use, rather than being constructed in laboratory conditions. We know that. Again — so what? It doesn’t stop language fulfilling its purpose. Saying “game the system” versus “play a game” versus “hunting game” versus “I’m game for that” does not render the word somehow problematical on some deep level. We understand what each phrase means. Thus language does its job.

That does include the job of mapping the world. True, language does that imperfectly. So, for that matter, do our senses, at the initial task of gathering information about reality even before we put it into words. But for all the philosophical gnashing of teeth over how we cannot apprehend reality at some ultimate level of realness, nevertheless we actually do pretty darn well at it — or else we couldn’t survive for ten minutes in our unforgiving environment.

So I don’t see what was such a big deal about Wittgenstein. To me the Tractatus seems fundamentally trivial. But I’m actually not alone in that view. 

Wittgenstein himself, in a posthumously published book, called the whole thing circular and devoid of meaning. And while the Tractatus ended by saying, “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence,” now Wittgenstein said such matters are all that’s worth thinking about.