Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

Would I kill him if I could?

January 27, 2022

A radio interview with scientist Robert Sapolsky shocked me. My humanist book group was currently discussing his tome on human behavior. Sapolsky spoke of his fantasy of killing someone. Not just killing — but with torture, described in graphic detail.

The “someone” was Hitler.

Sapolsky’s fantasy might seem innocuous because of course Hitler is already dead. But if this were 1944?

Capital punishment opponents deem killing always morally unacceptable, no matter how bad the person. Yet I believe some people deserve the ultimate punishment, as a matter of justice.

So with Sapolsky: fantasizing himself an avatar of justice. However, torture adds a problematic dimension; it must entail mindful cruelty by the torturer, a corruption of their soul, and of the moral legitimacy of whatever authority sanctions it.

There used to be a widespread fetish in academia denouncing “judgmentalism,” with categorical judgments considered always suspect. Of course that’s turned completely around, now academia embraces judgmentalism with a vengeance, punishing viewpoints not in lockstep with the catechism of the day. But without going to such extremes, the former anti-judgmentalism was surely wrong. Humans are built to be judgment machines; life is all about making judgments. We are also programmed to be justice seekers. Thus Sapolsky vis-a-vis Hitler.

My own judgment app is set on “high.” A lifetime of hard thinking about issues confronting us makes me feel, at this point, pretty strong in what I judge good or bad, right or wrong.

Certain personages are on the wrong side of that judgment, earning the sort of hatred Sapolsky evinced toward Hitler. This is not hate as a baseless prejudice (as with, for example, white racial hatred). To the contrary, its salient characteristic is being justified by sound rational considerations. Thus I hate Putin; Assad; Maduro; Lukashenko; Ortega; Erdogan; Kim Jong Un; Xi Jinping; Min Aung Hlaing; alas the list goes on, it’s far too long. I hate them for the evil each has perpetrated.

There’s one person I hate more than anyone, ever. (You knew where this was going.) A hatred burning with a pure incandescent flame. Yet this too is no irrational prejudice, but its exact opposite. A deeply considered moral judgment grounded in facts. The crimes are not in the Hitler-Stalin-Mao class; however, unlike the other mentioned cases, this one for me is personal. Because it concerns my own country, which I have profoundly loved for what it represented and stood for. Which this evil monster has damaged beyond calculating. Maybe wrecked forever.

So do I fantasize like Sapolsky? Or would I actually do the deed if I had some opportunity? In fact, no. It would be self-immolation. He’s already caused me so much suffering — heartache, anxiety, literal lost sleep. He can destroy my country, but I would not let him destroy my life itself. And assassination would make him a martyr in many eyes, throwing gasoline on America’s political dumpster fire.

However, I do harbor a fantasy, every morning, when I retrieve our newspaper and open it. A fantasy of a big black headline. It might not be justice; after all, everybody dies. And even if it’s from natural causes, conspiracy theories would run wild, and millions of his cultists would expect him, Christlike, to return. But he could do no more harm. And maybe, just maybe, most of America could recover its sanity.

Noise: Noisier Than We Think

January 15, 2022

The word “noise” has a special meaning in fields like statistics. Referring to all the reasons why some result deviates from the ideal; like an incorrect prediction. It’s the concept of distinguishing noise from signal.

When people are convicted of identical crimes, with similar backgrounds and circumstances, etc., we nevertheless expect sentences to differ. That too is “noise.” But we don’t expect sentences to vary from thirty days to five years. Nor expect medical diagnoses to be very noisy, differing greatly from one doctor to another.

Such expectations are often wrong, with noise being a bigger problem than we realize. So says the 2021 book Noise – A Flaw in Human Judgment, by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass Sunstein.

The book refers to “stable pattern noise,” encompassing characteristics about you, different from other people’s, that make your judgments differ; and “occasion noise,” referring to extraneous factors — like your mood at a given moment — that also affect them. Perhaps confusingly, both “stable pattern” and “occasion” noise are subsets of overall “pattern noise.

And the book also differentiates “level noise” — for example, different judges being generally tougher or more lenient — from (again) “pattern noise” when they differ in how they apply that in specific cases. The authors further speak of “system noise” as encompassing the last two together. You got all that? There’s also bias. And plain old error. All told, a whole lotta noise.

Early on, the book talks about insurance underwriters — professionals tasked with setting premiums to be charged corporate customers. Too high and the insurer will lose business. Too low and it loses money. When asked to guesstimate the variance among quotes by experienced underwriters (that is, the noise quotient), insurance executives typically say 10% or 15%. In reality it’s more like ten times greater. With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.

The authors quote one veteran underwriter: “When I was new I would discuss 75% of cases with my supervisor . . . After a few years, I didn’t need to — I am now regarded as an expert . . . Over time I became more and more confident in my judgment.”

Now here’s the key point: her confidence grew as she “learned to agree with her past self.” Not from any objective confirmation that those past judgements were, in any sense, correct.

This describes a vast range of human psychology and behavior. It is, quite simply, doing what one’s always done. With no deep consideration of that behavior’s optimality. But — if we actually tried subjecting ourselves to such examination, comprehensively, we couldn’t function. Probably couldn’t get ourselves out of bed in the morning. That has to be recognized — even while we must recognize the suboptimality.

This applies to Kahneman’s entire well-known oeuvre — Thinking Fast and Slow, etc. Showing how evolution has saddled us with many non-rational biases in our thinking. Like putting more weight on potential losses than on equal potential gains. Because, for our distant ancestors, “loss” could very well mean loss of life. So a loss avoidance bias made sense.

But even if many of our cognitive biases are not rational, in a narrow sense, the whole system of cognition they comprise is deeply rational. Because, again, we couldn’t function if we had to subject every daily decision or choice to conscious examination. To avoid that, evolution has given us a system of cognitive shortcuts and quick decision heuristics. (The fast thinking of Kahneman’s book title.) And it must be a terrific system because it does enable most humans to function extremely well from moment to moment — and from year to year.

One concept that has grown in my thinking is the role of contingency in human affairs — ranging from individuals to groups to whole societies and their history. I have long been mindful of this effect in my own life, with tiny causes altering its whole course. The Noise book presents much evidence for how individual and group decisions can be affected by such small contingencies. Like something so simple, and seemingly unimportant, as who speaks first in a meeting. Jury deliberations a particular focus of concern. The authors write about cascades, describing how even just one expressed opinion can trigger a succession of responses by other people, not realizing how they’d been unconsciously influenced.

A striking finding is that in making various kinds of judgments or predictions, based on various bits of information, mechanical formulas almost always do better than human analysts, even supposed experts. The key reason — humans are just too plagued by noise. And so we see growing recourse to artificial intelligence to make evaluations, like medical diagnoses.

More: when a human evaluates a set of variables to come up with a judgment, it’s not a formulaic process, yet it’s as if a formula is being applied, albeit a complex one. Studies have found that when such an actual human’s judgments are made the basis for a computer model, which is then applied to the same variables, the model outperforms the human. We may think we bring complexity and richness and insight into our judgments. But what we really bring is noise.

And more: not only do such models outperform the humans they model, studies have found that any mechanistic formula, even randomly weighted, applied to the set of variables in play, will do better than “expert” human judgments.

But supplanting human judgments with mechanistic decision methods provokes backlash. When noisiness in criminal sentencing became evident, the consequently enacted federal sentencing guidelines led to objections that this interfered with judges, well, judging. People do still value the idea of human judgment, bringing a “holistic” perspective to any decision. “This has deep intuitive appeal,” the authors acknowledge.

But, they say, their recommended “decision hygiene” strategies mostly aren’t mechanistic, not jettisoning human judgment. Instead, they mainly urge noise reduction by breaking problems down into component parts. And recognize that while reducing noise is broadly desirable, excessive fixation on it can conflict with other values. Noise is like dirt in your home — its optimal amount is not zero, because attaining zero costs more than it’s worth.

Intelligence also helps combat noise. Yes, “intelligence” is a fraught concept. But the book argues that in fact, tests of “General Mental Ability” are highly predictive of performance. High achievers overwhelmingly tend to have higher GMAs. Even within the top 1%, gradations actually make a big difference. Someone in the 99.8% GMA percentile will likely significantly outperform the 99.0% person. (My own example bears this out. I think I’m at least close to 99%, but not higher. And I feel that difference, compared to really smart people.)

Conversely, lower GMA scores are predictive of people believing in bunk like astrology and falling for fake news. Here’s a GMA test question: in a race, you pass the runner in second place. What place are you in now? Your instinctive answer is likely wrong.

But on the other hand, I’ve long believed that carefully agonizing over a decision doesn’t necessarily improve upon your initial gut response. One chapter began by asking what percentage of the world’s airports are in the United States? “Thirty percent” immediately popped into my head. Then I said to myself, “Wait, let’s think methodically about this.” America has less than 5% of global population. But some big countries are much less developed. And we have a lot of little airports. Mulling over it all, I revised my answer to 15%.

The question introduced a discussion of how one’s first instinctive response is often actually better than a carefully considered one (because the latter is corrupted by noise). The correct answer: 32%!

Trumpism and religion: God help us

January 11, 2022

Nobody is a better advertisement for atheism than Trump.

A man many evangelicals view, despite all his demerits, as God’s instrument for achieving their triumph. That’s how they justify backing such a person. But it’s actually ruinous for the religion they profess to serve.

So argues Jennifer Rubin in a recent Washington Post commentary. Writing about people “in the throes of white grievance and an apocalyptic vision,” seeing America under attack from socialists, immigrants, and secularists. Leading to “an ends-justify-the-means style of politics in which lies, brutal discourse and violence” are embraced. And their rejection of objective reality.

Also their rejection of democracy itself. A democratic culture means not just elections, but acceptance of a pluralism in which diverse voices all have legitimate roles. That in particular they hate, seeing it as a threat. Thus, for all their invocations of “patriotism,” they reject the very meaning of America — the ideas of the Declaration of Independence — in favor of exclusionary blood-and-soil white nationalism.

One might have thought the advent in 2021 of a more conventional, lower-key national administration, of serious purpose, would calm the waters. And that the horror of January 6, a violent attempt to overthrow American democracy, would be electoral poison for Republicans whose deity and his Big Lie instigated it. Yet the opposite has happened. The crisis of our democratic soul has intensified.

Rubin’s main focus is again on the religious dimension. She quotes Peter Wehner (an evangelical Christian and G.W. Bush advisor), discussing a recent speech by Donald Trump Junior. Its message, says Wehner: “The scriptures are essentially a manual for suckers.” Jesus’s teachings have “gotten us nothing.” Indeed, have handicapped prosecuting the culture wars against the left. “Decency is for suckers.”

This, Rubin says, helps explain “the MAGA crowd’s very unreligious cruelty toward immigrants, its selfish refusal to vaccinate to protect the most vulnerable and its veneration of a vulgar misogynistic cult leader.” While “their ‘faith’ has become hostile to traditional religious values such as kindness, empathy, self-restraint, grace, honesty and humility.”

Vaccine refusal not only does trash basic religious ethics, but also reflects a perverted notion of freedom, disregarding that freedom doesn’t mean a right to harm others. That harm is a reality vaccine resisters refuse to believe (killing them in droves). While it’s their dogma that the 2020 election was stolen — also thoroughly proven false. Together showing the astonishing depth of this insanity.

I heard one January 6er on the radio declare he’d taken “an oath to God” that Trump would remain president. “An oath to God!” he repeated, almost shrieking.

Religion is a fundamental divorcement from reality that paves the way for further ones. If you believe in heaven and hell, you can believe nonsensical anti-vax and election fraud lies. If you believe in the man in the sky, it’s but a small step to believing Trump is his instrument. The history of religion is full of suckers falling for what are obvious con men, blind to being manipulated for bad ends. That’s the Trump story.

Rubin’s key point is that while all this “has done immeasurable damage to our democracy,” it also “has had catastrophic results for the religious values evangelicals” supposedly hold. Their God-talk and Jesus-talk has become hollow, their belief systems hijacked by the rotten-hearted Trumpism that cheers making orphans of migrant children.

And this travesty does not go unnoticed by Americans with sanity still intact. It drenches religion in shame. Makes all its pious moralistic prattling a cruel joke. It’s a big reason why younger Americans especially are turning away from religion. Polls show numbers soaring for those saying their religion is “none.”

Republicans, with deranged ferocity, accuse Democrats of somehow, literally, wanting to destroy America. But Rubin concludes that evangelical Republicans are turning it into “a country rooted in neither democratic principles nor religious values. That would be a mean, violent and intolerant future few of us would want to experience.”

Call me Fishmeal

January 8, 2022

Half listening to the radio — some environment report — I heard the word “fishmeal.” And my brain popped out, “Call me Fishmeal.”

For my readers from Mars, there was a famous novel, written by Herman Melville (who lived in my town of Albany, NY), titled Moby Dick, whose opening line, voiced by the narrator, was “Call me Ishmael.” (That was his name.)

My “Call me Fishmeal” was actually, I realized, something of a double entendre. The book was about a whaling ship, sunk in the end. All the crewmen became, literally, fish meals — except for Ishmael, the lone survivor.

This is how immersion (pun intended) in literature enriches one’s life. Well, actually, its rewards are deeper than the little frisson of amusement I got from “Call me Fishmeal.” But life is not all about just exalted contemplation of profound matters. Laughs are valuable too. And broad familiarity with literature facilitates more of them, as illustrated here. “Call me Fishmeal” would never have entered my brain if Moby Dick weren’t already part of its infrastructure.

This is what I love about being alive. Life does of course, again, have its sublime moments, but those are rare, and this did not quite qualify. Yet there are so many little pleasures, to be savored if one has the mindset to do so. Here I’ve actually parlayed my enjoyment of “Call me Fishmeal” into the writing of this essay, which gives me considerable further gratification.

I wish I could prolong it by adding more, but a key element of the writing craft is knowing when to stop.

Supreme Court Follies #1: Abortion

December 19, 2021

I use the word “follies” not in the fun sense, but as the plural of “folly.” The Supreme Court is plunging headlong toward great follies, as if calculated to shred public respect. Part of a broad Republican assault on the integrity of the institutions undergirding our democratic society and rule of law.

There’s been much talk of somehow reforming the Court, like adding justices or term limits. But forget it. No such change can get through Congress.

Several justices last summer toured around insisting the Court is not actually (to quote Justice Barrett) “a bunch of partisan hacks.” Methinks they did protest too much.

The local NPR station head has long said they’re “bought and paid for.” I used to hate that cynicism. Sure, you dance with the one who brung you; but Supreme Court judges have lifetime tenure and, once installed, are free to do the right thing.

Even Bush v. Gore I did not see as partisan. That election was, in effect, a tie; the Court had to resolve it; and with any different decision, it would not have been Gore elected, but chaos, a constitutional crisis. The judges acted wisely.

But their ambit to do the right thing can also allow serving personal agendas. And that’s what most Republican appointees are now doing. Chief Justice Roberts’s efforts to restrain this and save the Court from itself are failing. So it will either overturn Roe v. Wade or else otherwise gut it.

The religious right will celebrate their great triumph, decades in the making. How did they achieve this, in the teeth of clear majority public opinion? Undemocratically of course. They illegitimately blocked President Obama from appointing one Supreme Court judge (Merrick Garland) and then rammed through a third Trump appointment in the last days of his doomed administration. Both by an undemocratically structured Senate, with small rural states overrepresented.

And that’s no accident. Do you know why there are two Dakotas? Because Republicans who then controlled Congress divided the sparsely populated Dakota territory into two states just to give them added Senators and electoral votes. That picture is basically repeated throughout the west. And the electoral college gave us three justices appointed by a president who lost the popular vote!

I mentioned public opinion. Most Americans favor allowing at least early-term abortions. Of course the Supreme Court should be guided by the Constitution and law, rather than being a political body swayed by public opinion. Nevertheless, if they do defy it, as here, the judges better have good reasons.

I actually think Roe was bad law and bad politics when decided in 1973. Its critics, arguing before the Court in the current Mississippi case, had a point saying abortion was better left to state legislation than judicial fiat. The latter sparked decades of divisive nastiness, whereas other advanced nations resolved the issue calmly through democratic processes. (Mostly allowing abortion only until 15 weeks or so.)

But in America the toothpaste can’t be put back in the tube. Fact is, for better or worse, for nearly half a century Roe has been part of the fabric of American life. To reverse it now will be incredibly disruptive — indeed redoubling Roe’s politically inflammatory divisive effect. And the societal repercussions will be large. Studies suggest abortion had much to do with falling crime rates over decades, by averting some problem-ridden childhoods that make for potential lawbreakers. Now there will be more unwanted children. And more poverty and other social dysfunction. All imposing greater burdens on taxpayers.

When a fetus becomes a human being, with rights, is a complex debatable issue (though it takes religion to arrive at the extreme answer that it’s the moment of conception). Nevertheless, whatever else might be said of Roe, women able to control their reproductive lives made America a freer, better, more humane country. Part of dismantling an oppressive patriarchal culture that denied women human equality. Now this will actually be the first time the Supreme Court has ever taken away a basic right it previously enshrined.

Of course this reeks of politics and justices masking personal agendas under a guise of legalism. Giving an early fetus not only rights, but rights trumping those of its mother, is not grounded in any traditional legal paradigms, nor science-based, but instead is, again, merely religion-based.

The stance is labeled “pro-life.” But for all the ostensible moralism, there’s no genuine concern for human life. Indeed, fetishizing the unborn is downright weird given the utter disregard for the lives of children once they’ve made the mistake of being born. In states Republicans control, public policies tend to be the worst for child welfare.

And these so-called “pro-life” Republicans are killing many thousands with their Covidiocy — loopy conspiracy theories, anti-science nonsense, and they even actually obstruct public health measures like vaccinations and masking. This is literally, clinically, insane. And shows that Republicans are certainly not “pro-life.” If anything, they’re a death cult.

Their Public Enemy #1 is Doctor Fauci! With Senator Rand Paul in particular on the warpath. If you think Rand is a hero and Fauci a villain, not the reverse, then you are an asshole. But such utter lack of basic human judgment pervades today’s Republican party. Matt Gaetz? Taylor-Greene? McCarthy? Cruz? Gosar? Stefanik? Anyone with sense could see what they are. What Trump is.

Ironically one of their anti-vax slogans is “My body, my choice!” Of course, they don’t apply that to abortion, refusing women any such choice. While pro-choicers refuse to recognize any human life value in fetuses before birth. Alas those two extremist positions shape the debate, while the middle ground, supported by most Americans, gets outshouted.

The Supreme Court is also perverting our legal landscape by refusing to slap down the Texas abortion law vesting its enforcement in vigilante bounty-hunters, a blatant scheme to evade judicial review that could metastasize all over.

And then there are guns. So-called “pro-life” Republicans promote too an insane gun culture that also kills tens of thousands of Americans annually. That’s the subject of another looming Supreme Court folly, which I’ll address soon.

And will the Court, in January 2025, deem perfectly lawful the Republican coup, setting aside popular votes in several states and giving their electoral votes to Trump, returning him to office?

We’re headed off a cliff.

Whoopi Goldberg critiques human behavior

December 15, 2021

Whoopi Goldberg is a comic. Or so I’ve heard. Can’t say I’ve ever actually seen her being funny. Nevertheless, seeking a break from my customary heavy reading, I picked up her 2010 book, Is It Just Me? Or Is It Nuts Out There?

Shocker alert: that’s not her birth name. Whoopi isn’t short for Wupaleena or something. (It was Caryn Johnson.) The name “Whoopi Goldberg” is obviously supposed to be funny. Playing on ethnic incongruity. In fact, there’s traditionally been tension between Black and Jewish communities, with Goldberg a stereotypical Jewish name uttered by Blacks in a hostile way. If Whoopi was trying to satirize that, it seems a bit disturbing.

The book (with no fewer than six two-letter words in its title) is a collection of short peevish essays. A misanthropic self-indulgence. Not funny.

The first chapter hits drunk driving. Not a topic lending itself to hilarity. Whoopi thinks anyone driving drunk should have their cars taken away. Likewise for texting while driving.

Well, okay. And why do we need Whoopi Goldberg’s opinion on this?

Drunk driving is just one of many common behaviors she doesn’t like. Much concerns how people interact with Whoopi herself. Like criticizing her wardrobe choices. Well, okay. But if you put yourself out there as a big celebrity, that kind of comes with the territory. And panning how Whoopi dresses doesn’t seem quite on a par with drunk driving.

She doesn’t mention noise pollution, one of my own peeves. Neighbors running loud mowers, leaf blowers, even chain saws, while I’m trying to enjoy the weather out on my deck.

Several of Whoopi’s chapters address flight etiquette. One earnestly implores readers to turn off computers and phones on a plane when so instructed. A full page lists malodorous foods you shouldn’t bring on a flight. There’s a chapter on how to pack for a plane trip. I’m not kidding. She’s annoyed with people not packing smart. It’s actually pretty sensible advice. But I didn’t buy a book by a comic for that sort of thing.

All the foregoing I scribbled up after a few chapters. But, as with a car wreck, there was a weird fascination that kept me reading. And eventually I began to see the book differently. Shelves are full of self-help advice books, but this one is actually kind of unique. Covering not big philosophical and character matters, but mostly mundane everyday stuff. Expressing things many of us feel. But who would think of writing a book in that vein?

A companion to John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice this is not. Yet taken all in all, it does have something significant to say. Running through it is a basic premise that too many people just don’t think enough about how their actions affect others. Whoopi is taking a stand, and it’s one worth taking. Even writing an unfunny book about. Doing so was gutsy.

Human beings operate with what’s really a remarkable degree of rationality, but are imperfect and sadly subject to lapses of rationality. While Whoopi concentrates on personal life, and that’s worthy, what bugs me more are so many people’s larger beliefs that are so divorced from reason.

Beliefs about evolution, the drug war, guns, conspiracy theories, migrants, white supremacy; belief in Trump, belief in religion (connected). A perfect storm of irrationality coming together in vaccine resistance, exactly what Whoopi was talking about — disregard for how one’s actions affect others. In this case, literally killing them.

Like Whoopi, I wonder: Is it just me? Or is it nuts out there?

I think I know the answer.

Isness: What is existence?

December 6, 2021

The deepest of all questions is why is there something and not nothing? Existence either sprang from nothing, or is eternal. Both possibilities make our minds go kablooey. In contrast, it might seem easier to envision a cosmic emptiness, that never had any existence in it. A total void. Yet if you cogitate on it, that’s actually hard to conceive of too. Wouldn’t even such an empty cosmos, itself, be said to exist? Thus not solving the something-versus-nothing conundrum. Can we actually truly conceptualize nothingness? And what is this thing we call existence anyway?

There is a school of thought holding that nothing really exists except insofar as it is perceived in a human mind. The bathroom disappears while you’re in the kitchen. This was actually, more or less, the thesis of the seventeenth century philosopher George Berkeley. But what is a human mind? Is that something that exists? Do the neurons in our brains exist only because they exist in our minds? But don’t our minds only exist because of the neurons?

In order for anything to exist, it seems axiomatic that it must exist in Time. Something lasting for only zero seconds could not be said to exist at all. But note too that something can only exist in the present. The past no longer exists; the future doesn’t yet. The past lasted a long time; the future will too; but the present actually lasts only exactly zero seconds. There is no span of time during which the present takes place. Ending as soon as it begins. So, if nothing lasting zero seconds can exist, and nothing can exist except in the present, and the present lasts zero seconds, that proves nothing can exist.

Nevertheless, in a simple sense, you might, for example, think a chair exists. Yet however solid it may seem, we know it’s composed of atoms, which are mostly if not entirely empty space. In fact, that’s also true of the particles notionally comprising the atoms themselves; and the sub-particles comprising those particles. Et cetera. No matter how deep you go, you can never get to anything solid. There’s no there there. (Or no chair there.)

The problem is with the very concept that we call existence. As the foregoing does prove, there can be no such thing. It is an illusion. Descartes was wrong in saying, “I think, therefore I am.” And while various religions have posited various deities, their existence is obviously even more impossible than that chair’s.

But if we must therefore let go of our concept of existence, we must have recourse to a different one to replace that which we used to think of in that way. Referring to something deeper, the whatever-it-is that’s the substrate for the thing we imagined to be existence. You might consider it a mystery, yet that is a human construct. What we’re talking about here transcends not only human thought, but Time, space, and matter themselves. Even existence itself.

This renders meaningless the question of why there is something and not nothing. The fact is that the “something” at issue is only a manifestation of what is, again, a reality deeper than the question encompasses. Though even the word “reality” itself is a contradiction in terms.

Our language lacks a word or words to express what’s needed. Words like “existence” and “reality” are inadequate if not indeed false. Heidegger may have been nibbling at the thing with his “dasein.” Suppose we non-Germans use, as a mere placeholder, for what cannot be expressed, the word isness. Denoting something that just is.

However, as another famous personage once testified, “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” Then there was Belgian surrealist painter Magritte’s picture of a pipe labeled “This is not a pipe.” Of course it wasn’t a pipe, but a painting; yet did it actually illustrate the cosmic truth that nothing can be anything? While Wittgenstein showed us that language cannot indeed truly capture any reality. Even if there were such a thing.

But what isness is is actually not something that can be defined or described, let alone grasped. It’s the quintessential quiddity. It just is.

Yet understanding it (if only we could) would be the key to everything. Penetrating through the impossibility of linguistic meaning, and through the fog and shadows of “existence” and “reality,” drilling down beyond all that, to the ultimate underlying isness. Though recognizing that there may — or, perhaps, must — be something yet deeper still. Indeed, even isness itself cannot be, finally, the ultimate isness.

Maybe it’s turtles all the way down.

Two Waitings

November 19, 2021

In 1977, when Avon published my fantasy novel, my middle initial was omitted on the cover. So we got a tart letter from the other Frank Robinson — Frank M. —a more prominent writer. Thought his name was being ripped off.

I’d never read any of his books. Decades later, I chanced on one at a library sale, and stuck it on my shelf. Then I picked up one by Ha Jin only because my wife and I had read aloud together another novel of his.

Those two books sat side-by-side on my shelf for a long while before I suddenly noticed both had the same title! — Waiting. What are the odds? Then I saw both were published in 1999! The coincidences tickled me enough to read them.

Frank’s is no literary masterpiece, but entertaining in its way. As a writer, I liked seeing how he managed to put across what was really a preposterous premise. That when Homo Sapiens supplanted the Neanderthals 35,000 years ago, another different species, resembling us more, managed to survive, living hidden among us. Waiting to consummate some final triumph over us. Mind control helps.

I have little truck with fictional psychic powers. And that those “Old People” could somehow maintain a separate bloodline for over a thousand generations seemed absurd. The novel acknowledges interbreeding, but says with two different species, any offspring were sterile, which nobody noticed. (We’ve since learned many humans have a little Neanderthal DNA, disproving the sterility theory.)

Nor did anyone notice these “Old People” were, well, physiologically not human. Until one doctor stumbles on an autopsy. The doc’s murder, to silence him, launches the book’s plot.

Which got convoluted. And the book seemed padded with much extraneous scene-setting. And what was it with all the coffee? OK, characters would drink some coffee. But this author seemed besotted with coffee shtick.

A line near the end made me laugh out loud: “Back at the house on Noe, he and Mark had taken a nap, then gone out shopping for a Christmas tree.” Mundane normal life. But after the cataclysmic (and bloody) denouement just hours before? “Shopping for a Christmas tree?”

Ha Jin’s novel concerns Lin Kong, whose girlfriend is waiting for him to divorce his wife. Who ever heard of such a story? (Quite a contrast to Robinson’s outrageous premise.)

The writing style is matter-of-fact. But not spare in a Hemingway way. Wouldn’t be bad if the story weren’t so enervating. We’re told early that the wait will be eighteen years. Then we’re led through the whole numbing saga.

It takes place in China from the mid-’60s through the ’80s. She’s an army nurse; Lin an army medic, in a loveless arranged marriage with an older woman, back in his home village, which he visits just once annually. Neither relationship entails any sex. Might have enlivened the narrative.

I was struck by just how regimenting, oppressive, inhumane really, Chinese communist society was. That shaped the course of Lin’s life. The contrast with free-wheeling American life was stark. China loosened up somewhat after those times; yet Xi Jinping seems intent on carrying regimentation to new heights. How do the Chinese stand for it? Actually it seems regimentation is in their DNA, very different from ours. Being cogs in a machine suits most of them just fine. And they actually profess revulsion toward America, as no model they’d wish to follow.

Lin’s introspection toward the end was touching. His wife had refused a divorce; but a rule allowed it unilaterally after 18 years of separation, and (contrary to my expectation) Lin actually does it, and marries his girlfriend. She makes up for lost time in the bedroom. Then come twins. But Lin isn’t happy. It all feels like a chore, imposed on him. He doesn’t feel he really loved either wife. Considers himself a useless man, his life wasted; and he’d indeed seemed a passive sort to me. Yet others see him as very fortunate. On that note the book ends.

Xi talks of the “Chinese dream.” It’s no analog to what we call the “American dream.” Xi means China being pre-eminent in the world. If the whole world becomes more like China, I’d call that a nightmare.

“Intelligent Design” — Another View

November 14, 2021

You’re walking in a forest and find a watch on the ground. Seems obviously the intentional creation of an intelligent designer. Applying this analogy to all creation has always been a central argument for creationism or “intelligent design.” Originally introduced by William Paley’s famous 1802 book Natural Theology. Many religious believers do look at nature’s intricate clockwork and cannot see how it could have arisen without an intelligent designer. Just like Paley’s watch.

The fallacy here is that the watch is purpose-built, unlike anything in nature, which never aimed to produce exactly what we see today. Instead it’s an undirected process that could have produced an infinitude of alternative possibilities. All existence is just whatever happened to fall out of that process — very unlike a watch made according to plan by a watchmaker.

Recently I encountered an 1813 essay by the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (“A Refutation of Deism“) with a different but compelling answer to Paley’s watch analogy. One assumes the watch was designed “because innumerable instances of machines having been contrived by human art are present to our mind . . . but if, having no previous knowledge of any artificial contrivance, we had actually found a watch upon the ground, we should have been justified in concluding that it was a thing of Nature, that it was a combination of matter with whose cause we were unacquainted.”

Shelley goes on, “The analogy, which you attempt to establish between the contrivances of human art and the various existences of the Universe, is inadmissible. We attribute these effects to human intelligence, because we know before hand that human intelligence is capable of producing them. Take away this knowledge,” and the whole idea collapses.

Finding a watch in a forest might again seemingly suggest some non-natural origin. But suppose you find not a watch, but a mouse. You’d have no doubt of its naturalness. Yet if you think about it, the mouse is actually a far more intricate little “contrivance” than a watch. Most people accept that the mouse resulted from a billion year process of natural evolution. As Shelley said, if we knew nothing of watchmakers, we’d assume the watch must have somehow arisen that way too.

Creationists rhapsodize about how perfectly organisms seem fitted for purpose. Shelley refutes this too, with the observation that “if the eye could not see, nor the stomach digest,” humans could not exist. Every living thing must of necessity be fitted to its habitat. No fitness, no animal.* So it’s far from miraculous. Shelley realized this even without the benefit of Darwin’s later elucidation of evolution (the real explanation for it all).

Creationists mistakenly characterize the idea of evolution as a random chance process, which of course could not produce anything like a watch or a butterfly. But evolution is in fact the opposite of random. A ruthless process of eliminating what doesn’t work. Actually, evolution operates by serial kludges of modification to what came before, often resulting in very imperfect matches of form to function.* Wouldn’t a really intelligent design for humans include a third eye in the back?

Shelley was, again, not a scientist but a poet. And wrote this when just 21 years old! I was blown away by his essay’s trenchancy, how beautifully he made his points, in plain clean language, not the convoluted prose so typical then. And so iconoclastically outside the mainstream of the time too. (He was expelled from Oxford for his atheist writings.) What an amazing testament to the power of the human mind. One might almost call it a miracle.

* Richard Dawkins has observed that predator animals are well fitted to catch prey; prey animals fitted to escape. So whose side is God on?!


Dave Chappelle’s Netflix Trans Shocker

November 10, 2021

Comedian Dave Chappelle had a history of offending some trans activists. His latest Netflix special, Closer, focusing on that subject, sparked a firestorm. Netflix was assailed and picketed, some employees joining in, demanding the show’s cancellation.

My wife and I decided to watch it, to see what the fuss was about.

And I was shocked.

Not by anything Chappelle said. Instead, what shocked me was that something so mild provoked so much umbrage. Chappelle actually seemed quite empathic toward trans people. Venting envy at what he saw as their success, compared to Blacks, in combating discrimination. One long riff concerned a trans comic he befriended and mentored. Though her act had bombed, Chappelle honored her as a great human being. The story’s gut-punch coda was her suicide. But also, Chappelle did skewer trans activist extremism — a subset of “woke” censorious intolerance.

It’s understandable that the trans community, as longtime social outcasts, would be coming from a sense of beleaguerment. But now that’s turned 180 degrees, with any deviation from their rigid catechism deemed a cancelworthy offense.

Wokeism weaponizes linguistic hair-splitting to delegitimize its targets. I’ve written about a man savaged for almost saying “colored people.” He quickly corrected it to “people of color.” But that didn’t forestall denunciation by, among others — get this — the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

As a lover of language, I believe words do matter. And have meaning. But there are two sides to that coin. Some trans activists, even while fixating on how words are used, in other ways reject the concept that words have meaning. Witness J.K. Rowling’s condemnation as transphobic for holding there’s a difference between trans women and what we’re now supposed to call “cis-gender” women. If allowed to say “women” at all. Yet these words simply denote physiological differences. Which trans activists want to deny; while their own promotion of “cis-gender” terminology is itself differentiating. Otherwise why not just call them all “women?” Yet still it’s somehow deemed a crime to acknowledge the differentness.

This is the kind of thing Chappelle was deconstructing. He pointedly observed that every person alive was born through the birth canal of a woman. “Woman” is a useful category word applicable there. A transgender woman, even if considered female for most purposes, nevertheless differs from cis-gender women in certain respects. “Transgender” too is a useful category word. That’s what language is for. Where is the offensiveness?

Scientist Richard Dawkins was also pilloried for the same notional offense as Rowling. The American Humanist Association revoked his long-ago “Humanist of the Year” award. And when I posted an essay defending people changing gender, but also criticizing the attack on Dawkins, and trans extremism more generally, some ferocious responses illustrated exactly what I was talking about. For example, bashing my calling gender dysphoria biological, a brain-body mismatch. (Bizarre, because if they’re right, then trans haters might have a point in considering it a psychological perversion.)

Dave Chappelle got similar bashing. What a pity; the activists doing this seem blind to how harmful it actually is to their cause, generating far more antagonism than sympathy. It’s an old truism that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. James Carville ascribed recent Democratic election setbacks to excesses of “stupid wokeness.” Though why didn’t voters punish the Republican counterpart? Apologists for a coup attempt, the deranged “stolen election” lie, covidiocy, etc. Wokeism versus Trumpism — we’re whipsawed between the two countervailing pathologies.