Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

“Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ He was right. But the examined life is no bargain, either.”

–Woody Allen, Cafe Society

Stanislav Andreski

“So long as authority inspires awe, confusion and absurdity enhance conservative tendencies in society. Firstly, because clear and logical thinking leads to a cumulation of knowledge (of which the progress of the natural sciences provides the best example) and the advance of knowledge sooner or later undermines the traditional order. Confused thinking, on the other hand, leads nowhere in particular and can be indulged indefinitely without producing any impact upon the world.”

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–Stanislav Andreski, Social Sciences as Sorcery, quoted by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in the introduction to Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science

Neil deGrasse Tyson

“It’s wrong to say ‘You have to be good at it.’ I’d rather say, ‘You have to want to be good at it.’ And then ambition kicks in. And ambition can override whether or not your first foray was unpleasant or you didn’t do well or maybe you flunked an exam. But if you really like it you will spend time learning it. That’s what liking something means. Maybe too many of us believe that we like something because we’re good at it. And sure, there’re plenty of cases where that’s so. But why deny yourself the pleasure of a life of pursuit, of something that brings pleasure?”

Skeptic Michael Shermer

Skeptic Michael Shermer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“But isn’t the history of science . . . strewn with the remains of failed theories such as phlogiston, miasma, spontaneous generation and the luminous aether? Yes, and that is how we know we are making progress. The postmodern belief that discarded ideas mean that there is no objective reality and that all theories are equal is more wrong than all the wrong [scientific] theories combined.”

–Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic), “At the Boundary of Knowledge,” Scientific American, September 2016

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For an amusing illustration of the pretentious vacuity of postmodernism, see physicist Alan Sokal’s hoax article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which he describes as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernists he] could find about mathematics and physics.” Sokal approached a prominent — “prestigious” would be inaccurate — academic postmodernist journal, Social Text, which thought highly enough of the piece that  they published it in their Spring/Summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue.

As Richard Dawkins noted in Nature:

Sokal’s paper must have seemed a gift to the editors because this was a physicist saying all the right-on things they wanted to hear, attacking the ‘post-Enlightenment hegemony’ and such uncool notions as the existence of the real world. They didn’t know that Sokal had also crammed his paper with egregious scientific howlers, of a kind that any referee with an undergraduate degree in physics would instantly have detected. It was sent to no such referee. The editors, Andrew Ross and others, were satisfied that its ideology conformed to their own, and were perhaps flattered by references to their own works. This ignominious piece of editing rightly earned them the 1996 Ig Nobel prize for literature.

For a bit of fun, Communications From Elsewhere has a postmodern text generator, and you can generate your own computer science postmodern masterpiece with the help of an online gibberish generator created by pranksters at MIT. Just fill in the names of the “authors,” and voilá: a correctly formatted “academic” paper that makes sense only occasionally and inadvertently.

I pulled up the generator, fed in the names of a few lesser known cult leaders and serial killers (yes, there is overlap) and came up with a paper titled:

Decoupling the Turing Machine from Consistent Hashing in Byzantine Fault Tolerance

Authored by
Fritz Haarmann, Michel Petiot, Charles Dederich, Ervil LeBaron and Luc Geret

Many physicists would agree that, had it not been for linked lists, the deployment of the Ethernet might never have occurred. In this paper, we confirm the investigation of Byzantine fault tolerance. In this position paper, we concentrate our efforts on validating that public-private key pairs and Lamport clocks can agree to surmount this grand challenge.

So, there you go. Have fun with the postmodern text generator and the computer-science gibberish generator.  (Thanks to UA astronomer Jess Johnson for alerting me to the latter wonderful resource.)

(My friend Emmett Velten was murdered five years ago. The police never found his killer. As a small way of keeping his memory alive, here’s a paragraph from his essay, “Postmortem for Postmodernism.” It provides a good taste of the man and his work. The world is a poorer place for his loss.)

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Postmodern constructionism’s proponents modestly see it as a paradigm shift away from the Great Satan of the modern-era therapies. It arose when the philosophical movement, postmodernism, oozed from humanities departments into the psychotherapy and counseling realm. Various dates are said to mark the start of the modern era of Western culture, with 1900–1920 or so receiving the most votes. The modern era in which science supposedly reigned supreme, began to falter in 1976—or so postmodernists like to think—when Jacques Derrida, the godfather of postmodernism, published his incomprehensible magnum opus, Of Grammatology. Partly due to long-term resentment against logic, science, and reality, and partly because the kindred sicknesses of political correctness and multiculturalism were just beginning to incubate in premorbid professorial body cavities, humanities departments of American and European universities and colleges contracted postmodernism. Pretentious dissertations, learned papers and books, all of them unhinged and anti-science, drew attention to postmodernism and frightened normal people both in and outside the groves of academe.

Quantum Night, by Robert J. Sawyer front cover(Quantum Night, by Robert J. Sawyer; Ace, 2016, 351 pp., $27.00)

reviewed by Zeke Teflon

There’s a lot to like and a lot to dislike in Canadian science fiction writer Robert Sawyer’s new novel.

On the positive side, this is the most ambitious sci-fi novel I’ve read in ages. The writing is skillful — among other things, seamlessly switching between first person and third person narration — and the primary character is believable and sympathetic, if a bit on the irritating side. Sawyer uses the novel as a platform to talk intelligently about philosophical and ethical big issues — something all too rare in contemporary science fiction: Quantum Night makes you think. As well, Sawyer obviously did a thorough job of researching the novel’s background, the supposed quantum-related nature of consciousness — an area in which I’m totally out of my depth.

On the negative side, it’s difficult to buy the political background in which Quantum Night is set, especially that in the U.S. border areas (where I live). As well, Sawyer sets up an essential (for the secondary plot) series of events (riots) for which he provides no explanation.  Beyond that, from the point of view of psychology (an area in which I do know a bit), it’s very difficult to buy Sawyer’s underlying deterministic premise about the nature of consciousness and how it varies in the population. Beyond that, Sawyer provides the most nauseatingly graphic description of violence I’ve ever read; I found the scene so disturbing that I put down the book for several days before deciding that I really did want to see how the novel concluded.

Yet despite the gruesome violence, Sawyer adheres to the standard sci-fi bowdlerization of sexual scenes. Why? Why is sex more taboo than explicit, horrifying violence in sci-fi? (The only exceptions to that prudishness that immediately come to mind are some of the works of Walter Mosley and Richard K. Morgan.)

Quantum Night begins with a cringe-inducing series of scenes in which the protagonist, academic psychologist Jim Marchuk, a specialist in diagnosing psychopathic tendencies, learns that he has no memory of six months of his life as an undergraduate, and that he apparently did terrible things — things totally out of character — during those six months.

Marchuk shortly reconnects with his girlfriend from those lost six months, Kayla Huron,  a quantum physicist who, to quote the endflap, “has made a stunning discovery about the nature of human consciousness,” and not coincidentally has developed what she considers a foolproof method of diagnosing psychopathy.

Her discovery is that the quantum state of electrons in certain portions of the brain determine whether a person is a “philosopher’s zombie” (“p-zed” — a non-self-aware being with no inner voice who merely responds to external stimuli–in Sawyer’s schema 4/7 of the population), a psychopath (a self-aware being without empathy–according to the schema, 2/7 of the population–an astoundingly high proportion, far higher than the common estimates of 1% to 5% of the population), or a self-aware being with empathy (1/7  of the population). I have essentially no knowledge of quantum physics nor brain physiology, so I have no way to judge whether this is plausible; however, Sawyer always does his homework, so I suspect (in terms of quantum physics and brain physiology) it is, however barely. (The breakdown of the numbers of p-zeds, psychopaths, and self-aware, empathetic people is purely arbitrary, purely a plot device.)

There are, however, nonphysiological reasons to doubt that it is plausible. If people were pure behavioral animals reacting mindlessly to external stimuli (p-zeds), they wouldn’t react radically differently to identical stimuli and wouldn’t be almost universally at least somewhat emotionally disturbed. (We’re talking about the garden varieties of emotional disturbance here, such as anxiety and depression, not trauma-induced PTSD.) Pertinently, the most effective type of psychotherapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, is, to simplify, based on the premise that what people (often subconsciously) tell themselves largely determines their emotions: change what you tell yourself — deliberately tell yourself rational instead of irrational things — and you’ll minimize your emotional disturbance. And it works. So there go your “philosopher’s zombies,” who by definition don’t tell themselves anything.

Sawyer sets all this against a backdrop of ever-worsening rioting (for no apparent reason) in both Canada and the U.S., pogroms against Mexicans in Texas (based on a law restricting legal protection — including protection against murder — to U.S. citizens) , and belligerent psychopaths in both the White House and Kremlin. (What else is new?)

The unmotivated rioting is difficult to buy, the pogroms are equally difficult to buy, and it’s inconceivable that any U.S. court, no matter how reactionary, would ever declare such a law redefining murder constitutional, even in Texas. And if pogroms ever would break out down here along the border, it’s absolutely certain that there would be armed resistance; people would not meekly accept it.

The reason for this dire background is to set up a secondary plot — what can our heroes do about these things?  This is unfortunate, as the primary plot — Marchuk’s journey of discovery about what he did and why — is more than adequate, and the secondary plot seems implausible.

Even worse, much of the philosophical discussion in Quantum Night revolves around utilitarianism, the philosophy that ethical behavior is that which promotes the greatest good for the greatest number. Sawyer seems very much in favor of this concept. So far so good. However, he goes beyond this and seems to be making the case that it’s okay, in fact ethically necessary, to play god with the lives of other people as long as you consider it necessary to the “greater good.”  In other words, the ends justify the means. (My apologies to Sawyer if I’m misreading him, but I don’t think I am.)

This is a horrendous belief, one that is an integral part of the foundation of some of the worst forms of totalitarianism. Leninism, a conspicuously utilitarian political philosophy (which is supposed to produce the greatest good for the greatest number), is the example par excellence, and its terrible results when imposed are too well known to enumerate here. Suffice it to say that a very large number of human problems, both individual and societal, are a direct result of those (such as Sawyer’s protagonist) who consider themselves more enlightened than the great unwashed masses and play god with the lives of others — for their “own good,” of course.

Still, despite its warts, Quantum Night is well worth reading. The writing is first rate, Sawyer provides much thought-provoking discussion of philosophical and ethical problems (mostly in chapter introductions recounting Marchuk’s class lectures), the characters are believable and somewhat sympathetic, and the plot will have you on the edge of your seat throughout most of the book.


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Free Radicals front cover


Zeke Teflon is the author of Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel and on an unrelated sci-fi novel in his copious free time.

The first six chapters of Free Radicals, are avaukable  here in pdf form.

Think about it. Is there really a basis for a “universal declaration of human rights”? No. There isn’t. Sadly, there isn’t.

Authoritarians of all stripes would agree. That seems to justify their wholesale brutishness and violence.

But they’re wrong.

“Human rights” is a social construct, and there’s a very good reason for that social construct: it leads to human happiness.  In other words, it’s utilitarian.

In the utilitarian universe, the only good is that which leads to human happiness. Again, an assertion, but a happy one. Anything beyond that also lies in the realm of assertion. Universal human rights? Prove it. No inherent human rights? Prove it.

Let’s act “as if.”

Does acting as if there are universal human rights prove that there are? No. Of course not. But in societies that maintain the fiction that there are? There’s more happiness than in those that pretend that human rights don’t exist. Compare Iran and Iceland, Canada and Saudi Arabia.

In other words, fighting to establish the entirely (naturalistically) baseless concept of “human rights” leads to happiness.

So, let’s work for the establishment of free speech, free association, etc.  There’s no naturalistic basis for human rights– nature is entirely neutral — but we’ll all be a hell of a lot happier if we’re free.