May 18, 2013

Bellagio is a beautiful place, set on a promontory between two arms of Lake Como, the Swiss Alps in the distance, lush vegetation all around, mild climate…no wonder Stendhal, Manzoni, and Virgil, to name a few, loved it.

Searching for the location of our hotel, after booking it online months ago, I saw this image on GoogleMaps.  A villa with a front lawn extending the width of the town?
Last week, I found myself there, walking that grassy avenue, the Vialone.  It was built by the owner of Villa Giulia, visible on the right, with formal gardens at the lakeside, so that he could have an unimpeded view of both arms of Lake Como.  It’s always a bit strange to find oneself walking terrain that one has previously only known from a map or aerial view.  Was someone watching me from above?

The Vialone terminates in a flight of steps down to the lake on the western side.
Walking the Vialone in the direction of Villa Guilia, facing east.

Paradise Lost, Plato’s Cave

September 6, 2012

I am reading John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  He wrote it when he was blind.  Does that mean that he was more cognizant of the eternal truths of the world, free from distraction by one of his senses?  That’s what the Greeks thought of poets, and thus, Homer was blind.

I guess Milton found his way out of Plato’s cave, that dark place where unenlightened men see the shadows of truth dancing on the walls.  But Plato banned poets from the ideal republic:  He was always more about power than justice or truth anyway.

Lots of people have commented that Satan is by far the most interesting character in Milton’s epic poem, but I find myself quite taken with Adam and Eve. 

They are quite the humanist pair:  Adam appears before the angel Raphael, come to warn him against Satan, with appropriate humility, but quite confident and stately in his naked beauty.  I guess Milton only attached the notion of idolatry, against which he railed, to costume, gold, temples, and the like, while it seems to me quite possible to idolize, rather than idealize, the human form.  Anyway, the two really do love each other, apparently without sin as of yet.

Satan is the tormented soul, and not because he is forced to lie about on a lake of fire after his abortive coup d’etat in heaven.  He has a head full of ideas that are driving him insane, and he can’t stop plotting.  The sight of Adam and Eve, happy in Eden, drives him to a frenzy of rage and jealousy, and what could he do?  He has free will…that’s how it had to be.

I was wondering while reading if Plato could have known of the Old Testament, but my digging indicates that it is improbable.  The book wasn’t translated into Greek until long after Plato’s death, and though there must have been Jews passing through Athens, it is hard to imagine Plato chatting with them in the Agora.  Certainly, he could have known of myths and tales from the east, some of which – The Flood, the Garden of Eden – are common to many traditions.  Eastern thinking, art, and cults were very influential in Greek thought.

The Garden of Eden strikes me as a sort of inverse of Plato’s cave.  The inhabitants have no ‘knowledge’:  they must not eat of the Tree of Knowledge, but they are happy, paradisically so.  When they gain knowledge at the urging of Satan/Serpent, they are beset by sin, lust, and pain.  They are cast out into the world by God.  Wouldn’t Plato have vomited at the thought that knowledge would bring pain and disaster rather than serenity and peace?   But I don’t think he had a notion of sin that needed to be justified.

In the end, however, I find that I am sympathetic to the scripture’s view.  That is, the Greeks may have invented Tragedy, but when it comes to the Old Testament and Plato, he seems naive, while the story of Eden hits on some deeply felt sense that by gaining the world, and all its knowledge, we have lost something.  Even if it’s not something we want back now.

Nietzsche Reconsidered

January 14, 2012

Readers of this blog know that I have been hard on Nietzsche.  Maybe I’ve been too hard on him because of the nutty followers he attracts – but that’s not his fault.  Through the prompting of a young philosophy grad, I have been reading through The Gay Science in a ‘modernized’ edition of an old public domain translation (T. Common & B. Chapko) available on the Kindle, and I’ve found much to like.

Well, I am preoccupied with problems of knowledge and the mind-body relationship, and Nietzsche is not, but he does address many over-arching concerns of philosophy; philosophy in the general sense of a discipline that asks, “How shall we live?” or “How do we reconcile ourselves to the world as it is?” quite well.  In many ways, he is similar to what Huxley called The Perennial Philosophy, the ideas found in Zen Buddhism as well as the Twelve Steps of AA.

Step One:  I am powerless over…  Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change…

I want more and more to perceive the necessary characters in things as the beautiful… I do not want to accuse the accusers.  Looking aside, let that be my sole negation.  …I wish to be at any time hereafter only a yes-sayer!

Poor guy, Fred!  He lived at a time when the most stupid, racist, self-serving, and morally smug notions were trumpeted as eternal truths from the press (You vomit your bile, and call it a newspaper! – Zarathustra) and in which bald-faced lies were presented by pillars of culture as true.  Not so different from today.  In addition, a ‘muscular Christianity’ was the excuse for all sorts of international brutality and oppression over less technologically developed cultures.  Perhaps all his talk of war and battle is his metaphor for moral struggle, similar to the Islamic take on jihad, or perhaps he is ironically tweaking his contemporaries for their preoccupation with tin-horn glory, the military ‘virtues,’ and their genocidal violence – the Philosopher vs. Teddy Roosevelt.  Worth considering.

His writing shows a keen understanding of science, and of Darwinism in particular.  In his desire to embrace the whole person, intellect and instinct – he recognizes that instinct lives on, and is not eclipsed by culture – he denounces those who condemn the ‘natural’ in man.  It’s easy to take this as a romantic and irrational rebellion against the materialism and moral dogmatism of the 19th century, but he is more subtle than that.  He sees man as a unique element in nature, part of nature, but ‘existentially’ different, because aware of nature.  A difficult concept to navigate:

Let us beware against thinking that the world is a living being.  How could it extend itself?  What could it nourish itself with?  How could it grow and increase?  … Let us now beware against believing that the universe is a machine:  it is assuredly not constructed with a view to one end.

Beware New Age Gaians!  Beware vulgar mechanists!  Beware creationist teologists!

Nor is he too bad when he considers technical issues dear to my heart, such as the usefulness of assessing the nature of knowledge from a historical and Darwinian point of view, rather than a contemplative, Cartesian one:

Throughout immense stretches of time, the intellect produced nothing bu errors:  some them proved to be useful and preservative of the species:  he who fell in with them, or inherited them, waged the battle for himself and his offspring with better success.  … Those erroneous articles of faith which were successful were transmitted by inheritance and  which have all become almost the property of and stock of the human species, are, for example the following:  that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances and bodies; and that at thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; and that what is good for me is also good absolutely.

Necessary notions for the fledgling hominids.  Philosophers are not known for their rough and ready survival skills.  Logic, too, evolved from this basis, so what is its status as an ultimate truth?  And why seek for the analytic justification of it?  (Ernest Mach addressed similar questions about the fundamentals of scientific investigation.)  And this, on the ultimate epistemological notion:

Cause and effect:  there is probably never any such duality; in fact there is a continuum before us from which we isolate a few portions:  just as we always observe a motion in isolated points, and therefore do not properly see it but infer it.  … An intellect which could see cause and effect as a continuum , which could see the flux of events not according to our mode of perception, as things arbitrarily separated and broken – would throw aside the conception of cause and effect, and would deny all conditionality.

There is energy, and minds, such as they are, divide it into quanta which ‘we’ take for reality.  And the success of this strategy is the evolution of organisms with minds like ours.  But our minds are limited:

Sometimes I wonder if all these questions aren’t just a problem of scale.  As the scale of things changes, some things disappear.  As we walk around, we are not aware of quantum effects at the sub-atomic level; we aren’t even aware of molecules…  What if the same sort of effects relate to time – what would that do to our notion of causality and determinism?  As we ‘zoom’ our time-scale out to the enormous, everything would appear to be happening at more or less the same time … [from Free Will and All That]

Nietzsche, my brother?

The Imaginary Museum – Google Tries

February 7, 2011

Hoist by his own petard.

An article in today’s New York Times describes the new Google Art Project.  This is Google’s latest info/data binge, as it pursues its goal of organizing all the world’s data.  It harks back to a book I bought many years ago in which an artist created an imaginary museum that he would like to visit.  It’s an old idea, and an intriguing one for art lovers.

The article gives a review that is generally favorable, and enthusiastic, with several warnings about it being a work in progress.  The title makes a knowing reference to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.   I took a look.

These are my reactions:

  • Why would you want to ‘navigate’ through a ‘virtual 3-D’ museum as you do on Google street view?  It’s incredibly awkward, and the point is to look at the art anyway, not the museum.  Unless it’s a building with historical interest.  My stroll down Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors wasn’t very illuminating
  • A lot of museums and universities (here’s a favorite:  NYPL) have very good online sites that make much of their collection available, with a lot more information, context, and technological elegance.  I don’t see that the Google site offers anything.  The reviewer addressed some of this, but asserts that the United Nations aspect of the site – it brings together museums from all over the world – is a valuable feature.
  • I would much rather see Google funding the creation of sites by specific museums than trying to do it all itself, with the obvious publicity advantages accruing to their stockholders.
  • Some of the high-resolution images are truly incredible.
  • Although the images may be more faithful than what you can get from most art books, there is much to be said in favor of the book format over this sort of online browsing.  For doing research, as opposed to browsing, the Web and Google are magnificent.
  • The reviewer says:  From where I sit Google’s Art Project looks like a bandwagon everyone should jump on. It makes visual knowledge more accessible, which benefits us all.  Who would argue against the idea that the more that is available on the Web, the better? But I have my doubts about whether Google is providing an improvement on the current experience of reproductions, which are the “next best thing” to viewing the actual art.  Nor do I think that the dessimination of [visual] information is the same as the spread of [visual] knowledge.  That is a misconception of The Information Age, which is to say, The Age of Google.

This concludes yet another dyspeptic rant by yours truly.

Descartes – pothead?

May 13, 2010

Monty Python did a song about famous philosophers that included the lines:

Réne Descartes was a drunken old fart,
I drink therefore I am!

Now the real truth has been brought to light by that brilliant scholar of the great thinkers of the West,  Frédéric Pagès.  Monsieur Pagès, better known today for his championing of the thought of the forgotten philosopher, Jean-Baptiste Botul, wrote this book, Descartes et le cannabisPourquoi partir en Hollande in 1996.  All of France was celebrating the 400th birthday of the man who started modern philosophy, the one who coined its most famous proposition:  cogito ergo sum [I think, therefore I am.]

Well, what he should have said is, I think, therefore I know that I am, but that’s a trifle.  Of course, how does the I know that it knows, before the I has determined that it knows that it, the I,  is? Pretty obscure.

Pagès brings light to this dark murk by applying the Cartesian method to the mystery of why the most French of philosophers lived most of his adult life in Holland.  And why did this man change his residence practically every year?  The answer: cannabis.  Descartes was a dealer and toker. Amsterdam is the place to be for that.

This explains so many things.

Is there nothing solid anymore?

April 8, 2010


A constant preoccupation of mine is the dissolving of things that seem fixed and solid into things, or groups of things that are anything but that. [See these posts on the truths of dots, and philosophy of dots]  Eternal verities that turn out to be contingent conventions; precise definitions that reveal themselves as maddeningly circular; substances that are mostly void, and so on.  A few examples:

  • Matter:  seems pretty solid, but as we know from modern physics, it’s mostly empty space.
  • Self:  long after David Hume noticed the self-deception inherent in the concept, the notion is being revised under the influence of contemporary neuroscience away from a unitary, unvarying core to something more fluid.
  • Organism:  the image of a well coordinated mechanical apparatus is giving way to the notion of a living thing as a community of smaller organisms and enormous collections of cells that somehow coexist in the same space.
  • More on the disappearing self, the void, and organisms here and here.

And just what does that have to do with the two marvelous books I’ve placed at the top of this post?  Of course, for some people, standard English, the Queen’s English (note, it doesn’t even stay as the King’s English) is an immutable and well-defined path from which only the uncouth will stray.  Jack Lynch demolishes this view in his book by giving an intellectual argument why this is absurd, and then providing individual historical treatments of the never ending battle between the language idolaters and the realists,  prescriptivists and descriptivists. 

He is remarkably fair in his assessment, giving the maven worshippers of linguistic non-change their due – useless to assert that fixed standards are never useful; just try to get an executive job with a corporation by speaking like a rapper in the interview – but even those fixed standards are not fixed in time.  We try to grasp the language in its static entirety and we come up with…nothing.  Like trying to get your arms around a drifting mist.  (You can read about my own struggle with my inner language snob here)

Just as I finished Lynch’s book, I started Robb’s on the geography of France.  The first several chapters are devoted to the mind boggling linguistic diversity that was French culture up until WWI.  Like examining a block of steel at the atomic level and finding vast reaches of nothing instead of solid stuff to bang your head against, when you try to reach in and grab the French Nation, there is nothing but a stupefying mix of local patois, communes, castes, entirely separate languages, and hardly an awareness that this thing called France – What, where is it?  In Paris, you say? – exists.  What a hoot that is, to conceive of the French State, the gold standard of centralized cultural and political authoritarianism, as something of an illusion!

How different is this from other countries?  My guess is that it may be similar to the cultural history of Italy, Spain, or Germany, but certainly not most of the English-speaking world.  Didn’t England succeed in forcing it’s language pretty much over the Isles long before the 20th century, despite the tenacity of local accents and dialects?  Certainly, the royal center made its presence known by edict and sword pretty uniformly.

Intellectual effort is often seen as the striving for the general and universal over the particular and contingent.  But these two books comprise an argument for the opposite view.   What good is system building if it is based on doing violence to the facts?

The inevitable backlash

March 4, 2010

Creationists don’t understand science, but they are not stupid.  According to the NYTimes [link below], they are now latching on to the controversy over global warming to promote their faith-based agenda.  The AGW folks brought it on themselves.

I have often said that one of the worst effects of the polticization of the science by the AGW backers is that they setting us all up for a massive backlash against science.  Perhaps it has begun here.  Once you get evolution and religion mixed into it, there’s no way out.

The IPCC fans have helped bring this on by turning a scientific debate into a battle between “science” and deniers, flat-earthers, and so-called conspiracy theorists.  This view is tacitly accepted by the NYTimes as well, as evidenced by the article yesterday about the rear guard protective action the IPCC/AGW folks are trying to ginn up.  (Such know-nothing attitudes are part of the screaming, but not the substantive debate.)

For the record:

  • Creationism and Intelligent Design do not meet any criteria for consideration as scientific hypotheses.  They are notions rooted in religious faith. 
  • Evolution by mutation and natural selection is a well-founded scientific hypothesis that has been so well supported over generations that it is dignified with the designation of “Theory.”  (Theory does not mean guess, or hypothesis!  More at this post.)
  • Antropogenic global warming (AGW) is a plausible scientific hypothesis that has, I think, a very weak supporting body of evidence.
  • The sceptical view on AGW is not a theory or competing hypothesis:  It is simply a recognition that one should not be convinced by the AGW case.  The null hypothesis, that our climate system is very complex and shows many historical examples of rather wide variation remains in force.  In addition I would say that humans probably do have a noticeable impact on regional climate, but not necessarily or principally as a result of CO2 discharges.  This is a long-standing view of many climatologists and geographers.
The fact that creationists don’t accept the AGW view does not mean that those who don’t accept the AGW view are creationists.  The fact that many good critics of the IPCC are libertarians or politically conservative does not mean that one is a conservative or right winger for criticizing the IPCC.  Let’s keep politics and science separate, despite the ramblings of those deconstructionist philosophes.

Critics of evolution are gaining ground by linking the issue to climate change, arguing that dissenting views on both should be taught in public schools.