an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

the self and its brain: free will encore

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yeah, right

so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible – in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.

Victor Hugo, author’s preface to Les Miserables

Listening to the Skeptics’ Guide podcast for the first time in a while, I was excited by the reporting on a discovery of great significance in North Dakota – a gigantic graveyard of prehistoric marine and other life forms precisely at the K-T boundary, some 3000 kms from where the asteroid struck. All indications are that the deaths of these creatures were instantaneous and synchronous, the first evidence of mass death at the K-T boundary. I felt I had to write about it, as a self-learning exercise if nothing else.

But then, as I listened to other reports and talking points in one of SGU’s most stimulating podcasts, I was hooked by something else, which I need to get out of the way first. It was a piece of research about the brain, or how people think about it, in particular when deciding court cases. When Steven Novella raised the ‘spectre’ of ‘my brain made me do it’ arguments, and the threat that this might pose to ‘free will’, I knew I had to respond, as this free will stuff keeps on bugging me. So the death of the dinosaurs will have to wait.

The more I’ve thought about this matter, the more I’ve wondered how people – including my earlier self – could imagine that ‘free will’ is compatible with a determinist universe (leaving aside quantum indeterminacy, which I don’t think is relevant to this issue). The best argument for this compatibility, or at least the one I used to use, is that, yes, every act we perform is determined, but the determining factors are so mind-bogglingly complex that it’s ‘as if’ we have free will, and besides, we’re ‘conscious’, we know what we’re doing, we watch ourselves deciding between one act and another, and so of course we could have done otherwise.

Yet I was never quite comfortable about this, and it was in fact the arguments of compatibilists like Dennett that made me think again. They tended to be very cavalier about ‘criminals’ who might try to get away with their crimes by using a determinist argument – not so much ‘my brain made me do it’ as ‘my background of disadvantage and violence made me do it’. Dennett and other philosophers struck me as irritatingly dismissive of this sort of argument, though their own arguments, which usually boiled down to ‘you can always choose to do otherwise’ seemed a little too pat to me. Dennett, I assumed, was, like most academics, a middle-class silver-spoon type who would never have any difficulty resisting, say, getting involved in an armed robbery, or even stealing sweets from the local deli. Others, many others, including many kids I grew up with, were not exactly of that ilk. And as Robert Sapolsky points out in his book Behave, and as the Dunedin longitudinal study tends very much to confirm, the socio-economic environment of our earliest years is largely, though of course not entirely, determinative.

Let’s just run though some of this. Class is real, and in a general sense it makes a big difference. To simplify, and to recall how ancient the differences are, I’ll just name two classes, the patricians and the plebs (or think upper/lower, over/under, haves/have-nots).

Various studies have shown that, by age five, the more plebby you are (on average):

  • the higher the basal glucocorticoid levels and/or the more reactive the glucocorticoid stress response
  • the thinner the frontal cortex and the lower its metabolism
  • the poorer the frontal function concerning working memory, emotion regulation , impulse control, and executive decision making.

All of this comes from Sapolsky, who cites all the research at the end of his book. I’ll do the same at the end of this post (which doesn’t mean I’ve analysed that research – I’m just a pleb after all. I’m happy to trust Sapolski). He goes on to say this:

moreover , to achieve equivalent frontal regulation, [plebeian] kids must activate more frontal cortex than do [patrician] kids. In addition, childhood poverty impairs maturation of the corpus collosum, a bundle of axonal fibres connecting the two hemispheres and integrating their function. This is so wrong foolishly pick a poor family to be born into, and by kindergarten, the odds of your succeeding at life’s marshmallow tests are already stacked against you.

Behave, pp195-6

Of course, this is just the sort of ‘social asphyxia’ Victor Hugo was at pains to highlight in his great work. You don’t need to be a neurologist to realise all this, but the research helps to hammer it home.

These class differences are also reflected in parenting styles (and of course I’m always talking in general terms here). Pleb parents and ‘developing world’ parents are more concerned to keep their kids alive and protected from the world, while patrician and ‘developed world’ kids are encouraged to explore. The patrician parent is more a teacher and facilitator, the plebeian parent is more like a prison guard. Sapolsky cites research into parenting styles in ‘three tribes’: wealthy and privileged; poorish but honest (blue collar); poor and crime-ridden. The poor neighbourhood’s parents emphasised ‘hard defensive individualism’ – don’t let anyone push you around, be tough. Parenting was authoritarian, as was also the case in the blue-collar neighbourhood, though the style there was characterised as ‘hard offensive individualism’ – you can get ahead if you work hard enough, maybe even graduate into the middle class. Respect for family authority was pushed in both these neighbourhoods. I don’t think I need to elaborate too much on what the patrician parenting (soft individualism) was like – more choice, more stimulation, better health. And of course, ‘real life’ people don’t fit neatly into these categories, there are an infinity of variants, but they’re all determining.

And here’s another quote from Sapolsky on research into gene/environment interactions.

Heritability of various aspects of cognitive development is very high (e.g. around 70% for IQ) in kids from [patrician] families but is only around 10% in [plebeian] kids. Thus patrician-ness allows the full range of genetic influences on cognition to flourish, whereas plebeian settings restrict them. In other words, genes are nearly irrelevant to cognitive development if you’re growing up in awful poverty – poverty’s adverse affects trump the genetics.

Behave, p249

Another example of the huge impact of environment/class, too often underplayed by ivory tower philosophers and the silver-spoon judiciary.

Sapolsky makes some interesting points, always research-based of course, about the broader environment we inhabit. Is the country we live in more communal or more individualistic? Is there high or low income inequality? Generally, cultures with high income inequality have less ‘social capital’, meaning levels of trust, reciprocity and cooperation. Such cultures/countries generally vote less often and join fewer clubs and mutual societies. Research into game-playing, a beloved tool of psychological research, shows that individuals from high inequality/low social capital countries show high levels of bullying and of anti-social punishment (punishing ‘overly’ generous players because they make other players look bad) during economic games. They tend, in fact, to punish the too-generous more than they punish actual cheaters (think Trump).

So the determining factors into who we are and why we make the decisions we do range from the genetic and hormonal to the broadly cultural. A couple have two kids. One just happens to be conventionally good-looking, the other not so much. Many aspects of their lives will be profoundly affected by this simple difference. One screams and cries almost every night for her first twelve months or so, for some reason (and there are reasons), the other is relatively placid over the same period. Again, whatever caused this difference will likely profoundly affect their life trajectories. I could go on ad nauseam about these ‘little’ differences and their lifelong effects, as well as the greater differences of culture, environment, social capital and the like. Our sense of consciousness gives us a feeling of control which is largely illusory.

It’s strange to me that Dr Novella seems troubled by ‘my brain made me do it’, arguments, because in a sense that is the correct, if trivial, argument to ‘justify’ all our actions. Our brains ‘make us’ walk, talk, eat, think and breathe. Brains R Us. And not even brains – octopuses are newly-recognised as problem-solvers and tool-users without even having brains in the usual sense – they have more of a decentralised nervous system, with nine mini-brains somehow co-ordinating when needed. So ‘my brain made me do it’ essentially means ‘I made me do it’, which takes us nowhere. What makes us do things are the factors shaping our brain processes, and they have nothing to do with ‘free will’, this strange, inexplicable phenomenon which supposedly lies outside these complex but powerfully determining factors but is compatible with it. To say that we can do otherwise is just saying – it’s not a proof of anything.

To be fair to Steve Novella and his band of rogues, they accept that this is an enormously complex issue, regarding individual responsibility, crime and punishment, culpability and the like. That’s why the free will issue isn’t just a philosophical game we’re playing. And lack of free will shouldn’t by any means be confused with fatalism. We can change or mitigate the factors that make us who we are in a huge variety of ways. More understanding of the factors that bring out the best in us, and fostering those factors, is what is urgently required.

just thought I’d chuck this in

Research articles and reading

Behave, Robert Sapolsky, Bodley Head, 2017

These are just a taster of the research articles and references used by Sapolsky re the above.

C Heim et al, ‘Pituitary-adrenal and autonomic responses to stress in women after sexual and physical abuse in childhood’

R J Lee et al ‘CSF corticotrophin-releasing factor in personality disorder: relationship with self-reported parental care’

P McGowan et al, ‘Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse’

L Carpenter et al, ‘Cerebrospinal fluid corticotropin-releasing factor and perceived early life stress in depressed patients and healthy control subjects’

S Lupien et al, ‘Effects of stress throughout the lifespan on the brain, behaviour and cognition’

A Kusserow, ‘De-homogenising American individualism: socialising hard and soft individualism in Manhattan and Queens’

C Kobayashi et al ‘Cultural and linguistic influence on neural bases of ‘theory of mind”

S Kitayama & A Uskul, ‘Culture, mind and the brain: current evidence and future directions’.

etc etc etc

Written by stewart henderson

April 23, 2019 at 10:53 am

palestine 6 – the Nakba

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northern Israel, the long march to Lebanon, November 1948 – an Associated Press pic

On May 14 1948, Israel was unilaterally proclaimed as a nation by David Ben-Gurion, ending the British mandate in the region. US President Truman immediately recognised the new state in spite of the views of his predecessor, Roosevelt, who had argued that Arabs and other natives of the region should be consulted. According to the US ‘Office of the Historian‘: 

The British, who held a colonial mandate for Palestine until May 1948, opposed both the creation of a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine as well as unlimited immigration of Jewish refugees to the region. Great Britain wanted to preserve good relations with the Arabs to protect its vital political and economic interests in Palestine.

There’s no doubt some truth in this, but also by this time Britain was falling out of love with colonialism due to bitter and costly experience, and the post-war era experienced a re-emergence of general concern for oppressed people. 1948 was also the year of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, so it’s worth noting some of the Articles in light of the Palestinian situation:

Article 9: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 13 (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.
(2) Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Article 15 (1) Everyone has the right to a nationality.
(2) No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

These are just some of the articles being drawn up at the time which have direct relevance to what was going on in Palestine, and it seems odd that the US, so heavily involved in the Declaration, was not particularly attuned to that relevance. Nevertheless it’s clear that the USA has been for decades the staunchest ally of the Zionists, and its arms and support have been vital to Israel’s imposition of an apartheid state in the region.

Going back to 1947, Palestine was in a world of tension, and the UN plan for partitioning the region, described in the previous post, only made matters worse. Neither the Zionist nationalists nor the Palestinian Arabs were happy with British control, and both sides – but particularly the never-consulted Palestinians – were unhappy with the partition as defined. The wider Arab region was becoming increasingly sensitised to the issues, as a sense of Arab nationalism grew. At the same time, the revelations of the Holocaust created greater sympathy for the Zionist cause, particularly in the US. Within Palestine itself, atrocities were committed on both sides, tit-for-tat killings, finally escalating to the point of civil war as the British were reluctant to intervene. It seems the Arab side was most active in the initial stages, as the Zionists began to organise for the long term, with increasing support for the paramilitary Haganah, and Ben-Gurion’s plan to have all Jewish men and women perform military service. Arms for the Yishuv (the aspirational and Zionist Jews within the Palestinian Mandate) were effectively smuggled from Europe and other regions. Meanwhile, upheaval and economic insecurity in Palestine disproportionately affected the Arab population. The displacement of the Arabs, a feature of Zionist tactics from the beginning, rose sharply in this period, leading to later evacuations.

It’s impossible, in a small blog piece, or a limited series of posts, to do justice to the events of 1948, before and after the declaration of Israeli statehood. Needless to say, these events, variously described as the Nakba (catastrophe), the Palestine War, or the War of Independence/Liberation, all depending on allegiance, left a legacy which has never been dealt with and continues to fester. Things started ‘small’, with car bombings, house bombings, indiscriminate grenade attacks, riots, and the mining of railways causing the deaths of scores of Arab and Jewish civilians as well as British military personnel. In February-March 1948, the charismatic Arab leader Abd al-Qadir al-Husayni organised a successful blockade of Jerusalem, using a force consisting almost entirely of volunteers. Although this was a blow to the Jewish leadership and the Haganah, who lost most of their armoured vehicles in trying to relieve the blockade, the Zionists were always better-funded than the Arabs, and the situation on the ground generally was such that an increasing number of Arabs and non-Jewish Palestinians, especially of the middle class, fled the region, always hoping to return.

Over time both sides became more organised and militarised. The Haganah in particular became more active, effectively relieving the Jerusalem blockade in mid-April 1948. The death of al-Husayni in battle at this time profoundly affected Palestinian-Arab morale.

The surrounding Arab nations provided some troops but were insufficiently organised to make a decisive intervention. The situation became increasingly disastrous for the Arab population. Hundreds of Palestinian villages were sacked, and the major cities of the region became void of Palestinians. Numbers are always in dispute, but the monoculturalist ambitions of many (but not all) Zionists were essentially achieved, as some 80% of the Arab population no longer resided in the new state of Israel by the end of the war. Many of them had understandable hopes of returning after the situation had stabilised. It took some time for the Arab population to realise that ethnic cleansing was always the aim of the Zionist monoculturalists. Not that all Zionists were monoculturalists, but the moderates in Israel were outmanoeuvred by the hardliners, and have been in the seven decades since.

In any case, the chaos on the ground during the early period of the war, with Jewish retaliation becoming increasingly heavy-handed, and the commission of such atrocities as the Deir Yassin massacre, led to panic flights of Arab populations. Arguments still rage, of course, as to whether there was a clear-cut policy (outlined in Plan Dalet) of what we would today call ‘ethnic cleansing’, but it’s clear enough that the Palestinian flights fulfilled most Zionist desires, and they were certainly encouraged by Zionist psychological warfare. The Palestinian flight from the city of Haifa, for example, was ‘facilitated’ by Haganah’s Arabic language broadcasts calling on Palestinian inhabitants to (irony of ironies) ‘kick out the foreign criminals’, and to evacuate the elderly, women and children. But these were more than psychological ploys, as Haganah battalions attacking Haifa had orders to shoot every male Arab on sight and to burn down Palestinian houses wherever they found them.

David Ben-Gurion, the Israeli leader and new Prime minister, was clearly the architect of the Nakba, insofar as there was one. He was more than willing to flout UN directives, and he clearly considered that Israel had to be a homogenous Hebrew state. It’s a repeat, in many ways, of the colonial enterprise here in Australia and in the United States. You either kick out the original inhabitants or you neuter them through overwhelming power and violence. Yet this was happening in the twentieth century, after all we’d learned about colonial injustice, and at the very time that the world was formulating a Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Expulsion of Arab populations became more standard, and more brutal, as the war entered its final stages. There were also (e.g. the evacuation of Nazareth) cases of outright deception, reminiscent of the US government’s dealings with its native population in the 19th century. Ilan Pappé, the expatriate Israel historian, writes of this period:

In a matter of seven months, five hundred and thirty one villages were destroyed and eleven urban neighborhoods emptied … The mass expulsion was accompanied by massacres, rape and the imprisonment of men … in labor camps for periods of over a year.

The expelled Palestinians were mostly forced to live in refugee camps in surrounding countries, most notably Lebanon, where they were often subject to extreme restrictions, raids and massacres by forces allied to the Israeli government, as described, for example, in Tears for Tarshiha, by Olfat Mahmoud. Those who tried to return were often shot. The right of return is of course guaranteed by the UN, for what that is worth.

Writing about these events, and reading about them, is one of the most unpleasant and demoralising tasks I’ve ever undertaken. So this will be the last historical piece. Instead I will focus on heroines and heroes in the dark world of Israel/Palestine, many of them largely unsung. Most of them have suffered for their humanist outspokenness. Israel today is very close to the bottom of my list of countries worth visiting, and what is most exasperating is that telling the truth about it is likely to get you into big trouble even in Australia, if you happen to be a politician or a high profile intellectual. Luckily I’m neither, so I can write what I like. I’ll try my best to tell the truth – and the truth does have a habit of coming out eventually, though I strongly expect that the truth about Israel’s anti-democratic democracy will be a long long time in coming. I mean the global acceptance of the truth, which is currently accepted by only a tiny beleaguered minority.

Some reading

Tears for Tarshiha, by Olfat Mahmoud

Goliath, by Max Blumenthal

The case for Palestine, by Paul Heywood-Smith

The Last Earth: a Palestinian story, by Ramzy Baroud

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1948_Palestinian_exodus

Written by stewart henderson

April 17, 2019 at 8:06 pm

a discussion on scientific progress and scientism

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Pretty funny, but not much related to this post

Scientific progress depends on an expectation of continuous innovation, on encouraging an attitude of willingness to experiment, rejecting established authority of every sort, on the assumption that new experiments will bring out new realities and force us to revise our knowledge.’
Bruno Maçães, The Dawn of Eurasia

Discuss ‘scientific progress’ in the light of this statement.

Canto: This is very interesting. As a ‘fan’ (remembering that this word comes from ‘fanatic’) of scientific progress, an evidence junky, and also a humanist, I can see, and have experienced, a collision between the scientific process, which involves a respect for evidence rather than people, and the strongly held cultural/religious beliefs of people, which they hold fast to as identifying and solidifying principles. For example, the Aboriginal belief, handed down and taught, that their people have inhabited this land for eternity, while scientists are trying to determine precisely when the first home sapiens arrived here, and how old the continent of Australia actually is, given the pre-existence of Gondwana, Pangaea and the rest. 

Jacinta: A belief probably not held by that many Aboriginal people, most of whom have been educated in institutions that treat science seriously. That’s to say, more recent generations, and this is a problem everywhere – ‘established authority’ can also mean traditional beliefs and practices, even the old established language. The tribal language, the local language, being abandoned everywhere for more global forms of communication. 

Canto: Yes I read yesterday an essay topic about the growth of English as an international language, often as a person’s second or third language – and I recognised immediately that the essay was out of date as it stated that about 900,000 used English that way. It’s well over a billion now and rising fast. 

Jacinta: And the language of science is largely English – plus mathematics. It’s funny that there are actual scientific endeavours to preserve many of the 7,000 languages that exist in the world, while scientific communication relies largely on a universal single language…

Canto: Yes, and a person can feel that contradiction, that kind of tugging both ways, within themselves. Like following Scottish or Jewish traditions at times of celebration, enjoying the fun, and then thinking – why am I doing this? I don’t believe in first-footing or plate-breaking or whatever. 

Jacinta: People follow these traditions because they work, or at least they think so, but not always in the traditional way. And many such followers are well aware of this – that these activities don’t work as lucky charms so much as social glue. But that’s the trouble with glue – you get stuck. 

Canto: You’ve heard of the missionary who tried to Christianise the Andaman Islanders and was speared to death for his efforts? Most people’s responses were of the ‘serves him right’ type. But wasn’t that because the missionary was just trying to substitute one set of myths for another? If he was trying to introduce a new fishing method, or, I don’t know, something modernising and scientific…

Jacinta: We’ll have to get onto so-called ‘scientism’ at some stage, but here’s the thing. Maçães writes about ‘rejecting established authority of every sort’, and Richard Feynman apparently described science as belief in the ignorance of experts, but when we come upon, say, the Piripkura people of Brazil’s Mato Grosso, whose continued existence in the face of western diseases and cattle-raising gunmen we’re not even sure about, converting such people into scientific modernists who should question why they’re having difficulty surviving and adapting, seems very arrogant somehow. 

Canto: This is where humanism comes in, and it’s a fraught kind of humanism. Many would say – look, all these tribes will disappear, because their way of life is outdated and ‘in the way’, which doesn’t mean the people will disappear, they’ll gradually get absorbed into the broader population, modernised, urbanised, educated and homogenised into our diverse modern world. If they’re lucky enough not to die of disease and gunshot wounds. 

Jacinta: And their expertise in traditional hunting, gathering and fishing will be found to be not so much ignorant as obsolete within the mechanised world of food production and consumption. And this is happening everywhere, from the Limi of south-western China to the Bushmen of Botswana. Could it be said that they’re the victims of scientific progress? It’s hard to distinguish science and technology from other aspects of modernism I suppose, but this is the complex other face of science’s otherwise refreshing respect for innovation, experiment and evidence rather than ‘experts’, or just plain old people. 

Canto: So what do you think of ‘scientism’, which is I think a rather vague claim about the steamrolling arrogance of science, and what about the possibly self-destructive implications of relentless scientific advancement?

Jacinta: You know there might be something in the criticism, because as I try to get my head around the complexities of, say, electromagnetism, or neurological interactions, I find myself less drawn to some of my earlier loves, literature and the visual arts. I don’t know if that means I’m arrogantly dismissing them, but I do know they’re not engaging me in the old way. I find science more exciting, and maybe that’s dangerous…

Canto: In what way? 

Jacinta: Well, the motto of this blog is ‘rise above yourself and grasp the world’, but that kind of engagement – in something so large if not abstract as ‘the world’….

Canto: The world isn’t abstract – it’s everything. Everything found in time and space. It’s absolute reality. 

Jacinta: Well maybe, but that engagement in ‘everything’, it rather detaches you from the smaller world of the people around you, and – and yourself. Rising above yourself entails escaping from yourself and you can’t really do that, can you? 

Canto: The sciences of biology, neurology, genetics and so forth are the best ways of learning about ourselves. It all comes back to us in the end, doesn’t it? Our mathematical equations, our experiments, our discoveries of black holes, the Higgs boson, gravitational waves, they’re all about us, somehow. The things we do. And it seems it helps our understanding and sympathy. Science is about finding out things, like finding out about other people. The more we find out, the less we tend to dismiss or hate, or fear. Look at those who commit acts of terror. Surely ignorance plays a major role in such acts. A refusal or inability to find out stuff about others. A lack of curiosity about why people are different in the way they look and act. Science – or the scientific impulse, which is basically curiosity – opens us up to these things, so that we no longer hate or fear mosquitos or spiders or snakes or Christians or Moslems or Jews. 

Jacinta: Hmmm, so what’s the buzz about scientism? Let’s end this post by discussing a quote from an essay on scientism written for the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

It is one thing to celebrate science for its achievements and remarkable ability to explain a wide variety of phenomena in the natural world. But to claim there is nothing knowable outside the scope of science would be similar to a successful fisherman saying that whatever he can’t catch in his nets does not exist. Once you accept that science is the only source of human knowledge, you have adopted a philosophical position (scientism) that cannot be verified, or falsified, by science itself. It is, in a word, unscientific.

Canto: Well I’m not impressed with this argument, I must say, probably because I don’t agree with the implied definition of science it presents. Science, to me, is an activity, driven by curiosity, which provides dividends in the form of a greater knowledge which raises more and more questions. I rarely worry whether it’s the only source of human knowledge, because that raises the question of what ‘knowledge’ is, and I’m not so interested in that enquiry. Much more interesting to try and work out how life came from non-life, how our planet got covered in water, whether life of any kind exists elsewhere in the solar system, how different parts of the brain interact under particular circumstances, etc etc. I don’t know or care whether you call those enquiries ‘science’ or not, I only know that you won’t get answers to those questions by just sitting around thinking about them. I mean, you can start by thinking, forming a hypothesis, but then you have to explore, gather evidence, conduct experiments, test then modify or abandon your hypothesis…

Jacinta: I thought the ‘net’ analogy used in that quote was pretty inept. Of course it’s reminiscent of the old Kantian categories, the grid or net by means of which we know things, which separates the noumenal world of things in themselves from the phenomenal world of perception/conception. But Kant’s problem was that the noumenal world was just a hypothesis that couldn’t be tested, since we only have our perceptions/conceptions – enhanced somewhat by technology – with which to test things.

Canto: Probably another reason why so many scientists, especially physicists, seem dismissive of philosophers of science. Another problem with those that go on about scientism is that they insist that there are other ways of knowing, but you can rarely pin them down on what those ways of knowing are.

Jacinta: Yes they’re often religious or new-age types, and spiritual knowledge is their stock-in-trade. And if you don’t have that spirituality, which doesn’t need to be explained, then you’ll never understand, you’ll always be a shallow materialist. There’s no response to that view.

Canto: Yes, we’re obviously on the autism spectrum, though not so far along as real scientists. Meanwhile, let’s keep exploring…

Written by stewart henderson

April 15, 2019 at 9:27 am

a few thoughts on libertarianism

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Libertarianism is like Leninism: a fascinating, internally consistent political theory with some good underlying points that, regrettably, makes prescriptions about how to run human society that can only work if we replace real messy human beings with frictionless spherical humanoids of uniform density (because it relies on simplifying assumptions about human behavior which are unfortunately wrong). I don’t know who wrote this.

not quite

Aren’t libertarians a lovely lot?

I might look more closely at some libertarian philosophy later, but for now I want to critique the kind of standard libertarianism I’ve heard from politicians and bloggers.

Well, okay, I’ll start with a philosopher, Robert Nozick, whose much-vaunted/pilloried book Anarchy, State and Utopia I tried to read in the eighties. I found it pretty indigestible and essentially learned from others that his argument depended rather too much on one principle – the human right of individuals to certain positive and negative freedoms, but especially negative ones, like the right to be left largely alone, to make their own decisions for example about how to contribute to the greater good. The book ended up advocating for a minimalist state, in which everyone gets to create their own communities of kindred spirits, organically grown A cornucopia of utopias. The kind of state that, ummm, like, doesn’t exist anywhere. That’s the problem. Utopia is definable as a society that only exists in fantasy.

And then there’s the exaltation of the individual. This is the problem I’ve encountered with every libertarian I’ve read or viewed – and I’m quite glad I’ve rarely had any personal encounters with them.

If I did, here would be my response. Homo sapiens are the most socially constructed mammals on the planet. Language has massively facilitated this, and in turn has become our most powerful social product. Common languages have created civilisations, and this has allowed us to dominate the planet, for better or worse. And civilisation requires, or just is, organised social structure. That’s to say, a state, that eternal bogey-man of the libertarian.

This entity, the state, has shaped humans for millennia. Today, we owe (largely) to the state the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the education we’re hopefully still having, the jobs we’ve had and lost, the houses we live in, the cars we used to drive, and the good health we increasingly enjoy. That’s why, it seems to me, we owe it to ourselves to make the state we live in as good as we can make it, in terms of health, safety, opportunity, support, pleasure and self-improvement, for all its members.

It seems to me we have to work with what exists instead of trying to invent utopias – because, obviously, one person’s utopia is another’s nightmare. What exists today is a variety of states, some clearly better than others. The minimalist states are among the worst, and they’re understandably called failed states. There is no effectively functioning minimalist state on the planet, a fact that many libertarians blithely ignore. Their emphasis on individual liberty seems to me the product of either beggar-thy-neighbour selfishness or starry-eyed optimism about natural affinities.

Again, I turn to the USA, my favourite whipping-state. This hotbed of libertarians has not blossomed as it could, considering its booming economy. From this distance, it seems a sad and often stomach-turning mixture of white-collar fraudsters and chronically disadvantaged, over-incarcerated victims, and good people who largely accept this as the status quo. The you-can-achieve-anything mantra of the American Dream generally sees individuals as blank slates who can best fulfil their potential when pulled from the rubble of the coercive state. Or State, as many libertarians prefer.

It didn’t take my recent reading of Robert Sapolsky’s Behave, a superb overview of human behaviour and its multifarious and interactive underpinnings, or Steven Pinker’s earlier The Blank Slate, to realise that this was a dangerous myth. It was always screamingly obvious to me, from my observation of the working-class milieu of my childhood, the variety of skills my classmates displayed and the problems they faced from the outset, together with my readings of more privileged worthies and their patrician connections (Bertrand Russell on the knee of William Gladstone always comes irritatingly to mind), that there has never been anything like an even playing field for exhibiting and making the most of whatever qualities we’re gifted with or are motivated to cultivate and improve.

So this is the problem: we’re not free to undo what has been ‘done to us’ – the parents we have, the country (or century) we’re born in, the traumas and joys we’ve experienced in the womb, our complex genetic inheritance and so forth. All of these things are connected to a much wider world and a past over which we have no control. They shape us (into go-getting libertarians or bleeding-heart liberals or whatever) much more than we’re generally prepared to admit. And these shaping forces, since the emergence of civilisation and that sometimes messily organised unit called the state, are profoundly social. And even if we’re not talking about western civilisation it’s the same – it takes a village to raise a child.

These shaping forces aren’t necessarily bad or good, they just are. But all in all we should be glad they are. The social brain is the brightest, most complex brain, and such brains wouldn’t have developed if the individual was sacrosanct, in receipt of the right to be ‘left alone’. Civilisation is surely the most impressive achievement of human evolution, and as Ralph Adolphs of Caltech puts it, ‘no component of our civilization would be possible without large-scale collective behavior’. 

The state, of course, has its drawbacks, as do all large-scale multifaceted administrative entities. The ancient Greek city-states produced a host of brilliant contributors to their own esteem as well as to the world history of drama, philosophy, mathematics and history itself, in spite of being built on slavery and denying any equitable role to women, but even there the (probably few) slaves who worked in the most enlightened households would’ve benefitted from the collective, and the women, however officially treated, were surely just as involved and brainy as the men.

As society has grown increasingly complex we as individuals have grown in proportion, as have our individual delusions of grandeur. At least in some cases. What the best of us should have learned, though, is that a rich, diverse, dynamic society, which cannot but be organised, produces the best offerings to its children. Diminishing the state by refusing to contribute to it actually diminishes and impoverishes the self, diminishes connection and the recognition of collective value. This raises the rather large point that the self isn’t what most people think it is – an autonomous, self-actuated entity. Instead, it is driven by complex social inputs from the very start, indeed from long before it came into being. Just as events from long before a crow is born, or even conceived, will go a long way in determining how that adult crow behaves.

Yet the myth of the individual, autonomous self is a live one, and it’s what drives most libertarians. In so far as people see themselves as self-actualising, they will argue the same for others, and absolve themselves from responsibility for others’ failures, mistakes or incapacities. Such attitudes significantly play down disadvantages of background, and even reduce exposure to those differences. Since everyone has the choice to be as successful as me (according to my own measure of success), why should I waste time hanging out with losers? By that measure, to suggest that silver-spoon libertarians would willingly provide support to disadvantaged communities is as unrealistic as expecting Donald Trump to hang out with the construction workers on his trumpy towers.

In some respects, libertarianism represents the opposite pole to communism, on a continuum that stretches into complete delusion at both ends. There have never been any actual, functioning communist or libertarian states. Both are essentially abstract ideologies, which take little account of the science of evolved human behaviour. When we do take account of that science, we find it is fiendishly complex, with the individual as a unit being driven and shaped by social dependencies, connections and responsibilities, which are generally vital to that individual’s well-being. In western democratic societies, apart from family and workplace organisations, we have government, which includes, in Australia, councils, states and a federation of states. It all sound terribly complex and web-like, and some apparently see it as ‘the enemy of individual liberty’ but in fact it’s the web of civilised human life, which we’ve all contributed to creating, and it’s a pretty impressive web – though more impressive in some places than in others. I think the best thing we can try to do is to improve it rather than trying to extricate ourselves from it. In any case, doing so – I mean, removing ourselves from organised society – just won’t work, and fundamentally misunderstands the nature of our evolved humanity.

Written by stewart henderson

April 3, 2019 at 2:32 pm

towards James Clerk Maxwell: 1 – a bit about magnetism

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the terrell, or model globe, with which Gilbert conducted experiments

Canto: So what do you know about magnetism?

Jacinta: Well not a lot but I’m hoping to learn a lot. Some metals – but perhaps it’s only iron – appear to be attracted by other metals – or other bits of iron – so that they’re pulled together and are hard to pull apart, depending on the strength of the magnetism, which is apparently some kind of force. And I believe it’s related to electricity.

Canto: We shall learn more together. All this enquiry stems from a perhaps vague interest in James Clerk Maxwell, who famously connected electricity and magnetism in an equation, or a series of equations, or laws, with a great deal of mathematical sophistication, which I don’t have. Maxwell is hardly a household name in the way that Newton and Einstein are, but he’s undoubtedly revered among mathematical physicists. My own interest is twofold – I’d like to understand more about physics and maths in general, and – I’m Scottish, sort of. That is, I was born there and grew up among Scottish customs, though I’ve lived in Australia since I was five, and I always like to say that I haven’t a nationalist cell in my body. I’ve never waved a flag or sung any of those naff national anthems, and I have dual British/Australian citizenship only as a matter of convenience – and I suppose the more nations I could become a citizen of, the more convenient it would be. And yet. I’ve always felt ‘something extra’ in noting the Scottish contribution to the sciences and the life of the mind. James Hutton, Charles Lyell, James Watt, Adam Ferguson, David Hume and Adam Smith are names I’ve learned with a glimmer of unwonted or irrational pride over the years, though my knowledge of their achievements is in some cases very limited. And that limitation is perhaps most extreme in the case of Maxwell.

Jacinta: So we’ll get back to him later. There are good, easily available videos on all matters scientific these days, so I’ve looked at a few on magnetism, and have learned a few things. Magnetism apparently occurs when the atoms in a block of material are all aligned in the same direction, because atoms themselves are like tiny magnets, they’re polarised with a north and south pole, which I think has something to do with ionisation, maybe. Most materials have their atoms aligned in an infinity of orientations, with a net effect of no magnetism. Don’t quote me on that. The Earth itself is a gigantic magnet with a north and south pole. If it wasn’t, then the solar wind, which is a plasma of charged particles, would strip away the ozone that protects us from UV radiation. Because that field is sucked in at the poles, we see that plasma in the northern and southern latitudes, e.g. the northern lights. We now know that magnetism is essential to our existence – light itself is just a form of electromagnetic radiation (I think). But what we first learned about this stuff was pretty meagre. There were these rocks called lodestones, actually iron ore (magnetite), which attracted iron objects – swords and other tools of the iron age. What was this invisible force? It was named magnetism, after the region of Magnesia in what’s now modern Greece, where presumably lots of these lodestones were to be found. Early discoveries about magnetism showed that it could be useful in navigation…

Canto: But that wasn’t too early – there’s something of a gap between the discussions in Aristotle and Hippocrates and the 12th century realisation that a magnetic needle could be used for navigation. At least in Europe. The Chinese were well ahead in that regard. But I should stop here and say that if we’re going to arrive at Maxwell, it’s going to be a long, though undoubtedly fascinating road, with a few detours, and sometimes we might move ahead and turn back, and we’ll meet many brilliant characters along the way. And, who knows, we may never even arrive at Maxwell, and of course we shouldn’t assume that Maxwell is at the summit of all this.

Jacinta: So the first extant treatise on magnets was the Epistola de Magnete, by Petrus Peregrinus, aka Pete the Pilgrim, in 1269. It was described as a letter but it contained 13 chapters of weighty reading. The first 10 chapters apparently describe the laws of magnetism, a clear indication that such laws were already known. He describes magnetic induction, how magnetism can be induced in a piece of iron, such as a needle, by a lodestone. He writes about polarity, being the first to use the term ‘pole’ in this way – in writing at least. He noted that like poles repel and unlike poles attract, and he wrote of a south pole and a north pole. That’s to say, one end of a needle points north when given its head – for example when suspended in water. He also describes the ‘dry’ pivoted compass, which was clearly well in use by that time.

Canto: What he didn’t know was why a needle points north – actually magnetic north, which isn’t the same as the north pole – but close enough for most navigational purposes. He didn’t know that the Earth was a magnet.

Jacinta: On compass needles, there’s a neat essay online on how compasses are made. I’m not sure about how GPS is making compasses obsolete these days, but it’s a bit of a shame if it’s true…

Canto: So the next name, apart from the others, to associate with work on magnets was William Gilbert, who published De Magnete in 1600. This gathered together previous knowledge on the subject along with his own experimental work. One of the important things he noted, taken from the 1581 work The Newe Attractive, by Robert Norman, was magnetic inclination or dip, probably first noted by the Bavarian engineer and mathematician Georg Hartmann in the mid sixteenth century. This dip from the horizontal, either upward (steepest at the south pole) or downward (north pole) is a result of the Earth’s magnetic field, which doesn’t run parallel to the surface. Inspired by Norman’s work, Gilbert conducted experiments with a model Earth he made, concluding that the Earth was a magnet, and that its core, or centre, was made of iron…

Jacinta: Just how did he he work that out? Did he think that a bar magnet passed through the centre of the Earth from north to south pole?

Canto: I don’t think so, it’s probably more like he thought of Earth as a gigantic spherical lodestone with iron at its centre. It’s understandable that he would infer iron to be inside the Earth to make it magnetic, but he was the first to give a geocentric cause for the behaviour of compass needles – others had thought the attractive force was celestial. Interestingly, Gilbert was also a Copernican, in that he thought it absurd that the stars, which he believed to be vastly distant, revolved around the Earth. So he argued that the Earth turned, a view that got Galileo into so much trouble a few decades later.

Jacinta: Useful to be a Protestant in those times. Thank Dog for Henry VIII.

Canto: He also took an interest in what was later called electricity, though he didn’t consider it connected to magnetism. He built a versorium, the first electroscope, used to detect static electric charge. It was simply a metallic needle pivoted on a pedestal, like a compass needle but not magnetised. The needle would move towards a statically charged object, such as rubbed amber. In fact, Gilbert’s experiments strove to prove that static electricity was distinct from magnetism, which was an important development in early modern science.

Jacinta: I suppose we’re going to learn exactly what ‘static’ electricity is and how it fits in the over-all picture?

Canto: We shall try, though I shudder to think about what we’re embarking on here.

Jacinta: And I shudder to think about what cannot possibly be avoided – mathematics.

Canto: Well, yes, as we enter the 17th century, we’ll be encountering some great mathematical developments – with figures like Descartes, Pascal, Fermat, Liebniz and Newton all adding their weighty contributions to Galileo’s claim that nature is a book written in the language of mathematics.

Jacinta: Shit, I’m having a hard enough time trying to understand this stuff in English.

Canto: Hopefully it’ll be a great and rewarding adventure, and on the way we’ll learn about Coulomb’s inverse-square law, which is central to electrostatics. Meanwhile, it seems not much was added to our understanding of magnetism for a couple of hundred years, until Hans Ørsted’s more or less accidental discovery in 1819 that an electric current could create a magnetic field, by noting that a compass needle moved when placed near an electrified wire. Alessandro Volta had invented the voltaic pile, or battery, twenty years earlier, leading to a pile of electrical experiments in subsequent years.

Jacinta: But we’ll have to go back to the eighteenth century or beyond to trace developments in electricity before Ørsted’s finding brought the two fields together. And maybe we’ll look at the mathematics of
Charles-Augustin de Coulomb and others in the process. Let’s face it, we can’t progress towards Maxwell without doing so.

Canto: Tragic but true.

Written by stewart henderson

March 31, 2019 at 1:37 pm

women and power: China

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Members of the ‘feminist five’ take part in a 2012 protest against domestic violence in Beijing. Photo courtesy of Media Monitor for Women Network.

Jacinta: We missed the boat with International Women’s Day, 10 days ago as we start this post, because of some unfortunate personal events, but of course any time is a good time to write about women and power. I’ve marked the day in a little way by reading a book, Betraying Big Brother, by Leta Hong Fincher, about the uphill struggle feminists face in both defying and positively influencing the increasingly repressive macho dictatorship/oligarchy in China. So I want to talk about events there, and then maybe we can go on to talk about the global picture.

Canto: Yes, am I right in saying there’s never been a woman on the politburo?

Jacinta: Well I won’t go into the details of China’s political system here, but if you’re talking about the Standing Committee of the Politburo, which currently has seven members (the numbers have ranged from five to eleven), you’re right. The Politburo itself is a larger body, but female representation there and in the Communist Party is depressingly small – and it gets worse the further up the tree you climb. But I want to talk about the regular harassment of feminist activists, who by western standards are by no means extreme, and what it says about China’s all-male leaders and their weird attitudes. Betraying Big Brother tells a depressing but also inspiring story which centres around the arrest of five women as a result of events commemorating International Women’s Day (IWD) in 2015. The story gives us a glimpse into the power elite’s obsessions as well as how it tries to maintain power and why.

Canto: I think you mean ‘succeeds in maintaining power’. The ‘power elite’ as you call it seems to have, for the time being, forced down any threat of democratisation, and to have managed a lot of modernisation and a great deal of capitalist enterprise while actually tightening its stranglehold on power.

Jacinta: Well yes, but I try to be optimistic and to look to the long term. The Chinese diaspora, from which Betraying Big Brother springs, is one source of hope for the future. The five arrested women, Li Maizi, Wei Tingting, Wu Rongrong, Zheng Churan and Wang Man, were planning to hand out material protesting sexual harassment – on public transport – as part of IWD. They chose this issue – such harassment is apparently a real problem in China – precisely because it seemed less controversial than other issues confronting women. Nevertheless they were arrested – three in Beijing and in two other cities – for ‘creating a disturbance’.

Canto: The same term used by the Israeli government whenever any protests occur about the mistreatment of Palestinians.

Jacinta: However, the timing of these arrests, coinciding with IWD and with ‘preparations for Chinese president Xi Jinping to cohost a UN summit on women’s rights in New York to mark the 20th anniversary of Beijing’s World Conference on Women’*, couldn’t have been worse for the Chinese government. There was an international outcry, suffused with mockery, and we know how macho thugs hate being mocked.

Canto: Even more than they hate being told what to do? By women?

Jacinta: Well they released the women within a month, make of that what you will. It was probably due to international pressure. Saving face. But what I learned most from this story was how the Chinese dictatorship harasses its subjects in subtle and not so subtle ways. These women and many of their associates are now under constant surveillance, and receive regular visits from party sycophants checking their activities. These thugs harass the feminists’ parents, scolding them for not controlling their ‘little girls’. They harass their employers, their teachers, their associates. They insist that they’re the dupes of ‘hostile foreign forces’, a favourite and very telling phrase, worthy of an entire separate post. And yet this clamp-down has backfired, to an extent. The feminist five were unknown before their arrest, now they’re the Famous Five – but only in a small way, and more overseas than in China itself, due to their government’s overwhelming control of social and other media.

Canto: So why is the Chinese government so afraid of feminism? I get that it’s an all-male government, but women’s education is well supported there, and the Chinese women I’ve met – granted that they’re outside of China – seem pretty strong-minded and outspoken, if just as politically naive as their male counterparts (granted that I meet mostly young students). You’d think the government would have other priorities, and if there’s a real problem with sexual harassment, shouldn’t they support these women for highlighting the problem?

Jacinta: The Chinese leadership is obsessed with total control – they’ve sold their soul for it. At the moment, apparently, they’re trying to turn women into breeders. The one-child policy, their once-proud piece of social engineering, is currently seen as disastrous, so they’ve switched to a two-child policy, but women aren’t buying into it. So maybe that’s why there’s a bit of a war on women at present.

Canto: So if ‘sexual harassment’ leads to more women getting pregnant that’s a good thing? Yuk!

Jacinta: Well I don’t think it’s quite that crass, but they hate the idea of any decision coming from below rather than above. So they crush any ‘dissent’, take note of the complaint, and then act on it months or years later if they feel it’s in their interest. For example, last year they enacted a domestic violence law for the first time, and I’d like to think that feminist pressure, no doubt thoroughly suppressed over the years, has influenced that decision.

Canto: Not to mention hostile foreign forces, haha.

Jacinta: But they haven’t actually criminalised DV. It’s treated as a civil offence. Nor do they have any law criminalising marital rape – one of only ten countries in that category. And rape can lead to pregnancy, after all.

Canto: Why are they so obsessed with engineering the nation’s population? Imagine an Australian, or any other western government trying to do that. They’d be instantly ousted.

Jacinta: Maybe, but clearly this kind of social engineering has become more acceptable to the Chinese. Of course they’ve created different rules for the Han Chinese than for the Uyghur of north-west China and other minorities, a not-too subtle form of discrimination. There have been rumours, though, that the government plans to give up on child-control policies. That would be a good thing. Governments need to just deal with the decisions of their citizens. Currently, women are being forced to retire early (in China). This would force them into dependence on their husbands, if they have one. It just doesn’t accord with the fact that women there are more highly educated than ever before, and form an increasing percentage of the workforce. The Chinese are producing more and more of a particular resource – female competence, skill and know-how – and refusing to utilise it effectively. Then again, that doesn’t make China very much different from other countries…

Canto: But getting back to that one child/two child policy stuff, which really intrigues me – they’re trying to get their economy right for the future. Ageing population is bad, that’s the mantra. And yet, modern economies are changing. It’s more brain than brawn nowadays, more geared, arguably, to an older, more experienced and knowledgable population. And people in retirement don’t all sit and watch TV. They’re active members of the community, active within families, they spend money on travel and so forth.

Jacinta: Yes, but this sign that they might give up on social control in one area, the production of children, is a positive. They might recognise that trying to control other things like workforce participation might backfire on them. They don’t want to be blamed for things going wrong. In Australia, it’s not about forced retirement, but availability of the pension – it might be like that for China too. And that has been complicated by the rise of superannuation.

Canto: In any case, I don’t see any great changes, in a more liberal direction, as long as their current dictator holds the reins. And with the government’s firm control over social media, demonstrations like the one pictured above will continue to be sad, solitary affairs.

Jacinta: But they’ll continue to be staged, there will still be brave, self-sacrificing women, and they’ll continue to be supported, in China and overseas, in all sorts of hidden and not so hidden ways. They have right on their side after all.


Written by stewart henderson

March 24, 2019 at 9:54 am

random thoughts 1

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Ilhan Omar

Bogus claims of anti-semitism veil the real issue

It seems Ilhan Omar, a new member of the US congress, is getting a lot of stick over there because of some comments she made about the power and wealth of Jewish lobbyists, but she is surely correct. I’ve not followed this in detail, but I know enough to say that the US political process is very much a captive of these lobbyists vis-à-vis the treatment of Israel. I agree with Paul Heyward-Smith, an Australian supporter Of the Palestinian people, that what is happening in Israel today is worse than what was happening in South Africa under the apartheid system. Never did the white minority in that country seek to ethnically cleanse South Africa of its native non-white population. Zionist monoculturalism is contrary to all the humane values of modern western culture.

hard times for feminists in China – their government rarely allows any demonstrations

On speaking the language of hostile foreign powers

As part of their harassment of feminist activists in China, feminists are regularly interrogated by MSS thugs as to what ‘hostile foreign powers’ they are working for or in collaboration with. This regular, automatic conjoining of ‘hostile’ and ‘foreign’ speaks volumes for the mindset of the current political elite. It speaks to the attempted inculcation of a xenophobic nationalism, at a time when the Chinese nouveaux riche are travelling more widely than ever before, and their children are learning English – in China – from the age of 4 or 5. Yet English is virtually never spoken in the country. So why bother to learn a ‘hostile foreign language’? It seems there’s something in the international power and reach of that language that the Chinese, or at least their government, wants to utilise, in its muddled or maybe not so muddled way, for its own expansionist ends.

women, Afghanistan

a world turned upside-down

Currently some 14% of the world’s political leaders are women – or is it 14 out of the 190 or so leaders? No matter, women are vastly in the minority, in politics and in business. Maybe less so in science and academia, but probably not much less so. Men dominate. So what if the world were turned upside-down and men were vastly in the minority in all these fields? It isn’t crazy to consider this counterfactual any more than it’s crazy to see our social world as it is. Would the world be a better place? It would surely be very different. And maybe the time is coming, or has come, for this difference to begin to appear. We’ve achieved dominance of the biosphere, now it’s time for a better collaboration with its other inhabitants. Women are no less smart, inventive and competitive, and it all depends in any case on context and social positioning, the best environment for blossoming. In general, women form groups more naturally and readily, sharing ownership of goals and production. A woman’s world would be calmer, less volatile, more supportive. I feel sad that I’ll never be able to experience it.

Written by stewart henderson

March 20, 2019 at 8:41 pm