In Praise of Books Unread (Part 1)

Every year I tell myself I should read more. And for the last couple of years I’ve turned that perpetual resolution into a public self-shaming by going onto http://www.goodreads.com and setting myself an ominous goal of reading 104 books, or 2 a week. I only count the books that I read cover to cover. Somehow, counting the half-finished ones feels dirty – a bit like cheating at solitaire.

I maintain a steady pace in the first few bleak and cabin-fevered months of the year, but the irresistible debauchery and heat-strokes of summer inevitably slow things down. Come November, I take a look at my faltering progress and immediately set about reading all the short and/or illustrated books I can get my hands on. It’s a ridiculous perversion of my true ambitions, but then again so are most of the things I do in my spare time.

For the record, even with those desperate last-minute attempts to pad my numbers, I only finished 60 books in 2013. Barely halfway there, but an improvement over the previous year’s total of 48.

ImageBut this post is about the nagging matter of the books that I don’t finish. Because I try to read widely, I inevitably stumble across a real stinker from time to time. For the most part, like Kurt Cobain might say as a reincarnated librarian, books don’t burn out, they fade away. Rather than being truly awful, most books I don’t finish are just bad enough to make reading them a chore, but not so bad as to make them laughable from the first pages.

Giving up on a book isn’t always a noble decision, but every man has his breaking point. Often, slogging through even half a book is better than never starting, and especially so with non-fiction.  After all, for every book that is mediocre or worse, there is at least one implicit lesson to be learned: what makes a book lousy. And as the cliché goes, you need the bad to appreciate the good. Experiencing an author make an attempt and fail is the most jarring reminder of how much effort and attention a skillful piece of writing actually entails.

What follows is a tip of the toque to a few of the books I couldn’t not put down, and the lessons I learned all the same.

1. Wired for War by Peter W. Singer.

ImageBoys love killing-machines. Guns, tanks, attack helicopters, bombers, aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, fighter jets, and pointy rocks are all bad-ass – just ask any 13 year old kid who’s never had the bad luck of being targeted or maimed by such technological wonders. In fact, you could also just ask Peter W. Singer himself, whose previous book was about the always cheerful subject of child soldiers. Although I haven’t read it, I suspect it was written with a good deal more sobriety and humility than this, his latest book.

Wired for War is about drones and robots, and specifically those being developed and deployed by the U.S. military and its various defense contractors. With a more sophisticated vocabulary, Singer does his best to emulate the boyish and near-universal enthusiasm for war I mentioned above.

While there is nothing unambiguously wrong with a celebration of technology or a little feel-good military pride, there is something very off-putting about P. W. Singer’s tone from the early pages. Obviously, the technology he describes is some of the most advanced in the world. There are robots that can walk effectively on four legs, that can defuse all manner of bombs, that can slink into confined spaces and fire on enemies, that can circle over a target for hours and target individual victims. These are all terribly impressive, I agree, but Singer can’t seem to catch his breath after his heady introduction.

And therein lies the problem. These aren’t blenders or dialysis machines – they’re extremely effective weapons. Perhaps it is obvious to note that Singer is himself American and therefore counts himself among the minority of people on Earth who stand to benefit most from drones’ force-reduction and ‘life-saving’ capabilities. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that he’s not Pakistani or Yemeni, but I don’t think we can separate Singer’s nationality from the Orwellian twist of language of labelling ‘life-saving’ a machine that kills more effectively than a soldier.

Since Wired For War came off the presses in 2009, we have learned in considerable detail that drones can and will be used to kill where it would otherwise be impossible. In situations where political, military, legal, or financial constraints would make targeted killings by the U.S. government unworkable, drones have famously reaped victims and preyed on civilians. Loaded words, to be sure, but then again the drones in use must be called Reaper and Predator for a reason.

ImageIn fairness to Singer, he wrote his book in relatively early days and had limited access to information about what would ultimately come of the U.S. drone programs. Much of this information, of course, was not freely divulged but rather leaked by various whistleblowers and journalists, namely Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald.

As it turns out, President Obama is a particularly intrepid drone user. It’s a jarring reality that the man who seemingly ran on a platform of ending wars in the Middle East and seeking dialogue with unfriendly nations first ordered drone attacks just three days after taking office.

He maintained that steady pace and has so far authorized strikes that tally approximately 2,400 deaths to date, among them approximately 600 civilians.* Even more grim is the likelihood that whomever his unfortunate successor might be, he or she will not hesitate to keep up the tempo of attacks, if not increasing it.

But my qualm with Singer is not that he isn’t clairvoyant. He quite sensibly dedicates several pages to the problems of abuse and war crimes committed by robots, albeit they are buried several hundred pages deep and in no way constitute a central thesis of his book. Nor is my biggest contention his cheeky style as I mentioned above. A review from MTV on the hardcover edition that praises the use of his ‘fanboy’ lexicon partly prepared me for that, along with section titles like “Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy” and “Mad Skillz”.

To me the most overarching flaw of this book is the type of pop-journalism that is increasingly prevalent in the modern news media. Stylistic missteps and nationalistic chest-beating aside, his greatest fault in this book is the pursuit of neutrality rather than objectivity. Singer falls into the all-too-common trap of journalistic laziness.

Throughout the book he repeatedly slips into the dialectic style of laying out a potential problem followed up with a possible technical fix. A typical pattern: ‘One the one hand, we are killing a ton of civilians and terrorizing populations with the constant presence of drones overhead, but on the other hand advances in Artificial Intelligence will help us make better combat decisions in the future’.

I’m mocking him, but it’s not a far stretch from the genuine article. A more journalistic and less jingoistic tone would rightfully emphasize that until we find a fix, people are going to be wrongly targeted, along with devastating political effects among targeted populations.

Singer also addresses the known and foreseen problems with drone warfare serially, instead of summarizing how factors might compound and feed each other. The runaway logic of escalating weapons systems warrant great attention. Sure, the U.S. has all the best drones now, but let’s see how things look in twenty years. If you read a somber book about, say, nuclear weapons, you will find little of this ‘fanboy’ enthusiasm. There’s a reason Pulitzer-Prize winner Richard Rhodes called his book about the nuclear arms race Arsenals of Folly. Some future look back at this subject matter will likely make use of far more somber language.

A journalist writing a book should synthesize and use their wisdom. Instead, Singer merely documents current trends in a pro-versus-con, back-and-forth format with an unmistakable and at times inappropriate enthusiasm for the home team.

———————-

*http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/2014/02/03/january-2014-update-us-covert-actions-in-pakistan-yemen-and-somalia/

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

POLITICAL PROPHECY, HOT AND STEAMING.

My generation doesn’t vote too much. That, and our votes are washed out by the older generations. Eventually, of course, that won’t be the case. What might this mean for Canada?

Luckily for you all, I can easily make a prediction. My methodology is based on rigorous models premised on everyone my age being at least as shallow and narcissistic as I am. We uniformly watch shitty TV and read trashy blogs. We are lumpy and yet loving. And so, without further life-wasting words of no general or specific importance, I refer you to my official political prognostication:

Justin Trudeau Will Destroy All Mortals Who Oppose Him (or, WIN)  In The Federal Election.

10 Reasons:

  1. Last Name
  2. Handsome Face
  3. So Much French
  4. Ever-Changing Hair
  5. There’s Really Only Nine Reasons.
  6. LEGALIZING MARIJUANA
  7. Trim body and photogenic mate and offspring
  8. Ceaseless media comparisons to his father, which works nicely to both fill the time and to re-use some if that ol’ dirty P.E.T. copy from the 60s with absolutely no royalties, baby.
  9. That time that he beat the shit out of a native guy who would later go on to push his wife down the stairs ALLEGEDLY. This has more than a passing to resemblance to the plot of Minority Report, with Trudeau in the non-Scientological role of Tom Cruise.
  10. Just think about what you JUST READ. First, the unstoppable force of a cheesy political tsunami blasting Canada in the face with its foamy aggression. Mixed metaphors alone cannot capture the devastating fate of Stephen-I-oppose-getting-high-Harper. We think of Chrétien as a God because he once throttled a protester. We call his iron grip the Shawinigan Handshake. Justin Trudeau once literally beat a man into submission who turned out to be a wife beater. ON TV.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Welp, I Tried to be Serious.

There’s a book called Quirkology by a Wiseman. I mean that literally – he’s Richard Wiseman. He writes about the oddities of psychology in a charming style that I highly recommend.

Today, out of the blue, one study he wrote about came rushing – nay, surging – into my brain. It concerned the powers of our given names and how they might affect the shape of our lives.

To steal a synopsis from the author’s website (my personal copy is on loan to another private collection):

People’s surname may influence their choice of career, with real life examples including music teachers Miss Beat and Miss Sharp, a sex counsellor named Lust, Peter Atchoo the pneumonia specialist, a firm of lawyers named Lawless and Lynch, private detectives Wyre and Tapping, and the head of a psychiatric hospital, Dr. McNutt

Who else but poor old Anthony Weiner could trigger this unfortunate association?

Anthony Weiner, the former Democratic Congressman and current candidate for Mayor of New York City has a problem. It’s an acute problem: he cannot but help to send pics of his dics to any bored 22 year old in a chat-room. He seems literally incapable of stopping and his wife is kind of just over it. She knows he’s a little pervert but, then again, she’s probably got something on the side too.

The fact that this timeline even exists and he stays in the race, for now even in a slight lead, proves that Weiner is a politician with few peers:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2013/07/24/nyregion/weiner-scandal-timeline.html

If politicians can diffuse their unsavoriness in ways that basically don’t affect me like that, I’m happy.  It’s when they need to broadcast the medical fact that they have a penis in a different way, with more unpleasant manifestations that bothers me.

So onward and upward Mr. Weiner, and don’t pull out of the race, and so on and so forth-skin.

For you truth-seekers out there I also propose a simple moral of this story:

Truth can always be more cruel and hilarious than anything in fiction.

Editor’s Note: I know this has nothing to do with ‘Philosophy’, and is arguably not fit material ‘for humans’ either. And yet, here it is. At least I worked in the title of a book at the beginning.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Entire Universe, As Copied-And-Pasted From Wikipedia

Greetings humans.

Faithful readers will note that there is considerably more cursing around here lately. I should fucking hope so. See, if I’m avoiding swearing, that means I’m caught up in a very urgent form of self-restraint. Blasphemy and scatology are linguistic delights and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise in the written word. In fact, be wary of he who does not swear.

The premise of this endeavor is that anyone can write anything, provided they are relegated to some ill-traveled back-corner of the internet. Faint, ominous banjo music is overheard. It is humid. Why is my skin so sticky? Why isn’t my heat activated deodorant activating? Why am I still reading this series of peculiar questions?

Anyhow, enough with the whimsy. The reason I have brought you all hear today is because I suspect that like me, many of you had rough time integrating history in school. Let me explain.  It’s not that I didn’t understand the stories that history teachers told us. For the most part, teachers put together nice little narratives about the past.  They may not hold much water, but you can still get your toes wet.

The problem for me was that all these narrative sequences are hard to stitch together. I mean how the fuck do you mesh Mastodons and Marconi in a coherent theory of the past? How does one thing lead to another?

I know that in Ontario, at least when I was a student, history was mostly taught in chronological order. From memory, kindergarteners learned about dinosaurs, 4th graders learned about early peoples in the Americas, 8th graders learn about the 1800s and so forth until its grade 12 you’re getting slapped in the face with the Holocaust and Rwandan Genocide and then off you go.

Maybe it’s all too much to take in at the first pass, but teaching methods can still be improved.  The rote memorizing of of presidents and prime ministers and kings and heroes obscures the more fluid swirls of human events.

It’s hard to get too subtle when teaching high school kids about long-dead Europeans, I concede on behalf of my former adolescent self. So here are some particulars of history you might find interesting, in one particular order:

Will’s TIMELINE of mostly EVERYTHING

( a work in progress)

BCE

25 000  – Ceramic
15 000  – Domestication of the dog in East Asia
11 000  – Climate effects from last Ice Age
– Pottery
10 000 – Domestication of the goat in Iran
– Domestication of the sheep in Southwest Asia
9800 – Domestication of wheat
9500 – Granary in Jordan
9000 – Bows and Slings
– Domestication of the pig in China
8000 – Domestication of the cow in India, Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa
7500 – Domestication of the cat in the Near East
7000 – Wine in China
6800 – Domestication of rice in Southeast Asia
6000 – Domestication of the chicken in India and Southeast Asia
4000 – Domestication of the horse (though in 2500 BC for sure)
– Domestication of the dromedary in Arabia
– Domestication of the honey bee
– Wine in Egypt
– Yeast in bread in Egypt
– Wheel
3500 – Writing Systems
– Domestication of the llama in Peru
3300 –  Bronze
3000 – Sugar in India
– Domestication of the silkworm in China
– Domestication of the rock pigeon
2000 – Chariot
1700 – Windmills in Babylon
1500 – Iron
1400 – Steel
1000 – Domestication of the duck in China
– Glass in Greece and Syria
753 – Foundation of Rome
691 – Aqueduct in Iraq
450 – Empedocles proposes classical elements theory
440 – Leucippus and Democritus propose the existence of atoms
429 – Plato Born
420 – Hippocrates creates the Hippocratic Oath
400 – Catapult
386 – The Academy
347 – Plato Dies
250 – Erasistratus distinguishes between cerebrum and cerebellum
44  – Julius Caesar assassinated

CE

105 – Cai Lun invents paper in China
200 – Horseshoes in Germany
300 – Toothpaste in Egypt
312 – Constantine converts to Christianity
350 – Crystallized Sugar
570 – Muhammad born
632 – Muhammad dies
700 – Quill Pen
1215 – Magna Carta
1242 – Ibn an-Nafis pioneers circulation theory
1450 – Johann Gutenberg invents the movable type press
1455 – Gutenberg Bible
1473 – Nicolaus Copernicus born
1490 – Martin Behaim invents the globe
1500 – Leonardo Da Vinci invents scissors and the ball bearing
1514 – Copernicus first states his heliocentic theory
1517 – Martin Luther and the Reformation
1535 – Lima, Peru is founded by Francisco Pizarro
1540 – The Jesuits
1543 – Copernican Challenge to Geocentrism
1564 – Galileo Galilei born
1565 – Rio De Janeiro is founded
1582 – Gregorian Calendar introduced
1600 – Giordano Bruno burned alive for heresy
1608 – Hans Lippershay invents the telescope
1609 – Hans Lippershay invents the microscope
1615 – Jean Beguin invents the chemical equation
1619 – Johann Kepler models planetary motion
1633 – Galileo tried¨before the Inquisition
1642 – Galileo dies
Meditations on First Philosophy – Rene Descartes
1643 – Isaac Newton born
1666 – Isaac Newton proposes gravitation
1692 – Salem witch trials
1698 – Thomas Savery invents the steam engine
1727 – Isaac Newton dies
1793 – Eli Whitney invents the cotton gin
1794 – France abolishes slavery
1795 – Metric System
1798 – Edward Jenner invents the vaccination
– Thomas Malthus: An Essay on the Principle of Population
1808 – John Dalton pioneers modern atomic theory
– Jöns Jakob Berzelius proposes chemical notation, atomic weight
– Charles Darwin born
– U.S. bans import of slaves
1809 – Nicolas François Appert invents canning
– Lamarck proposes inheritance of acquired characteristics
1810 – Bolivar in South America
1816 – Bicycle
1818 – James Blundell performs first blood transfusion
1825 – Hans Christian Orsted produces aluminum
1827 – William Prout determines three groupings of biomolecules
1826 – Samuel Morey invents the internal combustion engine
– Karl von Baer discovers location of mammalian egg
1828 – Friedrich Wöhler disproves the theory of vitalism by synthesizing urea
1834 – Jacob Perkins invents the refrigerator
1835 – Samuel Colt invents the revolver
– U.S. National Debt at $0
1836 – Battle of the Alamo
1839 – Charles Goodyear invents vulcanized rubber
1840 – Germain Hess proposes early version of the Law of conservation of Energy
1844 – Telegraph
1848 – Lord Kelvin discovers absolute zero
– Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: The Communist Manifesto
1849 – Antonio Meucci invents the telephone
1852 – Léon Foucault invents the gyroscope
1856 – William Perkin synthesizes dye
1858 – Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace propose evolution by natural selection
– Rudolf Virchow proposes cell theory
1859 – Edwin L. Drake invents the oil drill
– Charles Darwin: Origin of Species
1861 – U.S. Civil War begins
1862 – Louis Pasteur and Claude Bernard invent pasteurization
1863 – Henry Ford born
1865 – U.S. Civil War ends
1866 – Alfred Nobel invents dynamite
– Gregor Mendel publishes paper on inheritance
– KKK
1867 – Trans-Atlantic cable
1870 – Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch advance the germ theory of disease
1871 – Charles Darwin: the Descent of Man
1876 – Alexander Graham Bell invents the loudspeaker
1877 – Emile Berliner invents the microphone
1879 – Vaccine for Cholera
1880 – John Milne invents the seismograph
1881 – Vaccine for Anthrax (Louis Pasteur)
1882 – Vaccine for Rabies (Louis Pasteur)
1883 – Charles Fritts invents the solar cell
– Karl Marx dies
1885 – King Léopold II of Belgium makes the Congo his possession
1886 – Gottlieb Daimler invents the gasoline engine
1892 – Sierra Club
– General Electric
1893 – Nikola Tesla invents the radio
1895 – Rudolf Diesel invents the diesel engine
1898 – Nikola Tesla invents the remote control
J’Accuse! –  Emile Zola
1900 – Ernest Rutherford discovers nature of radioactivity
1902 – Willis Carrier invents the air conditioner
1903 – Orville and Wilbur Wright invent powered, controlled flight
– Ford Motor Company
1908 – Model T
1912 – First military use of airships (Italy vs. Turkey)
1915 – Albert Einstein proposes the Theory of Relativity
1919 – League of Nations.
– Fascist Party in Italy (Benito Mussolini)
1921 – Frederick Banting and Charles Best discover use of Insulin
1923 – Vaccine for Diphtheria
1924 – IBM
1926 – Vaccine for Pertussis
1927 – Vaccine for Tuberculosis
– Vaccine for Tetanus
– Werner Heisenberg develops the uncertainty principle
1928 – Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin (thus inventing antibiotics)
1929 – Mother Teresa arrives in Calcutta
1930 – Cow rides, is milked in plane for first time (Elm Farm Ollie)
1932 – James Chadwick discovers the neutron
1935 – Vaccine for Yellow Fever
1936 – Last Known Tasmanian Tiger dies
–  Hoover Dam
1938 – Otto Hahn discovers fission in uranium and throrium
– Oil discovered in Saudi Arabia
1940 – Discovery of echolocation in bats (Max Delbruck and Salvador Luria)
1946 – United Nations
– League of Nations ends
1947 – International Standards Organization
– International Monetary Fund
1949 – George Orwell: 1984
1953 – Structure of DNA
– Joseph Stalin dies
1955 – Soviet Union ends state of war with Germany
1957 – Sputnik
1958 – Pope Pius XII unveils the patron saint of television
1959 – Structure of Hemoglobin (Max Perutz)
– Cuban Revolution
– Avro Arrow scrapped
– Barbie
1960 – CPR (medicine)
– Structure of Myoglobin (John Kendrew)
– Albert Camus dies
1961 – Vietnam War begins
– OPEC
1962 – Oral Vaccine for Polio
1964 – Vaccine for Measles
1966 – Palomares hydrogen bomb incident
1967 – Vaccine for Mumps
– State of Israel
– Outer Space Treaty
1969 – Moon Landing
– Boeing 747
1970 – Vaccine for Rubella
1971 – Federico Faggin and Marcian Hoff invent the microprocessor
– Ray Tomlinson invents e-mail
– Idi Amin becomes president of Uganda
– Sea Bed Treaty
1972 – Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge propose punctuated equilibrium
1975 – Fall of Saigon
1977 – Cray-1 Supercomputer
1979 – Islamic Revolution in Iran
1980 – Iran-Iraq War begins
1982 – Stanley B. Prusiner proposes the existence of prions
1985 – Hezbollah
1988 – Iran-Iraq War ends
1989 – Exxon Valdez Disaster
– Ali Khamenei in power
1990 – Hubble Space Telescope
– Reunification of Germany
1991 – Gulf War
1994 – NAFTA
– Rwandan Genocide
1995 – First published genome
1996 – Dolly
1998 – Liquid water discovered on Europa
2001 – First drafts of the Human genome
2002 – First virus “from scratch”
– SARS
2003 – U.S. Invasion of Iraq
– International Criminal Court

Video | Posted on by | Leave a comment

On Pope Francis I

Disclaimer: I know practically nothing about the outer workings – much less the inner ones – of the Catholic Church. What follows is rampant speculation.

New Argentine Pope, clocking in at a spry 76. Seems friendly enough, none too spastic on camera. First impression was a solid 7/10, which is high for a pope, believe me. Ratzinger won me over like a fart from a Crohn’s patient. Didn’t take five minutes after Ratzinger became pope that everyone’s whispering he’d been a member of the Hitler Youth. At least it set the bar low for the poor guy.

The new guy doesn’t have any doozies like that. Yet. Sure he’s anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion, and anti-contraception – but don’t say he isn’t any fun! He likes to ride the subway to work in Buenos Aires, as if it were some chore compared to driving in the crowded the streets. Apparently we’re also supposed to know that he’s once gone about kissing the feet of AIDS patients. I don’t want to spend any more time thinking about how I feel about that than I already have – that one’s a total moral coin-toss for me. But what’s more, and I really can’t emphasize how lucky this one is: nary an allegation of diddling abounds.  The guy’s clean, if the last 12 hours are anything to base it on.

So what does it all mean? As a guy who’s amazed the whole thing doesn’t implode on itself, I can truthfully say this:

Today the Catholic Church undid the Benedict Blooper by appointing a congenial and consistently smiling man, adorned in the finest cloths and be-shoed with the finest red shoes, into the top religious position on Earth. Today’s overall global aftertaste was PR neutral, and probably even a full semi-chub positive. We got a decent 90 minutes of smoke-to-pope suspense and the payoff didn’t make us all feel too stupid for watching.  No gaffes, no immediate scandals, and the new guy looks like someone you might actually want to take advice from on some matters, provided such matters are in no way related to your genitals.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Book Review: To Click Everything Save Here by Evgeny Morozov

For the last few weeks, Google has been ginning up their characteristic brand of media-fueled hyperventilation among us mere mortals. This time it’s for Google Glass – the so-called ’augmented reality’ headset that basically superimposes a voice-activated smartphone in the top right-hand corner of your field of view and thus integrates Google into your lived experience more closely than ever before.

As someone who already wears glasses of the decisively low-tech variety, much of the excitement related to wearing an object across one’s forehead was doomed to be lost on me. Further, as someone who is already annoyed by how much time we all spend gawking at screens instead of the un-augmented reality that lays before us, I was left feeling disconcerted with the notion that in the future I won’t even be able to tell when I’m boring my interlocutor to the point of driving them to their cell phones.

Soon we’ll all be making “eye-contact” while secretly playing Farmville and sifting through and endless pornography. Now how are we supposed to signal to others such key sentiments like ‘boy, it’s getting late’ or ‘dear god, please wrap-up this unending anecdote’?

Finally, if it wasn’t confusing enough seeing people talking on their Bluetooth headsets like full-blown schizophrenics, imagine if it becomes as obnoxious as IBM predicted in the late 1990s with this TV spot:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xuk5ED5szSA

Now, it’s easy to mock these newfangled inventions. I’m sure in a hundred years words like mine will seem as quaint as those from a hundred years prior who fretted about the destructive effects of the telegraph or the radio. Technology marches inexorably forward, and it takes an ignorant Luddite not to see the value of such advances.

There’s an impulse in our high-tech industrial culture, with all our Enlightenment baggage in tow, to dismiss the hyperbolic concerns of technological naysayers.  But indeed there is a timeless characteristic of what our best naysayers do.

Recall Aesop’s fable of the Grasshopper and the Ant. It is summer and the Ant is diligently preparing for the hard winter ahead while the lazy Grasshopper lounges about, chuckling to himself as the Ant scurries too and fro. Come winter, of course, the Grasshopper is woefully unprepared and comes begging to the Ant for some scraps of food. The Ant declines to help the Grasshopper and before we know it, a lesson has been learned.

I think it’s safe to say we are in the summer of Google. For that matter, it’s the summer of Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Reddit, Twitter, Amazon, Ebay and dozens of other such websites/companies. We all sign up for free accounts and benefit from the easy one-click solutions brought to us by the well remunerated geniuses in Silicon Valley. But what if we are Grasshoppers, who amuse ourselves in the heat, ignoring what the Ant has been clamoring to say.

Evgeny Morozov does us the unpopular service of nay-saying in his newest book titled, tongue-in-cheek, Click Here To Save Everything.  Like the carefree Grasshopper, many of us sit about while characters like Morozov do the Ant’s work. He warns us not in Apocalyptic terms about the dangers of Google. He does not get red in the face ranting about privacy or greed or censorship.

Image
No, the hard work he is doing is to force us to reconsider what happens when the solutions we fetishize pose problems of their own. Morozov forces us to reconsider the adverse consequences of relying on search to remember everything, to use Facebook to recall our friends’ birthdays, of allowing algorithms to recommend our next reads on Amazon, and so forth.

The hard work he does in his book is to ask us to consider another world where we are forced to conceptualize problems holistically. What do we lose when we benefit from these technologies? What deeper reality underlies the superficial ‘problems’ that these companies aim to solve?

Of course, I use Google all the time. I’m writing these words into Google Documents, and filling the gaping holes in my general knowledge and vocabulary with Google Search. It’s easy to mock things like Google Glass, but it takes a more perceptive mind to question those services that we now consider invaluable, and indeed inevitable.

With a deeply democratic passion, Morozov interrogates the effects of our abiding faith in technology. If there is bound to be a solution for everything, eventually, as the industrialist mantra would have it, what implications does this have for a citizens’ attitude towards democracy, the environment, or even the family?

Morozov’s book is an extended and subtle argument, precisely of the variety not amenable to quick summarizing. He is never hyperbolic nor unreasonable. He merely asks us in one example after another to reconsider what we consider ‘solutions’ to ‘problems’.

The digital world is new, but it is not as revolutionary as some would have us believe. The human problems startups in California seek to solve (and monetize) are not new. The conundrums of democracy are old and have survived many a technological revolution before this one.

Morozov is a conservative in the best possible sense – he takes what is valuable about our past and ensures that it isn’t thrown out with the bathwater in our relentless digital push ‘forward’.

Posted in Book Review, technology | Leave a comment

Doing Justice to Ronald Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogs

If every hockey player dreams of one day winning the Stanley Cup, then every philosopher dreams of one day writing a big fat book that all future philosophers will read alongside the works of Plato and Aristotle. Ronald Dworkin comes closer to that dream than most of us ever will with his newest (and decisively fat) book Justice for Hedgehogs (JH).

One of the Cuter Philosophical Analogies of Late

The reviews have all rightly acknowledged the scope and ambition of Dworkin’s impressive offering, and I’ll happily add my voice to that chorus. Of course, JH is not a perfect book. As carefully constructed and well-argued as it may be, I believe one of its central arguments is badly flawed. How much of the book can survive intact without it, if I am right, is in serious question.

Dworkin looks like the type of eccentric billionaire who approaches you with the idea of a park full of cloned dinosaurs.

The problems begin, as so many in moral philosophy do, with Hume’s Guillotine: the notorious impossibility of arriving at an ‘ought’ by reasoning from an ‘is’. Now, philosophers are not the types to accept such prohibitions sitting down. This is doubly true in cases like JH where the philosophically taboo confronts our widely and deeply held intuitions. Dworkin wisely opts not to reject Hume’s argument outright. In fact, he claims to respect it, all the while attempting some fancy maneuvering in the hope of getting around it.

To be fair to the man, Dworkin is biting off one mighty big piece of philosophical meat. And in seeking to defend a popular intuition from a rigorous philosophical assault, he has bad odds stacked against him. So what is it that he’s trying to do? In a sentence, he is trying to save the idea that we really can make true or false moral claims without resorting to any laughable metaphysical propositions.

Hume seems like the kind of eccentric poor person who can still prove you wrong long after he's dead.

Put another way, he is seeking a theory that lets us say something really is right or wrong without committing ourselves to the existence of something in the physical universe that could be discovered as the objective difference between the right and wrong thing to do.

Put another way still, Dworkin is arguing that there are no so-far-undiscovered particles, which he mockingly calls “morons”, that would give us the one true moral shading of the universe. For Dworkin, no matter how complete our factual knowledge of a situation, a physical description alone is never enough to derive an accurate moral judgement. Something more is needed than the purely physical nuts and bolts.

What that ‘something’ might be has haunted philosophers for a very long time. But what if the ‘something’ is never to be found?  Taken together, Hume’s Guillotine and the ridiculous notion of a universe dusted with “morons” make a powerful case for skepticism. If we can’t get to what we ought to do from what is, and we can’t ever hope to determine an objective (that is, universally true) difference between right and wrong, maybe we really can’t make objectively true moral judgements. Despite how strongly we feel our so-called moral convictions, perhaps they really are just like opinions or tastes.  This is the gist of the skeptical impulse which Dworkin seeks not only to extinguish, but to turn against the skeptic as proof of the inescapable pull of moral judgments. It’s a bold and clever move, but does it work?

Using abortion as his example, Dworkin lays out four possible judgments about its moral permissibility. I’ve closely paraphrased them here:

A. Abortion is morally wicked and morally forbidden (there are always categorical   reasons against it)

B. Abortion is sometimes morally required (no such universal categorical prohibition exists)

C. Abortion is neither morally wicked nor sometimes required, but it is always permissible (no categorical reasons exist for or against it)

D. Abortion is never morally required, forbidden nor permissible.

It is clear that A, B, and C are making what we would call moral claims. They are saying whether something is right or wrong, required or prohibited. How about D?  Dworkin argues that yes, despite appearances, D is committed to a moral judgement no less than the others. Dworkin claims that “If [D] thinks that categorical reasons are impossible, then once again he thinks that no one has a categorical reason for anything. He still takes a moral stand.” (JH p. 44)

Does denying the existence of categorical reasons really commit D to a stance within morality? Does denying the existence of moral weight or moral obligation nonetheless commit us to accepting the existence of such demands? This seems implausible, to say the least.

Things get worse for Dworkin argument if we add a nuance to the original D’s position:

D1. Abortion is never morally required, forbidden nor permissible because there is no evidence that anything is.

This position is characteristic of what Dworkin calls the external status skeptic, or someone who denies that moral claims even purport to be true. He distinguishes between dismissing an area of judgment outright (e.g. saying the very notion of astrology is complete nonsense) and assigning the value of a judgment at zero (e.g. saying that the planetary influence on human lives is zero). The former position rejects the paradigm entirely. The latter accepts the paradigm, but only as an empty set.

He makes a similar analogy with religion. “If we define a religious position as one that presupposes the existence of one or more divine beings, then atheism is not a religious position. But if we define it as one that offers an opinion about the existence or properties of divine beings, then atheism certainly is a religious position.”  (JH p. 41)

If we read D1 as fully dismissing the entirety of the moral paradigm as nonsense, then D1 is plainly not moral. But if we read it as saying that within morality, there is nothing with any hope of even being true, then yes, I would agree that it does succumb to a degree of moral colouring, however weak that might be.

A victory for Dworkin? Hardly. Let’s go back to his religious analogy. I’m forced to agree that atheism is typically understood to be a rejection of the existence of any and all gods. But remember that atheist bus campaign from a few years back? The ads all read “There probably is no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The ‘probably’ was key. To claim with certainty that God does not exist is as dogmatic as the opposite position.  As we’ve all heard in many different ways, it’s impossible to prove a negative.

And a little Richard Dawkins for good measure..

So to the degree that people declare with conviction “There is no God!” they do indeed make a claim that falls within the theological paradigm. But that’s atheism – an old term with a long history of being pejorative. Its very formulation implies reactionary dissent from the majority view. As it has been pointed out many times before, we do not declare ourselves abigfootists or asantaclausists – we simply say that that there is no reason to believe in such creatures, and furthermore, that there are plenty of good reasons to see why people who do believe in Bigfoot or Santa Claus are on precarious logical footing.

What about non-theism, for lack of a better term? Non-theism is not the rejection of a god outright, but a more subtle stance. The non-theist simply says that she has never seen compelling existence for the existence of a god. Sure, she’s heard the arguments, seen the beautiful churches and mosques, read the Bible and whatever else. She is just not convinced by any of it and thus sticks with the default position – an absence of belief. Not a rejection of the belief, but the tentative absence of belief until better evidence comes along or until she dies – whichever comes first.

So is non-theism a religious belief? It should be clear that it is not. Sure, you could probably push most non-theists to say with some conviction that the whole idea of a god is bullshit, whereupon they do indeed make a religious claim. But this is just sloppiness on their part, a convenience of language. The disciplined non-theist conscientiously rejects the religious paradigm as meaningless and delusional or perhaps as fictional and mythological.

Crucially, the non-theist can do one better than the atheist. While maintaining the tentative default position of non-belief in a proposed entity, the non-theist can go on to offer conjectures about how the belief in god might spread, given historical, political, sociological, anthropological, psychological and biological factors.

The non-theist acknowledges that many people are very committed to the religious paradigm, with some even willing to lay down their lives in its defense. To the extent that it greatly affects how millions of people live their lives, the religious paradigm as a social phenomenon certainly exists.

But the brute fact of many people believing something does not require all others to play ball by their rules. To withhold belief is not to implicitly buy-in to the entirely unconvincing paradigm. Withholding belief and recognizing that others do not withhold belief are entirely compatible. Seeing what others believe does not compel me to define my beliefs in their terminology or from the point of view of their paradigm.

All of this is to say that D1 can be read as withholding his belief in a moral system like the non-theist withholds belief in a god.  Furthermore, D1 can offer reasons why the moral paradigm is so attractive, intuitive, prevalent and useful. He can say that morality is a complex fiction that does not correspond faithfully to anything universal nor absolute nor categorical.  He can give a rudimentary account of how our evolutionary heritage gave our emotions what we commonly call moral colouring as a means of facilitating social stability in early hominids. Many books have been written that attempt to do just this, and one of my favourites is by Richard Joyce, who makes a compelling case in The Myth of Morality.

Ultimately, Dworkin fails in his ambitious goal of proving that external status skepticism is self-contradictory. Indeed, it is possible to say quite a bit about the moral paradigm without buying-in to its conclusions or adopting its point of view. The ‘moral’ philosopher who withholds belief in the concept of duty, obligation and categorical reasons respects Hume’s Guillotine and does not commit himself to a universe speckled with ‘morons’.

So if we admit that there are possible statements concerning the status of morality as a paradigm that do not commit us to that very moral structure, does this imperil the idea that there can be true or false moral claims?

How can we make sense of moral properties if they are not definitively anchored to anything particular in the universe? How do we dispense with the coherent skeptical argument that a moral framework is a contingent albeit widespread phenomenon? Put more plainly, How can we be moral realists if we are forced to acknowledge so much wiggle room outside of morality?

We find an analogous problem with the truth of what ‘really happens’ in a work fiction. How can we argue about whether or not Charlie really did find the last Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory?

I'm sorry for the stupid meme joke. Really, I didn't think it would come to this.

It doesn’t hurt that humans in fictional universes are like fish in water. We are prodigiously good at making ourselves at home in foreign, invented worlds. Story-telling, mythology, religion, even gossip – all integral human institutions, universal across our diverse societies. We have no problems plunging ourselves into a common, imagined world. Obviously there are bound to be disagreements about this world. Philosophy’s role is to shed some light on how we address these disagreements. It also gives us ways of thinking about judgements within these fictional or narrative worlds, and whether they can be true or false.

It is telling that fiction and interpretation are prevalent concepts throughout JH. In fact, interpretive concepts like those in fiction are the models for Dworkin’s theory of moral concepts. Whether his account can survive his failed argument against external status skepticism remains to be seen.

Posted in Book Review, Meta-Ethics, Paradigm | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments