Getting Clear About Materialism

Edward Slingerland in The Immanent Frame:

[David] Brooks’s piece [“The Neural Buddhists” in the NYT] is also characterized by a confusion concerning what “materialism,” as an ontological claim about the world, might be. This seems to be the result of conflating the philosophical position of materialism, or physicalism, with the common use of the word “materialist” to refer to people or beliefs that are perceived to be selfish, unemotional, or unloving. For instance, emotions are not, as Brooks suggests, any more “squishy” than anything else: they are reactions subserved by an entirely material body-brain system. “Hard-core materialism,” like that of Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett, does not preclude the existence of emotions, love, or unselfishness—in fact, quite the opposite is true. Recent work on the apparently hard-wired nature of altruism and fairness are entirely compatible with, and indeed predicted by, the neo-Darwinan, physicalist model of the self. It is often in the interest of selfish genes to build selectively unselfish “hosts” to get them into the next generation, and these hosts work best when pre-loaded with a spectrum of fast, “emotional” responses to their environments, including the all-important environment of other people. Human beings, as well as other social primates, seem to be built by their genes to be guided primarily by reactions we would characterize as “emotional,” to have the capacity for deep familial and romantic love and attachment, and to perform great acts of apparently selfless altruism for kin or ersatz-kin (such as co-religionists and fellow soldiers). Similarly, there is no reason to think that because consciousness depends upon “idiosyncratic networks of neural firings,” the relationship between neurons and consciousness is “mysterious” or somehow non-physical: the collection of dust particles I see on the floor next to my desk is idiosyncratic, but not non-physical. Again, Brooks’s conclusion here seems to involve unexamined, and unjustified, folk beliefs: if my neural network is “idiosyncratic,” then it’s unique to me, and I am non-physical, something other than my brain or my body; therefore, idiosyncratic neural networks mean that hard-core materialism is wrong.

Conversations in the Library

Peter Over at the NYPL, an audio of conversations with Peter Esterhazy and Wayne Koestenbaum:

Born in Budapest, in 1950, Péter Esterházy is one of the best-known contemporary Hungarian writers, and his work stands with some of the greats of postwar literature. His novel, Revised Edition, was born from the shock he received when he discovered that his father was an informer for the Hungarian secret police during the Communist era. He’ll talk about family secrets with Wayne Koestenbaum whose poetry titles include Best Selling Jewish Porn Films and The Milk of Inquiry, the novel, Moira Orfei in Aigues-Mortes, and six nonfiction books including Hotel Theory and Andy Warhol.

The video file appears to lack the audio, but the audio stand alone works. The introduction by Morgan Meis, which was published here, is also worth a good listen.

Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

Chris Marker’s essay Phenomenon:

“His definition of the short story is quite simple: it is the recounting of an event that is unusual”
(Isaac Babel quoting Goethe during a discussion at the USSR Writers Union.)

Header_5Most likely, countless observers must have remarked the same thing at the same moment in a variety of conditions, or in the same conditions at various moments, yet in only two or three days the totality of the phenomenon was to become a subject of astonishment, alarm, then pure terror. As far as Loewen was concerned, the first sign of the phenomenon manifested itself to him as he sat calmly watching the France-Hungary soccer final on his television. The stakes were high : which country would represent Europe in the all new Intercontinental Soccer Cup. With the score tied at zero, there were now a series of penalty kicks. Hardly a cheerleader himself, but ever interested by talent in all its forms, Loewen had noticed that in the last few years this once exceptional postlude was finally becoming the rule, and the moment of truth in a game where it seemed there were no longer any teams capable of establishing their superiority during regulation time. The federations had even managed to agree on a limited number of these kicks : a total of twelve, six chances given to each team, and up to now this had sufficed to break the deadlock at one or other moment, allowing that subtle cocktail of chance, tension, angst and will to produce an exhilarating goal and with it, victory.

But on this particular night, the time limit was drawing to a close.

What UFOs Mean for Sovereignty, Seriously

Over at The Monkey Cage, a debate between Henry Farrell, on one side, and Bud Duvall and Alex Wendt on the other in response to Duvall and Wendt’s article in Political Theory, “Sovereignty and the UFO”.  The abstract:

Modern sovereignty is anthropocentric, constituted and organized by reference to human beings alone. Although a metaphysical assumption, anthropocentrism is of immense practical import, enabling modern states to command loyalty and resources from their subjects in pursuit of political projects. It has limits, however, which are brought clearly into view by the authoritative taboo on taking UFOs seriously. UFOs have never been systematically investigated by science or the state, because it is assumed to be known that none are extraterrestrial. Yet in fact this is not known, which makes the UFO taboo puzzling given the ET possibility. Drawing on the work of Giorgio Agamben, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, the puzzle is explained by the functional imperatives of anthropocentric sovereignty, which cannot decide a UFO exception to anthropocentrism while preserving the ability to make such a decision. The UFO can be “known” only by not asking what it is.

Henry’s response:

I’m highly skeptical of claims that UFOs are interesting in any sense but the sociological, for reasons having to do with the Fermi paradox, and the weaknesses of evidence laid out in John Sladek’s excellent and entertaining The New Apocrypha (the relevant chapter is entitled ‘Will U Kindly F O”). But even apart from the question of whether or not there is something to UFO claims that is worthy of sustained scientific investigation, Wendt and Duvall’s argument is highly unconvincing. They claim that there is something about the possibility of alien subjectivities that fundamentally challenges the principles of sovereign rule and makes sovereign entities go into a kind of halting state (pun borrowed from Charlie Stross) when they try to think about them. Hence, the failure of states to investigate UFOs. But this doesn’t seem to me to hold up as a convincing explanation.

Duvall and Wendt’s rejoinder:

We have said that human ignorance about UFOs is the most fundamental question at stake in the paper, because only if we are right about that is there a puzzle then to be explained (the state’s inaction). Judging from the comments on the Monkey Cage and other blogs in response to Farrell’s post many readers will not concede their ignorance, and as such are unable to take the paper seriously. We remain to be convinced by those who dismiss the existence of the puzzle, and indeed are tempted to interpret the haste and surety of the dismissals as evidence of the very taboo our article sets out to explain. However, to his credit Farrell gives us the benefit of the doubt and moves on to engage our solution to the puzzle as well. Here he makes three basic criticisms of our claim that the failure of modern states to seriously investigate UFOs stems from a metaphysical threat to anthropocentric sovereignty.

Henry’s response to the rejoinder can be found here.

A New Star on the Left

1217524732large In The Nation, a profile of the most awesome Rachel Maddow:

In a year bursting with memorable moments in televised political punditry, the first may have come on January 8, when MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow explained one of the quick-spreading theories behind Hillary Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire, a surprise win that had knocked many of Maddow’s on-air colleagues on their asses.

p> “You want to know who they’re blaming for women voters breaking for Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama?” a delighted Maddow asked co-panelist Pat Buchanan and host Chris Matthews, her eyes flashing. “They’re blaming Chris Matthews! People are citing specifically Chris…not only for his own views but also as a symbol of what the mainstream media has done to Hillary Clinton.”

Matthews sputtered dismissively, but Maddow wasn’t done yet. “People feel the media is piling on Hillary Clinton,” she said, “and they’re coming to her defense with their votes.” For Matthews, who’d been enjoying near rapturous pleasure over the presumptive early-season thumping of his personal hobgoblin, there could not have been worse news than that his own commentary might have paved the way for Clinton’s triumph. Yet here was just this headline, delivered by Maddow, looking like Sylvester the Cat, practically licking yellow feathers from the corners of her mouth.

Watch her smack down Pat Buchanan

Thursday Poem

///
A Man Doesn’t Have Time in his Life
Yehuda AmichaiPerson_poet_yehuda_amichai

A man doesn’t have time in his life

to have time for everything.

He doesn’t have seasons enough to have

a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes

Was wrong about that.
………………………….

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,

to laugh and cry with the same eyes,

with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,

to make love in war and war in love.

And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,

to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest

what history

takes years and years to do.
………………………….

A man doesn’t have time.

When he loses he seeks, when he finds

he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves

he begins to forget.
………………………….

And his soul is seasoned, his soul

is very professional.

Only his body remains forever

an amateur. It tries and it misses,

gets muddled, doesn’t learn a thing,

drunk and blind in its pleasures

and its pains.
………………………….

He will die as figs die in autumn,

Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,

the leaves growing dry on the ground,

the bare branches pointing to the place

where there’s time for everything.

///

             

Four new novels about young women facing some of life’s most difficult challenges

From The Washington Post:

Girl_2 Headlines give us the general outline of the complicated choices women face today and of a range of abuses that have become increasingly routine. But a new batch of summer novels adds texture and context to these reports of troubled lives. These aren’t made-for-TV movies in print. They’re chilling explorations of psychic distress with a clear message: Times are not easy. A new range of pressures puts women and girls at risk. Reading these literary dispatches is no picnic. But there are substantial pleasures in the artful ways these authors tell it like it is for too many young women.

HOW FAR IS THE OCEAN FROM HEREBy Amy Shearn Shaye Areheart. 305 pp. $23

Amy Shearn’s idiosyncratic narrator and the damaged children she befriends anchor this tantalizing novel about a surrogate mother who has second thoughts just weeks before her due date. At eight months pregnant, Susannah Prue takes off from Chicago heading for the Pacific Ocean. After four days, her car breaks down, forcing her to pull into the seedy Thunder Lodge motel. The child’s expectant parents panic when she doesn’t return calls, but she’s off the radar.

More here.

The Neurological Roots of Genius

From Scientific American:

Genius Within hours of his demise in 1955, Albert Einstein’s brain was salvaged, sliced into 240 pieces and stored in jars for safekeeping. Since then, researchers have weighed, measured and otherwise inspected these biological specimens of genius in hopes of uncovering clues to Einstein’s spectacular intellect. Their cerebral explorations are part of a century-long effort to uncover the neural basis of high intelligence or, in children, giftedness. Traditionally, 2 to 5 percent of kids qualify as gifted, with the top 2 percent scoring above 130 on an intelligence quotient (IQ) test. (The statistical average is 100. See the box on the opposite page.) A high IQ increases the probability of success in various academic areas. Children who are good at reading, writing or math also tend to be facile at the other two areas and to grow into adults who are skilled at diverse intellectual tasks.

Most studies show that smarter brains are typically bigger—at least in certain locations. Part of Einstein’s parietal lobe (at the top of the head, behind the ears) was 15 percent wider than the same region was in 35 men of normal cognitive ability, according to a 1999 study by researchers at McMaster University in Ontario. This area is thought to be critical for visual and mathematical thinking. It is also within the constellation of brain regions fingered as important for superior cognition. These neural territories include parts of the parietal and frontal lobes as well as a structure called the anterior cingulate.

More here.

What Will the Large Hadron Collider Find? And Bonus LHC Rap Video

Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance:

So here are my judgments for the likelihoods that we will discover various different things at the LHC — to be more precise, let’s say “the chance that, five years after the first physics data are taken, most particle physicists will agree that the LHC has discovered this particular thing.” (Percentages do not add up to 100%, as they are in no way exclusive; there’s nothing wrong with discovering both supersymmetry and the Higgs boson.) I’m pretty sure that I’ve never proposed a new theory that could be directly tested at the LHC, so I can be completely unbiased, as there’s no way that this experiment is winning any Nobels for me. On the other hand, honest particle phenomenologists might be aware of pro- or con- arguments for various of these scenarios that I’m not familiar with, so feel free to chime in in the comments. (Other predictions are easy enough to come by, but none with our trademark penchant for unrealistically precise quantification.)

  • The Higgs Boson:  95%.  The Higgs is the only particle in the Standard Model of Particle Physics which hasn’t yet been detected, so it’s certainly a prime target for the LHC (if the Tevatron doesn’t sneak in and find it first). And it’s a boson, which improves CERN’s chances. There is almost a guarantee that the Higgs exists, or at least some sort of Higgs-like particle that plays that role; there is an electroweak symmetry, and it is broken by something, and that something should be associated with particle-like excitations. But there’s not really a guarantee that the LHC will find it. It should find it, at least in the simplest models; but the simplest models aren’t always right. If the LHC doesn’t find the Higgs in five years, it will place very strong constraints on model building, but I doubt that it will be too hard to come up with models that are still consistent. (The Superconducting Super Collider, on the other hand, almost certainly would have found the Higgs by now.)
  • Supersymmetry:  60%. Of all the proposals for physics beyond the Standard Model, supersymmetry is the most popular, and the most likely to show up at the LHC. But that doesn’t make it really likely. We’ve been theorizing about SUSY for so long that a lot of people tend to act like it’s already been discovered — but it hasn’t.

And the rap:

We Tell Stories

Penguin asked six authors–Charles Cummings, Toby Litt, Kevin Brooks, Nicci French, Matt Mason, and Mohsin Hamid–to take the first line of one of six books–The 39 Steps, Haunted Dolls House, Fairy Tales, Thérèse Raquin, Hard Times, 1001 Nights, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland–a tell a short story in a new media format over 6 weeks.  This odd project is worth exploring.  From Charles Cummings’ “The 29 Steps,” taking the first line from The 39 Steps, and told with the aid of Google Maps:
Slide1

[H/t: Maeve Adams]

 

sam on wood

Wood080811_2501

The title of How Fiction Works promises so much that it almost crosses over, like Harold Bloom’s Genius, into self-parody. And yet, if any modern critic could pull off such an outlandish feat of analytic strength, it would be Wood. He’s already proved himself to be our most consistently powerful analyst of how fiction works on a local level—author by author, text by text, word by word—so you’d expect him to be equally good on how fiction works in the abstract. Readers looking for the final unveiling of an airtight Woodian system, however, will be disappointed. Although the book makes some big argumentative noises—about, for instance, the relationship between fiction and “the real” (italics decidedly not mine)—it progresses not through closely reasoned chapters but through 123 numbered sections grouped around themes (Character, Dialogue, Flaubert). These sections range from a few lines to a few pages, and they skip quickly from novel to novel and anecdote to anecdote—a form that scatters what might have been the work’s argumentative force. (You might even say, again if you were in that special kind of mood, that Wood’s critical method is Chekhovian: He renounces the inhumanly streamlined “plot” of continuous argument in order to wander from detail to detail in search of epiphanic flashes.)

more from New York Magazine here. (h/t Asad)

kant in iran

Postelportrait1

If you want to go where people are reading Hannah Arendt and Karl Popper, Nafisi has admonished, “go to Iran”. Go to Iran, I would add, if you want to discover where people are reading Jürgen Habermas, Isaiah Berlin, Leszek Kolakowski and Immanuel Kant. “There have been more translations of Kant into Persian in the past decade than into any other language”, reports Vali Nasr , “and these have gone into multiple printings”. Abdollah Momeni, the leader of Iran’s most prominent student-activist group (Daftar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat), claims Habermas as his chief inspiration. The speeches and writings of Akbar Ganji, Iran’s leading dissident, are peppered with references to Kant, John Stuart Mill and Albert Camus.

Indeed, there are often “more vibrant resonances of ‘Continental’ thought” in countries like Iran, notes the political philosopher Fred Dallmayr, “than can be found in Europe today”.

more from The Liberal here.

the sakuntala and other things sanskrit

Sanskrit20inside1

Toward the end of the Sakuntala, the most famous of the three surviving plays by Kalidasa–the poet usually considered the finest in ancient India–the hero Dushyanta offers this poignant self-analysis:

Like someone staring at an elephant
who says, “There is no elephant here,”
and who then, as it moves away,
feels a certain doubt
and later, seeing its footprints,
is certain: “An elephant
has been here”–
such are the subtle
workings of my mind.

Or of any mind–the rueful king speaks for all of us. We almost always miss the elephant in front of us. By the time we make our retrospective deduction from the footprints, it’s usually too late.

more from TNR here.

A Second Life for literature

From The Guardian:

Secondlifedesk460_2 Since we all became globally-connected, various attempts have been made at changing how we read. Consider hypertext fiction, such as Geoff Ryman’s 253 and the new concept of the “wovel”, as discussed here a few weeks ago. Now, there’s another injection of technology into reading, through the virtual worlds of Second Life. “What if, in addition to reading a book, we could actually visit the locations we read about?” ask the creators of Literature Alive! an academic project which encourages teaching online. I’m not a Second Life user. I’ve visited once or twice out of curiosity, back when it was touted as the future of the internet. But since reality set in, I’ve kept my distance. Still, I was intrigued by the thought of wandering through Dante’s Inferno, Edgar Allen Poe’s house and Alice ‘s Looking Glass (“Peering around the bend you see … Hmmm what do you see? Your curiosity overwhelms you and you …. you …”)

The locations are certainly impressive, if somewhat bewildering, and a great deal of work is evident. Some random clicking brings up explanatory videos, notes, and the work itself. To further explore the idea of literature online, a conference was held yesterday (to be repeated tomorrow). With an emphasis on academic use, Beth Ritter-Guth or, as she is in Second Life, Desideria Stockton, delivered the keynote address. Essentially her argument comes down to the issue of active rather than passive learning and she insisted students’ work was marked as rigorously as any other academic work.

More here.

Dolly’s Creator Moves Away from Cloning

From Scientific American:

Wilmut As Dolly matured, the cloning technology that created her—called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT)—grew into a rich research enterprise. Scientists hoped to eventually be able to take a patient’s cell, place its nucleus into an unfertilized human egg and then harvest embryonic stem cells to treat intractable conditions such as Parkinson’s disease. But the first human clinical trial continues to seem remote, with embryonic cloning constrained by a federal funding ban, deeply controversial ethical issues and technical challenges. In mid-May safety concerns led the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to put on hold a bid by Geron Corporation in Menlo Park, Calif., to conduct trials on patients who have acute spinal cord injury.

Now the 64-year-old Wilmut is one of several high-profile scientists who remain loyal to SCNT in concept but are leading a wholesale charge out of the field and into an alternative technology. That other approach, first demonstrated in 2006 by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University, restores adult cells back to an embryonic­like state called pluripotency, in which they regain the ability to develop into any kind of cell. Any well-appointed lab can apply the comparatively straightforward technique. “It’s really easy—a high school lab can do it,” says Mahendra Rao, who heads up the stem cell and regenerative medicine business at Invitrogen, a life sciences corporation based in Carlsbad, Calif. Yamanaka’s approach also enables scientists to leap over nuclear transfer’s egg supply problems and sidestep qualms about destroying human embryos.

More here.

Stargazer

Andy Warhol was born eighty years ago today.

Arthur C. Danto in The Nation a couple of years ago:

Andy_warholRic Burns’s four-hour documentary on Andy Warhol’s career, which aired on PBS’s American Masters Series and is now showing at New York’s Film Forum, opens with a priceless piece of footage. Andy, in sunglasses, is being interviewed in front of a few of his Brillo boxes by an earnest someone, while an insider in a business suit looks on, smirking.

“Andy,” she asks, “the Canadian government spokesman said that your art could not be described as original sculpture. Would you agree with that?” Warhol answers, “Yes.” “Why do you agree?” “Well, because it’s not original.” “You have just then copied a common item?” “Yes.” The interviewer gets exasperated. “Why have you bothered to do that? Why not create something new?” “Because it’s easier to do.” “Well, isn’t this sort of a joke then that you’re playing on the public?” “No. It gives me something to do.”

This riotous exchange must have taken place about a year after Warhol’s celebrated–but commercially not so successful–exhibition of what the film’s narrative calls “grocery boxes” at Manhattan’s Stable Gallery in April 1964.

More here.