Bob Schwartz

Category: Philosophy

To Understand America 2018, Read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

We had the best education. We went to school every day. I only took the regular course. Reeling and Writhing to begin with. Then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland now. Again if it’s been a while, and definitely now if for the first time.

Lewis Carroll (born Charles Dodgson, 1832-1898) was famously creative as a mathematician and logician. He wove puzzles and tortured logic all through his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Puzzles and tortured logic seem likely to be a major component of America in 2018, as they were in 2017.

The leadership and the citizens of Wonderland are variously tyrannical, illogical, stupid, or just plain bizarre. Alice literally does not fit in. While she is only a child, she has more sense than everyone she meets combined.

If I had a news network like CNN, I’d interrupt the futile attempts to understand and explain what’s going on by having different news anchors read aloud one chapter from Alice in Wonderland every day. It would actually be more constructive—and more fun—than just listening to their trying to making sense of the nonsensical.

If Trump’s tweets were taken from Alice in Wonderland, would we know the difference? Would he?

Some Trump/Alice tweets:

We must have a trial. Really this morning I have nothing to do. With no jury or judge I’ll be Judge. I’ll be jury. I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.

We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad. A dog growls when it’s angry and wags its tail when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.

Be what you would seem to be. Never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise.

You have no right to think. Just about as much right as pigs have to fly. I give you fair warning either you or your head must be off. Take your choice!

We had the best education. We went to school every day. I only took the regular course. Reeling and Writhing to begin with. Then the different branches of Arithmetic—Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.

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Umberto Eco: Ur-Fascism

Celebrated Italian author and scholar Umberto Eco (1932-2016)  published an article in 1995 entitled Ur-Fascism .

Eco grew up during the time of Mussolini. In the article, he jumps from memories of that experience to describe some varieties of fascism and other types of totalitarianism. Not all are well-defined fascism, he says, but he does identify the core characteristics of what he calls Ur-Fascism.

I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.

Eco goes on to list 14 features of Ur-Fascism. This is the excerpted list; please read the article for an expanded explanation. And as you read it, please consider which of those features you might be seeing now.

1. The first feature of Ur-Fascism is the cult of tradition….As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning.

2. Traditionalism implies the rejection of modernism….In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

3. Irrationalism also depends on the cult of action for action’s sake. Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection.

4. No syncretistic faith can withstand analytical criticism. The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism.

5. Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference.

6. Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.

7. To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism.

8. The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies….Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.

9. For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.

10. Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology, insofar as it is fundamentally aristocratic, and aristocratic and militaristic elitism cruelly implies contempt for the weak. Ur-Fascism can only advocate a popular elitism.

11. In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm.

12. Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the Ur-Fascist hero tends to play with weapons—doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13. Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter….Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments.

14. Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak.

Eco closes with this:

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.

Is Zero A Number?

O zero
You fool me all the time
Pretending to be something
When you’re nothing

Civilization

Inscribed on the winding sidewalk of the park:

The true test of civilization is not the census, nor the size of cities, nor the crops, but the kind of man that the country turns out.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson, Society and Solitude, 1870

Between the rational and irrational and between the religious and the irreligious

Between the rational and the irrational is the place that so many traditions point us to, though not all who follow want to go. It is not in the middle, in the sense of being halfway in between, or to applying each one half the time. It is the entire space, with the wholly rational and irrational merely on the outside borders, a thin outline.

This does not sit well with many, who want to have it one way or another. Extreme rationalists frequently work hard to make ordered sense from evidence, rejecting the rest, and particularly vexed by those apparently too lazy or heedless to see how essential the rational way is. Extreme irrationalists may be driven by visions that may be delusions, or by personal preferences, and may indeed avoid the rational because it is hard work or because it may not suit their needs.

This plays out on a bigger social scale. With increasing frequency, the irreligious base their perspective on a loosely rationalist view, not only because there is no evidence of and for the religious, but because the religious seem to discard or ignore the rational in a disordered and possibly self serving way.

No one is right or wrong here, in the sense of winning an ultimately unwinnable argument. Instead consider the field where all things grow, neither rational nor irrational. The place, if we listen to the best of the traditions, where we are born and where we die.

Ex Nihilo

Ex Nihilo

When once was nothing
Was something?
Where once was nothing
Was nowhere?
Know everything
Believe in what you know
And nothing else?
Believe everything
And know nothing?
Aleph to tav
Alpha to omega
Awwal to akkir.
Is this the emet
The truth?

© Bob Schwartz 2017

Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation

What if someone lies in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence? What if that person really believes what he is saying?

Confabulation is the construction of false answers to a question while genuinely believing that you are telling the truth.

This mysterious phenomenon usually accompanies neurological or cognitive disorders, and the puzzle of it has been the subject of some study among researchers. In his book Brain Fiction: Self-Deception and the Riddle of Confabulation, William Hirstein takes this study further than it has gone before:

“Both a neuroscientist and a philosopher, William Hirstein writes from his unique vantage point with great scholarship, precision, and clarity to tackle some of the deeper mysteries of the human mind. Brain Fiction is full of profound insights, and I recommend it to all who wish to better understand our human nature.”

—Fredric Schiffer, M.D., Harvard Medical School, author of Of Two Minds

Here is a description of the book:

Some neurological patients exhibit a striking tendency to confabulate—to construct false answers to a question while genuinely believing that they are telling the truth. A stroke victim, for example, will describe in detail a conference he attended over the weekend when in fact he has not left the hospital. Normal people, too, sometimes have a tendency to confabulate; rather than admitting “I don’t know,” some people will make up an answer or an explanation and express it with complete conviction. In Brain Fiction, William Hirstein examines confabulation and argues that its causes are not merely technical issues in neurology or cognitive science but deeply revealing about the structure of the human intellect.

Hirstein describes confabulation as the failure of a normal checking or censoring process in the brain—the failure to recognize that a false answer is fantasy, not reality. Thus, he argues, the creative ability to construct a plausible-sounding response and some ability to check that response are separate in the human brain. Hirstein sees the dialectic between the creative and checking processes—”the inner dialogue”—as an important part of our mental life. In constructing a theory of confabulation, Hirstein integrates perspectives from different fields, including philosophy, neuroscience, and psychology to achieve a natural mix of conceptual issues usually treated by philosophers with purely empirical issues; information about the distribution of certain blood vessels in the prefrontal lobes of the brain, for example, or the behavior of split-brain patients can shed light on the classic questions of philosophy of mind, including questions about the function of consciousness. This first book-length study of confabulation breaks ground in both philosophy and cognitive science.

A sample chapter can be read here. A couple of brief excerpts:

Why then does confabulation happen? Confabulation seems to involve two sorts of errors. First, a false response is created. Second, having thought of or spoken the false response, the patient fails to check, examine it and recognize its falsity. A normal person, we want to say, would notice the falsity or absurdity of such claims. The patient should have either not created the false response or, having created it, should have censored or corrected it. We do this sort of censoring in our normal lives. If I ask you whether you have ever been to Siberia, for instance, an image might appear in your mind of you wearing a thick fur coat and hat and braving a snowy storm, but you know that this is fantasy, not reality. In very general terms, the confabulating patient lacks the ability to assess his or her situation, and to either answer correctly, or respond that he or she does not know. Apparently, admitting ignorance in response to a question, rather than being an indication of glibness and a low level of function, is a high-level cognitive ability, one that confabulators have lost. ‘‘I don’t know,’’ can be an intelligent answer to a question, or at least an answer indicative of good cognitive health….

Young children sometimes confabulate when asked to recall events. Ackil and Zaragoza (1998) showed first-graders a segment of a film depicting a boy and his experiences at summer camp. Afterward the children were asked questions about it, including questions about events that did not happen in the film. One such question was, ‘‘What did the boy say Sullivan had stolen?’’ when in fact no thefts had taken place in the film. The children were pressed to give some sort of answer, and the experimenters often suggested an answer. When the children were interviewed a week later, the false events as well as the suggested answers had been incorporated into their recollections of the movie.

“there is some shit I will not eat”

It may not be my favorite E. E. Cummings poem, but i sing of Olaf glad and big is a special one. It is about someone who suffers for his moral beliefs (in this case, about war and mindless patriotism), and who is punished by a range of Americans, from fellow soldiers to the president. Someone, writes Cummings, who is “more brave than me:more blond than you.” It contains the one line of poetry I probably recite the most in non-poetry contexts, to epitomize those who take a stand.

i sing of Olaf glad and big
whose warmest heart recoiled at war:
a conscientious object-or

his wellbelovéd colonel(trig
westpointer most succinctly bred)
took erring Olaf soon in hand;
but–though an host of overjoyed
noncoms(first knocking on the head
him)do through icy waters roll
that helplessness which others stroke
with brushes recently employed
anent this muddy toiletbowl,
while kindred intellects evoke
allegiance per blunt instruments–
Olaf(being to all intents
a corpse and wanting any rag
upon what God unto him gave)
responds,without getting annoyed
“I will not kiss your fucking flag”

straightway the silver bird looked grave
(departing hurriedly to shave)

but–though all kinds of officers
(a yearning nation’s blueeyed pride)
their passive prey did kick and curse
until for wear their clarion
voices and boots were much the worse,
and egged the firstclassprivates on
his rectum wickedly to tease
by means of skilfully applied
bayonets roasted hot with heat–
Olaf(upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”

our president,being of which
assertions duly notified
threw the yellowsonofabitch
into a dungeon,where he died

Christ(of His mercy infinite)
i pray to see;and Olaf,too

preponderatingly because
unless statistics lie he was
more brave than me:more blond than you.

The Age of Enlightenment Has Left the Building (At Least in America)

Age of Enlightenment: an intellectual and scientific movement of 18th century Europe which was characterized by a rational and scientific approach to religious, social, political, and economic issues.

It was great while it lasted. At times difficult, but fun too. The Age of Enlightenment gave us, for example, the American Revolution. Helpful.

If more evidence is needed that the “rational and scientific approach” is going or gone, here is the new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt on the role of carbon dioxide in global warming:

“There’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact…So, no, I would not agree that carbon dioxide is a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change disagrees with him. Almost all scientists disagree with him. The current EPA website disagrees with him (though that will be fixed). Many junior high school students disagree with him (though our new Secretary of Education should be able to fix that too).

The Age of Enlightenment doesn’t have a special holiday, because it is already embedded in so much we do (see, for example, the Fourth of July). But maybe we should at least recognize its passing. We’ll miss it, more than we know.

Thoreau: Life Without Principle

thoreau

Please read a little Henry David Thoreau if you have the chance. Maybe no American writer has made a plainer case for living a life of truth, a life of principle, a life that matters.

You may know of his most famous works.

There is Walden, about his choosing to live for a time in the woods, within nature and by himself (“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”) There is Civil Disobedience, about determining how, when and why defying the powers that be is a conscientious imperative.

There is much more Thoreau beyond these (see Walden and Other Writings). Following are some brief excerpts from Life Without Principle, published posthumously in the Atlantic Monthly in 1863.


In proportion as our inward life fails, we go more constantly and desperately to the post-office. You may depend on it, that the poor fellow who walks away with the greatest number of letters proud of his extensive correspondence has not heard from himself this long while…. [Note: If you substitute “greatest number of followers” for “greatest number of letters”, you will see just how timely and relevant this is today.]

I am astonished to observe how willing men are to lumber their minds with such rubbish,—to permit idle rumors and incidents of the most insignificant kind to intrude on ground which should be sacred to thought. Shall the mind be a public arena, where the affairs of the street and the gossip of the tea-table chiefly are discussed? Or shall it be a quarter of heaven itself….

Just so hollow and ineffectual, for the most part, is our ordinary conversation. Surface meets surface. When our life ceases to be inward and private, conversation degenerates into mere gossip. We rarely meet a man who can tell us any news which he has not read in a newspaper, or been told by his neighbor; and, for the most part, the only difference between us and our fellow is that he has seen the newspaper, or been out to tea, and we have not….

We may well be ashamed to tell what things we have read or heard in our day. I do not know why my news should be so trivial,—considering what one’s dreams and expectations are, why the developments should be so paltry. The news we hear, for the most part, is not news to our genius. It is the stalest repetition….

Really to see the sun rise or go down every day, so to relate ourselves to a universal fact, would preserve us sane forever. Nations! What are nations? Tartars, and Huns, and Chinamen! Like insects, they swarm. The historian strives in vain to make them memorable. It is for want of a man that there are so many men. It is individuals that populate the world….

It requires more than a day’s devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.