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  • Archive for the 'Philosophy' Category

    A Lazy Sunday’s Blogging

    Posted by onparkstreet on 10th April 2011 (All posts by )

    From a comment that I left here:

    Human behavior has too many complex variables to be plotted out neatly in graphs and charts and equations, and besides, humans beings lie. To themselves and to each other.

    So the data points you may enter into any equation will always be colored by human fallibility.

    What we want is to predict human behavior. We may be able to predict certain behaviors in very narrow circumstances but even that is fraught with difficulty. Why do people tend to buy a certain type of toothpaste or why do IEDs tend to be placed at certain times of day, etc? But even if we plot a graph and it fits a set of variables, we still don’t really know how or why we got the graph and whether it is related or a statistical fluke. For example, we may predict what toothpaste a category of persons likes to buy, but it’s a lot harder to predict why person A bought toothpaste B in country C at noon on a Sunday. Even if person A buys toothpaste in the same way every single time we have studied that person, maybe one day an old friend calls up out of the blue and says, “meet me for coffee.” No shopping that day.

    Did your linear progression have the variable for a friend calling up out of the blue in it? Adam Smith’s “the invisible hand” and all of that.

    Take for instance, historical examples of good and bad campaigns: sometimes two leaders within an organization just didn’t get along and that affected decision making. How does an equation explain such a human intangible?

    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and predict behavior, it just means that we must understand the limitations of the tools that we use and be willing to reexamine the tools as experience dictates.

    Good discussion!

    *I posted this previously, but in the late 90s the Sokol hoax was a push back from the scientific community (in this case, a physicist) against the use of post-modern literary theory to understand science.

    There were several criticisms:

    1. The post modern theorists didn’t really understand the scientific terms that they were using and were simply decorating their prose with scientific terminology in order to sound more impressive.

    2. An analogy is simply an analogy. When you say something in human behavior is like fluid dynamics, it doesn’t mean that the equations for fluid dynamics can be used on human behavior. An analogy is not the same thing as, well, the same thing.

    I believe the misuse of scientific analogies is discussed in the following:

    Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science

    By the way, all of this is not against using narratives or constructs to understand the world but against the misuse of science. That was the real center of the discussion.

    Tell me what I’ve got wrong in the comments. Tell me a little something about human fallibility….

    Posted in Blogging, Book Notes, Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, Military Affairs, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Predictions | 11 Comments »

    Duel in slow time

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 1st April 2011 (All posts by )

    [ by Charles Cameron — cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    In slomo –
    as in the slow rotating
    backseat of a hurtling flipping car –
    at that most divine of speeds at which
    concentration arrives and
    all is revealed –
    as when Krishna himself bears
    each arrow loosed from his
    left-handed archer Arjuna’s drawn bow
    to some fine warrior’s
    we see: all contest is
    each edged duel, a true duet…

    Posted in Arts & Letters, India, Philosophy, Poetry, Religion | 3 Comments »

    A HipBone approach to analysis V: DARPA and storytelling

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 27th February 2011 (All posts by )

    [ cross posted from DIME/PMESII ]

    I seem to be writing some mini-essays that braid together more of the various strands of my interests and thinking than usual – geopolitics and poetics, games and reality, warfare and peacemaking.

    Here’s one that I posted yesterday, on a list devoted to modeling and simulation, in a topic discussing DARPA’s STORyNET briefing tomorrow.


    DARPA and Storytelling:


    Sophocles, pushing the human mind to its limit, genius, wrote the Oedipus trilogy. His plays, which turn on the parallel guilt and innocence of a man who – unknowingly, the fated plaything of cruel gods — kills his father and sleeps with his own mother, were performed by the great actors of his day in the great amphitheater of Epidaurus, the sanctuary of Aesculapius to which the Greeks went for healing.

    Freud, also brilliant, also concerned with the human mind and healing, reduced Sophocles’ plot to his own “Oedipus Complex” – which he would then painstakingly find in the murkiest regions of his patients’ mental processing.

    Further reduced, the concept becomes a word of abuse so radical it takes two letters, one hyphen and ten asterisks to print it – and finally, it slides into song and speech as mofo, all meaning leached from the two words, let alone the complex insights of Sophocles or Freud.


    Story, you might say, has a trunk, limbs, branches, lesser branches, twigs…

    Trees and ferns, we now know, are fractal. The mathematical “story” of a tree is arguably just one story: branching. Different trees branch differently, the yucca pushing out its limbs in 90 degree rotation, oaks and birches, beeches and cottonwoods, poplars and ferns each having their own mathematical characteristics, and each individual of each species answering to certain specifics of context – water, sunlight, wind forming clusters of trees into copses.

    For the purposes of lumber, the “trunk” of a story may be enough, or trunk and limbs, mofo or m*****-f***** an adequate telling of Sophocles tale. For a winter wood supply, cords of sawn branches, for a camp fire, some branches some twigs — for Sophocles, for Ansel Adams, the one pushing the human mind to its limit, genius, only the full tree, root, stem, branch, and leaf, rich in all its detail and context, will suffice.


    So there are six stories, there is only one, the stories in the ocean of stories are infinite, as Salman Rushdie, another of those who pushes the human mind to its limit tells us:

    … the Water Genie told Haroun about the Ocean of the Streams of Story, and even though he was full of a sense of hopelessness and failure the magic of the Ocean began to have an effect on Haroun. He looked into the water and saw that it was made up of a thousand thousand thousand and one different currents, each one a different color, weaving in and out of one another like a liquid tapestry of breathtaking complexity; and [the Water Genie] explained that these were the Streams of Story, that each colored strand represented and contained a single tale. Different parts of the Ocean contained different sorts of stories, and as all stories that had ever been told and many that were still in the process of being invented could be found here, the Ocean of the Streams of Story was in fact the biggest library in the universe. And because the stories were held here in fluid form, they retained the ability to change, to become new versions of themselves, to join up with other stories and so become yet other stories …

    — and as Edward Tufte, another of the pushers of the mind, illustrates for us in his beautiful book, Visual Explanations, in a page or two of which this snapshot gives only a poor glimpse.


    So there is utility in the single equation, the single story line, and there is use for the outlines of the major branchings and knowing the main varieties of trees, and there is beauty and insight and pushing the mind to its limit in the whole tree, individual and splendid in all its detail, the great story, magnificently branching from its seed-story under the influence of a Shakespeare, a Kafka, a Dostoyevsky, a Borges, a Rushdie…

    The full spectrum of understanding that narrative might bring us will be found when the full spectrum from “one story” through “six” or “sixteen” to Rushdie’s “infinity” is taken into account, when we weigh the insights of the great novelists and poets of all cultures – Rumi, Shakespeare, Kalidasa, the anonymous singers of the Navajo Beautyway – alongside those of the critic, the psychoanalyst, the guy who puts together the Cliff’s Notes, and the editor with a headache’s headline version of the tale.

    We need the forester and the lumber baron, the watercolorist and the fellow who identifies the habitats of the Lepidopterae

    Narrative goes all the way from the obvious platitude to the work of genius. Somewhere along that scale, each one of us will have our area of interest, the place where our skill set fits and perhaps stretches. Numbers of board feet and likely return on investment can be assessed by quantitative means: the beauty of a particular oak tree in the eye of the novelist John Fowles is entirely qualitative, as is the language he must use to describe it.


    I suspect DARPA may be stuck at the quantitative end of the spectrum. The mind of a Musab al-Suri demands a finer level of interpretation.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Miscellaneous, National Security, Philosophy, Poetry, Tech | 3 Comments »

    DoubleQuotes and Questions

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 27th January 2011 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    You know, I really enjoy building my DoubleQuotes. They can be entirely frivolous, as is this one, for instance:

    with its touch of gothic — a taste I share with my friend Bryan Alexander.

    Or they can work like a Necker cube, offering opposite framings with which to view a single topic — in this case, video games.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anti-Americanism, Arts & Letters, Aviation, Christianity, Diversions, Environment, Human Behavior, Islam, Middle East, National Security, Obama, Philosophy, Poetry, Quotations, Religion, Rhetoric, Russia, Science, Terrorism | 5 Comments »

    Untangling two words

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 17th January 2011 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    I’d like to take one small data-point and bring it into sharp focus with what lit critics would call a close reading of a two-word phrase from one of Loughner’s videos.

    Maybe it’s because in French conscience means both what we’d call conscience and consciousness in English, when I read the weirdly stilted prose of Jared Loughner with its curious insistence on syllogism, the phrase “conscience dreaming” suggested “conscious dreaming” to me — and I wondered whether Loughner wasn’t perhaps thinking of the activity called “lucid dreaming” in which one knows while dreaming that one is dreaming, and begins to “direct” the dream in much the same way in which a film-maker directs a film.

    The first quote in this DoubleQuote is from one of Loughner’s videos — the second, which confirms my hypothesis, quotes a friend of his.

    I am not suggesting that “lucid dreaming” is responsible for Loughner’s actions — I’m not sure that anything or anyone is, including Loughner himself.

    My point is that here as elsewhere, figuring out what the allusions in an unfamiliar rhetoric mean is an important step in understanding the mental processes that produce it.

    Lucid dreaming is one clue in the tangled mess that was Loughner’s state of mind that day…

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Human Behavior, Miscellaneous, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Rhetoric, Society | 10 Comments »

    An Iridology of the Sciences?

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 3rd January 2011 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    I for one am delighted to know that we can now play around with the iridology of the sciences, using the software available on the Science-Metrix Ontology Explorer site to view which fields have journals which cross-link to journals in other fields…

    Seriously — that lower image is of the Field Citation Wheel that you can find, suitably enlarged for easy viewing, on that site.


    And it’s heartening for me to know, for instance — taking a closer look at the segment of that image that’s roughly east north-east — that scientific journals do have some links on their pages to works of theology or philosophy:

    , you’ll notice, has more links than history, philosophy, theology, the social sciences (even counting them twice), economics, business, the arts and humanities combined.

    My own field, theology, has to share its thin segment with philosophy, and you can guess how small the number of links to articles on Islamic apocalyptic probably are…

    Which is, in part, why I wonder whether a project like the ETH’s Living Earth Simulator will really manage to map such things as, well, a possible outbreak of global jihadist Mahdism and its consequences.


    But then I look at another gorgeous graphic from the same source, focusing in on a part of the network of knowledge that interests me, and I can just faintly make out, lower left, entirely isolated, the field of music

    What splendid isolation! That’s all of Bach, mind you – and all the Beatles, too.


    Seriously, though:

    • It’s fascinating to be able to see how the various branches of knowledge cross-reference each other.
    • Visual data representation is a gorgeous, fantastic, field.
    • Mapping the all-of-everything is an irresistable lure for keen minds
    • I’m betting the humanities will prove to be at least as good at it as the sciences.
    • And I recall, not without a pang of regret, the time when my beloved Theology was Queen of the Sciences, and one might converse with Abelard on the streets of Paris…

    Posted in Academia, Arts & Letters, Diversions, France, History, Internet, Miscellaneous, Morality and Philosphy, Music, Philosophy, Religion | Comments Off on An Iridology of the Sciences?

    A Baghdad DoubleTake and other matters

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 31st December 2010 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    Zenpundit recently posted a video of a terrific hour-plus-long speech by Doug Hofstadter – one of the best videos I’ve ever taken the time to watch – in which Hofstadter, the guy who brought us Godel Escher Bach and much more, talked about analogy and suggested that it’s at the very core of human cognition.

    I posted a poem and some comments in response — they got a bit mangled in terms of formatting, which may be fixed by the time you read this – and Zen then posed a question:

    Charles – there’s a large portion of visual imagery in the passage you cite: do you think the incorporation of imagery (thus activating a powerful region of the brain) enhances or distorts the underlying conceptual connection in an analogical construction?

    That’s what set me off this time…


    I think of a poem as a braiding of three strands: a strand of sound or music, a strand of image, and a strand of meaning. For convenience, I’ll usually include a fourth – wit – but it’s actually more like a pearl that can be threaded on the strand of meaning.

    From my POV, the poem is thus essentially a screenplay for the mind’s eye – and if a poem begins with strong music, at the very least I’d like it to end with strong music, if it starts with wit or wordplay, I’d like it to end with that too, and if it has imagery, I’d like the images to unspool in a way not unlike the images in a movie…

    When I’m reading poems by others, and particularly if I’m teaching a poetry class, I’ll sometimes notice a sudden disjunction in one of the three strands. If it’s clearly for effect, all’s well and good – but if it’s unconscious, unintended, it will always reveal an aspect of the poem that hasn’t been worked through yet, and applying conscious attention to it will result in the emergence of new material from the unconscious store that enriches the final product. Sometimes, that kind of attention reaches something that was psychologically difficult, a disjunction in soul if you like – and the result of moving through it to the finished poem can be very much like a breakthrough insight in therapy.

    But “poetry is not a hospital” – if Apollinaire didn’t say that, and I used to think he did, I shall.


    From my POV, therefore, there are analogies of sound, analogies of meaning, and analogies of image. There’s an analogy of sound between tomb and womb – we call it rhyme. There’s certainly an analogy of meaning – whence we come at birth, whither we go at death. And if you like, there’s an analogy of image – when I think of the “twinning” of those two words, I see life itself as running across a brief stretch of grass between two caves…

    When as here, the analogy runs across all three braids, you have a very powerful “conceit” or poetic device.

    The graphic match, together with sonic rhyme, between the visuals of a hotel room fan and the rotors of a helicopter at the beginning of Apocalypse Now parallels the sense of explosive heat and frustrated inaction of Captain Willard trapped in Saigon with the sense of freedom and clarity he feels when sent on mission up-river – again, an analogy in three strands.


    But analogy can also cut across the senses in a different way. Here’s Hermann Hesse‘s view of the Glass Bead Game:

    Throughout its history the Game was closely allied with music, and usually proceeded according to musical or mathematical rules. One theme, two themes, or three themes were stated, elaborated, varied, and underwent a development quite similar to that of the theme in a Bach fugue or a concerto movement . A Game, for example, might start from a given astronomical configuration, or from the actual theme of a Bach fugue, or from a sentence out of Leibniz or the Upanishads, and from this theme, depending on the intentions and talents of the player, it could either further explore and elaborate the initial motif or else enrich its expressiveness by allusions to kindred concepts.
    Beginners learned how to establish parallels, by means of the Game’s symbols, between a piece of classical music and the formula for some law of nature. Experts and Masters of the Game freely wove the initial theme into unlimited combination.

    That’s analogy cutting across disciplines, and across sensory modalities too.

    There was a period of about a dozen years when I almost completely stopped writing poetry, and concentrated on devising a variant on Hesse’s game that would be playable on a napkin in a café – conceiving of it as an art that would combine tight form (think: sonnet, sonata) with the entire spectrum or palette of human thought, visual, verbal, numerical, aural.

    Hesse again:

    The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.

    And that was written before the world wide web allowed us to mingle visual, verbal, numerical and aural elements so directly in a single presentation.

    You can imagine how delighted I was, therefore, to stumble upon Sven Birkerts‘ writing:

    There are tremendous opportunities, and we are probably on the brink of the birth of whole new genres of art which will work through electronic systems. These genres will likely be multi-media in ways we can’t imagine. Digitalization, the idea that the same string of digits can bring image, music, or text, is a huge revolution in and of itself. When artists begin to grasp the creative possibilities of works that are neither literary, visual, or musical, but exist using all three forms in a synthetic collage fashion, an enormous artistic boom will occur.

    That’s what the HipBone Games were all about…


    That’s what I was reaching for, back in the days before I even called my games the HipBone Games — when they were still TenStones Games played on a board whose geometry I borrowed from the Sephirotic Tree – when I played TS Eliot‘s poem, The dove descending, in juxtaposition to Vaughan Williams‘ piece for violin and orchestra, The lark ascending

    …matching music with poem, descent with ascent, dove with lark, and the natural world of the English countryside with the “wrought” world of Eliot’s London in the pentecostal Blitz.

    I don’t think Stephen or I had web browsers at the time – we played that game using AOL’s early texting function, so the music was entirely in the mind…

    And I still think of that game as one of the loveliest expressions of the “hipbone” art.

    Hesse’s game really is, for me, the continuation of poetry by other means…


    But then it turns out that analogy is an incredibly powerful aspect of human thought – and one that, IMO, we haven’t explored very deeply, perhaps precisely because it jumps silos and disciplinary boundaries, and creates fresh insight

    …which is pretty much as Doug Hofstadter was suggesting in that video Zen posted.

    And so this fundamentally analogical frame of mind — which I had developed in a poetic and aesthetic context and applied to the symbolism so dear to the poets, cultural anthropologists, analytical psychologists, and comparative theologians and the like — turned out to be highly applicable and seen as highly creative when applied to real world issues, when I got a job for a couple of years at a small think-tank just outside DC.

    Because if linear causality is the warp of the weave of the world, acausal patterning is its woof (or weft) – and frankly, our current techno-civilization is hopelessly warped in the direction of warp, and has very little understanding of woof, of weft, of pattern — of what can only be learned from analogy.


    Not that there doesn’t have to be enormous care taken to avoid over-reading parallels. But consider the immediacy of the impact of this DoubleQuote, which I composed in 2003:

    QUOBaghdad 1917 2003

    Eh, Zen?

    Santayana echoes Marx refracts Hegel:

    Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
    Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it

    Seen from another angle: history has rhymes to match its reasons

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Diversions, History, Iraq, Music, Personal Narrative, Philosophy, Poetry | Comments Off on A Baghdad DoubleTake and other matters

    North Korea, Juche and “sacred war”

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 27th December 2010 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    Okay, I am now clear that the correct translation of the Korean phrase that has sometimes been rendered “holy war” in recent news reports is in fact “sacred war”.

    I’d been wondering just what an atheist state was doing threatening “holy” or “sacred” war…


    Juche is the state philosophy of North Korea, and is considered to be the 10th largest religion in the world by the portal, ranking above Judaism, Baha’i, Jainism and Shinto. It developed out of Marxist-Leninism and has more recently incorporated Confucian elements.

    Sunny Lee, writing in a 2007 article in Asia Times titled God forbid, religion in North Korea?, quotes Han Sung-joo, a former South Korean foreign minister, as saying “There is a deification and a religious emotional element [in juche] in the North. The twinned photos of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il are everywhere. Every speech says Kim Il-sung is still alive. I think if I stayed another two weeks, I might even see Kim Il-sung. The country worships someone who is deceased, as if he were alive.”

    One Christian site goes so far as to call Juche a “counterfeit Christianity:

    Recognizing the power of Christianity, Kim wanted it to be directed at himself. So he took Christianity, removed God the Father, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, set up himself, his wife and son as the new trinity, and called it Juche. At its core, Juche is a counterfeit Christianity that is deathly afraid of true version, and rightfully so.

    I suppose a close comparison here would be with the cult which Robert Jay Lifton described in Revolutionary immortality: Mao Tse-tung and the Chinese cultural revolution.


    In On Juche in Our Revolution, vol II (published in English, 1977), Kim Il Sung writes:

    No military threat of the US imperialists, however, can frighten the Korean people. If, in the end, the US Imperialists and their stooges unleash a new war against the DPRK, in defiance of our people’s patient efforts to prevent a war and maintain peace and the unanimous condemnation of the peace-loving people of the world, the Korean people will rise as one in a sacred war to safeguard their beloved country and the revolutionary gains. They will completely annihilate the aggressors.

    So the “sacred war” phrasing has been around for a while.

    I hope to learn more — these in the meantime are some clues to be going on with…

    Posted in Anti-Americanism, Christianity, International Affairs, Military Affairs, National Security, Philosophy, Religion, Rhetoric | 8 Comments »

    Martyrdom, messianism and Julian Assange

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 23rd December 2010 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    Martyr and messiah are two of the more intense “roles” in the religious vocabulary, and unlike mystics and saints, both martyrs and messiahs tend to have an impact, not just within their own religious circles but in the wider context of the times.

    Martyr and messiah are also words that can be bandied about fairly loosely — so a simple word-search on “messiah” will reveal references to a third-person platform game with some gunplay and the white messiah fable in Avatar, while a search on “martyr” might tell you how to become a martyr for affiliate networks, just as a search on “crusade” will turn up crusades for justice or mental health – my search today even pointed me to a crusade for cloth diapers.

    1. Martyrdom and messianism in WikiLeaks

    Unsurprisingly, perhaps, both terms crop up occasionally in WikiLeaks, with the Government of Iraq, for instance, banning use of the word “martyr” for soldiers who died in the war with Iran, and US diplomats wiring home a report by an opposition psychiatrist to the effect that “Morally, Chavez [of Venezuela] combines a sense of tragedy and romanticism (a desire for an idyllic world) to project a messianic image.” Indeed, the whole paragraph is choc-a-bloc with that kind of imagery, and worth quoting in full:

    Ideologically, Chavez wants to project an image of a “utopian socialist,” which de Vries described as someone who is revolutionary, collectivist, and dogmatic. In reality, de Vries argues, Chavez is an absolute pragmatist when it comes to maintaining power, which makes him a conservative. Coupled with Chavez’ self-love (narcissism), sense of destiny, and obsession with Venezuelan symbolism, this pragmatism makes Chavez look more like fascist, however, rather than a socialist. Morally, Chavez combines a sense of tragedy and romanticism (a desire for an idyllic world) to project a messianic image. De Vries, however, said Chavez is a realist who uses morals and ethics to fit the situation.

    PM Netanyahu of Israel was using the term “messianic” with a little more precision when he described the Iranian regime as “crazy, retrograde, and fanatical, with a Messianic desire to speed up a violent ‘end of days.'”

    2. Julian Assange in the role of martyr

    The words martyr and messiah, then, carry a symbolic freight that is at the very least comparable to that of flags and scriptures – so it is interesting that both terms crop up in the recent BBC interview with Julian Assange.

    My reading of the interview suggests that it is Assange himself who introduces the meme of martyrdom, though not the word itself, when he answers a question about the impact of the sexual accusations against him, “What impact do you think that will have on your organisation and what sort of figure do you think you, Julian Assange, cut in the face of all this. How will you be regarded? What will it do to you?” with the response, “I think it will be quite helpful for our organisation.”

    In the follow up, interviewer John Humphrys twice uses the word “martyr” explicitly:

    Q: Really? You see yourself as a martyr then?
    JA: I think it will focus an incredible attention on the details of this case and then when the details of this case come out and people look to see what the actions are compared to the reality of the facts, other than that, it will expose a tremendous abuse of power. And that will, in fact, be helpful to this organisation. And, in fact, the extra focus that has occurred over the last two weeks has been very helpful to this organisation.


    Q: Just to answer that question then. You think this will be good for you and good for Wikileaks?
    JA: I’ve had to suffer and we’ve had incredible disruptions.
    Q: You do see yourself as a martyr here.
    JA: Well, you know, in a very beneficial position, if you can be martyred without dying. And we’ve had a little bit of that over the past ten days. And if this case goes on, we will have more.

    3. Julian Assange in the role of messiah

    If the role of martyr implies, at minimum, that one suffers for a cause, that of messiah implies that one leads it in a profound transformation of the world. Both terms are now found in association with the word “complex” – which applies whenever a individual views himself or herself as a martyr or messiah – but a “messianic complex” is presumably more worrisome than a “martyr complex” if only for the reason that there are many more martyrs than messiahs, many more willing to suffer for a cause than to lead it.

    It is accordingly worth noting that it is the interviewer, John Humphrys, who introduces both the word “messianic” and the concept of a “messianic figure” into the interview, although Assange makes no effort to wave it away…

    Q: Just a final thought. Do you see yourself… as some sort of messianic figure?
    JA: Everyone would like to be a messianic figure without dying. We bringing some important change about what is perceived to be rights of people who expose abuses by powerful corporations and then to resist censorship attacks after the event. We are also changing the perception of the west.
    Q: I’m talking about you personally.
    JA: I’m always so focussed on my work, I don’t have time to think about how I perceive myself… I had time to perceive myself a bit more in solitary confinement. I was perfectly happy with myself. I wondered what that process would do. Would I think “my goodness, how have I got into this mess, is it all just too hard?”
    The world is a very ungrateful place, why should I continue to suffer simply to try and do some good in the world. If the world is so viciously against it ,why don’t I just go off and do some mathematics or write some books? But no, actually, I felt quite at peace.
    Q: You want to change the world?
    JA: Absolutely. The world has a lot of problems and they need to be reformed. And we only live once. Every person who has some ability to do something about it, if they are a person of good character, has the duty to try and fix the problems in the environment which they’re in.
    That is a value, that, yes, comes partly from my temperament. There is also a value that comes from my father, which is that capable, generous men don’t create victims, they try and save people from becoming victims. That is what they are tasked to do. If they do not do that they are not worthy of respect or they are not capable.

    4. Julian Assange, martyr and messiah?

    I think it is clear that both Assange and his interviewer are in effect reframing the religious terms “martyr” and “messiah” in non-religious, basically psychological senses — although I don’t suppose Assange is exactly claiming to have the two “complexes” I mentioned above.

    Here’s what’s curious about this reframing, from a religious studies point of view:

    Assange’s implicit acceptance of a “messianic” role undercuts the specific force of the role of “martyr” – one who gives his life for the cause. “Everyone” he says, “would like to be a messianic figure without dying.” Assange wouldn’t exactly object to being a martyr without dying, too.

    Posted in Christianity, Human Behavior, International Affairs, Internet, Iran, Iraq, Islam, Israel, Judaism, Media, Morality and Philosphy, National Security, Personal Narrative, Philosophy, Privacy, Religion, Rhetoric, Society, The Press, USA | 9 Comments »

    The WikiLeaks paradox

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 17th December 2010 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    Since my “HipBone” analytical approach, like the HipBone Games which inspired it, is based on networks of linkages between one “representable” (concept, fact, quote, anecdote, sound, musical phrase, image, video clip, statistic, cultural form, person) and another, there’s a special place in my analytic thinking for those representables which are self-referential – the category that gave rise to Douglas Hofstadter’s celebrated book, Gödel, Escher, Bach.

    Indeed, I have a special glyph that I use in my games to notate ideas that are self-referential:

    dragon eats


    Okay, enough poetry for now.

    The WikiLeaks business gives rise to one such self-referential puzzle – the one famously minted in classical times under the Latin tag: Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    Just how you tend to interpret the tag in English may depend on whether you read “custodes” as “guards” or “watchmen” – who shall guard the guards, who shall oversee the overseers, who shall watch over the watchmen…

    But what does this have to do with WikiLeaks?


    Let me rephrase it: Who will leak the leakers?

    I mean, if transparency is so universal a good, will Julian Assange drop his encryption and allow us all (IC and foreign equivalents included) to access WikiLeaks databases at any time, leaking whatever we think might be of interest without consulting him?

    Or is the point that some opacity, some secrecy is good — and Julian Assange believes he knows which secrecy that is, and can be trusted to reveal that which should be revealed and keep secret that which should be kept secret?


    Perhaps the WikiLeaks paradox is a koan.

    Posted in Philosophy | 9 Comments »

    Update: Wikileaks and Cryptographic Mythology

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 4th December 2010 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    It seems my intuition of a Lovecraft connection with WikiLeaks was right, as was Jean’s suggestion that the MARUTUKKU quote is “more specific and extensive and ‘mythological'” than the translations of Enuma Elish she’d found on the net. I dropped Anders Sandberg a line letting him know I’d quoted him in my earlier post, and he graciously responded with this clarification of the mystery:

    I think the MARUTUKKU name/description is from the Simon Necronomicon, which did its best to shoehorn mythology into the mythos, and might explain the different translation. Of course, one might argue that that book is a real, a hoax posing as real, real posing as a hoax, or both at the same time.

    Anders, currently a staff member with the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford (which name strikingly reminds me of the Bright Futures Institute in Qom, Oxford’s parallel in the Iranian universe), is also known for his writings on Mage: the Ascension and other role-playing games — see for instance this account of the Asatru in M:tA.


    Bryan Alexander Steve Burnett

    The bearded, theremin-wielding mage Steve Burnett [left] also noted the origin of the MARUTUKKU quote in the Simon Necronomicon in his comment on my no-less-bearded mage-friend [right] Bryan Alexander‘s blog Infocult — which features a rich vein of gothic imaginings and runs with the subtitle “We haunt every medium we make”.

    My warm regards to all…

    Posted in Diversions, Iran, Philosophy | 14 Comments »


    Posted by onparkstreet on 4th December 2010 (All posts by )

    Cromagnum, in response to my post on Chesterton, has posted a useful and informative comment here. It reads, in part (an excerpt from Eugenics and Other Evils follows):

    The Socialist system, in a more special sense than any other, is founded not on optimism but on original sin. It proposes that the State, as the conscience of the community, should possess all primary forms of property; and that obviously on the ground that men cannot be trusted to own or barter or combine or compete without injury to themselves. Just as a State might own all the guns lest people should shoot each other, so this State would own all the gold and land lest they should cheat or rackrent or exploit each other. It seems extraordinarily simple and even obvious; and so it is. It is too obvious to be true. But while it is obvious, it seems almost incredible that anybody ever thought it optimistic.

    Pundita has written a tour de force response to my post on Senator Richard Lugar: “Wikileaks plus first disbursements from 2009 US aid bill for Pakistan already under scrutiny for graft. Senator Richard Lugar please take note.”

    In a wide ranging post, she makes note of three key issues:

    1. Congressional oversight: If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind around the concept that vital information would be withheld from key congressional defense/intelligence committees — which can’t make informed recommendations without such data — while thousands of low-level civilian government and military employees had access to the data, you should listen to the interview; it’s enough to make your blood boil if you’re an American.

    2. Allegations of corruption in the distribution of aid monies: Two months after his remarks came the news that even the first small disbursements were already in trouble due to charges of corruption. Because aid monies disbursed to the Pakistani government become the sovereign property of the government and thus immune to oversight the 2009 aid bill aimed to get around the problem by disbursing the money to NGOs. The workaround simply opened another avenue for graft:

    3. The sometimes head-scratching priorities and decision-making of American officials: Yet the revelation doesn’t fully explain why the U.S. military and executive and congressional branches have consistently made bad calls on Pakistan because this has been going on for more than a half century — ever since the U.S. first became involved with Pakistan. Yet these bad calls weren’t seen as such until NATO floundered in Afghanistan. That finally put a crimp in the style of Washington’s anti-Russia crowd but over decades the crowd and its counterpart in Europe looked the other way while Pakistan ran riot because they saw the country as a weapon first against the Soviet Union then against Russia.

    No matter who wins the presidential election in 2012, I wager that many of the structural problems that have plagued our foreign policy in recent years will remain. One of the most appealing aspects of the Tea Party movement is its “pay attention!” ethos. Complain about elites all you want, they can’t cause so many problems if we citizens are performing our own oversight functions.

    Update: Thanks for the link, Professor Reynolds!

    There are some very good comments in the comments section. I will try and respond more fully at a later date.

    Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan, Arts & Letters, Bioethics, Book Notes, Christianity, Civil Society, Conservatism, Elections, International Affairs, Military Affairs, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Society | 10 Comments »

    A DoubleQuote for Anders

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 3rd December 2010 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    One of my hobbies is finding apposite quotes to juxtapose — I call them DoubleQuotes and think of them as twin pebbles dropped into the mind-pool for the pleasure of watching the ripples…

    And I particulartly enjoy it when one of my DoubleQuotes manages to span different sensory streams — aural, visual, verbal, numerical, cinematic — as here, with text and image.

    This one’s for Anders Sandberg.


    I’d been carrying around the quote from WikiLeaks for a few days, but it was running across the Dresden Codak via Anders’ Andart blog today that gave me the second “dot” to connect with the first.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Blogging, Diversions, Iran, Islam, Philosophy, Quotations | 5 Comments »

    A Hipbone Approach IV: Polar bears and polar opposites

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 12th November 2010 (All posts by )

    [ cross-posted from Zenpundit ]

    Norwegian photographer Arne Nævra took second prize in the "Our world" category of the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2007 competition

    Norwegian photographer Arne Nævra took second prize in the "Our world" category of the Shell Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2007 competition with this photo

    Bruce Sterling‘s State of the World 2010 conversation with my online friend Jon Lebkowsky on the Well’s “Inkwell” forum this year was rich in concept and language as one might expect. This in particular caught my eye:

    It’s like looking at your SUV and seeing drowning polar bears. Just a minority viewpoint.

    Two concepts, two dots to connect: SUVs and polar bears. Sterling chose those two concepts, no doubt, because the connection between them is non-obvious in the sense that a dictionary definition of SUV won’t contain a reference to polar bears, heck, even an encyclopedia article is unlikely to, and the reverse is also true — and obvious, in the sense that the “minority” in question can easily connect these two otherwise quite distinct and separate dots, the connection being “climate change” aka “global warming” or more specifically an entire complex dynamic systems analysis incorporating the process by which an aggregate of comparatively large and frequently used gasoline-powered internal combustion engines adds incrementally to a trend in the global weather…

    Not that any of this should surprise us: Sterling’s readers presumably know that SUVs are a convenient stand-in for “gas guzzlers” and thus for the whole panoply of cars and trucks, and more abstractly for our planetary tendency to technologize our environment into greater convenience and less sustainability — and polar bears, while Sterling may like the look of them in photos, documentaries, zoos or on the occasional visit to the Arctic, serve here as a marker for the entire notion of environmental degradation, a massive die-out of species and such other non-Arctic phenomena as the loss of mountain tops in Appalachia and of rain forests in the Amazon and elsewhere.

    So Sterling has played two “concepts” on the board of “connect the dots” and asserted that for some people the connection will be obvious, while for others it will be invisible — which in term of connecting the dots means it might as well not exist.


    Indeed, some will argue that while both dots — SUVs and polar bears — exist, the connection implied between them does not.

    But that’s not the topic of my consideration here.


    Bruce Sterling’s interview gives me the pair of dots I intend to focus on today – SUVs and polar bears – but there’s another pair of dots that Sterling’s remarks forms part of, a pair in which Sterling stands at one pole (science, fiction) of the debate on climate change, with Rep. John Shimkus, R- IL, at the other (scripture, fact).

    Addressing the House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment’s hearing on Preparing for Climate Change on March 15, 2009, Rep. Shimkus made the following now-celebrated remarks:

    The right of free speech is a great right that we have in this country. Very few times we use it to espouse our theological religious beliefs, but we do have members of the clergy here as members of the panel. So I want to start with Genesis 8, verses 21 and 22. “Never again will I curse the ground because of man even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood, and never again will I destroy all living creatures as I have done. As long as the earth endures, seed time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease.” I believe that is the infallible word of God, and that is the way it is going to be for his creation.
    The second verse comes from Matthew 24. “And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” The earth will end only when God declares it is time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood.
    And I appreciate having panelists here who are men of faith, and we can get into the theological discourse of that position. But I do believe God’s word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.

    I have characterized Sterling’s stance as “science, fiction” and Rep. Shimkus as “scripture, fact” – but the connection between these two dots is far from clear, and it is at leasdt arguable whether the designations shouldn’t instead be “science, fact” for Sterling, and “scripture, fiction” for Rep. Shimkus.


    There’s a certain elegance to that – in fact it begs to be made into one of those diagrams that Jung and Levi-Strauss were fond of…

    Science fact fiction scripture

    Of course, fact and fiction may not be exclusive, opposed categories, and the same is true of scripture and science. Consider, for example, Kathleen Raine’s comment:

    myth, when a real event may be the enactment of a myth, is the truth of the fact and not the other way around”

    or the similar idea that CS Lewis once wrote to her

    What flows into you from the myth is not truth but reality (truth is always about something but reality is about which truth is) and therefore every myth becomes the father of innumerable truths…


    To return to Sterling… The game of connect the dots that Sterling plays here could be made into a simple systems diagram of the sort that Peter Senge used to illustrate his book, The Fifth Discipline, or the more elaborate form of systems dynamic model that Jay Forrester pioneered at MIT and Donella Meadows so eloquently preached in her essay, Places to Intervene in a System — complete with feedback loops in which shifts in global weather patterns and the exquisitely-patterned trails of SUVs dance the dance of complexity and emergence…

    Sterling’s version of the game is verbal, minimalist, and suggestive: two phrases, not often found next to each other, quietly juxtaposed, in such a way that the mind can supply the connection that makes the leap between them. In short: the man can write.

    The point I am laboring to make here has to do with communication: with getting an insight across to other people.

    Writers do this by dropping verbal markers (“SUVs” and “polar bears”) into sentences. Mostly, they write many such sentences in sequence (a blog post, an article, a book), so the reader skims or skips lightly from one marker to the next, like a stone skipping across a pond in the childhood game. Individual leaps and single connections between pairs of dots are not important here, the reader’s mind half-notes them as it passes to the next dots and the next, and such things as “conclusions” and “actionable items” or in some cases “character” and “plot” far outweigh the largely subliminal links and connections triggered along the way.

    From an analytic point of view, however, it is the connections that make the difference — whether those connections are causal, as in the steps of an argument; dynamic, as in the workings of a homeostatic system with feedback loops; emergent, as in the discernment of pattern at the edge of chaos; or associative, as with creative insight, metaphor and analogy.

    And in each of these cases, some form of language, diagram or model can spell out the connection, some form of software can embody that language, diagram or model, and some form of human insight can assimilate its meaning and apply it to further tasks of observation, orientation, decision and action…


    We may connect the dots for pleasure, as in one of those games that chains of restaurants print up to keep children busy while their parents talk over pancakes and bacon, or for benefit: and here the issue is not only to connect “past” dots correctly so as to understand what has already happened and can be viewed with twenty-twenty hindsight, but to make the great conceptual leap from past and present and propose connections with dots that will arise in the “future” (that zone of uncertainty): we write scenarios, we plan, we attempt to intuit an enemy’s next move, to make our own OODA loop tighter and meaner than his.

    And while in the short term we may succeed, in the mid and long term we may fail.

    At which point, as a depth psychologist might say, our projections tell us more about ourselves than about the reality we are attempting to grasp.

    I’d include here those moments when we “see” connections that don’t exist, as well as those in which we miss connections that do: hallucinatory links, and blind spots, both.


    Bruce Sterling, in the same forward-looking piece that contains that quick verbal aside about polar bears and SUVs, asks himself how anyone can give “a coherent picture of where your future is heading”. Without some such picture, indeed, we are at the mercy of vicious feedback loops and unintended consequences.

    Here’s how he thinks about what we might call medium term scenarios:

    Let’s imagine you’re three years old again. You want to give your Dad, back in 1974, a coherent picture of what 2010 looks like. You know, something very actionable, lucid and practical, where he can just slap the cash on the counter and everything works out great for the family. Okay: given what you know now about the present, tell me what you oughta tell him about 2010, back in 1974.

    Forrester-style modeling won’t carry us forward thirty five years: there are simply too many shades of grey and black swans between “now” and “soon”.

    And so task number one is an “ornithological” task — to peer into our own blind-spots, to see the invisible, to have what is called “vision”.

    And I don’t mean a gosh-darn brand-new marketing strategy. I mean a sense of the great tides that underlie epochal changes — the kind of vision that William Blake had, which allowed him to rail on about the “satanic mills” long before the word “ecology” was a dim spark in the mind of the fellow who coined the word. The sort that Leonardo da Vinci had.

    The sort, in fact, that contemplatives (all those Zen and Tibetan and Benedictine monks) and shamans (Lakota and Huichol and !Kung and all the rest) and artists (in words, in images, in sound, in film, in concept) all know about.


    Which is to say, the sort Einstein knew about — so that when the mathematician Jacques Hadamard asked him about his thought process, he answered:

    The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined.
    There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of sign, which can be communicated to others.
    The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

    That’s quite a mouthful, so I’d like to pick out a few points that maybe of relevance here.

    Let’s clear the word “muscular” out of the way first. Some of the ideational germs of Einstein’s most brilliant work, he tells us, are “muscular”. Many of us know that visual thinking is an important component of understanding: Einstein adds thinking “of muscular type” into the mix. His body is part of his mind, and he knows it. That’s important: Einstein is, in fact, connecting dots for us here linking mind and body. But he doesn’t just link dots in his response to Hadamard — he actually talks quite a bit about making connections.


    Einstein Tagore

    Einstein links to Tagore

    Let me rephrase his response to Hadamard the way I see the process he describes unfolding.

    He has a strong emotional desire to understand, in the way that “physics” understands — which is to say, “to arrive finally at logically connected concepts” of the nature of nature. He then turns away from logic and concepts, and — still under the sway of that desire — attends to the sensations of his body and to his internal field of vision. In response to that desire and from regions of the body and mind unspecified, certain “psychic elements” of a visual and some of muscular sort arise. These he says can be “combined” — he says also that he can “play” with them — but the play is, at least at first “vague”. Indeed it is precisely this “combinatory play” which appears to Einstein to be “the essential feature in productive thought”. It is only when these elements have been voluntarily played with and satisfactorily combined that Einstein begins, internally, to verbalize and “translate” the combinations he has perceived into some form of “logical construction in words or other kinds of sign, which can be communicated to others”.

    So we have three sorts of connection going on here: (i) an associative connectivity between imagistic and muscular “psychic elements” in the mode of play (ii) their “connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of sign” and (iii) the connections he can then present to others in the language of “logically connected concepts” — ie mathematical physics.


    In all of this, I would like to highlight (i) the (perhaps unexpected) importance of the body’s connection with the mind in human thinking, (ii) the significance of a deep desire for understanding as the attractor for the largely unconscious motions of body and mind, (iii) the role of play as the mode of thinking in which creative linking occurs, (iv) the ubiquity of connectivity as the ruling imperative in all phases from the initiation of play to the communication of theoretical physics.

    All four — body-mind, desire, play and connection — are key components in anything worthy of the name of vision.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Miscellaneous, Philosophy, Predictions, Science, Society | 1 Comment »

    Of Weaponry and Flags II

    Posted by Charles Cameron on 26th October 2010 (All posts by )

    YT in a comment on Zenpundit just pointed me to a quote from Virilio’s War and Cinema, Scott meanwhile suggested I might be interested in Meaning by Michael Polanyi – and between the two of them, I find myself wanting to make a trilogy of quotes that present the symbolic impact of flags from philosophical, psychological and neurological perspectives, thus (I hope) braiding together from somewhat disparate sources a simple, non-dualistic insight.

    From Michael Polanyi and Harry Prosch, Meaning, pp. 72-73:

    The focal object in symbolization, in contrast to the focal object in identification, is of interest to us only because of its symbolic connection with the subsidiary clues through which it became a focal object. What bears upon the flag, as a word bears upon its meaning, is the integration of our whole existence as lived in our country. But this means that the meaning of the flag (the object of our focal attention) is what it is because we have put our whole existence into it. We have surrendered ourselves to that “piece of cloth” (which would be all the flag could be perceived to be were we to try to view it in the indication way of recognizing meaning). It is only by virtue of our surrender to it that this piece of cloth becomes a flag and therefore becomes a symbol of our country.
    Some of the subsidiaries, then, that bear upon the flag and give it meaning are our nation’s existence and our diffuse and boundless memories of our life in it. These, however, not only bear upon the flag as other subsidiary clues bear upon their focal objects, but they also, in our surrender to the flag, become embodied in it. The flag thus reflects back upon its subsidiaries, fusing our diffuse memories. We cannot use a straight arrow to express this feature in our diagram, since such an arrow pictures only a straight, one-directional bearing-upon. We must make the arrow loop, in symbolization, in order to express the way our perception of the focal object also carries us back toward (and so provides us with a perceptual embodiment of) those diffuse memories of our own lives (i.e., of ourselves) which bore upon the focal object to begin with. This is how the symbol can be said to “carry us away.” In surrendering ourselves, we, as selves, are picked up into the meaning of the symbol.

    From Murray Stein, Jung’s map of the soul: an introduction, p 100:

    Life itself may be sacrificed for images such as the flag or the cross and for ideas like nationalism, patriotism, and loyalty to one’s religion or country. Crusades and countless other irrational or impractical endeavors have been engaged in because the participants felt, “This makes my life meaningful! This is the most important thing I’ve ever done.” Images and ideas powerfully motivate the ego and generate values and meanings. Cognitions frequently override and dominate instincts. In contrast to the impact of the instincts on the psyche — when one feels driven by a physical need or y — the influence of archetypes leads to being caught up in big ideas and visions. Both affect the ego in a similar way dynamically, in that the ego is taken over, possessed, and driven.

    And from Paul Virilio, War and cinema: the logistics of perception, pp. 5-6:

    War can never break free from the magical spectacle because its very purpose is to produce that spectacle: to fell the enemy is not so much to capture as to ‘captivate’ him, to instil the fear of death before he actually dies. From Machiavelli to Vauban, from von Moltke to Churchill, at every decisive episode in the history of war, military theorists have underlined this truth: ‘The force of arms is not brute force but spiritual force.’
    There is no war, then, without representation, no sophisticated weaponry without psychological mystification. Weapons are tools not just of destruction but also of perception – that is to say, stimulants that make themselves felt through chemical, neurological processes in the sense organs and central nervous system, affecting human reactions and even the perceptual identification and differentiation of objects

    Might one identify the “stimulant” aspect (Virilio) as the one that drives those in the battlefield under fire, and thus also their memories and reflections, while strategists, as thinkers, will be more inclined to see the significance of the “archetypal” aspect (Murray, Jung)?

    Virilio (like Boyd) is concerned with speed — and it seems plausible to me that we have three “speeds of thought” – instinctive, considered and contemplative – corresponding in rough outline to Maslow’s hierarchy, the instinctive being bodily and immediate, the considered being logical and rapid, and the contemplative being symbolic and gradual.

    But there’s a curious loop at work here, because the symbolic / archetypal may take its time to work its way into conscious awareness – in some cases we refer to the end result as “maturity” or “wisdom” – but it’s also somehow very close to instinct, as Jung suggests in “On the Nature of the Psyche”, Collected Works VIII, para. 415:

    Psychologically … the archetype as an image of instinct is a spiritual goal toward which the whole nature of man strives; it is the sea to which all rivers wend their way, the prize which the hero wrests from the fight with the dragon.

    If anyone wants to follow up this particular line of thought, I’d recommend Jolande Jacobi’s Complex / Archetype / Symbol in the psychology of C. G. Jung, and for the interweaving of image, archetype and instinct, Andrew Samuels, Jung and the Post-Jungians Chapter 2, pp. 19 ff.

    Posted in Human Behavior, Military Affairs, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Uncategorized, War and Peace | Comments Off on Of Weaponry and Flags II

    The Scribes and the Idea of Freedom

    Posted by David Foster on 3rd October 2010 (All posts by )

    I haven’t read Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom, but Erin O’Connor has been reading it and reviews it here. Based on her summary, it seems that Franzen’s basic opinion about freedom is this: he doesn’t like it very much. Consider for example these excerpts:

    …the American experiment of self-government, an experiment statistically skewed from the outset, because it wasn’t the people with sociable genes who fled the crowded Old World for the new continent; it was the people who didn’t get along well with others.…also: The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.

    Erin summarizes:

    “Freedom,” for Franzen, is a red herring. As a national ideal, it paralyzes us, preventing government from behaving with the rationalism of European nations (there are passages about this in the book). And, on a personal level, it is simply immiserating. Every last one of Franzen’s major characters suffers from the burden of too many choices.

    In a novel, of course, one cannot assume that opinions expressed by the characters are those of the author himself–but in this case, it seems to me that they likely are, and this opinion appears to be shared by most commenters at Erin’s post.

    What really struck me in Erin’s review is her remark that I am starting to think that this novel may amount to a fictional companion piece for Cass Sunstein’s Nudge..the referenced work being not a novel, but a book about social, economic, and political policy co-authored by Cass Sunstein, who is now runnning the Office of Regulatory and Information Policy for the Obama administration. (See a review of Nudge, Erin’s post about the book, and my post about some of Sunstein’s policy ideas.)

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Book Notes, Civil Liberties, Civil Society, Philosophy | 30 Comments »

    Charles Cameron on “In a Time of Religious Arousal”

    Posted by Zenpundit on 11th September 2010 (All posts by )

    Originally posted at

    Charles Cameron is the regular guest-blogger at Zenpundit, and has also posted at Small Wars Journal, All Things Counterterrorism, for the Chicago Boyz Afghanistan 2050 roundtable and elsewhere. Charles read Theology at Christ Church, Oxford, under AE Harvey, and was at one time a Principal Researcher with Boston University’s Center for Millennial Studies and the Senior Analyst with the Arlington Institute:

    In a Time of Religious Arousal

    by Charles Cameron

    We live in times of considerable religious arousal – witness the Manhattan mosque and cultural center controversy, the on-again, off-again Florida Quran burning, last week’s Glenn Beck rally at the Lincoln Memorial, Hindutva violence against Muslims in India, Muslim violence against Christians, the wars ongoing or drawing to an end in Afghanistan and Iraq, the threat of an Israeli or American attack on Iran, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and peace process… In each of these instances, religious arousal has a role to play.

    It would require considerable care, research, and craftsmanship to produce a nuanced and appropriately balanced view of human nature, the current state of the world, American, European and Islamic popular, polite and political opinions, the global admixture of peoples and approaches that characterize Islam, the history of violence, religious and otherwise, the braiding in different times and places of religion with politics, the roots of violence, the roots of peace and its meanings both as a state of cessation of conflict and as a state of contemplative calm…

    Such a presentation would require at least a book-length treatment, and cannot be trotted out every time some new spark emerges from the ancient fires… but perhaps I can lay out some of my own considerations about the topic here, in somewhat condensed form.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Academia, Christianity, History, Islam, Judaism, Middle East, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Society, War and Peace | 5 Comments »

    Interviewed by Steven Pressfield

    Posted by Zenpundit on 11th June 2010 (All posts by )

    Ahem…cough….hopefully Jonathan and the rest of the Chicago Boyz cast will not mind a brief moment of self-promotion.

    In an unusual turn of events, I was the subject of an interview by novelist and historian Steven Pressfield, author of Gates of Fire and The War of Art. Pressfield was also a participant here last year in our Xenophon Roundtable .

    Steve has an interview section on his newly redesigned site and I join a series of bloggers and authors like Instapundit Glenn Reynolds, Tim O’Brien and Seth Godin who have sat down, in a virtual sense, with Steve for a discussion about writing and creativity. Having done such interviews of others in the past, it was a good experience to be on the receiving end of questions, for which I thank Steve:

    The Creative Process: Mark Safranski

    SP: Mark, what is the ZenPundit philosophy? How do you decide which stories or posts (or even guest bloggers) you want to include? What criteria do you use?

    MS: Good question. My philosophy is something I also try to impart in my teaching.

    Marcus Aurelius said “Look beneath the surface; let not the several qualities of a thing nor its worth escape you.” Most phenomena have many dimensions, multiple causes and second and third order effects. To deal with all of this complexity, we simplify matters by looking at life through an organizing frame, which we might call a worldview, a schema, a paradigm or a discipline. Whatever we call our mental model, we tend to become wedded to it because it “works.” It helps us understand some of what we are looking at-and in getting good at applying our model, advances us professionally and brings prestige or material rewards. So we will defend it to the death, from all challengers!

    That’s getting carried away. Our mental model is just a tool or, more precisely, a cognitive lens. We need to be less attached to our habitual and lazy ways of looking at the world, put down our magnifying glass and pick up a telescope. Or, bifocals. Or, a microscope. Stepping back and applying different perspectives to a problem or an issue will give us new information, help us extrapolate, identify unintended consequences or spot connections and opportunities. When I do analytical pieces, I try to take that approach….

    Read the rest here.

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Blogging, Miscellaneous, Personal Narrative, Philosophy | 7 Comments »


    Posted by David Foster on 25th May 2010 (All posts by )

    Just for a change…Matt Ridley has some thoughts that are a bit more optimistic than most of things we read/write these days.

    Via Kevin Meyer.

    Posted in Economics & Finance, History, Philosophy | 2 Comments »

    Computation and Reality

    Posted by David Foster on 16th May 2010 (All posts by )

    Present-day computers are remarkably fast…a garden-variety laptop can do over a billion basic operations (additions, multiplications, etc) every second. The machine on which you are reading this can do more calculating, if you ask it nicely, than the entire population of the United States. And supercomputers are available which are much faster.

    Yet there are important problems for which all this computational capacity is completely inadequate. In their book Natural Computing, Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere describe the calculations necessary for the analysis of protein folding…which is important in biological research and particularly in drug design. Time must be divided into very short intervals of around one femtosecond, which is a million billionth of a second, and for each interval, the interactions of all the atoms involved in the process must be calculated. Then do it again for the next femtosecond, and the next, and the next…

    To perform this calculation for one millisecond of real time (which is apparently a biologically-interesting interval) would require 100,000 years on a conventional computer.
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    Posted in Medicine, Philosophy, Science, Tech | 9 Comments »

    Quote of the Day

    Posted by Chicago Boyz Archive on 9th April 2010 (All posts by )

    We must think things, not words, or at least we must constantly translate our words into facts for which they stand, if we are to keep to the real and the true.

    Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Law and Science and Science and Law, 12 Harv.L.Rev. 443, 460 (1889).

    Posted in Academia, Civil Liberties, Economics & Finance, Law, Management, Military Affairs, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Politics, Quotations, Rhetoric, USA | 2 Comments »

    Faustian Ambition

    Posted by David Foster on 22nd March 2010 (All posts by )

    AnoukAnge’s post on ambition, which included a range of quotations on the subject, inspired me to think that I might be able to write an interesting essay on the topic of ambition in Goethe’s Faust. This post is a stab at such an essay. Although this may seem like a strange thing to spend time blogging about at the moment, given all the political news and events, I believe this topic is in fact highly relevant to current affairs.

    The word “Faustian” is frequently used in books, articles, blog posts, etc on all sorts of topics. I think the image that most people have of Faust is of a man who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for dangerous knowledge: sort of a mad-scientist type. This may be true of earlier versions of the Faust legend, but I think it’s a misreading (or more likely a non-reading) of Goethe’s definitive version.

    Faust, at the time when the devil first appears to him, has devoted his entire life to the pursuit of knowledge–in many different scholarly disciplines–and is totally frustrated and in despair about the whole thing. It is precisely the desire to do something other than to pursue abstract knowledge that leads him to engage in his fateful bargain with Mephistopheles.

    If it’s not the pursuit of abstract knowledge, then what ambition drives Faust to sell his soul? C S Lewis suggests that his motivations are entirely practical: he wants “gold and guns and girls.” This is partly true, but is by no means the whole story.

    Certainly, Faust does like girls. Very early in the play, he encounters a young woman who strikes his fancy:

    FAUST: My fair young lady, may I make free
    To offer you my arm and company?
    GRETCHEN: I’m neither fair nor lady, pray
    Can unescorted find my way
    FAUST: God, what a lovely child! I swear
    I’ve never seen the like of her
    She is so dutiful and pure
    Yet not without a pert allure
    Her rosy lip, her cheek aglow
    I never shall forget, I know
    Her glance’s timid downward dart
    Is graven deeply in my heart!
    But how she was so short with me–
    That was consummate ecstasy!

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    Posted in Book Notes, Germany, Philosophy, Poetry, Political Philosophy | 20 Comments »

    Sleeping with the Enemy–Update

    Posted by David Foster on 18th March 2010 (All posts by )

    My post of a couple of weeks ago, Sleeping with the Enemy, (which expanded on an old novel by Arthur Koestler) has drawn some extensive and thoughtful remarks from Shrinkwrapped…definitely worth reading.

    Also, it is possible to discern a slight relationship between the woman called “Jihad Jane,” an American accused of terrorist activities, and Koestler’s protagonist Hydie Anderson. But as I noted in the post

    today’s Hydies are unlikely to share the educational and religious depth of the woman Koestler imagined

    To put it mildly, judging from appearances in this case. Looks like I called that one right!

    Posted in Anti-Americanism, Book Notes, Christianity, Civil Society, France, Philosophy, Political Philosophy | Comments Off on Sleeping with the Enemy–Update

    Sleeping with the Enemy

    Posted by David Foster on 26th February 2010 (All posts by )

    The Age of Longing by Arthur Koestler


    Why has the western world shown such loss of will in defending itself from radical Islamic terrorism? Why, indeed, do substantial numbers of people–particularly those who view themselves as intellectuals–endlessly make excuses for dictatorships and terrorist movements whose values are completely at odds with their own stated values–and even romanticize these goons? I think some clues can be found in a forgotten novel by Arthur Koestler.

    The Age of Longing (published in 1950) is set in Paris, “sometime in the 1950s,” in a world in which France–indeed all of western Europe–is facing the very real possibility of a Soviet invasion. Hydie Anderson, the protagonist, is a young American woman living in Paris with her father, a military attache. Hydie was a devout Catholic during her teens, but has lost her faith. She was briefly married, and has had several relationships with men, but in none of them has she found either physical or emotional satisfaction…she describes her life with a phrase from T S Eliot: “frigid purgatorial fires,” and she longs for a sense of connection:

    Hydie sipped at her glass. Here was another man living in his own portable glass cage. Most people she knew did. Each one inside a kind of invisible telephone box. They did not talk to you directly but through a wire. Their voices came through distorted and mostly they talked to the wrong number, even when they lay in bed with you. And yet her craving to smash the glass between the cages had come back again. If cafes were the home of those who had lost their country, bed was the sanctuary of those who had lost their faith.

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    Posted in Book Notes, Christianity, Civil Society, France, Philosophy, Political Philosophy, Terrorism | 22 Comments »

    Drucker and Lewis on Theory and Experience

    Posted by David Foster on 23rd November 2009 (All posts by )

    One of the issues raised in my post Myths of the Knowledge Society, and in the discussion thereof, is the question of formal, theory-based knowledge versus tacit, experience-based knowledge. What is the appropriate scope of use of each of these modalities?

    Several years ago, I excerpted some thoughts from Peter Drucker which are relevant to this subject. I think they’re worth re-posting here…
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    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Management, Philosophy | 9 Comments »