Our social/political spheres are undoubtedly hyper tribal, facilitated in no small part by the Internet and social media. A standard dichotomy for example is that of the left and right. Generally, one side is associated with a certain set of viewpoints and the other side is associated with an opposite set. It seems that when an individual who aligns with some group is determining which viewpoints should be included in their set of beliefs, rather than assessing each issue individually to decide where they stand, they are inclined to let the position taken by the group they affiliate with automatically determine their viewpoint.
Anyway, this is just a summary of a phenomenon that many would already understand. I was induced to write this post though because of a type of statement I have been seeing recently that really elucidates the matter. I forget where I saw it and forget what it was referring to, but here is an example statement:
I read it and have to agree with you. I hate to be on the same side as people like Ann Coulter but we have to have intellectual integrity.
I thoroughly dislike Ann Coulter due to her disagreeable attitude and viewpoints on many topics. However, is it rational for the position I adopt on some matter to be determined by the position someone I find disagreeable takes? Should one’s adopted position be determined from some set of predefined ‘axioms’ dictated by one’s affiliated ideology, or should each new question be freshly evaluated?
Of course, the former seems to often be the case in modern environments, where people let their affiliation automatically decide the position they adopt. Furthermore, in many cases affiliation loyalty means that they are likely to be intransigent in the light of evidence supporting an alternative view. I wonder if there is any legitimacy in one automatically basing their viewpoint on their affiliation. Perhaps at least to begin with? That is, rather than starting off with a suspension of judgement regarding some matter and adopting a position once some input has been received, initially adopt the position associated with the affiliation and if honest, update and change viewpoints if warranted by new information.
Reading The Graphic Spinoza, I was reminded of some thoughts I had concerning a quote from physicist Richard Feynman:
My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza – and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these Attributes, and Substances, all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now, how could we do that? Here’s this great Dutch philosopher, and we’re laughing at him. It’s because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Newton, there was Harvey studying the circulation of blood, there were people with methods of analysis by which progress was being made! You can take every one of Spinoza’s propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world – and you can’t tell which is right.
As pointed out at Hummings in the Fly-Bottle, “of course you can’t tell which of Spinoza’s propositions is true by looking at the world; you are not supposed to! Spinoza was not doing bad science; he was doing metaphysics”.
While Newton’s work has undoubtedly been foundational for our bedrock that is science, we need not judge the merits of one enterprise by the merits of another. Yes it was Newton’s framework and not Spinoza’s that set the stage for scientific progress to be made, but still, despite issues with its rationalist metaphysics, there is still good to be extracted and derived from Spinoza’s work. I don’t think that Feynman exhibits enough care in such matters to analyze the work in context. Spinoza’s philosophical enterprise is of significant historical, sociopolitical and ethical importance, laying the groundwork for the 18th-century Enlightenment and modern biblical criticism, including modern conceptions of the self and our place within the universe.
Newton was an ardent Christian and spent much time preoccupied with studying and dealing with literal interpretation of the Bible. Given the progress that has been made on understanding religion, Christianity and the Bible over the last few centuries, I shall appropriate Feynman’s quote from above and say that
I read about Newton’s work on occult studies and religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible, and I started to laugh. Now, how could that be? Here’s this great English natural philosopher, and I’m laughing at him. It’s because there was no excuse for it! In that same period there was Spinoza ushering in the modern age, shattering religious superstitions and offering insightful biblical criticism!
Before finishing, this brings to mind another quote from Feynman that I thought could be turned on its head: “Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”. Well, in a way ornithology is very useful to birds! Among other things, it plays an important role in avian conservation.
I recently read The Lean Startup for work. One idea central to the lean startup methodology is that of a minimum viable product (MVP): in product development, the MVP is a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future development.
This got me thinking about the possibility of a ‘minimum viable paper’ in academic writing. Appropriating the description of MVP above, a minimum viable paper would be something along the following lines: a paper with just enough material to expound the core ideas of the thesis and satisfy early reviewers, and to provide feedback for refining the paper and developing the details.
Could this save resources by reducing time and effort spent on papers that would ultimately be rejected, either because the thesis is not good enough or the reviewers are simply not inclined to accept it?
I have collected most of Bertrand Russell’s books over the years. Browsing through Dear Bertrand Russell recently, the following passage made me laugh and reminded me of how he is quite possibly the wittiest of all philosophers. A correspondent writes:
I am grateful for your autobiography. Thank you. I have already thanked God …
to which Russell replies
I am pleased that you liked my autobiography, but troubled that you thanked God for it, because that suggests that He has infringed my copyright.
The (amusing) Kardashian Index is a measure of the discrepancy between an academic’s social media profile and publication record based on the direct comparison of numbers of citations and Twitter followers.
I have whipped up an online Kardashian Index Calculator, largely because I have wanted to try out some website HTML scraping and Twitter API connecting.
The election of Donald “Buffoon” Trump got me thinking about the story of Kurt Gödel’s U.S. citizenship hearing and how he claimed to have discovered an inconsistency in the Constitution that could allow the U.S. to become a dictatorship.
Turns out there is some discussion and research of the topic:
- Gödel’s Loophole
- What was the flaw Kurt Gödel discovered in the US constitution that would allow conversion to a dictatorship?
WikiLeaks has recently released a collection of confidential documents that originated from within Hillary Clinton’s camp. They also claim that there will be more documents forthcoming within the next few months. Here are some articles on the matter:
- What Julian Assange’s War on Hillary Clinton Says About WikiLeaks
- WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange claims organisation will release ‘significant’ Hillary Clinton campaign data
- WikiLeaks founder says the problem with leaking material about Trump is that nothing can compare with ‘what comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth’
One thing that I find problematic about these releases is that they are confined to just one of the two main presidential candidates. It might very well be the case that Donald Trump has done a ton of things that would be similarly damaging to his campaign. Without omniscience, without knowing that there is no such damaging information about Donald Trump, is it right to only release damaging information about the one candidate you happen to have the dirt on?
Sure there is a sense in which it is appropriate to disclose such information for the sake of truth and transparency. But in a situation such as an election, where damaging revelations can effect the outcome, the lack of total knowledge and asymmetry with regards to candidate revelations feels problematic.
To quote Wikipedia, “In news media an echo chamber is a metaphorical description of a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an “enclosed” system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed, or otherwise underrepresented”.
The internet and social media have really increased the prevalence of echo chambers. Here are some articles on the phenomenon:
- Is anyone immune to the social media echo chamber?
- The web’s ‘echo chamber’ leaves us none the wiser
It has become apparent that Twitter is largely (at least for me) a left-wing echo chamber. This makes me wonder about the possibility of an opposite effect, whereby someone aligned with one end of a spectrum moves some degree away from it as they become averse to the regressiveness, amplification, repetition and uncritical reinforcement conduced by the echo chamber.
I became aware of the Young Turks and their main man Cenk Uygur earlier this year. As the months have gone by and I have watched more of their YouTube clips, Uygur’s arrogance, ignorance and general thickheadedness has become more apparent.
One conversation that I found interesting is the one Uygur had with Sam Harris, particularly the following portion, as it involves discussion relevant to truthlikeness and probability:
In this discussion, Harris makes the point that Mormonism is slightly more improbable/absurd than other Christian faiths because it makes the more specific claim that Jesus will return to Jackson County, Missouri rather than the more general claim that he will return to somewhere on Earth.