Everybody Is Vulnerable, Nobody Is Powerful 28 May 2021
I have hunkered down in the azalea bushes, slipped the binoculars before my eyes and spotted a trend. The trend is this: in these times, everybody is fragile, everybody is vulnerable and nobody has any power. People and especially nations have everywhere and at all times seen themselves as the victims of unjust harm, but that has rarely meant that they were somehow powerless because of it. Now the most powerful somehow also have the least agency. Trump was constantly thwarted by the deep state; von der Leyen and her merry band of bureacrats would have absolutely nailed the vaccine rollout if it weren’t for AstraZeneca; Israel and the IDF, anxious and exhausted, are bullied by their enemy into sending airstrikes on Gaza; Vlad Vladimirovich and Xi Jinping blame the West for many of their problems; in the West, CIA operatives suffer from anxiety and imposter syndrome; and this is all not to mention the people from whom this sort of language has been appropriated, those whose lives are upended by the mildly offensive and whose hackles were made to rise by revolution LARPers on the 6th of January.
The purpose of this is obvious – if you are powerless, you are not responsible for bad states of affair. And hey, states of affair today have complex causes. We cannot always look at one and say that some or another person or nation caused it and is fully responsible for it. What we can do is look at one of that person or nation’s actions and see if it had a good or bad effect. Maybe what the powerlessness rhetoric is saying is less “our actions don’t have any effects, therefore we aren’t responsible” and more “our actions have good effects, but they are cancelled out by the negative effects of X and Y”. Either way, it’s a tactic used to avoid being held accountable.
Does It Smell like Pollocks in Here? 22 May 2021
Let me tell you about this interesting study. Turpin et al. (2019) took a bunch of abstract artworks – some computer-generated and others taken from MoMA’s digital library – and assigned to these two types of titles, mundane ones (e.g. Canvas 8 or Version 4: Abstract Elements or Colour Mixing or Objects in Tint) and descriptive yet nonsensical ones (e.g. The Deaf Echo or Undefined Singularity of Pain or The Pathological Interior or Evolving Model of Dreams). Armed with these, they ran four experiments. (For some of the experiments, they also used a control group of paintings that were assigned no title at all.) What they found was that subjects considered both varieties of artworks more profound if they were accompanied with a nonsensical descriptive title than with either a mundane title or no title at all.
Now, I believe that meaning is closely related to association, that things have meaning for people if they can be connected to other meaningful things. Using that model, it seems perfectly natural for people to find more meaning in paintings with descriptive titles, even if those titles are nonsensical or nondescript, simply because they prompt the viewer to associate. The thing that mainly matters in a title is its ability to call to mind thoughts and memories in the observer. The lack of internal logic is – so I suspect – mostly a distraction. The point is the titles’ descriptive quality. But that was not how the authors chose to frame their study. Instead, they chose to call these descriptive yet nonsensical titles “pseudo-profound bullshit titles” and to name their paper Bullshit Makes the Art Grow Profounder.
How Can One Tell What Is Beautiful? 15 May 2021
Take any object and you will find a person who thinks it beautiful and another one who does not. Take any two people and you will find that they have different taste. A picture can be beautiful to my eyes but barren or even repulsive to yours. But some things, say the music of Johann Sebastian Bach or the paintings of Vincent Van Gogh, have the approval of nearly all who hear or see them. All well-functioning humans having some things in common, it stands to reason that our judgments should sometimes converge.
But the question is not just whether some things generally strike more people as endowed with beauty than do other things. The answer to that question is trivially yes. The question is rather whether the thing really is more beautiful than the other thing: if that is somehow written in the stars, so to put it. If I say that some or another painting by Vincent Van Gogh is beautiful, is it possible that I am stating a fact? Is what I say the sort of thing that can be true or false?
Christine M. Korsgaard is a Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University and has written texts about the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, normativity, agency and personal identity among other subjects. Her latest book, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to the Other Animals, draws on Kantian ethics and Aristotle’s theory of the human good to give an account of our duties to non-human animals, arguing that they are what Kant called ends in themselves. She was kind enough to answer some of my questions; these answers are reproduced unedited below.
ERICH: Animal ethics is a subject that sometimes stirs up powerful emotions. How was Fellow Creatures received? What sort of response did you get from reviewers and readers?
In the previous posts I described first how an official in the fictional Kingdom of Tamego went about estimating killings in a vicious civil war in that country and then how one can program a Bayesian model for estimating population sizes based on this sort of capture-recapture data. In the course of making the model – or rather extending a model that Marc Kéry and Michael Schaub described Bayesian Population Analysis using WinBUGS and that Hiroki Itô translated into Stan – in the course of so extending, I made many simulated-data experiments for which the model (and the Lincoln-Petersen method) produced pretty bad estimates.
This kind of mystified me. In some experiments, the method produced very accurate estimations, but in others they were wildly off the mark. For a while I thought this was because the Lincoln-Petersen method did not handle data with variable detection probability well. I noticed that when I halved the detection probability for one of the observations (so that the probability of detecting an individual was higher or lower on the second visit than on the first, for example because a different method of observation was used), then estimations got much less accurate. But that was a red herring, the reason that observations were worse being that the overall detection probability was lower, not that it varied.
If a kindly man asked you in a job interview or on a first date or god forbid during a colonoscopy or something if you were interested in hearing about the loves and sorrows of his imaginary friends, you, a person of no mean sense, would nine out of ten times think he was crazy or, worse still, socially inept. Yet here you are reading about my own imaginary kingdom, with its made-up name, made-up queen and made-up war. I have nothing but praise for you, dear reader.
The previous post in this series was a fairy tale of sorts that related the story of an official in the Kingdom of Tamego who, having been tasked with estimating how many subjects were killed in a dreadful civil war, realised that the answer to his problem and the key to estimating population sizes with the kind of information that he had were so-called capture-recapture methods. In a breathtakingly ironic twist, he did not get the chance to bring his insight back to his queen but died instead a pauper in a remote district of the kingdom. We, however, can pick up and carry his torch into the modern age.
The Kingdom of Tamego 24 Apr 2021
Imagine a country with four provinces. We can call it the Kingdom of Tamego. Its provinces are Chaka of the high mountains, Wengti of the wide coast, Mujol of the deep woods and Hoshtengu of the shining plains. There was once a civil war in this kingdom, in these four provinces. Three factions warred: the Angu rebels, made up mostly of peasants and labourers; the Zid, a minority people who sought autonomy; and the king himself, who fought them both from his stronghold in Wengti. The war was vicious, but after two decades of blood and fire the king had all but crushed the rebels and the separatists. The cemeteries were stuffed like the bellies of the rich. Families had betrayed their neighbours and been betrayed by them. All dissent had been squashed. And those who gather the souls into the next world were now left with fields and acres of them to reap and harvest.
After the war ended, the king, having carried out and completed his life’s work, died and passed away. His daughter became queen. The queen sought a path of reconciliation. As part of the reconciliatory process, she asked a trusted official to find out how many had been killed by each side during the war, in order that the communities of the slain could be recompensed. The official, unable to think of a greater duty than to serve the queen of Tamego, agreed.
Problems with "Eating Animals" 21 Apr 2021
Mindy Isser used to hold the unnuanced opinion that eating animals is wrong and one should not do it. Now she holds the much more nuanced opinion that eating animals is wrong and one should not do it, except sometimes when it’s kinda okay; besides, choosing veganism is far less important than working for systemic change.
I want to make some points related to this article that I think Isser ignores or is unaware of. But first let me say this. There is a lot that I agree with in it. Some obvious examples include: factory farming is a blight upon humanity; people are often inconsistent and hypocritical in which animals they support and how; working conditions in slaughterhouses are terrible; no person is perfect along every moral dimension; and much more. Also, Isser relates having been mostly vegan for over 15 years and that is something that I admire deeply. She is probably a better person than I am. But her piece, I think, is flawed.
Networks of Meaning 17 Apr 2021
Clearly, some things are meaningful to us. Some things are meaningful to me but not to you. Some other things are meaningful to you but not to anyone else on Earth. What’s more, it happens that humans experience what we call revelation, where new information or a change in perspective makes previously familiar things seem newly meaningful to us.
The writer Gerald Murnane, in my view one of the greatest writers ever to live, recounts his having been brought by his wife to the opening of a contemporary art exhibition, where he is asked by the amiable organisers to take part in a panel discussion later the same evening. Being the sort of person who avoids walking into shops unless he is sure he wants to buy something (so as not to risk disappointing the shopkeeper), he accepts, though he knows nothing about contemporary art. Having accepted, he paces around the gallery, trying to think of something to say in the panel. He happens upon an artwork consisting of a handful of smooth stones scattered over the floor. The stones remind him of the fear he used to feel as a child on a rocky bay near his grandfather’s farm.
Rediscovery, the Mind's Curare 10 Apr 2021
I’m often apprehensive about writing things that may already have been written, of sharing ideas that may already have been thought of, of saying things that may be cliché or dull or commonplace. I think I can trace this to a fear of being seen as ignorant or uneducated, which itself can be traced to my valuing knowledge and education.
I remember once when I was young and thinking, as one does, about free will. I thought, Well, probably humans are like those stones that roll down the slope of a mountain: the places they end up are precisely determined by their shape and density, the arrangement of the mountain slope and the permanent laws of mechanics. So we too always do the thing that we were always going to do, as determined by the arrangement of our sensory inputs and the particular configuration of neurons and synapses in our brain. But that is not what we humans mean when we talk about free will. Because though it is determined how we will act – so I reasoned to myself – no one actually knows what has been preordained. So as far as we’re concerned our actions and those of other humans can still take countless possible shapes, no fewer than the ways a stone can roll down a mountain slope. Thus thought the teenage me. But months or perhaps years later, happening upon an article on free will, I learned that views very similar to these were called determinism and compatibilism and had been known and discussed in philosophy for decades if not centuries.