Saturday, May 30, 2015

Good and Evil are Social Constructs

If you follow American news, you will have noticed the popularity of the word "evil" among politicians. George W. Bush liked to use the phrase "axis of evil" in reference to states that support terrorism. Barack Obama vowed to destroy ISIS's "brand of evil" and called the beheading of Peter Kassig by ISIS "pure evil." Between countries, this kind of language works both ways, and it was Ayatollah Khomeini who started the present trend in 1979 by calling the U.S. "the great Satan." For someone like me, who is not religious and doesn't believe in the objectivity of moral systems, this is in turn annoying and amusing. In academic circles, where ethics is studied as a subject, we are theoretically supposed to be able to resolve these kinds of differences, but I think it is impossible given the current literature, which is written by philosophers more often than by scientists. In political circles, conjuring "evil" is akin to calling for "patriotism," which, as Samuel Johnson put it, is "the last refuge of a scoundrel."

In my conceptual scheme, morality, good and evil are nothing more than manifestations of our genetic and cultural predispositions to behave eusocially. We have a vague sense of wanting to help and cooperate with other members of our group, and in the absence of any obvious justification for this we make up moral theories and ascribe authority to imaginary supernatural beings. The truth is that there is nothing that intrinsically binds all of humanity together, and one of the greatest challenges that we are currently facing is how to trick ourselves into thinking that we all belong to the same group. Thus, when political leaders call foreigners names, they are inadvertently perpetuating world strife. There aren't many options here, because even if, for example, ISIS is a deranged group of mindless murderers, we are not convincing them that their belief system is incorrect. They are equally determined to prove to us that ours is the one that is defective, and there is no higher authority recognized by both sides to mediate the conflict.

When you look at our animal past, all of this chest pounding and violence is easy to understand; it is so easy to understand that no explanation is required. Especially within the political sphere, where politicians vie for public support, the appeal to the lowest common denominator usually prevails. What bothers me more is how intellectuals insinuate themselves into these kinds of decisions and, while pretending to shower us with the benefits of their knowledge, they often only add an unnecessary layer of obfuscation if not outright falsehood. The fact is that most of the thinking about morality in the West can be traced directly to Christianity, and even if grains of truth can be found there, it is essentially one worldview among many and has no particular claim to validity in the universe of belief systems. A more plausible approach, I think, involves recognizing our animal natures, abrogating religion, and shifting the dialogue to empirical research about human nature and plausible methods of conflict resolution. It seems to me that in the West, particularly the U.S., a more conscious effort is needed to break away from the "Christian values" mentality that permeates everything from politics, law and academia to the media.

You've probably heard the term "situation ethics," and I propose as an alternative the idea of "situation atheism," which, if you define atheism as the absence of any historical belief system, might offer a value-neutral way to arbitrate conflicts between groups when cultural beliefs are a primary contributing factor. The idea would be for groups that don't see eye-to-eye to find solutions that optimize outcomes for each group while eliminating all factors from consideration that relate to beliefs. Thus, for example, ISIS might be given land somewhere in the world where their members might practice their religion as they chose as long as they did not violate international law. The U.S. and its allies would agree to the same and not attack ISIS as long as ISIS held to the terms of the agreement. Thereafter, each party could, if it so chose, live according to whatever belief system it favored, no matter how bizarre or ludicrous. An experiment along these lines has already been done with the State of Israel.

My hope is that culturally and theologically neutral super-intelligent computers will one day arbitrate major human conflicts using algorithms which may then be beyond our comprehension. Unfortunately, animals that we are, it is difficult for us to expunge nonsense from our decision-making processes. In the meantime we will have to continue listening to our theoreticians and political leaders spouting out useless or crowd-pleasing nonsense.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Winter Sleep

We watch many films in the course of evening entertainment. Most of them are so unmemorable that I don't bother to write about them. Yesterday we finished the very long Winter Sleep, which is a Turkish film directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It has much to its credit, so I'll say something about it.

The film is set in Cappadocia and is based on the short story "The Wife" by Anton Chekhov. Its main feature is strong character depiction with exploration of complex interpersonal relationships, but the cinematography is also excellent and displays some of the natural beauty of this area in central Anatolia. The protagonist, Aydin, is a retired actor from a wealthy family who owns a hotel. He entertains himself by writing articles for a local newspaper and is working on a history of the Turkish theater. His attractive wife, Nihal, is much younger. His sister, Necla, who was recently divorced, also lives with them.

The drama centers around Aydin's family, with internal conflicts brought out by an incident with one of Aydin's tenants on a separate property. It becomes apparent that Aydin thinks like an elite patriarch and takes little interest in the concerns of those around him. He often assumes that he knows what's right and avoids direct interaction. Most of his dirty work is done for him by his assistant, Hidayet, without his involvement. Necla initially compliments him on his journalistic efforts but later berates him as self-absorbed and condescending. Nihal, we learn, is highly idealistic and deeply wishes to help the unfortunate in the community. Aydin is indifferent to Nihal's charity work and skeptical of her group, and this adds a tension to their relationship. Finally Aydin attempts to make amends with Nihal by giving her a large cash contribution for the charity. Nihal misjudges Aydin's aggrieved tenant, Ismail, and secretly gives him the entire contribution in person, only to enrage him: he proceeds to burn the bills in front of her.

All three of the family members have weaknesses that emerge during the story. I think American viewers may tend to typecast Aydin as the bad guy, but the others have equally serious deficiencies. While Aydin is aloof and patronizing, Necla is unduly sharp-tongued and inconsistent in her positions. Nihal, though well-intentioned, is obviously naive about the world. The film, I thought, only touched on the problematic marriage of Nihal and Aydin, but a short story would not have offered enough space for further development. Overall it seemed balanced and evenhanded and did not seem to take sides with any of the characters.

One of the reasons why I like the film is that it contains dialogue that reminds me of my family. People speak up and don't hold back: my mother did that as do my sisters to a lesser degree. When I recall this, I feel as if Americans live in an emotionally stunted world and hardly know how to communicate at all. There is a downside to such expressiveness, because it can be destructive, illogical and pointless, yet without it people sometimes seem dead. When people never express their thoughts, they are at risk of becoming disconnected from the world. Culturally speaking, certainly this affects what a country has to offer in the arts. To my way of thinking, both England and the U.S. display a notable lack of emotional range in their arts, and this is one of the factors behind my theme about the inferiority of American fiction. Growing up here, I didn't find much to like in literature until I came across the Russians. Lacking a suitable cultural basis in their environment, American writers may be doomed to careers in which they are applauded for churning out puerile prattle. It is telling that Winter Sleep won the Palme d'Or in Cannes yet was not nominated for an Academy Award despite clearly being one of the best films released in 2014.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Seven Billion Points of View

The main purpose of this blog is to articulate various observations and ideas that I've developed over a period of time. Besides the fact that I enjoy writing, it helps me to clarify for myself whatever it is that I might be thinking about. Then there is the more public aspect, in which others read it: they may or may not think about a particular post, and that post may or may not affect any of their views. I am not attempting to be didactic, though readers may think that I'm opinionated and am trying to convert them to my views. In fact my views are constantly evolving, and I am always interested in finding out something that might improve them. However, it seems that reaching coherent opinions is more important to me than it is to some, which may make me appear more dogmatic than I truly am. The reality is that the majority of people are going about their lives without much interest in whether or not they are operating within a robust conceptual schema.

If anything, there are too many conceptions and worldviews in circulation, and it is easy to see why people retreat into private worlds, because that prevents mental overload. It makes sense to think about life in terms with which one is familiar. This is a conservative approach that permits you, if you are so inclined, to build upon ideas collected over time in the hope of improving understanding. In this I am like most people, except that I constantly question orthodoxy, which, historically, has been a luxury. Most of the people who have ever lived did not have the time to think about the relative merits of their belief systems; not being educated in the modern sense, they could not know that there were alternative views to those recognized within their cultures.

There are advantages and disadvantages to being educated. It appears to me that most people these days look narrowly at the advantages in terms of employability and a higher standard of living, and once they've finished their educations they do not concern themselves with the oblique kinds of questions that are of interest to me. This is noticeable in the U.S., which has never had much of an intellectual class and to this day remains broadly anti-intellectual. Americans are relatively well-educated, but they are interested above all in making money. For me the important advantage of an education is that it can provide a perspicacity which one might not otherwise obtain. Without having a variety of ideas to think about and enjoy, one may as well be a chimpanzee.

The disadvantages of education have mainly to do with the fact that educated people tend to become specialists rather than generalists. They know a lot about something and nothing about most things. Up until about the middle of the nineteenth century it was still possible to be a polymath, but now there is simply too much information for any person to absorb. Furthermore, higher education has become linked to business through the growth and funding of research universities. Different academic fields resemble fiefdoms competing for survival, with moneyed interests calling the shots. For example, as Thomas Piketty points out in Capital, the field of economics has drifted away from the other social sciences and would be more useful if it incorporated knowledge from history and sociology. In this case I think corporate pressures have usurped the field by purchasing the so-called experts. Furthermore, ghettoization within academia has created a situation in which there is little unity of knowledge, and there exist conceptual rifts between some academic departments that may never be bridged. Another disadvantage to education is that in large doses it can cause people to lose touch with their instinctive biological roots.

For all its limitations, this blog attempts to create a big picture without depending on the latest ideas from specialized academic disciplines. Based on my explorations, it would in most instances be a thankless task to try thinking about the kinds of things that I like to think about by resorting to an academic approach. Everyone must find a way to make sense of his life, and what academia has to offer typically just complicates the issue. In my experience one soon encounters an infinite regress of ideas that don't collectively increase the clarity or comprehension of what one seeks. In my view, the significant thinkers of any era concern themselves with the big picture, and few do that now. This is why I respect E.O. Wilson and Thomas Piketty: they both at least encourage inter-disciplinary research.

One of my themes on this blog is that no one really seems to be in control of human destiny. It is possible that this will emerge at some point as a recognizable academic discipline or perhaps as a topic within policy discussions, but it hasn't yet as far as I know. From my readings I get a sense that there may yet be another round of prominent big thinkers. For example, even though Thomas Piketty may himself be too narrow a thinker, he has helped precipitate a dialogue that brings into question the long-term viability of capitalism as it is practiced. On a different front, a variety of people are beginning to raise alarms on the potential downside of artificial intelligence.

If, like me, you take evolution seriously as a phenomenon, it is easy to see how the conditions for humans might suddenly take a turn for the better or for the worse with little warning. In this environment I find it concerning that there is hardly any world consensus on major issues such as global warming, capitalism, democracy, religion, artificial intelligence or high population levels. The capitalist model in one form or another seems to be the dominant ideology at present, and nearly everyone is forced to comply with it whether they like it or not. Democracy is a weak tool for dealing with the present situation, and I don't see how anyone in his right mind could expect "the will of the people" to resolve the issues just mentioned. Not only are people throughout the world living according to a variety of conceptual models that have little in common, but even in the West technology has fragmented society in a manner that is comparable to earlier times when people were isolated by physical distances and slow transportation. Now they are isolated by inhabiting virtual realities which allow them to live in the alternate universes of their choice with the help of new technology. Once again I have to say that this is not a guided process. The outcome is unknown, and not many people seem to be thinking about it.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Thoughts on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Although I generally have no interest in legal proceedings and find lawyers, including most politicians, slightly repugnant, major criminal trials in the U.S. sometimes provide a window into American society through which one may see its strengths and weaknesses. The Dzhokhar Tsarnaev trial seems to display some of the characteristics of Americans that have made them reviled within those pockets of the world where people feel marginalized.

From the information that I'm aware of, it appears that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was significantly Americanized after his family moved to the U.S. in 2002, and his elder brother, Tamerlan, somewhat less so. The main fact that stands out to me is that his family did not adjust well to life in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His parents were unable to succeed financially and eventually moved away to Dagestan. Tamerlan did not have the boxing career that he had hoped for and subsequently took a greater interest in Islam. On the surface Dzhokhar seemed relatively well adjusted, but apparently he also had little hope of making a satisfactory life for himself in the U.S. As a college student he was mounting up enormous debts that he could not realistically expect to repay, and he was doing poorly academically.

All of the important facts in the case seem to have been uncovered shortly after Dzhokhar's arrest. The bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon involved only the Tsarnaev brothers and were not part of a broader terrorist plot. The psychological aspects of the Tsarnaevs don't seem particularly complex either. They resented Americans because they saw themselves as economically doomed and because they thought that many American actions were an affront to Islam. These are both plausible claims, yet the brothers might well have become good citizens if only they had found tracks to successful careers. Basically they were somewhat generic aggressive young males who chose violence when they came to see that as their last resort and as a method of retaliation. Similar scenarios have been played out worldwide by frustrated young men throughout history.

While this was a heinous crime, I have found the public response reflective of a country that cares little for introspection. I don't think the court or the media took any interest in Dzhokhar's background and psychological makeup even though these are all that are needed to fully understand the nature of the crime. Rather, the emphasis recently has been on whether Dzhokhar has shown sufficient remorse to warrant a life sentence instead of the death penalty. Whatever narrative he may have has been ignored in favor of the emotions of his aggrieved victims. The trial played into the cookie-cutter terrorism narrative that we have been living with since 9/11 and showed no signs of deviating from the script.

It is apparent to me that there is little appetite in the U.S. for discussing the consequences of America's botched foreign policy in the Middle East, and there is certainly no interest in understanding the nuances of the thoughts of people like the Tsarnaev brothers. In Boston, a region populated by Irish-Americans who until recently cheerfully funded IRA terrorism in the U.K., there exists an unspoken hypocrisy regarding the Tsarnaevs. Apparently injuring or killing innocents in England is not a problem, but Islamic Americans from the former U.S.S.R. are cold and heartless when they harm Bostonians. Up until the mid-twentieth century, Irish-Americans were themselves subject to low status and social disapproval, and their current indifference to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may reflect the lost memory of their own humble pasts. Though I don't celebrate anything about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, I am struck in this case by America's unwillingness to reflect on the grievances that it has caused in the world.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Wikipedia II

Last year I discussed an unpleasant episode that I had with Wikipedia. Out of curiosity I have been checking from time to time on the Wikipedia entry for Lorrie Moore, which had caused the controversy, and I've noticed that it has changed a lot during this period. The interesting thing is that the contents vary considerably without necessarily improving. In early 2014, it was predominantly hagiography, presumably entered by her fans or possibly her publisher (or her?). I added some unfavorable reviews of Bark when it was published, which were soon deleted and replaced with positive reviews. Shortly after that, John reentered the negative review by Michiko Kakutani. That stood for quite some time, but was eventually deleted, and then the entry became entirely hagiographic again until recently. Currently the entry is pared back and contains nothing more than basic facts, such as Lorrie Moore's education, works, employment history and awards. The only description of her work is that she is "known mainly for her humorous and poignant short stories." No reviews or blurbs are included.

What I've learned from this is that Wikipedia's model doesn't actually work the way it's supposed to. Rather than producing articles that improve over time through wide discussion among a variety of interested parties, with oversight from Wikipedia representatives, the content of an article can meander unpredictably, with changing information, varying opinions and no increase in clarity. At any given time a small number of people - one or two - may completely dominate the content of an entry. If an entry is of great interest to a large number of people, I suppose there is a better chance of balance than there is for a minor entry read by very few.

Since my interaction with Wikipedia was so off-putting, I have tried to use it as little as possible. Unfortunately, that is what usually pops up first when you Google anything. I find this annoying, because the quality of Wikipedia entries is always uneven. When there is a comparable entry from a different source, it is often more informative and better written. In addition to the problems of bias and incomplete information, one must deal with a disjointed writing style - it's as if a self-appointed committee of teenagers has decided to write a five-hundred-word essay with each member contributing one sentence. This is never likely to result in the kind of coherence one might expect from a single author who has expertise in a subject.

Wikipedia, it seems, is something we're stuck with now, whether we like it or not. It has become the generic "short answer" to just about everything. In a world of tweets and likes, it will probably remain popular among young people, who increasingly seem to lack a conception of "in depth." Wikipedia is similar to a virus that has no antidote in sight. Speaking for myself, I make an effort to restrict my use of it to serious topics such as "George Clooney" or "Taylor Swift."

On a side note, in the process of making space in the bookshelves, I removed all of the books by Lorrie Moore and donated them to the local library.