Thursday, July 28, 2016

Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter I

This book is the first installment in Simone de Beauvoir's memoirs and covers her earliest period. The going has been a little slow for me in part because the concerns of childhood don't interest me that much. I find the details of her recollections astonishing, because I know that I don't remember nearly as much of my early life; perhaps she kept a journal as a child. De Beauvoir was born in Paris in 1908, and her family was relatively well-off until World War I, at which time her father's fortunes declined. He was a lawyer whose true interest was in acting. He was witty and good at impersonations and became Simone's main role model. Her mother was several years younger than her father and less-educated; she was a devout Roman Catholic and raised her children in that manner.

The harmony that bound my parents to one another strengthened the respect I felt for both of them. It allowed me to skirt one difficulty which might have embarrassed me considerably: Papa didn't go to Mass, he smiled when Aunt Marguerite enthused over the miracles at Lourdes: he was an unbeliever. This skepticism did not affect me, so deeply did I feel myself penetrated by the presence of God; yet Papa was always right: how could he be mistaken about the most obvious of all truths? Nevertheless, since my mother, who was so pious, seemed to find Papa's attitude quite natural, I accepted it calmly. The consequence was that I grew accustomed to the idea that my intellectual life – embodied by my father – and my spiritual life – expressed by my mother – were two radically heterogeneous fields of experience which had absolutely nothing in common. Sanctity and intelligence belonged to two quite different spheres; and human things – culture, politics, business, manners, and customs – had nothing to do with religion. So I set God apart from life and the world, and that attitude was to have a profound influence in my future development.

As the eldest child, Simone had many of those characteristics, which, as is common, sensitized her to her parents to a greater degree than it did her sibling. She had a sister who was two years younger, nicknamed Poupette, and during their childhood she took on a pedagogic role. Her parents had wanted a son, and this also may have inadvertently affected her identity in the family. Without the competition of a male sibling or the overt parental enforcement of gender roles, her self-conception was not confined to the prevailing norms of the period. She was a voracious reader and writer from an early age, though she was only allowed to read things that had been approved by her parents. She was not good at everything and was quite conscious of it at the time: the pianoforte examinations I was always near the bottom. In solfeggio and musical theory I was hopeless: I sang either sharp or flat, and was a miserable failure in musical dictation. My handwriting was so shapeless that I had to have private lessons, which did not make any great improvement. If I had to trace the course of a river or the outline of a country, I was so clumsy that I was absolved of all blame for the messes I made. This characteristic was to remain with me all my life. I bungled all practical jobs and I was never any good at work requiring finicky precision. 

It was not without some vexation that I became aware of my deficiencies; I should have liked to excel at everything. But they were too deeply rooted in my nature to be amenable to ephemeral spurts of will-power. As soon as I was able to think for myself, I found myself possessed with infinite power, and yet circumscribed by absurd limitations.

I'm only about a third of the way through the book and will comment more later. I am looking forward to the sections on her young adulthood, when she went to college and met Sartre. For me, de Beauvoir's writing is a model in clarity, and she excels at observing people. Her writing is a little uncanny to me, because she tends to focus on the same things that interest me: the thinking and motivations of herself and others. Although that is how I also occupy much of my time, the activity seems so uncommon in the environments where I've lived that de Beauvoir stands out to me as a rare kindred spirit. When I complain about writers it is usually because they lack this most basic and essential skill.

Thursday, July 21, 2016


The summer doldrums are beginning to set in. The weather in Vermont has been hot and dry, with a cool day on occasion. Ordinarily I would have done a lot of stargazing by now, but, despite the relatively low level of light pollution here, good viewing conditions are rare because of the turbulent atmosphere above, with moisture streaming up from the Gulf of Mexico. Then, if the moon is out, that makes it even more difficult to see faint objects such as galaxies, globular clusters, planetary nebulae and supernova remnants. As a consolation, you can usually see planets and binary stars even under poor conditions, so last night I looked at Albireo, one of the prettiest multiple star systems visible from Earth, 430 light years away, with gold and blue stars.

We have a new cat, William, who is about a year old. He is still kittenish and likes to run around. He seems very youthful compared to our previous cat, Winston, who was lethargic and grumpy most of the time. We chose William partly because he resembles my cat, Dusty, who died in 1980. William is polydactyl, which means that he has extra toes. His front paws look as if they have thumbs, so he can give a thumbs-up. Polydactyl cats are common on the East Coast and in parts of England and Wales. They were once popular on ships and were considered good luck.

Like many, we have been following the Republican presidential nomination process for amusement, though I can only take so much of it, because if you observe closely it can become quite disturbing. To me, the political ascent of Donald Trump is yet another proof that human beings are incapable of self-governance. If you look at the last two presidents, it isn't a pretty sight. George W. Bush was self-confident but had no idea what he was doing. Barack Obama is cautious but unimaginative and ineffectual. If Trump were to become president, he would bring nothing but political, economic and social ignorance to the job. Fortunately, the disunity in the Republican Party will probably be his undoing, even with a weak Democratic opponent. Everyone and his brother will be testifying to the emptiness, dishonesty and egoism of Trump, and while that alone may not be sufficient to defeat him, he will most likely lose the election. Trump may go down as the biggest bullshitter in American history.

When I think about the American political system specifically in relation to my views, the picture becomes absurd immediately. I don't accept many of the premises of being an American citizen, though technically I am one. First of all, I don't think that government positions should be filled by popular vote; algorithms could produce better results. Second, I don't favor nationalism of any kind; I would prefer a world government. Third, I think personal freedom should be far more restricted in the U.S. than it is currently. Fourth, I don't think the "land of opportunity" model is sustainable, and capitalism should be wound down in a coordinated global effort as soon as possible. Fifth, as an atheist, I find the religious ideology in both parties highly offensive, and I much prefer the idea of "freedom from religion" to the idea of "freedom of religion." There is little that I can relate to in American politics at the national level.

In most public educational systems you are taught a set of ideas about the nature of the society in which you live. Children usually internalize those ideas and don't seriously question them as adults. I remember thinking that I lived in the modern world, which was enlightened compare to the past, and I used to feel fortunate to have escaped a primitive, oppressive existence.  It is true that many of us have higher standards of living than our ancestors did – we live longer, healthier lives and have more free time – but I now think that far in the future our descendants will pity us for having had to live in this barbaric environment, where ignorance prevails.

I've started to read Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, by Simone de Beauvoir, and will probably comment on it in a few days.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Big Picture II

In the end I found The Big Picture quite useful as a summary of how an informed person might view the world in light of modern physics. Carroll makes a strong case for physicalism and eschews superstition, theism and references to phenomena other than those detected by scientific methods. There remain conceptual challenges to combining the standard model of particle physics with general relativity, but together they provide a complete picture of the universe:

...we don't live inside a black hole, and the Big Bang was quite a few years ago. We live in a world where gravity is relatively weak. And as long as the force is weak, quantum field theory has no trouble whatsoever describing how gravity works. That's why we're confident in the existence of gravitons; they are the inescapable consequence of the basic features of general relativity and quantum field theory, even if we lack a complete theory of quantum gravity. 

The domain of applicability of our present understanding of quantum gravity includes everything we experience in our everyday lives. There is, therefore, no reason to keep the standard model and general relativity separate from each other. As far as the physics of the stuff you see in front of you right now is concerned, it is all very well described by one big quantum field theory. Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek has dubbed it Core Theory. It's the quantum field theory of quarks, electrons, neutrinos, all the families of fermions, electromagnetism, gravity, the nuclear forces, and the Higgs....The Core Theory is not the most elegant concoction that has ever been dreamed up in the mind of a physicist, but it's been spectacularly successful at accounting for every experiment ever performed in a laboratory here on Earth....

We can be confident that the Core Theory, accounting for the substances and processes we experience in our everyday life, is correct....The laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known. 

The picture that Carroll paints is of a deterministic universe that runs from the Big Bang up to the present. From one moment to the next, physics is theoretically capable of predicting exactly what will happen, but as a practical matter it is computationally impossible due to the complexity of the existing world.

Core Theory is at the center of the book, and Carroll makes an impressive effort to relate it to a broad array of topics. There are fifty chapters, covering everything from the existence of the universe, the Big Bang, probability theory, entropy, quantum mechanics, general relativity, string theory, evolution, biochemistry, neuroscience and artificial intelligence to minds, souls, consciousness and free will. In general he is a typical scientific skeptic-atheist, and I agree with his positions there, though some of his views are so obvious to me and so much has been written about them already that I don't see the point of repeating them. In some respects he seems to be attempting to be a kinder, gentler physicist, leaving room for alternative theories as long as they are internally consistent and are not contradicted by empirical evidence. He has an uncommon interest in philosophy, which puts him at odds with one of his idols, Richard Feynman, who, like many physicists of that generation, thought of academic philosophy as complete nonsense. Physicist Freeman Dyson, who knew Feynman, recently described contemporary philosophers as follows:

Compared with the giants of the past, they are a sorry bunch of dwarfs. They are thinking deep thoughts and giving scholarly lectures to academic audiences, but hardly anybody in the world outside is listening. They are historically insignificant. At some time toward the end of the nineteenth century, philosophers faded from public life. Like the snark in Lewis Carroll's poem, they suddenly vanished. So far as the general public was concerned, philosophers became invisible.

Although some regard Dyson, who is ninety-two, as a crank, I think he has a legitimate criticism and writes clearly on this topic. I couldn't agree with him more and think that Sean Carroll has been taken in by the philosophy establishment. To my way of thinking, most of the philosophers he mentions concern themselves with made-up problems that are of little or no intrinsic interest. They take old questions and dress them up with new terminology such as "qualia." In philosophical circles it is still popular to pretend that there is an unfathomable split between the mind and the body, that machines can't be conscious and that self-awareness is a unique feature of the universe. In my view all they're really talking about is the reality of subjective experience, which is simply a function of having a brain. If you remove the nonsense from the language of contemporary philosophy, the questions become simple and obvious: "Does Bob have a headache?" or "Is Jane angry?" We all have subjective experiences, including consciousness and self-awareness, which may be hidden from others, and they don't bring into question the nature of the universe. While Carroll tends to be unruffled by the so-called dualism and paradoxes cooked up by philosophers, he does his readers a disservice by bringing them up in the first place.

Rather than wasting all of that space on philosophy, I would have liked to see more on evolution and AI. Instead of providing a comprehensive view of our place in the universe, Carroll gets sidetracked and finishes up the book with a laundry list of platitudes. I find the big picture offered by E.O. Wilson more compelling, because it includes much more about our Earth-evolved predispositions and provides the right backdrop for all that we find meaningful. Regarding AI, Carroll only discusses it in relation to the issues manufactured by philosophers and says nothing about its potential role in our future. The book discusses ad hoc theories that Carroll believes will eventually gel into one final theory, and the feeling of human intellectual limits is palpable, yet Carroll does not go on to speculate that AI may in the near future be able to surpass our feeble little brains.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Big Picture I

I'm moving along now in The Big Picture, by Sean Carroll, the theoretical physicist. The subtitle is On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. As it sounds, it is an ambitious book, and he took time off from his regular job at Caltech to write it with the assistance of a Guggenheim Fellowship. This kind of book is increasingly coming into demand, because the cumulative advances made in science are making it harder for laymen to understand it, and specialization even makes it hard for some branches of science to understand other branches. My favorite writer in this field is E.O. Wilson, but his perspective is primarily biological. In recent years, several theoretical physicists – Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene and Steven Weinberg, among others – have written popular books about physics, and Sean Carroll seems to be trying to make a name for himself in this crowded field. What differentiates Carroll from the rest is his interest in the philosophical issues associated with physics, and this produces both the strengths and weaknesses of the book.

As far as I've read, Carroll provides a summary of theoretical physics, including some relatively new concepts such as emergence and questions regarding the reconciliation between events at the atomic level with events at the macroscopic level. The thrust of his argument is that one may adopt different conceptual models to describe the same phenomena, and that there is not necessarily an advantage to adopting a single model. In the language that he uses he proclaims himself a naturalist, which is fine with me, as I consider myself one too, but then he goes on to qualify that by identifying himself as a "poetic naturalist." The gist here is that there are different ways of talking about the world that can capture elements of reality, and that by considering different models rather than striving for a unitary model we may come to a better understanding of the world than we would otherwise. His inspiration for the term "poetic naturalist" is the poet Muriel Rukeyser, who said "The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."

Although Carroll's intentions are good, at this stage in my reading of the book I'm a little skeptical of his approach. Partly that is because I don't share his confidence in the ideas that are being served up in philosophy departments these days; though I don't follow them now, my conclusion several years ago was that they are more often than not a complete waste of time. For example, the nature of consciousness is still a major question in philosophy, and I consider it a non-issue, because it is more about semantics than reality. While Wittgenstein was notoriously difficult to pin down in his ideas, I agreed with him the most when he suggested that the primary activity of philosophers was the distortion of the meaning of words from their ordinary usage. "Consciousness" started out as a word for self-awareness in people, and even though science shows that many species besides ours possess some form of it, philosophers have mistakenly elevated it to a mysterious element of the universe that is sorely in need of explanation, particularly if we are to make advances in artificial intelligence. To me, "consciousness" is no more useful to AI research than "aether" was to explain the transmission of light through space. If anything, it is a hindrance to the development of thinking machines.

Another reason for me to be cautious about Carroll is his implicit role as a unifier of the discordant scientific and humanities communities. He has more to offer than most scientists in this regard, because he at least has a solid grounding in the humanities and is less likely than others to make a fool of himself when he refers to them. Many scientists in the public domain are so arrogant about their superiority that they don't even bother to familiarize themselves with the thinking in humanities departments. However, Carroll could easily become, rather than an original thinker, a humanities double agent in scientific terrain who unwittingly opens the door to a flood of humanities nonsense and pseudoscience.

Furthermore, I don't think that theoretical physics is the best starting point for bridging the gap between the reading public and scientists. Whereas every person who ever lived has had daily exposure to events and processes that are biological in nature, nearly all of humanity – in the past and future – never has had and never will have any need to understand theoretical physics. As fascinating as the subatomic and cosmic worlds may be, we perceive them to have little relationship to our basic human needs, and, that being the case, we may feel no compulsion to familiarize ourselves with them. In contrast, biology is close to our hearts, because nearly everything that we care about is here in this tiny corner of the universe, where we can perceive it with our own senses. While there are short steps from the origin of life to evolution to eusociality to morality and the problems that humanity frets about, in the context of theoretical physics human problems become needlessly abstract and unsolvable.

Nevertheless, the book is well-written and informative, and I will reserve final judgment until I've completed it.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Life of Henri Brulard

The Life of Henri Brulard is an unfinished autobiography that was written between 1835 and 1836 by Marie-Henri Bayle, better known as Stendhal. He began writing it when he was fifty-two years old but only got as far as age seventeen before giving up. It covers the period from his birth in Grenoble in 1783 to his arrival in Milan in 1800. Several aspects of it are interesting. First, he did not write it with the intention of publication during his lifetime, and it was in fact not published until 1890, 48 years after his death in 1842; this freed him from the constraints of pleasing editors and the public. Second, he was an unusually honest writer and took a closer look at himself and his environment than most writers are willing or able to do. Finally, from a historical standpoint, anyone interested in French literature would find Stendhal's observations about his times illuminating.

The major event of his childhood was the death of his mother when he was seven. He had been close to her and apparently she had an artistic temperament. His father was a conservative, social-climbing lawyer who took pains to appear more aristocratic than he actually was, and he had no rapport whatsoever with his son, who seems to have been a daydreamer from an early age. His father's aristocratic pretensions could not have occurred at a worse time – during the French Revolution – and his name appeared on a list when The Terror reached Grenoble. Luckily for him the revolutionary turmoil had become subdued by then. Henri's mother's sister, Séraphie, became his substitute mother, and he detested her. Somehow she and his father decided that Henri should lead a strictly controlled life consisting of studying Latin with Jesuit tutors and avoiding contact with other children. He was not allowed to engage in sports or go outside alone and was forced to walk under the accompaniment of adults. Séraphie was a religious fanatic, and in hindsight Henri speculates that she was mentally ill.

All was not bad, though, because his mother's aunt Elizabeth looked out for him. He came to associate her with "Castilianism," which he thought of as a kind of nobility and innocence that was incompatible with bourgeois society and nonexistent in his father. His mother's father, M. Gagnon, who was Elizabeth's brother, lived in the same house and had an even greater influence on him. M. Gagnon was a physician with literary interests, and he discussed literature with Henri throughout his childhood. However, M. Gagnon had a timid personality and did not intervene on Henri's behalf even when it became obvious that he was being severely repressed by his father and Séraphie.

Eventually Henri entered school, where he excelled at math. At the age of sixteen he moved in with relatives in Paris with the expectation that he would study for the entrance exam to the École Polytechnique. Henri is quite good at describing and summing up people, and here is what he says about his Parisian relatives:

M. Daru was a tall, rather fine-looking old man, with a big nose, which was rather uncommon in Dauphiné; he had a slight cast in one eye, and a rather false manner. He had with him a little shriveled old woman, thoroughly provincial, who was his wife; he had married her in past days for the sake of her fortune, which was considerable, and, in spite of this, she hardly dared to breathe in his presence.

Mme Daru was good-natured at heart, and very polite, with a dignified little manner which would have suited the wife of a sous-préfet in the provinces. For the rest, I have never met a creature more devoid of the divine fire. Nothing in the world could have stirred her soul in favor of anything noble or generous. In souls of that kind, an utterly selfish prudence, which is their boast, takes the place of all choleric or generous emotion.

This prudent, wise, but hardly admirable disposition formed the character of her elder son, the Comte Daru, Minister and Secretary of State to Napoleon, who had so much influence on my life; of Mlle Sophie, afterward Mme de Baure, who was deaf; and of Mme Le Brun, now Marquise de Graves.

The second son, Martial Daru, had neither judgment not intelligence, but a good heart; it was impossible for him to do a bad turn to anyone.

Perhaps Mme Cambon, the eldest daughter of M. and Mme Daru, had a noble character, but I only caught a glimpse of it; she died a few months after my arrival in Paris.

Despite having fantasized for years about escaping from Grenoble to Paris, Henri disliked Paris immediately. He lost interest in gaining admission to the École and preoccupied himself with implausible ideas such as that of becoming a comedic playwright in the manner of Molière or that of composing operas – even though he had no training at all in music. Before long, M. Daru confronted him about his idleness, and arrangements were made by Comte Daru to place Henri in a job at the War Office. Soon he was off to Milan, where the book ends.

Obviously, in this early stage of his life, Henri could have benefited from some good advice, but he never got it. I particularly liked this passage:

Ah! How much good a good piece of advice would have done me at that time! How much good the same advice would have done me in 1821! But devil take me if anyone ever gave it to me. I saw it for myself about 1826, but it was almost too late, and, besides, it was too upsetting to my habits. I have since seen clearly that it is the sine qua non in Paris; but I should also have had less truth and originality in my literary ideas.

What a difference it would have made if M. Daru or Mme Cambon had said to me in January 1800:
"My dear cousin, if you wish to have any standing in society, it is necessary that twenty people should be interested in speaking well of you. Consequently, choose a salon, do not fail to go there every Tuesday (if that is the right day); make it your business to be charming, or at least very polite, to all the people who frequent this salon. You will be somebody in society; you may hope to win the favor of a charming woman when you are supported by two or three salons. By the end of ten years of perseverance, these salons, if you choose them in our rank of society, will bring you all you want. The essential thing is to persevere, and be one of the faithful few who call every Tuesday."

While my knowledge of French literature is limited, Stendhal seems to me to occupy an important position in it. He was not famous during his lifetime, but his influence was significant. I place him between Rousseau and Balzac. This particular work seems to have been loosely based on Rousseau's Confessions, though, more accurately, the two writers had little in common. Rousseau's lasting influence has been in Enlightenment ideas, whereas Stendhal's has been more purely literary. Balzac acknowledges Stendhal as an influence, and you can see it in his sharp, caricature-like characters. I haven't read any other works by Stendhal, but would guess that he portrays people more precisely than Balzac. Thus, Stendhal fills the position of an early realist, a style that blossomed under Flaubert and still exists in a somewhat degraded form in modern fiction. By the time Proust and Kafka came along, fiction had become so stylized that basic perceptions had already taken a back seat to uncritical descriptions of the status quo. Though there is something to be said for Proust's linguistic elegance, his jarring vacuity on the psychological make-ups of his characters makes him almost unreadable to me. Oddly, basic psychological and sociological insights are almost nowhere to be found in modern fiction – thus my lack of interest in it.