Sunday, May 19, 2024

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you—Nobody—Too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!
How public—like a Frog—
To tell one's name—the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!

—Emily Dickinson

Saturday, May 18, 2024

A Clarification on Randomness and Determinism

On some of my posts, I've referred to evolutionary and other processes as random. It is possible that that is correct in a strict sense, but in keeping with my general view of determinism using Robert Sapolsky's model for biological processes, I think that some further explanation is in order. A problem arises because we may not always be able to explain the exact events that cause specific speciation. On a basic Darwinian level of explanation, we can now see how Homo sapiens outcompeted other Homo species. Since we may never know exactly how this was inevitable, and, given the nature of the language that we use to describe biological processes, "random" is probably an acceptable term for describing that evolutionary event. However, if you look at this process through the lens of physics, randomness may apply only to subatomic particles that have no effect on macro biological processes. It is possible that we may never be able to understand exactly why there was never any chance that we would not come into existence.

I think that, because of our cognitive limitations, evolution may always appear directionless, i.e., undetermined. So, going forward, it may be necessary for scientists to discuss evolutionary events with explicit warnings regarding human cognitive limitations in their understanding of complex biological processes over long periods of time. Because of this development, my use of the term "random" may apply primarily to subatomic events. In reference to biological and evolutionary events, "random" may simply mean that we lack the capacity to describe them deterministically. So, when I say "random," that may just mean "we have no way of knowing."

This is a fairly significant distinction. Our languages themselves came about as evolutionary adaptations, so the context for their applicability is somewhat limited and is primarily related to the survival of our ancestors. As I've said, there was no evolutionary advantage to understanding some of the fundamentals of the universe. It is possible that this is one area in which AI may eventually surpass human cognition.

Saturday, May 11, 2024


I've been reading biographies for a while now and thought I'd write a little about their inconsistencies. On average, I still think that a good biography is likely to be better than a good memoir, mainly because biographers usually attempt to impose some standard of objectivity on their work, whereas memoirists may tend to distort facts either through a lack of knowledge or intentional deception. To some extent, biographers can become academic specialists who follow disciplined procedures for discussing the details of a person's life. In contrast, a memoirist may set the bar much lower, literally writing off the top of his or her head without resorting to fact-checking or exploring alternate explanations. In my case, I may occasionally prefer a well-written memoir to a poorly written biography, mainly for aesthetic reasons, but generally I think that a biography, if it isn't hagiographic, is more likely to be accurate and complete.

While the bar may be set very low for memoirs, it may also be quite low for biographies. In both cases, the expectations of the publisher can place an upper limit on quality. If a book is a bestseller, readers like me are likely to find it deficient. For example, I don't think I'll ever read a book by or about Prince Harry or Britney Spears. Most of the ones I read aren't popular at all. For example, the one I just read on Carson McCullers, which I thought was good, was nowhere near becoming a bestseller. I should also mention that reviews are often poor indicators of the quality of a book. A review tends to have more to do with the group an author is associated with and the group the reviewer is associated with, and objectivity and thoroughness are often secondary requirements. Also, the time constraints for writing a review often result in inadequate analyses. I saw some awful reviews of Determined, by Robert Sapolsky, which I think were based on out-group rejection of Sapolsky's worldview, though I think Sapolsky is on the right track. Reviews are rarely taken seriously, so the standards are generally quite low for their credibility.

As my biographical reading increases, I am on the lookout for the strengths and weaknesses of the biographer and particularly which biases a biographer may harbor. For example, while I enjoyed Maurice Cranston's biography of Rousseau, because he writes well, I think that he adored Rousseau and refrained from critiquing his behavior adequately. For me, there was an inadequate analysis of Rousseau's social interactions, and I gradually pieced together a better picture by reading separately about Mme. de Warens, Diderot, Thérèse Levasseur, Sophie d'Houdetot and Voltaire. This isn't entirely Cranston's fault, because he was by nature conservative and wrote before psychological characteristics appeared regularly in biographies. I think that biographies have generally become more psychologically nuanced only in the last few years. For example, the standard biography for George Eliot for many years, by Gordon Haight, which was published in 1968, is pretty awful compared to some of the more recent ones.

I am also beginning to notice more subtle prejudices in biographers that aren't always readily apparent. I read Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius, by Ray Monk, when it was originally published in 1990. It is a favorable portrayal, and because I was a Wittgenstein fan at the time, I liked it. In the intervening years, my opinion of Wittgenstein has generally declined, and, from a biographical perspective, that biography completely misses the boat in terms of psychological analysis. More recently, I read Monk's two-volume biography of Bertrand Russell. While I think that Monk generally gave more credit to Russell for his work in mathematical logic than he actually deserved, he was merciless in his revelations about Russell's personal life. It would be difficult to think positively about Russell after reading those books. From what I've read since then, Monk does not appear to be what I would consider neutral on Wittgenstein and Russell. In Monk's account of Wittgenstein, he is an eccentric genius and the greatest philosopher of his century. Russell, on the other hand, is presented as a forerunner to Alan Turing, whose works led to modern computers. It may be that Turing was integral to the development of modern computers, but I don't think that Monk established a convincing connection between Turing and Russell. The feeling I had after reading the Russell biography was that he was really creepy and made no significant intellectual contributions. Separately, I now think that Monk got Wittgenstein wrong, and, because he favored Wittgenstein, that biography is sanitized. After Russell and Wittgenstein broke permanently in the 1920's, Wittgenstein developed a cult following in Cambridge and Russell left academia almost entirely. I have recently been trying to piece together why Wittgenstein became so popular. It would appear that many philosophers, later including Monk, came to dislike "scientism." While Russell had no scientific credentials, he was firmly on the science bandwagon. I now think that Wittgenstein appealed to some students because he was open to mysticism, religion and the arts far more than the analytic philosophers then popular in England and Vienna.

In Monk's biography of Russell, the word "schizophrenia" comes up repeatedly. Monk shows the progression of schizophrenia in five generations of Russell's family. In contrast, I think that the Wittgenstein biography barely scratches the surface on his personality. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Wittgenstein was almost definitely on the autism spectrum. He did manage to attract a few followers (also with ASD?), but many people disliked him. Freeman Dyson thought poorly of him, and he frequently alienated people. Wittgenstein's sexuality isn't really cleared up by Monk either. While I don't follow current philosophical discourse, I think that Wittgenstein has probably disappeared into academic obscurity. The same happened to Russell, but, in his case, Monk goes to great trouble to document it. I can't really blame Monk for having prejudices – they are a fact of life – but it is still worth pointing out how they can skew biographical works. It is also worth noting that the Wittgenstein biography was Monk's first – a labor of love – but, by the time he got around to Russell, he was a professional biographer.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Are Private Universities Corporate Proxies?

Dating back to the 1960's, I've always had difficulty understanding campus protest. I mean that not in the sense of not understanding the concerns of the protesters, which are usually readily apparent, but in the sense of the logic of campus protest itself. My cognitive dissonance usually occurs more with private colleges and universities than with public ones. In the U.S., public universities are readily funded by state governments, and most of their students are residents of those particular states, so there is a discernible connection between the protestors and the local political process. Since this is supposed to be a democratic country, it makes more sense that protesters would express political views at a government-administered institution than at a private one. Of course, not all protests are political in nature, and I suppose that non-political protests can make sense anywhere.

The strange thing to me is that, for example, if a student at a private university disagrees with U.S. funding of the Israeli military that results in the killing and displacement of thousands of innocent Gaza civilians, there is an established process for addressing that concern: they could contact their congressional representative or senator or protest outside Congress. Their university has little or no connection to the relevant government proceedings, and its students do not necessarily have any say in university policies. Moreover, private universities are not funded by taxpayers, and the processes by which they fund themselves are not necessarily democratic. One might argue that private colleges and universities are "communities" that can build their own consensus through internal discussion or protest, but that view doesn't have legal footing: students are not true stakeholders and ultimately have no authority in how their private college or university is administered.

The situation with the Vietnam War was quite different from the Hamas-Israel War, because the U.S. itself was the aggressor. In that instance, general political objection to the war seemed reasonable. These days, college and university protests often call for the ending of purchase of stocks of the companies that are located in the country of the principal offenders. For example, colleges and universities were discouraged from buying South African stocks during apartheid and, more recently, the stocks of large oil companies that contribute to global warming. Now the protesters are calling for the divestment of Israeli stocks. While, theoretically, that can be construed as a suitable disincentive for Israel to continue the war, I don't consider that methodology appropriate for a couple of reasons. 

First, in the case of private colleges and universities, investment choices are beyond the purview of their students. The students are essentially customers. Their college or university may be around for hundreds of years, and its administrators have to figure out how to fund it well after the current students have departed. The protesting students can be seen as behaving like the customers of a traditional delicatessen who collectively march in and demand that the owners immediately change the menu to include only vegan and gluten-free items. The fact is that the customers don't own the store, and if they dislike the menu, no one is forcing them to buy food there. Also, more subtly, private colleges and universities in the U.S. are actually participating in the capitalist ecosystem of the country. In order to ensure the health of their institution, it is in their interest to produce graduates who go on to become wealthy and leave them bequests in their wills. The small colleges that didn't follow that model are dropping like flies now. I find it hard to take seriously the "values" of most private colleges and universities. Even when there are stated educational goals, their importance is purely symbolic when you consider the actual tasks required to sustain a private college or university over time. Most of them are devoted to the development of future donors purely as a matter of survival. That is why they coddle their alumni. The richer their alumni, the better.

Second, as a personal matter, I dislike the divestment argument because it trivializes the underlying conceptual framework of what is actually occurring. In this instance, I would rather hear a discussion of the errors made by Netanyahu and the long-term consequences of his behavior. The news media are missing in action as usual and aren't advocating a specific actionable plan. The protestors also seem to be sleepwalking through history and are unable to provide a coherent description of the situation. What, exactly, is the explanatory value of the word "hate"? With better journalism and more effective protest, the Gaza conflict might already have ended. Moreover, the current crisis has been brewing for decades, with the underlying problems festering for many years.

One of my corollaries here is that student protestors seem to be in denial of the fact that they and their universities inhabit a corporation-dominated world.