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Friday, September 20, 2002
Consciousness
 
Matt Yglesias informs us that he's taking Ned Block's class on consciousness. Now, philosophical inquiry into the nature of consciousness is one of my favorite topics, so I hope Matt posts some more as the class continues. For those of you who are interested, the link at the left to David Chalmers's homepage will lead you to a wide range of online papers on consciousness.

For what it's worth, I'm a reluctant dualist when it comes to phenomenal consciousness.
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Evil
 
Reading Michael Kinsley's ruminations on rightists' use of the concept of evil vis-a-vis Osama bin Laden left me with contradictory feelings.

I agree that many rightists have glommed on to the concept of evil as a mechanism to prevent discussion on this topic from straying into territory they would prefer it not went: The relationship between America's position and activities in the world and the attack against it. And I think that it's profitable to explore this territory.

Nevertheless, I think the important question is the character of the discussion. Is it a practical or a moral one? I can be found in the latter camp. Investigation of root causes is practically useful, but doesn't contribute anything to our moral reasoning on the issue, and in that sense, is not part of the moral argument.

The actions of al-Queda were manifestly evil. Our reaction to that evil needs be moral revulsion and a desire for just retribution. An investigation into the slights, perceived or otherwise, suffered by the perpetrators of an atrocity just has no place in our analysis of the situation.

Finally, as something of an aside, I find Kinsley's invocation of the biological bases of human behavior a little wide of the mark. While I agree that our growing knowledge of these bases raises interesting, though ultimately tractable, questions for ethics, I don't think those questions are deeply implicated in anyone's position regarding al-Queda or Osama bin Laden.
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Thursday, September 19, 2002
Pinker on the "blank slate"
 
Edge brings us an interview with Steven Pinker that's well worth reading. Pinker, an outstanding popularizer of the computational theory of mind and evolutionary psychology, pretty much demolishes the Standard Social Sciences Model of the "blank slate," and shares some insight into why this wooly headed model has had such success clinging to life in the academy and beyond.
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Wednesday, September 18, 2002
On Iraq
 
I can agree with half of Thomas Friedman's argument about Iraq: That a commitment to building a plural, democratic Iraq must be part and parcel of our invasion strategy. Frankly, military conquest and occupation seems to me to be the only way to ensure that there exists any plural, democratic countries in that region.

What I don't agree with is the idea that Saddam can be deterred from supplying terrorists with WMD. And I think that this is beside the point. Why? A nuclear armed Saddam will be able to deter the U.S.
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Check out Nick Bostrom
 
I've added Nick Bostrom's home page to my list of other sites. Mr Bostrom is a professor of philosophy with some interesting ideas. For those who've been following the Anthropic Principle discussion, check out his book, Anthropic Bias: Observation Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy. The first five chapters are available on-line.

Another interesting paper asks the question: Are we living in a simulation?
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Norah Vincent on Art
 
Giving a rest to the issue of Norah Vincent's opinions on the blogosphere, issued from within her protective crouch, I thought I'd turn my critical eye to one of her substantive posts, namely Norah's reflections on Art.

Boy, do I wish I hadn't. Not to put too fine a point on it, it was tripe. Norah's point, such as it is, seems to be that Art cannot be explained. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's have some fun parsing Norah.

At long last, a few words about philosophy and aesthetics. I suppose the Randians will club me over the head for saying this, and the rest of you will dub me a hopeless philistine or a dolt, but I don’t think that the two fields, if one can rightly call them such in this context, are in any way compatible. They can neither be compared nor comingled. That is why, in my view, a philosophy of art is not only utter nonsense in practice, it’s an oxymoron. It’s also why academics and critics ruin every beautiful thing they touch.

First of all, aesthetics just is the philosophy of Art. Norah's confusion as to terms does, however, highlight a problem with pronouncements like this. Arguments as to the impossibility of aesthetics tend to contain aesthetics within their justifications. They wind up being self-contradictory.

Fans will note the typical Norah touch of smearing someone as part of her argument, in this case, academics and critics.

Philosophy is an entirely left-brain endeavor—verbal, analytic, logical. But it is also an activity. By this I mean that it comes from within the human mind (from thought) and seeks to impose itself and some measure of order (via language and argument) on the world without. It is naturally the purest expression of the logos in every sense—the word, the rational principle, and meaning all rolled into one.

Art is the exact opposite. It is a passive right-brain endeavor that flows in the other direction—from the outside in, from the world into the brain. The experience imposes itself on the experiencer, not the other way around. Art happens to us – or in some cases, if you’re a literal-minded, chess playing, dictionary-scrounging geek it doesn’t. (You have noticed, I assume, that there are just some people in the world who simply don’t “get” art. It just doesn’t register. It flies right past the old sensors and splats on the wall behind them.)

Ah, the old left brain/right brain trope. It's such a cliche that's it's not really worth commenting on beyond the fact that Norah doesn't make very good use of it.

Norah helpfully clarifies her thoughts, though, by saying that philosophy is a human attempt to impose order on the world. Now, it seems to me that the order already exists in the world. Philosophy, and other human activities, characterize and define the world, but they don't read order in so much as they read order out.

Nevertheless, even if Norah's conception of the mind as imposing order on an orderless world were true, our right hemispheres would be doing it just as much as our left.

As to philosophy being "naturally the purest expression of the logos in every sense," frankly, I just had to laugh. What pompous bloviation; what pointless jargon. Writing a sentence just to make yourself seem clever is the highpoint of bad writing.

But let's get back to Norah's dichotomy. Art, in contrast to philosophy, is a "right-brain endeavor." And not just that, a "passive" one. Tell that to an artist.

Maybe Norah means to speak only of the experience of Art, though. Even here, she's barking up the wrong tree. Some of the enjoyment I get from Art lies in the understanding of it. There's a lot in a Bach cantata, after all.

Once again, Norah treats us to some choice invective. If you don't buy into her sophomoric conception of Art, you are "a literal-minded, chess playing, dictionary-scrounging geek."

Art is the consummate anti-rational pursuit and, what’s more, at its height, it makes a mockery of language. So, if you’re stuck on the rules of art and what makes it tick, chances are, you’re missing it. It makes YOU tick, or else it floats off into the ether to entreat some worthier recipient.

Here, we can see Norah beginning to hit the rapids. All along, she's been conflating language and rules. Is Art a rejection of rules or of language? Both positions are hard to support. As to language, aren't works by Shakespeare or Cervantes Art, according to Norah? In their use of language, do these writers make a mockery of it? I don't think so. Maybe Norah really does. Or maybe she just hasn't really considered what she's writing.

As to rules, it seems clear to me that Art, by it's very nature, requires rules, requires an idiom. Of course, these rules are fuzzy at the edges, but still they're there. They are revised, broken for effect, transformed, but always present. Ask Picasso.

There's more. Norah prattles on about how "Beckett is always and everywhere asking us to let go of our right brains." (I guess she means left brain; hard to keep track) Norah babbles about how Beckett and Joyce "learned in the end" that language can't "capture human consciousness." Didn't stop them from trying to use it to do just that. But, Norah grows tiresome.

Ultimately, the entire piece is littered with cliche and contradiction. Norah can't make up her mind if she wants to argue that Art is incompatible with rules or with language, and makes no convincing case for either position. Norah lashes out, preemptively, at those who might disagree with her. Norah uses every fifty cent word she can dredge up from her memory.

The real reason to be down on Norah Vincent isn't that she's a snob, though she is. It's that she's a crap writer with nothing original to say.
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Tuesday, September 17, 2002
New Links
 
I've added some new blogs to my roll. So check 'em out. I thought about adding some explanatory remarks about my choices, but in the end, I figured why bother. They're there because I like 'em.
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Inspections?
 
William Saletan makes the observation that a return of inspectors to Iraq without conditions isn't exactly what the U.S. is looking for. Rather, the U.S. is seeking a return of inspectors under the most rigorous conditions possible for Iraq.

Administration apologists have been waxing lyrical over the supposed skill of Bush the lesser in turning the U.N. to his will. It seems to me that, by allowing the discussion to become one about "inspections," the administration has lost a tempo. The discussion should be about enforcement.

The interesting question, however, is the extent to which Bush has been wrongfooted by Iraq's offer. Surely, the president and his team were aware that such an offer would be forthcoming, perhaps just not so soon. The next few days will see whether the administration can return the focus to Iraqi compliance on U.S. terms.
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Back to the blog
 
After a brief hiatus, Homeobox is back with the incisive, generally pithy commentary my tens of readers have come to love.
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