Thursday, June 25, 2015

Waiting for Carnot

I used to smart off by saying “Of course I’m an atheist. I’m a high school graduate.” The God that everybody knows doesn’t exist isn’t the only God on prospect, however. Myths are always what somebody else believes. More evolved types of Christians, Jews, and Muslims don’t take their own religion literally. They simply assume that some sort of meaningful concept of God lies somewhere beneath the accretions of tradition and fable, even if just what it is they believe is something they haven’t got around to defining, something they are willing to leave to a theologian to be named later. They have bought the meaningfulness of their faith on credit, assuming there’s a formula for theism they would endorse if they encountered it. If you make a pest of yourself, though, you can usually get them to posit this much: God is a person, i.e., an entity that has purposes and cares about the world. That sounds vaguely edifying, especially to secular people who insist that appearances to the contrary they are actually very spiritual. For me, though, perhaps because I’m so unspiritual, the personhood of God is the religious idea that I have the most problem with.

If you talk about God as the first cause, the prime mover, the ground of Being, necessary Being, or Being qua Being. I may not agree with you; but I I understand what you’re saying. Perhaps god-talk may be meaningful, at least at an abstract metaphysical level. What I haven’t been able to process for a great many years is the personhood bit. That it makes sense to talk about an infinite, all-powerful entity that, like us, acts, cares, suffers, and lives.

My puzzlement has very little to do with the usual complaints of the atheists, but then both those hostile to religion and those who defend it aren’t usually proposing philosophical theses. Creationists don’t give a shit about biology, but atheists don’t really care much about First Philosophy. Belief in God for many people is basically a loyalty oath to society or a certain kind of society; and disbelief in God caries its own political freight. It’s eccentric of me, I recognize, but I do care about the philosophical side of these questions.

What offends my scruples is the way that the pedigree of the God concept is never provided. That’s not so obviously a problem if you buy into one of the Gods of the Philosophers because many of the characteristics or dimensions of such deities are drawn from logic or physics—that’s where Kant derived his idea of god, for example. Once you imagine a God that is alive and has purposes, however, you’re abstracting from living things, specifically animals; and that’s what strikes me as extraordinarily dicey. It’s not just that it seems rather unlikely that gaseous vertebrates exist. All the living things we have encountered have metabolisms, and anything we run across in the future will have a metabolism or we won’t count it as alive. So is God an autotroph or a heterotroph? The Chandogya Upanishads represents Atman as chanting “I am the eater! I am the eater!” So what’s it eating? Once again, that’s not a problem for the utterly replete spherical God of Parmenides who needs nothing at all, but that God or any other God eternal, infinite, and complete isn’t alive because to live is to persist on a thermodynamic gradient like a vortex in a tea pot. (I take Carnot’s word for that one, hence the title of the piece.)

A non-living God seems otiose or disappointing since such a being simply cannot act, care, or will. We might love it, but it wouldn’t make sense for it to love us. A finite God, some sort of friendly or not so friendly Cthulhu, at least makes sense; but if you are going in for that kind of science fiction God you might as well believe in Baal riding the storm clouds. At least that way you don’t have to finish high school.                

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Lazy Reason

Sadists don’t smile a lot because serious pleasures are not laughing matters. It follows that economists are not necessarily unhappy people even though they practice the gloomy science and certainly sound pretty gloomy. There’s so much satisfaction to be had in identifying with the aggressor, not to mention the daily fun of humiliating students by demonstrating that everything they know is wrong. It’s no secret by now that a certain malice motivates the dialectic—Socrates himself was, after all, the first and greatest of trolls—but pedagogic cruelty is especially close to the surface in the Econ 101 version of the Method. Not even Socrates got to demonstrate so literally that the good intentions of the earnest youths were mere stupidities. Economics is a thoroughly evil profession. Unfortunately, that’s not exactly a fatal objection to the discipline or a refutation of its fundamental insights. Still, the economists might miss something important in their humorless infatuation with the dark side of the Force.

Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, an influential defense of free markets, argued back in '46 against government interference in the economy by claiming (in John Quiggin’s paraphrase): "Assuming that market prices are equal to opportunity costs, government interventions that change the market allocation must have opportunity costs that exceed their benefits." I don’t know if this lesson really is the basic principle of economics or if it really is, as advertised, ineluctable in some sense—Quiggins is currently writing a book that proposes that economics requires at least one more lesson—but if the Hazlitt’s lesson isn’t precisely the fundamental theorem of economics, it does point towards the fundamental shtick of economics, the endlessly fascinating idea that good intentions are always self defeating while individual greed leads to broad sunlight uplands or if not exactly broad sunlight uplands, the broadest and sunniest uplands we’re going to get. The historical version of this bit of this theodicy is always trotted out whenever some Pope or other busybody criticizes capitalism. “So what do you think is lifting the world’s poor from their poverty? Encyclicals?”

Elaborate deductions from dubious premises in papers decorated with the backwards 6’s may impress the masses…of business majors, but it is the historical evidence rather than the mathiness that raises the more serious questions for me. Even after you scrub the chamber-of-commerce makeup off the Whiggish version of economic history, the narrative has considerable plausibility. It really is hard to see how a virtuous and communitarian system of production and distribution (let alone scientific socialism) could have ever produced the respite from Malthusian misery enjoyed by at least a substantial portion of mankind over the last couple of centuries. After all, the nearest example of a Jeffersonian paradise of yeomen farmers on hand is Haiti.

One should point out at the outset, however, that the important issue in all this is not whether the free market was worth it. The free market capitalism found in Chapter One is not the capitalism of history. That economic system only functions in the Cloud Cuckoo land of theorists where the spherical cows graze contentedly on the artificial turf. The capitalism of history, the system that actually transformed the world, certainly involved markets, but the adjective free seldom applied to them. Markets were not the secret ingredients in the recipe of the modern world—everybody trades. Sven Berkert’s concept of war capitalism is closer to the mark since it took a great many guns to produce the take off and the great divergence. Even before the Age of Exploration, capitalism was, in Braudel’s useful formulation, something layered on top of the technologies of production and the structures of exchange. The whole point of being a capitalist is to beat the market, to game it, to pay your workers as little as possible and preferably nothing at all, to shoot fish in a barrel because competition and fair dealing is not likely to get you rich. The modern world was created through force and fraud; and the question is whether that force and fraud was necessary and, even more, whether a system that continues to function through force and fraud should be defended and reproduced. I take it that’s a very real question.

My ambitions in addressing this question are limited. Unlike Niall Ferguson, who is considered an economist by historians and a historian by economists and therefore enjoys immunity from criticism by either side. I’m neither an historian nor an economist and can’t get away with anything. It simply occurs to me that the neoliberal celebration of capitalism suffers from an obvious shortcoming. While I quite agree that things have worked out better than you would have expected, the history of the last two centuries is hardly a story of the triumphant advance of unbridled capitalism. The one-time experiment was not a trial of pure capitalism because capitalism was opposed, edited, and modified at every step by political forces. Indeed, a counterforce has emerged precisely at those passes where putatively free market but actually oligarchic political economics has resulted in intolerable results. If the English working class didn’t fall into terminal wretchedness, it certainly wasn’t because of some happy intrinsic feature of Manchester political economics. The workers got organized. It was Ulysses Simpson Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman and not economic rationality that ended slavery In the U.S.—slavery was a huge moneymaker right up to the Civil War. For that matter, the eight-hour workday, overtime, tolerable working conditions, and Saturday didn’t happen because of anonymous market mechanisms. Unions and political action imposed these reforms on the owners against the advice of most of the economists and pundits of the time.

Anno domini 2015 it very much matters that the great expansion of the world’s economy unfolded in an era where capitalism was always contested because we are apparently entering an era when the forces opposed to capitalism are extraordinarily weak. Across the West, democracy has been largely discredited; and what’s called liberalism in a country like ours is more a call for a more decent form of oligarchy than a serious contestation of the power of money. We’re apparently preparing to perform a new and unprecedented experiment in which we do find out what happens when the soi disant free market gets to do its stuff without effective opposition. What the Republicans denounced as socialism saved capitalism from itself before. It will be interesting to see if capitalism survives its own triumph. Wellington once said that the only thing more terrible than a battle won was a battle lost, but maybe Wellington wasn’t quite right about that.

Speaking of battles lost. It would be an instance of the fallacy of the lazy reason to give up the struggle just because the inexorable laws of economics or the iron law of oligarchy or some other scientificated version of fate predetermines the outcome and you figure that it won’t be too bad even if you do nothing. It may well be true that the historical processes that produced the modern world didn’t result in the disaster the prophets foretold (at least yet), but the efforts of those that didn’t come out on top were part of the process. Just as the old theologians used to insist that reality only persisted because of an ongoing act of divine creation—continuous fulgurations— it seems to me that what humanity there is in the human world survives because human will recreates it in every generation. I don’t always go along with the theologians entirely, however. For me, a war is just if losing it is better than not fighting.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Memories are Made of This

Recent polls indicate that George Bush’s standing with the public is becoming more favorable. That’s depressing, but not very surprising. Unless there’s something wrong with your own memory, you ought to have learned by now that the public’s memory is extremely short. In fact, for most people, most of the time, memory is a social phenomenon even though it manifests itself through individual nervous systems. Small wonder, then, that a great many people can’t recall the several disasters of Bush’s reign since the communal recollection engine isn’t doing its work and, of course, our justice system has decisively flunked its vital mnemonic role. 

That memory is predominately a sociological fact has got to be the most unpopular idea I’ve ever tried to float in a lifetime of floating unpopular ideas, at a minimum right up there with the  claim that thought is not something contained in brains, that the self is in the world and not in the skull. I admit that reading Maurice Halbwachs’ La memoire collective is more a chore than a pleasure. He not only writes as a sociologist. He writes like a sociologist. What really makes his ideas hateful, however, isn’t just a matter of prose style. We really don’t want to admit that the human world is not built out of individual minds the way that a wall is made out of bricks. Perhaps that’s why, though the social nature of memory is a basic part of Nietzsche’s outlook and Nietzsche could certainly write, nobody gets that part. As Nietzsche himself wrote someplace, in such cases there is an auditory hallucination. It seems like something was said and heard, but no transaction took place.  

Well, as the case of Bush’s rehabilitation shows, Halbwachs and Nietzsche were optimists. Nietzsche took it that memory stopped with the grandparents. The Heidelberg Egyptologist Jan Assmann, following Halbwachs, estimates that social memory stretches back 70 years or so. Before that is the imminently ignorable history written in books and entombed in museums, the dead zone between lived experience and the sacred origin stories. You’d think that longer lifespans would lengthen social memory—lots of people know their great grandparents these days—but the reverse appears to be the case. I once read about an anthropologist who visited an isolated tribe of aborigines twice. On his second visit, which only took place a few years after the first, he asked whether anybody remembered him. “Yes, there’s an old story about that…” When I talk to San Francisco State students about Vietnam, it might as well have occurred in the dreamtime. They’ve heard about it. They saw the movie, but It is not a part of their experience in the same way that World War II was a part of my experience though I was born almost exactly halfway between VE and VJ day.

Memory is social; and forgetting, which is an integral part of memory, is also social. Jon Stewart delivered a memorable rant last night on the Middle East under the rubric Learning Curves are for Pussies. He focused on what we refuse to learn, but he could have as easily spoken about we refuse to remember, namely the long roll of disastrous American interventions in the region. If you understand memory in a psychological way, you may figure that the recollection of events decays exponentially so that old wars have a half life like U235. That perspective may not be entirely wrong, but it is profoundly misleading because in real situations our purely personal memories are repeatedly refreshed like the image on a computer screen. Of course, if the organs that ordinarily do our thinking for us, e.g., our families, our spouses, our friends, the internet, television, and the rest, neglect to restore the fading impression or decide to ignore it for some ideological or commercial reason, we have to fall back on our own resources. In other words, unless we belong to the small group that make it our business to actively remember, we forget. So what was so bad about Bush?

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thoughts Inspired by Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization

Scull’s book disappointed me or, to be more accurate, the first half of the book disappointed me. The author tried to write a comprehensive history of insanity and ended up producing the world’s longest blue book essay for a Western Civ final. I don’t know if anybody is really up to the task of writing a cross-cultural history of madness, but Scull is not that guy. Heck, his effort reminded me my high school report on ancient attitudes to insanity, which I reread the other day while cleaning out some old papers. On the other hand, when Scull finally gets around to the last two centuries, he’s much better, passionate and on-point about the intellectual and moral scandal of the era of the mass incarceration of the insane, the hubris of the psychiatrists, the indifference of the politicians, and the incoherence of the law. Exposing the absurdity of the DSM is not especially difficult, I guess; but it sure is necessary.

I’m not quite up to writing a proper review of Scull’s book, but reading it occasioned a few random reflections:

  • For most of history, the care of the insane has been an exercise in law enforcement, which is why there are no firm dividing lines between treatment, punishment, and torture. Celsus recommended whipping lunatics to restore them to sanity. St Loyola recommended whipping yourself to atone for the crime of being a human being. For the first part of our history, we Americans put difficult people in madhouses. Later we put the same kind of people in prisons. Neither approach works very well.
  • “Insanity” does not name a natural group. Particular ailments that can indeed be separated out because of their clear causation have been identified from time to time and ceased to be though of as forms of madness. Indeed, the Greeks already distinguished delirium associated with fever from other kinds of aberrant behavior. Later epilepsy, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and the psychiatric manifestations of tertiary syphilis were hived off.  It seems likely that manic depression and schizophrenia may eventually follow, though that remains to be seen; but most of the conditions identified in the various editions of the DSM are far slippery than something like agitated catatonia. It’s almost as if a problem has to be an ongoing category mistake in order to count as a proper entry in the Chinese encyclopedia that is the official nosology.
  • Simply getting a bunch of doctors to agree to call a set of behaviors a disease is not the same as making a discovery. I was in the audience in Toronto when the shrinks decided by a show of hands that homosexuality isn’t a psychiatric disorder. I almost laughed out loud, not because I think homosexuality is a kind of madness—I don’t and didn’t—but because of the stupidity of the whole procedure, which, to put it mildly, didn’t have much to do with satisfying Koch’s postulates.
  • People are far more fouled up than we want to believe. Normality is as mythical as God almighty.
  • A tremendous amount of psychiatry is merely a new version of phrenology. Though officially and even truculently materialist, the focus on neurology is actually rather Cartesian. It replaces one form of dualism with another. The world isn’t divided between things and souls, but between the brain and the rest of the world. Hence the obviously false notion that selves are located in certain parts of the brain and are identical with particular cerebral structures.
  • I am not my body. After all, my body knows how to synthesize proteins from amino acids. I certainly don’t. The self is a parasite rather like those fungi you read about that control the behavior of ants.  The analogy is actually rather close. In Plato, the rational self is pictured as the driver of a team of unruly horses that resist his efforts to guide the chariot upwards. In ants, the fungus gets the infected insect to climb the highest twig, the better to spread the spores that will burst from its swollen head.
  • For all its failings, psychoanalysis at least recognized that what’s at stake, at least for the most part, are meanings rather than brain chemicals. Scull is very good on this point. The fatal flaw of analysis is that you can’t get your insurance company to pay for it. The fact, if it is a fact, that it doesn’t do you any good is not the problem.
  • The Freudian view of things is not dissimilar to Buddhism. The difference is that the Freudians more or less clear-headedly vote for samsara. They recognize that the ego is an illusion; but they opt for the illusion. To quote an old line of my own: of course we’re fucked up. Angst in the Tao of the West—the alternative, as Nietzsche accurately pointed out, is European Buddhism.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

An Attack of Gas

I note that Oklahoma has legalized the use of nitrogen gas as an execution method, though stifling people in this fashion has never been tested and it would raise certain ethical issues to run a phase one trial. In any case, you’d think that opting for helium would have demonstrated a more developed sense of humor on the part of the legislature.  Really, I don’t know why we have so much trouble with this issue. We worry about how much a handful of condemned murderers will suffer, but we routinely torture living inmates.

The solution to the execution problem should be obvious to anybody who has taken Econ 101. There are surely many wealthy people who would pay a good price for the right to kill somebody with impunity, thus providing much needed revenue to the state while making the choice of lethal instrumentality a question for whoever was willing to pay the most. Privatizing state-sanctioned murder has the added benefit of undercutting a familiar argument against capital punishment. Opponents are forever carping that execution is much more expensive then life imprisonment. My suggestion would make the death house a profit center. A win-win situation.

Monday, April 13, 2015


Paradoxes were popular in my youth. It was the age of Gödel, Escher, Bach, a time when college kids wondered out loud whether the critique of an ideology could ever be anything but another ideology, when we all admired the Heroic Struggle of the Little People to Finish the Mural and wondered what we would have seen in the barbershop mirror if our heads weren’t in the way. Well, rapid transit gloria mundi. In the midst of the Cambrian explosion of consumer electronics, Cratylus is even more apropos than Heraclitus. It’s all you can do to step into the same river once. Under the circumstances, who has the time to be mesmerized by the mise en abyme of consciousness? Small wonder the world snake seems intent on biting somebody else’s tail these days. In the words of the irritated vulture, “patience my ass, I’m going to kill something!” Neurosis has given way to perversity, which, oddly enough, involves fewer kinks, at least from a topological point of view.  

Presumably we prefer things to be straightforward. Sadly, you can’t always get what you want, at least in world politics. Evidently Escher isn’t quite obsolete yet. Middle Eastern geopolitics is an ever-ascending (or descending) staircase. Iran is our enemy in Lebanon and Syria where it supports Hisbollah, which supports Assad, but our friend in Iraq where it fights ISIS, which fights Assad. Meanwhile, we scold the Pakistanis for oppressing the Shia, but send weapons to help the Saudis bomb and perhaps invade Yemen even though the Saudis oppress the Shia that live in the eastern part of their country. The Republicans don’t know whether to denounce Obama as a secret Muslim or a secret Shi’ite, which is perhaps more damning since for the most part, the Christians, at least the right wing ones, definitely lean Sunni. Even Senator McCain, an obligate carnivore in foreign policy, may be forgiven some confusion when it comes to deciding whom to attack, at least whom to attack first.

What we have here is what solid-state physicists describe as a frustrated system, “one where the interactions compete with each other and cannot be simultaneously satisfied.” If it were merely a matter of coming up with an economically rational policy or an ideologically coherent policy or a geopolitically shrewd policy, a solution set wouldn’t be so hard to compute. The equation we insist on solving, however, has only imaginary solutions.

Riyadh is the hometown of radical Islam, and Saudi royalty orchestrated the oil shocks that derailed the American economy back in the 70s. That bunch runs one of the world’s most repressive regimes. You’d think this absurd and malignant monarchy would be enemy number one, especially after prominent Saudis financed 9/11 and a bunch of young Saudis carried it out. Yes, but there’s all that oil. Meanwhile, Iran continues to be the focus of perpetual hatred for reasons that are never spelled out in public. At the behest of first the British and then the Israelis, we’ve bankrolled coups, propped up a tyrant, encouraged a foreign invader to kill hundreds of thousands of Iranians, shot down an airliner, attempted to impoverish the country with non-stop sanctions, and engaged in cyberwar against it—I guess it’s something that we left it to the Israelis to do the murdering of Iranian scientists. I suppose our continuing hostility to the Iranians makes a certain human sense. Like Southern racists, we’ve acted so badly that we can’t change our attitudes now without admitting how insupportable our actions have been for decades. So we keep pretending that Iran is a major threat even though from a Real Politik perspective, Iran doesn't make much more sense as an enemy, so much so that we're finding it next to impossible not to treat them as allies.

Of course, it is far easier for an Israeli to make a case for war with Iran in view of their support for anti-Israeli groups in Lebanon and Gaza and the prospect that an Iran with even a rudimentary nuclear weapon would break Israel’s monopoly on atomic weapons in the region and limit its ability to bomb and invade its neighbors, something it has done, after all, on a great many occasions. But it’s not enough to prevent the Iranians from getting a bomb. The pot must boil indefinitely to provide cover for the gradual annexation of the West Bank and deflect attention from the obvious bankruptcy of the Zionist ideal in the eyes of the world at large. Real peace is a serious threat for a nation that looks more and more like South Africa before Mandela.

Why the U.S. puts up with endlessly being played by Netanyahu and company takes more explaining, though obviously the political leverage of the Israelis with both the Democrats and the Republicans has a lot to do with it. But maybe it’s just become a habit. For obvious reasons, many Americans and Europeans had a great deal of sympathy for the Jews in the wake of the horrors of World War II, certainly more sympathy than they had for the Palestinian, who were too different from us to count. Things are somewhat different now, but I remember that it was well into the 60’s before a spokesman for the swarthy others was even allowed to make his case on PBS—Palestinians in those days were as apologetic and cowed in their rare public appearances as members of the Mattachine Society before the Stonewall riots. Israel had its uses during the Cold War—one forgets how tense things got between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in ‘67 and ‘73. It’s also true that Israeli society is admired here for many defensible and some indefensible reasons—Israel is a democracy, albeit a herrenvolk democracy, with a vibrant intellectual life, and it is also the kind of ethno-theocracy that many Republicans wish America could be. Still, absent domestic political imperatives, no American administration would keep giving Israel billions in aid every year without putting an end to the settlements.

Dealing with this epic game of pick up sticks requires a light touch and a tolerance for complexity, but above all a recognition that local victories may result in overall defeat. What I hear from many politicians is a simply a call for acting out. “Do something, damn it!” In all probability the Republicans will run on a policy of going to war against Iran. The thinking appears to be that if we jump off the roof, we’ll be perfectly OK until we pass the fifth floor on the way down, at which point we can reassess the situation.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Funeral Baked Meats

Since it’s Easter morning, it’s perhaps an appropriate time to resurrect the dead, in this case an old poem that was (sort of) published almost a quarter of a century ago. Adam Gopnik wrote a much better essay on the same topic a few years ago—coming across Gopnik's work this morning is what make me think of my old poem.


We are saved by grace alone. It follows
The chalice of eternal mercy’s
An earthen cup and not a golden grail.
To be saved by a miracle is not a miracle.
He was not the man with the honey beard and the tender eyes
But an excitable young intellectual
Whose love, like ours, was overgrown with rage
Like the last rose in an abandoned garden
Among the thorns, entangled branch and root.
Certainly he was not very nice,
Moody and hysterical and then suddenly cold;
And if his words were sometimes a new thing in the world,
Mostly he repeated the wisdom and insanity of the prophets.
He wasn’t a good teacher either.
His followers followed him for their own reasons
As if they had caught the power in his voice
But not the sense. As for the rest
They hardly listened at all or heard
What they wanted to ear and already believed.
For the exhausted women he was an Adonis.
For the men,
Against all the evidence, a vengeful sword.
Perhaps he cured the sick or perhaps
The wretched took some comfort from his hand
Because compassion in his day as ours
Is by itself a portent. Beyond that sign
Which either suffices or does not
He gave no other, as you all well know;
For you are fools. He died and he stayed dead.