Category: Philosophy

What should I ask Ted Gioia?

I will be doing a Conversation with Ted, no associated public event.  He is a musician and most of all a music historian, above all for jazz and blues, with numerous excellent books on those topics.

Here is his home page.  Here is Ted on Twitter, one of the very best follows.  Here is his latest book Music: A Subversive History, due out next week.  And there is more:

Gioia was raised in a Sicilian-Mexican household in Hawthorne, California, a working class neighborhood in the South-Central area of Los Angeles. Gioia was valedictorian and a National Merit Scholar at Hawthorne High School, and attended Stanford University. There he received a degree in English (graduating with honors and distinction), served as editor of Stanford’s literary magazine, Sequoia, and wrote regularly for the Stanford Daily.  He was a member of Stanford’s College Bowl team, which was featured on television, and defeated Yale in the national finals. Gioia also worked extensively as a jazz pianist during this period, and designed and taught a class on jazz at Stanford while still an undergraduate.

After graduation, Gioia received a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford University, where he graduated with first class honors. He then received an MBA from Stanford University.

Gioia has enjoyed successes in the worlds of music, writing and business. In the business world, Gioia has consulted to Fortune 500
companies while working for McKinsey and the Boston Consulting Group.  He helped Sola International complete an LBO and IPO on the New York Stock Exchange in the 1990s.  He has undertaken business projects in 25 countries on five continents, and has managed large businesses (up to $200 million in revenues). While working amidst the venture capital community on Sand Hill Road in Silicon Valley, Gioia stood out from the crowd as the “guy with the piano in his office.”

His knowledge of varied musical genres is virtually without parallel.  So what should I ask Ted?

*Joker*

I read so many scathing — forgive me long and thorough and scathing — reviews of this one that I figured something had to be up.  And indeed there is.  However unpleasant and disturbing this movie may be, it is excellent along all major dimensions of cinematic quality, including drama, script, characterization, performances, cinematography, color, music, and more, not to mention embedded cinematic references.

But here is the catch: it is the most anti-Leftist movie I have seen, ever.  It quite explicitly portrays the egalitarian instinct as a kind of barbaric violent atavism, and it is pointedly critical of Antifa and related movements, showing them as representing a literal end of civilization.  Only the wealthy are genteel and urbane and proper.  On crime and law and order, it is right-wing in a 1970s “Death Wish” sort of way, though anti-gun too.

I believe the critics simply could not see straight.  I hesitate to recommend such a non-entertaining and indeed reactionary movie, but I am very glad I saw it.  If you have been put off by the reviews, with this blog post I am adding my dissenting voice of reason.

Louis XIV and his motto

Louis XIV was both King of France and a global ruler with global ambitions. He founded colonies in America, Africa and India, tried to seize Siam (as Thailand was then known), sent missionaries and mathematicians to the Emperor of China and launched the struggle for France’s global markets which continues to this day.  The motto he adopted early in his reign, in 1662, expressed his hopes and desires: “Nec pluribus impar” (literally “Not unequal to more”), meaning “not incapable of ruling other dominions”, as well as “not unequal to many enemies”.

That is from the new Philip Mansel book King of the World: The Life of Louis XIV.

Which thinker from the past would you resurrect?

The Scholar’s Stage writes:

If I were to resurrect one person to comment on our current dilemmas, that person would be Hannah Arendt. 

What issue of importance today did she not ponder?  How should Western countries understand and respond to authoritarian states? What makes meaningful community possible? Does bureaucracy, technology, and settled life diminish our freedom?  Why do politicians lie—and what consequences should there be for lying in office? How do political institutions decay? Should we forgive our political enemies? When is violence justified, and when is it not? How can it be controlled or avoided? What should the ‘justice’ in phrases like ‘social justice’ actually mean? What role should guilt, rage, and fear play in our political lives? How should we translate abstract political principles into living realities?

Arendt wrote about all of these things and more. She would have the intellectual background needed to say something useful about the biggest political and social challenges we face today: America’s relationship with China, technology’s encroach upon democracy, the unsettled relation between the sexes, the collapse of American social capital and community life, the strengths and foibles of social justice campaigning, partisanship and ‘post-reality’ politics, and of course, the presidency of Donald Trump.

I wish we could hear her opinions on these things. I wish this because I honestly do not know what her opinions would be. I recognize positions she would not adopt, but I can only guess what she would make of Facebook or consider the proper political grounding for impeachment.

A case is made against several other plausible options, including the Founding Fathers.  One approach is simply to ask who would be good on television, or on social media.  Another is to pick a person whose historical reputation is so strong that he or she cannot be ignored — perhaps that would militate in favor of Abraham Lincoln or how about Jane Austen?  Perhaps attention is the true scarcity that needs to be overcome.

I believe I would revive Confucius, at least assuming everyone would accept that it is indeed the real Confucius.  He is perhaps the person most likely to have an influence in China, and there is some chance he would seek to reverse the current course of political events.

My forthcoming debate with Slavoj Žižek

We are excited to announce the program for the Dec. 7 Holberg Debate! Slavoj Žižek will give the keynote “Why I Am Still A Communist” and then be interviewed by @tylercowen

We invite everyone to watch the livestream and tweet Qs for Žižek. Use #qholberg.

https://www.facebook.com/events/2524051877814963/

Bergen, Norway — I’ll be there!

*Virtue Politics*

The author is James Hankins, and the subtitle is Soulcraft and Statecraft in Renaissance Italy.  Here is one excerpt:

I have sought to present the political ideas of the humanists as the expression of a movement of thought and action, similar in its physiognomy if not in its content to the movement of the philosophes of the Enlightenment.  It was a movement that was stimulated by a crisis of legitimacy in late medieval Italy and by widespread disgust with its political and religious leadership.  Its adherents were men who had wide experience — often bitter, personal experience — with tyranny.  They knew that oligarchs and even popular governments could be as tyrannical as princes.  Their movement was largely in agreement about its goals: to rebuild Europe’s depleted reserves of good character, true piety, and practical wisdom.  They also agreed widely about means: the revival of classical antiquity, which the humanists presented as an inspiring pageant, rich in examples of noble conduct, eloquent speech, selfless dedication to country, and inner moral strength, nourished by philosophy and uncorrupt Christianity.  The humanist movement yearned after greatness, moral and political.  Its most pressing historical questions were how ancient Rome had achieved her vast and enduring empire, and whether it was possible to bring that greatness to life again under modern conditions.  This led to the question of whether it was the Roman Republic or the Principate that should be emulated; and, once the humanists had learned Greek, it provoked the further question of whether Rome was the only possible ancient model to emulate, or whether Athens or Sparta, or even the Persia of Xenophon’s Cyrus, held lessons for contemporary statesmen.

An excellent book, you can order it here.

*Sontag: Her Life and Work*

That is the new biography by Benjamin Moser, along with Ingmar Bergman bios you can call this topic my soap opera equivalent.  Here are a few scattered bits:

“I’m only interested in people engaged in a project of self-transformation,” Susan wrote in 1971…she read about the University of Chicago, “which didn’t have a football team, where all people did was study, and where they talked about Plato and Aristotle and Aquinas day and night.  I thought, that’s for me.”

And:

The connection between sex and pain was so natural for her — “All relationships are essentially masochistic,” she told Burch — that she could never imagine the loving partnership of equals that Freud had posited.  Her “profoundest experience,” of her mother’s giving and then withdrawing her love, was perpetually renewed.  Harriet dribbled out her affection by the scant thimbleful, which Susan gratefully slurped down: “I suppose, with my sore heart + unused body, it doesn’t take much to make me happy.”  A couple of weeks later, she described the “total collapse” of their relationship and “blindly walking through a forest of pain.”

And:

Brodsky, after all, was the friend she dreamed of…the teacher she hoped to find in Philip Rieff; the companion she had sought all her life, an intellectual and artistic equal, and even a superior.  She never found another friend as congenial, and it was in these terms that she mourned his premature death, at fifty-five.  I’m all alone,” she told a friend.  There’s nobody with whom I can share my ideas, my thoughts.”

Recommended, for those who care.

The new Catholic illiberals

A few of you have asked me what I think of this movement, surveyed here (possibly gated for you), or try this coverage.  If you would like the whole thing in one tweet, maybe try this one from Sohrab Ahmari:

What I’d say to liberal friends who are men and women of goodwill: “Persuade your comrades to ease up and back off while there’s yet time. You don’t want to pit your ideology against forces much older and more potent than liberalism, which is thin civilizational gruel, indeed.”

Other than disagreeing with this group, here is my general impression.  They have not managed to produce a deep, compelling illiberal book comparable say to the works by James Fitzjames Stephens, Carl Schmitt, Burke (not actually an illiberal in my view, but the comparison remains relevant), Jean Bodin, or others from that tradition.  I’m not sure they could beat the arguments of Thomas Mann’s liberal caricature Settembrini in The Magic Mountain.

They have not attached themselves to any great social movement or revolution, either as leaders or followers, unless you count the Church itself, but that is hardly new news.

They do not have a signature policy proposal (at the end of the article behind the first link, the big policy proposal unveiled at the end is “restrictions on share buybacks” — Cliff Asness, telephone!  Are they kidding?)

Do they have a T.S. Eliot or an Emil Nolde or for that matter a J.S. Bach, who probably was not a Millian liberal?

So I believe they are part of the same “thin civilizational gruel” as the rest of us.  They are too embedded in liberalism and its presuppositions to get very far with their own programme.  That said, I am fine with them coexisting within the froth of a liberal order, insisting correctly that the heritage of “the Church” is essential to western civilization, in the meantime allowing their intuitions to be muddled by a confusion of rates of changes and levels when it comes to liberalism in the West today.

A few comments to close, returning to the tweet presented above:

1. Is all gruel thin?

2. Would thick gruel be better or worse?

3. Is Karachi haleem a form of thick gruel?

4. Isn’t the key word here “civilizational”?  It is liberalism that produced, nourished, and sustained the world’s first truly admirable societies.  There is nothing in the arguments of these new illiberals which seriously contradicts that.

5. Many people have longed for gruel, which I take to be underrated.

Do they object to dividends as well?

So be it!

At this point, I can picture Tyler Cowen remarking, “You’re a bigger pessimist than I am. According to you, we’re richer than we think, but riches don’t matter much for happiness, so who cares?” The whole point of optimism, though, is to say, “You may not be happy, but you should be.” If you want to meme that as, “Optimism is pessimism about the dangers of pessimism,” so be it.

File under “Bryan Caplan, pessimist.

Developing object permanence around flinches

Many years ago, I did an exercise where I made a list of thoughts that I flinched away from. Then, I made spaced repetition cards with the thoughts.

The cards were statements like: “As of March 2009, I am currently uncomfortable with the idea that quitting my job might be the right move.” (Totally fake example to communicate the format.)

I think it was a really useful exercise, and it’s pretty easy to implement, and I basically recommend it to people.

I don’t think the part about spaced repetition software specifically was all that important–I think the idea was that I developed something like object permanence around these mental flinches of mine, and that was the way I accomplished that.

If you try this, I wouldn’t try to force yourself to consider the uncomfortable thought at the object level. I would try to internalize that you are in fact uncomfortable considering it at the object level, and maybe meditate on possible cognitive chilling effects of that situation.

Because, in my experience, human brains are pretty good at back-propagating these flinches, and that can cut off a lot of otherwise useful thought. (The linked article is very good, but includes a framing and approach that are, IMO, importantly different from what worked for me. YMMV.)

From Divia Eden, via Alexey Guzey.

Free Will and the Brain

Tyler and I have been arguing about free will for decades. One of the strongest arguments against free-will is an empirical argument due to physiologist Benjamin Libet. Libet famously found that the brain seems to signal a decision to act before the conscious mind makes an intention to act. Brain scans can see a finger tap coming 500 ms before the tap but the conscious decision seems to be made nly 150 ms before the tap. Libet’s results, however, are now being reinterpreted:

The Atlantic: To decide when to tap their fingers, the participants simply acted whenever the moment struck them. Those spontaneous moments, Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity. They would have been more likely to tap their fingers when their motor system happened to be closer to a threshold for movement initiation.

This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task. The Bereitschaftspotential would be the rising part of the brain fluctuations that tend to coincide with the decisions. This is a highly specific situation, not a general case for all, or even many, choices.

…In a new study under review for publication in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Schurger and two Princeton researchers repeated a version of Libet’s experiment. To avoid unintentionally cherry-picking brain noise, they included a control condition in which people didn’t move at all. An artificial-intelligence classifier allowed them to find at what point brain activity in the two conditions diverged. If Libet was right, that should have happened at 500 milliseconds before the movement. But the algorithm couldn’t tell any difference until about only 150 milliseconds before the movement, the time people reported making decisions in Libet’s original experiment.

In other words, people’s subjective experience of a decision—what Libet’s study seemed to suggest was just an illusion—appeared to match the actual moment their brains showed them making a decision.

The Atlantic piece with more background is here. A scientific piece summarizing some of the new experiments is here. Of course, the philosophical puzzles remain. Tyler and I will continue to argue.

My Conversation with Samantha Power

Samantha Power has a new and excellent book out, The Education of an Idealist: A Memoir, which I very much enjoyed.  And so a Conversation with Tyler was in order, here is the audio and transcript, here is one bit:

COWEN: For a final closing segment, I just have some super simple questions about foreign policy again. Over the course of the last summer, Iran apparently seized two British tankers. There’ve been other incidents in the Strait of Hormuz in some way connected with Iran. From a game-theoretic point of view, why would they do this? Why does this make sense?

POWER: Well, the one thing that they would know that would give them some point of leverage is the extreme war fatigue within the United States, and really within the Western world. So, by upping the stakes, arguably — I mean, who knows why the hell they’re doing what they’re doing?

But by upping the stakes, they arguably could be sending a signal like, “You want to get in this game? It’s not as if we’re an island and you can just break the deal, penalize us gratuitously, penalize the people who are still trying to maintain the terms of the deal, and that there won’t be collateral consequences outside the nuclear space.”

Because the nuclear consequences, as they begin to enrich and violate the terms of the deal — having legitimately argued that we had violated the terms of the deal — the effects of those are not day-to-day effects in the news world. It’s a bit abstract for the public and even for policymakers. It’s an incremental abrogation.

But acts like this show that they have leverage, that they are active militarily in parts of the world where we have a vested interest in maintaining freedom of navigation. So I think they’re showing that they can hit in domains outside the nuclear domain. I think that is probably what they’re doing.

Here is another segment:

COWEN: In which ways do you feel your thought is in some manner still Irish in orientation in a way that would distinguish you from, say, American-born individuals?

POWER: It’s hard to know because I can’t run the counterfactual, so I don’t know what’s just because my mother is a physician and very empathetic toward her patients, and do I learn from that? Or am I moved by having come from a small country, at that time a poor country, that was sending —

COWEN: With a history of oppression, right?

POWER: With a history of oppression, with a history of the dignity of its people being trampled. Is that why I care so much about individual dignity? Again, I can’t run the history a different way.

And finally:

COWEN: Very simple — are baseball games too long? Why not make it 7 innings?

POWER: Why not make it 12?

COWEN: It’s boring, right?

POWER: For you and, as it turns out, for others.

COWEN: For me. So many games are over 3 hours. Shouldn’t the game be 2 hours, 17 minutes?

We also cover her first impressions of America, being a wartime correspondent, China and Iraq, Star Wars vs. Star Trek, van Morrison vs. Bob Dylan, robot empires vs. robot umpires, her favorite novel, how personal one should get in a memoir and why, and German defense spending, among other topics.

Definitely recommended.

Existential risk and growth

Here is the abstract of a new paper by Leopold Aschenbrenner:

Technological innovation can create or mitigate risks of catastrophes—such as nuclear war, extreme climate change, or powerful artificial intelligence run amok—that could imperil human civilization. What is the relationship between economic growth and these existential risks? In a model of endogenous and directed technical change, with moderate parameters, existential risk follows a Kuznets-style inverted Ushape. This suggests we could be living in a unique “time of perils,” having developed technologies advanced enough to threaten our permanent destruction, but not having grown wealthy enough yet to be willing to spend much on safety. Accelerating growth during this “time of perils” initially increases risk, but improves the chances of humanity’s survival in the long run. Conversely, even short-term stagnation could substantially curtail the future of humanity. Nevertheless, if the scale effect of existential risk is large and the returns to research diminish rapidly, it may be impossible to avert an eventual existential catastrophe.

Bravo!  44 pp. of brilliant text, another 40 pp. of proofs and derivations, and rumor has it that Leopold is only 17 years old, give or take.

If you happen to know Leopold, please do ask him to drop me a line.

For the pointer I thank Pablo Stafforini.

Special Emergent Ventures tranche to study the nature and causes of progress

I am pleased to announce the initiation of a new, special tranche of the Emergent Ventures fund, namely to study the nature and causes of progress, economic and scientific progress yes but more broadly too, including social and cultural factors.  This has been labeled at times “Progress Studies.

Simply apply at the normal Emergent Ventures site and follow the super-simple instructions.  Feel free to mention the concept of progress if appropriate to your idea and proposal.  Here is the underlying philosophy of Emergent Ventures.

And I am pleased to announce that an initial award from this tranche has been made to the excellent Pseudoerasmus, for blog writing on historical economic development and also for high-quality Twitter engagement and for general scholarly virtue and commitment to ideas.

Pseudoerasmus has decided to donate this award to the UK Economic History Society.  Hail Pseudoerasmus!