Category: Philosophy

What should I ask Eric Kaufmann?

I am doing a Conversation with him, no associated public event.  I am a big fan of his book WhiteShift (perhaps the best book of the year so far?), here is my review.  Here is Wikipedia on Eric:

Eric Peter Kaufmann (born 11 May 1970) is a Canadian professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London. He is a specialist on Orangeism in Northern Ireland, nationalismpolitical demography and demography of the religious/irreligious.

Eric Kaufmann was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. His ancestry is mixed with a quarter Chinese and a quarter Latino. His father is of Jewish descent, the grandfather hailing from Prostejov in the modern Czech Republic. His mother is a lapsed Catholic; he himself attended Catholic school for only a year. He received his BA from the University of Western Ontario in 1991. He received his MA from the London School of Economics in 1994 where he subsequently also completed his PhD in 1998.

Here is Eric’s home page.  He’s also written on what makes the Swiss Swiss, American exceptionalism, and whether the Amish will outbreed us all.

So what should I ask Eric?

My Conversation with Karl Ove Knausgaard

Here is the audio and transcript, this was one of my favorite Conversations. Here is the CWTeam summary:

Knausgård’s literary freedom paves the way for this conversation with Tyler, which starts with a discussion of mimesis and ends with an explanation of why we live in the world of Munch’s The Scream. Along the way there is much more, including what he learned from reading Ingmar Bergman’s workbooks, the worst thing about living in London, how having children increased his productivity, whether he sees himself in a pietistic tradition, thoughts on Bible stories, angels, Knut Hamsun, Elena Ferrante, the best short story (“Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”), the best poet (Paul Celan), the best movie (Scenes from a Marriage), and what his punctual arrival says about his attachment to bourgeois values.

Here is one excerpt:

KNAUSGÅRD: You have this almost archetypical artist putting his art before his children, before his family, before everything. You have also Doris Lessing who did the same — abandoned her children to move to London to write.

I’ve been kind of confronted with that as a writer, and I think everyone does because writing is so time consuming and so demanding. When I got children, I had this idea that writing was a solitary thing. I could go out to small islands in the sea. I could go to lighthouses, live there, try to write in complete . . . be completely solitary and alone. When I got children, that was an obstruction for my writing, I thought.

But it wasn’t. It was the other way around. I’ve never written as much as I have after I got the children, after I started to write at home, after I kind of established writing in the middle of life. It was crawling with life everywhere. And what happened was that writing became less important. It became less precious. It became more ordinary. It became less religious or less sacred.

It became something ordinary, and that was incredibly important for me because that was eventually where I wanted to go — into the ordinary and mundane, even, and try to connect to what was going on in life. Life isn’t sacred. Life isn’t uplifted. It is ordinary and boring and all the things, we know.

And:

COWEN: So many great Norwegian writers — Ibsen, Sigrid Undset, Knut Hamsun — there’s nationalism in their work. Yet today, liberals tend to think of nationalism as an unspeakable evil of sorts. How do we square this with the evolution of Norwegian writing?

And if one thinks of your own career, arguably it’s your extreme popularity in Norway at first that drove your later fame. What’s the connection of your own work to Norwegian nationalism? Are you the first non-nationalist great Norwegian writer? Is that plausible? Or is there some deeper connection?

KNAUSGÅRD: I think so much writing is done out of a feeling of not belonging. If you read Knut Hamsun, he was a Nazi. I mean, he was a full-blooded Nazi. We have to be honest about that.

COWEN: His best book might be his Nazi book, right? He wrote it when he was what, 90?

KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah.

COWEN: On Overgrown Paths?

KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah.

COWEN: To me, it’s much more interesting than the novels, which are a kind of artifice that hasn’t aged so well.

KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah.

COWEN: But you read On Overgrown Paths, you feel like you’re there. It’s about self-deception.

KNAUSGÅRD: It’s true, it’s a wonderful book. But I think Hamsun’s theme, his subject, is rootlessness. In a very rooted society, in a rural society, in a family-orientated society like Norway has been — a small society — he was a very rootless, very urban writer.

He went to America, and he hated America, but he was America. He had that in him. He was there in the late 19th century, and he wrote a book about it, which is a terrible book, but still, he was there, and he had that modernity in him.

He never wrote about his parents. Never wrote about where he came from. All his characters just appear, and then something happens with them, but there’s no past. I found that incredibly intriguing just because he became the Nazi. He became the farmer. He became the one who sang the song about the growth. What do you call it? Markens Grøde.

COWEN: Growth of the Soil.

And:

COWEN: Arnold Weinstein has a book on Nordic culture, and he argues that the sacrifice of the child is a recurring theme. It’s in Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. It’s in a number of Ibsen plays, Bergman movies. Has that influenced you? Or are you a rejection of that? Are you like Edvard Munch, but with children, and that’s the big difference between you and Munch, the painter?

I told you we ask different questions.

KNAUSGÅRD: Yeah, yeah. You just said different. You didn’t say difficult.

Knausgaard showed up for the taping carrying a package of black bread, which he forgot to take with him when leaving.  So for the rest of the day, I enjoyed his black bread…

*The AI Does Not Hate You*

That is the new book by Tom Chivers, and the subtitle is Superintelligence, Rationality and the Race to Save the World.  Here is one excerpt:

Overall, they have sparked a remarkable change.  They’ve made the idea of AI as an existential risk mainstream; sensible, grown-up people are talking about it, not just fringe nerds on an email list.  From my point of view, that’s a good thing.  I don’t think AI is definitely going to destroy humanity.  But nor do I think that it’s so unlikely we can ignore it.  There is a small but non-negligible probability that, when we look back on this era in the future, we’ll think that Eliezer Yudkowsky and Nick Bostrom  — and the SL4 email list, and LessWrong.com — have saved the world.  If Paul Crowley is right and my children don’t die of old age, but in a good way — if they and humanity reach the stars, with the help of a friendly superintelligence — that might, just plausibly, be because of the Rationalists.

There is also material covering Scott Alexander and Robin Hanson, among others.  Due out in the UK in June.

My Conversation with Margaret Atwood

She requires no introduction, this conversation involved a bit of slapstick, so unlike many of the others it is better heard than read.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the opening:

COWEN: Just to start with some basic questions about Canada, which you’ve written on for decades — what defines the Canadian sense of humor?

MARGARET ATWOOD: Wow. [laughs] What defines the Canadian sense of humor? I think it’s a bit Scottish.

COWEN: How so?

ATWOOD: Well, it’s kind of ironic. It depends on what part of Canada you’re in. I think the further west you go, the less of a sense of humor they have.

[laughter]

ATWOOD: But that’s just my own personal opinion. My family’s from Nova Scotia, so that’s as far east as you can get. And they go in for deadpan lying.

[laughter]

COWEN: In 1974, you wrote, “The Canadian sense of humor was often obsessed with the issue of being provincial versus being cosmopolitan.”

ATWOOD: Yeah.

COWEN: You think that’s still true?

ATWOOD: Depends again. You know, Canada’s really big. In fact, there’s a song called “Canada’s Really Big.” You can find it on the internet. It’s by a group called the Arrogant Worms. That kind of sums up Canada right there for you.

The burden of the song is that all of these other countries have got all of these other things, but what Canada has is, it’s really big. It is, in fact, very big. Therefore, it’s very hard to say what is particularly Canadian. It’s a bit like the US. Which part of the US is the US? What is the most US thing —

COWEN: Maybe it’s Knoxville, Tennessee, right now. Right? The Southeast.

ATWOOD: You think?

COWEN: But it used to be Cleveland, Ohio.

ATWOOD: Did it?

COWEN: Center of manufacturing.

ATWOOD: When was that? [laughs] When was that?

COWEN: If you look at where the baseball teams are, you see what the US —

And from her:

ATWOOD: Yeah, so what is the most Canadian thing about Canada? The most Canadian thing about Canada is that when they ran a contest that went “Finish this sentence. As American as apple pie. As Canadian as blank,” the winning answer was “As Canadian as plausible under the circumstances.”

And a question from me:

COWEN: But you’ve spoken out in favor of the cultural exception being part of the NAFTA treaty that protects Canadian cultural industries. Is it strange to think that having more than half the [Toronto] population being foreign born is not a threat to Canadian culture, but that being able to buy a copy of the New York Times in Canada is a threat?

In addition to Canada, we talk about the Bible, Shakespeare, ghosts, her work habits, Afghanistan, academia, Peter the Great, writing for the future, H.G. Wells, her heretical feminism, and much much more.

My Conversation with Ed Boyden, MIT neuroscientist

Here is the transcript and audio, highly recommended, and for background here is Ed’s Wikipedia page.  Here is one relevant bit for context:

COWEN: You’ve trained in chemistry, physics, electrical engineering, and neuroscience, correct?

BOYDEN: Yeah, I started college at 14, and I focused on chemistry for two years, and then I transferred to MIT, where then I switched into physics and electrical engineering, and that’s when I worked on quantum computing.

COWEN: Five areas, actually. Maybe more.

BOYDEN: Guess so.

COWEN: Should more people do that? Not the median student, but more people?

BOYDEN: It’s a good question.

And:

COWEN: Are we less creative if all the parts of our mind become allies? Maybe I’m afraid this will happen to me, that I have rebellious parts of my mind, and they force me to do more interesting things, or they introduce randomness or variety into my life.

BOYDEN: This is a question that I think is going to become more and more urgent as neurotechnology advances. Already there are questions about attention-focusing drugs like Ritalin or Adderall. Maybe they make people more focused, but are you sacrificing some of the wandering and creativity that might exist in the brain and be very important for not only personal productivity but the future of humanity?

I think what we’re realizing is that when you intervene with the brain, even with brain stimulation, you can cause unpredictable side effects. For example, there’s a part of the brain called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. That’s actually an FDA-approved site for stimulation with noninvasive magnetic pulses to treat depression. But patients, when they’re stimulated here . . . People have done studies. It can also change things like trust. It can change things like driving ability.

There’s only so many brain regions, but there’s millions of things we do. Of course, intervening with one region might change many things.

And:

COWEN: What kind of students are you likely to hire that your peers would not hire?

BOYDEN: Well, I really try to get to know people at a deep level over a long period of time, and then to see how their unique background and interests might change the field for the better.

I have people in my group who are professional neurosurgeons, and then, as I mentioned, I have college dropouts, and I have people who . . . We recently published a paper where we ran the brain expansion process in reverse. So take the baby diaper polymer, add water to expand it, and then you can basically laser-print stuff inside of it, and then collapse it down, and you get a piece of nanotechnology.

The co–first author of that paper doesn’t have a scientific laboratory background. He was a professional photographer before he joined my group. But we started talking, and it turns out, if you’re a professional photographer, you know a lot of very practical chemistry. It turns out that our big demo — and why the paper got so much attention — was we made metal nanowires, and the way we did it was using a chemistry not unlike what you do in photography, which is a silver chemistry.

And this:

COWEN: Let’s say you had $10 billion or $20 billion a year, and you would control your own agency, and you were starting all over again, but current institutions stay in place. What would you do with it? How would you structure your grants? You’re in charge. You’re the board. You do it.

Finally:

COWEN: If you’re designing architecture for science, what do you do? What do you change? What would you improve? Because presumably most of it is not designed for science. Maybe none of it is.

BOYDEN: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, actually, lately. There are different philosophies, like “We should have open offices so everybody can see and talk to each other.” Or “That’s wrong. You should have closed spaces so people can think and have quiet time.” What I think is actually quite interesting is this concept that maybe neither is the right approach. You might want to think about having sort of an ecosystem of environments.

My group — we’re partly over at the Media Lab, which has a lot of very open environments, and our other part of the group is in a classical sort of neuroscience laboratory with offices and small rooms where we park microscopes and stuff like that. I actually get a lot of productivity out of switching environments in a deliberate way.

There is much more of interest at the link.

Bryan Caplan *Open Borders* launch day

From Bryan:

Dear friends: Monday, April 8 isn’t just my birthday.  It’s also the official launch date for *Open Borders*!

URL for ordering the book: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1250316960/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=1250316960&linkCode=as2&tag=bryacaplwebp-20&linkId=1ed2cdfe4a1c0cd2a62e942a39f87b9d

URL for an introductory post on the book: https://www.econlib.org/pre-order-open-borders-the-science-and-ethics-of-immigration/

Is the corporation your friend?

The funny thing is, although it is wrong to think of corporations as people, it is probably also necessary for social cohesion. If the American people are going to support business in the court of public opinion, business must to some extent have a friendly face. Otherwise politics might treat business too harshly, ultimately leading to bad consequences for American private enterprise. Furthermore, consumer loyalty to corporations, even if irrational, is part of what induces better behavior from those corporations. Companies know that if they build up a good public image and stick around with a track record of reliable service, consumers will reward them with a kind of emotional loyalty. Overall, that creates a largely positive business incentive, one that would not be present if all consumers were more aware of the somewhat more cynical truth: that corporations should be judged not as friends but as abstract, shark-like legal entities devoted to commercial profit. The more that consumers see the relationship as possibly long-term, the more loyally profit-seeking corporations will end up behaving in a long-term and socially responsible manner. Societies need their illusions in this regard, and thus it can be dangerous to fully articulate and make publicly known the entire truth about business corporations and the fundamentally dubious nature of their loyalty.

So the trick is this: the public needs to some extent to believe in corporations as people, just to keep the system running. Workers need to hold similar feelings, to maintain workplace cohesion. Yet when it comes to politics and public policy, we need to distance ourselves from such emotional and anthropomorphized attitudes. We need to stop being loyal to corporations for the sake of loyalty and friendship, and we also need to stop being disappointed in corporations all the time, as if we should be judging them by the standards we apply to individual human beings and particularly our friends. Instead, we should view companies more dispassionately, as part of an abstract legal and economic order with certain virtues and also plenty of imperfections. Unfortunately, that is not about to happen anytime soon.

That is from the final chapter of my forthcoming book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.  Ah, and there is more:

One reason we like to think of corporations as our friends is that we can feel in greater control that way. I’ve already discussed just how much we rely on corporations—for our food, for our entertainment, for communicating with our friends and loved ones, and for getting around from one place to another. But for all the talk from economists about consumer sovereignty, it’s not clear how much people actually are in control at all. It’s true you can choose what to buy in the Giant, Safeway, or Whole Foods, but it’s hard to step outside the commercial network as a whole, and the nature of that network shapes so many of our choices and thus our lives.

Of course, it is impossible for customers to ponder these philosophical questions in their deepest and subtlest terms all day long, as that would consume way too much of people’s mental and emotional energies. So instead people translate their rather bizarre, non-hunter-gatherer modern commercial society into terms that their more primeval selves are familiar with. That is, people carry around a mental picture of being surrounded by people they can trust, if only salespeople, and of being in a familiar environment in which they are exercising their free will as consumers and also as workers. Given the need to get through each day, it is emotionally very hard for people to internalize emotionally the true and correct picture of those businesses as partaking in an impersonal order based on mostly selfish, profit-seeking behavior.

You can debate exactly how true or untrue our generally held picture of freedom in modern commercial society is, but I can’t help but feel that part of it is a lie. The system offers many formal properties of freedom, such as the immense choice of products and jobs, and the relative lack of imposed coercion on most of these decisions. Still, when you combine pressures for conformity, the scarcity of attention, the stresses of our personal lives, and the need for “ready quick” decision-making heuristics, it’s not exactly a life of true freedom we are living. It is (more or less) close to the freest life a society is capable of providing us, but it isn’t quite free in the metaphysical sense of actually commanding our individual destinies through the exercise of our own free will. At least some of the freedom of contemporary consumer society is an illusion, taken upon ourselves to make our lives feel bearable and to help us feel more in control—precisely because, to some extent, we are not very much in control at all.

Recommended, by your friend, namely me.

My Conversation with Emily Wilson

She is a classics scholar and the translator of my favorite edition of Homer’s Odyssey, here is the audio and transcript.  Here is part of the CWT summary:

She and Tyler discuss these [translation] questions and more, including why Silicon Valley loves Stoicism, whether Plato made Socrates sound smarter than he was, the future of classics education, the effect of AI on translation, how to make academia more friendly to women, whether she’d choose to ‘overlive’, and the importance of having a big Ikea desk and a huge orange cat.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: Let’s jump right in on the Odyssey. I want you to explain the whole book to me, but let’s start small. Does Odysseus even want to return home?

WILSON: [laughs] He does as the poem starts. As the poem starts, he spent the last seven years on the island of a goddess called Calypso, originally, the poem implies, quite willingly. So, it seems as if he’s changed his mind about whether or not he wants to go home. But as the poem begins, he does want to get back home to Ithaca, to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.

COWEN: Do you think he means it? Or is he just self-deceiving? Because he takes the detour into the underworld. He hangs around with Circe for many years. There’s a contrast with Menelaus, who acts as if he actually does want to get home. Who’s lying to whom in this story?

WILSON: Odysseus, of course, is lying all the time, so it’s very hard for the reader to get a firm grasp on what are his motives. Also, when he tells Calypso that he desperately wants to get back home, it’s very striking to me that he doesn’t give his motives. He says to Calypso, “You’re much more beautiful than my wife is, and you’ve promised to make me immortal. It’s a great offer, but I want to go home.” He doesn’t explain what is it that drives that desire to go home.

And you’re quite right: he makes many detours. He spends another year, quite willingly, with Circe, another goddess. So it seems as if he’s easily distractible from the quest, for sure.

And:

COWEN: Should we consider electing politicians by lot today? Is it such a crazy idea?

WILSON: I think it’s a great idea.

COWEN: Great idea?

WILSON: Yes, yeah.

And:

COWEN: Now, you have another well-known book. It’s called Seneca: A Life. On reading it, this is my reaction: why are the Stoics so hypocritical? Seneca spends his life sucking up to power. He’s very well off, extremely political, and possibly involved in murder plots, right?

WILSON: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. Yes.

COWEN: What is there about Stoicism? Marcus Aurelius is somewhat bloodthirsty, it seems. So, are the Stoics all just hypocrites, and they wrote this to cover over their wrongdoings? Or how should we think about the actual history of Stoicism?

WILSON: I see Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as very, very different characters. Marcus Aurelius was militaristic, bloodthirsty, and an expander of the Roman Empire. He was happy to slaughter many barbarians. He was fairly consistent about thinking that was a good idea, and also fairly consistent in associating his dream of culture and military imperialism with Stoic models of virtue.

Whereas Seneca was very much constantly unable to fully act out the ideals that he had. One of the reasons he’s so interesting as a writer is that he’s so precise in articulating what it means to have a very, very clear vision of the good life and to be completely unable to follow through on living the good life.

COWEN: But why would you accumulate so much wealth if you’re a true Stoic?

You can buy Emily’s translation of Homer here, and she is now working on doing The Iliad as well.

Why is there so much suspicion of big business?

Perhaps in part because we cannot do without business, so many people hate or resent business, and they love to criticize it, mock it, and lower its status. Business just bugs them. After I explained the premise of this book to one of my colleagues, Bryan Caplan, he shrieked to me: “But, but . . . how can people be ungrateful toward corporations? Corporations give us everything! Corporations do everything for us!” Of course, he was joking, as he understood full well that people are often pretty critical of corporations. And they are critical precisely because corporations do so much for us. And do so much to us.

Does my colleague’s outburst remind you of anything? Well, immediately he followed up with this: “Hating corporations is like hating your parents.”

And:

There is another reason it doesn’t quite work to think of businesses as our friends. Friendship is based in part on an intrinsic loyalty that transcends the benefit received in any particular time and place. Many friendships also rely on an ongoing exchange of reciprocal benefits, yet without direct consideration each and every time of exactly how much reciprocity is needed. In addition to the self-interested joys of friendly togetherness, friendship is about commonality of vision, a wish to see your own values reflected in another, a sense of potential shared sacrifice, and a (partial) willingness to put the interest of the other person ahead of your own, without always doing a calculation about what you will get back.

A corporation just doesn’t fit this mold in the same way. A business may wish to appear to be an embodiment of friendly reciprocity, but it is more like an amoral embodiment of principles that usually but not always work out for the common good. The senior management of the corporation has a legally binding responsibility to maximize shareholder profits, at least subject to the constraints of the law and perhaps other constraints embodied in the company’s charter or by-laws. The exact nature of this fiduciary responsibility will vary, but it never says the company ought to be the consumer’s friend, at least not above and beyond when such friendship may prove instrumentally valuable to the ends of the company, including profit.

In this setting, companies will almost always disappoint us if we judge them by the standards of friendship, as the companies themselves are trying to trick us into doing. Companies can never quite meet the standards of friendship. They’re not even close acquaintances. At best they are a bit like wolves in sheep’s clothing, but these wolves bring your food rather than eat you.

Those are both excerpts from my final chapter “If business is so good, why is it so disliked?”, from my book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero.

What is wrong with social justice warriors?

Curious if you’ve read this (has a PDF link):
http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/view/249

Is this paper bad? If it is bad, what is bad about it? How would you describe “what is bad about it” in a way that would connect to a college freshman who finds his/her economics and critical race theory classes to be equally interesting and deserving of further study? This extends to broader questions about “what precisely is undesirable about the state of social-justice-oriented academic study?” I have seen a lot of backhanded stuff from you on this topic, but not a centrally articulated, earnest answer.

That is from my email, and I would broaden the question to be about social justice warriors more generally.  Most of all, I would say I am all for social justice warriors!  Properly construed, that is.  But two points must be made:

1. Many of the people who are called social justice warriors I would not put in charge of a candy shop, much less trust them to lead the next jihad.

2. Many social justice warriors seem more concerned with tearing down, blacklisting, and deplatforming others, or even just whining about them, rather than working hard to actually boost social justice, whatever you might take that to mean.  Most of that struggle requires building things in a positive way, I am sorry to say.

That all said, do not waste too much of your own energies countering the not-so-helpful class of social justice warriors.  It is not worth it.  Perhaps someone needs to play such a role, but surely those neuterers are not, or at least should not be, the most talented amongst us.

No matter what your exact view of the world, or what kind of ornery pessimist or determinist or conservative or even reactionary you may be, you should want to be working toward some kind of emancipation in the world.  No, I am not saying there always is a clear “emancipatory” side of a debate, or that most issues are “us vs. them.”  Rather, if you are not sure you are doing the right thing, ask a simple question: am I building something?  Whether it be a structure, an institution, or simply a positive idea, proposal, or method.

The answer to that building question may not always be obvious, but it stands a pretty good chance of getting you to an even better question for your next round of inquiry.