Archive for Philosophy and Logic


Are we not Ubermen?

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Those using the Gregorian calendar count the years since the birth of Christ as Anno Domini, A.D. Bullshit is probably a lot older. But given that it’s a new millennium, maybe it’s time we started counting the years in A.B. “One of the most salient features of our culture,” as Aaron Hanlon quotes philosopher Harry Frankfurt at Salon, “is that there is so much bullshit.”

Case in point. In its obsession with turning everything on this planet into the Precious (other planets will come later), the Midas cult has turned its sights on sleep because “sleep is the enemy of capital.” Thus, sleep must be abolished. From caffeine-laced Red Bull to topical sprays to marshmallows, “perky jerky,” and military experiments with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), Newsweek  looks at how we are waging the war on sleep:

For those looking to sleep less without drugs or military tech, there’s the “Uberman” sleep schedule: 20 minute naps taken every four hours. That’s just two hours of sleep in every 24 hours. Uberman is based on the theory that while humans experience two types of sleep, we only need one of those to stay alive. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the stage in which we dream, and it also has been shown in lab tests to be critical to survival: Rodents deprived of REM sleep die after just five weeks. Then there is non-REM sleep, which itself is broken down into four separate stages. One of those is short wave sleep (or SWS). Scientists aren’t really sure what function SWS serves, and Uberman advocates argue that it may not be critical to survival at all.

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Born under a bad sign

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On Wednesday, NPR ran a story about a Russian writer, Mikhail Bulgakov, whose work Stalin enjoyed, but whose ideas Stalin considered “too dangerous to publish.” Ideas are like that. Invasive. Pernicious. Bulletproof, as “V” said in the movie. They can spread like a virus. Or, reduced to shibboleths, become objects of worship. For many, freedom works like that now.

Also this week, Michael Kraus and Jacinth J. X. Tan of the University of Illinois released a paper on the role of a particularly virulent notion, essentialism, in how people see themselves and report their health:

In this research, we proposed and examined the possibility that lay theories that people hold about social class categories can mitigate class-related health disparities. Across three studies, we found that while lower-class individuals were more likely to report experiencing poorer health and greater negative self-conscious emotions compared to upper-class individuals when they endorsed essentialist beliefs about social class, this class-based difference was not observed when participants endorsed non-essentialist beliefs about social class.

Basically, if you are poor and believe social status is inbred
—in your genes—you are more likely to report being unhealthy, the study suggests. Poor people without this belief are more likely to report being healthier and less likely to accept their status as unchangeable.

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Losing our collective nerve

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Ballast Point Park Playground, Tampa, FL (via Wikimedia Commons)

Besides suffering Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, the decade saw (IIRC) parents bringing the kiddies to the mall on Saturday to be photographed and fingerprinted. Maybe bringing dental impressions to help identify their bodies. We called these “child safe” programs. In the 1950s, it was commies hiding in the woodpile. By the 1980s, it was child abducters hiding behind every tree. Heaven forfend that little Johnny or Janie should walk or ride a bike to school or to the playground without a hypervigilant parent for a bodyguard. Well, somebody is finally trying to beak the spell:

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a 10-year old Maryland boy named Rafi and his 6-year old sister, Dvora, walked home by themselves from a playground about a mile away from their suburban house. They made it about halfway home when the police picked them up. You’ve heard these stories before, about what happens when kids in paranoid, hyperprotective America go to and from playgrounds alone. I bet you can guess the sequence of events preceding and after: Someone saw the kids walking without an adult and called the police. The police tracked down the kids and drove them home. The hitch this time is, when the police got there, they discovered that they were meddling with the wrong family.

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A legitimate question

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Thinking about the Keystone XL pipeline. Perhaps you’ve seen a similar scenario before. It could be General Motors or a new real estate development or Goldman Sachs or infrastructure privatization or, really, any other business with political clout. The company insists that the public financially back the venture, or pass legislation to allow it, or amend existing rules (others must abide by) to permit it, or subsidize it with public services, land, or tax breaks, or bail out its failure.

The public – voters – object, citing a multitude of reasons. Good reasons, maybe. Bad reasons, maybe. It’s our community and our right to whatever we damned well please reasons. Maybe We the People simply don’t like your looks or the smell of the deal.

Executives behind the proposal paint objectors as Luddites or communists or NIMBYs or tree huggers or all of the above. How dare citizens stand in the way of unbridled progress, profit, Manifest Destiny? How dare they impede job creators? (“Stand aside, everyone! I take LARGE STEPS!”) Why, if the rabble don’t accede to their wishes and soon, the project will be stillborn. The business model won’t work! Profits and jobs and tax revenues will be lost.

Exaggeration? Of course. And so familiar.

Self-described risk-takers think it impertinent of mortals to question their assumptions, but We the People should anyway, especially when their plans impact our communities. Here is a question rarely asked and less rarely answered:

“How is the success of your business model our problem?”

File away for future use.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

At a party over the weekend, a couple of guests asked the question I hear time and again from friends frustrated that so many working-class people vote Republican: Why do they vote against their best interests?

It’s a question that honestly perplexes and frustrates them as much as this particular verbal tic frustrates me. It’s obvious to them how conservative policies hurt working people and undermine the middle class. Yet, people continue to vote Republican. But you know this.

Well, first off, people don’t vote their interests. They vote their identities. This is standard Lakoff stuff. People vote for candidates they believe share their social views, not necessarily their economics. People vote for candidates they feel they can trust. People wanted to have a beer with recovering alcoholic, George W. Bush, for godssakes.

Second, step back from that question a moment and look at “voting your best interests” dispassionately. Do we really want our neighbors to go into the voting booth and vote what’s best for No. 1? For their bottom lines?

Seriously. Is that who we are? Is that the kind of country we want? Does that reflect our values?

Because by posing the same question over and over, and by using it as an accusation against working-class, white voters, are we not sending the message that that is exactly how we think people should vote? Bottom line? Every man for himself?

I understand people’s frustration, but that is just the Randian, social Darwinism we oppose. Counter it. Don’t reinforce it. Complaints that people are voting against their best interests are not reinforcing a more progressive message, that as Americans we are all in this together and should vote with an eye for the general welfare. Maybe we should stop voicing them.

Worse, the fact that so many on the left frame the question in “best interests” terms suggests that we ourselves have unconsciously internalized our opponents’ messaging.

And while we may think it a legitimate, innocent question, family members, coworkers, and conservative sparring partners hear it as arrogant and condescending — a liberal dog whistle. “You’re voting against your best interests” sounds like a snooty, intellectual’s way of saying, “You’re stupid.” If we’re looking for reasons they don’t vote with us, we may have found one.

It’s godawful messaging. I wish we would stop it.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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Bill Moyers’ show may have signed off last night, but as Digby noted, he’ll continue at his website to do what he’s done for so many decades. Moyers closes out his show with a message both of apology and encouragement to the next generation:

BILL MOYERS: Mary Christina Wood reminds us that democracy, too is a public trust – a reciprocal agreement between generations to keep it in good repair and pass it along. Our country’s DNA carries an inherent promise for every citizen of an equal opportunity at life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our history resonates with the hallowed idea – hallowed by blood – of government of, by, and for the people. Our great progressive struggles have been waged to make sure ordinary citizens, and not just the rich and privileged, share in the benefits of a free society. In the words of Louis Brandeis, one of the greatest of our Supreme Court justices, “We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”

Yet look at just a few recent headlines: this one from “The New York Times”: “U.S. Wealth Gap Is Widest in Decades”. From the website Alternet: “Just 40 Americans Own As Much Wealth As Half the United States.” From “The Great Wealth Meltdown: Middle-Class Families Are Worth Less Today Than in 1969.” And from “The Economist”: “Wealth without workers, workers without wealth,” pointing to the reality that “for all but an elite few, work no longer guarantees a rising income.”

So as the next generation steps forward, I am tempted to think that the only thing my generation can say to them is: we’re sorry. Sorry for the mess you’re inheriting. Sorry we broke the trust. But I know in my heart that’s not what they ask or expect. So instead I recommend to them the example of Senator Robert La Follette of Wisconsin, another of my heroes from the past. He battled the excesses of the first Gilded Age a century ago so boldly and proudly that he went down in history as “Fighting Bob.” He told us, “…democracy is a life; and involves continual struggle.” I keep asking myself, what if that struggle is the palpable reality without which this world would be truly barren?

So to this new generation I say: over to you, welcome to the fight.

Speaking of Wisconsin, I guess my 80-something aunt in Milwaukee (who still canvasses) won’t have reason to call me on Saturdays anymore to ask if I caught Moyers’ show. Over to me.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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Something Amanda Marcotte wrote parenthetically on New Year’s Eve caught my attention. On Christmas, Neil deGrasse Tyson typed out this Tweet most of you have already seen:

“War on Christmas” soldiers were like boxers in their corner, gripping the ropes and bouncing on their toes, just waiting for the bell to ring. Tyson’s Tweet knocked the big chip off their shoulders, and out they came. Marcotte wrote:

Right-wing Christians, already primed to be hostile to anyone who values evidence and facts over myths about the supernatural, claimed that Tyson was deliberately provoking them. (Why they allowed themselves to be provoked, if this is what they believe, remains a mystery.) Odds are it was just Tyson being Tyson, grabbing any opportunity he can to educate people about science and push people to ask questions and learn more about the world. The ugly reaction from right-wing Christians only served to make them look close-minded and afraid of learning new things, which Tyson later pointed out on Twitter, writing, “Imagine a world in which we are all enlightened by objective truths rather than offended by them.”

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Fables of freedom

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Bill Moyers’ guest, historian Steve Fraser, deconstructs how the second Gilded Age differs from the first. Then, people banded together and rose up to challenge their newfound serfdom. But these are “acquiescent times,” says Fraser. We live in a fable of capitalism as “a democracy of the audacious who will make it on their own, while in fact most of the people are headed in the opposite direction.”

There is way too much in this conversation to unpack this morning. Fraser’s key obstacle to our exiting the second Gilded Age? Capitalism and freedom have become so conflated that we lack the language to question the current system and to explore alternatives.

BILL MOYERS: You talk about the vocal right. And there’s a powerful movement that seems to like the way the country is going. That seems to think this is the way it ought to be and that Occupy Wall Street and Steve Fraser, and others, they just represent the malcontents of a system that is really working for them.

STEVE FRASER: Yes. It is the consummate all embracing expression of the triumph of the free market ideology as the synonym for freedom. In other words, it used to be you could talk about freedom and the free market as distinct notions. Now, and for some time, since the age of Reagan began free market capitalism and freedom are conflated. They are completely married to each other. And we have, as a culture, bought into that idea. It’s part of what I mean when I say the attenuating of any alternatives.


STEVE FRASER: … there’s a philosopher who said that language is the house of being. It’s where we live. And if you’re living in a language that’s been denuded of some of its key furniture like certain concepts like that, you’re homeless. You have no way, you have no way to challenge even when you’re faced with wholesale larceny. I mean on the part of the major banking institutions. I mean what — let’s call a spade a spade. These were thieves. And yet the we lack the kind of linguistic wherewithal, which is much more, it’s spiritual, to confront it.

Thanks a lot, Milton.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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Are libertarians the real hippies?

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Photo credit: Paul Townsend via Creative Commons

Photo credit: Paul Townsend via Creative Commons

John Edward Terrell explores “Evolution and the American Myth of the Individual” in today’s New York Times. It’s an interesting read, as much as anything, for the comments section. He contrasts what he knows of Man from his background in anthropology with Enlightenment philosophy as it has spun out over the last couple of centuries:

Philosophers from Aristotle to Hegel have emphasized that human beings are essentially social creatures, that the idea of an isolated individual is a misleading abstraction. So it is not just ironic but instructive that modern evolutionary research, anthropology, cognitive psychology and neuroscience have come down on the side of the philosophers who have argued that the basic unit of human social life is not and never has been the selfish, self-serving individual. Contrary to libertarian and Tea Party rhetoric, evolution has made us a powerfully social species, so much so that the essential precondition of human survival is and always has been the individual plus his or her relationships with others.

Not either/or. Both/and. Terrell argues that Rousseau and others did not mean their speculations about Man’s natural state to be taken literally:

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Compassionate at birth

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Genesis 4
9 And the Lord said unto Cain, Where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?

One of the takeaways from the Genesis account of Cain’s murder of his brother is, yes, you are. And we are wired that way, suggest experiments involving young children. Cognitive scientist Paul Bloom, author of Just Babies told Inquiring Minds last week that a basic sense of morality likely developed via Darwinian evolution:

“I think all babies are created equal in that all normal babies—all babies without brain damage—possess some basic foundational understanding of morality and some foundational moral impulses,” says Bloom on the Inquiring Minds podcast.

The question is how much of our moral sensibility is innate and how much is acculturation? By studying babies before they receive instruction and language, Bloom and other researchers hope to get at that answer. Using simple puppet plays , researchers find that babies and toddlers exhibit a sense of fairness, and a preference for “helping” characters. They avoid “hindering” ones.

Interestingly, as the toddlers get a little older, this sense of fairness seems to morph into pure egalitarianism—at least when it comes to distributing other people’s stuff. “There’s a lot of research suggesting that when it comes to divvying up resources that strangers possess, they are socialists—they like to share things equally,” says Bloom.

When asked to hand out treats to other people or to stuffed animals, 3- and 4-year-old children will divide resources equally, if at all possible. Even if they know that one person deserves more of a resource than another because she worked harder for it, they will still opt for equal distribution. In a study of 5-to-8-year-olds, when it was impossible to divide resources equally—for example, if the children were given five erasers to distribute to two people—they would even throw the extra eraser in the trash instead of giving more to one person than the other.

“But this compassion and this helping, it all pertains to the baby’s own group,” says Bloom. They are less naturally generous with out-group members.

By our natures, we strongly value those around us over strangers. And to the extent that you and I don’t, to the extent that you and I might recognize that somebody suffering, I don’t know, from the Ebola virus in Africa, is a life just as valuable as those of our closest friends and family, that’s an extraordinary cultural accomplishment. And it’s something that’s not in the genes. It’s not what we’re born with.

What strikes me is how this research echoes something paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey said about Turkana Boy in speculating about the development of compassion in early Man:

Bipedalism carried an enormous price, where compassion was what you paid your ticket with. You simply can’t abandon somebody who’s incapacitated because the rest will abandon you next time it comes to be your turn.

There but for the grace of God. Compassion has an evolutionary advantage, Leakey suggests. Perhaps it is what helped us rise above the law of the jungle.

The irony is that a libertarian-leaning conservative posted the Mother Jones article on Bloom — “Science Says Your Baby Is a Socialist” — to a Facebook forum as a tweak to lefties (socialist babies, I suppose). In fact, it would seem that a movement that sneers at being your brother’s keeper in organizing human society is hardly an accomplishment, cultural, political, or evolutionary.

(Cross-posted from Hullabaloo.)

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