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Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

I’ve just finished reading Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s a sprawling, fascinating, maddening book that is badly in need of a copy-editor. But one of Taleb’s pet hates (he has many) is copy-editors.

antifragile

There is a simple and profound central idea. Think of anything at all: a person, an idea, a relationship, a business, a country, a piece of technology, an ecosystem.

Some things are fragile. When some kind of crisis occurs, an unexpected event, a systemic shock – then they break. It might mean a small bit of damage or the destruction of the entire unit. Fragile things are harmed by crises.

What is the opposite of fragile? Our instinct is to use words like robust, strong, solid, resilient, perhaps flexible or adaptable. Robust and flexible things do not break when a shock comes; they can withstand crises and shocks. That’s true. They are unharmed. But this isn’t the opposite of fragile. The opposite would involve something that positively benefits from a crisis or a shock, that comes out better rather than just the same. We genuinely don’t have a word for this, which is why Taleb invents one: antifragilility.

He gives a neat illustration. If you put something fragile in the post, like a teapot, you pack it carefully and put a big sticker on the outside saying, ‘Fragile: Handle with Care’. What is the ‘opposite’ kind of package? You are tempted to say this would be a robust or strong parcel. But if you send something in the post that is more-or-less unbreakable, like a block of wood or a stone, you don’t put a sticker on the outside saying ‘Unbreakable: Don’t Be Anxious About This’, you just send it without any warning signs. The opposite kind of package, with something antifragile inside, would have a sticker saying something like this: ‘Antifragile: Handle Carelessly, Drop Me, Be Reckless With Me, Try To Damage Me’.

What would go into such a package?

Taleb shows how many things in life and society are antifragile. They actually benefit from crises and shocks, at least within certain limits. The human body is one example, it doesn’t benefit from being pampered, it grows stronger through certain shocks and stresses – within limits. Some ideas only develop through challenges and awkward confrontations. Some businesses are perfectly poised to benefit from difficult and unexpected situations, because they are able to adapt and seize new opportunities. Some relationships are able to discover new depths and different kinds of intimacy through problems and difficulties.

What is it that makes some things fragile, some robust, and some antifragile? You’ll have to read the book yourself!

The other big theme is the nature of rationality: how we try to predict the unpredictable, and when we fail and are caught off guard we try to pretend we knew what was going to happen. It’s much wiser, argues Taleb, to admit that many things, especially future crises and disasters, are completely beyond our powers of reasoning (even though they may be rational in themselves). The trick is not to be ready for a particular unexpected event, which is by its very nature unpredictable, but to be ready for something unexpected and unpredictable to happen, so that when it does happen we are able to react in a creative and intelligent way, bringing an unexpected good out of these unexpected difficult circumstances (antifragility), and to create systems that are resilient to major shocks or at least not set up so that they will shatter when the first unpredictable jolt takes place (a certain kind of flexibility and robustness).

It was the perfect bedtime book for me. Easy to read, full of stories, provocative. And it genuinely made me rethink a lot of things I had taken for granted without question before.

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Fr Philip Miller has an article about Faith and Science in this month’s edition of the Pastoral Review, going over some of the basic history, theology and scientific theory.

Einstein's blackboard

Einstein’s blackboard

In the section on cosmology he writes about the anthropic principle: the way the universe is tuned in such a precise way as to allow the possibility of human life. I’m not sure about this. I’m not saying it’s untrue, I just haven’t done enough to think through whether I find the argument convincing or not.

What speaks to me more is the simple argument from order: that an ordered universe requires some transcendent foundation for its own order (i.e., outside space and time); and that scientific explanation presupposes that the universe can, at least in theory, be explained, and it therefore assumes that the ultimate explanation for the universe has a foundation which is outside the universe itself (at the metaphysical level – that the universe cannot contain the foundation of its own laws; and at the epistemological level – that science cannot justify the foundations of its own scientific principles).

This is how Fr Philip puts it:

The fundamental question remains, for a multiverse just as for a single universe: what is the underlying, unifying cause? The answer is that there must be a necessary being, that is, some sort of ‘God.’ Universes, being complex, law-governed entities, are not simple, and so cannot be metaphysically necessary (since ‘something’ must cause/explain the underlying unity of the complex whole).

Some of Professor Stephen Hawking’s work has been on the nature of the Big Bang, the proposed initial moment of the universe. Some of his more recent hypotheses have been to provide solutions to the complex physics of the early universe that avoid any suggestion that the Big Bang is, in effect, a creation ex nihilo. Hawking’s collaborator, physicist Neil Turok, developed the idea of the ‘instanton’ model of the Big Bang, which has, in simple terms, ‘no beginning.’ And yet, it is highly instructive to note Turok’s own words about their modelling of the universe’s initial expansion phase, termed ‘inflation’:

“Think of inflation as being the dynamite that produced the Big Bang. Our instanton is a sort of self-lighting fuse that ignites inflation. To have our ‘instanton’ you have to have gravity, matter, space and time. Take any one ingredient away and the ‘instanton’ doesn’t exist. But if you have an ‘instanton’ it will instantly turn into an inflating infinite universe.” [Turok, N., commenting online on his own work]

In other words, even in their attempt to define a universe with no beginning, they still have to assume that there is a pre-existing framework of physical laws just sitting there, which the material universe must obey. The universe clearly doesn’t invent its own laws: it requires a law-giver, and that law-giver has to be outside the universe of matter, space and time; it must be spirit, God Himself.

Which raises the child’s question, ‘But who made God?’ To which the answer is: God is not the kind of thing that needs to be made. Or, to put it in the positive: God is precisely that one ‘thing’ that is not made by another thing; God is eternal (outside time), spirit (outside space and matter), simple (outside the complexity of secondary explanations), and necessary (outside the chain of secondary causes).

What do you think?

You can read the full article here.

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Another Californian self-help craze; part of the booming ‘happiness industry’. It’s called ‘Want-ology': the science or therapeutic process of discovering what you truly want and setting you free to pursue it.

It's all about Me, by Randy Willis

Rhys Blakely interviews Want-ology’s creator, Kevin Kreitman (a woman…).

For $300 or so, a certified wantologist will quiz you for several hours, subjecting you to a process that is said to draw on psychology, neural science and cybernetics.

“We are only conscious of 3 to 10 per cent of our thought,” she says. “You think that you make decisions consciously, but it’s all underpinned by this hidden system.” When you find yourself in a rut, “it’s usually because all this unconscious stuff is tangled together like a knot”. The job of Want-ology, she says, is to untangle it.

Here is an example of the therapeutic process. A female client came to the therapist, thinking that she wanted a bigger house. The conversation went like this:

What do you want?

A bigger house.

How would you feel if you lived in a bigger house?

Peaceful.

What else makes you feel peaceful?

Walks by the ocean.

Do you ever take walks near where you live that remind you of the ocean?

Certain ones, yes.

What do you like about those walks?

I hear the sound of water and feel surrounded by green.

As Blakely explains:

Instead of moving, she turned a room in her home into a miniature sanctuary, with potted ferns and a table-top fountain. Her wantologist had steered her to a more nuanced understanding of what she really desired – inner peace.

And saved her $400,000 at the same time…

At one level, this is surely a good process. Not losing the $300, but having someone help you work out what you are really seeking, or what’s really bothering you. Our motivations can be incredibly complex, and the heart is a mysterious and sometimes deceitful thing. We think we want something or need someone, and then we realise – perhaps when it is too late – that we were just reacting to something, or acting out of impulse, or trapped in a habit, or replaying an old desire that didn’t actually exist any longer.

Usually, we do this kind of reflecting with a friend, the kind of friend who will be honest enough to say, ‘What’s really bugging you?’ or ‘What do you really want?’ And then we start untying the knots. Or we do it in prayer, in conversation with the Lord.

This is the whole thrust of Sartre’s existential psychoanalysis. Not, like Freudian analysis, to discover some unconscious and therefore unaccepted or repressed motivation. But instead to gain some clarity about the primary motive, the overarching intention, that lies within the muddle of our ordinary desires and actions. It’s not uncovering the subconscious, but making sense of what is within consciousness, seeing the pattern.

And this is not unlike Ignatian spiritual discernment, where you learn to recognise what is the deepest desire of your own heart, and what is God’s deepest desire for you, by reflecting prayerfully on those situations that bring spiritual consolation and light, and those that bring confusion and an unhealthy inner darkness.

None of this means, of course, that you should necessarily follow what you discover to be your heart’s one desire. Clarity is one thing (whether this comes through a Want-ology therapist, existential psychoanalysis, or an Ignatian retreat); but the moral wisdom to work out what you should do with this clarity is another thing. That’s why I wouldn’t endorse this kind of therapy, without knowing what its moral framework is.

It’s good, generally, to know yourself better; as long as the therapist isn’t going the next step and encouraging you to follow your dreams uncritically, heedless of the moral or spiritual consequences, or of the mess they might make to the reality of your present life and relationships. OK, mess can sometimes be good; but not always.

[Rhys Blakely writes in the times2, the Times, March 14 2013, p4]

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Highclere Castle - Downton Abbey by griffinstar7

I’ve seen half an hour of Downton Abbey and absolutely nothing of Girls, so don’t think I am recommending either of them. But Anand Giridharadas has a very thoughtful piece about how they represent the shift from the socially-determined self of early 20th century Britain to the chaos of total self-determination experienced by the single women of contemporary New York.

On the surface, all they have in common is their Sunday airtime, at least in the United States. One television show is about English aristocrats, crisp, proper, well-dressed even in bed. The other is about four young women, often lost and very often unclothed, in a setting quite different from Yorkshire: Brooklyn, New York.

But “Downton Abbey” and”Girls”, both hugely popular, sometimes seem to be talking to each other. And it is a conversation of richer importance to our politics and culture than the nudity on one show and the costumes on the other might initially suggest.

On issue after issue, Americans continue to debate the limits of individual freedom — whether to abort a fetus or own a gun or sell stocks or buy drugs. And in different ways, the two television shows address the promise and limitations of the modern, Western emphasis on — even sacralization of — the individual.

“Downton” and “Girls” serve as bookends in an era defined by a growing cult of the self. “Downton” is about the flourishing of selfhood in a rigid, early-20th-century society of roles. “Girls” is about the chaos and exhaustion of selfhood in a fluid, early-21st-century society that says you can be anything but does not show you how.

This is Downton, where people still, just about, know who they are:

Set on a manor in which the hierarchy and fixedness of the country — indeed, of the Empire — are especially concentrated, “Downton” is a world where there is a way to do everything, from cleaning spoons to dressing for dinner. Status has been and still seems immovable, and servants must act at least as convinced of their inferiority as the masters are. Novelty and that great leveler, money, are reflexively suspected.

The drama is this world’s cracking under the pressure of new ideas like individualism. Thus the family driver, believing in equality and marrying for love, runs away with the family daughter; thus the men wear black tie instead of white to dinner one night; thus a new generation of servants is less servile, more willing to question.

Mary McNamara, a television critic at The Los Angeles Times, has described “Downton” as “the tale of an oppressive social and economic system that is finally being called into question.” The drama comes from watching our world slowly, inevitably defeat theirs: “the bondage of social bylaws and expectation, the fear of new technology, the desire to cling to old ways.”

This is Girls:

The daughters of the sexual revolution are depicted without much agency: Far from being conquerors, initiators, even equals, the girls of “Girls” are reactors, giving in to an ex who changes his mind, or a gay man wanting to try something, or a financier seeking a threesome that he manages to upgrade to traditionally twosome marriage.

What begins on “Downton” as a welcome questioning of age and status roles has snowballed by the “Girls” era into grave role confusion: parents who cannot teach their children how to live because they feel guilty about parenting, or want to be friends more than guides, or still dress like teenagers and call their offspring “prude.”

Nowhere is this overshooting truer than with the roles of the sexes. If “Downton” shows a world in which women are starting to claim their own sexuality, “Girls” portrays a sexual dystopia in which those women seem to have negotiated poorly: Men now reliably get what they want, while women must often content themselves with scraps, as when the character Hannah celebrates “almost” satiation in bed as the best she is likely to get…

“Girls” is about atoms that desire in vain to form molecules; about sex lives that breed more confusion than excitement; about people with the liberty to choose every day, on various dimensions, whom to be — and who grow very tired of the choosing.

And this is one of the Girls – Marnie:

I don’t know what the next year of my life is going to be like at all. I don’t know what the next week of my life is going to be like. I don’t even know what I want. Sometimes I just wish someone would tell me, like, ‘This is how you should spend your days, and this is how the rest of your life should look.’

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Personification of a Virtue by Antonio del Pollaiolo

Personification of a Virtue by Antonio del Pollaiolo

In case you missed these, here is Alain de Botton’s list of ten virtues unveiled in his Manifesto for Atheists.

1. Resilience. Keeping going even when things are looking dark.

2. Empathy. The capacity to connect imaginatively with the sufferings and unique experiences of another person.

3. Patience. We should grow calmer and more forgiving by getting more realistic about how things actually tend to go.

4. Sacrifice. We won’t ever manage to raise a family, love someone else or save the planet if we don’t keep up with the art of sacrifice.

5. Politeness. Politeness is very linked to tolerance, the capacity to live alongside people whom one will never agree with, but at the same time, can’t avoid.

6. Humour. Like anger, humour springs from disappointment, but it’s disappointment optimally channelled.

7. Self-Awareness. To know oneself is to try not to blame others for one’s troubles and moods; to have a sense of what’s going on inside oneself, and what actually belongs to the world.

8. Forgiveness. It’s recognising that living with others isn’t possible without excusing errors.

9. Hope. Pessimism isn’t necessarily deep, nor optimism shallow.

10. Confidence. Confidence isn’t arrogance, it’s based on a constant awareness of how short life is and how little we ultimately lose from risking everything.

Why these? Why now? Robert Dex explains:

De Botton, whose work includes a stint as a writer in residence at Heathrow Airport, said he came up with the idea in response to a growing sense that being virtuous had become “a strange and depressing notion”, while wickedness and evil had a “peculiar kind of glamour”.

He said: “There’s no scientific answer to being virtuous, but the key thing is to have some kind of list on which to flex our ethical muscles. It reminds us that we all need to work at being good, just as we work at anything else that really matters.”

My own response, which I sent to the Catholic Herald last week:

I like this list of virtues. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s certainly helpful. It prods you into making a sort of ‘examination of conscience’, and reminds you that there are other ways of living and relating and reacting.

There are obvious borrowings from classical philosophy, the great world religions, English manners, and the self-help books that line the shelves at WH Smiths.

Apart from the obvious absence of ‘God’, they don’t seem to have a particularly atheist spin.

If both believers and non-believers lived by these virtues, the world would be a much happier place; there would be less shouting and more laughter; relationships would be more stable, and we’d get more done in an average day. That’s surely something to celebrate!

But Francis Phillips thinks there is an implicit Pelagianism at work here:

I understand why de Botton is preoccupied with the concept of a virtuous atheist and I do not mock him; indeed I take his yearning to counter the supposedly superior claims of Christianity very seriously. It is a noble ideal and society would indeed be happier and more civilised if more irreligious people of the “Me-generation” were to reflect on his ideas. But just as that selfless quiet heroine of the Great War, Nurse Edith Cavell, realised that patriotism was not enough, so a noble and enlightened atheism, however fine its aspirations, is not enough if individuals or society are to be regenerated or renewed.

The reason, as Catholic theology teaches us, is sin, original and personal, our own and Adam’s. We are not strong enough by ourselves to be good (as opposed to “nice”) without the grace of God. Politeness and resilience – indeed kindness and niceness – are not virtues in themselves; they are attractive characteristics of some people by nature; the rest of us have to fight against being “horrid”, like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead.

It is Pelagianism (and de Botton strikes me as something of a neo-Pelagian) to think we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and achieve virtue on our own.

Do you like them? What’s missing?

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In my recent post about Web 3.0 I used the phrase layered reality to describe the way that information from the virtual world is becoming embedded in our experience of the real world in real-time. Instead of stopping the car, looking at a physical map, memorising the directions, and then starting off again; now you see a virtual map on your sat nav that matches and enhances the physical reality in front of you. It adds another layer. The next step – part of Web 3.0 – is that the technology that delivers the layer is wearable and invisible, so that the layering is seamless. We have had mobile conversations via earpieces for years now.

The best example of this is the Google Glass. Messages and information that up to now would appear on your computer screen or mobile phone now appear on the lens of your glasses as part of your visual panorama. Fighter pilots have had information appearing on their visors for a long time, so that they can read instruments without having to take their eyes off the scene ahead. The Google Glass is just the domestic equivalent of this.

Take a look at this wonderful video demo:

Claire Beale explains more about the implications for mobile technology:

Ever since Tom Cruise showed us in Minority Report a future where reality is a multi-layered experience, gadget geeks have been waiting for technology to deliver on Hollywood’s promise.

Now virtual reality is about to become an actual reality for anyone with the right sort of mobile phone after Telefonica, the parent company of O2, signed a revolutionary deal last week with the tech company Aurasma.

Aurasma has developed a virtual reality platform that recognises images and objects in the real world and responds by layering new information on top. So if Aurasma’s technology is embedded into your mobile phone, when you point your phone at an image it can recognise, it will automatically unlock relevant interactive digital content.

For brands, this type of kit has some pretty significant implications. It means that commercial messages can now live in the ether around us, waiting to be activated by our mobiles. If your phone registers a recognised image such as a building, a poster or a promotional sticker in a store, say, it will play out videos, 3D animations or money-off coupons to entice you to buy.

See this video demo from Layar:

You don’t just see, you see as others see, you understand what others understand, it’s almost like sharing in a universal consciousness. That’s part of the wonder of this new augmented reality, and also the danger; because it all depends on trusting the source, the provider. Who controls the layers?

But the idea of layering reality is not really new, in fact ‘layered reality’ could almost be a definition of human culture. Culture is the fact that we don’t just experience reality neat, we experience it filtered through the accumulated interpretations of previous generations. The primordial example of culture as a layering of reality is language: we speak about what we see, and cover every experience with a layer of language – before, during and after the experience itself.

And writing is literally putting a layer of human interpretation on top of the physical reality before you: carving some cuneiform script into a Sumerian brick; painting a Chinese character onto a piece of parchment; printing the newspaper in the early hours of the morning. Endless layers that stretch back almost to the beginning of human consciousness.

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OK, the reviewers were right, Total Recall is verging on the truly terrible. [Warning: Plot spoilers to follow] They even had the nerve to steal one of the best scenes from the first Bourne film (you could hardly call it a homage), when a man without a memory finds a code that leads him to a safe deposit box that happens to be full of passports, cash, and lots of other secret and mysterious stuff about his secret and mysterious former identity. I had to see it, of course, because I have an inability to not see (forgive the grammar) any new film involving time-travel or implanted memory. It’s a childhood thing. (See my Five Greatest Time Travel Films of All Time post).

But the great thing about even a terrible sci-fi film is that it still makes you think; in the way that a terrible Western or rom-com or road movie is simply terrible full stop. In case you don’t know the story, Colin Farrell is a guy who may or may not have had his memory completely erased and replaced by another set of artificial memories, making him unsure about his true identity; and this whole ‘who am I’ identity crisis, which is most of the film, may be taking place in the ‘real world’ (whatever that is), or it may be an artificially implanted memory created by an amusement company called Rekall to ease the boredom of his mundane life – a freely chosen escapist fantasy.

This is all very familiar, but I still find it fascinating! And the final scene, despite being so predictable, sent a shiver down my spine – when we think we are in the real world, at the end of a moderately satisfying drama, but we see Farrell catching a glimpse of a poster advertising Rekall, and we wonder whether anything real has happened at all.

So it raises the obvious questions, that have been raised a hundred times in sci-fi short stories: Is there a ‘true self’? Does it matter whether our ideas and memories about the past, and especially our experiences and personal identity, are true or not? Does it change the person we are today if we discover that something we thought was true turns out to be false, or if something we never knew or imagined turns out to be true? There is a nice moment when the baddie asks Farrell: why can’t you just accept who you are in the present, without worrying about who you might have been in the past?

Part of me is attracted to this. The whole notion of human freedom, and conscience, demands that in some sense we are not completely determined by the past, however much it influences us. We can to some extent remake ourselves, re-invent ourselves, make a new start, experience a conversion.

But here is the rub: there is no such thing as the pure present. We are always moving from a past to a future, making sense of the present and future in terms of the past, even if it is a conscious repudiation of that past. But there is no such thing as ‘no past’, because even ignorance or forgetfulness colours how we experience the past, and how we understand our identity.

All of us have moments of remembering things we have forgotten, or finding out that some powerful experience didn’t happen in quite the way we remembered it. Some of us have powerful, liberating, or terrifying moments when we are brought face to face with a truth from the past that so disorientates our world that we are unsure who we are any more. Our identity is fractured and even fragmented, our understanding of ourselves is transformed. This is often the case with deep and dark family secrets, and it’s why – as I understand it – the present philosophy within social work is to let adopted children know that they are adopted, rather than hiding it from them, or springing it on them later in life.

There is something about faith here as well. Part of coming to know God is discovering, perhaps for the first time, that what you thought was your beginning, your identity, is not the whole story. You are not just a random evolutionary product, or the fruit of a human relationship, but child of God, created by him out of love, cared for within his loving providence, and destined for a life with him for all eternity. Baptism is not, like Rekall, the implanting of false memories; it is the uncovering of memories much deeper than our own, and then the creation – through the grace of the sacrament – of a new identity. And this new baptismal identity is not imposed like an ill-fitting mask or a forged passport that has no connection with our former self, it is the fulfilment of that former self, the raising up to new life of a life that was always secretly longing for it.

If you want to see a really good movie about these themes, get hold of Moon, which I saw over the summer for the first time. (Just to make a contemporary London connection, this is by director Duncan Jones, who is the son of David Bowie from his first marriage, who – David Bowie – is the subject of a retrospective at the V&A which is just opening.)

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