Bacterial Cities

July 17, 2009

Yes, Horton, there is a city on your toothbrush:

These slimy bacterial colonies, known as biofilms, add a remarkable new dimension to our understanding of the microbial world. Ever since Louis Pasteur first grew bacteria in flasks, biologists have pictured bacteria as individual invaders floating or swimming in a liquid sea, moving through our blood and lymph like a school of piranhas down the Amazon. But in recent years, scientists have come to understand that much, and perhaps most, of bacterial life is collective: 99 percent of bacteria live in biofilms. They vary widely in behavior. Sometimes these collectives are fixed, like a cluster of barnacles on a ship’s hull; other times they move, or swarm, like miniature slime molds. Bacteria may segregate into single-species biofilms, or they may, as in the case of dental bacteria, join together in groups that function like miniature ecological communities, competing and cooperating with each other.

Edit: And not just in your toothbrush!

Friday Linkage

July 3, 2009

Because I am writers-blocked like nobody’s business:

1.) I imagine many readers already know about A Supposedly Fun Blog, a group blog on Infinite Jest.  So far it looks quite good. (Now that I have outside stimulus, its probably safe to say you’ll be seeing more posts like my very first in the future.)

2.) Having written my undergrad history thesis on the University of Chicago’s neo-Thomistic turn during the Hutchin’s years, I was tickled to see First Principles posting a profile of Sidney Hook.  That’s probably the most press the man’s gotten this decade.

3.) Hit by a car? Having an existential crisis? Hike up your skirts and move to Uzbekistan!

4.) The first in a series of posts on Nietzsche and the New Atheists.

Art, Gods, Respect

June 29, 2009

Goya Saturn Devouring His Children (1)Spengler is feeling the horror:

I am, alas, not hopeful. “Cultural conservatism”—if I can thus label a movement that wants to regenerate the classic values of “Western culture” —does not recognize what it needs to conserve. To understand why, begin with Scruton’s reference to Plato’s belief in a “vision of this transient world as an icon of another and changeless order.” There is only one problem: Plato was unjustified in his belief.He wanted there to be a “changeless order.” But he had no way of knowing that such an order existed.

Plato had the ancient inheritance of Hellenic “art”: Homer, Hesiod, and the sculpted and painted representations of the gods in their stories. In Book II of The Republic,he rejected their stories, because they viewed the gods—Zeus, Apollo, Hermes, Ares, Hera, Aphrodite—as handing out good and evil without reason or justification, lying, violent and in all other ways morally corrupt. What he could not do  is explain whyone should reject the gods. A fundamental task in any philosophical argument is being able to show how one reaches one’s conclusion. (As in modern empirical science, the argument must be “reproducible.”) In Book III, Socrates repeats a long list of the stories of the gods, and encouraged by his interlocutor, responds that “they ought not to hear that sort of thing,” and “let us equally refuse to believe, or allow to be repeated” this or that account. Plato did not (and could not) prove that the “true” gods were not morally corrupt, he assumed it.

Later on:

Another son, Cronos , “hated his lecherous father.” He and his mother, Gaia, hatched a scheme: a Ouranos came down on her to mate, he cut off Ouranos’ genitalia and hurled them in the ocean. The foam in the water produced Aphrodite, the goddess of sexual passion, while the blood created the Furies, “chthonic deities of vengeance,…of the anger of the dead (Wikipedia).”

This is the beginning. Look long and hard; think carefully before you choose to praise it. Art comes from the ground, the dark soil of human passion, greed, and rage, the incestuous intertwinings of lust and loathing.

Fear all art.

Setting aside the other issues I have with this post, the operative claim here seems to be this: the kind of account of the world offered by Greek mythology is horrendous, frightening, and expresses the most base parts of human nature.  As such, it represents (a) the truth and (b) a threat.  Therefore, the correct response to art/myth is fear.

To begin with, I think Goldman’s underlying characterization of Plato’s take on mythology (and hence cultural conservatism that values myth) really doesn’t do justice to the complexities of what Plato’s take on myth drives at. As often as his later work emphasized the necessity of hiding myth, the Socratic dialogues exhibit more or less the opposite attitude, and provide just such a method (dialectic) to explore the dilemmas posed to us by a mythological worldview and to reach the universal by that process. (Which isn’t even to mention how essential struggling with Hesiod was for the Pre-Socratics… I could go on.) The fact that Plato later turned on this view shouldn’t make us follow him there, provided the arguments aren’t compelling.

That said, a full understanding of the danger posed by our mythological and artistic traditions is merited, but the correct response to that danger should not be fear but respect. Spengler’s preference for obscuring the gods denies what there is to learn from them, firstly concerning ourselves, as JL has astutely argued, but also about forces wildly outside of ourselves;  almost all mythology plays in the space between anthropocentrism’s necessity and it’s futility, personifying forces so impersonal that even putting a name to them borders on blasphemy, but that nonetheless allows us to discuss them in a way that, oddly enough, winds up being completely human.   Consider these stories about the incestuous, multi-sexual, violent pre-Olympians; are they human? No, though they’re moody, they ain’t moody like us, not even remotely. They do things beyond the pale, because, like it or not, nature is often just as foreign, and showing them up as humans lets us grapple with their pre-social nature in ways that would otherwise be impossible. But the only way that that understanding (which incidentally lies at the origin of both law and science) can move forward is if it’s allowed a space to exist, either as art, or sacrifice, or myth.

Bearing Arms.

June 24, 2009

Merleau-Ponty would be pleased:

Lead researcher Alessandro Farnè first asked volunteers to point at and grab wooden blocks with their hands, then had them perform the same motions with a grabber tool, and finally returned to the hands-only gestures. The researchers recorded all of these tasks using a high-resolution three-dimensional motion-tracking system, so that they could compare in detail the movements performed in each task. They found that after using the grabber, the volunteers approached the blocks with slightly lower acceleration and velocity, although their accuracy was not affected. “They behave like their arm is longer,” says Farnè. “They aren’t clumsy, but they are slower and more determined”.

The effect is subtle, Farnè explains, and wouldn’t cause difficulty with manual tasks. But the experiment was the first to prove definitively that tool use alters a person’s mental representation of his body even after the task is completed. Another experiment on blindfolded volunteers corroborated the findings. After an experimenter touched the participants’ elbow and middle fingertip, they were asked to point using the other hand to those two locations. After a session of using the tool, the participants indicated locations further apart than before tool use: they seemed to perceive the tool-using arm as longer [BBC News].

Both Andrew Sullivan and Chris Dierkes are now using the “F” word to describe the situation in Iran.  I agree its headed that direction, and if Ahmadinejad gets his way that will almost certainly be the outcome. But having just finished Agamben’s masterful book on the subject, I hesitate to call it fascism proper. What we have now is civil chaos, which can be a decisive moment for any state. Should Ahmadinejad succeed in crushing the demonstrations, he will have proved not only his power through the law, but also his power in the absence of law, in the state of exception.  If that happens, Iran will be a genuinely fascist state, its foundations built on the intertwining of order and violence under the watchful eye of the sovereign. And that will be truly terrible thing.

However, I think the current situation doesn’t amount to that yet, precisely because the disorder has not been contained, either politically or  semantically.  Consider the images of state-sponsored violence we’ve seen through the last few days.  They are intensely disturbing, not just because of the obvious pain we made witness to, but because those crimes are being committed by the very agencies founded to prevent them.  Who is it beating people in the streets? Who is it breaking into dormitories and arresting without warrant or cause? These are plainly not the acts of a representative of the law. In lieu of that legal grounding, Iran’s authorities are mere thugs, armed thugs with big ideas and central planning. And they cannot amount to more until the government reconstitutes them, either as the hidden arm of state violence or as a reformed entity of civil society.

But so with Ahmadinejad’s thugs, so with Mousavi’s supporters, who now share that strange place between chaos and the exception. The authorities recognize they must exit the exception by containing the chaos as their own, and its this point that the protesters, in their demonstrations and their own violence, have put into question.  Whether their efforts will succeed in creating a new establishment, and how they do so, will set the course of events in Iran. Should protests stay relatively peaceful, we may see something remarkable happen in the next few weeks. Should things turn violent, truly violent, I worry we may arrive at something just as bad as the Islamic Republic; founding states on violence is a dangerous undertaking, no matter what the intentions. But just for this reason, we shouldn’t confuse the reality of the unstable state as the signs of a new fascist order; the weird equality of chaos should teach us that at a minimum.

I recognize that all this may be being overly picky, since one might at least argue that while Iran is not yet fascist is is being run (ostensibly) by fascists. Granted. Mostly I post this to air my own thoughts on the matter, less to argue than to try to comprehend what’s going on here.  And there is so much to comprehend.

Berlin’s Letters

June 10, 2009

Busy day today, again. Grr.  Nonetheless, I think it’s worth passing on this morning’s bit of theory news: they’ve finially published Isaiah Berlin’s letters, and apparently they aren’t all that good:

For the first 150 pages, in fact, you might wonder whether the author of these letters was much of a thinker at all. There is an awful lot of gossip and tittle-tattle about Oxford dons and society hostesses. Not much reflection on the terrible war that had just taken place, no substantial attempt to make sense of Nazism, Communism or Totalitarianism. Berlin’s relatives in Riga were murdered, he still had family in Stalin’s Moscow—and yet there is little attempt to engage with the dark times of the mid-20th century, or with those writers like Orwell and Milosz who were trying to do so.

And then, around 1949-50, something happens. The gears shift and he starts producing a series of letters about theories of history, liberty, Tolstoy, The Brothers Karamazov. Some of the letters are written to famous contemporaries : George Kennan, Edmund Wilson, and later, on freedom, to Spender and Karl Popper and on historical causality, to EH Carr. It is exhilarating to read—and tells us something interesting about Berlin. He has no interest in covering issues systematically. It is all about the sudden insight. Letters dawdle along and then suddenly erupt from nowhere: we’re off on a fascinating riff about the new religious writing in the 1950s or why computers will be more important than atomic energy, on Hegel and political philosophy or on ends and choices.

Methinks he would have made an interesting blogger.

Unjustified confusion of philosophical positions, even those I disagree with, is one of my biggest pet peeves, and so I wade into any discussion of something as controversial as relativism with some major reservations. Just as there are a great many differences between positions like non-cognitivism, nihilism, and relativism, there are equally great differences internal to each. So I should probably preface the rest of this post with an acknowledgement that I am going to do some unwarranted conflation of my own. Apologies, I have a comments section, etc.

Now that I’ve disclaimed enough to scare off all but the most dedicated readers, this bit from Catholic Exchange (h/t 20 Prospect) got me annoyed in that petty way only unemployed philosophy majors can get annoyed:

In the Dictatorship of Relativism that Pope Benedict warns against, tolerance tends to mutate into moral idiocy. That’s because the relativist is forced, by his own principles, to abandon the notion of the Good (except in the sense of “what I happen to like personally”)…

Of course, even people who professed to live in that moral universe [pre-modern Christendom -h.c.] did not always live up to their principles. Such violations were called “sin”. But when relativism is embraced, the first thing to go, of course, is a belief in God’s goodness because God himself is a mere construct of Western culture. The next thing to go is belief in human dignity. After all, that is simply one more relic of a Christian civilization that has no more or less merit than any other. And so, suggesting that group human sacrifice might be intrinsically evil is “privileging 21st Century Western Culture”. All moral judgments—all attempts to condemn a particular act as evil (such as, say, solemnly and piously cutting open an innocent man’s chest while he breathes and ripping his heart out)—are out. We cannot impose our values. We cannot say that anybody “ought” to do anything, because that would imply we are subject to a Judge who blesses or condemns certain acts. We must give up all pretense that “God” exists and that our duty in life is to approximate his perfection. Our duty—our sole duty—is not to make value judgments.

Look, I hate to go all Ethics 101 here, but that is plainly not what moral relativism claims. Moral relativism, so far as I understand it, is based on two central tenets,  (1) that moral propositions require a cultural background to exist as sensible claims and (2) that the background has implications for the truth of said claims.  There are differences over how far people are willing to take the second premise, but the first premise is shared by pretty much everyone who adheres to the label. What’s important for Shea’s argument is that neither of those propositions entail that values (Christian or otherwise) can be cast aside as mere cultural construction.  Taken alone, the first premise is about the existence and sense of propositions, not their truth, and therefore entails nothing about whether cultural constructions are illusory. Paired with the second premise, it only becomes stronger: values are real on this view, albeit particular to different modes of acculturation, and are therefore emphatically not things we may discard.

Now on top of this view there is a prescriptive claim. We should not, goes the argument, force our values on others, as our values are different than theirs and have emerged under different conditions to different outcomes. This is a bit more controversial but still, it does not imply that the only values available to us are those of our personal preferences. It only entails that we should limit our moral criticisms to our own culture, and to those parts of other cultures that we share. It does not mean that our only moral recourse is to our own inclinations; we can draw on our own cultures values to critique the behavior of those within it.  (And this isn’t even touching on the very interesting issues raised at the intersection of relativism and intercultural exchange, which I imagine many harsh anti-Relativists would be pleasantly surprised by.)

All this leaves Shea in a rough spot, since it means he is guilty of a sort of reverse exceptionalism towards 21st century Western Values, wherein the West is taken as having no values of its own to enforce. Now it is true that our values have become exceptionally hedonistic in recent years, and there is certainly something to be said for the notion that emotivism underpins large chunks of the culture. But neither emotivism nor hedonoism is relativism, understood rightly.  They require extra premises, which we by our particular cultural constitution may implicitly embrace, but which are not internal to relativism itself.

One final thing: Having said all that, I want to make it clear that I am not a relativist. I tend to be very commited to the first tenant of outlined above and not at all commited to the second. Nonetheless, I’ve read enough to see that there are good arguments to be made on all sides and that the issues raised are worth understanding fully.

(Cross-posted at Upturned Earth)

There are a lot of figures in Roman history who Dick Cheney resembles quite strikingly. Cicero, however is not one of them, despite David Carlin’s argument to the contrary:

Cicero (like Cheney) was faced with a choice: Do I break the law, or do I let Catiline and his friends carry out a coup d’etat? When Cicero saved the republic by breaking the law, he had every reason to believe that he would never face prosecution for his deed. The traditional Roman attitude had been to look the other way when some savior of the city cut legal corners. It was a sign that traditional Roman politics was coming to an end when, a few years after the execution of the Catilinians, a left-wing political enemy of Cicero — a reprobate named Publius Clodius — indicted the ex-consul for the illegal executions and briefly exiled him.
There was a time when Americans were politically savvy enough, like traditional Romans, to look the other way when the nation’s leaders cut legal corners for the good of the republic (think of Lincoln and his unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus in 1861). But this wisdom has now deserted many of us, in particular those on the American left. Imitating Publius Clodius, they want to prosecute Cheney for protecting America by illegal means.

Cicero (like Cheney) was faced with a choice: Do I break the law, or do I let Catiline and his friends carry out a coup d’etat? When Cicero saved the republic by breaking the law, he had every reason to believe that he would never face prosecution for his deed. The traditional Roman attitude had been to look the other way when some savior of the city cut legal corners. It was a sign that traditional Roman politics was coming to an end when, a few years after the execution of the Catilinians, a left-wing political enemy of Cicero — a reprobate named Publius Clodius — indicted the ex-consul for the illegal executions and briefly exiled him.

There was a time when Americans were politically savvy enough, like traditional Romans, to look the other way when the nation’s leaders cut legal corners for the good of the republic (think of Lincoln and his unconstitutional suspension of habeas corpus in 1861). But this wisdom has now deserted many of us, in particular those on the American left. Imitating Publius Clodius, they want to prosecute Cheney for protecting America by illegal means.

Insofar as Cicero was violating the law in the name of a broader good, I suppose there’s some common ground between him and Cheney, in that they both did illegal things and succeeded in avoiding prosecution.  But that’s a piss poor foundation for a historical analogy, and does little to illustrate the particularities of each case.  Consider, for but one example, the motivations behind their actions.  Cicero’s overarching concern (beyond saving his own skin) was to ensure the continued power of the Senate and to uphold the internal stability of Rome as a sovereign republic.  His opponents were spendthrift profligates with widespread support among the mob and tyrannical undertones to their rhetoric.  By contrast, Cheney’s goal was to expand the power of the executive, to validate himself in a war with a foreign enemy, and to destabilize America’s political culture.  He spent profligately, courted the mob, and utilized the tools of a tyrant.  Eventually, Cicero lost his life (and head) opposing power-hungry would-be emperors. Cheney kept his life. His head now appears on FOX.  Two very different outcomes for two very different men. 

But setting aside what a terrible analogy this is, the real weak point in Carlin’s argument is his claim that the Romans’ willingness to bend the law shows the strength of their political culture.  This gets it completely backwards. That the Senate was willing to grant Cicero exemption was a powerful indicator of their system’s internal weakness, and this lack of legal spine was a key factor in the eventual decline of the Roman Republic.  Not incidentally, this was one of the primary lessons the Founding Fathers took away from the history of Rome: make your central legal provisions tough enough (via a written constitution) that they cannot be flouted by the politics of the moment, particularly by an executive with ambitions to empire.  So when we demand that Cheney face prosecution for authorizing torture, we are not repeating the mistakes of the Roman.  We are recognizing them and correcting them, and in doing so we affirm the best parts of both our histories.

This is an excellent idea:

The festival invites guest to “think/listen/dance/play”, and offers a programme ranging from philosophy seminars to arts and theatre workshops and musical performances. The line-up includes Susan Neiman, Will Hutton, Phillip Blond and Geoff Mulgan, as well as Prospect’s own David Goodhart, who will be discussing market regulation and individual freedoms. Other topics of discussion include religious fundamentalism, utopianism, revolution and the enlightenment

The festival invites guest to “think/listen/dance/play”, and offers a programme ranging from philosophy seminars to arts and theatre workshops and musical performances. The line-up includes Susan Neiman, Will Hutton, Phillip Blond and Geoff Mulgan, as well as Prospect’s own David Goodhart, who will be discussing market regulation and individual freedoms. Other topics of discussion include religious fundamentalism, utopianism, revolution and the enlightenment

Blond addresses the hippies.  This can only end well.

 

 

 

There’s a great amount to be said about Obama’s speech at Notre Dame, and I’m sure plenty of others will be chiming in in the next few hours. I was hoping for more details about what direction he’ll be steering federal abortion policies, but a graduation address is not and should not be a stump speech. So putting that aside, this nugget really stood out to me:

In this world of competing claims about what is right and what is true, have confidence in the values with which you’ve been raised and educated. Be unafraid to speak your mind when those values are at stake. Hold firm to your faith and allow it to guide you on your journey. Stand as a lighthouse. 

But remember too that the ultimate irony of faith is that it necessarily admits doubt. It is the belief in things not seen. It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God has planned for us or what He asks of us, and those of us who believe must trust that His wisdom is greater than our own.

This doubt should not push us away from our faith. But it should humble us. It should temper our passions, and cause us to be wary of self-righteousness. It should compel us to remain open, and curious, and eager to continue the moral and spiritual debate that began for so many of you within the walls of Notre Dame. And within our vast democracy, this doubt should remind us to persuade through reason, through an appeal whenever we can to universal rather than parochial principles, and most of all through an abiding example of good works, charity, kindness, and service that moves hearts and minds.

So far as I can know, this is the first time anyone has used Tillichian theology to support a Rawlsian understanding of public reason.  On the whole, I’m not buying it. There is no straight line between doubt and a universalized discourse; doubt has a background too, and in the case of Catholic faith its not one that necessarily defaults to secular reasoning.  (Not incidentally, this is the same stone that tripped Cuomo 23 years ago at the same institution.)

Still, there’s much to be said of using the example of works as a starting place for discussion, and as a moral guidepost, and Obama’s emphasis on it in his own life reflects an understanding of that fact.   Contra Rawls (and Obama), its not the universals we’re going to agree on, its the particulars, and if we want to put together a viable religious culture in this country we would do well to keep our focus on them.