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Humanitarian intervention in the Mesozoic: lukewarm

Monday, July 21st, 2014

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Article II, Section 3 of our Constitution opens with this strongly worded suggestion:

He shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.

As a people, we underutilize the President’s Annual Messages to Congress from 1789-1913: here is a compact, blow by blow, year by year glimpse into how we saw ourselves through what the president wanted us and our representatives to hear about the state of our Union. What is reported is, inescapably, political. Yet, before Thomas Woodrow Wilson (may his bones be crushed) and cousin Franklin turned the president’s annual message into the State of the Union Spectacular, its submission to Congress was low key. Real history could seep through without being pooped on by monarchial excesses that turned its submission to Congress into a spot-the-living-applause-line-sitting-near-to-the-First-Lady-snore.

The instinct of His Excellency Thomas Jefferson, that old serpent of creative hypocrisy, was right: a clerk reading the annual message into the Congressional Record is less monarchial, more modest, and more republican than what we do now. Over time, Americans have acquired the usual growing taste for what the Nazis sold as Führerprinzip“leadership principle”. If your answer to every question is, from most complex to least complex, “These problems will be fixed when we elect __________” or “We need presidential leadership” or just “We need leadership”, you’ve already broken Godwin’s Law. Hero worship is a crutch for the weak-minded and beneath the dignity of a free people.

Few Americans worship at the altar of Grover Cleveland. Understandable: he was a walrus-like fat dude from Buffalo, New York. Yet his administration’s reporting on its evolving response to the Cuban War for Independence is a model of how sovereignty clearly communicates its responsibilities under the law of nations before that law was corrupted by international law.

The response began lukewarm:

Whatever may be the traditional sympathy of our countrymen as individuals with a people who seem to be struggling for larger autonomy and greater freedom, deepened, as such sympathy naturally must be, in behalf of our neighbors, yet the plain duty of their Government is to observe in good faith the recognized obligations of international relationship. The performance of this duty should not be made more difficult by a disregard on the part of our citizens of the obligations growing out of their allegiance to their country, which should restrain them from violating as individuals the neutrality which the nation of which they are members is bound to observe in its relations to friendly sovereign states. Though neither the warmth of our people’s sympathy with the Cuban insurgents, nor our loss and material damage consequent upon the futile endeavors thus far made to restore peace and order, nor any shock our humane sensibilities may have received from the cruelties which appear to especially characterize this sanguinary and fiercely conducted war, have in the least shaken the determination of the Government to honestly fulfill every international obligation, yet it is to be earnestly hoped on every ground that the devastation of armed conflict may speedily be stayed and order and quiet restored to the distracted island, bringing in their train the activity and thrift of peaceful pursuits.


Adding to the Bookpile

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor / Hiroshima / 9-11 / Iraq by John Dower 

Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent, 1934-1941 by William Shirer

Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II by Michael Burleigh 

Picked up a few more books for the antilibrary.

Dower is best known for his prizewinning Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II, which unfortunately, I have never read.  Berlin Diaries I have previously skimmed through for research purposes but I did not own a copy. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany was an immensely bestselling book which nearly everyone interested in WWII reads at some point in time. I would put in a good word for Shirer’s lesser known The Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 . It was a very readable introduction to the deep political schisms of France during the interwar and Vichy years which ( as I am not focused on French history) later made reading Ian Ousby’s Occupation: The Ordeal of France 1940-1944 more profitable.

I am a fan of the vigorous prose of British historian Michael Burleigh, having previously reviewed  Blood and Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism here and can give a strong recommendation for his The Third Reich: A New History.  Burleigh here is tackling moral choices in war and also conflict at what Colonel John Boyd termed “the moral level of war” in a scenario containing the greatest moral extremes in human history, the Second World War.

The more I try to read, the further behind I fall!


Is there truth in victory?

Friday, August 2nd, 2013

[by Lynn C. Rees]

Things change. Beliefs don’t. Facing change, belief clings to the agreeable and resists the disagreeable. Current fashion names this reflex “confirmation bias” and frames it as the enemy of truth. Closer truth names this reflex “concentration of force” and portrays it as the friend of victory.

The notion that discovery of truth is an individual effort persists. By its curiously resilient lights, the only truthful mind is a blank mind. Purge existing beliefs. Capture change free of entanglements. Embrace blindness to see clearly. Above all, lean neither one way nor the other. Only then, after much trial, with the last mental debris bulldozed away, will light come.

No one thinks like this. Despite the occasional brave try, everyone reflexively favors things that fortify belief over things that undermine belief. If truth is a self-help exercise, the existence of confirmation bias means the mind is inescapably flawed. If truth is trial by self-improvement, the only cure for mind flaws is constant reinforcement of what experience suggests is impossible. And if reinforcing the impossible only leads to more impossibility, at least it leads to an impossibility redeemed by its righteous aggression.

And so it would be, if leaving a vacuum and calling it truth is truth. But if truth comes from group contortion rather than individual self-flagellation, confirmation bias is a feature, not a bug. Then the mind is not flawed, at least not in that way. If the mind was guilty of chronic confirmation bias, it would only be guilty of operating to spec.

Those who insist on convening a symposium for a full and frank exchange of views every time they come under fire rarely need a good retirement plan. Because of this, to enforce effectiveness under fire, Darwin decrees that the mind comes preloaded and then preloaded with live ammunition, not blanks. Beyond this, freedom to arbitrarily switch the caliber of mental ammunition mid-stream is sacrificed for clarity of supply: mind yields measured in thoughts per calorie rise when ideas are bought in bulk following spec, especially amid uncertainty in the field.

Because buying ideas in bulk creates economies of scale, if confirmation bias is bias confirmed then it is bias shared. At the tribal scale, where human routine plays out, bias shared is indistinguishable from agreement. It too is guilty of operating to spec: Agreement reduces friction. Reduced friction lets group efforts prioritize targets. Prioritized targets let group effort selectively focus. Selective focus creates opportunities for local asymmetries. Local asymmetries can be exploited to further the tribe.

This makes confirmation bias concentration of force. Concentration of force is biased, first in favor being very strong and then at the decisive point. But it is confirmed only when being very strong and then at the decisive point yields victory. Local superiority in strength at a decisive point is neither constant nor guaranteed: it is only guaranteed to not be constant. So the mind must stay on target: it earns its keep by concentrating for victory, not emptying for truth.

This explains why what humans experience as “me” is a social loop: it is a argument simulator for forging chatter into weapons through endless drill of imagined conversations. It’s a display device, not a thinking machine. The thinking machine lies deep in the mind: real thought emerges from offline processing, especially during sleep. Conscious ”me” is suited to rehearsing if small variations in action lead to opportunity through asymmetry. These variations are what gets flung at others as weaponized chatter. Some variations stick, leading to victory. Some miss, leading to defeat. Some should only be flung if clearly labelled FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY.

Truth emerges from accumulations of such victories piled on mass burials of such defeats. It is an unintended byproduct, not an intended end product. But its emergence reaches back to shape its source. Generation by generation, the mind is doomed to more and more bias in favor of weaponized thought measured in victories confirmed, always subject to how well they fit, however haltingly, what is true.

So things change while beliefs don’t. Confirmed truth is biased toward victory and victory is biased toward agreements with friends to win something with something rather than lonely pursuit of nothing through nothing.

See the argumentative theory of reason for more background on this framework.


E.O. Wilson on the Evolutionary Origin of Creativity and Art

Thursday, April 4th, 2013

E.O. Wilson 

Last summer, eminent sociobiologist E.O. Wilson published an article in Harvard Magazine:

On the Origins of the Arts 

….By using this power in addition to examine human history, we can gain insights into the origin and nature of aesthetic judgment. For example, neurobiological monitoring, in particular measurements of the damping of alpha waves during perceptions of abstract designs, have shown that the brain is most aroused by patterns in which there is about a 20 percent redundancy of elements or, put roughly, the amount of complexity found in a simple maze, or two turns of a logarithmic spiral, or an asymmetric cross. It may be coincidence (although I think not) that about the same degree of complexity is shared by a great deal of the art in friezes, grillwork, colophons, logographs, and flag designs. It crops up again in the glyphs of the ancient Middle East and Mesoamerica, as well in the pictographs and letters of modern Asian languages. The same level of complexity characterizes part of what is considered attractive in primitive art and modern abstract art and design. The source of the principle may be that this amount of complexity is the most that the brain can process in a single glance, in the same way that seven is the highest number of objects that can be counted at a single glance. When a picture is more complex, the eye grasps its content by the eye’s saccade or consciously reflective travel from one sector to the next. A quality of great art is its ability to guide attention from one of its parts to another in a manner that pleases, informs, and provokes

This is fascinating.  My first question would be how we could determine if the pattern of degree of complexity is the result of cognitive structural limits (a cap on our thinking) or if it represents a sufficient visual sensory catalyst in terms of numbers of elements to cause an excitory response (neurons firing, release of dopamine, acetylcholine etc. ) and a subsequent feedback loop. Great art, or just sometimes interesting designs exhibiting novelty can hold us with a mysterious, absorbing fascination

Later, Wilson writes:

….If ever there was a reason for bringing the humanities and science closer together, it is the need to understand the true nature of the human sensory world, as contrasted with that seen by the rest of life. But there is another, even more important reason to move toward consilience among the great branches of learning. Substantial evidence now exists that human social behavior arose genetically by multilevel evolution. If this interpretation is correct, and a growing number of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists believe it is, we can expect a continuing conflict between components of behavior favored by individual selection and those favored by group selection. Selection at the individual level tends to create competitiveness and selfish behavior among group members—in status, mating, and the securing of resources. In opposition, selection between groups tends to create selfless behavior, expressed in
greater generosity and altruism, which in turn promote stronger cohesion and strength of the group as a whole 

Very interesting.

First, while I am in no way qualified to argue evolution with E.O. Wilson, I am dimly aware that some biological scientists might be apt to take issue with Wilson’s primacy of multilevel evolution. As a matter of common sense, it seems likely to me that biological systems might have a point where they experience emergent evolutionary effects – the system itself has to be able to adapt to the larger environmental context – how do we know what level of “multilevel” will be the significant driver of natural selection and under what conditions? Or does one level have a rough sort of “hegemony” over the evolutionary process with the rest as “tweaking” influences? Or is there more randomness here than process?

That part is way beyond my ken and readers are welcome to weigh in here.

The second part, given Wilson’s assumptions are more graspable. Creativity often is a matter of individual insights becoming elaborated and exploited, but also has strong collaborative and social aspects. That kind of cooperation may not even be purposeful or ends-driven by both parties, it may simply be behaviors that incidentally  help create an environment or social space where creative innovation becomes more likely to flourish – such as the advent of writing and the spread of literacy giving birth to a literary cultural explosion of ideas and invention – and battles over credit and more tangible rewards.

Need to ponder this some more.


Mindlessness and Mindfulness

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

In the midst of writing a lengthy post, it may eventually become my longest, about Socrates.

There’s no assurance that volume will equate with importance – most likely, the opposite. The post began as a book review and then grew to two books, then I reversed course and started over; it has been unusually slow going because the subject matter has forced me to stop periodically and uncomfortably rethink my assumptions – and then pick up new books. In one sense, there’s no hurry. After all, Socrates will still be just as relevant or not when I finish blogging about him than when I began. On the other hand, the spirit of our times calls out for Socrates’ techne logon, his “craftsmanship of reason”, so I keep plugging away at it.

The flip side to this intense focus has been an increasing desire for a little mindless entertainment. So, I started watching Sons of Anarchy of my iPad, Season One. So far, It’s fun:

The theme and setting is interesting and the characters and plot are generally more credulity-stretching than even The Soprano’s in their twilight seasons, but Sons of Anarchy fills the bill in terms of entertainment.Boardwalk Empire, is also supposed to be very good, even better, but one at a time.

What do you use as a diversion?


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