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Archive for the ‘In defence of the arts’ Category

It’s suddenly all so clear…

‘Open access’ — this strange idea which sounds so innocuous, or so empowering even, and which has been propagated by certain powers that be so that suddenly gullible academics everywhere are talking about it as though this is an inevitable development– is doublespeak.  It pretends to ”open access” to science publications… to whom?  To a ‘larger public.’  (How many members of the public need access to highly technical/specialized knowledge at this level?)   But it’s actually a move by savvy players to create a ‘knoweledge aristocracy’.  Or, if you like, it is a deliberate use of the language of the free market, by a group of power players who are attempting to mask a monopolistic power grab (This is a favorite tactic of marketers working for large, monopolistic companies).

To explain, some background.

So a U Kansas distinguished professor (A. Townsend Peterson) writes in the Huffington post about the ‘good and the bad’ of open access journals.

The bad:  an obviously flawed article was sent to 304 open access journals by the journal Science, and it was accepted by over half of them.  So duh, this reveals that a lot of open-access journals are for-profit scams.  This seems screamingly obvious.

The good:  A. T. P. then tells us that ”the serious open access journals are very likely an important part of the future of academic publishing, so we should nurture them.”  His direct quote is this:

“These journals likely represent an important element in the future of academic publishing, so we should do our best to protect them and nurture them, while discouraging the predatory and shoddy editorial practices on the part of some. After all, let’s keep our eye on the prize: an open, inclusive, and effective system of scientific communication.”

Who paid A.T.P. to suggest that ‘we should protect and nurture them?’  For goodness sake, shouldn’t we be nurturing, say, our young faculty members?  The future generation of scientists?  How often do senior professors publicly say that?  But back to the main point.  Do we really need these OA journals that are so in need of nurturing?

First of all, some people seem to forget that what makes good science prestigious, is that it is reviewed by top peers, at top journals.  The whole function of journals is to winnow the chaff from the wheat, and provide us with the wheat.  If we wanted the chaff, we could just do a google search!  And no real science would get done – every tom, dick, and henrietta could voice their opinion, and with no editorial function, no one could tell the noise from the music.   (more…)

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That is the question, isn’t it?

It’s a pretty fundamental one.  If you answer no to that one, the rest of your flow chart doesn’t mean much.  At least, not in any way that us alive in this cosmos can register.

Do I believe in an afterlife?  I strongly suspect that there are links with our cosmos/universe that we don’t entirely get.  Does that mean that our souls continue on in a recognizable form, that we ourselves recognize, after death?  I would really like to think so, although of course it seems pretty far fetched at first.  There are some reasons to believe that the universe is not randomly created–intelligent design people aren’t entirely evidenceless; and that leads me to hope that, somehow, our universe is a birthing place for new ‘gods’, that is, souls/creatures which eventually have an existence/life beyond our universe; or which can travel through it and spacetime.  If there is a god/gods, then they obviously want us to do things mostly ourselves.  But we’ve said this a bit before.  And I would go so far as to say that the theologians at work today have come up with some pretty interesting stories, which do engender hope; I am talking partly about John Polkinghorne, and Alister McGrath, and Thomas Torrence.  These latter make a case for a specifically Christian theology, but again, this need not be incompatible with other theologies entirely.

Of course, our current state of scientific knowledge would tell us that indeed life is meaningless; we are manifestations of DNA wanting to reproduce ourselves; we have no more purpose than cancer cells, which mindlessly propagate (and then die) as long as we are in a situation where we are not annihilated entirely.

And so many intelligent people have been, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, quite cynical as to the ‘meaning of life.’ They point to the billions on the planet, the existence of toil, suffering, filth, pain, loneliness, debility, ageing, corruption, cruelty in the lives of so many.  The internet is full of people copulating; cities are full of horrible buildings; television and movies are full of gore and torture.  Freud was right:  we are bestial, murderous animals.

So why bother?  If we’re, as a doctor friend pointed out, about 15 cents worth of chemicals, why do it?

(more…)

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Because the wealthy have been in power since the beginning of civilization, they have been very keen to stigmatize poverty as an evil to be cured, but never wealth.

In the Enlightenment, people began to realize that wealth, like poverty, was an evil to be cured; Marx and Engels took over this banner, and unfortunately all talk of being against extreme wealth ended up being powerfully associated with Marxism/Communism/Socialism.

But, now, we’re finally moving into a post-Marxist society, where we can once again, after 100 years or more of Marxism/Communism, begin to talk about extreme wealth, or more specifically extreme disparities of wealth, as a social evil which should ideally be cured.

Note there is also a distinction between theory and practice:  de facto, democracies tolerate extreme wealth only because we have not yet come up with a social system which can create wealth for the many which does not also have the (unfortunate) side effect of creating extreme wealth for a few.  Really, if we could create a society with more equality, democracies would do that, because the many will inherently be jealous of the few, if they realized that there was no good reason to have wealth.  As it is, even the most learned economists realize that we need extreme wealth in order to have entrepreneurialism, innovation, incentives, etc, and that our economy can’t do well without these things.  So there is no push, at the pundit and elite level, to do away with extreme wealth, even in France, which is one of the more anti-wealth societies yet created.  (more…)

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Does good and evil have any meaning in today’s society?  Haven’t we moved Beyond good and evil, according to Nietzsche and many would-be followers?

Many of our most cherished modern myths, including Star Wars, LOTR, Harry Potter, Star Trek, and the like, are based around a fairly obvious confrontation of good vs. evil.  But is real life like that?  When it comes to actual human functioning, many people who will unswervingly root for the good guys find themselves swamped in a morass of relativism, which makes it very difficult to see what is good and what is evil.  It used to be, that the church and religion gave us fairly strict rules on good and evil, and while many of these were fairly useful, others provided a strong framework for abuse–most of the wiser parts of society have realized that this kind of ‘absolute’ guidance, because it necessitates a hierarchical social structure and encourages people to obey rather than to be critical minded, is not really the best path towards personal fulfillment, let alone some notion of what ‘good’ might be.

At the platonist, we assert that in fact, good and evil are every much as important in ‘real’ or ‘daily’ life as they are in our modern fairy tales:  this is why we cherish these fairy tales so much.  We all instinctually know what is good and what is evil (as Plato taught):  much of this is due to the fact that some rules of ‘good’ behaviour are better evolutionarily.  Other aspects of this are not so easily explained by behaviouralism (though as a scientist I can’t really commit to anything genuinely ‘platonic’ as a cause of this).

What then is the practical definition of good and evil?  We might start with the Satanic Bible, which unequivocally states that being selfish is the essence of evil.  Ayn Rand and the Satanic Bible both attempt to make a virtue out of selfishness, which quickly ends up creating a rather illogical moral code that no serious philosopher can endorse.   With this as a basic guide, we can quickly create a slate of questions that can test our personal goodness and evilness.

1)  Are you most driven by empathy for others, or by selfishness?

2)  Does your work involve duping or exploiting people for personal gain, is it mostly neutral,  or does it involve helping people?

3)  Do you think that it is OK to dupe or exploit people for your gain, because the ‘system’ justifies it?

4) Do you, essentially, have hope that the human condition can be bettered, or do you essentially despair?

5)  Do you follow a creed or lifestyle because it gives you personal power, or do you follow a belief system which is genuinely based on a desire to see more good done for more people, whatever may be your role in the process?

6)   It is ok to wish physical comfort for yourself:  you cannot do good things or be good without it.  But, do you desire money simply as a means to personal comfort and actualization, or do you desire it to gratify base desires, such as gluttony, or to dominate others in terms of ‘showing off’ your superior physical possessions, or to dominate others psychologically or physically (i.e., to be a head honcho, to hire and fire people, to be a landlord in the sense that this gives you power)?

7)  Is your political philosophy predicated on your desire to see your own ‘in group’ remain, or come into, power, at the expense of ‘the other’?  Or do you seek to ensure your ‘in group’s comfort and safety, while seeking to exploit and profit from ‘the other’ as little as possible?  (Too much altruism, i.e., extreme tree huggers who would eradicate humanity to save this or that other species,  is a form of despair and so is also, technically, evil.)

8)  Do you believe in humanism? or some form of authoritarianism?  If you believe in humanism, then you will try to maximize the happiness actualization of the maximum number of people.  Your only enemies then are those who wish to do ill under the guise of their despairing, egomaniacal, or authoritarian beliefs.  If you believe in authoritarianism, then, in some way or another, you believe that certain groups of people should be discriminated against, or exploited,

9)  Do you believe that love is essentially egalitarian/shared, or essentially hierarchical/authoritarian/exploitative?

10)  Do you believe that friendships are essentially egalitarian/voluntary, or essentially authoritarian/dominance-based?

11)  When you argue, can you admit that you are wrong?  Good people realize they are fallible.  Evil people are so concerned with appearing to be right, so worried about losing dominance, that they will even argue with their wives over the composition of waffles, when their wives are obviously right and they were wrong.  This is perhaps the greatest failing that otherwise good people have in real life:  it’s a true test, of whether you can be more like Qui-Gon Jinn, or more like Darth Maul.     (more…)

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So it’s an ongoing project here at the Platonist, to come up with the ground rules for what would ideally become a book, setting out a Grand Unified Theory (if we may), of how to create an ideal economy, politics, and society.  This is essentially an update of Plato’s Republic, moving beyond earlier utopian or dystopian literature and taking into account what we’ve learned in the last few decades, since advances in the social sciences have been tremendous, and very inspiring if you know where to look.  This is especially true  in our advances in the theory of egalitarianism, and the discursive elements of this, since Foucault.  And of course our ‘system’ has to move beyond being a system, since one thing we’ve learned is that imposing systems doesn’t at all work.  What we would suggest in this rewriting of the Republic, would be a series of concrete policies that would be designed to maximize happiness, through existing democratic and legal institutions, and maximize opportunity, for those who would want it, without imposing anything on anyone (since this would never be better than our current system–freedom is key).  In essence, we’d be continuing the current and ongoing explorations in the social sciences, whose goal, we would argue, is to find ways to help us to live better.  To explain what has worked, and why, and what hasn’t, and why, with the aim of furnishing us with wisdom to make the right choices, ones that are of course naturally obvious.  For example, it’s quite obvious now that democracy works better than any true monarchy or one-man rule, for a whole host of reasons.  This was not so obvious 300 years ago.  This is the sort of thing, only using newer discoveries, that we are aiming to highlight here.  Economics, in particular, is a rich field for this, since  the marxist-capitalist conflict of the 20th century arguably blinded most economic thinkers by turning them into partisans, instead of scientists.  Economics has been dominated too much by polemics, and not enough with the business of maximizing happiness and opportunity.  It is still in the hands of the anti-marxist, pro plutocratic elite, and we need to reclaim economics from them –  – real economics, scientific university economics.  The book ‘prosperity without growth’ is part of this new trend.  It is happening.

At any rate, one of the fundamental stumbling blocks to any would-be set of principles for improving the way things work (since surely there are quite a few problems we have yet to address as well as we could if only we worked it through) is the fact that we’re still pretty much hardwired for hierarchy as I have said in another post – i.e., we still carry strong tendencies to act according to pack and troop principles, which got us through our millions of years living as beasts.  These instincts aren’t however often so great for creating an egalitarian, maximum-opportunity society.  Psychologists and anthropologists have now identified a lot of these, but let’s spell them out here, so that we can get them out in the open, and grapple with them as we discuss and shape our economic and political wish list.

1)  The desire to be cool.  This used to be called ‘honor.’   It’s probably our first instinct, once we move beyond toddlerhood, and stays with us until senility.  You want to have the people immediately around you like you, and act positively towards you.  This is because in primate troop society, this meant you were  ‘alpha.’  Everyone fawns over you, does stuff for you, laughs at your jokes.  This translates into personal power.  The Fonz snaps his fingers, and people do stuff for him.  (Jeff Winger in “Community” being an updated version of the same).

2)  The desire to be sexy.   (more…)

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So you’ll have to help me with this one, but I thought that it might be useful to start a list of the things that you yourself should be, and that you should do, in order to find an ideal soul mate.  I wrote in another post on marriage that, for some reason, we keep getting married; and I concluded that the ideal of it seems to be hardwired into our biology, and we find it fulfilling in many fundamental ways:  that is why we consider it to be the ideal.  Not least of these includes the idea that except in exceptional circumstances, kids want their parents to stay together, not just for a while, but for all time; even when parents get divorced when kids are in their 30s, kids get adversely affected, and begin to despair that their own marriages must be somehow doomed.  Even elderly seniors divorcing have serious negative repercussions on younger folk who can’t help but look to their example to see whether it is possible to ‘live happily ever after.’  A recent onion article, in typical parodic fashion, ends up listing the traits of an ideal marriage, and incidentally notes the fact that most of us continue to see the ‘happily ever after’ thing as an ideal.

Of course, in order to live happily ever after, you need to find a soul mate first:  it’s no fun to live happily ever after with someone who is only sort of suited to you:  the ideal of course is to be with someone so in tune with you, that you can’t imagine being not around them for more than a few hours here and there.

And, as any councillor or psychologist will tell you these days, the main thing that determines whether or not you find a soul mate is you.  You’re almost entirely in charge of your destiny there.  Yes, it may be hard to meet people in certain situations, but, if you were doing things differently, you would find them, and relatively quickly.  So how do you do it?  Let’s try making a list and see what we come up with.

1)  You have to believe in love, as the horrendous autotuned song goes.  I.e., you have to be willing to have faith, and trust, and not be essentially cynical about relationships and marriages.  You have to believe that it is possible for people to live happily ever after.  If you’ve convinced yourself that marriages, relationships, etc are doomed, and that all members of the opposite sex are mercenary, lying, cheating scum, well, guess what?  However, there are at least a third of people out there who manage to live life in stable, healthy, happy marriages, and a decent number of these folks are eternally in love, and would vastly prefer the company of their partner to anyone else, to death do them part.  So yes, it’s entirely possible, and so, if you want it, you gotta believe in it first. (more…)

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Why yes, yes they are.

I was at a poetry reading by a “famous” (in the poetry world) Irish poet named Paul Muldoon, whose most famous poem’s refrain is something like “with a rinky-tink dinky-tink link link,” or something like that.  For such work, Muldoon has won a Pulitzer prize in poetry, which to my mind says something about the state of the arts at this point, but we’ll get to that in a moment.  Inevitably, perhaps, during the question and answer period one of the undergrads in the audience asked Mr. Muldoon:

“Sir, do you believe that song lyrics are poetry?”

And Mr. Muldoon said:  “Well, no, son.  Not really.”

And I wanted this supposedly world-famous, ultra-talented spokesman for modern poetry in the world to explain for us, why, indeed, this was not so.  All that he could manage, however, was something along the lines of, “Well, poetry is different; it’s more complex, and it often has forms which are not compatible with simple song lyrics.” (more…)

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