Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

On the Versatility of the Human Voice


The human voice has evolved over millions of years to be a versatile, extensible tool for general-purpose communication. Its facility covers everything from Mr. Thum’s brilliant vocalizations above, to the infinite variety of human linguistic expression. The pattern matching wetware we carry around in our skulls combined with this extremely flexible vocalization apparatus has given us everything from Shakespeare and Richard Hugo to Ellie Goulding and beatboxing.

My mother once espoused (and, I imagine, might still) the theory that what makes us quintessentially human is not just language, but storytelling. I don’t know that she’s right, but suspect she’s not wrong.

Anyone who has heard a Jimi Hendrix guitar solo understands that “storytelling” shouldn’t be narrowly considered. Tom Thum’s presentation tells a story, in its way. It moves from percussive braggadocio to a smoky, jazz-club vignette in the space of eleven minutes, and of the sounds Thum employs, “proper words” are the decided minority.

Whether or not it is the quintessence of humanity, this facility for narrative expression is inextricable from what makes us human, no matter what audible form it takes.

“Authenticity” as Conservatism

I was talking to my friend Bryan today about “authenticity” as expressed by hipsterism and punk rock culture. And it occurred to me that, in a way, such authenticity is deeply conservative. Per Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral foundations, conservatives are greatly concerned by both tradition and purity. This seems to me to be well expressed by hipsterism’s obsession with lost arts and crafts and punk rocks desperate revulsion for “selling out” and adulterating music with fame and fortune.

Every hipster who takes up blacksmithing or craft gin distilling is trying to preserve a tradition that they feel is at risk of being lost. That desire for preservation (if honest, which is a seperate question) is not so different from the protective adoration felt by Catholics or other old faiths for their traditions and rituals. One of the few conservative parts of my character is the love I have for the Catholic rituals of my youth.

Similarly, the punk rock ethos (as well-articulated by John Roderick in an infamous essay) is premised on the flawed idea that “selling out” irredeemably sullies one’s artistic life work. Of course, here, “selling out” means taking any positive step towards popular or commercial success. Punk rock culture is inherently nihilistic (in the life-denying sense of the term) in that it axiomatically assumes that anyone who makes it has polluted themselves and all their work. Cf. the tortuously negative morality of Born Again Christianity and this obsession for musical purity seems to me to be the epitome of ideological conservatism.

These are just some random thoughts, and I greatly welcome feedback. I’m interested how this conservative view of authenticity might contrast with the general garden-variety progressivism common to both hipsters and punks (though, admittedly, punk culture seems more politically anarchic and admitting of variation than does hipsterism). Any comments or points to further reading would be most welcome.

Epictetus on the Desire for Admiration

I. 21 – To those who would be admired

When a man has his proper station in life, he is not all agape for things beyond it. Man, what is it you want to have happen to you? As for myself, I am content if I exercise desire and aversion in accordance with nature, if I employ choice and refusal as my nature is, and similarly employ purpose and design and assent. Why, then, do you walk around in our presence as though you had swallowed a spit? “It has always been my wish that those who meet me should admire me and as they follow me should exclaim, ‘O the great philosopher!'” Who are those people by whom you wish to be admired? Are they not these about whom you are in the habit of saying that they are mad? What then? Do you wish to be admired by the mad?

Quotes and emphasis in the original, footnote omitted. From the W. A. Oldfather translation.

H. L. Mencken on the Moral Perils of Good Men

“Sin is a dangerous toy in the hands of the virtuous. It should be left to the congenitally sinful, who know when to play with it and when to let it alone. Run a boy through a Presbyterian Sunday-school and you must police him carefully all the rest of his life, for once he slips he is ready for anything.” -H. L. Mencken, “A Good Man Gone Wrong”, as reprinted in A Mencken Chrestomathy

Daniel Hannan on the Precautionary Principle

This is how you pass the ideological Turing test1

As someone who is neither a Reactionary nor a Progressive, I found this article an engaging, well-crafted overview of Reactionary philosophy. I strongly recommend that you read and, whilst reading it, keep in mind that the author is not a Reactionary. This author gives an exceptionally even-handed and well-crafted overview of Reactionary philosophy while not, himself, subscribing to it.

I think that the core of all philosophy and, indeed, of all human knowledge, is intellectual humility. I think that a corollary to this is that you should always be able to both fairly describe the best arguments against your own position and give an intellectually honest accounting of positions with which you disagree. The article linked about is the finest example of the latter endeavor that I have read in years. I strongly recommend you read it.

1 For terminology, vis. The idea, as pointed out by Caplan, is much older.

Of Barrel Shrouds, Unlocked Phones, and the Gell-Mann Amnesia

First, a video:

The article mentioned in the video above made the rounds of most of the popular gun blogs a month or so ago when it was written, so any firearms enthusiasts in the audience will probably have already read it. If you haven’t, though, I highly recommend you do.

I tend to stay out of online firearms debates for the intellectually selfish reason that they got boring for me a some time ago. This is because everyone arguing on the Internet is, as a rule, already as informed as they are going to permit themselves to be. At this point, arguing about guns on the Internet can only ever aspire to a frustrated argument about priors, and that’s the extremely unusual best case.

But I think that, wherever you fall on the gun debate, you can watch the video above and marvel at the stunning ignorance of the people attempting to ban “assault-style weapons”. And while I’m absolutely okay with people on the Internet not knowing what a barrel shroud is, to see our government servants trying to outlaw them out of pure ignorance is maddening.

But what’s particularly crazy-making is that this kind of ignorance isn’t the exception, but rather the rule in modern American governance. I would be willing to bet that of all the people involved with writing the currently proposed assault weapon ban, not a single one of them could accurately describe all of the features that it proscribes. No matter how you feel about the substance of the current law, that regulations are drafted under such ignorant conditions should make you sore afraid.

Because let’s face it, the second amendment may not be an issue you care about one way or the other, but even the most apolitical among us has something we care deeply about that the government is trying to regulate. And the ignorance at work in crafting this horrid ban on “assault weapons” isn’t limited to firearms issues. The same levels of ignorance are at play screwing up the regulatory regime around whatever issue it is you do care about, whether it’s educational policy, abortion rights, immigration reform, etc. etc. etc.

So why is this ignorance able to persist? Because most people only see it when exposed to it in the context of their own area of expertise or passion. If you know about firearms, you can look at the AWB and see it for the ignorant pandering that it is. But when the same people suggest an immigration reform bill that flatters your priors, suddenly you just assume that they know what they’re talking about.

Or, to use a more current example: I have a lot of friends in the tech industry who, being fairly typical, garden-variety American liberals, are completely in favor of an Assault Weapons Ban. It seems sensible and common-sensical to them, and they have a hard time understanding how anyone can disagree with them. As such, the proposed legislation seems on-point, well-crafted, and long overdue.

But present them with the fact that it is now illegal to decouple your cellphone from your provider in the United States without express carrier permission, and they will instantly rail against the stupidity and ignorance that went in to crafting the legislation that permitted that to happen. The same legislative bodies that they assumed were well-reasoning and well-informed about gun rights, are suddenly seen for the ignorant charlatans they are.

Of course the punch line is that all topical regulation is equally bad, it’s just bad in domain-specific ways that only the informed will see or care about.

This phenomenon isn’t novel or limited to government. The name for this effect is “Gell-Mann Amnesia”, named for the physicist Murray Gell-Mann and first articulated (as near as I can tell) by author Michael Crichton in his 2002 essay “Why Speculate?”. (Note: I can’t seem to find a copy of the original essay online any longer. If anyone does track down a copy, please drop me a link to it either by comment or by email.) Crichton pointed out that he and Gell-Mann often marveled at the stupidity of newspaper articles about the areas of their expertise. Such articles were often so wrong and confused as to completely reverse causal relationships (“wet streets cause rain” in Crichton’s words) or to be so muddled as to be completely non-sensical to someone in the know. Both men would then turn to an article outside their domain knowledge and read on in happy credulity.

In the context of newspapers, Gell-Mann Amnesia might lead to a bad broadsheet surviving a few months longer than it otherwise would. In the context of modern panarchic democracy, Gell-Mann Amnesia leads bad laws, curtailed freedoms, and a regulatory regime in which good people become felons because they own politically incorrect sheet metal or twiddle the wrong bits on their phone.

Matt Ridley on the Poverty of Self-Sufficiency

Just two minutes long and well worth watching. I can also highly recommend Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist.

Arnold Kling on How to Discuss Politics

The great Arnold Kling has an excellent post up outlining one productive way to argue with Progressives, Conservatives, and Libertarians. Excerpt:

I wish that people would begin political conversations by conceding that the generic way that their opponents view the world is sometimes correct. Start by saying, “It is sometimes appropriate…”

My hypothesis is that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians view politics along three different axes. For progressives, the main axis has oppressors at one end and the oppressed at the other. For conservatives, the main axis has civilization at one end and barbarism at the other. For libertarians, the main axis has coercion at one end and free choice at the other.

Kling’s argument that political ideologies argue from different axes flatters my priors, of course. I am a big fan of Charles Taylor, Jonathan Haidt, etc. Taylor and Haidt’s arguments (about hypergoods and moral foundations, respectively) both describe these kinds of differences pretty well.

So Kling’s premise isn’t exactly new, but where his post excels, I think, is his practical advise for discussing politics partisans of the three camps he identifies. Starting our arguments by conceding the instances in which a person’s model of politics is clearly correct is one way of productively structuring an argument to discover the limits of that particular world view for the topic at hand.

Decca Aitkenhead on Grief

Via Peter Hitchens I stumbled across this heart-wrenching essay from Decca Aitkenhead. It’s a touching story of trying to cope with the loss of her mother, and the ways in which our best intentions can go awry. But the passage that touched me the most was the following:

This new way of looking at life was made easier to adopt by the fact that I was finding it increasingly difficult to remember my mother. When anyone dies, the bereaved take comfort in a degree of posthumous deification. When someone dies young, the revisionism can get completely out of hand. In no time at all, the woman grown-ups described when remembering my mother had turned into a total stranger – a fairytale creature of mythical virtue. Old women would stop me in the village shop, and grip my hand. “Your mother – your mother was an angel.”

The deification, rather like a video recorder, taped over my own memories until they were all gone, and replaced them with a technicolour memorial to somebody else altogether. I could hardly miss someone I didn’t even know, so it became increasingly implausible to consider myself bereaved. If I found myself feeling inexplicably sad, I would think about their loss, and feel terribly sympathetic.

Memory is a singularly tricky and deceptive phenomenon. Our memories feel so solid most of the time. Memory can convince us of “facts” that are false and recall for us in intricate detail events that never actually occurred. Our memories are eager and skillful liars.

And to be honest, that’s not a problem most of the time. Our memories are “truthy” enough to get by. They maintain sufficient accuracy for us to recall the truly important functional details that help us survive day to day. But the fact remains that our memories can’t really be trusted.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.