Saturday, 25 April 2009

"Accepting the desert..."

"[An] overpopulated universe is in many ways unlovely. It offends the aesthetic sense of us who have a taste for desert landscapes..." - W. V. O. Quine.

Humans have a predisposition towards reification: the process of believing that abstractions are concrete entities. I’m not sure that humanity’s emphasis on abstract entities is healthy.

Abstractions form a large part of our lives. The idea of currency for example is an abstraction that constitutes the driving force behind many peoples’ ambitions. A ten pound note is a concept: it’s a sort of game that we all participate in. We pretend that a piece of specially-treated paper is worth a certain amount of value and then we proceed along with that pretending-game because it allows us to trade for goods and services. But objectively the paper as a material object has no value other than what we impose on it: the view of it as ‘money’ is an abstraction that guides the course of our lives. Another example is countries. In reality, countries are just masses of land with arbitrarily defined borders. Yet we treat countries as if they weren’t just ideas. People treat countries with reverence, pride, even love. People fall in love with their abstractions.

Let’s not forget that love too is an abstract entity. The emotions we label as love can be reduced to nothing more than a set of closely related biochemical reactions. Love is a human concept, one that has come to dominate much of the Western reproductive cycle in humans.

Obviously some level of reification is inevitable and necessary for manoeuvring through the world, particularly moving through society. The articulation of our thought processes into concepts and ideas is what has led our species to its present level of cultural evolution. Abstract entities are required for our view of the world to work. W. V. O. Quine, a philosopher who had a taste for sparse, ‘desert-like’ metaphysics, was forced to admit the existence of the abstract entities known as sets since their metaphysical existence was required for mathematics to work. Quine described himself as a reluctant Platonist: some reification was required for him to retain the use of mathematics. Reification therefore comes in degrees – the ability to perceive objects in the swirling mass of atoms before us is required but the creation of invisible borders for territoriality is merely a practical expedient.

It seems as though the distinction between the abstract and the concrete is not sufficiently reinforced during the human developmental process. This leads to situations where people feel real emotions for things that technically are not real at all; things such as money, countries, justice, truth, etc. When I see someone crying for the love of their country (mostly Americans although a lot of the English recently welled up for St. George’s Day), I do not feel humbled by that person’s overwhelming patriotism: I feel saddened that they feel such emotion for an abstraction, an object that humans have invented on the pragmatic grounds that it makes things easier for us. The economy is an abstraction that recently got us into a lot of trouble. Financial institutions realised that trading in imaginary money and allowing people to spend money that doesn’t exist was a bad idea. It leads to (surprise, surprise) a situation where, for the past decade, people have believed that there is more money than there is. It doesn’t seem healthy for so many to have such a poor grasp of what is real and what is technically not real – where ‘real’ is defined in terms of materialistic existence. It seems that reification often goes too far and that people are not reminded of the important distinction between the conceptual and the actual often enough. Reification comes in degrees: acceptance of abstract entities as necessary is fine; intense emotion about them is delusional. We can live in the desert and accept that mirages make our lives easier but we should never believe that the mirages are real.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

"The Pirate and The Patsy."

Last week there were pirates in Somalia and pirates in Sweden. The Swedish pirates were the administrators and the financial backer of the torrent site, the Pirate Bay. Last Friday they were sentenced to one year in prison and a €2.7 million fine. The court found them guilty on the charge of “assisting making available copyrighted content.” In other words, they were charged with facilitating copyright infringement.

The Pirate Bay is a patsy. The internet has changed the world. For the first time in human civilisation, we have an ‘information economy’: an economy predicated on the transfer of digital information. Music, books, and movies can now be easily copied without an absolute minimum of cost. Content protected by copyright law can be distributed worldwide instantaneously. The creators of the Pirate Bay are being demonised by a conglomerate of large media corporations: the Pirate Bay is suffering because of corporations’ stubborn refusal to adapt to the new environment.

This decade has seen a Resurgence of the Commons. As capitalism developed in the West and the industrial revolution got into full swing, wealthy landowners came and bought up what was previously common property: land that inhabitants of a village would have shared. This had its advantages since, as theorists from Aristotle to Garrett Hardin showed, there is invariably no incentive for any one person to take care of common property causing it to eventually fall into ruin or disrepair. In other words, because humans can’t share, private property became the norm. With the rise of the internet, we have seen a shared resource thrive. We have seen a resurgence in commonly accessible property. Although the internet is not a truly common resource (I can only publish this because Google Inc., the owners of Blogger, allow me to squat on their server space), it does allow a greater amount of global co-operation than the world has previously seen. A lot of the internet is commercially owned but there is a lot of common material also made available. Projects like Wikimedia have shown that global common collaboration is possible and even beneficial.

This Resurgence isn’t good for those with a vested interest in private property ie. those who make money from media properties. In the same way that the wealthy landowners would not be happy if the villagers started taking back their village commons, the corporations that make their money from copyrighted content are not happy at the internet’s potential for sharing and easy breach of copyright. In cases such as Eldred v. Ashcroft, A&M Records, Inc. v. Napster, Inc., and the Pirate Bay trial, corporations have asserted their sovereign property rights over their copyrighted content. In reaction to the internet’s ability to quickly copy content, they have had governments further restrict copyright law. Extremism only generates more extremism and now we have two camps: the corporations who assert absolute property rights on digital content and the sharers who assert that copyright law is completely unjust. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, with Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons licenses for example which give reasonable copyrights catered to the digital age.

The solution is not to tighten copyright law. The solution is not to blindly pretend that digital media and analog media can be treated in the same way: an MP3 is not the same as a CD. The solution is adaptation. The solution is change. Apple’s iTunes Store proves that it is possible to adapt a business model to fit the information economy, simply by making their system cheap and easy to use. Change is possible.

But there is a conglomeration of corporations who don’t want to change. They want things to be the same and they want their monopoly on the creation of content. As these leviathans writhe around in their death throes, bystanders get hit. Bystanders like Eric Eldred and the Pirate Bay.

The Pirate Bay trial has illustrated the double standards of the legal system. It is true that the Pirate Bay acts as an intermediary between people and downloadable torrents. It is true that if the site had not been up, then a great deal of copyrighted content would not have downloaded. But the same could be said of all weapons manufacturers. Weapons manufacturers act as an intermediary between people and murder. If the weapons manufacturers had not provided the tools, then shootings would not occur. The same could be said of car manufacturers. Isn’t Ford guilty of facilitating automobile accidents and the resulting deaths? If we are going to blame a company for what its customers do with the products it produces, then why aren’t we prosecuting across the board? Wherever copyright law is infringed, it is the facilitator’s fault; in everything else, it is the individual’s fault.

The internet has changed the world. Those who profited off the old system desperately want to return to the days before digital technology. Innovators of the new system get punished because they haven’t built up the wealth and power required to fight the old entrepreneurs. For more information, please see Chapter 5 of Lawrence Lessig’s excellent book Free Culture, available here under a Creative Commons License.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Review - The Wire Season 1

Season 1 of The Wire ended on BBC Two last night. For years I’ve heard friends and critics alike bleat on and on about how it’s “the best show on TV” and how it “redefines television writing” and other such hyperbole. Watching The Wire for myself revealed that they may well be right.

Although I’ve only seen Season 1, the show seems to be about the institutions that govern ours lives and how, at its core, living in society is nothing but a series of games. We live and succeed by following rules – arbitrary often nonsensical rules – that everyone else follows as well. We never talk to each other about the game or the fact that we’re playing it but we are. Every time you fill out a job application or go to a job interview, you’re playing a game: you’re trying to make yourself look good without explicitly stating why you’re good. You know what you’re doing, the interviewer knows what you’re doing. But no-one says it because that breaks the rules of the game. Even in something as basic as human interaction, both participants in a conversation are playing a game because there are certain things that are not said. There are rules about what can be said to someone of a certain level of acquaintance and what cannot be said. There are rules governing physical contact, appearance, mannerisms, everything. Because of these arbitrary rules that everyone unthinkingly accepts, we end up with societal paradoxes such as the Abilene paradox. It’s all in the game.

In The Wire, the characters are stuck playing the same game. On the one side are the police and on the other are the drug dealers. This is illustrated early in the series by D’Angelo who sets out a chessboard through analogy to his uncle’s drug empire. Both sides are engaged in a game with rules that they all understand but that no-one talks about. The drug dealers know what the police are trying to do; the police know what the drug dealers are doing. But neither side can talk plainly to the other side because then they would lose out. This was shown in the brief scenes between McNulty and Stringer: whenever the two were together they would exchange knowing glances with each other, both aware of exactly what the other is doing but unable to say it out loud. Both sides are stuck in an eternal Prisoner’s Dilemma whereby the rational, self-interested choice isn’t particularly good for either side. The characters are trapped by their circumstances and by the institutions that they’ve aligned themselves with. As illustrated by D’Angelo and Wallace at the end of the season, no-one can break out of the roles that circumstance has dictated for them. The characters are trapped within a determinism not created by the metaphysical structure of reality but created by society. Humans create and maintain their own prisons in the form of these institutions and the accompanying games.

The season ended on a note of ambiguity. By the end, every character has evolved and moved on. But fundamentally the roles are still the same. The whole Barksdale case appears to be nothing more than the Mad Hatter yelling at random for everyone to “change places!” Freamon and McNulty have swapped their roles as successful homicide detective and good cop stuck on a bad detail; Herc has taken Greggs’ role; Ellis has become the career-minded young officer in place of Daniels; Stringer moves up to Avon’s position as head of the empire. By the end of the season all the roles of the game are still filled but by different people. The pieces change but there will always be two bishops, two rooks, one queen and one king. The final message is ambiguous – it’s either positive or negative – “Omnia mutantur, nihil interit”: Everything changes, but nothing is truly lost.

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Review - Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

Philosophers and scientists don’t get along. A postgraduate philosopher once advised me not to invite any physics students to a party I was helping to organise. Apparently we don’t get along with their kind. Combined Studies undergraduates who read philosophy and a science-based subject are fine but biologists, chemists, geologists, pharmacologists, and other advocates of the natural sciences are not to be fraternised with. It’s like the Capulets and the Montagues.

From the philosopher’s point of view, scientists are too attached to their precious scientific method. Since philosophers posit ontology beyond the empirical, science appears too tied down to only one possible level of reality. What if empiricism isn’t true? What if there are entities (abstract objects, mental states, possibilia) that cannot be detected empirically? I can’t speak for scientists but I imagine that they view philosophers as too vague. Philosophers spend too much time analysing language, debating semantics (literally), and questioning common-sense opinions. Philosophy isn’t rigorous and objective: it’s vague and differs from person to person.

Hence the feud.

Harvard biologist, E. O. Wilson, argues for consilience: the ““jumping together” of knowledge by the linking of facts and fact-based theory across disciplines to create a common groundwork of explanation.” The aim of the aptly-titled Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge is admirable: to bring together the divergent disciplines of human knowledge so that humanity might at long last come to some level of understanding about the world. He aims to unite the Sciences and the Humanities: to weave together the disparate strands of art, history, sociology, biology, physics, literature, philosophy, psychology, chemistry, mathematics, and ethics. It’s a bold aim but it makes sense. How can we ever hope to come to some final understanding if we’re all off working in different places with different ideas? Synthesis is required. Even if the Ultimate Grand Unified Theory is impossible, as the postmodernists or the continental philosophers would have it, the aim itself is noble and meaningful. I share Professor Wilson’s aim and for my part I have just about finished a dissertation on how philosophical method should be adjusted to give it more of an empirical bent.

That said, there is still a long way to go. Although Professor Wilson’s aims are pure, his actual ideas for consilience leave something to desired. His plans for consilience consist of him offering the use of his scientific method to the social sciences and the arts. Francis Bacon’s method is heralded as the ultimate conceptual tool. To a paranoid philosopher, it reads like Science will be launching an invasion into Humanities’ sovereign territory: Science will be taking over the job of explaining economics, society, morality, musical appreciation, and everything else. Philosophers are still upset that the study of the mind was stolen from us by empirical psychology and so alarm bells start ringing for the philosopher reading Consilience when it seems as though science wants to usurp all the questions which are traditionally our domain. Though the scientific method has yielded practical benefits and proven its explanatory power, it is not the be all and end all of conceptual theorising. Over the past century, philosophy has developed powerful systems of formal logic; deductive, inductive, and modal, whereas scientific method is only inductive. Consilience will only be achieved by combining these methods along with the methods of the social sciences and the arts. There needs to be free exchange of information.

How else could philosophy help the efforts of the sciences? To give one specific example, in Chapter 11 Wilson refers to the lack of meaning and ennui that a person feels when faced with stark scientific empiricism rather than religious transcendentalism – feelings Sartre referred to as anguish, abandonment and despair. Philosophy can fill that void. Various philosophies have been developed to deal with the vacuum of meaning created by a secular view of the universe: existentialism, Kantian morality, Humean morality, Nietzsche’s optimistic nihilism. Apart from providing meaning, philosophy offers general theoretical insights that science lacks. Philosophy teaches two things: deconstruction of theories and the perceiving of connections between theories. Science is well practiced at the first - reductionism. But, due to the high level of specialisation in individual scientific research, scientists tend to be bad at seeing the ‘big picture’. Philosophers can provide much-needed synthesis to the discoveries of scientific analysis.

Right now Science and the Humanities live in separate houses across the road from each other. It would be beneficial for both of us if we lived and worked together. But Science can’t expect the Humanities to share a house if Science keeps some of its rooms locked. Science and the Humanities need to co-operate and share: that means that the Humanities will have to unlock some of those rooms and probe the metaphysical underpinnings and failings of Science’s precious method. If consilience is going to work, compromises will have to be made on both sides. I imagine this will be difficult for academics – some of the most stubborn, insular groups of people on the planet – but it’s the only way we’ll ever reach any approximation of Ultimate Grand Unified Theory.