Islamophobia and Michel Houellebecq’s Submission

IMG_20151125_124321Apparently there is an absolutely sickening “spiraling out of control” of Islamophobia in America, which means I should probably finish my Houellebecq Submission post.

Most Americans only know Michel Houellebecq (if they know him at all) because of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France earlier this year, which occurred the week Hebdo put Houellebecq on its cover and the day Houellebecq’s new book, Submission, came out.

The Muslim terrorists who stormed the Hebdo offices and killed 11 were reportedly motivated by the book’s “blasphemy,” which envisions a near future in which Muslims win the French elections and begin to institute aspects of sharia law. Houellebecq, for his part, was reportedly grief stricken over the killings, and stopped promoting the book as a result.

What tribes do I identify with?

One of the best pieces I’ve ever read about what’s responsible for the Internet-outrage cycle comes from this past January, from Scott Alexander in New Statesman. It’s worth reading in absolute full and contains far too many excellent passages for me to excerpt any particular one.

Without getting in to the argument (again, read it for yourself), the story got me thinking about tribalism generally, specifically the tribes I identify with personally. These are the groups I give the benefit of the doubt, or instinctually feel as if I should defend. The groups whose bad behavior I am more likely to excuse.

Foundational Texts: The Myth of Sisyphus

Some time around College I read Camus’ The Stranger, which I loved for its final, climactic interrogation of faith. After finishing, I immediately went in search of other books by Camus and soon came across The Myth of Sisyphus.

I read the opening two lines, which were immediately and forever imprinted in my mind:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.

Just to set your mind at ease, both Camus and myself answer this fundamental question in the affirmative. That is, life in fact is worth living. And yet The Myth of Sisyphus is still a constant presence for me. I still fundamentally question what life is and what about it makes it worth continuing on (though for sanity’s sake I have long since made an agreement with myself that this questioning will not result in a reversal of previous said conclusion regarding life).

Bayes vs. Hume

Finally, an explanation for what in the world “Bayesian” thinking is for us regular folk, by way of a contrast with David Hume:

The argument made by Bayes… is not that the world is intrinsically probabilistic or uncertain… It is, rather, a statement – expressed both mathematically and philosophically – about how we learn about the universe: that we learn about it through approximation, getting closer and closer to the truth as we gather more evidence.

This contrasted with the more skeptical view of the Scottish philosopher David Hume, who argued that since we could not be certain that the sun would rise again, a prediction that it would was inherently no more rational than one that it wouldn’t. The Bayesian viewpoint, instead, regards rationality as a probabilistic matter. In essence, Bayes and Price are telling Hume, don’t blame nature because you are too daft to understand it: if you step out of your skeptical shell and make some predictions about its behavior, perhaps you will get a little closer to the truth.

That is from The Signal and the Noise, in a chapter about a guy who lives off of and makes millions from betting on NBA games, of all things.

The cultural and political battles I care about enough to have the time and inclination to fight (and the ones I don’t)

Perhaps it’s just the internet outrage cycle and the coddling of the American mind, but everywhere I turn it seems there is a new culture war or political battle to fight. These fights demand that I like or repost articles or in some cases that I attend protests or events, or donate, or in some way take action.

I can’t do it all of course, and some battles I actively avoid. This isn’t to say I don’t care. I do care about a great many things, many of which I don’t take action on. My inclination to act, or not, isn’t necessarily a reflection on how much I do or don’t care about an issue.

The choice of which battles to fight is more like the Obama foreign policy, which is not purely ideological (that’s part of what I like about it). The administration might care about something a great deal, or that something may align well with their ideology, but whether they act, and to what degree they act, is more influenced by a variety of nuanced factors, including the capacity of that action to make a difference, the given politics of the situation, loyalty to specific allies, whether America has a direct interest, potential negative ramifications on other priorities, and so on.

Foundational Texts: The Fox and the Hedgehog

In no particular order, I’ve always wanted to list and explain the books which have formed the foundations of my thinking, including those books which provided useful framing for me as a teenager, college student, or young adult, but which I have since decided are wrong (or which I no longer agree with). Those texts still count as foundational.

And then, of course, there are those which are still with me, still informing the ways in which I think about things. One of those books is Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox. The title comes from a saying from an ancient Greek poet, Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one, big thing.”

Down the rabbit hole of charity, altruism, and moral philosophy

Weekend reading on these subjects:

From which we get this anecdote which will stick with me:

I won’t even get into how low an opinion people seemed to hold of the United Nations. If anyone can figure out how to take $10 to give a refugee $1, they will.


Who counts as an expert

The New Music Box has a story on that very question from earlier this year. It crystalizes for me a key problem with both the wider world, and with my personal efforts at both career advancement and talking about my own creative work. More on that in a sec.

Here’s there key part of the story, as they explain why things tend to get oversimplified (this is all in the context of a debate over the future of music industry, btw):

A parallel factor may be the trend towards “explainer journalism” sites, which “have built their core identity around explaining complicated issues or situations to a well-informed general public” as Henry Farrell, um, explains. The inherent claim to expertise in this mode of writing doesn’t exactly encourage intellectual humility or the weighing of different theories, but encourages boldly assertive claims as an exercise in self-branding and generating traffic.

This is an era that rewards simple explanations: TED Talks that prescribe neat solutions, the ability to learn “everything you need to know about X in one chart.” It’s nice when such things exist, but it’s easy to lapse into a preference for falsely totalizing narratives, and “expertise” is awarded on the basis of whether you can offer such a narrative (bonus points awarded if you can work in an affirmation of entrepreneurial progress that’s basically compatible with our prevailing neoliberal power structures).

Perception is Reality – David Hume Edition

Wonderful to see this excellent articulation of David Hume and his application to the existential angst and depression of real life. He was one of my favorite’s in philosophy school, if not THE favorite. Via a story in The Atlantic:

In his Treatise, Hume rejected the traditional religious and philosophical accounts of human nature. Instead, he took Newton as a model and announced a new science of the mind, based on observation and experiment. That new science led him to radical new conclusions. He argued that there was no soul, no coherent self, no “I.” “When I enter most intimately into what I call myself,” he wrote in the Treatise, “I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception…

“But here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or “reality” or even “I”? The moon is still just as bright; you can still predict that a falling glass will break, and you can still act to catch it; you can still feel compassion for the suffering of others. Science and work and morality remain intact. Go back to your backgammon game after your skeptical crisis, Hume wrote, and it will be exactly the same game.

The “Neo-Liberal” Arts

This is a must-read for anyone who cares about or is involved in higher education. See The Closing of the American Mind for intellectual foundation and background. Full story is in Harper’s:

It is not the humanities per se that are under attack. It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake. It is the liberal arts, but understood in their true meaning, as all of those fields in which knowledge is pursued as an end in itself, the sciences and social sciences included.