Three Books on the World Order and its Undoing

There are three books reviewed here along with links (in their titles) to the books on Amazon. All three of the reviews are also (and first) posted on Amazon. My reader might wonder why I chose to assemble these three together. The first two are pretty obvious. They are both about the present “world order”, the relation between nations and other entities with global impact. The third book is not about the world order but rather about its systematic undermining. When intelligent and fair-minded people look at what is happening in the world one cannot help but want to improve things, to smooth out conflict, keep commodity prices stable and supplies reliable, insure that people have enough to eat and clean water to drink, and so on.

Nations and other actors, in effort to improve the situation for themselves and sometimes for others, instead, make things worse. But why would anyone want, deliberately, to make things worse? No sane person would, and yet with the election of Donald Trump thanks in large part to the efforts of Steve Bannon that is precisely what is now happening. The government of the United States appears to be deliberately destabilizing the global system. Why this should be is a good question, one I hope here to answer.

To say the world situation today is precarious would surely not meet with much disagreement no matter which end of the political or social spectrum you happen to inhabit. Indeed one could argue that the world situation has been precarious for one reason or another throughout human history. But we are privileged to be living in a particularly dangerous time, and at root, population and energy access (the latter tied directly to the wealth disparity problem) are the main demographic and economic drivers of the problem. The world population continues to rise at a dangerous pace dividing the resource pie into ever smaller pieces. Yet rising populations, today all in Africa, South, and Central America are only part of the problem. In every continent other than the two just named, populations are aging and declining. Most of these are the more advanced industrial and post industrial societies on earth. Ironically, the social saftey nets for a growing cohort of elderly people in these places all depend implicitly on an also growing cohort of working age people to support them. One cannot of course have it both ways. Both cohorts cannot, together, grow indefinitely.

Dr. Kissinger’s book focuses mostly on nations. His aim is to rationalize foreign policy by, among other things, making us realize that not all nations are “like us” in wanting the same things for their peoples. He wants especially to hammer home this truth over the American tendency to idealize every international relation. Dr. Haass also recognize this fundamental difference in national interests and how their own governments view them, but he broadens his view of the pertinent actors to include non-governmental organizations both secular and religious, a role for cities, and regional resource issues: water scarcity, mineral and energy availability, climate change, and the wealth gap. Both authors address non-state-actor terrorism corroding international relations the present and future impact of technology, and changing world demographics.

Both men are, however, broadly on the same page. The trend over the last 40 years toward an integrated global economy is not enough by itself to smooth over the frictions of international relations, but it gives everyone a stake in the process of keeping the whole afloat. We cannot go backwards. First because we cannot return the world to the way it was as concerns populations, the distribution of industrial activity, and so on anyway. Too much has changed. Second, even a nuanced attempt to turn back the clock will result in huge economic dislocations everywhere and a general increase in everyone’s costs. In 1970 the “Chinese supply chain” feeding into American products hardly existed. Even if one could bring these sorts of jobs back into the United States, the people who hold the jobs in China, Vietnam, or Bangladesh (now hundreds of millions more of them than 50 years past) are not going to just go away.

What makes “The Devil’s Bargain” of interest here is that in the character of Steve Bannon is an agent bound and set to doing just this, dismantling the existing international economic system and not in any nuanced way either. Bannon wants to “burn it all down”. “Devil’s Bargain” is not a foreign policy or international affairs book like the first two. In today’s world there are people who understand that such policies will hurt millions and yet deliberately set out to do it. It illustrates how much damage can be done (it is only beginning) in a short time and how such damage degrades the prospects of many while enriching a few. A few chemicals properly mixed and put in the right place can bring down a bridge, building, or airplane. It turns out that a few people in powerful political positions, reinforcing one another’s desire to destroy those they hate, whether for petty revenge or self aggrandizement, can quickly unravel that which has (mostly) held our peace and economy together now for three generations.

What ties “Devil’s Bargain” in with the other two books is its illustration of the systematic undoing of what the first two authors take to be the only approach to maintaining peace and raising standards of living on a crowded planet. It is almost as if Bannon, reading Haass, decided to systematically do the opposite of his recommendations. Of course Bannon’s distaste for a global order in which the United States is not the sole power able to do what it wishes was settled long before Haass wrote his book. Trump was not Bannon’s first attempt to put in place a figurehead who would cater to his bigotry. He began with the “Tea Party” and Sarah Palin. But Trump proved to be the key to the political organization of the extreme right and Bannon knew an opportunity when he saw one. The book ends with Bannon’s firing less than a hundred days into the Trump administration. But Bannon chose well. Trump shares his various bigotries and did, after all, win the election. Trump is most surely continuing along a course that Bannon, if he did not set it in detail, still very much approves.

The philosophical angle here is postmodernism. “Devil’s Bargain” illustrates that lies can over power truth when a large political cohort believes that “the truth” is whatever they say it is. There is nothing historically new here. Hitler did very much the same thing as Bannon (Goebbels being “Hitler’s Bannon”) to win his election in 1932. Postmodernism may have been named in the latter part of the 20th century, but its roots go back as far as Pilate. But truth does matter. A global system built on lies cannot stand for long. We are witnessing now its accellerated destabilization. Most of us will not survive it.

A World in Disarray by Richard Haass 2017

Richard Haass did not reach the heights of power of a Henry Kissinger (World Order) but his work over several administrations at the State Department and other institutions, presently the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, give him as much exposure to the process of policy making and the demands of the international environment, if not the gravitas to have his ideas seriously considered, as the Secretary of State. Dr. Haass here writes from much experience. His view of the world situation is well nuanced, enough so that he knows there are problems in many places and on many levels. Some have no realistic hope of resolution any time soon.

In broad outline this book is like that of Dr. Kissinger’s. Dr. Haass begins with a broad review of how we got where we are beginning as so many of these books do with the Treaty of Westphalia in the mid 17th Century. But Haass quickly breaks things down into small chunks encompassing not only the world’s regions and nations in those regions but multiple factors cutting across those divisions. Culture, history, geography, technology, economics, identity politics, human migrations, income disparity, demographics, education, trade, and more are all examined singularly and with regard to their interacting impacts. Haass appears to understand both the central importance of the United States (the world’s largest single economic and military power), and the limits of even an “engaged America” on the trajectory of world affairs.

Dr. Kissinger made broad recommendations and so does Dr. Haass. In fact the two men are very much in line with one another broadly speaking. But Dr. Haass also makes numerous specific recommendations some going some way towards resolving issues, others merely managing the presently unresolveable. His recommendations are all thoughtfully helpful. Some are broad, some very narrow, all difficult to achieve in the present world. Haass’ politics appears to be a little more conservative than mine. On the subject of income disparity for example he says that [absurd] concentrations of wealth are not in themselves bad, the problem rather is that there are too many people with too little. It’s hard to argue with the last part, but for some reason he does not connect up the impossibility of spreading the wealth as long as so few individuals and corporations hoard (and he admits hide) most of it.

On the whole he and I agree, cooperation is, barring gross violations of human dignity, better than competition and conflict. His recommendations are mostly common sense. If any half of his recommendations were to be implemented I’m sure the world would be a better place. The chance that even some half of them will come to any fruition however is almost zero. Even before the election of Donald Trump. This book was published in January 2017 just prior to Trump’s inauguration. Even then, the global situation was deteriorating (had been for some years) with competition more and more coming to replace cooperation. My Kindle edition (not sure of the other formats) has, in addition an afterword written some ten months into Trump’s presidency. As Haass ticks off Trump’s policy implementations the reader cannot help but note that not only are things getting worse but now at an accelerated rate, and not only globally, but also inside the United States. Trump is undoing even that which, however imperfectly, was helpful prior to his election. With almost 9 billion people on the Earth, “globalism is not a choice, but a fact”. We will not survive without major conflict for much longer under the present global effort to dismantle it.

The book is a good and comprehensive take on what should be done, what must be done, and what America could do to stave off disaster. Not only are we not going in the right direction, we are very much deliberately going in the wrong one.

World Order by Henry Kissinger 2014

Surely there are few people in the world more qualified to write a book about geopolitics, present or historical, than Henry Kissinger. For a time of some 20 years he was directly involved in the decisions of American presidents on this very subject. Taking a broader view, Dr. Kissinger is involved in his subject (as I understand it even speaking to D. Trump since his election) even today and going back some 50 or more years!

Without being too long, the book surveys the history of historical political orders in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, South America and Europe both Eastern and Western. He pays particular attention to the European “Peace of Westphalia” following the 30-years war in 1648. There is a theme here. Though there have been many European wars (and revolutions) since the 17th century they all occurred in a Westphalian context. Sometimes the context is respected, and sometimes violated, but even in the latter case, the peace process following the wars has either returned to a Wesphalian context and been, at least for a substantial time, successful in preserving the peace, or it ignored and violated that context leading rapidly to another war. The Marshall Plan following WWII an example of a return to Westphalian principles also the preservation of the French State after the depredations of Napoleon. By contrast, in contravention of those principles, French and English retribution against Germany following WWI resulted rather rapidly in WWII.

Kissinger’s focus on Westphalia sets up the problems he sees with Europe’s and America’s relation to the rest of the world. From the Western vantage point we look out on a world of nation-states and think to ourselves that as different as Asia, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa might be, they all, in the end, want to preserve their statehood in relation to other states. One of Kissinger’s observations is that this is not at all the case. China for example sees itself as the premier culture on Earth and lives within the present Westphalian system of nations for reasons of practical accommodation. The Middle East, and by extension the whole of the Islamic World, sees itself as the only legitimate and righteous inheritor of the entire world order!

In Islam the Westphalian matrix is the most jumbled with nations like Saudi Arabia and Iran accommodating it for practical reasons, while others, particularly non-state actors, try actively to undermine it leaving thousands dead in their wake. Sub-Saharan Africa (with the exception of South Africa) is yet another story. The nations there are the result of recently (20th century) abandoned colonialism and though nominally nations, are riddled with leadership interested in little more than their own personal aggrandizement. Failed or failing states cannot participate coherently in such world order as presently exists let alone contribute to something better.

Kissinger’s first main point is that it is a mistake to continue treating with these nations AS IF they implicitly accepted the Westphalian context of nation states all “getting along”. This doesn’t mean we can stop working with these nations, but we have to be smarter about it and stop assuming they want merely to be like the Western world. Kissinger’s other main point is that technology, the global issues it has already wrought (climate change for example), and the issues that have yet to fully manifest (mostly related to computers and biology), are stressing the existing system to a degree unparalleled in history. One is left with the impression that it is already too late. The existing “world order” has already become too inflexible, its momentum too great, to apply, and ENFORCE, global solutions to global issues. Kissinger doesn’t say disaster is inevitable, but I do not see how any other conclusion is possible.

In roughly the middle of the book Kissinger spends some time on the global effect of U.S. foreign policy from Theodore Roosevelt to Barrack Obama. He makes a number of observations here about the difference between the historical U.S. approach to foreign policy versus European statecraft, and notes of course that the foreign policy pendulum in the United States has shifted from episodic engagement to continuous engagement following the second world war. The force of U.S. engagement is derived from both economic and military power and importantly our willingness to use the latter now and then, though as it turns out mostly with inconclusive results.

I notice he elides his own personal involvement in what might be termed “nations behaving badly” back in the 1970s and 1980s, but aside from this lacuna his point, his final point in the whole book, is that whatever else it does, the United States cannot now withdraw from the world order, even such as it is, without destabilizing everything! This book was written in 2014 the middle of Obama’s second term. I wonder what he thinks now?

Devil’s Bargain by Joshua Green 2017

This is a book about how and why Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Primarily it all comes down to three people: Trump himself, his instincts regarding his base, Bob Mercer (and his daughter) and his money, and Steve Bannon, the central figure whose decades long ambition to see the United States rid itself of anything smacking of a global brotherhood of nations (not to mention a world at peace) manifest itself in all of his projects effectively harnessed to elect Donald Trump.

This is a book about Steve Bannon. There is a bit of biographical history, but nothing fully explains his turn to virulent nationalism made in his younger years. Events, like the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, that precipitated the turn yes, but many people were exposed to that and did not become xenophobes. Green gives us Bannon’s fascination with fringe 19th century philosophers coupled with wide reading of history. Bannon became the quintessential postmodernist man. No truth was worth preserving if it stood against a political victory for his views however intolerant and hurtful they might be.

Bannon had been acting on the far right political fringe long before he met Trump. In the early stages of the 2016 election cycle he wasn’t particularly a Trump fan. But he came to see Trump as the closest thing to a manifestation of his (Bannon) vision of an intolerant, isolated America, and as Bannon saw his opportunity he took it and carried it through. Evil people are not, after all, automatically dumb.

By the time the campaign really got going in early 2016, Bannon had four institutions under his control and/or guidance, all directed toward defeating Hillary Clinton and elevating Donald Trump. To be sure, Hillary was not the best Democrat to go against Trump. This had much to do with various corruption scandals (some legitimate, many made up by her haters since the 1990s) in which she and her husband were constantly embroiled. None of this would have mattered as much against any opponent other than Trump because the others would have distanced themselves from Bannon’s lies (every national politician has some corruption in their background somewhere) while Trump embraced and amplified them. No one other than Bannon realized how much a significant cohort of long-time Democrats disliked Hillary in particular.

Bannon had a four pillar strategy, all funded by Mercer money. First, Breitbart News, the pro-Trump propaganda machine. Second, the Government Accountability Institute, presided over by Peter Schweizer author of the devastating “Clinton Cash”. The GAI was Bannon’s anti-Clinton machine and to Bannon’s advantage there was real dirt to be found. Third was a film company Glittering Steel, a minor player in the drama, and the fourth Cambridge Analytica whose knowledge of tens of millions of racists and xenophobes, Trump’s base, fed exploitable data to the other three pillars. These four organizations together brought Hillary down, her own campaign utterly failing to realize how much anti-Clinton invective existed among democratic voters, with Comey’s revelation in the closing days of the campaign putting the final nail in her coffin.

Like Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and Woodward’s “Fear”, “Devil’s Bargain” is a superb piece of investigative journalism. But it is more. It is a dissection of a political campaign achieving its ends mostly by ignoring truth and firing up tens of millions of Americans whose focus in life is to hate anyone who isn’t them. It details a strategy that has to be the envy of every autocrat on the planet.

Book Review: “Ontology and Metaontology”

As with most of the philosophy I review there are matters, lines of inquiry, alternate points of view, that illuminate more to be done, or resolve issues raised, that are not appropriate in the context of a book review. A review should focus on what the author says and perhaps how (s)he gets to what is said, not on differences of opinion between author and reviewer. And so I publish book reviews on Amazon, and then republish them here along with a link to the book for my reader’s convenience, and commentary whose purpose is dredging up those differences of opinion.

The first question that comes to my mind is the relation between metaphysics and ontology. The authors do not address this very much other than to say that the latter is usually considered to be a sub-discipline of the former, but no relation is clearly delineated. As a result an issue I noted in the review is the authors attribution to ontology (an alternative “fundamental question”) of a question I normally associate with metaphysics; the “fundamental ground” of what is real. If ontology is about “what is real” or “what exists” independent of mind (including such mind-managed entities as propositions, numbers, and sets), it only gets to be about the fundamental ground of what is real if, as some ontological systems do claim, that fundamental ground is the sole existent entity, everything else being nothing more than various assemblies of it and “are real” only in a derivative sense.

But while trying to understand what might be real even of the assemblies (natural and artifactual kinds for example) surely mind itself is among the [presumably] “natural kinds” for which we must account. Drs. Berto and Plebani ignore this singular question choosing instead to narrow their survey to a few well-worked channels of thought about reality “besides mind”. Idealism (everything is mind) is ignored because their focus is on what can be said of “mind independent” reality. Taking for granted that there is such a thing, we can characterize it in variously useful ways, and thus reject idealism. But even if idealism itself is false, the question of what exactly mind is matters a great deal.

Natural kinds like stars and animals, and artifactual kinds like chairs and statues are, after all, physical particulars while propositions and numbers clearly are abstractions and the mind-independent status of abstractions surely depends on the status of mind itself? If mind “substantively exists” then we can argue about the ontological status of abstractions. If mind does not exist (eliminative materialism) or is merely epiphenomenal illusion, then abstractions cannot in principle have any “mind independent” status.

On the matter of “fundamental ground” there is no explicit discussion of the distinction between substance and process ontology. The authors come at their subject mostly from a “substance viewpoint” but they do also address the ontological status of events which are processes. They address the causal status of agency versus process in events, but the chicken and egg problem (are all substances process or is process merely the causal interaction of substances) is not specifically covered.

I have another small issue with this book. When reading books on ontology written in the last few years (this one in 2015) I look for references to E. J. Lowe who, in my opinion, was among the best thinkers on this subject (he passed away quite young in 2014 or so). I rarely find him, but these authors do cite him (from a 1989 book) in their examination of particulars. But the authors discuss not only particulars, but kinds (classes), tropes (or modes), and global universals (all are after all well-worn ontological subjects). Yet they make no mention of Lowe’s “Four Category Ontology” (2006) in which he brings each of these four elements into harmonious and logically consistent relation. Of course Lowe’s is but one idea among many, but it is the only recent treatment (and I have looked having read many of the authors they cite in the text) that so neatly ties them all together. There should have been at least some mention of Lowe’s book.

Meanwhile, despite these shortcomings, this is a good read. The authors address only a tiny slice of the whole ontological field, but they do a good job with that slice, broadly illustrating how ontology is done and the salient factors that enter into it.

Ontology and Metaontology by Francesco Berto and Matteo Plebani (2015)

I’m not much for reading “overview books” in philosophy, they tend to be over simplistic and misrepresent as much as they enlighten. Once in a while a title appeals to me and this one looked rich enough to be worth a read. It was.

Dr.’s Berto and Plebani (“the authors” from here on) begin very deliberately setting out the distinction between ontology from metaontology. The former (covered last in the book) is about answering the question: what things are there in the universe, or what kinds of things are there, and are “kinds” (for example) among the things there are? As it turns out trying to answer such questions, since they are so fundamental to what we take our experience to be about, raises many questions of procedure. From what set of assumptions do we begin to address such issues and by what methodology? These latter questions are the subject of metaontology.

In a moderate length book covering a 2500 year-old field, the authors cannot possibly address all the viable proposals for answering these questions. They choose several lines of thought taken to be the dominant contemporary themes of the field in the analytic tradition and follows them out. Beginning with what they entail for the procedural questions, and then using each of the various meta-positions to address the main questions of ontology proper: material things (natural and artifactual), abstract things (propositions, numbers, sets and classes, fictional characters), and events. They do a superb job tying the procedural approaches covered in the first half of the book to the meat of the subject in the second. They never answer the question “what is there” but then they are not advocating a particular ontology, rather showing how the possible set of answers follow from different approaches to the subject. The book illustrates how different meta-approaches affect the possible range of answers to the ontological questions themselves. He is successful here, but the reader does have to pay attention.

There are a few holes (and yes the ontological status of holes is addressed) in the presentation. Ontology is a sub-discipline of metaphysics and the authors do not ever clearly distinguish between them; not that this is easy to do in any case. For example, they present “grounding theories”, as the idea that the big question of ontology is not “what there is” but what is the “fundamental ground”, the “basic stuff” of “what there is”? As I understand it, the matter of grounding is the core of metaphysics and not ontology per se, though to be sure the line between them is very ill defined. They also note from the beginning that matters of mind are not at issue. Propositions and the quality of redness are mental phenomena. The ontological question is would we still, hypothetically, count them as entities in the universe if minds did not exist? Fair enough, but the ontological status of mind itself is controversial in philosophy. Some discussion of this question from the viewpoint the metaontologies he covers would have been interesting.

In the telling of all this, the authors include many dozens of references from philosophers of the 19th and (mostly) 20th Century. The book’s bibliography is a who’s who of metaphysical and ontological thought, and yet there is far more left out (God theories, ontological commitments in Continental philosophy, or Eastern philosophies are ignored) than included. Again I do not fault the authors for this. They had to find a way to narrow the material or the book would be a thousand pages long. This is a superb book for philosophy students at the undergraduate level who have an interest in these questions. It can be read by anyone however and does not presuppose any familiarity with the presented material.

Review: Two Books by Wilfred Sellars

Usually I begin these book reviews with a little extra commentary; some examination of a philosophical issue I thought inappropriate to go into in the book review itself. I’m sure there are such issues in Sellars’ work for me, but having read these two books I am not confident enough in what Sellars was talking about to say very much. Sellars is certainly no antirealist, but I’m not sure he would call himself a realist (in Searle’s terms) either. He is one of the premier philosophers of logic and language in the thread leading from the Vienna circle through Wittgenstein, and on to Quine, Tarski, and Sellars himself.

Perhaps we could call him a “linguistic realist” as he seems to believe that it is through the acquisition of language that a human child comes to distinguish joints in the world. For Sellars, perception (the five senses) occurs in pre-linguistic children but is at that point inchoate, a jumble of impressions in which nothing is clearly distinguished from anything else. Perhaps the first “joint in the world” the child recognizes as such is its own mother. If my reading of Sellars is correct, the child first distinguishes its mother from the rest of the world when it first connects the word “mom” (even if it cannot yet vocalize it) to that object. In other words, for the child to recognize its own mother, in an intellectual sense, it must be able to “think linguistically”.

I have a big problem with this idea because only humans have such abstract language and yet animals, adult higher animals, clearly have a very sophisticated ability to discriminate “joints in the world”. A dog could not catch a Frisbee if it did not, and even a chicken knows enough to associate dark cool places with the prospect of more juicy insects and so on. Could a philosopher as brilliant as Sellars have missed such an obvious counter example to his connection between language and perception? I wouldn’t think so… It is possible I am interpreting him incorrectly.

Naturalism and Ontology

I have never before given such a low rating to a book by a professional philosopher of Sellars’ reputation. I also wonder about the value of reviewing a 40 year-old book whose author has long since passed on. But for the sake of my few followers I’ll deliver here, keeping it short.

Sellars says his analysis of language, reference, meaning, and truth (in descending order the main topics of this book) is needed to formulate a consistent (contradiction-free and perspicacious) naturalistic ontology. He takes the truth of naturalism for granted (most philosophers do these days) and while recognizing the term applies mainly to scientific method uses it as a stand-in for “materialism” throughout. I’m being rather loose with the word ‘throughout’ as he barely mentions naturalism or ontology (though repeatedly rejecting anything Platonic) beyond the book’s introduction!

In point of fact, Sellars never directly connects up his theory of reference to ontology, other than insisting that only a nominalism can be right. Sellars’ focus is on the role words (names, descriptions, declarations) play in language. His analysis proceeds through illustrations in formal logic which, while not individually complex, become overwhelming as they go on page after page. I’m guessing a full half the text of the book consists of these formal statements.

Overall the book is based on a series of talks. He says in his introduction that the first three chapters are straight from the talks, while the remainder of the book is more heavily edited to make the whole work come together. Yet the last two chapters of the book are a series of exchanges (unedited correspondence) he had with another philosopher and the book ends following the last of these. He does not ever conclude by summarizing anything. Indeed in the middle of the book there is another page of commentary (from a philosopher not named) criticizing Sellars’ whole approach. He is surely brave to put this in. Nowhere does he respond to this critique, and in point of fact, at least in my opinion, the critic’s approach more sense than Sellars’ view!

I got into this book because Terry Horgan (“Austere Realism” see my review) mentions him a lot and it strikes me that Horgan’s view of how language works, what makes ordinary statements true or meaningful, is derived from Sellars’ work. Horgan however (right or wrong) produces the summary, a synthesis of language’s relation to ontology, with which Sellars should have ended this book. Having read this, do I understand how Sellars links language to meaning and truth? Yes if vaguely. What about ontology as such? No, not at all.

Science, Perception, and Reality

This is my second review of a Sellars book (see “Naturalism and Ontology” also reviewed). I have the same problem here I had with the other. Like that other book, this one is something of a collection of separate essays on the same theme; the relation of language to action, thought, and the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world.

A carefully crafted collection of related essays on the title’s subject, it is nevertheless very difficult to grasp what Sellars is trying to say overall. To my mind this is a stylistic problem and I imagine that students of Sellars familiar with more of his ideas generally will get much more out of this than did I. We are all used to the mechanism of “flashbacks” in novels. But imagine a novel in which a first level of flashback results in yet another deeper flashback and then one more. When the author returns from the last flashback where is the reader dropped off? One level up? Two? Or back to the original story thread?

In every chapter of this book Sellars begins with a brief statement of his intent and then, before explicating it more fully, informs the reader that certain preliminaries must be taken care of first. Such preliminaries end up nesting to two or more levels and (along with covering various objections and alternatives) occupy 90% of the chapter’s material. By the time Sellars gets back to the main thread, not only am I lost, but I come away with the suspicion that some of those preliminaries are used to introduce definitions and points of view, themselves often controversial, on which his final theses come to hang.

None of this confusion on my part has to do with disagreements in viewpoint. I read a lot of philosophers with whom I disagree but I understand nevertheless what claims they are making and arguments for those claims. From this book, and the other is the same, I come away understanding certain points of detail but not, overall, what Sellars is trying to say about his subject. Yes I get that Sellars believes the correspondence between perception and the mind-independent world, our capacity to discriminate “one something from another” goes through language. Yes I get that our “understanding”, our very ability to have thoughts “about” something, depends on language, but I have yet to figure out what sorts of ontological commitments he draws from this approach.

Sellars is clearly one of the great thinkers in the century-long thread of “linguistic analysis” in philosophy, but while a great thinker, he is not a perspicacious writer.

Review: Terence Horgan “Austere Realism”

As I noted at the top of my Amazon review (see inclusion below), Hogan’s “Austere Realism” and Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” are, near as I can tell, exact inverses of one another. Harman’s view is that everything is real, everything is an object. Every star, planet, building, book, nation, thought, and all their relations, a virtual infinity of relations between everything and everything else taken individually and in sum. “All objects”. Horgan’s view it the exact inverse. For Horgan there is only one ontologically genuine concrete object in the universe, that being the universe taken as a whole, across all time, what he calls “the blobject”.

Both theories, in their own way, amount to saying the same thing. Whether “all is one” or “literally everything is an object”, both declare that “everything is the same”. On a strictly ontological level, there is no distinction to be made anywhere. This is not to say that the two theories say the same thing, not at all. But because they are both at the extreme ends of the metaphysical spectrum they both collapse all distinction and end up explaining nothing.

Horgan doesn’t mention Harman; not in the book nor the copious end notes. None of Harman’s books are even listed in the bibliography. I am surprised. Although the polar opposite of Horgan’s ontology, I would think the common feature of “being at the extremes” of ontological speculation would be worth a mention. I have dealt with Harman in several book reviews and essays here on the blog. Now it is Horgan’s turn.

In my review I do point out that Horgan’s book has two purposes; to set forth his “blobjectivism” and to show how, even if there is but one concrete particular in the universe (the universe itself) this idea is perfectly consistent with talk about a multiplicity of objects. “The United states dollar is the primary reserve currency on Earth” is true even though “the United States”, dollars, currency, and “the Earth” do not strictly exist. The same is true for more purely physical assertions. “Mars is the fourth planetary orbit outward from the sun” is true though there is no Mars, planets, orbits, or the sun. These statements can be true because their truth lies in semantic contexts that only “indirectly correspond” to some as yet unspecified phenomena of the “mind-independent world”, something both Horgan and Harman must accept as real or they wouldn’t be “realists” at all.

It is the social construction of language and so the presence of varying semantic contexts that make such statements true. They are true not because the things they purportedly reference (planets, money) exist, but because they meet the semantic standards of speech concerning posits about distinctions that exist only in a mind-dependent way. This connection between ordinary speech and ontology is a nice touch, but what is it about these “pseudo object posits” that makes them unreal ontologically speaking? Horgan points to vagueness (which he also calls boundarylessness) and the “Special Composition Question” introduced by a short detour through the work of Peter Van Inwagen. Much of this Horgan illustrates with what philosophers call “sorites problems” the most famous of which (and perhaps because of this Horgan doesn’t use it) is the “ship of Theseus”.

Theseus has a ship made from wooden planks. At some point one of the planks rots and must be replaced with a new piece of wood. Is it still the same ship? What if two planks are replaced, or ten, or all of them? Somewhere along the process some people would say that it is no longer the same ship though others would disagree. But the point is there is no definite point where the replacement of just one more plank makes a different ship. This observation suggests that the ship of Theseus (and most everything else) is vague and it is an axiom of Horgan’s ontology that “vague objects” do not actually exist as such. There is no such object as “the ship of Theseus” even though Theseus (who also does not exist) is plainly sailing in something.

The “special composition question” is related to this but has to do with what is and is not a proper part of a larger construct. Does a chair (some chairs) have parts? Does it have legs, a back, a seat, and perhaps arms? The chair is subject to sorites issues; if I remove a leg and replace it with another is it the same chair? But also we notice that legs, arms, seats, and backs, not to mention chairs, are all made of atoms. Perhaps the only real parts of anything are the atoms. A chair (Van Inwagen’s famous example) is nothing but “atoms arranged chair-wise”. It has no other proper parts because they are all merely atoms arranged leg-wise, seat-wise and so on.

So what does Horgan say is the chair in the mind-independent world? He says it doesn’t exist. It is not a “proper part” of the universe. Instead, what he believes, is that the blobject, the whole universe just is in some particular spatiotemporal location arranged chair-wise. Instead of a composition from atoms on up, the key insight for Horgan is that the differentiation goes from the top down. The mind-independent “whole universe” happens to be differentiated into everything that we take to be mind-independent about the world and according to Horgan (he is explicit here) this differentiation is both real and precise; not vague.

Yet, since the blobject is differentiated into something or other not-vague (chair shaped, rocks in orbits, suns, gas clouds, radiation) literally everywhere, and all of these differentiations have effects (gravitationally or otherwise) on other differentiations around them, how is saying what Horgan says any different from saying that all of the differentiations, taken mind-independently, are simply real objects with a genuine compositional structure? If the blobject’s everywhere differentiations are not vague, where comes from that vagueness he uses to insist that suns, rocks, gas clouds, and chairs don’t really exist? If the blobject differentiates precisely and the differentiations are mind-independent, the vagueness can only come from what is not mind-independent, namely the machinations of mind both pre-linguistic and linguistic!

The problem comes fully around to bite Horgan when he speculates on mind itself. If there is mind in the universe, the blobject also is differentiated spatiotemporally into minds! Mind itself, our phenomenology taken as a whole (Horgan suggests) is also a differentiation of the blobject and for that reason precise, though the contents of any given mind, for example propositions, can still be vague. But even with this little escape for vagueness’ sake, Horgan seems committed to mind-independent mind!

This result does not appear to have given Horgan any pause, but I think it is enough to show that there are difficulties with his view he does not address in the book. In the end philosophy is always trivially right when it takes positions at the extremes of ontology or epistemology. One cannot in the end refute a pure idealism, nihilism, solipsism, or a realism that says, one way or another, that “everything is the same”. In the end Horgan is not wrong. Nor is Harman. But Blobjectivism, like Object Oriented Ontology, is a difference that makes no difference! As concerns the “mind-independent world” saying everything, including all properties, are localizations of the blobject is the same as saying that all the localizations are real and exist. As goes ontology, Horgan (though not Harman) need not worry about baldness, nations, money, or even language since none of these phenomena are strictly mind-independent.

Austere Realism: Contextual Semantics Meets Minimal Ontology. Terence Horgan 2008

Interestingly this book is a counter point and the ultimate theory is exactly the inverse of Graham Harman’s “Object Oriented Ontology” (see my reviews of various Harman books). Ironically, the universality of their views cause both philosophers the same problem. If what exists is univocal (everything is an object [Harman] or there is only one object [Horgan]) you explain everything while explaining nothing. However delving into such philosophical matters is not the purview of a book review and I will talk more about this in my blog. Meanwhile, one of my criticisms of Harman is that he never really tells us why or how he came to his position, a complaint I cannot level at Horgan as that telling is the very purpose of this book.

Horgan first introduces us to realism in general and then austere realism. He spends roughly one third of the book (at the beginning and again at the end) characterizing austere realism and in particular his version of it, something he calls “blobjectivism”. Roughly two thirds of the book he spends not on his ontological theory as such but on how that theory relates to statements in ordinary and scientific discourse. If we want to say that planets, stars, buildings, and nations do not exist, how is the scientific statement “Earth occupies the third orbit outward from the sun” or the economic observation “the U.S. dollar is the world’s primary reserve currency” true? He says such statements are true not because the “objects” they purportedly name exist, but because talk of these categories only “indirectly corresponds” to the mind-independent world. The indirection goes through the process of conceptualization.

Much of the book is an exposition of this process works; how it is that many statements in ordinary and scientific discourse can be true even though the objects they purportedly talk about do not really exist. His direct argument for their non-existence has to do with vagueness, what he also calls the boundarylessness of discursive subjects, and the related “special composition question”. In stipulating a mind-independent world he also stipulates that no mind-independent object can be vague or boundary-less. Vagueness can always be made to look inconsistent. He gets into this issue by introducing what philosophers call “sorites problems” (take a man with 5000 hairs on his head. If I take away 1 hair is it still the same man? And this is only the beginning of a sorites problem). Anything we might call “an object” within the universe is subject to this sort of breakdown. Horgan insists that this being so, none of these postulated things exist in the mind-independent world. Objects of the mind-independent world cannot be intrinsically vague.

Horgan slides between mind-independence that cannot be vague, and discourse following general and not-fully-specifiable linguistic standards (themselves vague), to what he calls the vagueness of linguistic posits about the world. The problem here, the problem Horgan doesn’t seem to see, is that all the vagueness is mind-dependent. There isn’t any vagueness about the man with 5000 hairs in the mind-independent world. The vagueness enters only when mind directs itself at analyzing the concept of that man. Horgan is quite correct I think in that all that is mind-dependent is vague. I believe this is necessarily so, though Horgan does not (and says so). Nevertheless these indirectly corresponding posits cannot be real though propositions about them can still be true. Besides introducing us to the blobject, the point of the book is the [mind-dependent] connection between Horgan’s ontology and the correctness of ordinary talk thanks to semantic context and indirect correspondence.

To my mind, Horgan fails to appreciate some of the implications of his ontology. For him, the stuff of the mind-independent world are not parts of something greater but rather spacetime localisations, differences, of “the one concrete particular that exists”, the blobject. If this is the case, and he says this, these spatiotemporal localisations must be precise, not vague! There are many issues arising here I will leave for another venue (see my blog), but the bottom line is that if they are not vague we might as well call them objects! It isn’t that Horgan is wrong (let’s say). It isn’t that ontology cannot be as austere as he claims. But it doesn’t matter. Giving an inch here is worth a mile. If spatiotemporal variations in the blobject are real and precise then conceptualizing those variations as objects, saying “they exist” and “directly correspond” (in Horgan’s semantic scheme) to mind-independent particulars amounts to saying the same thing.

Still all in all Horgan does a great job putting this together. I gave the book four stars not because of philosophical issues but because Horgan’s writing is not as clear as it might be. There are many long sentences with multiple and parenthetical clauses. Sometimes his argument is a little difficult to follow. But what was worse, the Kindle version of this book (the version I have) has a serious problem! This is not the author’s fault. The publisher was way too casual with this conversion. There are a lot of end notes in this book. A considerable amount of detail in the author’s exposition is in the end notes! But while the notes are flagged in the text, flags are not made into links. You cannot press on an end note and go to the note as as is conventionally the case in most of the Kindle books in this and other non-fiction genera. Such features are, after all, part of the point of e-books! This is a serious omission in a scholarly work like this, and makes the whole, if you really want to see the end notes as they come up, way more difficult than it should be.

Two Books by Francis Fukuyama

Here are two reviews of books by Francis Fukuyama in which he traces the evolution of political orders from prehistoric times to the modern day. His point is to demonstrate that all human societies, growing larger, must solve common sorts of problems no matter where in the world they are. In these books he carefully describes how these solutions come out in political orders of vastly different types. He is also interested in what and how factors contribute to both the similarities and differences in the present political orders on Earth. These factors include geography, climate, foreign contact, ideas, economic activity, technology, external and internal conflict (war, civil-war, revolution), and ideas, especially the presence or absence of a culture-wide transcendental religion.

In another book, “The Shield of Achilles” 2011, Philip Bobbitt looks at the political evolution of Europe (to which Fukuyama gives much but not exclusive focus) and argues that the evolution of modern European states was very much a product of war and evolving military technology. In large measure Fukuyama agrees with this (especially as concerns Europe) although he suggests that many other factors are also important. Bobbitt distinguishes between four evolutionary stages beginning with Kingdoms in the medieval, and proceeding, in different places at different times and at different rates, through Kingly-States, State-Nations, to Nation-States. Fukuyama’s view cuts across these distinctions tracing the development of his three pillars of the modern political order (not any of them represented in literally everywhere on Earth in the present day) state-bureaucracy, rule-of-law, and upward and downward accountability. It is not the presence or absence of any of these that distinguishes the political orders described by Bobbitt, but rather the particular forms, especially the bureaucracy, taken in each place at various stages of history.

Bobbitt seems most interested in what he believes comes next in political evolution, the Corporate-State, something he notes is well underway in the United States, China, and in other places again evolving in different ways and at different rates. But what Bobbitt sees as a next step in political evolution, Fukuyama sees as “political decay”. The fundamental purpose of a State is to provide services that benefit the entire population as much as this should be possible. Such things as public school, medical care, roads, disaster mitigation, economic opportunity, and so on. Because the need for these things is global, throughout the nation, and because of this best coordinated, even if specific implementation directives are contracted to private enterprise, by the State. But when the State begins giving too much of this responsibility away to private enterprise it loses some control over the process. Moreover, when the private services become large and economically important enough, they become too big to fail and actually capture the political process. They come to control (usually by financial influence) those parts of the government that are supposed to be controlling them! This process weakens two of Fukuyama’s three legs, the State itself, and accountability! What for Bobbitt is the future is for Fukuyama a decline.

Origins of the Political Order

This is volume I of a two volume work. This first takes political and social evolution from pre-human times to just prior to the French and American revolutions. Fukuyama begins with pre-human (ape) social organization to put paid to both Hobbes who believed that the first humans were individually at constant warfare, and Rousseau who claimed that the earliest humans lived in idyllic individual circumstances because they were so distantly separated from one another. Apes live in family bands, early humans probably lived in family bands. These bands evolved into tribes whose organization had several advantages over family bands, and at one point, this stage of development characterized all human societies throughout the world.

Fukuyama distinguishes three broad aspects to any developing political order. A coherent “territorial state” administered more or less uniformly across some geographic domain. To be a true state, the central power (however it emerges) must control, more rather than less, the administration of its domain. Next, the “rule of law” which at a minimum means that the central authority recognizes that there are some (perhaps not many) codified limits to its power especially concerning property (land) rights. Third comes “accountability” which can go upwards (people become accountable to the government) and downwards (government accountable to people). These are broad ideas. Rule of law need not be constitutional (for example) and accountability of the government to “the people” might include only the noble class and not literally everyone.

Cutting across Fukuyama’s distinctions here are evolving groups within an evolving political order. There comes to be the king or other autocrat, some nobility (an elite class of one sort or another almost always land owners) and everyone else. Eventually the “everyone else” divides into skilled craftsmen, traders, professionals, a bourgeoisie and the peasantry. The non-peasant group he calls the “third estate”. There is a lot of variation within each of these groups and Fukuyama covers many of those variations as they bear substantially on how the three aspects (state, law, accountability) come together or fail to do so in different circumstances. The circumstances are the most varied of all as one might expect. War or the threat of war, famine, geography, climate, economics, evolving religion, accidents of succession (the king dies without heirs) and technology all played their part.

Fukuyama begins with China which developed “true statehood” by 300 BC, far earlier than any other polity. This is not to say the first state lasted. There were many ups and downs, reversions to a more tribal form of social organization and the evolution of new states. While China developed true territorial states with meritocratic administrations earlier than anyone else, it has not, even today achieved a true rule of law nor top down accountability. He moves on from China to South Asia where India was next to develop state-like organization while religion in its case (Brahmanism) actually solidified class differences along the lines of earlier tribal organizations. Today India has all three components in its polity, but the state is weak having far to much of the strong tribe-like organization competing with it. I am oversimplifying here. I cannot do justice to Fukuyama’s much more nuanced analysis in a short review.

Next he moves west and explores the emergence of Islamic polities and in particular the Ottomans who developed some of the strangest meritocratic institutions of all. Islam unified all classes in a religious sense, but it never managed to disentangle itself from secular institutions leaving this whole part of the world “caesaropapist” meaning that the head of the state is also the head of the religious order, though often there is a class of priests and scholars who are supposed to be consulted…

Lastly Fukuyama moves over to Europe where he focuses on France, Spain, England, Hungary, Russia, and the Nordic nations. In all of these countries the Catholic church had an enormous influence unifying law across all social classes and eventually separating from the early caesaropapist style into a true church separate from the true state that remained strong enough to impose rule of law (more or less) on kings. “More or less” usually because there were different balances between king, nobility, and all the others. Of these England, for historical and geographic reasons, had the best and earliest balance of all the various social forces leading to genuine rule of law and bi-directional accountability. Hungary had a version of the English Magna Carta, called the “Golden Bull”. But the Magna Carta left in place a strong king and a balanced nobility, while the Golden Bull made the nobility so powerful that its vested interests eventually destroyed the state.

By contrast to Catholic France, Spain, and Orthodox Russia, the Reformation was largely responsible for the evolution of upward accountability in the Nordic region because to realize the Protestant principle, that every man should interpret the Bible for himself, everyone, even the peasants, were taught to read! This enabled the peasants to organize politically, something that did not happen anywhere else except England where it occurred for quite different reasons. Among other factors English peasants were allowed to escape the land and become part of the third estate in evolving cities because the king used them to balance the lords. By contrast France, Spain, and Russia blocked this evolution because their kings aligned themselves with the nobility against the peasantry.

In his second-to-last chapter Fukuyama summarizes how these various balances worked themselves out everywhere from China around to Europe. In the last chapter he briefly covers how the play of these forces changed following the industrial revolution and how present technology and modern economics comes to bear on them.

This is a long scholarly work with lots of references. Throughout Fukuyama writes in an easy style and colors the analysis with enough specifics to keep it interesting without becoming over bearing. I am looking forward to volume II.

Political Order and Political Decay

This is the second of two volumes by Fukuyama on the broad subject of political evolution on Earth. The first volume (reviewed) covered with broad strokes the evolution of political orders on Earth from the times of universal band-level societies through to the French and American revolutions near the end of the 18th century. He chose this cut-off because the industrial revolution beginning in the early 19th century was for many reasons a turning point in the economics underlying political orders throughout the world.

There was substantial evolution of political systems around the globe prior to the 19th century. The universal band-level societies of 10,000 years prior had become tribal organizations of various sizes, and also true states (China long having the lead here with genuine political states preceding anything like them in Europe or elsewhere by a thousand years). In this evolution Fukuyama distinguishes between three threads that comprise separate (though co-influencing) threads of political evolution, the State represented by its administrative bureaucracy, the rule of law (which does not always evolve) and accountability upwards from the population to the government and downwards from the government to the population. There are modern States (China in particular) that have not yet evolved a true rule-of-law nor downward accountability. But all states prior to the 19th century did have one thing in common. All human societies of that time were dominantly agrarian.

The industrial revolution in Europe and the then nascent United States changed everything. Up until that point technological innovation was slow. Every advance in the production of more food and other goods was absorbed by expanding population that prevented any serious accumulation of wealth other than in and to very small classes of political elites. The industrial revolution changed all of this by generating increased food production, goods, and technological change faster than expanding populations could absorb them, leading to surplus wealth. In turn, surplus wealth led to a large scale differentiation in types of labor, specialization, which in turn led to the multiplication of political classes whose members, economic drivers who did not exist in earlier times (or existed in very small numbers), demanded and eventually achieved access to the political process.

In this volume Fukuyama brings his three political dimensions forward in time to the present age and demonstrates how the principle of development (evolution) and decay are everywhere playing out against the backdrop of what motivates them; economic activity, technology, war, ideas, and the changing communities of people themselves. He carefully investigates China, Japan, India, Italy, Greece, France, England, Germany, Russia, and the United States also comparing and contrasting their various forms with modern political and social evolution in South America (especially Argentina), the Far East, and sub-Saharan Africa. In the last, many problems are continent wide but he highlights two, Nigeria almost a failed state, and Tanzania being an African exception (in addition to South Africa) having achieved something of a stable balance between the three dimensions of state, rule of law, and accountability. I learned much about my own country they never taught me in school!

Fukuyama’s general conclusion is that every state must solve similar though not identical kinds of social and political problems and the solutions evolved are often similar but never the same. A combination that works in one place normally cannot be transplanted to another and what can be transplanted depends on what was there before. Furthermore at the present time everyone of these states is experiencing political decay in some of their institutions. The United States invented the political form he calls ‘clientalism’, the mass-oriented impersonal version of earlier ‘patrimonialism’, in the early 19th century. Italy and Greece are clientalistic states even today. America broke free of clientalism by the mid 20th century and built an efficient state which, since the late 20th century has fallen back through a process Fukuyama calls ‘repatrimonialization’ in which the state’s apparatus become captured by special interests.

All in all a very clear-eyed look at political evolution on our planet. There are keen insights and chilling possibilities galore. Fukuyama’s style is not dense and so reads easily. The book is long, but it rewards the reader with a deep knowledge of the nuances of modern political development.

Book Review: Self Knowledge for Humans by Quassim Cassam


A philosopher needs both breath and depth in the discipline. There are a certain range of issues in which I have a primary interest reflected in all of the essays on this blog. But a philosopher cannot rely only on the writings of others in their field. To understand the implications of even narrow issues, one must read both opposing voices and something of other issues that may be but peripherally related. For me this is one of those books.

Is self-knowledge of the substantial variety on which Cassam focuses important to me as a person? Yes to some extent it is, and in fact the author covers that “to some extent” very well in his last chapter. Is self-knowledge important to me as a philosopher? Is it important to my specific interests? In my case crucially yes, but it is not a sort of self-knowledge, a knowledge of beliefs and why I have them (I do know what I believe and why I believe), wants, emotions, and character traits addressed in this book.

What I need better to understand is the quality of my evidence and whether it is evidence for what I believe. My primary interests often impinge on philosophy of mind (not our belief that other people or animals have minds, but rather what mind is, what makes mind happen in brains, and how this relates to physics, biology, etc) and much of what I believe is derived from a phenomenal examination of my own mind. I want to know if what I discover in that examination is genuinely evidence for what I believe.

This is a question that Dr. Cassam misses. I make no criticism of his work here. It is clear from his exposition that the metaphysics of mind is not his subject. Who or what is this entity that believes, wants, feels, and has character traits? None of what Cassam writes here hinges on any particular metaphysical view of this entity. Yet surely an answer to this question is about one’s self? It is about what one believes constitutes the self. My interest is in what I might learn of the self as compared to knowledge about myself. While not addressing that question, this book provides a helpful context. Thanks to  my reading, I am better positioned to describe that entity and what I can (perhaps) infer of it in the context of self-knowledge more broadly conceived.

Self-Knowledge for Humans by Quassim Cassam (2014)

As with many other philosophy texts I’ve reviewed over the years this one is both professional and well written. There is almost a formula for doing good philosophy in the analytic tradition. Begin by clearly stating the nature of the problem you are going to address. Briefly review the history of the issue; make distinctions, show that the problem is more than trivial. Here the subject is something of a narrow subset of philosophy of mind, epistemology, phenomenology, and even psychology. It is the nature of what, how, and why we know, or fail to know, about ourselves as this pertains to our beliefs, emotions, desires, characters and more. Cassam sketches distinctions between the trivial and the substantial in self knowledge, and also the occasional (what I’m thinking, believing, feeling, wanting, right now) versus the standing (what do I believe, fear, want, and so on over time).

Next address the various theories about the subject in the literature and show why they are inadequate, if not entirely then at least partly. This review often, and in this case does, take up much of the book. Third make a positive argument for your own theory, in this case what Cassam calls “inferentialism”; describe it carefully and show how it addresses the inadequacies of the other dominant theories in the subject area. Then address specific objections to your theory advanced by others and show why they do not have the force their authors believe they do.

Cassam does all of this masterfully and manages not to be dry in the doing of it. He ends with two chapters on related matters, one being self-ignorance itself distinguished into variations and brought under his theory, and lastly a chapter on a meta-issue, why these inferences, why self-knowledge is or might be important.

Is Inferentialism convincing? Well yes, given how much Cassam emphasizes its broad but not always universal applicability. His claim is that Inferentialism covers much of the ground because it can be conscious or unconscious (sometimes this last is better understood as “interpretation”) and would often, but not always, be the dominant means by which we come to know things about ourselves. In short there are a lot of distinctions to be made about what self-knowledge is, and Inferrentialism happens to address all of them (including self-ignorance) to a greater or lesser extent, but is never, or almost never, absent entirely from the process of coming to know things about ourselves. Objections to the idea are unable to gain purchase because Cassam fully accepts that other theories have explanatory power here and there about this or that sort of self-knowledge, but points out that none of these, even if they happen to be operational in specific cases, preclude an inferential component to the path to self-knowledge. It is about as neat and tidy a package as I have seen.

“Self-Knowledge for Humans” would make a superb introduction to the style of Western Analytic Philosophy. In addition it well illuminates the issue and makes a substantial contribution to our grasp of what a solution looks like.

Book Review: I am a Strange Loop by D. Hofstadter

This book deserves a lot of additional commentary, but I will keep it short and begin with philosophy of mind’s “elephant in the room”; free will.

Hofstadter rejects free will. No such thing, any appearance to the contrary an illusion. But even worse, it is an illusion on top of an illusion (the agent whose will it is) on top of another illusion, mind, that is subjective consciousness, also illusion or at best epiphenomenal with zero power of downward causation. Of course. What else can he say? He is committed to all of this being nothing more than manifestations of physical process in the brain whose complexity in some unspecified way becomes self-referencing, creating some sort of physical effect (like a harmonic oscillation though he doesn’t say this) that magically transforms itself into our subjectivity. A harmonic oscillation (a complex pendulum) that becomes an unmeasurable (by third parties) interiority.

Despite this multi-layered trickery, Hofstadter uses the word ‘soul’ many dozens of times throughout the book, even calling human beings “spiritual animals” in his conclusion. To what, in this epiphenomenal context, can these concepts possibly refer? Nothing. They are meaningless terms standing for illusory abstractions. Surely he knows that these words, in a non-physicalist context, stand for something purportedly both real (not illusory) and yet non-physical. To be sure, even in their normal context they are vague terms and there is no end of debate among philosophers of religion about what they reference. But all agree they reference something not material. But God is a fantasy to Hofstadter. Words normally associated with “God talk” can be appropriated and made to mean anything one wants. Nothing about ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ can be real. Although the words are real enough in the English language, they literally can mean nothing what-so-ever as  that to which Hofstadter applies them is ultimately an illusion.

Take beauty, the simplest of the values (truth, beauty, goodness) to grasp because we detect its manifestation in the physical world. Physical things (whether natural or artifactual phenomena, sunsets or art) strike us as beautiful or not but either way the perception of beauty is something that exists only in mind. We seem to see it in the material world, but there is not much controversey about its status as a purely mental phenomenon, coming out, in what would have to be Hofstadter’s view if he is being consistent, as an illusion in an epiphenomena. While having no causal power, our epiphenomenal mind can itself have an illusion about which we might report: “that is a beautiful sunset”. But this is but another behavior determined by the purely physical operation of our brains, a report that happens, magically to coincide with the illusion arising in a causally impotent epiphenomena having no correspondence what-so-ever to any physical quality of the sunset.

This leaves all of what Hofstadter says he values, the memories of a wife he loved deeply, and the children he continues to adore, his close friends, his career, all illusion. Memories are an imperfect mental record of past experience, but experience is nothing but effervescent epiphenomena. They don’t mean anything because meaning is intelligible only to a subject, itself an illusion. He likes to think he acts out of love for his children, but this is impossible unless there is downward causation. Love has an experience that is overtly more than its physiological concomitants. This part of it is quintessentially mental, and therefore epiphenomenal. There is nothing there that has any stake (and in any case cannot be a cause) in the behavioral game.  Like beauty, physics does not find love in the causal mechanisms of the physical world.

If Hofstadter is right, then we might as well be zombies of the sort envisioned by his student (years ago) David Chalmers. Our interiority would seem to belie that. Chalmer’s “philosophical zombies” (P-zombies) have no interiority, but then our having one makes not the slightest difference to anything we might say or do, like “I love my children”. There is no “him” (all illusion) there to love anything, only his brain that determines the verbal report made.

Hofstadter declares to us that he “takes mind seriously”. Another zombie-report forced on him by his brain, just as that same brain forced him to pen that book. This is not “taking mind seriously”. If you take mind seriously, then you have to come out a bit like John Searle (whose critique of “machine consciousness” Hofstadter swipes at here and there throughout the book). Searle takes mind seriously. He says that he cannot shake the feeling that nothing about the entire history of human experience, not to mention the day-to-day experience of individual humans, makes any sense, becomes unintelligible, unless free will, and even personal agency (for Searle at least of a functional and not ontologically real sort) are both real. Searle, being ultimately a physicalist, admits he cannot figure out how this would be possible, but he nevertheless cannot shake the conviction that it is. Hofstadter (Searle and many others also) has another option, one that his  sort of “taking it seriously” prevents him from considering. He could take consciousness, agency, and free will to be real, and conclude that therefore physicalism must be false!

If one takes mind, and provisionally like Searle, free will and agency seriously, if physicalism is false, then one moves on to asking what must be the case about reality as a totality that makes these phenomena possible? What must be true about the universe if these subjective experiences are experiences of real phenomena? This is a question that Hofstadter, like Searle, cannot bring himself to ask.

I Am a Strange Loop by Douglas Hofstadter 2004

Douglas Hofstadter, justifiably famous for “Godel, Escher, Bach” wrote about the much trickier subject of mind and personal identity in this 2004 book. It is one thing to analyze the relation between three applications (their results in Math, visual art, and music) of self-referencing thought, and quite another to analyze the entity doing the thinking. Hofstadter begins with Godel because as it will turn out, his insight into the recursive descriptiveness of number theory from which self-reference was (supposedly) banned by Bertran Russel, becomes his inroad into a philosophy of mind. Hofstadter is a master at describing (without mathematical formalism) what Godel did and why it matters. He is not so good at applying this to mind.

Besides Godel, the author’s other insight comes from the loopy-like nature of recursive entities like infinite halls of mirrors or what happens when you point a television camera at the screen displaying what that camera is viewing. We all have seen these, and from these two things, Hofstadter assembles a theory of mind based on the idea that whatever goes on in the brain at the low and mid physical levels results in some sort of abstractions (perhaps manifested in harmonic oscillations of electromagnetic energy) that from another perspective, are the very stuff of consciousness.

There is nothing particularly new about this. Rejecting religion or other basis for any sort of dualism (and his remarks are rather disparaging in this respect) and declaring oneself a physicalist (there is nothing more than physics) is par for the course and occasionally swatting straw-man arguments to the contrary, is all part of the contemporary game for most of today’s philosophers and scientists. Besides religion he mentions David Chalmers who was, apparently, a student of Hofstadter’s in his doctoral days and rejects Chalmer’s non-religious panpsychism (and along with this presumably Davidson’s “dual aspect” monism as well) which is fine as far as it goes.

Hofstadter’s theory is somatic. Mind arises from what goes on physically in the brain and nothing more. The problem is he never gets to connect up the subjective with anything that can, even in theory, be measured by third parties. This is not to criticize him alone here, no other physicalists (or for that matter panpsychists) manage to do it either, but in this case the author jumps from the neurological layer to the concept of self-referencing abstraction (presupposing consciousness) without pointing to anything in between that might connect the two.

After declaring his theory “explained”, Hofstadter moves on to considerations of how one strange loop-abstraction, the one that fools me into the illusion of a stable “I”, is influenced and modified by others. He is much impressed by Derek Parfit’s thought experiments [supposedly] demonstrating that what we take to be the uncopyable core of ourselves, is nothing but effervescent illusion and can in fact be copied. Moreover, though we cannot copy it today (and may never be able to do that in reality) we can, from our own interiority, find ourselves being partial expressions of other people, their strange loops!

He supposes that our own personal-identities form slowly as we proceed from infant to child based on all the various influences that impinge on us from the world as these come to influence new effects in our own minds. The totality of all this over time results in a relatively stable, but not changeless, personal identity. He moves on from there to suppose that those we hold and know particularly closely (our parents, wives, children, siblings, etc) can cause their own identities to be partly duplicated in our own minds. None of this really makes sense. Of course someone with whom we are close for many years will have a proportionally larger influence over the shape of our phenomenal arena. What he doesn’t seem to appreciate is that this influence takes the same pathways (our interpretation of sensory experience for example) as the initial early development of our own personality. There isn’t any loop in my brain that is a copy (however imperfect) of my wife or children’s identity, only modifications of my own that represent them.

There is much here and I do not doubt that writing “I am a Strange Loop” was a labor of love in more ways than one. It is, as with other somatic theories, even possible that oscillating fields in the brain have a lot to do with consciousness and personal identity. There are still reasons to believe that this is not the whole story.