Book Review: Self Knowledge for Humans by Quassim Cassam

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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.

Book Review: Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward

I haven’t much additional commentary to add here except perhaps to expand a little on my comparison between Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” and Woodward’s Fear. Wolff’s published much earlier covers a shorter time, about 200 days compared to Woodward’s 760+. As mentioned in my review, Wolff focuses on the ring of people immediately surrounding Trump (of course he brings in the next outer band) while Woodward expands his focus to that next outer band while the characters in the inner most group (other than Bannon) receive somewhat less scrutiny. This approach makes perfect sense given the expanded time frame of Woodward’s book.

Woodward is more sympathetic to all concerned (even Trump) than Wolff. Wolff’s picture is one of conflicting and shifting groups running around like chickens with severed heads while doing their best to increase their political influence and personal wealth. Woodward reveals the same self-interested politics in the inner circle while many of those in the wider circle, and even a few in the inner one, are trying sincerely to keep Trump from destroying the nation at every impetuous turn. Sincerity here has a mixed result as many of these people have incompatible political views concerning what constitutes a rational course in the first place. Both books paint a terrifying picture. Wolff’s is more terrifying, but Woodward’s is more frustrating because he highlights many opportunities (never taken) to bring parties together.

Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward 2018

My first observation is that this book is not as long as it seems. The first 63% (my Kindle tells me that) is the body of the book followed by a long chapter of acknowledgements, a detailed listing, chapter by chapter, of sources with lots of online links (including many of Trump’s infamous tweets), and a long index. Trump assumed the presidency on Jan 20, 2016. The last date mentioned in the book is March 21 2018 so about 760 days into the present (Sept. 2018) administration.

One cannot help but compare Woodward to Wolff’s “Fire and Fury” (also reviewed). Wolff’s focus is the shifting cabals immediately surrounding the president in his first (roughly 200) days. Woodward hits all the same characters and follows them as well but more through the lens of national and international incidents and issues occurring at the time, some precipitated by Trump himself. The characters are painted almost sympathetically, even Trump, relatively speaking. The unifying issue throughout is how the staff, principal cabinet secretaries, and members of Congress struggled to prevent the ever impetuous Trump from wrecking the economy or starting world war III, while a few were eager to egg him on in support of his most destructive instincts. The influence goes both ways. Trump appears to have supported DACA recipients specifically (though he never liked any of the rest of U.S. immigration policy) but was turned away from even DACA support by congressional hard liners.

There are lots of missing pieces. I suppose it would be impossible to include everything. Sean Spicer is mentioned, as is the hiring of Anthony Scaramucci but there is no word about their departure. Of course many characters do come and go. Like Wolff, Woodward focuses early on Bannon, but he hardly touches (of course they are present in the story) Jarad and Ivanka. Like Wolff, Woodward paints a picture of a man whose comprehension of the world’s complexity rises to the level of an elementary school graduate, a man mercurial and impulsive with uneven check on his actions by the adults in the room, often because they themselves are conflicted over every issue.

Washington Post publisher Phillip Graham seems to be credited with the observation that “Journalism is the ‘first rough draft of history'”. That rough draft is unfolding before us in books like Wolff’s and this one from Bob Woodward. I expect there will be a few more before this presidential term is over. Historians of the future (if there is a future) will not lack for sources. If like me you are a news junkie, this book will be an enjoyable, if frightening and possibly frustrating (so many opportunities lost) ride.

Book Review: The Attack of the 50 Foot Women

I try to read on subjects outside my mainstream interests. This is one of those books, broadly feminist. Not philosophy, but rather a clear statement of what inclusiveness in terms of the politics of sex means, how an ideal tolerance would come out in social institutions political and otherwise. Besides this, the book is a catalog of some ten years of investigation into the status of this ideal in various parts of the world. Finally, it threads in the history of one such attempt (still going on I hope), literally a political party focused on these issues, in the United Kingdom.

Philosophically there are two issues she fails to develop. One more minor she mentions but does not explore; the impact of present diversity (racially, sexually as it stands in different cultures) on the trajectory of political attempts at realizing the ideal. The more major issue is that of history. From the outset of human existence women have labored (literally and figuratively), the only member of the species that bears children. In fact this goes back far deeper into the past, to the earliest mammals at least, but in human society the distinction matters more and has always mattered more. Primitive hunter-gatherers were not egalitarian (Mayer appears to believe they were) but highly specialized along sexual lines. Men hunted, stood guard, and fought (until there were no more men and the women had to fight). Women gathered, bore, and mostly raised children; girls for their whole lives, and boys until they were old enough to hunt, stand guard, and fight. There are a few, but very few counter examples in Earth’s history.

There is literally a million years of such history behind us and this differential has had social-psychological consequences in the form of inate bias on both sides, male bias and female bias manifesting quite differently conditioned by the still considerable difference in physical size and strength of [most] men compared to [most] women. Should we, now in this “civilized age”, be attempting to erase this bias? I think yes, we should. Will we be entirely successful even in the next thousand years? Likely not. I address this further in the review below.

So was it a good book? Sure, why not! If nothing else, philosophically, Ms. Mayer has deliniated for us what sexual-identity-tolerance means and at least one example of its political expression. I wish her well!

Attack of the 50 Ft. Women: From man-made mess to a better future – the truth about global inequality and how to unleash female potential by Catherine Mayer 2017

I thought I might take a little side trip in to the political and social philosophy of feminism, but this book really isn’t that. Ms Mayer is more about a historical review and international survey. There is a chapter on just about every possible arena in which women and men either compete, cooperate, and frequently do both at the same time. She highlights both the common threads and differences between issues of gender and those of race and economic status across all races and genders. Throughout her intellectual and geographic wanderings (traveling widely interviewing people of many perspectives) Mayer weaves in a thread about the beginnings and organization of a United Kingdom political party (The Women’s Equality Party) that she and a few others launched but a few years ago.

Historically Mayer covers four generations of feminist movements, the suffragets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (in some nations extending as on down to today), changes brought about by the demands of World War II, the movement in the U.S. and Europe of the 1970s, and of course the situation in the 21st Century. Pay differentials, political representation (government and corporate), violence against women, the situation in education, the real (nuanced) nature of physical and psychological gender differences, the role of institutional religion, and how all of this plays out in various parts of the world are given consideration.

On the whole Mayer does a good job of surveying the historically recent (last few hundred years) and present scope of issues and how these might be adjusted. On the whole her view cannot help but be colored by modern “identity politics”, but she does not call for absolute equality in the economic sphere. She does not expect that half the fire fighters or soldiers in the world will be women, nor half the nurses men. But she does think that we can do much better than we are in the political, and overall in the economic, sphere. She insists that a world in which women are genuinely respected, genuinely recognized to be the equals of (if not the “same as”) men in the process of building a society, will be more productive and peaceful. I am sure she is right about this because a society, such as ours, where respect is lacking is distorted socially, economically, and psychologically. It cannot help but be worse for all concerned (generally, the super-rich will always get by).

So her survey is good and her points well made, but in this reviewer’s opinion she is mistaken as concerns the roots of the problem. There is no excuse, in our modern world, for the gender (or for that matter racial) disparities that presently exist. But she never asks the counterfactual question that sets up the difference that really made a difference through 99% of human history: why aren’t men having more babies? Every social, economic, and political difference between men and women on this planet is rooted in that inconvenient biological fact; only women can bear children.

This is a handicap that men, and not merely women (as Mayer well notes) should be striving to mitigate, and while it might be overcome in the social sphere, violence against women must cease, it will never be quite overcome in the economic or political spheres because whether men have “paternity leave” or not, women, most women, MUST drop out of the economic and political spheres for a time or there won’t be any future economy or politics to worry about. In modern society there is no real excuse for any inequity between the sexes. We can COMPENSATE for the child handicap. But it is a compensation and not merely an acknowledgement of women’s equal importance. The devil is in those details.

Book Review: Lost In Math by S. Hossenfelder

Another in my book review series, this is philosophy of science in the capable hands of a physicist. As usual, I have a commentary in which I offer something of an alternative that could break the philosophical logjam that is Dr. Hossenfelder’s primary concern. It is presented here in this separate essay.

In my book review (below) I mention Dr. Hossenfelder’s “secondary concern”, that being the politics and economics of doing physics in a university research environment. I made only cursory reference to this part of her book, but it deserves a little more attention as it is, in part, the result of the lack of break-through empirical discoveries on which university physicists could hang their hats. The doctor spends a good chapter on this subject and hits on all the players. Too many post docs chasing university jobs, too many tenured professors in major physics department not making room for new players, too much emphasis on volume publishing and citation in a limited number of journals.

It is thanks in great part to this publish-and-be-cited cycle, and the money being chased by it, that novel approaches to existing problems are not more prevalent. In the absence of data, new approaches are mostly ignored until (thanks to success if it comes) they cannot be ignored any longer. But that can take years, even decades. Meanwhile, their proponents are left out in the cold. Speaking of cold, Dr. Hossenfelder briefly addresses the dark matter mystery and mentions Fritz Zwicky (who passed away in 1974). Zwicky proposed dark matter as a solution to the galactic gravitational mystery back in the 1930s. A crack pot idea then, but no more.

Lost In Math by Sabine Hossenfelder 2018

Sabine Hossenfelder is a physicist with a social media following, a much beloved blog, an attitude, and now a book to go along with it all. This is not a physics book, it is a philosophy book. Its subject matter falls squarely into “philosophy of science”. It is not a book about philosophy of science, but a book that does philosophy of science. Specifically, She mounts a strong critique of present attitudes and assumptions underlying approaches to today’s work in theoretical physics and cosmology. Particle physics, string theory, quantum gravity, quantum mechanics and field theory, black holes, and the origins of the universe all come within her scope. In Dr. Hossenfelder’s view all of them suffer from a similar bias towards the idea that mathematical consistency alone is a truth criterion. Nowhere is this made more plain than in her delightful demonstration that the present predilections of every single one of the above fields can be turned into a multiverse hypothesis!

Hossenfelder knows that data is important. She also knows that modern experimentation in the physical and cosmological sciences is expensive and sometimes takes years to produce data and sometimes not even then. The physicists know this too. It used to be that theories explained existing data and then made new predictions subsequently confirmed or ruled out by further experiments. But the easy experiments have been done. The problem is that there are too many physicists, too many people chasing the next grant, the next tenured position, and not enough money, or new data, to go around. This is a part of the problem, the economics, sociology, and politics of the field. She addresses these, but they are a secondary concern. Her primary concern is squarely philosophical.

At the present level of exploration of physical foundations there are darned few predictions to be confirmed or denied either because doing so is too expensive, experiments have resulted negative outcomes, or the predicted phenomena lie beyond any conceivable experiment. What then are the legions of theoreticians to do? Noticing that many of the successful physical theories of the past have a certain elegance and simplicity about them, intrepid physicists turn to beauty and the notion of naturalness. Neither of these ideas is bad, but they are not, by themselves, good arbiters of truth and this is exactly Dr. Hossenfelder’s point and the primary subject of the book.

Of the twin notions, naturalness is the easier to quantify as it comes down to there being no, or few, “arbitrary numbers” needed to make the theory match the data. The number “1” (or numbers very close to it) is “natural” because it doesn’t change what it multiplies. Un-natural parameters (outside of science known as “fudge factors”) detract from a theory unless they can be satisfactorily explained. The demand for explanation of the fudge factors drives further theory building and she notes that as one is explained, others seem inevitably to appear. Beauty is a more vague idea still as are associated ideas of simplicity (related to naturalness) and elegance. Beauty is, after all, in they eye of the beholder and this is no less characteristic of physicists and their foundational theories as it is in art.

Dr. Hossenfelder traveled from Stockholm to Hawaii and points in between interviewing famous physicists to garner their opinions on this subject. These interviews form a goodly part of the book. Some of her interviewees work firmly in the mainstream of modern physics. Others occupy peripheral positions but have enough street credit to be read by their peers, at least for a while. Her interviews are brilliant and funny. She asks good questions, philosophical questions, and all her interviewees agree with her! The present tendency in physics she so well illuminates is a problem! But there is also consternation. “What else can we do?” is an oft repeated refrain.

Through the process of relating all of this to us, Dr. Hossenfelder expresses her own insecurities about her choice of specialty, and even physics altogether! Has she wasted her time she wonders? Perhaps. But if I had the power I would hire this woman instantly; not in physics, but in philosophy! This theoretical physicist has a lot to contribute to the philosophy of science. Not that the physicists will care much of course. As is often the case in philosophy, insights go unrecognized until after problems that might have been avoided have fully broken upon us.

Dr. Hossenfelder is not absolutely alone crying in the wilderness here. There are a few of her peers in the physics community who see the same problems and have written about them; Lee Smolin comes immediately to mind and there are, perhaps, a few others. She should not despair however. Her credentials are impeccable. She has a lot more to contribute, if not to physics directly, then to philosophy of science. She should embrace her new community!

Review: The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli

By sheer coincidence I published the essay, “What is Time”, shortly before reading Carlo Rovelli’s book. Rather than writing additional commentary here, I put a pointer to that essay. While it does not address Rovelli directly (I hadn’t read him yet) it covers the points made in the review included below. But I do not want to discourage people from reading this excellent book. It is always good to understand the arguments of authors with which you (in this case I) happen to disagree. One cannot claim to be a well rounded philosopher without understanding what it is that those you disagree with are saying.

The Order of Time by Carlo Rovelli (2018) Amazon review

Like consciousness, time is a subject that no philosopher or physicist has ever managed to nail down completely. Thanks to their slippery character, being so close to us (the first one IS us) they are endless sources for fountains of speculation. In this book, Rovelli’s subject is time, but consciousness comes into this narrative as well.

Rovelli is a “time denier”. OK, that’s being a little unfair but not by much. What he denies is that there exists an independent, fundamental property or quality of the universe that is time. Of course the universe is full of movement and change, events unfolding into other events. His basic position is that time emerges into our perspective, our viewpoint, from these phenomena, but it is merely an illusion. The movement is real, the changing is real, but the time in which all of this seems to occur is nothing more than a manifestation of human (possibly animal) mind and the illusion, in turn, is supported by the entropy generated in the functioning of our brains.

The book (not long read) is divided into three parts. In the first Rovelli covers the various sub-disciplines of physics and their temporal implications (or lack thereof). He begins with classical physics (the equations work backwards in time), and moves on to General and Special Relativity, and quantum mechanics. Here he demonstrates that our simple intuition of a universal time flowing from past to future is untenable. Time, mind-independent time, if it exists at all, cannot be like that. In part two he further demolishes time. Not only is it not what we think, in and for physics, it doesn’t really exist at all; even the present is an illusion! In part three, he puts time back together for and in the perspective of an subjective viewpoint.

He argues it is the fact that we view the world from a perspective, that when we perceive the world we inevitably blur the details into a sort of summary or gestalt for our perspective, that causes time to appear to mind, The physics supporting that appearance comes down to thermodynamics. Human time, brain time, is “thermal time”. Certainly Rovelli thinks thermodynamics (in particular the 2nd law) is real, but while responsible for what consciousness perceives of time and so a real enough subjective experience, from the 3rd party perspective of physics, change is real, but time is a mirage.

This book is written for a lay audience. There is almost no math in it (what there is appears in footnotes), and it defends a view common to much of the physics and philosophy community. To be sure Rovelli differs a bit from some of his peers. He argues that relativistic “block time” is no more a “true portrait of objective time” than any other theory. In Rovelli’s view remember there is no such thing as “objective time”.

In 2015 a philosopher (Roberto Unger) and a physicist (Lee Smolin) wrote “The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time”. This book (reviewed by me on Amazon) makes precisely the opposite case from that of Rovelli. Of course they recognize what Relativity and quantum mechanics imply about time, but they maintain, nevertheless, that a notion (and reality) of objective, “universal time”, is more fundamental than any other phenomena of the universe, even more than space! Rovelli mentions this book in a footnote and admits that Unger and Smolin’s view “is defensible”, but he leaves it there and never addresses what is defensible about it.

The Unger/Smolin book goes against the grain of 95% of today’s physicists. Personally I agree with Smolin and Unger. The fact (thanks to limiting effect of the speed of light) that we cannot map our present to any present in a remote galaxy, or even the nearest star does not mean there is no present there, in fact everywhere. Something is happening, NOW, everywhere in the universe. We do not know what it is, but that does not mean the present isn’t real as Rovelli believes. Had Rovelli directly addressed Unger and Smolin I would have given this book another star. Had he not mentioned them at all, I would have taken another away.

In summary this is a decent and well written book advocating for a particular view of time (or no time) that I happen to think is wrong, but what do I know? It happens to be the dominant view in physics today. Rovelli is a well respected physicist and a good writer. Those of you interested in the subject will find this book valuable whether you agree with the author or not.

Review: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

Another diversion here into pop culture, this time the more strictly political. We live in dangerous times and there is no better symbol of them than this book. I did note in the review a single philosophical issue I had with the book. I will spend my time here in these comments elaborating a bit on it. As usual, the original Amazon review is included in full following these comments.

The matter concerns the accuracy of the portrait Wolff paints of both President Trump and the Whitehouse West Wing organization with particular focus on Steve Bannon, and the duo Bannon began to call Jarvanka, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared. In a way, the story is told from their viewpoint while pulling together observations and comments of other parties both a direct part of the Trump organization (however temporarily) and those on the wider periphery.

According to the story various cabals formed and evaporated over the course of Trump’s pre-inaugural period and in the first 200 days or so of the administration. It seems like the only constant was the antipathy between Bannon (painted as an essentially driven fanatic with the old fashioned instincts of a bomb throwing anarchist), and Jarvanka a pair of rich and spoiled children whose politics were liberal leaning but who hadn’t the slightest idea of how to really accomplish anything (or what could be accomplished) aside from protecting their riches and their relation to Trump. Nobody had the slightest real political experience.

Wolff gives us no reason to believe that in talking to any of these people (both the narrow and wider set of players) he was getting an unvarnished truth uncolored by their desire to use Wolff himself to “get at” any of the opposing cabals. If what he tells us is true, it would have been almost impossible for these players to relate to Wolff with the unbiased truth. Wolff became (or it was hoped he would become) one of the arrows in each cabal’s quiver. It is therefore impossible to tell if the emerging picture is a caricature or faithful photographic image. That question, I believe, will remain unanswered until further journalistic accounts of Trump’s first year (or tenure however long it goes) are written.

But all the same, and this is the scary part, the answer to the question doesn’t much matter here as concerns the relation between the Trump administration and the world (including ourselves in the U.S.). Whether caricature or photograph, the image is that of a very disturbed and dangerous situation, an American administration that not only does not know what it is doing broadly speaking, but whose ostensible leader appears pathologically unfit to serve in this office. Worse, he is surrounded by other pathologies of various kinds all of which overlap with at least two of his; great wealth taken for granted, and an unswerving belief in their judgments about matters with which their lives have prepared them in not the slightest way.

That, my friends, is frightening to me. But it gets even worse. Not only do they not understand the consequences of their actions as concerns the world at large, they do not really care so long as their wealth is preserved. That is only a little unfair because Wolff does paint Jarvanka as caring, they just don’t know what or how to do anything about it so their focus remains, as with the others, on their wealth, power, and even (especially in Bannon’s case as he was not rich) in the appearance of power.

The story continues to take bizarre twists. Today, January 16 2018, results of the President’s medical examination, including investigation of degenerative cognitive decline, were effusively described. The doctor, a military man with rows of campaign ribbons on his breast told us that this 71 year old (and obviously overweight) man was in perfect health physically and mentally. One wants to believe the doctor and perhaps it is so that there is no disease process detectable in the President’s brain. But perfect health is a bit hard to believe and would be of anyone who looked like Donald Trump does today. The doctor attributed it to “good genes”. Based on what Michael Wolff has told us, this could only be a signal that the news conference was a put on, a show. Or am I being paranoid?

Now September 2018 and Bob Woodward has released his book “Fear: Trump in the White House” which I have reviewed. More good journalism.

That’s all I’ll say for now. Happy to discuss in comments.

Fire and Fury Michael Wolff

This must have been a difficult book to write. There is so much story to be told and the principle threads so entangled that it must have been very difficult to tie them together in a coherent story. Wolff mostly succeeds, but not entirely. Then again that is an important part of the very story Wolff is trying to tell, the story itself is about an incoherent presidential administration.

Told in broadly chronological order of the presidential election of 2016 and the roughly first 200 days of the administration up to the middle of August 2017. At the end an epilogue focused on Steve Bannon, who has a claim to being the book’s main character, brings the story up to roughly October 2017, but the pace of news has hardly stopped there. As I write this in January 2018 I can only be sure that much more will happen. Within its chronology, there are frequent steps backwards as Wolff brings in the various characters and their varying alliances coloring-in their relation to the then forward moving part of the story. Of all the characters brought to the fore, at least among the dozen or more who are in direct proximity to the president by living or working in the West Wing, only a single pair (Ivanka and husband Jared Kushner) keep the same relationship relative to one another throughout. Every other person or cabal-like group changes relationships often multiple times as most of the individuals involved come into the story and then go out!

I do have one philosophical matter to bring up. Let’s grant that Wolff reported accurately on everything he was told by everybody. He presents a fair picture of that to which he was a party either first, or at most second (and occasionally third) hand. At the same time that which he is reporting is, he points out, the back stabbing testimony of each cabal out to paint the others in the worst light possible. Even if those to whom he spoke were not outright lying to him, at the least they were telling highly selective truths almost surely leaving much out. Our only hope in this mess is that from the back stabbing of all sides towards one another and the occasional more neutral voice (though nobody was entirely neutral) from the periphery, Wolff has put together if not a true portrait, then at least a portrait true to the Kafka-esque nature of the administration! If that is a horrible thought, it is what makes this an important book.

This is high class journalism first and foremost, but it reads at the same time like an Elmore Leonard novel! As Sean Spicer began to say “you can’t make this shit up!”. Frankly this book would be hysterically funny if it was not so downright dangerous and disturbing.