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.

Book Review: Self Knowledge for Humans by Quassim Cassam

selfie

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: 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: 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: 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.

Where Jacob Needleman Goes Wrong in “Why Can’t we be Good”

Jacob Needleman wrote “Why Can’t we be Good?” in 2007. I read it in 2017. He was a professor of mine at San Francisco State in the late 1970s. The only philosopher of religion at SFSU I took a few classes of his. Only a few. Despite a shared belief in the existence of God we disagreed about almost everything else. I see that this has not changed between then and 2007. Some of this disagreement figures in my formal review (for Amazon) of the book included below. Here in my philosophical commentary, I want to say more about it, and in particular some of that which stems from my personal experience with Jacob Needleman.

First to set some context. Needleman believes God exists. So far so good. In “Why Can’t we be Good?” he is a little vague about his concept of God vascilating between the transcent “Abrahamic God” of the world’s three major monotheisms, and something else, a “God in us”, a thread present in many religions (including the monotheisms) and emphasized in more recent movements characterized as “New Age”. I think Needleman believes that both views of God can be real at the same time which is fine by me, but in this book he is very unclear about distinguishing between the two concepts.

As is true of virtually all of today’s philosophers of religion and theologians terms like ‘person’, ‘spirit’, ‘soul’, and [less often] ‘mind’ can be used interchangeably. I am not concerned with these indistinctions here except to mention them because their blurring together does happen in this book. I am concerned rather with a problem specific to Needleman’s thought, something I came up against almost from the moment I met him and is very clearly stated in this book. One could even say it was the central point of the book. At root, the first and fundamental problem for me is that Needleman believes a genuine relationship with God (and recall he is vague about what or more precisely with whom such a relationship occurs) is a difficult achievement demanding, among other things, much study, perhaps years, and more than this, it requires the competent help of a guide, a genuinely enlightened person who can guide you through your studies. Needleman is quite clear that whatever else is necessary to successful achievement of that genuine connection, a guide, is also necessary.

How Needleman arrived at such a position I can only speculate. Having known him, my speculations might be very close to the mark. But whatever it was that brought him to this position (he does leave hints to it in the book), Needleman grew up into young adulthood and an advanced education in philosophy at a time in which the mystical and New Age ideas that fuel his viewpoint had gained a popularity in the culture of this time, something they still maintain today though far less frenetically. I think Needleman had the good fortune to seek his fortune in somewhat New Age philosophy at a time when this came to be much in demand.

In Needleman’s view, without the guide (and a guide is not the only requirement) we are literally incapable of a “genuine, deep, moral decision and action”. With the possible exception of moments of great crisis (that even this is a problem for the whole idea he just does not see) we have no real free will in the moral domain because we are all asleep, disconnected from the god within (and without). This is why we “cannot be good”. Everything we do (morally) we do out of habit or culture accretion. No moral decision really belongs to us. Needleman simply discounts what it is moral free will really represents. Not some phenomenon that requires study, but opportunity to improve the very connection Needleman asserts we don’t have by what we decide to do! Needleman does point out that one who seeks to strengthen the connection to spirit must be sincere about it, and that sincerity must lead to some action. That is all well and good except that for Needleman, any action we take that seems good is merely the outcome of our life’s moral accretions that do not by themselves get us to where we must be although such action is nevertheless (like sincerety and the guide) a necessary part of the process.

If Needleman discounts free will on the good side, he must also discount it on the bad and he does, declaring unhesitatingly that all evil in the world is the result of our disconnection from spirit. From deliberately sending tourists who ask for help in the wrong direction to ordering the construction of death camps and murdering entire communities, all of this merely a consequence of being unaware of our “true selves”. I find this notion both absurd and obscene. Needleman’s mistake also causes him to blur the distinction between error and evil. If I work in a chemical plant and accidentally open the wrong valve, perhaps I cause an explosion somewhere in the plant, a mistake, error. If on the other hand I freely open that same valve knowing it will cause that explosion, that act is not an error but evil! The difference is plain, but Needleman cannot get to it because he discounts moral free will in all but enlightened persons.

Needleman is correct about sincerity and doing something, that is acting to (freely) do the best good you can (even if it is only a small good) when a situation to do good presents itself and even if much of what you actually do is done out of habit or cultural accretion. Sincerity entails a willingness to try taking action when you can. When you do this, three things happen: (1) you become incrementally more sensitive to such opportunities for action, (2) acting becomes a little easier, and (3) your action becomes incrementally more adroit and fully free. You can call this progressive development “the working of the spirit” or just chalk it up to “practice makes perfect”. Either way, if you persist, eventually the process itself will awaken you. See my “Why Free Will”.

Notice that none of this is particularly intellectual. It is spiritual and not intellectual development. Needleman would be right to assert that the intellectual can support the spiritual. Once you are sincere and acting, study and guidance can reinforce the process, but they cannot be necessary to it.

“Why Can’t we be Good” Jacob Needleman 2007

In the interest of full disclosure, Jacob Needleman was a professor of mine at San Francisco State University where I did my philosophy MA in the late 1970s. I had a few classes from him and found we disagreed about almost everything. I will try not to get into all of that in this review, but some of it cannot, perhaps, be helped. I see the basis of our disagreements in 1979 are very much in evidence here in this book written in 2007.

In “Why Can’t we be Good?” Dr. Needleman takes stock of the evil in the world, much of it obviously the result of human behavior both now and for thousands of years past. He certainly notes that humans do also behave in what passes for goodness in their daily lives. Many of us love our children and do our best to raise them lovingly and there are instances of human action, tens of millions every day all over the world that pass for civil and often “beyond the requirements” of civil behavior. So why he asks are we not doing even better? Why does the world appear steeped in evil?

His argument is that we are not better because we have lost sight of what “real goodness” means because we have forgotten our fundamental connection to the spirit forces (God transcendent, God embodied in “our self” [often blurring these ideas]). He admits that sometimes, in crisis, we act on a “higher, genuine, moral level” but most of the time, the best we can do is merely acting our of reasonably good habits we’ve acquired from our culture, and just as often (perhaps more) we act in downright evil ways. His central claim is that we cannot find (re-discover) this connection by our-self. To re-acquire our consciousness of the fundamental connection demands a teacher, a guide, which always takes the form of some already enlightened person who can both point us to the various holy-literature (be they Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, etc) traditions where the connection is revealed but also help us to understand and interpret what exactly the traditions are trying to tell us. Without this guidance, we are, Needleman tells us, ultimately helpless. Putting it bluntly, we must study what it means to be good and appropriate these teachings into our inner being to even begin approaching genuine moral action.

If this all sounds a bit new agey “I can’t help the world without first helping myself” it is, but Needleman is more sophisticated than that. Besides a “teacher”, the student seeker must sincerely want this for him or herself. We are not in the realm of magic incantations that make us over in one fell swoop. Of course even the new age teachings also note this. What Needleman adds is his recognition that no matter how lacking we are in genuine morality, we must nevertheless try, that is act, in the world of our daily existence. We must act to do the “best we can” as we travel about our daily lives interacting with others however weak and habitual those actions might be. We must practice, not only in our studies, but in life. Only by these things, sincerity, study, and action, can we re-awaken our consciousness of the connection between ourselves and that relationship to the cosmos that results in genuinely deep, and not superficial, moral behavior.

But while Needleman is correct about the need for action, I do not believe he grasps its overriding significance. Because we (most of us) do not know who we really are our “moral free will” is minimal to non-existent. We are hemmed about by habits and cultural acquisitions, social accretions that render us incapable of genuinely free moral choices (except possibly in times of crisis). For Needleman this applies as much to evil as good. He twice quotes Socrates declaring “No man does evil intentionally”. All evil in the world (he says) stems from our disconnection (culturally induced) from the reality we are meant to know. Socrates (at least as quoted here) and Needleman fail to distinguish between error (the truly inevitable outcome of our limited perspective and cognitive abilities including all that we cannot know lying above our intellectual pay grade) and evil. The latter is precisely “error deliberately (that is freely) chosen”! It might be true that “no man does error intentionally”, but evil is evil because it is intentional!

The same must be true of “the good”. Certainly there is a continuum of moral choice from the trivial to the profound. But even our “good habits” were not always habits, we had to allow them to become habits at some time in our earlier life. The same holds for the accretions of our culture. Some of these are certainly harmful and others good. If, on balance, we have adopted (for ourselves) more good ones than bad, this too must be the result of genuinely moral choices all along the trajectory of our lives. The sincerity of the seeker, something Needleman notes is necessary for any sort of success, must already have been a freely made moral decision or it wouldn’t be “sincere”!

A better choice for a title for this book might have been “Why Can’t we be Better”, but that’s less dramatic and would put Needleman in the position of admitting that, provided we are sincere and we do the good that we are able to do now, we will grow incrementally better — practice makes perfect. A guide, should you be lucky enough to find a real one, can be helpful, but cannot be necessary. My applause here goes to Needleman’s emphasis on action, something he talks about more than either of the other two “necessities”, the guide and the sincerity of the seeker. Forty years ago I don’t remember this much recognition of the importance of acting, but then my memory certainly deceives me. In any case he has it here. Included in early chapters are some nice exercises people can actually do together that simulate “the ethical” in the “theater of the mind” as Needleman puts it. Easy to read, not technical. Will it help you along your “quest to be good”? Well it can’t hurt!

Searle on the Ontology of Social Reality

This is a very natural pair of reviews. Both focus on the same subject, the social world and how such social phenomena come about be they marriages, sporting events, cocktail parties, governments, or money. He is not concerned with the history of these things, but their ontological structure and how that structure is brought into existence. Searle devotes particular attention to how language, a special social phenomena with correspondingly unique properties. It is precisely language, particularly its capacity to make declarations (“I anoint you King”), and that these declarations can be compounded, that bring about both informal (cocktail parties) and formal (governments, money) social institutions. Language is not necessary to social organization as such. Higher animals engage in social behaviors without the benefit of language. But social behaviors are not institutions. Only humans create institutions, and declarative language is both necessary and sufficient. As Searle puts it, once you have language you already have [at least one] a social institution.

Naturally this raises some epistemological issues. Searle doesn’t much address libertarian free will in the earlier book, but in the later he has to address it because he recognizes that the obligations and powers of institutions, even abstract ones like money, ultimately devolve onto individuals. But obligations and powers stemming from the declarative utterances of individuals (many of course codified into such things as laws and constitutions) simply make no sense if their creation and subsequent behavioral acceptance was determined by physics. I would take the successful creation of functioning and persistent institutions to be evidence of the metaphysical genuineness of free will, but Searle refuses to go there, asserting nevertheless that it might be an illusion. He does not note that if illusion, nothing of philosophy makes any sense either.

At the end of the later book Searle addresses the subject of rights. He seems to recognize that there is no such thing as a “natural right” or “absolute right” outside of a social context. The consequences of being unarmed and meeting a hungry lion on the savanna should put paid to the idea of natural or absolute rights, but he wants to give a sensible context to the terms even within a social context. He tries, but I’m not sure he succeeds. Perhaps this is but a linguistic disagreement between us. Even to communicate the concept of a natural or absolute right requires language, and as Searle points out this puts the notions squarely into a social context from their inception.

The Construction of Social Reality (1997)

In an earlier review of a later book (“Seeing Things as they Are” 2015) I said Searle’s argument for “direct realism” was a bit circular. In this earlier book, he addresses that very circularity.

This book is about the physical and conceptual structure of social reality, such things as money, marriage, government, corporations, and cocktail parties. Searle points out that many animals live and cooperate in packs and so exhibit a “social reality”. All it takes to be social is for two people, or animals, to do something together. If you and I decide to go for a walk together, that, our walk, is a social fact. If we agree that a screwdriver is useful for driving screws, our agreement takes place in a social and linguistic framework in that we both know what screwdrivers and screws are for. But neither the walk, nor the screwdriver are institutional. Walking is something that humans are able to do by their physical constitution and the same goes for the screwdriver’s ability to drive screws. But other objects (coins) can also drive screws and if they can do that it is also thanks to their physical constitution.

Institutions are different. Money is not valuable intrinsically because of the properties of colored paper. It is valuable because it is embedded in an institution that applies symbols to physical things (like printed money) granting them powers they do not have merely as a product of their physics. These symbolic applications can be compounded endlessly yielding more and more complex institutions into which subsequent generations are born and raised against a background of these already symbolized and so constructed social realities. Language, that which we use to assign these symbols, is itself a socially constructed phenomenon and special because it is the institution that originates in a pre-linguistic but already social (in the animal way) context. Apart from the bodies that utter them, words work because they are symbols from the beginning. Paper colored and printed in a certain way by a certain institution (a mint) is, after all, physical. The government itself rests, ultimately, on something physical, a constitution, which is recorded in one form or another. Records (whether in language on paper, pictures, bits encoded in a computer, or uniforms conveying certain assigned powers to their wearer) are often the “at bottom” physical manifestations of our symbolic institutions. Every dollar bill is a record. Here (as I suspected) Searle and M. Ferraris (“Documentality”) come together. All of these are physical RECORDS that constitute the foundations of “from that point on” persisting social institutions. We connect the raw physical thing to the constructed institution by language.

If all of this seems too quick and over simplified, it is here in this review, but not in the book. Searle takes us through the argument that social institutions are, step by step, constructed by such symbolic assignments. “X has power to Y in context C” being the fundamental form of all institutional facts. This structure can be infinitely recursed. “Y’s” can become “X’s” and “C’s” can become “Y’s” generating symbolic constructs (social facts) recursively and Searle takes us through numerous examples demonstrating how it is that our complex social reality can be generated from the same structure which, when fully unpacked, and except for language, always finds its bottom in some physical X. Thus society grows out of the physical foundations of the world and is continuous with it.

In the book’s last three chapters, Searle connects all of this to the ontological reality of the physical world and our shared experience. Physical reality must exist in order that any statements about it are intelligible, and specific forms of physical reality (like Mt. Everest or the screwdriver) must exist and be shareable, part of our “public reality”, or we could not be sure, when we communicate (a social phenomenon) that our meanings are ever understood. If I say “the cat is on the mat” we take for granted that we know what we mean by ‘cat’, ‘mat’, and ‘on’, not to mention an enormous background of experience in physical and social reality such that we understand and agree on a reasonable range of contexts for cats, mats, and so on. Searle essentially argues that it is our capacity to communicate and construct social realities out of physical realities, that demonstrate the independent correspondence between our epistemic categories and the external world. None of this would work if not for mind-independent things structured much as (if not always exactly) we take them to be. Our capacity to communicate rests on the correspondence between language-reflected concept and mind-independent fact.

I would give this book six stars if I could. Searle is exceptionally good at getting at what he means in plain English. Anglo-analytic philosophy at its best, and about a meaningful subject!

Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization (2010)

This book written in 2010 amounts to a reprise of Searle’s earlier “The Construction of Social Reality” (1997) which I have also reviewed. In the introduction to this book Searle says there were a few issues not sufficiently clarified and his aim is to clarify them.

The two books are about the same length, but Searle manages to say much more in this one about language, free will, and the sensibility of “human rights” outside formal institutional contexts. How does he manage this feat? In the earlier book he very carefully constructs his primary insight into the structure of social institutions and carefully demonstrates its application to a wide range of social phenomena like cocktail parties, sports, money, and government. In this book, he is able to state that fundamental argument more succinctly (he’s had a lot of time to work with it after all), embedding it more firmly into a clarified examination of the nature of human language as it relates to the development of social phenomena. As a result, there is nothing in the first book that isn’t also in this second one, but for some readers the main argument, the structure of all social contexts, might be stated a little too quickly here. I had no problem with it, but then I had already read the earlier book.

But despite the extensions and clarifications here, Searle still leaves a few things not clarified. He distinguishes between negative and positive rights. “Free speech” is a negative right because it requires nothing else of others besides letting me speak my mind. By contrast, a right to clean water (a UN declaration says this is a right) is a positive right because it puts an obligation on everyone else in the world to contribute to providing such a right. Searle rightly points out that positive rights are thus more problematic than negative rights, but he does not note that the UN declaration of such positive rights puts the onus of obligation on governments rather than mere individuals. He also uses a strange example, the right (in the context of the social institution of marriage) of a spouse to be consulted by their spouse before the latter commits to some life changing course of action. This is not a negative right as he seems to cast it, but a positive right, the corresponding obligation being on the spouse contemplating the act.

Finally, Searle tries to make sense of the notions of “natural” and “absolute” rights, those that exist by virtue of our being human beings outside any social context. I do not think he clarifies these ideas fully. An unarmed man encountering a hungry lion on the savanna will be eaten by the lion ninety nine times out of a hundred and that puts paid to any such thing as “natural rights” outside social contexts.

Despite getting a little loose with the notion of “human rights” at the end of the book, this is a superb portrait of the ontological structure of social reality. In a last section, Searle points out that most social scientists do not think that a grasp of social ontology really helps them with their work but they are mostly wrong about this. Most social science (for example) begins by assuming language and then asks how social reality is constructed with it. By contrast Searle notes that once you have a language, you already have a significant social context.