We are verbs, not nouns

We are verbs, not nouns:

In Keep Going, I have a chapter called, “Forget the noun, do the verb,” and after seeing it on the poster, a reader asked if it was inspired by Stephen Fry. I had no idea what she was talking about, so I did a little googling.

In 2010, Fry was interviewed by “14-year-old Eden Parris in an interview for a Radio Times feature that enabled young readers to meet their TV heroes.” During the course of the interview, he “warned Parris that language could shape and limit people’s ambitions”:

Oscar Wilde said that if you know what you want to be, then you inevitably become it – that is your punishment, but if you never know, then you can be anything. There is a truth to that. We are not nouns, we are verbs. I am not a thing – an actor, a writer – I am a person who does things – I write, I act – and I never know what I am going to do next. I think you can be imprisoned if you think of yourself as a noun.

Of course, this would’ve been perfect for the book, but that is one of the universal laws of writing books: once you finish them, you find all the stuff you should’ve included but left out based on your ignorance.

The quote I did put in is from R. Buckminster Fuller’s classic, I Seem To Be A Verb:

Back in 2013, The New Statesman ran a piece called “What Atheists Can Learn from Believers,” in which the writer Karen Armstrong emphasized religion as a verb. “Usually religion is about doing things and it is hard work.” She pointed out that in the modern west, there’s this idea that you have to believe first, and then do. But no, “we have turned faith into a head-trip,” when, originally, the English word “belief” meant something like, “commitment.”

Credo ut intellegam – I commit myself in order that I may understand,” said Saint Anselm (1033-1109). In the late 17th century, the English word “belief” changed its meaning and became the intellectual acceptance of a somewhat dubious proposition. Religious people now think that they have to “believe” a set of incomprehensible doctrines before embarking on a religious way of life. This makes no sense. On the contrary, faith demands a disciplined and practical transcendence of egotism, a “stepping outside” the self which brings intimations of transcendent meaning that makes sense of our flawed and tragic world.

It’s remarkable to me how much you could apply what Armstrong is saying to creativity or making art. “If you don’t do religion, you don’t get it,” Armstrong says. Religion is something we do, a “practical discipline in which we learn new capacities of mind and heart.”

Paul Thek, “96 Sacraments

“It’s a practice,” Mary Karr says of her own faith. “It’s not something you believe. It’s not doctrine. Doctrine has nothing to do with it. It’s a set of actions.” I remember once, when asked to make a case for religion, she replied, “Why don’t you just pray for 30 days and see if your life gets better?

So many people think you have to first call yourself an artist, know who you are and what you’re about, and then you can start making art. No, no, no. You do the stuff first, then you can worry about what it is, who you are. The important thing is the practice. The doing. The verb.

We aren’t nouns, we are verbs. Forget the nouns, do the verbs.

(Via Austin Kleon)

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Believing without evidence is always morally wrong

Believing without evidence is always morally wrong:

You have probably never heard of William Kingdon Clifford. He is not in the pantheon of great philosophers – perhaps because his life was cut short at the age of 33 – but I cannot think of anyone whose ideas are more relevant for our interconnected, AI-driven, digital age. This might seem strange given that we are talking about a Victorian Briton whose most famous philosophical work is an essay nearly 150 years ago. However, reality has caught up with Clifford. His once seemingly exaggerated claim that ‘it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence’ is no longer hyperbole but a technical reality.

In ‘The Ethics of Belief’ (1877), Clifford gives three arguments as to why we have a moral obligation to believe responsibly, that is, to believe only what we have sufficient evidence for, and what we have diligently investigated. His first argument starts with the simple observation that our beliefs influence our actions. Everyone would agree that our behaviour is shaped by what we take to be true about the world – which is to say, by what we believe. If I believe that it is raining outside, I’ll bring an umbrella. If I believe taxis don’t take credit cards, I make sure I have some cash before jumping into one. And if I believe that stealing is wrong, then I will pay for my goods before leaving the store.

What we believe is then of tremendous practical importance. False beliefs about physical or social facts lead us into poor habits of action that in the most extreme cases could threaten our survival. If the singer R Kelly genuinely believed the words of his song ‘I Believe I Can Fly’ (1996), I can guarantee you he would not be around by now.

But it is not only our own self-preservation that is at stake here. As social animals, our agency impacts on those around us, and improper believing puts our fellow humans at risk. As Clifford warns: ‘We all suffer severely enough from the maintenance and support of false beliefs and the fatally wrong actions which they lead to …’ In short, sloppy practices of belief-formation are ethically wrong because – as social beings – when we believe something, the stakes are very high.

The most natural objection to this first argument is that while it might be true that some of our beliefs do lead to actions that can be devastating for others, in reality most of what we believe is probably inconsequential for our fellow humans. As such, claiming as Clifford did that it is wrong in all cases to believe on insufficient evidence seems like a stretch. I think critics had a point – had – but that is no longer so. In a world in which just about everyone’s beliefs are instantly shareable, at minimal cost, to a global audience, every single belief has the capacity to be truly consequential in the way Clifford imagined. If you still believe this is an exaggeration, think about how beliefs fashioned in a cave in Afghanistan lead to acts that ended lives in New York, Paris and London. Or consider how influential the ramblings pouring through your social media feeds have become in your very own daily behaviour. In the digital global village that we now inhabit, false beliefs cast a wider social net, hence Clifford’s argument might have been hyperbole when he first made it, but is no longer so today.

The second argument Clifford provides to back his claim that it is always wrong to believe on insufficient evidence is that poor practices of belief-formation turn us into careless, credulous believers. Clifford puts it nicely: ‘No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character.’ Translating Clifford’s warning to our interconnected times, what he tells us is that careless believing turns us into easy prey for fake-news pedlars, conspiracy theorists and charlatans. And letting ourselves become hosts to these false beliefs is morally wrong because, as we have seen, the error cost for society can be devastating. Epistemic alertness is a much more precious virtue today than it ever was, since the need to sift through conflicting information has exponentially increased, and the risk of becoming a vessel of credulity is just a few taps of a smartphone away.

Clifford’s third and final argument as to why believing without evidence is morally wrong is that, in our capacity as communicators of belief, we have the moral responsibility not to pollute the well of collective knowledge. In Clifford’s time, the way in which our beliefs were woven into the ‘precious deposit’ of common knowledge was primarily through speech and writing. Because of this capacity to communicate, ‘our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought’ become ‘common property’. Subverting this ‘heirloom’, as he called it, by adding false beliefs is immoral because everyone’s lives ultimately rely on this vital, shared resource.

While Clifford’s final argument rings true, it again seems exaggerated to claim that every little false belief we harbour is a moral affront to common knowledge. Yet reality, once more, is aligning with Clifford, and his words seem prophetic. Today, we truly have a global reservoir of belief into which all of our commitments are being painstakingly added: it’s called Big Data. You don’t even need to be an active netizen posting on Twitter or ranting on Facebook: more and more of what we do in the real world is being recorded and digitised, and from there algorithms can easily infer what we believe before we even express a view. In turn, this enormous pool of stored belief is used by algorithms to make decisions for and about us. And it’s the same reservoir that search engines tap into when we seek answers to our questions and acquire new beliefs. Add the wrong ingredients into the Big Data recipe, and what you’ll get is a potentially toxic output. If there was ever a time when critical thinking was a moral imperative, and credulity a calamitous sin, it is now.

(Via Aeon)

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Should “the ignorant” be denied access to audiences?

Footnotes to Plato is creating essays and podcasts on general philosophy & practical Stoicism | Patreon:

People who ended up voting for Donald Trump were famously characterized by Hillary Clinton as the “basket of deplorables.” And I must admit that I wonder in stupor at the foolishness of US politics, the recent Italian elections, Brexit, or the re-election of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not to mention what seem to be genuinely adoring crowds in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

How is any of this possible? It’s always a complex combination of factors, of course, ranging from people’s socio-economic situation to their ideological or religious commitments, to deficient education, to the pure and simple human herd instinct that so annoyed Nietzsche. But surely one thing that contributes to the current insane state of affairs is the reach that pernicious ideologues have in the modern era, a reach made far more efficient by the existence of the internet and social media. And by the fact that these people are often offered platforms to address audiences by institutions such as universities, newspapers, television stations and the like.

My colleague Bryan Van Norden, a professor of philosophy at Wuhan University, as well as the author of “Taking Back Philosophy: A Multicultural Manifesto,” has published a thought provoking op-ed about institutional platforms in the New York Times. It is well worth considering in some detail, as I see where Bryan is coming from, but I consider his proposed path dangerous, and his argument self-contradictory.

He begins with a couple of examples. Ultra right-wing commentator Ann Coulter recently appeared on Fox News to say that the crying migrant children separated from their parents by the Trump administration were child actors. Van Norden comments: “Does this groundless claim deserve as much airtime as, for example, a historically informed argument from Ta-Nehisi Coates that structural racism makes the American dream possible?” University of Toronto psychologist, and darling of the alt-right, Jordan Peterson talked about how difficult it is to control “crazy women” and the fact that men naturally can muster respect only for people whom they can threat with violence. Bryan’s comments: “Does this adolescent opinion deserve as much of an audience as the nuanced thoughts of Kate Manne, a professor of philosophy at Cornell University, about the role of ‘himpathy’ in supporting misogyny?”

The classical liberal response to these questions is that Ann Coulter and Jordan Peterson ought to be accorded freedom of speech, on grounds famously laid out by John Stuart Mill in his On Liberty, published in 1859. The argument is based on the following considerations: (i) you may think opinion X is clearly wrong, but history is littered with people, even majorities, who were sure that something was wrong when it turned out that it wasn’t (say, that gays should have a right to marry); (ii) if X is indeed wrong, then we learn something from people who defend it, because we need to make clear to ourselves why a given notion is, in fact, wrong (otherwise, we reject it out of prejudice, not knowledge or understanding); (iii) truth is not an all or nothing matter, so we may learn even from partially or largely wrong opinions; (iv) if an opinion offends you, that’s not sufficient reason to suppress it; and (v) who, exactly, ought to be in charge of limiting the expression of unpopular or “offensive” opinions?

Van Norden calls the above line of reasoning “specious,” adding that it is rooted in “a naïve conception of rationality that [Mill] inherited from Enlightenment thinkers like René Descartes.” [Technically, Descartes influenced the Enlightenment, but was not an Enlightenment thinker, since he lived from 1596 to 1650, and the European Enlightenment was an 18th century thing.]

Bryan argues that “If you do have faith in a universal method of reasoning that everyone accepts, then the Millian defense of absolute free speech is sound,” but he very clearly states that there is no such thing as universal reason, so we should reject Mill’s argument. I think that Van Norden’s statement is ambiguous and that what he argues in the remainder of the NYT op-ed flatly contradicts his opening statement.

He writes: “I wish it were self-evident to everyone that we should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, but the current vice president of the United States does not agree. I wish everyone agreed that it is irrational to deny the evidence that there was a mass shooting in Sandy Hook, but a syndicated radio talk show host can make a career out of arguing for the contrary.”

But the fact that Mike Pence does not agree with a given notion does not mean that the notion in question is not self-evident, it may simply be that Pence denies self-evident truths, either because he is too ignorant to see them, or because of bigotry, or political expediency. Similarly, a nutcase radio talk show host, syndicated or not, may deny empirical evidence all he wants, but that doesn’t mean that his denial is reasonable. At all.

Bryan understands why Mill, and Alexis de Tocqueville, made their argument. Mill was a strong proponent of women’s rights and an opponent of slavery, and he knew too well that many people found such topics offensive, resulting in what he famously termed a tyranny of the majority.

But, argues Van Norden, we are in a very different situation from 19th century England and America. We are witnessing the worsening of a scenario already described by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse back in 1965, when he wrote: “In endlessly dragging debates over the media, the stupid opinion is treated with the same respect as the intelligent one, the misinformed may talk as long as the informed, and propaganda rides along with education, truth with falsehood.”

This is quite obviously true, of course (or is it?). Only a foolish society would give “equal time” to the discussion of evolutionary theory and creation “science,” or to a climate researcher and a so-called “skeptic” of global warming, or a medical researcher and Jenny McCarthy. But setting aside that a lot of other cases, especially political opinions (as distinct from scientific theories) are not quite so easy to settle, what is the alternative? Mill wasn’t naive about how difficult it is for most people to wade through public controversies. He just thought that freedom of speech was the least of possible evils.

Marcuse famously advocated the outright suppression of right-wing perspectives, a position that, thankfully, Bryan does not endorse. Instead, he makes an intriguing proposal: to distinguish between free speech and just access: “access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole.”

But that comes perilously close to begging the question against Mill: on what criteria should we apportion the merit of different opinions? How do we figure out what is just? How do we measure the benefit of an opinion for the community as a whole? Recall that Van Norden has denies that there is such thing as universal reason. It follows that all such judgments are bound to be arbitrary, and therefore simply to reflect the will of the people who happen to be wielding power by virtue of controlling the limited resources Bryan is referring to. This may not be quite a tyranny of the majority, but it is still a tyranny (of the elite, perhaps?).

Let’s take a look at some of the specific examples Van Norden brings up. In 2004 one Nathaniel Abraham was fired by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute because he admitted to his employer that he did not believe in evolution. Correctly, Bryan asserts that Abraham has a right to his wacky opinion, but that Woods Hole has a right to fire him on the grounds that he holds such opinion. But this has nothing to do with freedom of speech or institutional access: Woods Hole is a preeminent research laboratory that carries out a lot of work on evolution, so Abraham had simply admitted to his incompetence at working there. It would be like NASA firing a flat-earth believer. Or a hospital a doctor who did not “believe” in vaccines.

The next example is more pertinent, but far less clear: Van Norden claims that a number of universities, including Columbia and NYU, should not have invited Charles Murray, the co-author of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life to speak on their campuses. Why? Because Murray’s notions are junk science. That is true, I think (for a variety of reasons, including those explained here and here), but there are two additional factors to consider. First off, “universities” don’t invite anyone; often it is specific faculty or student associations that do. And to bar invited speakers in either case amounts to an infringement of academic freedom or students’ rights. Second, I am of the opinion that a significant chunk of what goes on in a number of legitimate university departments is either questionable or downright junk (no, I will not mention names). But, again, I don’t get to decide which is which. I do get, however, to argue — in perfectly Millian fashion — in favor or against certain programs, positions, claims, and so forth.

Bryan’s third example is the recent firing by ABC of their television star, Roseanne Barr, because of her racist public remarks. But that’s yet another situation altogether. Barr did not make her remarks on television, and she was fired from ABC because the network was (rightly, I think) embarrassed by her behavior, and feared a public backlash. Of course, had the episode happened, say, in the 1950s, ABC would have likely not moved a finger about it. I assume it is a rationally objective fact that we have made (some) improvements in our thinking about race and gender since then, but of course Van Norden cannot claim so, because he does not believe in universal reason.

Bryan mentions recent research in social psychology showing that if a falsehood is repeated, even when it is in order to debunk it, people are more likely to believe it. This is both true (maybe, since there is a replication crisis ongoing in that field) and worrisome, but is it — as Van Norden claims — reason to cheer MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” decision never again to invite Kellyanne Conway because of her bizarre notion of “alternative facts”? I don’t know. It is very unfortunate that someone like Conway is currently a high profile government official, but isn’t a journalist supposed to challenge that sort of notion, rather than suppress it? Besides, by way of similar actions MSNBC has now gathered the reputation (deservedly or not) of the left’s Fox, which makes their decision about Conway come across to many as naked partisanship. Is this really helpful to public discourse? I’m not so sure.

Bryan says that “right to free speech is not the right to an audience,” and he is correct. But in philosophy we make a distinction between negative and positive rights. You may have, say, the negative right of being allowed to leave the country whenever you wish. But if things are such that you could never muster the means to actually leave, you do not have a corresponding positive right, and negative rights by themselves are largely useless. To pick a more concrete example, in the US (for now) women have a right to abortion. But such right is meaningless if local state legislatures make it so difficult for abortion clinics to practice that for all effective purposes a woman in Texas or Alabama has to drive hundreds of miles, or even go out of state, to get an abortion. Ironically, it is a typical tactic of the right that whenever they cannot eliminate a negative right (like abortion, again, for now) they go after its positive counterpart, thus making it difficult or impossible for people to enjoy that right. The same goes for speech: if I have a “right” to it, but I am then systematically denied audiences by a small number of gatekeepers, I might as well shout in the void. And, again, who gets to make such decisions, and on what grounds, given that there is no universal reason?

Van Norden concludes his op-ed by stating: “These views [that he criticizes] are specious, and those who espouse them are, at best, ignorant, at worst, sophists,” calling people who hold those views “invincibly ignorant and intellectual hucksters.” It sounds to me like Bryan thinks he has good reasons to think that these people’s opinions are, in fact, wrong. I agree with his assessment. And so should any reasonable person, because reason isn’t a matter of your personal opinion — across time and cultures. There are standards of evidence and argument that have been worked out over the past two and a half millennia of philosophy and science, way before the European Enlightenment came about. On my part, I prefer by far a society where we do our utmost so that more and more people are familiar with such standards and apply them properly, rather than one in which whoever happens to be in charge is going to decide which resources to apportion to whom. Call me an old fashioned Millian, in that sense.

(Via Massimo Pigliucci)

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Stoicism as a modern guide to life | Footnotes to Plato on Patreon

Stoicism as a modern guide to life | Footnotes to Plato on Patreon:

If you’re looking for a practical, good-for-you guide to keeping your sanity in our complicated, overstimulated society, look back…way back…to the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy of Stoicism. You’ll be in good company. Stoicism is all the rage in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street— Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates often are described as following Stoic principles—and in books, online courses and live events. Why follow a way of approaching life that dates back to around 300 BCE? Human nature still is pretty much the same—people want love, wealth, children and respect, and they still are afraid of disease, natural disasters, poverty and being spoken ill of. As much as ever, people today need a framework to orient themselves, set priorities, appreciate the good and handle the bad.

Stoicism may sound simple, but once you start to apply its principles every day, it’s remarkably liberating.

Stoicism is not about suppressing emotion (à la Star Trek’s Mr. Spock) or being so self-reliant that you don’t need anyone. What it is about, fundamentally, is recognizing that each of us can control only our own judgments, decisions, intentions and behaviors—we can’t control outcomes. If you’re not successful, learn from it and move on. It’s that two-part approach— living in the moment but always striving to become a better person—that gives this philosophy its edge. When making major decisions, Stoics consider the following four “cardinal virtues”…

  • Practical wisdom: The knowledge of what is good and bad, and what needs to be done.
  • Courage: Not just physical courage but also the moral courage to face daily challenges with clarity and integrity.
  • Temperance: The exercise of self-restraint and moderation in all aspects of life.
  • Justice: Treating others fairly even when they have done wrong.

At the root of Stoicism is respect for other humans. The ancient Stoics were the only major group of free people at the time who were openly opposed to slavery and who thought that women were full-fledged human beings. Here’s how classic Stoicism might help you approach some very modern challenges…

Read the linked article for a series of modern challenges and the corresponding Stoic response.

(Via Massimo Pigliucci)

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Kanda Used Book Festival

This weekend and last (26-27 Oct & 03-04 Nov), the Kanda Used Book Festival took over the main drag surrounding Jimbocho Station.

The Kanda Used Book Festival is one of the largest annual events in the Jimbocho district of Kanda—renowned as a town of used and antique books. The organizers go further to claim it’s the largest event of its kind in the world.

For the festival, bookshelves are placed on the sidewalks of the area’s main street (Yasukuni Dori), creating a long corridor of books that faces the local bookstores. In addition to the street market, a variety of related events are scheduled during the festival, including a Special Used Book Sale Fair (at the Tokyo Used Book Kaikan underground hall)—featuring rare and valuable books—and library seal workshops.

A delivery service is also available for purchased books, so you can buy up lots without having to worry about carting your loot home.

(Via tokyocheapo.com)

As my well documented (and commented upon) deficiencies with my Japanese studies have no quick fix, I choose to look upon this as an advantage: the number of English language books is limited so I won’t blow my whole month’s budget on books I might not get around to reading until the next Kanda festival.

And yet, I still managed to spend a healthy sum of ¥2200. But the rewards … 

  • The Discourses and Manual, Vol. 1 by Epictetus
  • Confessions of an Advertising Man by David Ogilvy
  • The Thoughts of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius, Translated by George Long
  • The Story of Old Japan by Joseph H. Longford
  • Moral Essays, Vol. 3 by Seneca (Loeb Classical Library)

In all cases they are first editions and except for the Ogilvy and Seneca tomes are over 90 years old. All are in remarkable shape for their age, even the Epictetus one with the Japanese handwriting in it. The author of those notes was both tidy and brief – the notes only continue for about 10 pages.

All in all, I am pleased with my purchases. I could have gone down a deep dive on Robert Lewis Stevenson, for example. The likelihood of actually reading those was slim, so I wisely if begrudgingly resisted purchasing them.

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