Up@dawn 2.0

Friday, May 31, 2019

Why Fiction Drumpfs Truth

We humans know more truths than any species on earth. Yet we also believe the most falsehoods.
By Yuval Noah Harari

Many people believe that truth conveys power. If some leaders, religions or ideologies misrepresent reality, they will eventually lose to more clearsighted rivals. Hence sticking with the truth is the best strategy for gaining power. Unfortunately, this is just a comforting myth. In fact, truth and power have a far more complicated relationship, because in human society, power means two very different things.

On the one hand, power means having the ability to manipulate objective realities: to hunt animals, to construct bridges, to cure diseases, to build atom bombs. This kind of power is closely tied to truth. If you believe a false physical theory, you won’t be able to build an atom bomb.

On the other hand, power also means having the ability to manipulate human beliefs, thereby getting lots of people to cooperate effectively. Building atom bombs requires not just a good understanding of physics, but also the coordinated labor of millions of humans. Planet Earth was conquered by Homo sapiens rather than by chimpanzees or elephants, because we are the only mammals that can cooperate in very large numbers. And large-scale cooperation depends on believing common stories. But these stories need not be true. You can unite millions of people by making them believe in completely fictional stories about God, about race or about economics.

The dual nature of power and truth results in the curious fact that we humans know many more truths than any other animal, but we also believe in much more nonsense. We are both the smartest and the most gullible inhabitants of planet Earth. Rabbits don’t know that E=MC² , that the universe is about 13.8 billion years old and that DNA is made of cytosine, guanine, adenine and thymine. On the other hand, rabbits don’t believe in the mythological fantasies and ideological absurdities that have mesmerized countless humans for thousands of years. No rabbit would have been willing to crash an airplane into the World Trade Center in the hope of being rewarded with 72 virgin rabbits in the afterlife... (continues)
Don’t Let Nationalists Speak for the Nation
The 2020 candidates who seek to oust Drumpf must defend liberal democracy against illiberalism at home and abroad.

By Jill Lepore

Every political campaign involves a choice between elevating political discourse and degrading it. The 2016 election brought a pornographic film star into prime time and made “pussy” front-page news. How it could get any worse in 2020 is difficult to imagine. But the problem isn’t the word “pussy” and the pornification of politics, however demeaning; the problem is the word “nationalism” and the abandonment of liberalism.

“I’m a nationalist, O.K.?” President Drumpf said at a rally in Houstonlast year. “Use that word.”

Please do not use that word. But please do use the word “nation” — the nation of the Gettysburg Address, “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” — and please do use the word “liberalism,” which is what Lincoln meant by that proposition.

Candidates who swat at Mr. Drumpf’s tweets like so many black flies will only find themselves eaten alive. But anyone running in 2020 who is willing to ignore the flies has an opportunity to speak with clarity and purpose about what’s at stake: the liberal nation-state itself.

The United States is a nation founded on a deeply moral commitment to human dignity. All of us are equal: We are equal as citizens and we are equal under the law. Notwithstanding the agony and hypocrisy of the nation’s past and the cruelty and pettiness of its present, these truths endure, in the form of liberalism. Liberalism is not a species of partisanship. Liberalism is the belief that people are good and should be free and that people organize governments in order to guarantee that freedom. That guarantee includes protecting a habitable planet... (continues)

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Identity and Truth

Our first class is Wednesday, June 5 - COE 148, 5 pm. We'll introduce ourselves (with my standard Opening Day questions taking on a particular relevance: Who are you? Why are you here?); we'll share some general observations and begin to raise questions about the subject of identity and its relation to truth/falsehood. I'll prompt everyone to post a short essay, before next class, on one of the discussion questions to be posted on our CoPhilosophy blog site - watch this space for that, and for the syllabus - before our 2d meeting. I don't plan to use D2L, except perhaps to share texts and possibly experiment with the quiz feature.

Our reading assignment for the 2d week, June 12, will be the first three chapters of Identity: A Very Short Introduction.

Typically in class we'll have two quizzes over each week's assigned reading (or one quiz in two parts, if you prefer... notice how identity in this instance is largely a matter of framing), with corresponding discussion. We'll go over and discuss the first, then take a break before going over the second. If weather conditions permit and there's consensual interest in doing so, we can move our discussion(s) outside. I'm a peripatetic...
("Followers of the Greek Aristotle were known as peripatetics because they passed their days strolling and mind-wrestling through the groves of the Academe. The Romans’ equally high opinion of walking was summed up pithily in the Latin proverb: 'It is solved by walking.'” Gymnasiums of the Mind
but the summer heat, and the late hour of our class, can pose particular challenges to that style of philosophizing for some. So, fingers crossed for temperate evenings in M'boro this summer, and the shared energy to exploit and enjoy them. We should be able to finish by 8 pm or so, most nights, with an option to adjourn to a more fluid and nourishing venue (like the Boulevard) if anyone is so inclined.
Week 1, June 5. Introductions, overview, author sign-ups
  "      2,  June 12. Identity: A Very Short Introduction (Coulmas), Introduction, 1-3
  "      3,  June 19. Coulmas, 4-7
  "      4,   June 26. Coulmas, 8-conclusion
  "      5, July 3. The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (Appiah), 1-2
  "      6, July 10. Appiah, 3-4
  "      7, July 17. Appiah, 5-coda
  "      8, July 24. The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity (Tarver), tba. Begin final reports...
  "      9, July 31. Tarver, tba.
  "      10, Aug 7. On Bullshit (Frankfurt)-Is sincerity really BS? Conclude final reports. Exam, drawn from weekly quiz questions.

Final report consists of a presentation, accompanying blogpost, a couple of discussion questions and a quiz of at least four questions over the material you present. You may wish to select a specific text to anchor your report (see, for instance, the Further Reading section of Identity: A VSI for suggestions). The exam will be drawn from the weekly quizzes that we go over in class.

Scorecard. We'll track participation on baseball-style scorecards: come to class to get on 1st base. Post comments, questions (discussion questions and alternative quiz questions), and links (to relevant articles, websites, books, etc.) before class to move on to 2d, 3d, and home (one base for each). I'll show you how to do it, if you've never scored a game before.
Week 2 Quiz (also post your alternate quiz questions, in "comments")
Intro, ch1
1. Name two things that can be said to have an identity, and two kinds of identity.
2. What is the constructivist view of identity?
3. The modern concept of identity is rooted in what?
4. How did Montaigne echo Socrates, with what implication for the question of identity?
5. What (briefly) did Locke, Leibniz, and Hegel say about identity?
6. Descartes said identity rests in what?
7. Mental essentialism and religious views of identity face what puzzle?
8. What's different about the postmodern self?


Week 2 Discussion Questions (also post your discussion questions...)

  • You can answer this one before you do the assigned reading (and plan to revisit it, at semester's end): Who are you? 
  • Ditto: Why are you here? Why are we?
  • In his book Fantasyland, Kurt Andersen says Americans are heir to a 500-year history of magical thinking, of claiming an inherent right to believe whatever we want to believe as a matter of our core national identity, and of generally taking a cavalier attitude towards truth and falsehood. In that light, he says the notorious pattern of inveterate lying by the current president should not surprise us. But, he concludes, we must not collude in this tradition. We must call out the liars and bullshitters (as we'll see with Harry Franfurt, there's a difference). What do you think? 
  • Pick one of the items in the 2d paragraph list on p.1, and discuss its identity: is it controversial, problematic, trivial,... ? (For example, the identity of twins is to me a fascinating case-study in the ways some siblings forge unique identities while others seem to conform and blend in. It raises interesting points about nature and nurture. It anticipates the kinds of ethical issues we may someday face if humans ever begin cloning themselves. Etc.)
  • Whose views on identity most appeal to you: Montaigne, Socrates, Locke, Leibniz, Hegel, Descartes, or none of the above?
  • How is our personal identity "molded by the people we interact with"? (10) How is theirs molded by ours? Why do some people have a greater impact in molding others? What should we teach our children about their peer interactions? (And what should we understanding about the limits of our teaching?)
  • "'My body enjoys watching the gulls' is odd." Why?
  • Does it trouble you, or threaten your sense of identity, that you can't control or remember your dreams?
  • How central to your sense of yourself is the fact of human mortality?
  • Does it trouble you to think of yourself as an evolving open system, rather than an organism/person with fixed essential properties? 

Good to see this course filling (by summer standards)...

Coming Summer '19: MALA 6030, Topics in Culture and Ideas: Identity and TruthPhilosophy's perennial questions surrounding issues of personal and communal identity (Who and what am I, who are we, how do we understand continuous identity through change, does the public interest transcend individual rights, what do we owe one another, to whom and to what should we direct our ultimate allegiance...) are joined in our time by pressing questions about our commitment to truth, facts, and reality as something independent of partisan or "tribal" membership in parties, sects, and states. This course explores such questions, in the context of the thesis that a more cosmopolitan ("citizen of the world") identity is crucial to reclaiming civility and honesty in our public discourse. Texts include Identity: A Very Short Introduction (Coulmas); The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (Appiah)The I in Team: Sports Fandom and the Reproduction of Identity (Tarver); On Bullshit (Frankfurt)...

Kwame Anthony Appiah (@KAnthonyAppiah)
Links to all the pieces over the last couple of weeks about the themes of my book-- bit.ly/TheLiesThatBind --magazine and newspaper articles, interviews and podcasts can be found on my website here

Appiah on the Ethics of Identity...  Identity and Violence by Amartya Sen... Yuval Noah Harari, "Why Fiction Trumps Truth"
This guy's manner and presentation are a bit irritating, to me... but maybe you'll find his content helpful. (& his "Arguments Against PI")


More Identity from TED...
Daniel Dennett says any sense of identity predicated on the notion of a substantial and enduring self is a "user illusion"...

Carl Sagan articulated an expansive, truly cosmopolitan sense of collective identity that embraces but also transcends humanity: “Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.” Cosmos... (Pale Blue Dot...)
Alan Watts said there's a taboo against learning your true identity... (Did you see the film "Her"? Who was "he," at the end?)

The late Derek Parfit... (at the Oxford Union)...

Five Best Books on Identity and the Mind... Best Books on Lying...

"One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted. Most people are rather confident of their ability to recognize bullshit and to avoid being taken in by it..."
Harry Frankfurt, "On Bullshit
"Know Thyself as a Sports Fan" - Erin Tarver

Personal Identity in a recently published philosophy text