Showing posts from November, 2020

No New Worlds to Discover?

 Alexander at 30 something grieved that there were no more world's to conquer.  Robbert Dijkgraaf writing in Quanta, asks whether physics has reached that sad state.  While he concludes in the negative, his denial sounds more like "hey, we can still add a few decimal points here and there." Lubos Motl and Peter Woit both have commentaries up today, and Lubos is predictably outraged at his one time coauthor, and Peter is more measured. The Universe still has some puzzles for us of course, but it is not clear that their understanding will have the same kinds of revolutionary import that the discoveries of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein and the quantum theorists have had.  In particular, the Cosmos is starting to feel a bit cramped.  Of course it is indeed large beyond our imaginings, but there don't seem to be dragons out there, or at least not dragons that we don't already know about.  Black holes, quasars, gamma ray bursters all seem to fit pretty neatly under known la

Psychohistory the creation of Isaac Asimov and the central element in his Foundation series.  I'm not much of a fan, but it seems that he was anticipated both by J. S. Mill and (negatively) by Marx.  Popper calls Mill's notion that sociology can be reduced to psychology "psychologism," and seems generally approving of Marx's rejection of it in favor of independent foundations for sociology, though of course rejecting Marx for the even greater crime of "historicism," the notion that the historical future is baked into the past, and determined by ineluctable laws of historical development. Marx apparently made it his project to discover those laws, but like many another philosopher discovered mostly those laws that he wanted to believe. I wish I could remember who said "prediction is hard, especially of the future.*" *Well of course it was Niels Bohr.  Google remembers all.

Good Intentions

 But bad results. The collectivists … have the zest for progress, the sympathy for the poor, the burning sense of wrong, the impulse for great deeds, which have been lacking in latter-day liberalism. But their science is founded on a profound misunderstanding …, and their actions, therefore, are deeply destructive and reactionary. So men’s hearts are torn, their minds divided, they are offered impossible choices. WALTER LIPPMANN. Popper, Karl R.. The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton Classics) . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.  Popper, like Lippman, gives Marx credit for good intentions, but attributes his failures to the fundamental error of his analysis.  Like Plato and Hegel, Marx was a "historicist" who was convinced that history was deterministic and headed inevitably in the direction that he predicted.  Marx, says Popper, was influenced by the determinism of Laplace and the physicists of his time, a notion neither justified by theory and law or even by

Hegel by Popper

Popper's Hegel is the most loathsome of philosophers.  He was the court philosopher of Fredrick Wilhelm III of Prussia and as such, his primary impulse was to justify the monarch's absolutism in a world turning against it.  Many diseases of German politics and history can be traced to him - the fascism, the racism, the bellicosity that plunged the world into two global wars and shattered the German empires. An obscurantist and a charlatan, he poisoned generations of German philosophy.  Not least of his crimes, I imagine, is his role in inspiring Marx, but I haven't gotten that far in the book yet. 

Things Fall Apart*

OK, I always wanted a post with a title stolen from Yeats "The Second Coming" but the punchline here is that when they do, they fall apart into roughly cubical shapes (on average).  Such, at any rate, is the claim of a geologist and a mathematician.  The core insight comes from pure mathematics.  If you slice any large scale object up with random plane slices, you tend to wind up with pieces with six faces and eight vertices. Oddly enough, this result seems to have been anticipated by Plato in his dialogue Timaeus , where he assigned each of his essences (earth, air, water, fire, and a fifth, cosmic essence) to one of the Platonic solids.  Earth got cubes.  So far as I know, there is no cosmic link with the dodecahedron. Some details here:

Girl Fight

 False advertising.  Really just Schopenhauer on Hegel. Schopenhauer, who had the pleasure of knowing Hegel personally and who suggested13 the use of Shakespeare’s words, ‘such stuff as madmen tongue and brain not’, as the motto of Hegel’s philosophy, drew the following excellent picture of the master: ‘Hegel, installed from above, by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense. This nonsense has been noisily proclaimed as immortal wisdom by mercenary followers and readily accepted as such by all fools, who thus joined into as perfect a chorus of admiration as had ever been heard before. The extensive field of spiritual influence with which Hegel was furnished by those in power has enabled him to achieve the intellectual corruption of a whole generation.’ Popper, Karl R.. The Open Society and Its Enemies (P

The Most Hated President

 It is said that Biden does not want Trump investigated: I predict that if Biden does some kind of Gerald Ford pardon he will instantly become the most hated President in history - Republicans will still hate him but not nearly as much as Democrats will.  His Presidency will instantly lose all credibility. Let the law do its work.  If Trump is guilty, let him be convicted.

On to Hegel

 Having spent most of 9 chapters relentlessly bashing Plato, Popper now turns to praising his originality and profundity.  Mostly this praise does not delve too deeply into what is being praised, but a few remarks caught my eye, especially the claim that Euclid was not so much a textbook of geometry as the Platonic schools attempt to provide a foundation for Plato's geometric cosmology, expounded in Timaeus.  Since I mainly recall Timaeus as as absurd and naive, I was a bit befuddled by the remark, but one can hardly doubt that even Kepler was long under the spell of Timaeus .   I mostly remembered the dialogue for the central role played by the five Platonic solids, but Wikipedia has a nice summary:'_account , which includes some nicely animated rotating images of those solids. Next, Popper begins Hegel with a chapter on Aristotle, whom he regards as Hegel's source and inspiration.  Popper is not a fan


Chapter 10 of The Open Society and its Enemies, also titled TOSAIE, is a reward for some of the past labor.  Popper is both eloquent and expansive here, clearly describing his vision of the open society, and giving much needed background on Athens in the 5th Century BCE.  He introduces a pantheon of heroes of the open society: Protagoras, Democritus, and, above all, Pericles and Socrates. Given that much of what we know of Socrates comes to us from Plato, it is a little curious that he seems to ultimately be the most fundamental betrayer of Socrates and his philosophic thought.  It seems clear that the "Socrates" of The Republic and other late dialogues is so at odds with the Socrates we see in more personal dialogues thought to be early. Popper tries to analyze this betrayal, and comes up some interesting ideas, including some supposed signs of guilty regret, but I won't pretend to evaluate them.  It is his final chapter devoted to Plato, and I have to say that he closes

Some Popperian Equivalence Classes

I am frequently confused by some of the terms Popper uses in TOSAIE, so I constructed a short list of terms he considers equivalent or at least closely related. The Open Society: Democratic, liberal, humanitarian, universalist, dynamic, open, having faith in reason, freedom, and the brotherhood of man. Totalitarian Society: Tribal, conservative, reactionary, backword looking, aristocratic or oligarchic,  repressive, anti-intellectual, particularist. I find the "tribal" a bit incongruous, but I can deal with it. Needless to say, I'm on the side of his good guys, 

Oligarchs vs. Democrats

 2500 years ago. The next passages quoted, written as a general reflection on the Corcyraean Revolution of 427 B.C., are interesting, first as an excellent picture of the class situation; secondly, as an illustration of the strong words Thucydides could find when he wanted to describe analogous tendencies on the side of the democrats of Corcyra. (In order to judge his lack of impartiality we must remember that in the beginning of the war Corcyra had been one of Athens’ democratic allies, and that the revolt had been started by the oligarchs.) Moreover, the passage is an excellent expression of the feeling of a general social breakdown: ‘Nearly the whole Hellenic world’, writes Thucydides, ‘was in commotion. In every city, the leaders of the democratic and of the oligarchic parties were trying hard, the one to bring in the Athenians, the other the Lacedaemonians … The tie of party was stronger than the tie of blood … The leaders on either side used specious names, the one party professi

Bad Medicine

 A familiar saying is that if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.  That advice is particularly hard to take for the committed ideologue.  One of the besetting problems of American society is the existence of large gaps in educational achievement, much of it correlated with race. This problem has attracted a lot of would be solutions, including, prominently, the Head Start program, and Affirmative Action. If we accept that achievement differences are due to discrimination or existing economic and social discrepancies, interventions like Head Start sound reasonable.  In fact, they have nearly always been a failure.  The heart of this ideology is what has been called the "Blank Slate" - the notion that the brain is a blank slate upon which anything can be written.  Evidence that this is not the case is derided as biased or worse.  Not only that, but research into the biological underpinning of intelligence has been condemned as immoral - not for its practices or methods b

Magical, Tribal, Collectivist

 Plato, says Popper, is hankering back to an earlier Greek Tribal Society.  Popper equates tribalism, magic, and collectivist societies with out much trouble about justification.  I think this is  both bizarre and improbable anthropology.  In the first place, every known society has magical and collectivist elements.  Not only that, but it is now clear that societies originally called "tribal" are very diverse and few of them resembled the bronze age conquerors of Greece. I don't see his point here.

Where Did Plato Go Wrong?

 After eight chapters mostly dedicated to beating up Plato, in Chapter 9, Popper turn to his own theory of how to construct a better state: piecemeal social engineering - not revolution but evolution.  The manifest advantage is the ability to discern effects without nearly so much disruption of society and human life.  His model is based on the way science and engineering work and I agree completely. To me, the advantages are manifest from the standpoint of the Twentieth or Twenty-First Century, but Popper then turns to why Plato went wrong.  He attributes it to aestheticism and perfectionism, but I don't think this is quite right. One of Plato's most important inventions was his Theory of Forms.  He seems to have been led to it by puzzling over the question of common nouns.  Proper nouns, like Plato, or the dog named Pluto, each have their specific referent, but what is the referent for "man" or "dog?" Perhaps overly influenced by geometry, he concluded tha

Slogging Through Popper

 Popper continues to beat Plato mercilessly, and if we take Popper literally, he indeed deserves it.  But does the more or less innocent reader deserve this tiresome tirade? I most say, at this point, how can anyone have ever taken this ridiculous crap seriously?  Perhaps I am missing something. A short catalog of Plato's crimes a)A fascism both extreme and absurd.  Ridiculously unworkable and viciously brutal. b)Dishonest in his arguments and an advocate of dishonesty. c)Putting his most un Socratic ideas in the mouth of Socrates. Did this guy do anything worthwhile?  If he did, I expect that we won't hear it from Popper. Popper's crime: Logorrea both brutal and extreme.

Robot Conquest

 Azerbaijan won a short, bloody war against Armenia this week, and the victory was due mainly to a new technology.  Turkish and Israeli UAVs (AKA, drones) destroyed Armenian soldiers, tanks, vehicles, and air defense sites almost with impunity.  These robot warriors took a giant step towards rendering many long established military technologies obsolete. Drones are dirt cheap compared to a traditional air force and require a far more modest logistical support system.  Because countries are cranking them out and selling them to all comers, they represent a major escalation in military prowess for relatively small and weak nations.  I am not aware of drones that can challenge the immensely expensive manned fighters deployed by superpowers, but there can be no doubt that they are just around the corner. The Washington Post has a major story on the recent war and the role of the drones:

A Democratic Republic

In Chapter Seven of TOSAIE, Popper offers his alternative to Plato's totalitarian state, which is described in his misleadingly titled Republic .  Popper argues for the democratic republic, not because its decision are likely to be perfect, or perfectly reflect the "will of the people," but because it offers a convenient and nonviolent way to remove tyrants and other corrupt rulers.  Those advantages should be in clear focus for Americans today.  For me, this argument is both persuasive and unassailable.  Contrary to Plato's static state, it is inherently dynamic, an absolute necessity in a dynamic world.  Of course the static state was a total illusion even in Plato's time, but he was blinded by his faith in his theory of forms. Of course these ideas do not originate with Popper.  They were explicitly embodied in the US Constitution and many ideas which preceded it and formed its basis.

More Popper: View from Chapter 7

  The wise shall lead and rule, and the ignorant shall follow. PLATO. Popper, Karl R.. The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton Classics) . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.  Perhaps Plato's most famous dictum.  The problem with Democracy, says Plato, is that the ignorant often choose the foolish or evil to rule, as we in the US have seen.  One trouble with Plato's solution is that not only do all known  totalitarian systems do at least as poorly in "choosing" leaders, they also make it virtually impossible to remove those foolish and evil rulers. For even those who share this assumption of Plato’s admit that political rulers are not always sufficiently ‘good’ or ‘wise’ (we need not worry about the precise meaning of these terms), and that it is not at all easy to get a government on whose goodness and wisdom one can implicitly rely. If that is granted, then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad go


First, the Democratic Party failed to convince 60 + million Americans of the threat posed by the worst President in American history.  Second, it is a truly sorry comment on the American voter that so many of them remain under the spell of this fascist - not even a fascist who got the trains to run on time, but a fascist who broke everything he touched.  It is a sorry commentary on the state of American politics, and a grim harbinger of evils to come. I doubt that Biden can fix this, and perhaps no one could. A lot depends on how much Mitch McConnell is willing to damage the US for his own purposes.  It is unlikely that serious reform can happen with him running the Senate, and not very probable that he will cooperate enough to stem further disaster.


 What's the point of reading about The Open Society when the American People have just embraced fascism like the three dollar whore she surely is?

The Polls

 As I write this, the US election is still in the balance, but one thing is absolutely clear.  Once again the pre-election polls were completely and utterly wrong.  Why?  I thought these guys had refined their science, but evidently not.