Some comments on Stoljar’s case for a new physicalism


Recently Daniel Stoljar posted a short piece on consciousness in which he provides a brief explanation of his novel variety of physicalism, which departs from traditional physicalism while maintaining a position distinct from dualism.

Like panpsychists, Stoljar appeals to intrinsic or constitutive properties of the physical to explain how complex consciousness can be produced by certain physical processes. Unlike panpsychists, he denies that these constitutive properties include consciousness (or any other mental property). But he gives no real argument against the intrinsicality of consciousness; he just says it’s not consistent with his new model (which to me sounds an awful lot like another variety of neutral monism anyway). The perceived need for a new model seems to follow from denial of the intrinsicality of consciousness though, so the demands of the new model can’t provide a reason to deny the intrinsicality of consciousness.

Later he addresses the objection that explanations based on any unknown (but definitely non-mental) constitutive properties of matter postulated by the new model will run into the same problems (knowledge arguments, conceivability arguments, inverted spectra etc.) as explanations based on familiar features of the physical. But his response is apparently just to stipulate that the unknown constitutive physical properties are sufficiently dissimilar from known physical properties that these familiar arguments against physicalism will fail. Not very satisfying! Not very likely either, I think, because the familiar arguments do not cite any specific features of known physical properties except for the fact that none of those properties include consciousness. So Stoljar’s stipulation that his unknown non-conscious constitutive properties of the physical will be sufficiently dissimilar from known properties of the physical seems to involve a paradox — those non-conscious properties would only be sufficiently dissimilar from known properties if they included consciousness! If this stipulation really is paradoxical, clearly it cannot save his new physicalism from the standard arguments against the old physicalism.

Does panpsychism have any religious implications?

omegadirective_116.jpgThe Borg had a religious attitude to the perfect order of the Omega molecule, but the Federation thought it was more trouble than it was worth

At the end of a recent post responding to Philip Goff’s simplicity argument for panpsychism, Jerry Coyne notes:

It seems to me that panpsychism is a numinous concept that feeds into religion by asserting that the whole universe is conscious, which some people consider a religious attitude. Some, for instance, consider the “mind of the universe” to be God—that God is a mind that pervades the entire Universe.

That, at least, could be one explanation for the penchant for magazines like Aeon, or philosophers like Nagel with a teleological bent, to argue for panpsychism.

Coyne makes this point independently of his critique of the simplicity argument, and I take it that Coyne doesn’t think it has any bearing on the success of his critique or the merits of the argument he’s responding to. However, the point does open a useful line of inquiry. Would panpsychism justify a numinous attitude on the part of those who accept it? Does panpsychism have a religious aspect? And what religious implications might it have?

Religion, as I understand it, involves more than just a package of metaphysical beliefs. It also includes, at the very least, a set of individual and social practices (such as prayer, ritual observances, communal worship, and recognition of some sacred authority) which are regarded as appropriate (and possibly obligatory) in light of certain metaphysical facts, and a guiding ideal of transcendence or liberation (e.g. salvation, moksha, tikkun olam, nirvana). On this understanding, it’s not immediately clear that panpsychism has any special relevance to religion. The truth of panpsychism might rule out certain religious beliefs, such as those that are predicated on the existence of a substantial soul (at least where the soul is understood to be the seat of consciousness) or the attribution of conscious experience to human beings alone, and it would appear to be consistent with certain other religious beliefs, such as those predicated on denial of a substantial soul or on the claim that there is a deep unity underlying the superficial appearance of diversity in the world. But the same could be said of a more conventional kind of strict materialism, which people normally think of as having an anti-religious aspect.

I’m having trouble seeing the religious aspect of panpsychism which is so immediately obvious to Coyne, but it could be that I’m just not trying hard enough. So here’s an attempt to work up a panpsychist foundation for religious belief.

The universe is developing towards a state of maximal entropy. Entropy is associated with disorder in a system, and with diminishing amounts of useful energy. This implies that the universe once existed in a state of perfect order and maximum potential for creation. Panpsychism holds that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe, so it follows that the universe once existed as a perfectly ordered consciousness with maximum potential for creation. The universe today expresses the unfolding of that perfectly ordered consciousness’s creative potential. Conceivably, the perfectly ordered consciousness is infinite in extent and exists eternally beyond our universe, which may not be the whole of what exists.

Now this is somewhat more recognizable as a religious view, although it arguably relies on some equivocation about the meaning of technical terms like energy and entropy. Leaving that aside, “perfectly ordered consciousness with maximum potential for creation” may describe some gods of religion pretty well. But the reverse doesn’t hold; various Christian conceptions of God, for example, possess many important qualities (e.g. personality, moral perfection, a penchant for intervention) that do not follow from the reasoning given above. The divine qualities that are missing from the “perfectly ordered consciousness” are the ones that matter most from a religious perspective. Without those qualities, panpsychism commits one to nothing further than Natura naturans: “Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world“. From the standpoint of the committed atheist, this result should seem fairly benign.

National Poetry Month

Pictured: The god of poetry

On Facebook, I’ve been posting a poem a day for National Poetry Month. I don’t know anything about poetry, so I’m uncomfortable reading it, and the point of this exercise is to get a little more comfortable with it and develop an idea of what I like. The idea for this post is to collect all the stuff from my daily Facebook posts in one place so it’s easy to find (and for the benefit of friends who aren’t on social media. When the poem is short and in the public domain, I’ll just post the whole thing here. I’ll just link to the longer poems, and those still under copyright.

Day One

“The Waste Land” by T. S. Eliot

Day Two

The Tithonus Poem by Sappho

Alternate translations are available here.

Day Three

First poem from Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

Thou hast made me endless, such is thy pleasure. This frail vessel thou emptiest again and again, and fillest it ever with fresh life.

This little flute of a reed thou hast carried over hills and dales, and hast breathed through it melodies eternally new.

At the immortal touch of thy hands my little heart loses its limits in joy and gives birth to utterance ineffable.

Thy infinite gifts come to me only on these very small hands of mine. Ages pass, and still thou pourest, and still there is room to fill.

Day Four

“Requiem for the Spanish Dead” by Kenneth Rexroth

The great geometrical winter constellations 
Lift up over the Sierra Nevada,
I walk under the stars, my feet on the known round earth.
My eyes following the lights of an airplane,
Red and green, growling deep into the Hyades.
The note of the engine rises, shrill, faint,
Finally inaudible, and the lights go out
In the southeast haze beneath the feet of Orion.

As the sound departs I am chilled and grow sick
With the thought that has come over me. I see Spain
Under the black windy sky, the snow stirring faintly,
Glittering and moving over the pallid upland,
And men waiting, clutched with cold and huddled together,
As an unknown plane goes over them. It flies southeast
Into the haze above the lines of the enemy,
Sparks appear near the horizon under it.
After they have gone out the earth quivers
And the sound comes faintly. The men relax for a moment
And grow tense again as their own thoughts return to them.

I see the unwritten books, the unrecorded experiments,
The unpainted pictures, the interrupted lives,
Lowered into the graves with the red flags over them.
I see the quick gray brains broken and clotted with blood,
Lowered each in its own darkness, useless in the earth.
Alone on a hilltop in San Francisco suddenly
I am caught in a nightmare, the dead flesh
Mounting over half the world presses against me.

Then quietly at first and then rich and full-bodied,
I hear the voice of a young woman singing.
The emigrants on the corner are holding
A wake for their oldest child, a driverless truck
Broke away on the steep hill and killed him,
Voice after voice adds itself to the singing.
Orion moves westward across the meridian,
Rigel, Bellatrix, Betelgeuse, marching in order,
The great nebula glimmering in his loins.

Day Five

“Overture” by Diana Khoi Nguyen

Day Six

“Mary, Color Scientist” by John Beer

Day Seven

“Mounds of human heads are wandering into the distance” by Osip Mandelstam

Mounds of human heads are wandering into the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children’s games I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining.

Alternate translation:

Into the distance disappear the mounds of human heads.
I dwindle – go unnoticed now.
But in affectionate books, in childrens’ games,
I will rise from the dead to say: the sun!

Day Eight

“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –” (236) by Emily Dickinson

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

Day Nine

“Paul Robeson” by Gwendolyn Brooks

That time
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
we are each other’s
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

Day Ten

“In Cabin’d Ships at Sea” by Walt Whitman

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Day Eleven

“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” by Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.

The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Day Twelve

“An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” by W. B. Yeats

I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate  
Those that I guard I do not love;
My country is Kiltartan Cross,
My countrymen Kiltartan’s poor,
No likely end could bring them loss
Or leave them happier than before.
Nor law, nor duty bade me fight,
Nor public man, nor cheering crowds,
A lonely impulse of delight
Drove to this tumult in the clouds;
I balanced all, brought all to mind,
The years to come seemed waste of breath,
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life, this death.

Day Thirteen

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes


Day Fourteen

A haiku by Shiki Masaoka

entangled with
the scattering cherry blossoms—
the wings of birds!

Day Fifteen

“Dulce et Decorum est” by Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!–An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime…
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Day Sixteen

“A Barred Owl” by Richard Wilbur

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

Day Seventeen

“Random Notes To My Son” by Keorapetse Kgositsile

Beware, my son, words
that carry the loudnesses
of blind desire also carry
the slime of illusion
dripping like pus from the slave’s battered back
e.g. they speak of black power whose eyes
will not threaten the quick whitening of their own intent
what days will you inherit?
what shadows inhabit your silences?

I have aspired to expression, all these years,
elegant past the most eloquent word. But here now
our tongue dries into maggots as we continue our slimy
death and grin. Except today it is fashionable to scream
of pride and beauty as though it were not known that
‘slaves and dead people have no beauty’

in me and around me
confusion. This pain was
not from the past. This pain was
not because we had failed
to understand:
this land is mine
confusion and borrowed fears
it was. We stood like shrubs
shrivelled on this piece of earth
the ground parched and cracked
through the cracks my cry:

And what shapes
in assent and ascent
must people the eye of newborn
determined desire know
no frightened tear ever rolls on
to the elegance of fire. I have
fallen with all the names I am
but the newborn eye, old as
childbirth, must touch the day
that, speaking my language, will
say, today we move, we move ?

Day Eighteen

“Spinoza” by Jorge Luis Borges

The Jew’s hands, translucent in the dusk,
polish the lenses time and again.
The dying afternoon is fear, is
cold, and all afternoons are the same.
The hands and the hyacinth-blue air
that whitens at the Ghetto edges
do not quite exist for this silent
man who conjures up a clear labyrinth—
undisturbed by fame, that reflection
of dreams in the dream of another
mirror, nor by maidens’ timid love.
Free of metaphor and myth, he grinds
a stubborn crystal: the infinite
map of the One who is all His stars.

Day Nineteen

“So We’ll Go No More a Roving” by Lord Byron


Day Twenty

“To My Retired Friend Wei” by Du Fu

It is almost as hard for friends to meet
As for the morning and evening stars.
Tonight then is a rare event,
Joining, in the candlelight,
Two men who were young not long ago
But now are turning grey at the temples.
…To find that half our friends are dead
Shocks us, burns our hearts with grief.
We little guessed it would be twenty years
Before I could visit you again.
When I went away, you were still unmarried;
But now these boys and girls in a row
Are very kind to their father’s old friend.
They ask me where I have been on my journey;
And then, when we have talked awhile,
They bring and show me wines and dishes,
Spring chives cut in the night-rain
And brown rice cooked freshly a special way.
…My host proclaims it a festival,
He urges me to drink ten cups —
But what ten cups could make me as drunk
As I always am with your love in my heart?
…Tomorrow the mountains will separate us;
After tomorrow – who can say?

Day Twenty-one

“The Solution” by Bertolt Brecht

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

Day Twenty-two

“Song of Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Mine are the night and morning,
The pits of air, the gulf of space,
The sportive sun, the gibbous moon,
The innumerable days.

I hid in the solar glory,
I am dumb in the pealing song,
I rest on the pitch of the torrent,
In slumber I am strong.

No numbers have counted my tallies,
No tribes my house can fill,
I sit by the shining Fount of Life,
And pour the deluge still;

And ever by delicate powers
Gathering along the centuries
From race on race the rarest flowers,
My wreath shall nothing miss.

And many a thousand summers
My apples ripened well,
And light from meliorating stars
With firmer glory fell.

I wrote the past in characters
Of rock and fire the scroll,
The building in the coral sea,
The planting of the coal.

And thefts from satellites and rings
And broken stars I drew,
And out of spent and aged things
I formed the world anew;

What time the gods kept carnival,
Tricked out in star and flower,
And in cramp elf and saurian forms
They swathed their too much power.

Time and Thought were my surveyors,
They laid their courses well,
They boiled the sea, and baked the layers
Or granite, marl, and shell.

But he, the man-child glorious,–
Where tarries he the while?
The rainbow shines his harbinger,
The sunset gleams his smile.

My boreal lights leap upward,
Forthright my planets roll,
And still the man-child is not born,
The summit of the whole.

Must time and tide forever run?
Will never my winds go sleep in the west?
Will never my wheels which whirl the sun
And satellites have rest?

Too much of donning and doffing,
Too slow the rainbow fades,
I weary of my robe of snow,
My leaves and my cascades;

I tire of globes and races,
Too long the game is played;
What without him is summer’s pomp,
Or winter’s frozen shade?

I travail in pain for him,
My creatures travail and wait;
His couriers come by squadrons,
He comes not to the gate.

Twice I have moulded an image,
And thrice outstretched my hand,
Made one of day, and one of night,
And one of the salt sea-sand.

One in a Judaean manger,
And one by Avon stream,
One over against the mouths of Nile,
And one in the Academe.

I moulded kings and saviours,
And bards o’er kings to rule;–
But fell the starry influence short,
The cup was never full.

Yet whirl the glowing wheels once more,
And mix the bowl again;
Seethe, fate! the ancient elements,
Heat, cold, wet, dry, and peace, and pain.

Let war and trade and creeds and song
Blend, ripen race on race,
The sunburnt world a man shall breed
Of all the zones, and countless days.

No ray is dimmed, no atom worn,
My oldest force is good as new,
And the fresh rose on yonder thorn
Gives back the bending heavens in dew

Day Twenty-three

“Informant: The Belt of Venus” by Renée Saklikar

Day Twenty-four

“The Butterfly” by Pavel Friedman

Day Twenty-five

“Recreation” by Audre Lorde

Coming together
it is easier to work
after our bodies
paper and pen
neither care nor profit
whether we write or not
but as your body moves
under my hands
charged and waiting
we cut the leash
you create me against your thighs
hilly with images
moving through our word countries
my body
writes into your flesh
the poem
you make of me.
Touching you I catch midnight
as moon fires set in my throat
I love you flesh into blossom
I made you
and take you made
into me.

Day Twenty-six

“Guernica” by A. S. Knowland

Irun – Badajoz – Malaga – and then Guernica
So that the swastika and the eagle
might spring from the blood-red soil,
bombs were sown into the earth at Guernica,
whose only harvest was a calculated slaughter.
Lest freedom should wave between the grasses
and the corn its proud emblem, or love
be allowed to tread its native fields,
Fascism was sent to destroy the innocent,
and, goose-stepping to the exaggerated waving
of the two-faced flag, to save Spain.
But though the soil be saturated with blood
as a very efficient fertiliser, the furrow
of the ghastly Fasces shall remain barren.
The planted swastika, the eagle grafted
on natural stock shall wither and remain sere;
for no uniformed force shall marshall the sap
thrilling to thrust buds into blossoms, or quicken
the dead ends of the blighted branches;
but the soil shall be set against an alien crop
and the seed be blasted in the planting.
But strength lies in the strength of the roots.
They shall not pass to ruin Spain!

Day Twenty-seven

“Blackberrying” by Sylvia Plath

Day Twenty-eight

“The inner light” by Harry Martinson

Day Twenty-nine

I sat all morning in the college sick bay
Counting bells knelling classes to a close.
At two o’clock our neighbours drove me home.

In the porch I met my father crying—
He had always taken funerals in his stride—
And Big Jim Evans saying it was a hard blow.

The baby cooed and laughed and rocked the pram
When I came in, and I was embarrassed
By old men standing up to shake my hand

And tell me they were ‘sorry for my trouble’.
Whispers informed strangers I was the eldest,
Away at school, as my mother held my hand

In hers and coughed out angry tearless sighs.
At ten o’clock the ambulance arrived
With the corpse, stanched and bandaged by the nurses.

Next morning I went up into the room. Snowdrops
And candles soothed the bedside; I saw him
For the first time in six weeks. Paler now,

Wearing a poppy bruise on his left temple,
He lay in the four-foot box as in his cot.
No gaudy scars, the bumper knocked him clear.

A four-foot box, a foot for every year.

Day Thirty

Last poem from Gitanjali by Rabindranath Tagore

In one salutation to thee, my God, let all my senses spread out and touch this world at thy feet.

Like a rain-cloud of July hung low with its burden of unshed showers let all my mind bend down at thy door in one salutation to thee.

Let all my songs gather together their diverse strains into a single current and flow to a sea of silence in one salutation to thee.

Like a flock of homesick cranes flying night and day back to their mountain nests let all my life take its voyage to its eternal home in one salutation to thee.

Did Leibniz influence Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”?

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From an article on “Leibniz, Llull, and the Computational Imagination” by Jonathan Gray for Public Domain Review:

Ultimately [Leibniz] hoped that the combination of a perspicuous thought language of “pure” concepts, combined with formalised processes and methods akin to those used in mathematics, would lead to the mechanisation and automation of reason itself. By means of new artificial languages and methods, our ordinary and imperfect ways of reasoning with words and ideas would give way to a formal, symbolic, rule-governed science — conceived of as a computational process. Disputes, conflict and grievances arising from ill-formed opinions, emotional hunches, biases, prejudices, and misunderstandings would give way to consensus, peace, and progress.

Jonathan Swift’s satirical classic Gulliver’s Travels (1726) parodied the mechanical conception of invention advanced by Llull and Leibniz. In the fictional city of Lagado, the protagonist encounters a device known as “the engine” which is intended by its inventor to enable anyone to “write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study”:

He then led me to the frame, about the sides, whereof all his pupils stood in ranks. It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Now here are the three references to the “kaleidoscopes” used in the manufacture of prolefeed in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:

1. And the Records Department, after all, was itself only a single branch of the Ministry of Truth, whose primary job was not to reconstruct the past but to supply the citizens of Oceania with newspapers, films, textbooks, telescreen programmes, plays, novels — with every conceivable kind of information, instruction, or entertainment, from a statue to a slogan, from a lyric poem to a biological treatise, and from a child’s spelling-book to a Newspeak dictionary. And the Ministry had not only to supply the multifarious needs of the party, but also to repeat the whole operation at a lower level for the benefit of the proletariat. There was a whole chain of separate departments dealing with proletarian literature, music, drama, and entertainment generally. Here were produced rubbishy newspapers containing almost nothing except sport, crime and astrology, sensational five-cent novelettes, films oozing with sex, and sentimental songs which were composed entirely by mechanical means on a special kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. There was even a whole sub-section — Pornosec, it was called in Newspeak — engaged in producing the lowest kind of pornography, which was sent out in sealed packets and which no Party member, other than those who worked on it, was permitted to look at.

2. A solitary figure was coming towards him from the other end of the long, brightly-lit corridor. It was the girl with dark hair. Four days had gone past since the evening when he had run into her outside the junk-shop. As she came nearer he saw that her right arm was in a sling, not noticeable at a distance because it was of the same colour as her overalls. Probably she had crushed her hand while swinging round one of the big kaleidoscopes on which the plots of novels were ‘roughed in’. It was a common accident in the Fiction Department.

3. [Julia] had always borne an excellent character. She had even (an infallibIe mark of good reputation) been picked out to work in Pornosec, the sub-section of the Fiction Department which turned out cheap pornography for distribution among the proles. It was nicknamed Muck House by the people who worked in it, she remarked. There she had remained for a year, helping to produce booklets in sealed packets with titles like Spanking Stories or One Night in a Girls’ School, to be bought furtively by proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal.

‘What are these books like?’ said Winston curiously.

‘Oh, ghastly rubbish. They’re boring, really. They only have six plots, but they swap them round a bit. Of course I was only on the kaleidoscopes. I was never in the Rewrite Squad. I’m not literary, dear — not even enough for that.’

There seems to be a striking resemblance between Orwell’s kaleidoscopes and Swift’s satirical “engine”, so I wonder if the resemblance is intentional.

Election season in BC


  1. Off we go! The writ has dropped, as they say, which actually means that writs of election have been issued for each riding in the province. If you’ve ever wondered what a writ of election looks like, wonder no longer. Here’s the writ for my riding as an example:17879806_10156385755719848_5321754950932001254_o.jpg
    After the vote has been held and the final count completed, the District Electoral Officer fills out this part and returns it to the Chief Electoral Officer:17917149_10156385770369848_4456877336051644196_o.jpg
  2. You can help your party or candidate of choice in a small but concrete way by voting early, either on one of the advance voting days (April 29-30 and May 3-6) or any day Monday-Saturday at a district office (up until 4pm on May 9). Every supporter who votes early is one less supporter the campaign needs to spend time getting to the polls on election day. You can use Elections BC’s Where To Vote tool to find nearby polling places and the district office for your riding.
  3. If you’re not sure who to vote for, the Vote Compass tool might be of some help. It’s pretty bare-bones at the moment, but I expect they’ll be adding to it a bit as the various parties’ platforms become clearer. Here’s where the Vote Compass says I stand at the moment.17880285_10156385688859848_4015955397222034428_o.jpg
  4.  Finally, watch out for dodgy civics in the press. Recently I was pleased to see the Georgia Straight correctly applying the term “hung parliament” to describe a situation where no party has an overall majority, instead of describing this outcome as a “minority government.” Progress! But I expect to see a lot of other basic errors in the media in the weeks to come. Philippe Lagassé’s thread here clears up some common mistakes:

A note on the revised national anthem


I don’t understand Senator MacDonald’s complaint about the grammar in the national anthem’s revised lyrics (“in all thy sons command” to “in all of us command”):

“The proper and only acceptable pronoun substitution for the phrase ‘All thy sons command’ is ‘All of our command,'” MacDonald said. “This is not opinion. This is fact.”

I don’t think so. The meaning of the verse that goes “O Canada! Our home and native land! True patriot love in all thy sons command” is “O Canada, our home and native land, command true patriot love in all thy sons.” It’s a sentence. The revised lyrics beseech Canada to command true patriot love in “all of us”, which is a perfectly acceptable substitution; it is grammatically correct and it perfectly preserves the meaning of the original. MacDonald’s complaint only makes sense if there’s an apostrophe in the original (“sons'” instead of “sons”). It’s a good thing there isn’t one, because that really would be a grammatical disaster! “O Canada, our home and native land, true patriot love in all thy sons’/in all of our command” makes no sense as a sentence.

Bottom line, Senator MacDonald does not actually know the anthem he is ostensibly trying to save. This is not opinion. This is fact.

What would it really mean to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow?

Banks-Salwowski-Wraparound-Cover.jpgPictured: job of tomorrow?

PressProgress has published a skeptical view about the Liberals’ plans for the economy of the future, pointing out significant gaps in a strategy based largely on training and skills development. I’m skeptical about some of the proposals in the CLC document they link to, but I agree with the basic idea. In principle, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing a high-flexibility approach (including a lot of “job churn”) to economic development. This approach comes with certain hazards for workers’ prospects, but so does the opposite approach. In both cases, the hazards can be managed with the help of government policy. In my view, the problem is not that the government wants to follow a high-flexibility approach, it’s that they’re failing to pursue policies that would effectively manage the hazards that come with that approach. In addition to job training programs, such policies would include expanding the scope of public insurance programs into areas normally covered by employer-linked benefit packages, an income security program that protects against income shocks following transition between jobs (not just during unemployment), enhanced wage subsidies, a higher minimum wage, providing low-cost public housing to ease the difficulty of relocation, accessible childcare, and guaranteed employment on the government payroll. Without measures like these, the government’s claim to be preparing workers for the jobs of tomorrow is not credible.

Panpsychism and theoretical virtue in philosophy of mind

pee-wees-playhouse.jpgDespite what you might have heard, this is not quite what panpsychists believe

A few weeks ago, Aeon published a short piece by Philip Goff laying out what he calls the simplicity argument for panpsychism. According to panpsychism, consciousness is a fundamental natural property that is ubiquitous in nature. On this view, the complex consciousness of creatures like human beings is explained by reference to the simple consciousness of fundamental physical entities (usually — but not necessarily — very small things like electrons, quarks or strings). Panpsychism thus stands in contrast to most kinds of physicalism, according to which complex consciousness is to be explained by reference to (if not reduced to) the kinds of properties that fundamental physics is concerned with, and to substance dualism, according to which complex consciousness is explained by reference to properties of an entirely nonphysical (and in some cases non-natural) substance.

As I understand it, Goff’s simplicity argument for panpsychism is roughly as follows. Physics is concerned with the behaviour of physical things, but beyond this, it provides no insight into what physical things really are — it is silent regarding the intrinsic (non-behavioural) nature of the physical. But we’re not completely ignorant about the intrinsic nature of the physical, because we know from direct experience that some matter (healthy human brains) possesses consciousness. Consciousness must be an intrinsic property of the physical object that is the brain, because it is not necessary to invoke consciousness to explain the physics of the brain. So knowledge of our own consciousness gives us the knowledge that consciousness is an intrinsic property of some physical things. If we deny that consciousness is an intrinsic property of all (fundamental) physical things, we have to posit some unknown non-conscious intrinsic property. But all things being equal, we ought to prefer simpler theories over more complicated ones. There is no explanatory advantage to positing two kinds of intrinsic properties for the physical, one of them conscious and directly accessible and the other one non-conscious and totally mysterious. If all fundamental physical things have the same conscious intrinsic nature, physics will have the same content as if some things have a conscious intrinsic nature and other things have a non-conscious intrinsic nature. Considerations of simplicity therefore dictate that we suppose all matter has the same intrinsic nature, which involves consciousness.

I’m mostly on board with panpsychism (especially the cosmopsychist variety which I described in this post) but I’m not so sure about this argument. My main worry is that simplicity is a virtue of scientific theories by methodological stipulation. There’s an infinite number of theories that can account for the data; selecting the simplest theory with equivalent explanatory and predictive power narrows down the alternatives and yields theories that are easier to learn, use, test, etc. That’s a good enough reason to apply the simplicity criterion to scientific theories. But I’m not sure that the simplicity criterion yields (or is more likely to yield) true theories, and philosophy of mind aims for truth, not utility. So I’m not sure it’s appropriate to treat considerations of simplicity as dispositive in the context of philosophy of mind the way we would in the context of scientific theorizing.

For further reading, see Goff’s response to some critics of his article:

Bad employers and Anderson’s pluralist theory of value

thelastoutpost_hd_332.jpgSay what you will about the Ferengi, at least they don’t question your motives when you ask about wages

National Observer has an interesting article about a woman, Taylor Byrnes, whose job interview with a food delivery company was cancelled because she asked a basic question about compensation. The company, which runs a food delivery service called “Skip the Dishes”,  explained that the question showed that Byrnes’s “priorities are not in sync” with theirs. In a followup email intended to clarify their position, a company representative wrote that prospective employees are expected to be “proven self-starters” with “intrinsic motivation” to pursue the company’s goals without regard for compensation.

Philosophers like Karl Polanyi and Michael Sandel have written about the norms of the market economy encroaching on other areas of social life and leading to a market society. But this story shows the spillover going in the other direction, with equally troubling results. The prospective employee was disqualified because she was acting under market norms, approaching the company in the manner of a worker selling her labour in a market economy. Under these norms, simple questions about the terms of the exchange between employer and employee are routine. However, the company unreasonably expects its engagement with the labour market to be conducted under some set of non-market norms — norms that are appropriate in a voluntary association, for example, or an athletic club, or a group of friends.

This example helps to clarify what’s bad about the encroachment of market values on the rest of society, because it shows that these norms are not bad in themselves; in fact the company wronged Byrnes precisely because it refused to apply market norms in its interaction with a prospective employee. As Elizabeth Anderson has argued:

To argue that the market has limits is to acknowledge that is also has its proper place in human life. A wide range of goods are properly regarded as pure commodities…. It is beneficial not only to have these goods, but to be able to procure them freely through the anonymous, unencumbered channels the market provides. The difficult task for modern societies is to reap the advantages of the market while keeping its activities confined to the goods proper to it.*

The illegitimate encroachment of market norms and the illegitimate encroachment of non-market norms are two sides of a more general problem. Neither set of norms is globally valid, for all spheres of relations. The realization of different important values requires the observance of different norms, and applying a set of norms beyond the sphere of relations in which it is valid threatens those values.

*The quotation is from pages 166-167 of Value in Ethics and Economics, at the end of a chapter adapted from her paper “The Ethical Limitations of the Market”, which concludes with a slightly different version of this quotation.

What’s the timeline for the political fundraising panel?

CBC reports:

The B.C. Liberal government is poised to announce the formation of a special panel to look into the province’s political fundraising rules, following heavy criticism of the governing party’s own practices.

Premier Christy Clark’s office has confirmed that the government plans to form an independent panel of non-partisan experts to investigate political campaign financing.

According to a spokesman in the premier’s office the new panel may consider setting donation limits and banning corporate donations.

The panel will reported to the legislative assembly, but it is unlikely that any changes the panel recommends will come into practice before the May 9 provincial election.

I’m curious about the panel’s terms of reference. The article says it will be an independent body reporting to the Legislative Assembly. But the current legislature will be dissolved in less than a month. If the panel’s work is not complete before the legislature dissolves, its report cannot be released until the new legislature convenes following the election (remember the kerfuffle around Sheila Fraser’s leaked draft report on summit expenses during the 2011 federal election). So this may be one way the Liberals intend to defuse the issue as far as possible, rather than trying to defend the indefensible status quo or caving in completely and running on fundraising reform commitments mirroring those of the opposition parties. Instead, during the campaign Clark can respond to Horgan and co. on the fundraising issue by just telling them to wait for the expert independent panel’s report, casting the opposition as impatient hotheads looking to score cheap points while the governing party pretends to handle the issue in a “professional” manner.