Zen and the Art of Philosophy

A review of:

“How The World Thinks
– A Global History of Philosophy”
by Julian Baggini

All my reviews are done in the context of my own philosophical journey and often, like this one, a review done very early on in the reading, so that my own prejudices are laid bare for later analysis and a later review if I sense I learned something new worth sharing. And since “nothing new under the sun” – a perennial philosophy – is a recurring adage of my own, success in this may boil down to a pithy restatement – or aphoristic restatements – of long established wisdom for current and future times.

“Intriguing and illuminating”, as a description of what the book is, the review by Simon Blackburn in the Literary Review says it well enough. Baggini is filling a hole in his, and many a western philosopher’s, grounding by exploring in a descriptive, historical and comparative way a range of Asian and African philosophical traditions. He’s doing so in a laudably naive way by identifying this gap in the current state of his own education. And he’s proceeding to explore by reading and interviewing and by physically travelling to conferences of these non-western schools of thought. The content is therefore as substantial as that recent research exercise, which is naturally pretty thin. As I say, that naivety laid bare is laudable since he is claiming little more than a prerequisite first step towards a mere introduction to the topics.

The point, of course, is to cultivate sufficient interest in, and recognition of the significance of, the parallels and differences between alternatives to western received wisdom when it comes to ways of looking at the world. In that, I believe, he succeeds.

And for me, he also succeeds in some interesting new summary statements of what it is about non-western world-views he wants to bring to our attention. Which is good because, if nothing else, Baggini has his own way of engaging with”intellectual and spiritual generosity” which is essential “for our fractious and dangerously divided era” as Richard Holloway’s cover-blurb comment attests.

All those people out there who believe real world progress depends on pursuing critical debate to its natural conclusions between objectively well defined options or, god forbid, between partisan identity-politics positions, would do well to savour Baggini’s more generous style.

Personally, as someone who came into philosophy late in life via Robert Pirsig’s “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and as someone who only noticed any need for philosophy at all after decades of perceiving an ineffable incompleteness – something’s missing that I can’t put into words – in the received wisdoms of everyday western techno-socio-economic business life, I don’t need the gap pointed out. The gap is where I started. I do however appreciate Baggini’s summary restatements of lessons learned.

He quite comfortably uses Karl Jasper’s idea that classic traditions of philosophy arose independently in parallel in Greece, India and China in the 500 years or so up to around 300 BCE, the so-called “Axial Age”. I say comfortable because, as I learned from hearing reaction to the same concept used by Rebecca Goldstein (an influence Baggini and I both share), it’s controversial to reduce so much complex history to a single idea. But then as Baggini points out the need to generalise common aspects whilst taking account significant differences is a fundamental philosophical – human – trick in any tradition. That’s material for a whole text by itself.

Having started there, not surprisingly the Indian and Chinese classics behind the subsequent histories of eastern philosophies and religions are a focus of the work. Despite a richly documented heritage, both place much lesser emphasis on words – spoken or written – than the western tradition. With even less documented traditions, African references are of course much more sparse, and so far as I can see there is no reference to any native American traditions, north or south.

This is part of what I call the Catch-22 of philosophy. Thanks to Gutenberg, not to mention modern electronic and social media, any ideas that can be – and are – represented in symbolic language, have a natural memetic advantage in their spread and adoption over those that are nevertheless lived by all humans around the world. That advantage says nothing about how good the world-view is, simply that it is easy to represent accurately, which is only fine if you believe transportable linguistic representation is the most valuable measure of a philosophy. Catch-22 as I say, or Procrustes bed if you prefer.

Anyway, Baggini notes that before he (and Pirsig), plenty of western philosophers have noted and grappled with this. It takes the nuanced readings of Spinoza, Kant and Wittgenstein to appreciate workable ways of fitting the omission of eastern ideas to western thinking to create any truly integrated global world-view. I say integrated because holding onto the idea some single monolithic world-view – the one true metaphysics – might result, is part of the problem.

Baggini obviously chooses the sources he references and anyone reading could choose their own preferred alternative sources of similar if not much the same content. But, beyond critical debate on exactly what P meant when they wrote X and whether that might be true or not according to which arguments, the real value here is in identifying the ongoing significance of the classic east-west gap to a global philosophy for modern life. Baggini’s specific contribution – beyond his generous and readable style – has to be the neat taxonomy of the subject matter in his (mostly) one word choices of chapter headings; Insight, Logic, Tradition, Time, Unity, Self, Harmony and Virtue; to name just a few examples.




It’s Now Illegal to Mock Fruit

We live in a world hemmed-in by PC rules. When I started this post about 5 tweets ago, it was about the latest “Sokal” prank poking satire at gender-based social-science research. Of course, being PC rules, they are broken ironically all the time, so the levels of irony – odd or even – become crucial to working out who the good guys are.

Apparently we have to respect dogs whilst inspecting their genitals. Moving on ….

in fact just 2 tweets after I started, the title of the post was:

“Truly, we live in shrunken times.”

Which has nothing to do with the Trumpian mushrooms bandied about by Jimmy Kimmel but, 3 tweets in, David Deutsch provided the alternative title.

I liked Timandra’s line – which she had already stolen without attribution, so it’s already now officially an anonymous aphorism – because in form it rang with a T E Lawrence (of Arabia) line – conflating the “it is written” sentiment with the relative obesity of British and Arab culture at the time.

But notwithstanding it’s ring, the rhetorical content is clear. Objectivising everything and recognising the politics in identifying objectschoosing one identity in relation to others – is sorely cramping the space for human manouevres – if we let them.

McLuhan had it right. Confusing the medium with the message shrinks the global village available to operate in.

Truly we live in shrunken times.


And there’s more:

Jazz hands instead of applause, anyone?!?

And Haidt’s coddled mind?!

[The original social-science prank has become tagged “Sokal-squared” which helps its circulation, but it doesn’t free it from its deficiencies:

The key words in the Venn diagram are “prove” and “because” – clearly only divisive idiots would form those views, so the joke works. What’s needed is the measured approach to recognising what is the point of an ironic attack of the Sokal kind (And I’m no fan of S J Gould). The attackers derived plenty of amusement as can be seen in the early videos. Humour is the point. And the point of the humour is to make the target – and audience – think. Nothing about the content proves the cause of anything.

Fortunately, plenty of “measured” responses.]

[Oh my god, more forbidden fruit. When will it ever end. And now because Churchill wasn’t morally perfect apparently, it’s a no-no to quote anything positively inspiring he might have done or said. Even if you’re an astronaut.]

[No, it is never ending. Apparently everyone has to drop their interest in #Strictly to write about the latest climate change warnings.]

Statistical Addiction by Stealth

Added quite a few post notes to my recent post on the problem with the pace and immediacy of social media. Today Myriam François posted this Jaron Lanier interview with Martin Bashir of Channel 4

Lanier calls it statistical addiction by stealth. No-one with a rational mind is being directly manipulated – we would all reject that, wouldn’t we – in terms of modifying our own behaviour over time. We’re all “gaming the system” (see game theory point later). What is happening is that this long-run learning is being short-circuited by the real-time algorithms modifying what the technology presents to us and the “bubble” around us. It’s the mismatch of timescales that’s the problem. We’re all – in general, in the statistical long-run – being manipulated in directions that we are not noticing and that are not good for us (in general).

This prompted me to join up the recent post on social media ills with an early addiction driver to this blog back in 2006 if not earlier. Originally, before social media, the addiction  was basically to logical positivist objectivity in everything gradually crowding out more subjective wisdom for want of any better terminology. There are many alternative world-views, but the point is they are less amenable to simple logical manipulation, so logical positivism has an inbuilt advantage when it comes to the memetic battle of ideas. Any algorithmic automation of this advantage reinforces and accelerates the problem, a problem we already had in spades, already accelerated by the god vs science wars, and ever more accelerated. It’s a kind of degenerate cultural evolution – a natural process that demonstrates the naturalistic fallacy that nature is not necessarily progressive. Natural processes that are simply accelerated and reinforced by tech implementations.

Lanier’s point is that with the right designs – the right algorithms and incentives and time-bases – tech and social media can be used to solve the problem – but that involves a conscious design decision that is not simply a reflection of received wisdom left to its natural devices. (As I’ve said, and Lanier, reinforces even the tech media business people are already ringing this alarm bell. This is not idle speculation.)

Jamie Bartlett (whose “People vs Tech” I’ve still not yet read) tweeted a couple of things that also point out the problem. Jamie uses “utilitarianism” for what I’ve called “logical positive objectivism”, but we mean the same and it’s a habit we have to shake off:

Banning anonymity is part of that same disaster that says do stuff that is amenable to banning (sounds bad / simple to check) but ignore harder-to-process-and-justify qualities & virtues. @JamieJBartlett https://t.co/lGGGKNymRj

Perversely, a Level Playing Field is the Problem

On a level playing field where no-one is dogmatic about what is “appropriate” – but chooses what is appropriate from available tools & methods sounds like a healthy state of affairs, no? Free and democratic, what’s not to like?

But what if some tools & methods – and worldviews – have advantages that have nothing to do with their appropriateness?

This is the root of my 20 year agenda here, from before tech (ITC – information and communications technology) became as ubiquitous as it has, though the urgency has always been because the rise in both tech and the problem have been equally predictable. That’s the “I told you so” dealt with. What about the problem.

In that time the problem has escalated from being simply a threat to good order in technical circles, in business cost-benefit analyses and the like, to being a threat to the whole of free democratic society. I used to think I might be exaggerating until Jamie Bartlett came along ringing the same alarm bell. In fact as recently as my previous post, I tagged Jamie in to a longer-running dialogue about moderating the “pace” of social media dialogue. As well as this his succinct Medium blog post “The War Between Technology & Democracy” his most recent book has the similar but slightly longer title: “The People Vs Tech: How the Internet is Killing Democracy (and how We Save It)” (And I’ve still not read it!)

The specific (part of the) problem today arose from a Twitter exchange. This tweet from Jamie and the thread of dialogue below it:

Including this:

The problem is as old as philosophy, effectively the choice between (objective) facts vs (subjective) values. The objective side can be cast any number of ways from logical positivism to greedy objective reductionism – or plain “scientism” in my word of choice. The subjective or qualitative ethical (“what’s best?”) side varies enormously in expression, all taking the focus away from objective measurable outcomes – even those weighted with fuzzy risk factors – towards qualities of people and processes. Deontological in the sense of not driven by the existence of objective outcomes but by harder-to-grasp and harder-to-ground qualities or virtues and the like.

As I say none of this is new, and even here I must have hundreds of posts on the topic, the point is why this philosophical issue is so problematic in our times of ubiquitous tech.

It’s very simple – in my tweeted response above – this entirely objective vs at least partly subjective choice is about one being much easier than the other. Easier to define, easy to model, easy to … program, easier even when that programming involves communication-algorithms, data-gathering and machine-learning. The less clearly defined subjective stuff is almost a non-starter for programmable models, unless it is modelled using objective analogues for the real (subjective) thing.

For short:
Objective = easy.
Subjective = hard.

So then the competition for the communication of ideas takes over.

Memetics is a word I’m happy to use for it, many are not, but it’s just a word. Whatever the word, and whatever the content of the ideas, decisions, justifications, it’s the easy stuff – the easy to grasp, the easy to fit, the easier to use, the easier to communicate – that has a distinct advantage. All other things being equal, on a level playing field – it’s only natural – that the objective stuff of utilitarian philosophy wins out. Automation by algorithms – without qualitative moderators – simply reinforces that natural process.

The naturalistic fallacy accepts that natural is necessarily good. It’s not.

“A level playing” field is part of the problem, reducing a complex field to a single easy to visualise variable. “It’s complicated” always loses out to a simple justification.

The Problem is the Unmoderated Pace of Social Media

There are lots of problems with social media, blamed for so much fake news and the like, undermining everyday politics one way or another.

I’ve been warning about parts of the problem for almost two decades, as a memetic phenomenon, and in the last couple of years – aside from the explicitly political commentaries – even the execs and ex-execs of the various social media companies have been bemoaning the monster they had unwittingly unleashed – previously: Ripping Society Apart“.

[Post Note: See also Jaron Lanier picking up on this industry reaction – statistical addiction by stealth. There is no “evil genius” here, no “creator”. Lanier is right, but strangely Martin Bashir doesn’t get the point – focussing on technical differences between the products, not on the core problem – see additional post-notes below.]

As I say, there are many ways of slicing and dicing the problem, and things like the anonymity vs the humanity of our sources is one dimension, but I believe the one factor that is the multiplier of all others is its pace. The speed and ubiquity of communication. Rather than caring about the humanity of content there is a kind of instant gratification in the recognition and interaction.

This is a clear example of the former with a quote directly about the latter:

It bears repeating – it’s the dopamine buzz:

“The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we [at Facebook] have created are destroying how society works—no civil discourse, no coöperation, misinformation, mistruth”

As I keep saying, this loop is pure memetics. Stuff that is “catchy” spreads faster and wider than stuff that is “good”. This is why. Being exceptional / reactionary or ironic / funny at the expense of established wisdom becomes received wisdom because it’s less boring. Boring is the opposite of dopamine. Inhuman – uncivil – extremes always win.

In order to care about the humanity and reality of a communication beyond the buzz – it is necessary to pause, check and ignore if it looks inhuman, as I try to do with anything suspiciously anonymous or bot-like. But that pause is boring compared to the buzz available.

I’ve written on moderation before, and it sounds like restricting freedoms of communication, but we really have to dampen down the buzz, moderate the pace. Avoid short-termism writ large. You can say anything you like, so long as you   s  a  y   i  t    s  l  o  w  l  y   and in moderation.

Lots of other good stuff in the New Yorker piece on Zuckerberg.

[Post Note: Great piece also from Jamie Bartlett
– still not actually got his book, but must do –
here on his Medium blog:
The war between technology & democracy

[And two more post notes re Jamie: Let’s not ban anonymity. And let’s recognise the disaster of automating the “objective” content.]

[The “addiction” to easy objectivity was an original driver here. Social and other electronic media simply reinforce and accelerate the process. Janier too, picks up on the fact that the novelty is not the algorithms themselves, but the rapid reinforcement. Frankie Boyle gets the addiction aspect here in 2015, and I include my original 2006 reference.]

Myles Better

Myles Power is an “internet nerd” with a real job.

By day (or night, depending on his shifts) he’s a chemist working in an industrial lab (taking money from big business – yeah, he knows). In his spare time his podcast battles conspiracy theories on all fronts with the best research and analysis he can dig up.

Me, I often think too much effort spent debunking conspiracy theories is part of their perverse attraction. The memetic effect that helps spread them. But hey someone has to notice and point out that they are politically motivated conspiracies in the first place, so it’s better the debunking is done carefully and thoroughly.

By way of a change his latest podcast is short (<5 min) piece – sponsored by Merck’s 350th anniversary – about acting on curiosity based on vaguely noticing “something’s not quite right”. Even when a scientist’s job is explicitly directed research, it’s these anomalous moments that provide the greatest inspiration towards a new solution or development. Notice these moments and “stay curious” is his message.

Rang bells with me for two reasons.  Not least because my own epistemological trajectory started with exactly that “hang on, how can that be” feeling in a mundane industrial business context. (I’ve written about that most recently here, referring to this thought journey.)

More importantly, this whole drive to solve anomalies is very much the fundamental “meaning of life” – effectively what it means to be human, as Myles points out. Whether this is seen as the peak of Maslow’s “self-actualising” motivations, or Deutsch’s universal constructor theory – humans as highly evolved problem solvers, after Popper. It looks like “curiosity” but it is a drive to compress knowledge – to make anomalies fit in a broader understanding with greater explanatory reach.

To know more for less. An evolutionary drive for efficiency and effectiveness. Curiouser and curiouser.


[Post Note: An even better fit:

The David Deutsch post linked above, referring to constructor theory, also refers to his belief that “creativity kills innovation”. Obviously depends on what you mean by these two similar terms, but the point is clear here. Trying new stuff for its own sake is counter-productive. The real value is in anomalies as exceptions to the otherwise familiar. My usual “we need conservatism” mantra that progressive evolution requires fecundity and fidelity as well as mutation. The new makes no sense – has no meaning – without the context of the established.]

Street Epistemology Update

Dave Harding posted on a recent Magnabosco filmed SE session. (Update in the sense that I posted on these earlier examples 3 years or so ago.) These are rough notes in preparation for a dialogue.

SE = Street Epistemology
SM = Socratic (Questioning) Methodology

Interesting that David concludes this subject actually questions him back, as I noted too. Anyway, my rough notes:

Selective – one young passer by, who happened to chose “the God of Israel as the one true God” as a confident belief. Selection is no coincidence. (And this is a very naive subject – by definition – still in school and too busy for interaction with any wider ideas, on her own admission later.)

Where she is right now is because of her Christian church upbringing. Aware of this late middle / early high school. I want to follow what’s true. Looking for truth. Needs a firm foundation. (Seeking notice, not justifying that it is or even saying what it is.)

(Still not said what is believed or any reasoning why – just the wish / seeking.) Just claiming 100% belief, but recognise even that leaves her with questions to wrestle with. Confidence nevertheless remains 100%. (That’s what I’d call faith. Proceeding “as if” true, despite open mind to modification – metaphorically true in Peterson/Harris terms)

(Ought to be prompting some questions of what 100% belief means – given still questions. Switches to opposite, though, non-belief?)

Actual truth is independent of her confidence. Check. Confidence in belief doesn’t discount the possibility of being false. (ie she doesn’t doubt this false possibility, even though she doesn’t doubt this belief. Not willing to lower her confidence, even though open to doubt. Mentions “proofs” – so we need to ask. (We already have “faith” on the table, but now we have “proof” – problematic I’d say – but she introduced the term, guessing that’s what Anthony meant by justification / reasons I’d say.)

Main proof. It’s about changing you – whatever religion it is. (OK. I don’t hear any proof?) The personal experience of change. (She – and Anthony – should be exploring the nature of that “experience” and change?)

(Switch straight to alternate case of someone else’s experience of a different religion? Her example too close, he suggests Hindu Vishnu hypothetical?)

Main, but not sole “proof”. Faith? How is that different to maintaining 100% confidence despite acknowledging the risk of falsehood.

Not necessary to know everything, so why drop level of confidence on incomplete proof.

(Actually think the problem here is limits in the skill of the facilitator / questioner.)

Recalling “drills” of what she’s been taught – but yes, she is saying faith and belief are synonymous (my point earlier) hence his questioning is not actually analysing (separating) anything.

Accepting evidence exists on trust, without first hand experience of it.

Circled a bunch. Yes, not actually settled on much.

Objective – truth. Questions are best method for test whether is belief is true – no argument. The analytical part, but is not the creative / constructive seeking part?

There is a season. More questions, always. Leave to think about.

(Yes she would be good at the SE method. And yes she will probably continue to be thoughtful in her beliefs)

This was a pretty benign encounter – thoughtfully increasing thoughtfulness. Still see basic limitations to SM / SE process to naive questioning side.

(His one-sided post-summary of her “honesty” …. hmmm.
See steelmanning by contrast.)

Overall, however, much better than the bad-faith examples I’d reviewed before.

David naturally links his own conclusion to the MoQ.

Encouraging intellectual thought like this is moral
according to the Metaphysics of Quality (MOQ).

Sure is moral, though should not be encouraged to the exclusion of intuition and action. And, that’s true according to many a perennial philosophy, including Pirsig’s MoQ.

And if the objective is simply to get someone to start their own internal conversation with questioning – it’s all good. In this specific example, the line of questions seemed a little “random” – switches of subject at points when obvious sequential questions had arisen – still encourages questioning, but maybe less “productive” as time-limited discourse. Leaves me with two fears. One, no evidence that the Q&A changed Anthony’s thinking anywhere? Two, as well as “thinking” she clearly took away some “assumptions” about what she thought she was getting from Anthony – that were probably misleading guesses, I’m guessing – dialogue really needs to happen over extended multiple human encounters. (Need some Rappaport / Steelman cycles in there.)

But as I say to “initiate” thinking – all good. Epistemology 101. (ie This is primarily about testing epistemology rather than creation or synthesis of the causal taxonomies / ontologies required or implied. Anthony implied several times the “basket” of reasons would have some logical / causal hierarchies / and dependency networks / heterarchies – so I know he understands this. Even in a 45 minute engaged and lively encounter, the only real “content” achieved is the questioning thought.)


[Post Note: and here Julian Baggini on the problem with Plato and the fact that after getting us to first-base, the Socratic Method is more of a hindrance than a virtue. Another aspect of “easy but ultimately wrong.]

[Post Note: Compare and contrast, as well as joining some dots. We see from earlier “SE/SM” examples, linked in the intro, that one of the credible philosophical drivers here is Peter Boghossian (not to be confused with Paul Boghossian). If his Wikipedia bio is to be believed he makes a virtue out of Socratic Pedagogy. So we part company at first-base – interestingly, dealing with educating prisoners (yet another level of interrupt!) – so OK for Edu101 – first-base as I say. Anyway, the dots – (Peter) Boghossian is also behind this PC Bias in Social Science Research project – a variant on Sokal. Not sure Socrates can handle the levels of irony needed here.]

Reason and the Gods

The content and quality is somewhat undersold by the title but this session from IAI HTLGI (not sure which year?) has some fascinating examples of the key dialogues.

Titled “Reason and the Gods”
Subtitled “The necessity of religion and spirituality”

Gottlieb ultimately falling back on – “but what do we mean by religion” – when asked to address some specific assertion about the inevitability and need for religion, by Baggini in the chair. Need to (at least implicitly) classify an ontology as part of the question. Sure, wide / shallow definitions – land-grabs – always kill the dialogue, but in good faith the parts and layers present or absent need to be addressed separately. There are a whole range of “religious” components – and on many dimensions too, from:

  • The spiritual feel of more than the objectified individual in a material world
  • Meaning of life in the good(s) lived for – Maslow and all that.
  • Theistic and non-theistic framework and physical/literal and metaphorical and/or ritual conceptions of these.
  • Dogma and denial or intolerance of alternatives and formal authority of texts and priests and organised ritual, etc.
  • We’re talking about some or all of these (and maybe some more independent aspects I’ve missed) when we talk about religious belief, and whether or not we need a comprehensive religion to satisfy the need for any one part (if at all).

Woodhead – voices a counterbalance to the “all you need is love” and golden-rule consideration idea, that is, you also need truth and courage etc. There’s a word for this amorphous collection of personal good – Virtue (after virtues).

Anyway, the main reason for posting was the people.

  • Julian Baggini I already know and like (much referenced here). In this dialogue Baggini is chair and handles it well, with his knowledgable ability to summarise and ask the next question.
  • Anthony Gottlieb I’ve never seen or heard speak, but was a big fan of his two books “The Dream of Reason” and “The Dream of Enlightenment” (Both of which I saw as supplemented – even completed – by Kenan Malik’s “Moral Compass” – which is relevant topic-wise though he’s not part of this dialogue.) Gottlieb, as my one comment above suggests, is cast as the anti-religious atheist / rationalist / humanist role in this dialogue, so I suspect doesn’t do justice to the nuances of his real position.
  • Linda Woodhead I’m aware of but not previously registered any of her contributions explicitly. Came across as an excellent considered defender of the place of religion, with all the subtleties in the detail. Must follow-up.
  • Myriam François I’d not come across at all before. She was a breath of fresh air. Proper assured dialogue in the role of SOAS Islamist / Journalist in this archetypically God vs Reason caricature. Must follow-up.