Reading “The Zhivago Affair” by Finn and Couvee, about the publication of Pasternak’s opus. Perhaps not quite a great classic – a little self-indulgent on the semi-autobiographical individual freedom, artistic freedom level, whilst being very much in the literary artistic tradition of its great Russian prose-poet predecessors. But a big best seller thanks to its content and timing as a reaction to the Soviet regime stretching back to the original Bolshevik revolution. Most will know (some of) the story through David Lean’s magnificent film.

Like many authors engaged in brutal battle the other side of the iron-curtain during the cold-war, the “difficulties” were immense and intriguing. The CIA’s role in its western publication and promotion are fascinating.

Not surprisingly (paraphrasing):

When the CIA was created in 1947, many including Truman, were uneasy that some form of “centralised snooping” was unavoidable. In order to keep it at arms length from The White House and US government generally, its brief was sufficiently vague to give it freedom for “black propaganda” and “covert ops” whilst preserving official deniability.

Many now question whether that’s the kind of dirty job one someone has to do, given we no longer have the cold-war, but what is perhaps more surprising – entirely counter-intuitive – is the CIA’s own strategy in doing so (paraphrasing again):

In the 1950’s the CIA was engaged in relentless global and political warfare with the Kremlin. This effort was intended to shore up support for the Atlantic Alliance (NATO) … The CIA believed the power of ideas – in news, art, music and literature – could slowly corrode the authority of the Soviet state with its own people and its satellite states. The agency was in a long game that could incrementally over time improve the chances for more open societies.

The US was up against a foe that, since the 1920’s had mastered the creation of the front organisation. Phony CIA front organisations spent untold millions to fund concert tours, art exhibitions, highbrow magazines, academic research, student activism, news organisations – and book publishing. In Western Europe, the CIA channeled money to the non-communist-left. CIA help went mainly to the parties of the democratic left and centre. (The right wing and conservative forces had their own financial resources.) The CIA became one of the world’s largest grant-making institutions.

It took a fairly sophisticated point of view (ie not moronic McCarthysism) to understand that the public exhibition of views contrary to US orthodoxy was a potent weapon against monolithic Communist uniformity of action.

Dr Zhivago was a part of this. The fact that the Soviets were against it because of its anti-Soviet content was politically almost incidental to the CIA’s involvement.

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Post Note:

(1) On the main angle of my agenda here – “the ideology of science” – an interesting take from Pravda on the awarding of Nobel prizes:

When three Soviet scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics it was “recognition by the academy of the major merits of the Soviet scientists” whereas ” the award for literature was prompted for entirely political motives.” Bourgeois scientists “were capable of objectivity,” but the assessment of literary works was entirely under the influence of the ideology of the dominant class.”

(2) One the theme of Russian literature generally, I also unravelled a confusion. Dostoyevsky I’ve talked about most, and here Pasternak, but last year I read the first two volumes of Sholokov’s Quiet Flows the Don. I’d obtained a four volume set of the 1939 Moscow Foreign Languages Publishing edition of the 1934 translation on the basis it was the “first” to be translated and the “first” to win the Nobel prize for literature. Doh! the first Soviet work to be published in translation and first to receive the Nobel prize in 1965. Many pre-Soviet Russian works were translated and published much earlier and of course Pasternak was awarded (but prevented from receiving) the prize in 1958. Wasn’t too impressed with Sholokov – like soap opera, drunken fights, adultery and rape, some sweeping landscapes and battlefield blood and guts, but not in the same Russian classics league poetically – much more the Soviet brutal realism.

This is a short post to address the additional “eastern” perspective missing from the post note in my previous blog on the London Thinks “How Do We Believe” event.

Here on Psybertron, much of the philosophical journey was informed early on by the qualities of Zen / Tao thinking introduced to millions by Robert Pirsig with two earlier clues connecting it to the real world of business and economics by Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence and to physical reality by Nobel prize-winning physicists Josephson and Stapp.

There are (for me) three lessons that inform doubts about the dominant western view of rationality.

  • One, simply that the self-other relationship is worth understanding and valuing. Quite the opposite to the dogma of a purely objective logical ontology in “science” (the so-called “exact-sciences” anyway) from which subjectivity is deliberately stripped or simply turned into another object. (There are many other relational, informative, flow-based alternatives to physical objects – particles in space and time – alone.)
  • Secondly, the questioning exemplified by the koan. Questioning is at the core of all pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, since Socrates most obviously, but recorded by Plato, codified by Aristotle, and restored to the western canon (ironically via Islamic scholars) in the enlightenment that gave us modern science. It’s already a presumption in the modern take on Socratic method, that there is an objective truth being uncovered with a fully consistent logic. But it may not have been that way to Socrates himself. We can never know. The questioner may or may not believe they already know the “truth” better that the target being questioned, but there is an inbuilt arrogance that the learning is aiming for objective truth, independent of what the subject believes. The Taoist koan, by asking questions without objective answers, at least leaves those thought-provoking non-objective “Mu” possibilities open.
  • Thirdly, reality really does exist, but the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. To suggest otherwise strips reality of any meaning. Any world view is a model of that reality, not reality itself. So any model of reality – any ontology – is contingent on its usefulness, and contingent all the way down. Even the most strictly objective, logical, hierarchical model stands on a turtle somewhere. The real world may have no cosmic bootstrap, but our model always will. And we can never know any more about the world than the epistemology our bootstrapped ontology gives us. To suggest the model we hold is not a “belief system” is merely semantic word-games.

These three points have many corollaries, possibilities left open for alternate world-views.

Qualitative differences matter. Assuming a strictly reductionist hierarchy in the relationships between the exact sciences as a foundation, living and evolving biology dependent on that, and all other psycho-social phenomena above these, involves many category errors. There can be quite – qualitatively – different types of thing in the different layers of our ontology. There is a gestalt view that says patterns of organisation in these different layers all have existence in their own right. Sure there is a dependence, a supervenience, of the higher layers’ existence on the lower, but the chains of causation which explain and predict behaviour do not all run from the part to the whole. That’s greedy reductionism. The wholes in the higher layers have their own behaviours. These behaviours do not “depend” on any of the properties of their parts, but rather on the nature and level of their organisation.

Certainly any number of “hard problems”, that lead science to deny the existence in its model of self, consciousness, will etc, are at least given space for investigation rather than dismissal and denial.

Of course many (Pirsig included) have constructed their own ontologies on some or all these principles. All I would say is the value is in believing these qualitative alternatives exist and have value. Getting exclusively attached to any one of them is just another dogma, no different to any religion, cult or even science. The enemy is dogma, not belief itself.

Missed this London Thinks event at Conway Hall Ethical Society earlier this week, in fact I’ll not be attending many in the coming year thanks to a changed working pattern, but this one’s a keeper on YouTube. The title and the content right on my “What, why and how do we (believe what we) know?” agenda here on Psybertron.

Samira Ahmed excellent in the chair as usual, Richard Wiseman entertaining, and Francesca Stavrakopoulou talking so much sense:

  • The “Western” prejudiced view of top-down organised & proselytising religions rather than their folkloric bottom-up origins. (As per the origins of stories … )
  • The Book of Numbers story (she’s used often before) illustrating the benign common-sense in early – patriarchal of its time – ritual in testing the accused adulteress. (True of most religious rituals and taboos … )
  • And more …

The rest … the natural evolution of necessary psychology, good and bad. Especially the memetic aspects where stories are reinforced by media transmission, individual or institutional, innocent or manipulative.

  • Bruce Hood and Deborah Hyde on sacrement of essence – even in inanimate objects – even in otherwise rational atheist people. Richard Wiseman on practical psychology (stage magic) examples. Real power, real value even if not “true”.
  • Co-existence of inconsistent texts and beliefs, without literalism being an issue.

Lots of good stuff in there. We all have “belief systems” that are fundamentally psychological – even hardened objective rational scientists. It’s the wrong battleground for “new-atheists” beating-up on the religious, rather than focussing on the repressive abuses of religion. There are enough of those to worry about.

  • Dawkins hasn’t done us (atheist / humanist / rationalist / naturalists) any favours. (Sure he’s “staked out” some of the extreme territory we’re dealing with – not sure he has much grip on what solutions might look like.)

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Post Note:

Got a tweeted comment from @WanderingJedEye that reminded us this “western” top-down hierarchical objective perspective is not only contrasted with the Abrahamic / middle-eastern experience, but with “eastern” world-views generally. There was in fact a Hindhu cultish contribution in the above debate from Alice Heron, but the focus was mainly the lessons of the cultish experience, rather than anything in the particular world-view. I posted a piece to address this additional thought.

‘We have gone from a vertical society to a horizontal society where everybody has an opinion about every decision you make, everybody has an opinion on the Internet straight away. Basically the respect for people who make decisions is gone because every decision is questioned. So one of the most important qualities of a good leader now is massive resistance to stress. Under stress you become smaller and smaller until you cannot give out a message any more and that, of course, is something that is vital. Many people underestimate this challenge.’

Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal Football Club.

So notes Alastair Campbell talking in support of the BBC as a trusted “brand” and the challenge for strategies to manage its future. Particular notable that the Burnley fan gives powerful and well considered support to @SaveOurBBC_CIC given his notorious run in(s) with the Beeb during his time as Tony Blair’s spin doctor. All the more powerful. Worth a read.

(And on a personal note as a fellow football fan I share the memory of his first BBC complaint that too often in the early days the match highlights came from Loftus Road.)

I’m one of those advocating caution alongside the otherwise laudable Sense About Science Ask For Evidence campaign. You can have too much of a good thing.

Getting overly focussed on seemingly objective evidence is OK so long as we understand what really counts as evidence when it gets communicated transparently (if it’s really intelligible to us) or is presented as newsworthy (if it’s mediated for us). You can never escape some element of trust, dare I say faith, in your sources and channels. There can be no shortage of conspiracy theories, but even the well-intentioned can accidentally mislead and a meme is a meme once it’s off and running.

Several interesting pieces recently.

Beware (crusade against!) multiple regression analyses. Look out for self-selection effects in correlations chosen for possible causal analysis. The psychology may be a bigger factor than the arithmetic. The downside to transparency. The emotional impact of misleading news. And, where there is intention to mislead, even well-intentioned white-lies or ironic cruelty-to-be-kind, it gets all the more complicated. The knowledge deficit model – Comment is free, but … some things are sacred.

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Post Note :

At the extreme ends of science – the fundamentals and the massively complex – objective evidence is even more precious, and cognitive bias by scientists and their social circles even more of a “crisis”. Here Sabine Hossenfelder talking on the risks to objective evidence when it is hardest to come by and therefore matters most in theory assessment. Several points where I differ with Sabine – the crisis is not so much about the pace of scientific progress, more the opposite, the increasing risk of scientific regress. Weinberg is right on beauty, simplicity and elegance. They are not fundamentally aesthetic when used by a thoughtful scientist – they are merely shorthand for a lot of experience – but they are nevertheless not objectively or fundamentally tested axioms. But she’s right. Consistency is indeed overrated when you are lost in the maths – it’s self-reinforcing. And multiverses can be a hack to cover up the lack of constraining axioms which make anything possible.

Really like Paul Mason’s line of thinking in his Post Capitalism.

As with any looming change, we need to face up to its reality if we are to have any hope of engineering ourselves any favourable outcomes. Paul seems to have switched his current tactic to reading the tea-leaves in current financial events and predicting seemingly inevitable doom and gloom.

Here is his latest on the Shanghai stock market. And previously his “great global slowdown”.

As an attention seeking tactic, I’m OK with doom and gloom, so long as it gains the attention of the right kind of people, but I do miss the hopeful side of his alternative futures.

[Immediate antidote from HBR via David Gurteen – positive thinking can be overrated.]

Just a holding post to capture this fascinating link for later digestion. Combines several of my threads in one – though apparent from first para that the fractality is in the syntax (sentence length) only – not in the information content.

Archetypical science of course to analyse something that can be objectively measured, not the “subject that matters”.

The world’s greatest literature
reveals multifractals and
cascades of consciousness.

By Stanisław Drożdż
The Institute of Nuclear Physics
of the Polish Academy of Sciences

Still, will need to see how the syntactical analysis leads to being able to say anything about consciousness?

Post before last, I indicated I was reading some histories and oldies in their original published forms.

Last week I picked-up several more books. One new handful from a current reviewers’ copy list at the Rationalist Association, and another old handful of discard copies of the Rationalist Association library held by Conway Hall. Both the oldies in the previous post came from that latter source.

Same again; I’m reading the oldies. Specifically right now I’m reading T. H. Huxley’s “Darwiniana” collection of essays. Published as a collection by MacMillan in 1893, I have the 1899 reprint, the essays themselves come from 1859 to the 1880’s. Lots of stuff here already well referenced and quoted by Dawkins, Dennett, Lewontin, Gould and the rest, but nevertheless fascinating to read in the original contexts. The novelty for Darwin’s conservative religious critics and the need to take “creation” as a serious input, somewhere; the Judaeo-Christian cultural standpoint of the whole, the racial and imperial outlook from our little island towards the French, the Germans and those of the “Palestine” region. (Wallace, Linnaeus, Lamarck, Harvey, Paley, Spencer, De Maillet, Haeckel, Newton, Leibnitz, Galilleo and the Medicis, and yet another Goethe reference, all there.)

Two things of note for me.

  • The careful debate about Lamarckian inheritance of acquired characteristics, and the fact that whilst Darwinian natural selection is undoubtedly true, it is clearly not the whole story. Lamarck remains “the skeleton in the closet” (as recently as this 2016 reference).
  • That race and species always were (and still are) slim and slippery customers. It doesn’t pay to dwell on fixed, one-time definitions of either of them. Time and isolation, history and hindsight matter more. Long enough to be usefully named. Pretty much as with “non-racial” cultural and religious belief identities & differences; No?