What’s So Funny ?

Fun (pleasure or jouissance), was part of Zizek’s agenda noted below. I finished his “Living in the End Times” a week or so ago; a good provocative read in many places, but I was just left with an inconclusive anti-climactic “so what ?”, and no further specific review subjects to publish, so I moved straight on to Rebecca Goldstein’s “36 Arguments for the Existence of God“.

The cover headline says “A Hillarious Novel …” ? Hardly. A very good novel, some very good writing as well as a well crafted story. So well constructed as to be almost contrived in the intersecting points of the actors’ life stories. Plenty of humour and wit in the narrative lived through these intelligent fictional actors, some of it really very funny, but as a novel it’s deadly serious, and very successful in its aims. Particularly clever, the book within the book, written by “New Atheist” Cass Selzer having an appendix summarizing 36 arguments and responses on the existence of god, as advertized, but potentially a distraction – only an appendix, no, really. Despite the 36 chapters all entitled “The Argument From ...” there is in fact little parallel between the chapters and the actual arguments. The appendix represents an excellent potted resource – they’re all there, succinctly and soundly summarized, so far as I can tell – for those participating in god vs reason debates, but the former is another excellent love conquers all parable. Recommended.

Aside [Amor Vincit Omnia][Amor Vincit Omnia again] Spooky – finished 36 Arguments at Changi too.

By way of further aside, after taking an interest in the Goldstein’s 36 Arguments, and having ordered a copy, I was pointed at some links to YouTube “interviews” of Goldstein with partner Steven Pinker (I’ll spare you the links). I’ve been a fan of Pinker too, too starstruck to actually speak when I found myself sat beside him (and her, I now surmise) in a Cambridge hotel bar. But the doey-eyed mutual love – jouissance – between the two kinda got in the way – get a room guys ….

I’m glad I ignored that initial prejudice. Having thoroughly enjoyed 36 Arguments from 2010, I’ve gone straight into “Betraying Spinoza” Goldstein’s 2006 book. (Less than 1/4 through.) [Post Note : review after finishing here.]

Jewishness is front and centre in 36 Arguments, and there are plenty of philosophy references, by the nature of the characters’ working lives. (William James is particularly prominent, Thoreau / Walden central, but all the US Pragmatists, Wittgentsein, Locke, and many more.) And Betraying Spinoza is published in the Jewish Encounters series … devoted to the promotion of Jewish literature, culture and ideas.

(Spoiler warning – don’t read on until you’ve read 36 Arguments.)

Now with a little hindsight, it’s easy to see child prodigy Azarya Scheiner genius character in 36 Arguments as  Spinoza. Although Azarya’s tale is ultimately a reversal of Spinoza’s excommunication in the more enlightened times we inhabit, both in fact choose love. In Azarya’s case love for his people and culture, despite the depth of his logical and mathematical prowess – his thorny blessings.

Goldstein’s “Betraying Spinoza” is significantly autobiographical (and dedicated to Steven) as well as a wonderful biographical resource (so far) on the life and times of Spinoza (that damn 30 years war again !) and written very readably. So what is so funny ’bout peace, love and understanding ?

“Though [Spinoza] was a man who had given himself over entirely to the search after truth […] still he would not speak the truth so long as his doing so might hurt those whom he loved. […] I felt that I loved him.” – Goldstein.

And …

“Spinoza is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme.” – Bertrand Russell, 1945.

Love being the highest form of truth.

And, finally,

“Metaphysics [narrowly defined] is the attempt to use pure reason, as opposed to [empirical] experience to arrive at a description of reality [by deduction].”

“Metaphysics [more widely defined] is ontological commitment concerning what sorts of things exist in the world. Paradoxically, even analytic philosophers [and scientists] have this kind of commitment to [faith in, love of] rejecting the very possibility of metaphysics in the narrow non-empirical deductive sense.” – My paraphrase of Goldstein.

[Post Note : Intriguing, eclectic collection of Kerouac references, following up on the “What’s so funny ’bout peace, love and … ” meme. Weird. ]

Is Science The Only Path To Truth ?

The provocative title of a discussion event by Intelligence Squared held last Thursday at the Science Museum, Dana Centre, which I managed to attend after all.

Chaired by Jack Klaff, featuring Ian Angell, Ray Tallis, Jane O’Grady, and David Papineau as the panel, with Lewis Wolpert and others in the audience of around 100(?).

If there were any theists present they kept their heads down, and would probably have chuckled at the shambolic “non-debate” as far as fitting the available resources to the agenda. Very interesting to see the level of “talking past each other” amongst scientists and philosophers, as well as the arts and humanities represented.

Ray Tallis was closest to any middle ground, but even he appeared to be an unreconstructed dualist, seeing two clearly distinct objective and subjective domains of reality. The subjective humanities simply denied any scientific contribution to such things as love or art – the classic battleground being the “neural correlates of consciousness”. The scientists were frankly embarassingly arrogant in seeing no alternatives to scientism, despite significant definitional debate around narrow and broad conceptions of objectivity, empiricism and methods of science in “the view from nowhere” and truth defined anywhere from “objective fact” to pragmatism. Embarassing that they see only scale and complexity of detail in the ultimate tractability of everything falling under science, ignoring the paradoxes (eg in the zombie thought experiment) and non-linearity in the position of game-changing intentional consciousness in the game of life as we know it.

Ian Angell of course took the combative and extreme line of branding all objectivity and causation of as delusional, practically wearing his Nietzschean transendental nihilism on his sleeve. Strength of feeling was never going to win any arguments on this night or any other.

Other than those, I have to say it was mostly trading well rehearsed rhetorical arguments and smart-ass put-downs, that were simply not being listened to, let alone appreciated or understood, by their “targets” on either side. Wittgenstein’s take on language games got creditable recognition, but if you want a battle of words, don’t surprised if you get a war.

The answers lie somewhere in the “path” – that is the constructive processes of progress – and in raising the consciousness / free-will / intentionality / psychology / ethics / justice debate as THE core subject, above the “scientism vs love & emotion” tit-for-tat. Pragmatic objectivist convention that need not be greedy reductionist; determinism that does not deny free-will. It’s all there for the taking, in the quality of wisdom and values that fall between subject and object.

Lost Faith in Science

Interesting unspoken stumbling block is that boundary between science itself and the political (ie aim-oriented) public communication “about” science. ie yes, clearly, science / scientists need (always needed) to concern themselves with public communication, but is that necessarily science or scientific ?
Meta is the word.

A Game of Two Half-Wits

Two football posts in two days. Great headline, lifted from one the red-tops, just about sums it up. Sex discrimination or plain ignorance, Gray is just a dinosaur ex-player (Rio is right – there’s a first) with a stock of punditry clichés, good riddance. Keys is a professional broadcaster, he should have the book thrown at him.

Their offence is incompetence and plain ignorance of the rules of the game and the jobs the officials do – for any women in sport or officials of either sex, it’s sure water off a duck’s back. Before the story broke, we were already laughing at the predictable on-screen comments that the decision was in the least doubtful, doubly funny that Massey did actually make an offside error a few minutes later, though not in a critical goalscoring opportunity, so no-one seems to have picked up on that. Errors are errors. In my experience women make better match officials, provided the have the basic command / authority, because on the whole they are more intuitively concerned with the point of the rules than their anal interpretation and application to the letter.

Strip Out The Emotion

Not been following all the details of the Spurs vs Wet Sham vs UK Athletics on the “legacy” use of the new Stratford Olympic stadium, but I have to say.

  • Football should not be played in athletics stadiums – not for fans who want to watch how the game is played; not for players who need to remember whose game it is. The dead space kills the real game.
  • Tearing down the purpose built athletic stadium and replacing it with a football stadium and an upgrade to Crystal Palace, is not at all in the spirit of the Olympics. Why didn’t they sort this out the same way Eastlands did before the Manchester Commonwealth games – and create a proper dual purpose stadium.
  • Why don’t Spurs (and West Ham) ground share the new athletic stadium for (say) two years, whilst they redevelop new modern football stadia on their traditional sites ?

Aha, so here is the problem … Spurs chariman Levy wants to:

“Strip out the emotion.”

Such people should be banned from sports management.

Forget Starbucks

Seems Ian Angell is a Costa Coffee man. A man after my own taste. Actually, I prefer Cafe Nero, but either way, anything but Starbucks.


I first mentioned Angell when I heard him on Thinking Allowed discussing his book “Science’s First Mistake” with Laurie Taylor. I mentioned in the footnote there, the suggestion, gained from other essay’s on his web site, that sometimes his language suggests he’s less agnostic and more theistic that he claims, which led a number of people with whom I shared the Thinking Allowed link to react against him. This is not an isolated problem. Take the recent Anthropic Principle thread that spun out of PZ Myers blog. It’s impossible to point out flaws in any scientific response to non-science without being branded as “anti-science” – somehow representing “the other side” or “playing into their hands”. And of course this flaw is the whole “neurosis” of science to use Maxwell’s term.

Anyway, I responded to Laurie Taylor and exchanged a few emails with Ian Angell since then. I discovered, as Laurie did in this interview in the current edition of the New Humanist, that Ian is a man on a mission, who’s positively enthusiastic about using language intended to inflame scientists (or theists, who cares). The interview concludes :

Angell’s book is a fascinating read, a clever, insightful, philosophically persuasive account of the limitations of science. But this wasn’t the first time in the interview when I felt he’d been so outraged by scientific arrogance that he was prepared to employ some dubious logic in order to pursue his case. I wondered if it was his fury about the manner in which science had robbed the world of enchantment that led him into another strange assertion, the declaration that the world was safe from science because it was, in his word, “magical”.

“It is magical. It is wonderful. Don’t you wake up in the morning and think this is incredible? You know, since I stopped being scientific, nothing is drab or predictable. It’s totally astounding that every day is different and you never know what will happen. Science is drab. It’s not a humanist way of looking at the world. To me humanists have to believe in magic. Because life is magic. It is magic that we can actually operate at all. The fact that we can categorise is magic. All thought is sympathetic magic. And it is wonderful. Every day is a bonus. If tomorrow’s going to be the same as today, then why bother?”

This new-found enthusiasm for life was almost alarmingly evident as he led me across Kingsway to his beloved Costa coffee house. He greeted the baristas behind the glassed cakes as though they were old friends. When I insisted on paying he cheekily demanded an extra stamp on his own loyalty card and noticed as he did that the card was now complete. “Free coffee tomorrow!”, he cheerily boomed as we carried our lattes to a table.

Fun and Games

In one of his robust, no punches pulled email exchanges, he concluded:

I’m just having fun!
God is a comedian, but His followers have no sense of humour. And neither do Scientists.

He’s right of course, the outrage is scientific arrogance. And this reference to fun, and his “dubious tactics” put me in mind of Zizek’s use of the Lacanian “jouissance“. I’m reading (almost finished) his “Living in End Times”. It also put me in mind of another subject – I often get backlash against “game theory” suggestions, as if the whole idea is somehow discredited. One of my two criticisms of Maxwell’s excellent “Is Science Neurotic” was that there was no acknowledgement of game-theory in his Aim-Oriented Rationality processes of scientific progress. (My other criticism was overlooking what US Pragmatist philosophers have to say on the subject.)

Now the Lacanian “jouissance” is more than just fun and enjoyment, it has all the Freudian, sexual, phallic, orgasmic symbology you’d expect from a French PoMo. You know, pleasure (nudge, nudge, wink, wink). As a Lacanian, Zizek uses the term this way, but he also uses it as the point of “play” in general, in politics, in architecture, making progress in life in general – the pleasure principle. Pleasure is what we want, but too much pleasure hurts. In the interview above, Angell makes a remark about people who revel in their own misery and quips the question of whether this puts them at 2 or 8 on a 1 to 10 scale of pleasure. The point of the pleasure principle is that we need to play interactive games with ourselves and each other, and games involve psychological tactics, even dubious logic, to establish our optimum levels of pleasure. It’s what we do. It really is. And to deny it is … denial … Maxwell’s scientific neurosis.


Another reason I identify with Ian is that we share a historical route to our current positions (see my manifesto). I’m an engineer primarily, which naturally has scientific / technological underpinnings. Long before I became focussed on management per se, I had my doubts about the role of ambiguity in engineering management, but ever since the master’s study and wider management and consulting experience since, I am ever more convinced that mechanistic management tools are only ever a simplification over the underlying human reality. Of course the more interactive, social, story-telling approach to business management is no longer a novel idea. The point is this management problem really extends to all forms of governance in economics, politics, even science itself.

When things change, they don’t necessarily get better, they get more complicated.

We can use simplifying tools, but we mustn’t confuse this with believing we have simplified the underlying fun and games. The world does not reduce to science and simple choices.

[Post Note : Actually reading the book now. Noted this “real sociology” blog article too, linked to the original Thinking Allowed piece, which confirms the opinion that Angell may be reinforcing well established views on the scientific delusions of objectivity and causality, but comes across as

… quite angry … irritating …