Sunday, April 24, 2011

Quo Vadis?

In honor of the Easter holiday, I thought I would share some thoughts from the poet and classics scholar Anne Carson on Catholicism, spirituality, and God, which she gave in an interview with The Paris Review in 2002. As is the case with all such thoughts, hers are deeply personal, but I find them thought-provoking and interesting, as I do all of Ms Carson's work. I have rarely encountered someone treating the subject of spiritual doubt quite so faithfully.

Read it and judge for yourself:

Is Catholicism a way out of self for you?


No, quite the reverse. I don’t think I’m ever so resigned to myself as when I’m in church trying to understand why I’m in church. Sitting there thinking about my mother and all the times we sat together in church. The only good memory I have of it is leaning up against her fake fur coat during Mass. I remember the smell of that coat, how comforting that was on a cold winter day. But, no, it’s not a way out of self at all, it’s a way back into some self that I’m not sure is a good version, but which seems to be embedded or necessary.


Do you think of yourself as being particularly devout?


No. I think of myself as being particularly baffled on the one hand, by the whole question of God and the relation of humans to God, but also, possibly because of lots of empty spaces in my life, open to exploring what that might mean. I have open spaces where I put that question and just see what happens. Going to church is one such space, though I don’t go with any expectation of fulfillment or illumination. I just go because I have gone, and my mother went and her mother went and there’s something there that happens to all of us. A kind of thinking takes place there that doesn’t take place anywhere else. No matter how unattractive the service—and nowadays the mass is rather unattractive in its modern translation—no matter how brainless the sermon, there is a space in which nothing else is happening so that thinking about God or about the question of God can happen. So I go there and let it happen. Nothing changes, I don’t become wise about this, I don’t become ethically better or more interesting. I’m just the same person, I’m that person with this space open and I do think that for me, in this life, that’s as far as I’m going to get with spirituality.


So there’s not really a doctrinaire side to it.


I wouldn’t say the doctrinaire side of Catholicism, for example, makes much sense to me in its details or its history. So, no, I don’t look to Catholic thinking as a guide to my life, how to live my life, but I do think it’s some aspect of being human to engage the question of gods and that engagement requires space and time. It’s a historical accident that I was brought up Catholic by my mother and that she was by her mother. So this tradition that carries us is just an accidental vessel. I could have been a Muslim and been equally confused, I’m sure.


Do you think of yourself as having a relationship with God?


No. But that’s not bad. I think in the last few years since I’ve been working on this opera and reading a lot of mystics, especially Simone Weil, I’ve come to understand that the best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t. So, sad fact, but get used to it, because nothing else is going to happen.


He’s not available because he chooses to remove himself or he’s not available because he doesn’t exist?


Neither. He’s not available because he’s not a being of a kind that would fit into our availability. “Not knowable” as the mystics would say. And knowing is what a worshipper wants to get from God, the sense of being in an exchange of knowledge, knowing and being known. It’s what anybody wants from any relationship of love and the relationship with God is supposed to be one of love. But I don’t think any kind of knowing is ever going to materialize between humans and gods.


Is it stymied because of the nature of the beast?


Yes, because of the difference of the two orders. If God were knowable, why would we believe in him?

— Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88

Peace be with you.

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 22, 2011

First, Let's Shoot All the Philosophers

A few days ago, a friend of mine on Twitter linked to an article written earlier this month by the chairman of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Professor Todd Jones.1 Apparently the state's current fiscal crisis has inspired the university to consider eliminating the entire department and firing all of its members. Naturally, Mr. Jones took exception to this assault on his profession and livelihood, and he took to the pages of the Boston Review—friendly and understanding fora for such arguments apparently being rather thin on the ground in the land of perpetual sunshine, consequence-free sex, and instant, undeserved riches—to make his case.

Mr. Jones founds his argument on the practical utility of philosophical education:
people think of philosophy as a luxury only if they don’t really understand what philosophy departments do. I teach one of the core areas of philosophy, epistemology: what knowledge is and how we obtain it. People from all walks of life—physicists, physicians, detectives, politicians—can only come to good conclusions on the basis of thoroughly examining the appropriate evidence. And the whole idea of what constitutes good evidence and how certain kinds of evidence can and can’t justify certain conclusions is a central part of what philosophers study. Philosophers look at what can and can’t be inferred from prior claims. They examine what makes analogies strong or weak, the conditions under which we should and shouldn’t defer to experts, and what kinds of things (e.g., inflammatory rhetoric, wishful thinking, inadequate sample size) lead us to reason poorly.

This is not to say that doctors, district attorneys, or drain manufactures cannot make decent assessments without ever taking a philosophy class. It’s also possible for someone to diagnose a case of measles without having gone to medical school. The point is that people will tend to do better if, as part of their education, they’ve studied some philosophy. (This is one of the reasons why undergraduate philosophy majors have the highest average scores on the standard tests used for admission to post-graduate study.) No matter what goals someone has, she can better achieve them through assessing evidence more effectively, which philosophy can teach her. Questions about whether this or that goal is one that is good to have or whether certain goals are consistent with other goals, in turn, concern ethics and values—other subjects that philosophers have long pursued.

Perhaps it is superfluous for me to say this in this forum, but I am unpersuaded.

* * *

Arguing that society should fund university philosophy departments because they teach practical knowledge is disingenuous, at best. There's nothing remotely practical about philosophy. It is the most radical (from the Latin radix = "root") intellectual discipline of all, because it recognizes no limits to its subject matter and no limits to the depth or breadth of its analysis. Philosophy aims to discuss not only what we know, how we know it, and why our belief is justified (epistemology), but also the very nature of reality (ontology and metaphysics) and the justification for our actions toward each other (ethics), inter alia. Its tools are rigorous critical analysis, rational argument, and logic. It considers no subject off limits and no question or issue completely and permanently resolved.2

This is a key point to understand: philosophy, as a discipline, does not provide answers.3 Notwithstanding the inference a naive reader might draw from Mr. Jones' discussion of physicians and detectives, there is no body of widely accepted answers to commonly encountered questions like reason for belief or standard of proof, such as might be found in a natural science, for example. Instead, almost every subsector of philosophy known is riven by multiple competing critiques, opinions, and worldviews, each carefully and exhaustively argued, which even professional philosophers cannot—and do not wish to—reconcile. Philosophy provides questions, plus the tools with which to try and answer them and persuade others to your point of view. As such, it can be rightly said that the proper effect of philosophy is to make people exquisitely alert to their assumptions, sensitive to the rigor of their analyses, and—truth be told—permanently uncomfortable about the validity of their conclusions. If anyone should realize that, an epistemologist should. If Professor Jones does not, perhaps he doesn't deserve to teach philosophy.

I shudder to think what a sensitive and intelligent criminologist, jurist, or physicist would take away from a rigorous course in the foundations of knowledge. If he or she has half a brain, they would be rendered permanently uncertain about the validity of their own day-to-day work. Frankly, this may not be such a bad thing. The most likely practical outcome from a non-philosopher taking one or more philosophy courses is the potential inculcation of healthy self-doubt and skepticism. Even if a student does not or cannot take each argument fully on board, the mere exposure to powerful, persuasive, contrasting points of view on multiple sides of a carefully defined issue can persuade the densest individual that life, knowledge, and "truth" are not the oh-so-simple constructs he or she may have been led to believe. At its most basic and abstract, philosophy teaches that no topic is off limits, that there are no simple or unchallengeable answers, and that there are only good questions. Among more sensitive and reflective souls, this can engender a lifelong skepticism of simplistic arguments, facile rhetoric, and conventional wisdom.

* * *

Now I happen to believe that training our young people to think this way can be highly salutary for society in general. In my opinion, we need more independent thinking, more critical analysis, and less blind obeisance to party lines of every stripe. Accordingly, I am a big proponent of philosophical training for almost everyone. But you can see how authority of every kind—social, political, economic—would find such attitudes irritating at best and terribly threatening at worst. Mr. Jones himself acknowledges this, by calling attention to the fact that the enlightened Athenian democrats of 399 BC sentenced their own leading philosopher, Socrates, to death for "corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of 'not believing in the gods of the state.'" Power has never enjoyed having truth spoken to it, much less the truth which calls its very existence and justification into question. True philosophy concedes the privilege of being right to no-one and nothing. It is the ancient enemy of authority of all kinds. Accordingly, perhaps Mr. Jones should be less surprised that the State of Nevada has decided to use the cover of fiscal distress to remove yet another source of gadflies from its polity.

I am sorry Professor Jones and his colleagues seem likely to lose their jobs. However, the counterargument he puts forth here just won't fly. If he is determined to fight practical fire with practical fire, perhaps he should pursue the argument that philosophy departments—like humanities courses in general—actually subsidize many of the more glamorous and supposedly profitable disciplines taught at modern universities. After all, as another of my interlocutors on Twitter opined, running a philosophy department is pretty darn cheap. You need professors, a few rooms, pencils, and some pads of paper. I don't know what the tariff for higher education at UNLV is nowadays, but you can be damn sure that every $50,000-a-year Philosophy major at Harvard is subsidizing a hell of a lot of electron microscopes for the glamorous—and much less profitable—Molecular Biology majors.

Don't even get me started on the MBAs.

1 Perhaps you, Dear Reader—like me—are surprised to learn that a hotbed of scholarly inquiry like UNLV actually has a philosophy department in the first place. But, putting aside any special needs UNLV might have concerning the ontology or metaphysics of college basketball, or the ethical justification for bribery of student athletes, I suppose it makes sense, if only for the sake of curricular completeness.
2 Naturally, you should understand that I am talking about the Western philosophical tradition. I am not talking about Eastern philosophy, with which I am largely unfamiliar, although I will observe that it strikes me as much more focused on mysticism, spirituality, and the provision of answers than the cultivation of questions. I am open to being corrected here.
3 Sure, sure. Plenty—if not most—Western philosophers have come up with their own systems, answers, and worldviews which their writings advocate in no uncertain terms. But last time I checked, the discipline of philosophy has not said, "Look, Kant got the categorical imperative pretty much right, so let's all just move on, shall we?" in the same way physicists have done with Newton and Einstein. We are talking about the discipline of philosophy here, which is concerned with only questions.

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Luxe, Calme et Volupté

Henri Matisse was born in 1869, the year the Cutty Sark was launched. The year he died, 1954, the first hydrogen bomb exploded at Bikini Atoll. Not only did he live on, literally, from one world into another; he lived through some of the most traumatic political events in recorded history, the worst wars, the greatest slaughters, the most demented rivalries of ideology, without, it seems, turning a hair. Matisse never made a didactic painting or signed a manifesto, and there is scarcely one reference to a political event—let alone an expression of political opinion—to be found anywhere in his writings. Perhaps Matisse did suffer from fear and loathing like the rest of us, but there is no trace of them in his work. His studio was a world within the world: a place of equilibrium that, for sixty continuous years, produced images of comfort, refuge, and balanced satisfaction. Nowhere in Matisse's work does one feel a trace of the alienation and conflict which modernism, the mirror of our century, has so often reflected. His paintings are the equivalent to that ideal place, scaled away from the assaults and erosions of history, that Baudelaire imagined in his poem L'Invitation au Voyage:
Furniture gleaming with the sheen of years would grace our bedroom; the rarest flowers, mingling their odours with vague whiffs of amber, the painted ceilings, the fathomless mirrors, the splendour of the East... all of that would speak, in secret, to our souls, in its gentle language. There, everything is order and beauty, luxury, calm and pleasure.

— Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New

Matisse was an artist Epicurus would have admired. Matisse is an artist we all should admire.

For while there is merit in engaging with the troubles and passions of one's times, that is not the only path of merit, whether in art, intellect, or emotion. There is much to be said for the calm, measured investigation of what is immutable and unvarying in the nature of things, if only because these are father and mother, in part, to our ephemera. It is not too much to say there may be lessons to be learned in how to conduct oneself from the way sunlight paints shadows on a tablecloth.

* * *

Besides, Matisse could paint circles around Picasso six ways from Sunday.

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Weekend Interlude

Body of a woman, white hills, white thighs,
you look like a world, lying in surrender.
My rough peasant's body digs into you
and makes the son leap from the depth of the earth.

I was alone like a tunnel. The birds fled from me,
and night swamped me with its crushing invasion.
To survive myself I forged you like a weapon,
like an arrow in my bow, a stone in my sling.

But the hour of vengeance falls, and I love you.
Body of skin, of moss, of eager and firm milk.
Oh the goblets of the breast! Oh the eyes of absence!
Oh the roses of the pubis! Oh your voice, slow and sad!

Body of my woman, I will persist in your grace.
My thirst, my boundless desire, my shifting road!
Dark river-beds where the eternal thirst flows
and weariness follows, and the infinite ache.

— Pablo Neruda, "Body of a Woman"

For Pablo, il miglior fabbro.

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Run and Find Out

"There are more things to find out about in this house," he said to himself, "than all my family could find out in all their lives. I shall certainly stay and find out."

— Rudyard Kipling, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi

Aline van Duyn posted an interesting column in the FT Weekend about financial regulation. In it, she cites Alan Greenspan, who issued what she calls a "scathing critique" of the Dodd-Frank financial reforms in an earlier FT editorial:

"The financial system on which Dodd-Frank is being imposed is far more complex than the lawmakers, and even most regulators, apparently contemplate," wrote Mr Greenspan.

"We will almost certainly end up with a number of regulatory inconsistencies whose consequences cannot be readily anticipated...  These 'tips of the iceberg' suggest a broader concern about the act: that it fails to capture the degree of global interconnectedness of recent decades which has not been substantially altered by the crisis of 2008."

These are valid and worrisome criticisms. Unintended consequences are sure to be rife from such poorly-thought-out and hastily written legislation. Beholden to justifiable public outrage and the resulting political imperative to "just do something," Congress has defaulted to its all-too-common practice of Ready, Fire, Aim.

And yet, Mr. Greenspan seems to intend much more than a simple cataloging of potential weaknesses with Dodd-Frank:

The problem is that regulators, and for that matter everyone else, can never get more than a glimpse at the internal workings of the simplest of modern financial systems. Today’s competitive markets, whether we seek to recognise it or not, are driven by an international version of Adam Smith’s "invisible hand" that is unredeemably [sic] opaque. With notably rare exceptions (2008, for example), the global "invisible hand" has created relatively stable exchange rates, interest rates, prices, and wage rates.

In the most regulated financial markets, the overwhelming set of interactions is never visible. This is the reason that interpretation of contemporaneous financial market behaviour is subject to so wide a variety of "explanations", especially in contrast to the physical sciences where cause and effect is much more soundly grounded.

The force of his remarks—and the implication of the phrase "unredeemably opaque"—is clear: we will never understand how markets work, and therefore we should give up trying and go back to the unregulated state of nature Mr. Greenspan and his fellow Randian and quasi-Randian travellers cultivated so carefully in preceding decades.1 But this is nonsense.

* * *

Few people of sense would suggest that we will ever understand the inner workings of the global financial markets with any level of completeness or rigor. Certainly not to the extent we could predict their behavior under all circumstances, like we can in certain of the physical sciences. (For one thing, the components, interrelationships, and forces in financial markets are always changing, a substantial additional impediment to accurate prediction which most complex physical systems do not suffer from.) But that concession is miles removed from the belief which Mr. Greenspan seems to advocate, which is that we shouldn't even bother to try.

Scientists do not flatter themselves that they will ever be able to comprehensively model fluid flows in a turbulent stream, yet hydrodynamics remains an active and vibrant field of ongoing study. More to the point, geologists, meteorologists, and ocean scientists do not pretend they will ever be able to predict the sources and evolution of earthquakes, hurricanes, or tsunamis to the level of Newtonian mechanics, but that does not prevent them from trying to understand these phenomena better. Putting aside the claims of human curiosity, we try to understand such phenomena because they can have hugely destructive effects on our societies and persons. The analogy with a global financial crisis is exact.

* * *

So it pleases me to learn from Ms van Duyn that some people are trying to remedy our ignorance:

John Liechty, a professor of marketing and statistics at Pennsylvania State University, helped create the Office of Financial Research, a new agency created by the Dodd-Frank Act that is charged with identifying systemic risk in the financial sector. He first got the idea when he met regulators at a workshop after the crisis.

"It really was surprising to me," he said. "Regulators had a complete lack of real information about how the markets work, the size of positions and exposures among institutions."

He believes there is a "national need" to gather the data and do the research to understand markets better, just as was done to better model hurricanes and their impact. It took decades – and was a serious project.

This is exactly what we need: a well-funded, serious, permanent agency devoted to understanding as much as we can about the elements, interconnections, and vulnerabilities of financial markets and their participants. In addition, I would suggest that the constant mutability of this system argues strenuously for the implementation of a plan like that suggested some time ago by Economics of Contempt. Stationing a sufficient number of experienced, knowledgeable ex-market participants in regulatory oversight positions at the largest and most systemically important financial institutions would not only provide necessary close supervision (and perhaps help nip developing crises in the bud), but would also support the development of true boots-on-the-ground insight into the day-to-day workings of financial entities and markets. This type of knowledge would be invaluable to helping regulators develop a robust, dynamic understanding of global financial networks and players.

* * *

So let us have no more willful ignorance, no more worship at the self-interested shrine of laissez-faire Know-Nothingism. The acknowledged difficulty of getting to grips with the global financial system is no argument against trying to do so. Rather, it is an argument for the urgency of beginning forthwith.

The Pecora Commission investigation into the sources of the 1929 stock market crash began two and one-half years after the event, lasted over two years, and helped shape the regulatory environment for decades. In contrast, the underfunded, marginalized Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission lasted one year, at a time when the size, complexity, and interconnectedness of the global financial system has grown exponentially from 1934. In terms of academic interest, regulatory concern, and social impact, understanding the sources of the recent financial crisis must rank as one of the most important socioeconomic research projects of our time. From my perspective, it's time to stop dicking around and start trying to understand it.

In early human history, the shaman or medicine man was tasked with intermediating the needs and objectives of his tribe with the mysterious forces of nature. He developed a primitive understanding of cause and effect and was effective to the extent his beliefs and actions corresponded to underlying reality. Eventually, he became a sort of scientist, albeit one intellectually hobbled by superstition. As general knowledge advanced, some shamans must have realized that their position and authority in the tribe depended less on their true understanding of reality than on their ability to keep the mysteries of life secret from their charges. This, I am sure I need not tell you, was not in the best interest of those tribes.

So let's bow and scrape obsequiously to Alan Greenspan as he swans away in his buffalo robe and bear claw necklace. After he's gone, we can turn back to our microscopes and chemistry sets and begin to try to understand things for a change.

Here's your headdress, Alan. What's your hurry?

* * *

UPDATE: Writing in the FT today, Congressman Barney Frank more or less agrees with me:

When technology can track billions of transactions in real time, a failure to pierce the opaqueness of the system is mostly a question of will, not capacity.

I suppose Barney has been disinvited from Alan Greenspan's Christmas pow-wow, too.

1 I will not sport with your intelligence in the body of my remarks by drawing attention to the groaner for which Mr. Greenspan has been widely and humorously pilloried—"notably rare exceptions"—other than to note the irredeemable [sic] cluelessness and tone-deafness of its author reminds me of the no-doubt apocryphal remarks of the Ford Theatre stage manager after the assassination of President Lincoln: "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"

© 2011 The Epicurean Dealmaker. All rights reserved.