Perceptions of Progress and Cultural Decline

by Mark English

Here is a short extract from a piece I wrote early this year:

Variations on the general theme that things ain’t what they used to be are often heard but rarely taken seriously. And, as a general rule, the older the speaker is, the less seriously the claims are taken. Of course he would say that, the old codger. Life was so much better for him back then.

A couple of years ago the German-born fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld admitted to feeling that the world he had once lived in had ceased to exist. Paris, where he has lived and worked since the 1950s (when “it looked like an old French movie”), had never been as gloomy, dangerous or depressing as it was now.

As fate would have it, Mr Lagerfeld himself ceased to exist two weeks after my piece appeared. He was hospitalized on February 18th and died from complications associated with pancreatic cancer the next morning. In accordance with his wishes, there was no formal funeral, no ceremony.

My attitude to the industry in which Lagerfeld worked is not positive, and I have little knowledge of or interest in the man himself. What is most interesting is the phenomenon, the artifice, the public image – sustained over many years – as a kind of mask or act which was understood to be just that. Whatever his faults, Karl Lagerfeld had style and a sense of privacy. He was a product of the lost world which he remembered.

____

I once claimed that all the best people are dead. Such an assertion, taken at face value, is little more than a rhetorical flourish or provocation. Just a little hyperbolic, you could say.

Compare and contrast the stated views of John Cleese. Informed by an interviewer in September, 2017 that he (Cleese) was “very, very old”, the actor responded:

I’m 77. It’s very nice being this old, because when you’re this old, you’re going to die soon, so you don’t give a [expletive removed in source]… I am not afraid of death. I was thinking about it a lot, because you do when you’re older. I thought: most of the best people are dead.

I have to admit that his “most” is more defensible than my “all”. Cleese added that there are today “a lot of really awful people” about, many of them holding positions of power and influence. Provocation? Yes. But at least half-serious also.

If we are to take such claims even half seriously, however, we need to see them clearly for what they are: judgments not so much about individuals but rather (because individuals are created by the culture which nurtures them) about cultural change.

Moreover, negative or positive assessments of our (or any) society’s cultural trajectory will inevitably be subjective because any given judgment derives from a particular value framework, one amongst many actual and possible such frameworks. And, although they may be objectively described, competing value frameworks cannot be objectively assessed (except perhaps in very broad, functional terms).

Given the assumption that the social, political, educational, professional and familial structures upon which the functioning, health and transmission of a valued culture depend are breaking down or mutating in dangerous or otherwise undesirable ways, negative conclusions about the present and immediate future can be confidently – and quite reasonably – drawn. How plausible (or implausible) such an assumption or set of assumptions might be is debatable, of course. Opinions on these matters will be heavily influenced by ideological views and moral priorities.

Documentation on the decline in educational standards and a concomitant loss of status on the part of teachers and academics is not difficult to find, however. Likewise documentation on the breakdown of the family. But interpretations of the data will inevitably differ, as will the scope and focus of individual concerns.

We are all confronted with – and react in different ways to – the same broad social, political and cultural realities. Strangely – or perhaps, given the binary nature of many of our thought processes, not so strangely – most of us take a clear position not just on particular issues but also on the general trend. It is perceived as positive or as negative; as indicative of general improvement or of general deterioration.

Driven by temperament and who-knows-what, as time passes and as more loved and admired figures topple into the grave, I naturally see my negative stance confirmed. It is not just that all the old family friends, my father, all but one of my aunts and most of my teachers are dead; so are the thinkers and writers and artists who mean most to me. More importantly, the sorts of values these people exemplified or at least aspired to have been replaced by other values entirely.

Because linguistic communication is based on shared assumptions and words have no fixed meanings, talk about alternative assumptions is difficult. Let me try at least to describe the main areas in which I see deep divisions.

One is the social and political arena. So-called progressive attitudes and policies clearly dominate within the education system and within our ever-expanding government and quasi-governmental bureaucracies. Such attitudes also dominate the mainstream media and the increasingly influential technology companies. ‘Conservatism’ has become a dirty word associated either with fundamentalist Christians or war-mongering neocons. Burkean and other sensible and moderate forms of conservatism are not much discussed or widely understood.

Unfortunately, the arts have become a vehicle for the dominant ideology. There is an appalling homogeneity of views amongst actors, directors, screenwriters, dramatists and artists of various kinds. I know a bit about Western cultural history and I have never seen anything like it.

There are, of course, a few dissidents, a few independent voices, but even they find themselves caught up in the general silliness. Satire works only when the basic culture is still more or less intact. It deals with aberrations, exaggerating certain trends. But our politicians, bureaucrats, actors, academics and educators unwittingly satirize themselves.

Fortunately we all have access to a body of material from the past (music, literature, historical documents, film etc.) which is more than large enough to occupy anyone for a lifetime. Some of this material can be enjoyed by anybody but much requires a certain kind of education to understand or appreciate.

It is the areas of scholarship and science with which I am particularly concerned. As I see it, epistemic questions are beyond ideology. To the extent that ideology intrudes into science or scholarship, the science or scholarship in question is fatally compromised. And it not just a question of ideology in a narrowly political sense.

____


I recently posted a revised version of a previously-published piece on Lee Smolin’s realism. Smolin is a left-leaning, contrarian physicist who sees problems with postmodernism and the epistemic relativism and anti-realism with which it is associated. He takes up the apparently lost cause of scientific realism, once championed by the likes of Albert Einstein and Louis de Broglie. Smolin’s concerns are broader than science and deeper than politics. He sees (as I do) current intellectual trends as potentially undermining not just science but the broader culture as well.

It is impossible, of course, to know how physics will develop in the future. It may be that Smolin’s realist intuitions about physics are fundamentally misguided. But the broader aspects of his thinking are not necessarily dependent on how the science finally plays out.

Take, for example, his decidedly philosophical preoccupations. Smolin is one of the few leading contemporary physicists who carry forward the European tradition of mixing science and philosophy and of seeing scientific theories as significant in terms of how they add to and affect our general understanding of the world.

Most physicists are heartened by the progress made in quantum field theory and see quantum mechanics as retaining (and perhaps enhancing) its status as central and fundamental. Such an outcome could be seen to pose challenges for those committed to the sort of realism and view of science and logic which Smolin has articulated.

As I see it, the main point of any common-sense or scientific realism is to counter certain natural human tendencies, tendencies towards compartmentalized or superstitious or magical thinking, for example. Or the propensity to see knowledge primarily in personal/intuitive or tribal or ideological terms. Such tendencies can often have grave social consequences.

Being aware of these tendencies does not require their complete suppression in terms of our mundane habits of thought. Such suppression is arguably impossible anyway and it is healthy, in my opinion, to embrace or at least indulge our less rational side in certain ways. This applies even in science where motivation is always a factor and hypothesis formation, for example, is often driven by intuition, imagination or mere hunches. Besides, nonrational tendencies are not necessarily irrational.

At the heart of the point of view I am trying to articulate is the idea that we can (and do) have objective knowledge of the world. A commitment to this notion is the bedrock of my position and that of other scientific realists (like Smolin).

It is, I think, symptomatic of the age in which we live that people feel driven not only to personally doubt the possibility of objective knowledge but also to attempt to actively discredit the idea by presenting it as being somehow morally dubious or politically unacceptable.

23 Comments »

  1. The discussion of Realism is often accompanied by the tag ‘naive’ or ‘common sense’, or other adjectives which do the work of rational argument. Philosophers affect to be deeply perturbed by perceptual oddities. That stick looks bent in the water. Does that mean that there is such a thing as a ‘look’ that a thing has? What could it be? Is it public?
    Should those beset by such worries be allowed to drive heavy machinery?

    I have been an annoyance to Idealists by holding that their theory was easier to understand than Realism. The philosophic fog machine pulled a master stroke when it named what is a form of Idealism, Scientific Realism.

    That the best are dead is obvious when one considers how long it takes for a reputation to find its true level. Where will Graham Greene or Iris Murdoch be in 50 years time? Will Aldous Huxley or Somerset Maugham be read. Are they even read now? Some writers date almost instantly. The best will settle out in time and there will be those whom only the Secret Brotherhood of the True Readers will remember.

    Liked by 2 people

    • ombhurbhuva

      “… The philosophic fog machine pulled a master stroke when it named what is a form of Idealism, Scientific Realism.”

      Allow me to put off a proper response, but I want to make it clear that — however my view is to be labelled — it is one which emphasizes the continuity of science with ordinary living and learning.

      Labels such as (various types of) realism and anti-realism or idealism operate at several removes from experience and conviction. Ordinary language is slippery enough but metaphysical terms are worse.

      There is a basic conviction which I want to defend. It is the idea that we have (more or less) objective knowledge of the world of which we are a part.

      Like

  2. If you were to ask someone of age 70, he would probably say that culture has declined and is worse than it was 50 years ago. But he would probably also believe that it is better than it was 100 years ago.

    That’s the nature of cultural change. It is both declining and improving at the same time. What it implies, I think, is that there is no standard by which we can judge culture over extended periods of time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Neil

      “If you were to ask someone of age 70, he would probably say that culture has declined and is worse than it was 50 years ago.”

      There are so many aspects. It would depend on what he was focussed on.

      “But he would probably also believe that it is better than it was 100 years ago.”

      Ditto.

      “That’s the nature of cultural change. It is both declining and improving at the same time.”

      Sometimes cultures collapse however.

      “… there is no standard by which we can judge culture over extended periods of time.”

      Or perhaps there are too many.

      Note also that I explicitly recognized the fact that habits of binary thinking push us to make generalized judgments.

      Like

  3. Mark,
    Well, this really reads like two essays. The first, commentary on the current disintegration of the social, I somewhat agree with, despite our political differences, although this is rather overwrought: “There is an appalling homogeneity of views amongst actors, directors, screenwriters, dramatists and artists of various kinds. I know a bit about Western cultural history and I have never seen anything like it.” Well, I have. History is replete with examples.

    The second essay is a somewhat more militant, but redacted repeat of your essay on Smolin. “At the heart of the point of view I am trying to articulate is the idea that we can (and do) have objective knowledge of the world.” Where is the argument? And I wasn’t persuaded by Smolin’s arguments, as you may remember.

    At the intersection of these two mini-essays lies a rhetorical ploy which is either unintentional, or if intentional is misguided because uninviting. Namely the suggestion that somehow anti-realist epistemologies have contributed to the social disintegration of the era. In the first place, you would need way more evidence and better argument than you have here, in order to even suggest such a case. Secondly, it’s simply not true. Anti-realist perspectives on knowledge and language pre-date the Modern – let alone the Post-modern – by several centuries at least. It’s not clear at all that philosophic or academic studies and debates can have the kind of direct impact on socio-cultural forms you suggest, certainly not to the extent that you – or many academics admittedly – either hope or fear. Most people go about their daily lives without ever asking about “the real.” “As I see it, the main point of any common-sense or scientific realism is to counter certain natural human tendencies, tendencies towards compartmentalized or superstitious or magical thinking, for example. Or the propensity to see knowledge primarily in personal/intuitive or tribal or ideological terms. Such tendencies can often have grave social consequences.” I doubt this highly on four counts – 1) common-sense realism is not equitable with scientific realism; 2) realism was not developed to “counter certain natural human tendencies;” 3) such tendencies may not have very important social consequences; 4) realism does not provide adequate defense against superstition, magical thinking (etc.). The dominant epistemic stance of the MIddle Ages was realism, either Platonic, Aristotelian, or common sense, and I seem to recall a lot of superstition back then, as well as political action derived from tribal or ideological concerns.

    In presentations of this sort you sometimes exhibit a strangely ahistorical reading of history. When you do, you blinker out or gloss over demonstrable historical variances, and this weakens your case, leaving it uninviting – not only one side of a dialectic, but just part of one side.

    Epistemology has no necessary political implications. Marx was a rigorous realist epistemically, whatever one may think of his reading of the dialectics of history. Frederick the Great, on the other hand, was a profound skeptic. Politically, the case appears to be that one either adopts the philosophy that best suits one’s purpose, or one simply sets philosophy aside in order to get on with ehancing one’s interests, or those of the collective one most identifies with. Often these choices are wrong, and when the error is severe, one’s politics are defeated.

    The first mini-essay here, concerning our current social deterioration, is interesting, even where I don’t agree with it, and I wish you had expanded on that. The second mini-essay is unconvincing, and leaves the article as a whole unpersuasive.

    Liked by 2 people

    • ej

      “The … commentary on the current disintegration of the social I somewhat agree with, despite our political differences, although this is rather overwrought: “There is an appalling homogeneity of views amongst actors, directors, screenwriters, dramatists and artists of various kinds. I know a bit about Western cultural history and I have never seen anything like it.” Well, I have. History is replete with examples.”

      I am mainly thinking of relatively recent European writers and writing. There was pretty much always a wide spectrum there, I think. Take the 1930s, for example. Left-wing writers, right-wing writers, apolitical writers. Obviously there were times and places where conformity was imposed, but even here there was often a wide spectrum of views (e.g. Russian writers in the Soviet period).

      “The second [part] is a somewhat more militant, but redacted repeat of your essay on Smolin. “At the heart of the point of view I am trying to articulate is the idea that we can (and do) have objective knowledge of the world.” Where is the argument?”

      This is an ongoing discussion. I don’t want to get locked into defending a metaphysical view which is not absolutely required. Over time I may (have to) commit more explicitly and metaphysically.

      “I wasn’t persuaded by Smolin’s arguments, as you may remember.”

      Nor was I. I am open on the status and implications of QM. But there is a *conviction* there which I share with Smolin. (Convictions can of course be articulated in various ways.)

      “At the intersection of these two mini-essays lies a rhetorical ploy which is either unintentional, or if intentional is misguided because uninviting.”

      Yes it is rhetorical. And intentional.

      “Namely the suggestion that somehow anti-realist epistemologies have contributed to the social disintegration of the era.”

      I don’t know if they are cause or effect, but, within academia, I have seen the destruction of virtually everything I value.

      “In the first place, you would need way more evidence and better argument than you have here, in order to even suggest such a case.”

      I have not made the case. A lot depends on one’s perspective. Given my perspective, the case *almost* makes itself.

      “Anti-realist perspectives on knowledge and language pre-date the Modern – let alone the Post-modern – by several centuries at least. It’s not clear at all that philosophic or academic studies and debates can have the kind of direct impact on socio-cultural forms you suggest, certainly not to the extent that you – or many academics admittedly – either hope or fear.”

      Radical and left-wing ideas (which have often incorporated epistemic skepticism and cultural relativism) have, from the 1970s, permeated the whole education system. They had a significant effect.

      Like

    • ej

      “[Quoting me:]“As I see it, the main point of any common-sense or scientific realism is to counter certain natural human tendencies, tendencies towards compartmentalized or superstitious or magical thinking, for example. Or the propensity to see knowledge primarily in personal/intuitive or tribal or ideological terms. Such tendencies can often have grave social consequences.” I doubt this highly on four counts – 1) common-sense realism is not equitable with scientific realism…”

      See above reply to ombhurbhuva. My kind of “realism” insists on a continuity between ordinary and scientific learning.

      “2) realism was not developed to “counter certain natural human tendencies…”

      Just because a point of view was not developed with a particular end in mind does not mean that it may not be valued for helping to achieve that end.

      “3) such tendencies may not have very important social consequences…”

      I admitted that we can’t completely avoid such tendencies and that they needn’t necessarily be harmful.

      “In presentations of this sort you sometimes exhibit a strangely ahistorical reading of history. When you do, you blinker out or gloss over demonstrable historical variances, and this weakens your case, leaving it uninviting – not only one side of a dialectic, but just part of one side.”

      Good. Anything to avoid Hegelian logic.

      “Epistemology has no necessary political implications.”

      No *necessary* political implications, but it can and often does have political and social implications especially through its impact on education and on perceptions of science and scholarship.

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      • “No *necessary* political implications, but it can and often does have political and social implications especially through its impact on education and on perceptions of science and scholarship.”

        This was one of the issues at the heart of the good old Science Wars, as I recall. Back then it was also pointed out that there are quite sophisticated strains of antirealism in philosophy of science. I think the appropriate response to that point is the same now as it was then: sure sophisticated antirealist arguments exist, but they have little to do with the “pop antirealism” that has diffused into much of academia (and beyond) and now serves as what passes for “common sense” there.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mark,
        ” Anything to avoid Hegelian logic.” I used “dialectic in its traditional sense, of a dialogue using argument, where the argument has to account for possible counter-arguments. Hegel did develop his particular logic out of this understanding, but it neither began nor ended with him.

        “I want to make it clear that (…) it is one which emphasizes the continuity of science with ordinary living and learning.” Defensible but ahistorical. Modern science began as a skeptical rejection of the common-sense logic of the time,,which had meat generating maggots, the sun rising and setting, drops of water transparent because they contained nothing but water.

        I believe it was in comment on my essay on truth, where I noted that for most Pragmatists, common-sense logic, in a sophistication of Reid, seemed to be a fall-back position, But fall-back from what? From whatever view we need to adopt for a given procedure of inquiry to achieve success. Once the success is achieved and we have greater knowledge than we had before, we fall back into the every-day we share with others, both fellow-inquires and those who engage no inquiry all.

        “There is a basic conviction which I want to defend. It is the idea that we have (more or less) objective knowledge of the world of which we are a part.” But you haven’t defended it, you’ve just asserted it.

        And your rhetorical ploy here really reduces to: ‘We must all be realists or the world will go hell.’ Fear mongering is uninviting, especially when it doesn’t really make much sense. The world has been going to hell for a long time. The degeneration of values in the academy results from a wide range of social and historical pressures, some from the left, some from the right. If it hadn’t been for liberal ideas at play in education, I would never have been allowed to learn in a disciplined setting confronted with conflicting beliefs, interest, arguments. Perhaps you want to say that I should not have been educated, that it was above my class. That was the conservative argument throughout the first half of the 20th Century.

        I sympathize with your grief over the loss of virtually everything you value, because I suffer similarly in the current era. But trying to find the root cause for this is a single philosophical stance or select set of ideas is simplistically reductive and really misses the big picture.

        Arguably, right now you and I are using an anti-realist technology, our computers, to communicate through a relativistic medium, the internet. If this is the case, or anywhere near it, then clearly we are living in a culture where trends are converging without consideration for ideology.

        I’ve witnessed the loss of most of what I’ve valued. I’m still witnessing it. And it is quite possible we are witnessing the twilight, not only of Modernity, but of the political and social progress Modernity made possible. But perhaps that is simply what history destinies for us. Any adequate response begins with understanding, not with fear or bitterness.

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  4. In a similar discussion, Samuel Delany did a back of the envelope calculation on how many more English poets are alive currently than the cumulative sum of all previous generations, and then proposed that the percentage of good ones is constant.

    I am constantly impressed by many current “minor” artists, whether encountered in galleries, online, or in annual advertising and design award collections.

    We have the reverse problem, an embarrassment of riches eg

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Books_published_per_country_per_year

    China 2013 440,000 new publications per year
    USA 2013 304,912
    UK 2011 184,000

    The Booker long list is ~130 books per year. Even if the top 0.05% of all books are those that will be read in 100 years time…

    Like

    • David

      I think what you are failing to recognize here is that the novel or any art form changes over time in quite dramatic ways — in the way it relates to the culture which produces it; and in itself (e.g. as a book sitting on a shelf which someone may or may not want to read).

      My own view of artworks is probably a bit idiosyncratic and I won’t elaborate here other than to say that if they are the product of cultures which interest me then I may be interested; if not, not.

      Like

  5. Mark,
    Bravo! I am going to disagree with you in some respects but your fine essay does not deserve the overwrought rhetoric of some of your critics.

    Like

  6. Mark:
    I have been associating Scientific Realism with the thought of John Locke and opposing to it ontological considerations. You are perhaps holding the matter of fact position that Science gets a grip on ‘reality’ which is of course true as its predictive success makes abundantly clear. One can have doubts about the mathematization of time, of its resolution into instants and the way that generates paradoxes, without abandoning calculus.

    E.J.:
    I keep thinking that Modern Phil. begins with Descartes. His proto-idealism is something new in the West. Did its incipient solipsism have an alienating effect or was that already set in motion by Protestant private judgment? Following on that we have the dismal ‘work ethic’.

    Fragments:
    I
    Locke sank into a swoon;
    The Garden died;
    God took the spinning-jenny
    Out of his side

    (by W.B. Yeats)

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    • ombhurbhuva
      “Did its incipient solipsism have an alienating effect or was that already set in motion by Protestant private judgment?”
      Although Descartes was Catholic and Luther had no interest in science, Luther’s insistence on the individual’s direct involvement in her or his belief seems to me not only prefiguring Descartes but Kant (“what can I know?”).

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  7. Progress, or regress, for that matter, is never monotonic so one’s perceptions of the matter are dependent on one’s time horizon. If we take a long enough time scale progress seems undeniable. And yet that begs the question, what sort of progress is worthwhile. There are many dimensions to progress. Which of those dimensions are the ones that really matter? And in what way do they matter?

    With that backdrop, the really interesting phenomenon is the widespread perception of the golden past. I put it down to the memory filter. It is like a coarse fishing net. The small or insignificant stuff passes through while what matters is caught and retained. Take popular music for example. I have been listening to some of the ‘Golden Oldie’ radio stations and was really impressed by the quality of the lyrics and the music of that time. Wow, I thought, they were much better than today’s crop of musicians. And then I listened to a weekly Top 40 series from the ’70s, which gave the top 40 hits of each week. What drech it was! Only a minute amount is remembered today. I then realised that each generation produces a vast amount of shoddy work but amongst the rubbish was a tiny amount of excellence. 50 years later we only remember and celebrate the excellence while we compare it with the overwhelming amount of rubbish produced today. This is of course a false comparison and it heavily biases our perceptions of progress, creating instead perceptions of regress.

    There is a good reason for this. We are the sum of our memories and beneficial memories are important to our sense of wellbeing.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. But then, if we discount our memories of the golden past, has there been real progress, or regress, in cultural matters?
    For most of our history, aesthetic culture was the reward of the privileged few. These privileged few had the time and opportunity to cultivate a refined taste. Since they were the market for the culture of the time their demand produced a culture oriented towards refined tastes.

    Material progress changed all of that. It broadened the demand for aesthetic culture and made it widely available. This, of course, is very important progress. But it had consequences. The market for culture changed and with it the nature of the demand changed. This was no longer the demand created by cultivated and refined tastes. There was another consequence. The demographics changed and youth became a vital market, driving the nature of culture. Youth have immature and unrefined tastes(but don’t ever tell them that!) since they have had neither the time nor the exposure to cultivate refined tastes. The result is an emphasis on raw emotion, solipsism, narcissism and hedonism, the preoccupations of youth. Culture has adapted accordingly.

    Is this a good thing? Is this progress or regress. The answer to that question depends on where you stand. A good test for this is to ask where you stand[!] when you watch the video of Miley Cyrus perform her (in)famous twerking song 🙂

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  9. And yet, if one looks closely at modern performances, especially song and dance routines, one cannot help being impressed by the superb technical quality of their performances. This is driven by intense competition, motivated by immense rewards. Is this progress that matters?

    I am reminded of my first visit to Las Vegas, as a wide eyed foreigner(I am proudly unAmerican). I was appalled by the violently garish taste in everything, and found abhorrent the unashamed appeal to naked greed and pleasure. And yet, when I looked closely, I was hugely impressed by the technical quality of it all. It greatly appealed to my engineering sensibilities. Today I tell my friends that in Las Vegas you can simultaneously see, inextricably intertwided, the best and worst of America. YMMV

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  10. Peter

    Your focus appears to be different from mine. I am not concerned here so much with cultural products (like songs) in themselves but rather with the broader culture which produces them.

    As I suggested in my reply to David Duffy I see cultural products (writing, films, even songs) as being rooted in a particular time, embedded in and expressive of a particular moral/social/political/cultural world.

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  11. The internet is generally a positive force in my life viewed from a personal perspective but I fear that the machinations of big data could have a deleterious effect on society at large. (Not the Russians) Establishing a profile of what the people want the mugwumps of the political parties can then tailor a leader who fits the desiderata. Isn’t that a good thing, aren’t the people getting what they want? No not if you want leaders that bring people past their predilections into a real societal development which may not be universally popular to begin with. Finding out what triggers the masses and going with that will give you a leader that follows the mob and in the first place creates the mob that it follows. The precision with which big data can identify sentiment is uncanny and the rhetoric is closely fitted to it.

    But don’t we have universal education and the fine honing of the critical intelligence of future opinion makers in the universities? Surely that will be a bulwark against the cunning image makers?

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  12. I like how Mark links how he is situated in the world, in time and in his own consciousness. I feel similarly aware of similar influences. For me he’s nicely personifies the culture we share. He mourns coming at the tail-end of a vanishing culture, and I feel he is right. He is the product of first-person narrative consciousness trained by and expressed in alphabetic writing and printing, a culture only around four or five centuries old, now giving way to he said/she said narratives communicated through emblems (pictorial and video narrative) much like the Christian culture that preceded it.

    Elon Musk wants to seed Mars with humans, in preparation for the extinction of humans on Earth by some catastrophe. But what kind of humans? Humans like him, or like Mark? Does it matter what kind? New Guinea hunter gathers? The cast picked at random from a modern movie set? Who most truly represents the human species?

    I think, any humans. A Yoruba village. Fine. Transmission of human sets of genes is what matters, if it matters at all. Mark may mourn the vanishing of his kind, but the loss is only his, and mine, not that of mankind, since ultimately we’re a species, not a philosophy debating society. I see the world going to hell in a hand-basket, doomed to collapse through widespread mental incompetence but, when we’re gone, only members of the new culture will exist, and they’ll think they’re OK, because they’ll all be near enough alike. We’ll be pigeonholed as late-Victorians.

    Significant for me in Mark’s piece is not his errors of fact and judgment but how sweetly he conjures up the loss we, people situated as he is, feel. Our remaining consolation is clear—the company of each other.

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  13. Mark,

    There are many views among physicists concerning the nature of the discipline, and not one entails or endorses a denial of the obvious: that there is a factual reality. The moment one denies that, one is no longer a physicist. It is not the case therefore, that in order to hold on to this view, we are thereby compelled to endorse a transcendental realism, such as Smolins; and it is transcendental. This is not compatible with any naturalist view. The problem with beables – aside from the word: a dreadful neologism – is, how do we know them? Knowledge of beables must by its nature be unframed or frame independent, and our knowledge is not. So the issue is how there can be knowledge independent of our knowledge. That worked for Leibniz, as it did for Newton and Einstein, because they had God on their side, as, among other things, the infinite, objectively correct knower of all that we don’t. Further, it is required that at least some people have privileged access to this sort of knowledge, from revelation or intuition or some such; a privileged access I find outright incompatible with what we know of the natural world and our place in it, and in general, that any belief in such privileged access is fully explained as reified bias.
    As an example; suppose Newtonian mechanics describe factual reality at a certain scale. But shall we then endorse the Newtonian formalism (and associated vocabulary), with its axiomatic assumption of universal mechanical determinism, or shall we go with the Euler-Lagrange formalism, that make no such claim? In terms of describing the phenomena, they agree. But in terms of ontological claims they very clearly do not. So which is it? Well, physics is hard enough as it is, so go with the one that gives you the more useful tool for the job.
    The younger Wittgenstein said that the world consists of facts. I’d say that there is a large number of issues that may be resolved into fact, and a large number of issues that only resolve into opinions and decisions. It seems to me that most ordinary people, no matter what crazy things they believe, they still believe that there are facts of the matter. It’s just that they do not agree on what the facts are.

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    • Jesper

      I go along with much of what you say. Physicists and most non-physicists probably do have a conviction (similar to mine) about reality being, well, how it is and not some other way. (You talk about “factual reality”.)

      Maybe this is enough. (Some say it is too much: these are the ones I am resisting.) Maybe Smolin is complicating matters unnecessarily by insisting on too much realism (as it were); in effect, going transcendental.

      “The problem with beables – aside from the word: a dreadful neologism – is, how do we know them? Knowledge of beables must by its nature be unframed or frame independent, and our knowledge is not.”

      Agreed.

      “So the issue is how there can be knowledge independent of our knowledge.”

      Well we can certainly *imagine* beings who know more than we do. This move is just a natural extension of theory of mind, a perfectly natural way of thinking. (I am not saying that superintelligent aliens or godlike beings actually exist.)

      “Further, it is required that at least some people have privileged access to this sort of knowledge, from revelation or intuition or some such…”

      Is it really?

      “[Such] privileged access I find outright incompatible with what we know of the natural world and our place in it…”

      I totally agree that such privileged access is incompatible with what we know about how the world works.

      “As an example; suppose Newtonian mechanics describe factual reality at a certain scale. But shall we then endorse the Newtonian formalism (and associated vocabulary), with its axiomatic assumption of universal mechanical determinism, or shall we go with the Euler-Lagrange formalism, that make no such claim? In terms of describing the phenomena, they agree. But in terms of ontological claims they very clearly do not. So which is it? Well, physics is hard enough as it is, so go with the one that gives you the more useful tool for the job.”

      Nonetheless, I think that the progress of physics does have ramifications for how we see the world in general terms.

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  14. Shaun

    Thanks. Although I could do without the reference to “errors of fact and judgment”. (Errors of fact can easily be corrected, once pointed out; errors of judgment are more worrying.)

    “He mourns coming at the tail-end of a vanishing culture, and I feel he is right. He is the product of first-person narrative consciousness trained by and expressed in alphabetic writing and printing, a culture only around four or five centuries old, now giving way to he said/she said narratives communicated through emblems (pictorial and video narrative) much like the Christian culture that preceded it.”

    Though (at least for the literate minority) Christendom incorporated a text-based approach from both of its originating cultures: Biblical and classical. We don’t want to go back to revering texts, but nor should we underestimate the positive benefits of literacy.

    “Mark may mourn the vanishing of his kind, but the loss is only his, and mine, not that of mankind, since ultimately we’re a species, not a philosophy debating society. I see the world going to hell in a hand-basket, doomed to collapse through widespread mental incompetence but, when we’re gone, only members of the new culture will exist, and they’ll think they’re OK, because they’ll all be near enough alike. We’ll be pigeonholed as late-Victorians.”

    And yet, to the extent that we are engaged with new(ish) knowledge of various kinds, trying to discern its implications etc., we are very much of our time.

    “Our remaining consolation is clear—the company of each other.”

    And the knowledge that cultural tides eventually turn.

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