Gotham Philosophical Society

I invite you to become familiar with the Gotham Philosophical Society, an organization I have started with hopes of channelling Protagoras and Socrates in the agora.  In other words, with hopes of bringing New York’s extraordinary collection of philosophers into conversations with their neighbors on topics both perennial and pressing.  Check out the website, and if you are in New York, please come to one of our events. Cheers, JSB


Luck, Unelectability, and the Rise of Santorum

In an earlier political era in American history, circa 6 months ago, say, most right-thinking people, politically minded and otherwise, never game any credence to Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential ambitions.  While possessing a fairly pleasing set of attitudes on the sort of social issues that actually matter to the kinds of people that would find Santorum’s set of attitudes on them pleasing, his sympathizers nonetheless saw no sizzle; neither did they find among his positions anything that made them stop and think that he had any sort of roadmap out of our recent economically dark times.  His presence and performance in the traveling carnival that was Fall ’11 season of Republican Idol, generally solid, steady, and on message, simply wasn’t showstopping and therefore could never make either the judges or the audience take their eyes off their respective (though very different) favorites.  Those favorites, respectively, were Romney  and…Everybody But (but not Rick (S)).

Today, as Michigan (and Arizonan) primary voters take their turn writing names, pushing buttons, and pulling levers, the profile of candidates they will choose from looks dramatically different.   Everybody But (but not Rick (S)) had essentially exhausted all its options (save Ron P, but that is another matter) by the end of the calendar year. Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, Herman Cain, and Newt Gingrich each took a turn in the spotlight to audition for the role of ‘true conservative’, to be the kind of nominee that hard-right Republicans could, win or lose, proudly go to battle for.  All flopped, flamed-out, fumbled, or philandered their way off stage.  By the time the actual counting of votes began in Iowa, Santorum was the only alternative to Romney’s phony conservatism left standing.  His strong second-place-on-second-thought make that first-place showing owed as much to his good fortune for being an afterthought while Everyone But made fools of themselves as it did to his aforementioned pleasing set of attitudes.  In any case, Rick was in the conversation.

Or he was until he got drubbed in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida and Nevada.  But then he had his own private Super Tuesday on February 7, besting the field in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado.  He has since enjoyed advanced polls from Michigan that have him leading Romney, one of a number of states that the once inevitable nominee has some claim or other to call ‘home.’  Santorum’s post Iowa stumbles appear now to be the result of a mix of unfavorable demographics and a South Carolinian electorate reluctant to acknowledge the absurdity of a Newt Gingrich.

Santorum’s ascendancy as the conservative faithful’s real alternative to Romney has also been abetted by some creeping changes to the very landscape on which the fight for the Oval Office is expected to be settled.  It is slowly filtering into the consciousness of Americans that our long-ailing economy has perhaps begun convalescing, and with them President Obama’ approval ratings.  That, of course, is bad news for Romney.  Romney has always been the judges’ favorite contestant, and grudgingly that of some of the audience, because he was ‘electable.’   His electability was a function of two things: First, his undisputed business acumen suggested that he could fix the economy in ways that Obama clearly could not. Second, he was a phony conservative and wouldn’t frighten independent voters.  While the Everybody But parade spoke to the unwillingness of many conservatives to accept a phony as their standard-bearer, what is truly lethal to Romney’s candidacy – to the very reason for it  –  is for the economy not to be so obviously in need of Romney’s fixing.  If the dark clouds are breaking up and the sun starts peaking through, Romney becomes redundant, ridiculous even, a Ken-doll flip-flopper who’s signature legislation he is now running against. In other words, Romney becomes unelecatable.

But if Romney can’t win then the conservatives of the GOP (they don’t comprise a ‘wing’ of it, they are its center) have no use for him whatsoever.  If they are going to have to vote for a loser they can just as well vote for one they believe in.  Freed from the lure of electability, they can vote strictly on principle, and for that Santorum, a plain-spoken and earnest defender of their views, suits nicely.  Democrats likely think that the rise of Santorum is evidence of Republican delirium and will serve only to hand Obama the election.  This gets things the wrong way round.  Republicans are now clearly seeing the overwhelming likelihood of Obama’s victory, and are turning to Santorum so they at least have someone speak for them.

Thinking about Thinking: It Takes Two

Jim Holt’s sober review of Daniel Kahneman’s new book (Thinking, Fast and Slow — By Daniel Kahneman — Book Review – is wisely cautionary.  An excerpt:

“Even if we could rid ourselves of the biases and illusions identified in this book — and Kahneman, citing his own lack of progress in overcoming them, doubts that we can — it is by no means clear that this would make our lives go better. And that raises a fundamental question: What is the point of rationality? We are, after all, Darwinian survivors. Our everyday reasoning abilities have evolved to cope efficiently with a complex and dynamic environment. They are thus likely to be adaptive in this environment, even if they can be tripped up in the psychologist’s somewhat artificial experiments. Where do the norms of rationality come from, if they are not an idealization of the way humans actually reason in their ordinary lives? As a species, we can no more be pervasively biased in our judgments than we can be pervasively ungrammatical in our use of language — or so critics of research like Kahneman and Tversky’s contend.”

Holt’s question is the right one to ask; ‘rationality’ presumably enables those possessing it to do something, and each rational creature does whatever the amount of rationality she possesses enables her to do, no more and no less.  The urge is almost irrepressible to charge ‘nature’ with making us insufficiently rational.  But insufficient for what?  Without an answer to that question, of course, the charge is an empty one.  But the charge is in any case ridiculous: it assumes nature can be held to account, that it can make mistakes like giving rise to systematically irrational creatures.  And wouldn’t it be welcome solace if nature’s irrational progeny were bright enough to know where to cast the blame?

We endanger any useful understanding of ‘rational’ and ‘irrational’ if we persist in thinking that ‘irrational’ is something that we are or can be.  Irrationality is more profitably understood as a dismissal of a process of thinking that cannot currently be endorsed; to fix any belief is necessarily to reject many others and often the sequence of beliefs that brought it about. Any belief we currently endorse is, by our own lights, ‘true’, and the sequence of beliefs and inferences on which it rests, ‘rational’.  All those beliefs and sequences we acknowledge to be necessarily excluded are deemed ‘false’ and ‘irrational,’ respectively.  Irrationality (and, mutatis mutandis, falsity) is the necessary by-product of the acknowledged incompatibility of two (or more) distinct run-ups to a new belief.

Rationality is likely nothing more than the ability to think about thinking, and irrationality as the warning label for any kind of thinking one recognizes as incompatible with one’s own current performance (we can dismiss our past thinking as irrational, but not the present product; puncturing today’s pretensions to superior thinking must wait for tomorrow’s new and improved version).  If nature made us systematically irrational, it is because it made us rational.  The former is not the privation or dysfunction of the latter; rather they are two inseparable, close to indistinguishable, sides of the very same ability. Irrationality is the reflection rationality glimpses in the mirror: quite understandable, perhaps, but not quite right.


Time to Think about What Comes Next

That was the headline I used back in October of 2011 when I first linked to the following article by Nouriel Roubini:

What Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, the Chilean students, and other global protest movements all have in common. – Slate Magazine.

OWS and the Arab Spring may now seem like little more than exuberant spasms of defiance dimly remembered (or would that be dimly imagined?) as, three and a half years later, the Middle East appears hell-bent on all-out conflagration and Americans prepare to endure eighteen months of a farcical presidential campaign among rival defenders of the status quo.

But now there a lot of people thinking about what comes next, thinking about what the Next System might be.  If you want something different, help them figure it out.

Change can’t come fast enough.

Post-Materialism on the March

‘Post-materialism.’ That’s the term being bandied about more and more to capture the change in values increasingly noticeable among the generation now very much coming to the fore (roughly, the post-boomers, born, say, between ’65 and ’85).  I’m tempted to say we’re witnessing a ‘satisficing’-shift in attitudes, with respect to more ‘materialist’ goods, at any rate.   It seems that growing numbers feel they make ‘enough’ money, or possess enough creature comforts, provided they have sufficient means to enjoy leisure with family or engage in non-economically defined productivity and (self-)development.

I think this shift in attitude might be fueling the Occupy Wall Street movement, and certainly generates sympathy with it. Our currently dysfunctional society, from its criminally unequal economy to its pathetically vapid news and entertainments, is rather hard to fathom outside of a culture whose materialism has run amok.  And there are, in any case, interesting reasons why any self-described post-materialist should be not merely sympathetic but actively help to productively shape the OWS movement.  Some are broadly ethical, as Will Wilkinson suggests here.  But there are also provocative fiscal reasons, as Reihan Salam notes, that could hopefully (my hope, not necessarily Salam’s) encourage transformative change across the board, and not permit the movement to succumb to the embrace of the business-as-usual left.  A truly profound post-materialism, one really worth acknowledging and actually pushing, should transcend a left-right divide that derives much of its meaning from materialist-dominated concerns.

The Real Tragedy of the Commons

From today’s New York Times: David Brooks on the emergence of moral individualism 

The odd thing here is that we tend to be surprised and think something has gone wrong.  If you start down the road of privatizing the good, as we did at the birth of Modernity, this is where you inevitably arrive. What’s taking place is perfectly natural, given our history.

And so will be the inevitable reactions.  This, too, shall pass.