Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Mulhall's magic

I talked a bit about Stephen Mulhall's The Great Riddle here and here. This is the last post I intend to write about it, and it's about the part of the book I like the most. Near the end, Mulhall refers to "the sheer wild particularity [...] of each individual thing harbouring a refusal to conform to or be exhausted by any of our orderings of things." He quotes Chesterton saying that, "A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree"

(Cf. Tolstoy:
When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? Because of its attraction to the earth, because its stalk withers, because it is dried by the sun, because it grows heavier, because the wind shakes it, or because the boy standing below wants to eat it? 
Nothing is the cause. All this is only the coincidence of conditions in which all vital organic and elemental events occur. And the botanist who finds that the apple falls because the cellular tissue decays and so forth is equally right with the child who stands under the tree and says the apple fell because he wanted to eat it and prayed for it.") More respectably, Chesterton writes that, "The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, 'charm,' 'spell,' 'enchantment.' They express the arbitrariness of the fact, and its mystery.")  
Mulhall connects this with Wittgenstein on the two different kinds of plant whose seeds look identical but which reliably produce plants of the type from which each came. In such a case, Wittgenstein remarks, to insist that there must be a difference in the seeds, even though we cannot detect one, "only shows what a powerful urge we have to see everything in terms of cause and effect." The beauty of Wittgenstein's story is that it never goes beyond the observable (imaginary) facts, which makes it undeniable, and yet it is hugely discomfiting to the mindset it takes aim at. It's like Kant without the metaphysics (Kant aimed, as I see it, to show the Dawkinses of his day that science can never show religion to be false), or attacking positivism by being more positivist than the positivists. Basically, by actually sticking to the undisputed facts it reveals how much metaphysics there is in the view of many people who proudly think of themselves as sticking to the facts. 

And when we do stick to the facts in this way (cf. also Tractatus 6.53) we are freed from unjustified assumptions about the laws of nature and cause and effect. Focusing on the thing itself means bracketing the principle of sufficient reason, which means seeing things how Schopenhauer says we should see things if we are to perceive objectively and achieve peace.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Seeing the world aright

[What follows is little more than a bunch of quotes strung together. But they are good quotes.]

The desirability of seeing what is under our noses and thereby becoming free is a bit of a theme in 19th century European thought.

Here's Father Zossima, a favorite of Wittgenstein's, in The Brothers Karamazov (emphasis added):
Brothers, have no fear of men's sin. Love a man even in his sin, for that is the semblance of Divine Love and is the highest love on earth. Love all God's creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God's light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love. Love the animals: God has given them the rudiments of thought and joy untroubled. Do not trouble it, don't harass them, don't deprive them of their happiness, don't work against God's intent. Man, do not pride yourself on superiority to the animals; they are without sin, and you, with your greatness, defile the earth by your appearance on it, and leave the traces of your foulness after you—alas, it is true of almost every one of us! Love children especially, for they too are sinless like the angels; they live to soften and purify our hearts and as it were to guide us. Woe to him who offends a child! Father Anfim taught me to love children. The kind, silent man used often on our wanderings to spend the farthings given us on sweets and cakes for the children. He could not pass by a child without emotion. That's the nature of the man.
This advice (there is more in the surrounding pages) is given as an alternative to the (allegedly) false wisdom of the day, which sounds very similar to today's dominant ideology:
The world has proclaimed the reign of freedom, especially of late, but what do we see in this freedom of theirs? Nothing but slavery and self-destruction! For the world says:
“You have desires and so satisfy them, for you have the same rights as the most rich and powerful. Don't be afraid of satisfying them and even multiply your desires.” That is the modern doctrine of the world. In that they see freedom. And what follows from this right of multiplication of desires? In the rich, isolation and spiritual suicide; in the poor, envy and murder; for they have been given rights, but have not been shown the means of satisfying their wants. They maintain that the world is getting more and more united, more and more bound together in brotherly community, as it overcomes distance and sets thoughts flying through the air.
Alas, put no faith in such a bond of union. Interpreting freedom as the multiplication and rapid satisfaction of desires, men distort their own nature, for many senseless and foolish desires and habits and ridiculous fancies are fostered in them. They live only for mutual envy, for luxury and ostentation. 
Plato might have agreed with this, too, so perhaps the 19th century has nothing to do with it, although the emphasis on perception seems very post-Kantian. Speaking of Plato, here's Schopenhauer:
Plato often says that men live only in a dream; the philosopher alone strives to awake himself.
And here is Schopenhauer again, sounding a bit Zossima-ish:
[W]hen some external cause or inward disposition lifts us suddenly out of the endless stream of willing, delivers knowledge from the slavery of the will, the attention is no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will, and thus observes them without personal interest, without subjectivity, purely objectively, gives itself entirely up to them so far as they are ideas, but not in so far as they are motives. Then all at once the peace which we were always seeking, but which always fled from us on the former path of the desires, comes to us of its own accord, and it is well with us. It is the painless state which Epicurus prized as the highest good and as the state of the gods; for we are for the moment set free from the miserable striving of the will; we keep the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still.
But this is just the state which I described above as necessary for the knowledge of the Idea, as pure contemplation, as sinking oneself in perception, losing oneself in the object, forgetting all individuality, surrendering that kind of knowledge which follows the principle of sufficient reason, and comprehends only relations; the state by means of which at once and inseparably the perceived particular thing is raised to the Idea of its whole species, and the knowing individual to the pure subject of will-less knowledge, and as such they are both taken out of the stream of time and all other relations. It is then all one whether we see the sun set from the prison or from the palace. 
Forgetting all individuality also sounds a bit like Zossima, who says:
My brother asked the birds to forgive him; that sounds senseless, but it is right; for all is like an ocean, all is flowing and blending; a touch in one place sets up movement at the other end of the earth. It may be senseless to beg forgiveness of the birds, but birds would be happier at your side—a little happier, anyway—and children and 
all animals, if you were nobler than you are now. It's all like an ocean, I tell you. Then you would pray to the birds too, consumed by an all-embracing love, in a sort of transport, and pray that they too will forgive you your sin. Treasure this ecstasy, however senseless it may seem to men.
Nietzsche, too, believed in something like objective perception of reality, although he seems to deny the possibility of any such thing. Nevertheless, he opposed the "narcotics" of alcohol and Christianity. Marx wanted to replace false consciousness with (true) consciousness. But that's all fairly familiar. Less familiar to me until recently is Tolstoy on a similar theme, talking about causes in history. The whole chapter (Book Nine: 1812, Chapter 1) is worth reading (along with the first chapters of the next two books, not to mention the whole novel), but here is one highlight:
To us it is incomprehensible that millions of Christian men killed and tortured each other either because Napoleon was ambitious or Alexander was firm, or because England’s policy was astute or the Duke of Oldenburg wronged. We cannot grasp what connection such circumstances have with the actual fact of slaughter and violence: why because the Duke was wronged, thousands of men from the other side of Europe killed and ruined the people of Smolénsk and Moscow and were killed by them.
To us, their descendants, who are not historians and are not carried away by the process of research and can therefore regard the event with unclouded common sense, an incalculable number of causes present themselves. The deeper we delve in search of these causes the more of them we find; and each separate cause or whole series of causes appears to us equally valid in itself and equally false by its insignificance compared to the magnitude of the events, and by its impotence—apart from the cooperation of all the other coincident causes—to occasion the event. To us, the wish or objection of this or that French corporal to serve a second term appears as much a cause as Napoleon’s refusal to withdraw his troops beyond the Vistula and to restore the duchy of Oldenburg; for had he not wished to serve, and had a second, a third, and a thousandth corporal and private also refused, there would have been so many less men in Napoleon’s army and the war could not have occurred.
Tolstoy suggests that there is no one right way to understand what caused what, but he also raises the possibility of seemingly inevitable (and bad) events being prevented by ordinary people's refusing to go along with them. If we just realized this, and acted accordingly, how much better the world might be.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Minimum wage

Perhaps this isn't worth a blog post, but it's not as if I've been posting much otherwise. Sometimes it's better to have low standards. So here goes.

Two things strike me as not just true but obviously true about any increase in the legal minimum wage (including an increase from nothing to something):
  1. it will increase the wages paid to those earning the lowest legal wage
  2. it will be a disincentive to employing such people
What's interesting is how rare it is to see both points acknowledged. Proponents of an increase tend to focus exclusively on point #1, either not mentioning point #2 at all or else dismissing it very lightly (for instance, Colin Gordon's generally excellent Growing Apart says little more than that, "a raft of recent research has put to rest the old saw that a higher minimum wage kills jobs or repels investment," which is not true). Opponents of the minimum wage, or at least of increases to it, tend simply to trot out the old saw that Gordon mentions (which is clearly not yet at rest, partly because it has at least this kind of currency and, more importantly, because of this recent evidence). And I'm not talking only about ordinary people. I mean professional experts, including economists.   

So what's my point? Partly I'm just expressing frustration, so my point is: Aaagh!! Partly also I can see why some people are tempted to reject what experts have to say about policy matters. And partly I continue to be interested in economics, what it can and cannot do, and what (if anything) it has to teach us. 

In addition to the two obvious truths listed above I might add these:

     3. what really matters is whether the good of point #1 outweighs the bad of point #2
     4. the way to find out is to see what happens when the minimum wage is increased  

Point #3 involves ethics, but the usual economists' preference for utilitarianism is probably more or less fine here. (Not everyone sees it that way, which is one reason why some people ignore point #2. If #1 is a question of fundamental justice then consequentialist considerations such as #2 might be irrelevant. I don't see it that way, but some do.) Still, this does mean that the relevant question is not about unemployment (or wages) so much as it is about utility. And no one that I know of measures this.

That means that we basically never get to point #4. That is, people do look at what happens, but a) this is really difficult because human interactions are very complicated, and b) the 'what happens' that even the best people look at is not the relevant what happens, i.e. what happens to utility.

Hence the following are the kinds of things the best economists (as far as I know) say on the subject. First, the authors of the recent Seattle-based study that made the headlines:
The second Seattle minimum wage increase, to as much as $13/hour on January 1, 2016, resulted in [...] a reduction of over $100 million per year in total payroll for low-wage jobs, measured as total sum of increased wages received less wages lost due to employment reductions. 
In other words, roughly speaking, people got paid more per hour but were employed for fewer hours, with a resultant net loss of earnings overall. But with the following qualifications:
These analyses are designed to reveal the impact on the entire Seattle low-wage labor market and do not necessarily reveal the full effect of the minimum wage increases on individual workers. Most importantly, our data do not capture employment or earnings in contract or “gig” jobs, work paid “off the books,” self-employment, or work done outside the City of Seattle.
We may not find the same things we found in this study in other cities, states, or at the national level. There are multiple factors that make Seattle and this minimum wage law unique, including high housing costs and relatively large increases in the minimum wage beginning at what had been the nation’s highest state minimum wage. 
So this study is far from being the "proof that increasing the minimum wage doesn't work" that is is presented by some people as being.

Secondly, and finally, here are Isabel Sawhill and Quentin Karpilow speaking sensibly about what economists knew about increasing the minimum wage in 2014:
While a higher minimum wage will help to boost earnings, critics worry about its effects on hiring, arguing that employers will create fewer jobs if they have to pay higher wages. Although past increases do not appear to have adversely affected employment, there is no denying the risk that much larger increases might pose to the least skilled workers. Raising the minimum from its current $7.25 to $15.00 per hour, as some have advocated, would more than double the cost to an employer and likely have some impact on hiring.
The Seattle study does not contradict this. While it does show an adverse effect on employment, the increase that showed this was not the increase to $11 per hour made in April 2015 but the increase to $13 an hour made in January 2016. The Seattle study, in other words, confirms Sawhill's and Karpilow's view (which I think is pretty orthodox) that a modest increase to the minimum wage is likely to be helpful (or at least harmless), but that anything too dramatic could be harmful. They advocate increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, and redesigning the Earned Income Tax Credit.

This kind of work strikes me as being very useful. Its informed skepticism and moderate recommendations are hardly likely to get many people fired up (although I doubt I'm alone in finding thoughtfulness refreshing), but that shouldn't be the measure of value. 

Friday, July 7, 2017

Winch on understanding other people

This paper needs quite a bit of work, but for anyone interested here is an only very slightly (so far) revised version of the paper I presented at the conference on Peter Winch last weekend in London.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Witchcraft among the Azande

If you're interested in Peter Winch on understanding others, you might be interested in this documentary. Perhaps it's well known, but I only just found it:


And here's one on Evans-Pritchard:


I haven't watched either one yet, so can't guarantee their quality. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Mulhall's riddle

Some questions that you might want to ask Stephen Mulhall when you read his new book:
  1. if talk about God is nonsense, why bother?
  2. if talk about God has a use, mustn't it thereby have a meaning after all?
  3. if you accept that nonsense is nonsense, that there is no significant nonsense, then how comfortable can you be, or should you be, with the idea of deliberate uses of certain kinds of nonsense? Even if you aren't guilty of chickening out, are you nevertheless sneaking around? 
Some answers to the first question can be found in the passage I quoted earlier. For one thing, "everything in creation is a potential source of imagery for the divine, and the more of it we activate in religious language the better, since only thus can we acknowledge God’s superabundant variety." If religious language is nonsense then I'm not sure how successfully it can acknowledge anything about God, but the superabundant variety of creation, and the excellence of what is so superabundantly various, I would add (although I think a sense of appreciative wonder is already implicit in Mulhall's words, so I'm not adding much), can certainly make you want to sing its praises. For another thing, the "transcendence of God is best acknowledged precisely by following out the consequences of attributing contradictory attributes to him; for if he is both male and female, and we know that no person can be both male and female, we thereby appreciate that our idea of him as a personal God is itself a misrepresentation—a necessarily unsuccessful attempt to delineate that which is beyond delineation." Wonder might leave us speechless, or mouthing something with obviously minimal content, such as "Wow!", but Mulhall argues that it is better to speak:
The best way to appreciate the transcendence of God to human language is [for the reason just quoted] not to fall into silence, avoiding even the assertion that nothing is assertable of him, or to attempt some inconceivable synthesis of affirmation and negation; it is rather endlessly to employ that language in relation to him, and endlessly to experience its inevitable collapse upon itself.  
Silence, I suppose, can too easily become mere silence, "There are no words" a thoughtless cliche. The surest sign of being "lost in wonder, love, and praise" is that you attempt to express this wonder, love, and praise, even if you are bound to fail. These attempts at expression, though, it seems to me, since they are bound to fail, have to be understood as something like symptoms rather than as ends worth pursuing in themselves or means worth choosing for the sake of some other end. As Wittgenstein says at the end of the Lecture on Ethics, they are "a document of a tendency in the human mind." This makes the question "why bother?" moot. It is like asking why anyone should laugh when they are amused. Mulhall does have an answer, though, to anyone who thinks we should actively try to stop talking like this.

His answer to the second question, about whether religious talk must have a meaning after all, since it has a use, is this: "It could only mislead to say that being shouldered out of our language-games is just one more language-game, or to declare that words have a grammar when they fail us just as they do when we effortlessly employ them to word the world." In other words, as I understand it, you could call the use of (nonsensical) religious language a language-game, but it isn't a good idea. That seems fair enough.

The third question is the one that bothers me the most, although I'm not sure how troubling it really ought to be. Involuntary babbling praise is obviously OK (or: there is no point in trying to rule it out as somehow 'illegitimate'), but it isn't theology. Nonsense can be used deliberately though, as satire or in a reductio, for instance. This doesn't sound like theology either, though, although here my ignorance of theology feels like a problem. Perhaps there could be theological anti-theology that deliberately used nonsense to burst balloons and bring its targets back to earth and/or God. Some of Kierkegaard's work might be thought of this way. But this would always be a negative, reactive project.

Mulhall apparently accepts something like this idea, although he focuses on theology as a reaction to philosophy rather than to other theology. As he sees it, "In short, theology discloses philosophy’s perennial aspiration to a God’s eye view as both essential to its nature and essentially beyond its own grasp—not exactly because there is no such perspective, but rather because that perspective is and can only be a ‘perspective’, hence belongs to God alone, and so is realizable only as and through faith." So, roughly, theology shows something even if it has nothing to say ("the linguistic constructions to which theology is driven do not constitute an intelligible language"). Mulhall doesn't put it this way, though, talking instead about theology's not knowing something that philosophy does not know and yet nevertheless having something to tell it.

Still, you might wonder whether Mulhall hasn't just claimed on theology's behalf to know (or say) the thing that he says theology can tell (or show) philosophy. You might also wonder what idea of nonsense is at work in the following passages:
This recalls the Thomist claim that the perfections apply to God, but do so more appropriately or fittingly than they do to us. For in giving expression to that semantic priority by knowingly violating the grammar of ordinary perfection talk (e.g. by saying that God is loving if and only if one says that he is Love), we maintain the appropriate theological balance between acknowledging scriptural authorization for characterizing our relations to God as personal whilst not characterizing God as a person (hence, as subsumable under categories, genus, and species). 
and:
The only way of making sense of Abraham is to grasp the point of his not making sense—to see him as having a very particular use for a very specifically generated kind of nonsense.
As sophisticated as Mulhall's take on the story of Abraham and Isaac is, does he perhaps still (or thereby) come too close to making sense of what he says does not make sense? And is it really possible to maintain both that theology is nonsense and that one can maintain the appropriate theological balance between one thing and another by knowingly violating the grammar of ordinary perfection talk? That makes it sound as though there is a right way to violate these rules, and hence that such 'violation of grammar' is in fact an activity with rules of its own. I'm not sure what I think about these things. But this third question seems more serious than the first two.