Thursday, August 14, 2014

Microbe Man

Words as a means of obfuscation instead of communication

"The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."
- George Orwell

Monday, August 4, 2014

You are human like the rest of us

"King Alexander, each man can have only so much land as this on which we are standing. You are human like the rest of will soon be dead and will have as much land as will suffice to bury your corpse."
Statement made to Alexander the Great by an Indian Sage.

War in the womb

A list of the reproductive ills that afflict our species might start with placental abruption, hyperemesis gravidarum, gestational diabetes, cholestasis and miscarriage, and carry on from there. In all, about 15 per cent of women suffer life-threatening complications during each pregnancy. Without medical assistance, more than 40 per cent of hunter-gatherer women never reach menopause. Even with the help of modern medicine, pregnancy still kills about 800 women every day worldwide.
How does an embryo convince its mother that it is healthy? By honestly displaying its vigour and lust for life, which is to say, by striving with all its strength to implant. And how does the mother test the embryo? By making the embryo’s task incredibly difficult. Just as the placenta has evolved to be aggressive and invasive, the endometrium has evolved to be tough and hostile. For humans, the result is that half of all human pregnancies fail, most at the implantation stage, so early that the mother may not even realise she was pregnant.
Suzanne Sadedin has a PhD in Zoology from Monash University, and has since held research positions at Monash University, the University of Tennessee, Harvard University and KU Leuven.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Indifferent as his God

"The sea had jeeringly kept his finite body up, but drowned the infinite of his soul. Not drowned entirely, though. Rather carried down alive to wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glided to and fro before his passive eyes; and the miser-merman, Wisdom, revealed his hoarded heaps; and among the joyous, heartless, ever-juvenile eternities, Pip saw the multitudinous, God-omnipresent, coral insects, that out of the firmament of waters heaved the colossal orbs. He saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom, and spoke it; and therefore his shipmates called him mad. So man’s insanity is heaven’s sense; and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic; and weal or woe, feels then uncompromised, indifferent as his God."
Herman Melville, Moby Dick

David Hume's pragmatism and pluralism (Simon Blackburn)

Perhaps the cultural situation of the West is sufficiently insecure, like that of Athens after the war with Sparta, for us to need the same defenses against the skeptical quote marks that were provided by Socrates and Plato.They taught us that we can respond to an eternal independent beacon, the heavenly structures of reason itself. The idea that down in our foundations there lie grubby creatures like desires, or passions, or needs, or culture, is like some nightmarish madwoman in the attic, and induces the same kind of reaction that met Darwin when he too drew attention to our proximity to animals rather than to angels. Surely we, the creatures of reason, are not in bondage to the horrible contingencies that go with being an animal? From their professorial eyries the mandarins fight back, reassuring each other that the Holy Grail is there to be seen, spilling into tomes and journals and conferences, e-mails, blogs and tweets, the torrents of what Wittgenstein nicely called the “slightly hysterical style of university talk.”
The pragmatist slogan that “meaning is use” directs us to look at the actual functioning of language. We then come at the nature of our thinking by understanding the ways we express ourselves. Meaning is important, as analytical philosophy always held. But it is a house with many mansions. It is not monolithically and myopically concerned with recording the passing show, as if all we can do is make public whichever aspect of reality has just beamed upon us. We are agents in our world, constantly doing things — so much so that perception, like reason, is itself an adaptation whose function is not to pick out the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but only to foreground what is salient in the service of our goals and needs. Meaning, therefore, needs to look two ways: back to the environment within which our mental lives are situated, but also forward to the changes in that environment that our desires and goals determine. Fortunately these ideas have percolated widely into areas outside philosophy: it is widely understood, for instance, that animal signals are more like injunctions telling other animals what to do, than simple registrations of elements in the environment.
Hume was able to use his pragmatism and his pluralism about the many functions of the mind to avoid metaphysics. About that he was famously a pyromaniac, advocating that we commit to the flames most of what has passed as philosophy from Parmenides to Berkeley. But people need philosophy: we need defenses against the corrosive drips of skepticism. This need surely motivates the apostles of reason to persevere at metaphysics, exploring the world of being and becoming, delineating the true and ultimate nature of reality, finding what is truly there behind the superficial appearances of things. And combined with this image of what we should be doing there comes the inability to read or appreciate anyone who is doing something entirely different. So the stark, $64,000 question in much contemporary interpretation of Hume is whether he was a “realist” or not about values and causes, or even persons and ordinary things — questions that should actually be nowhere on the agenda, since it imports precisely the way of looking at things that Hume commits to the flames. Hume’s road is subtle, and too few philosophers dare take it. Yet the whirligig of time may bring in its revenges, as a new generation of pragmatists look at much contemporary writing with the same horror as Hume directed at Spinoza, Nietzsche at Kant, or Russell at Hegel. Meanwhile one soldiers on, hoping, as Hume himself did, for the downfall of some of the prevailing systems of superstition.
Of Hume and Bondage