Overweening Generalist

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Note on My Links to Amazon Books

When I started blogging, a writer friend told me I could maybe make some money selling books for Amazon, since books tend to be my Thang.

So I signed up with Amazon; they made it all very easy.

What I really liked, but never said, was that even if no one buys any of the books I linked to, the Amazon site tends to have a lot of pretty good information about the books, including, quite often, some perspicacious reviews. So I saw that as an added value for readers of my blog.

Now, the Governor of my state, California, has decided he wants a piece of online sales from Amazon from sales in California. Amazon doesn't like the idea, and has terminated my contract. One wonders how successful states will be in trying to get revenue from online sales? It remains to be seen.


Should I continue to link to books at the site, or do you not tend to click on the links anyway?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Chomsky Miscellany

Just some random tidbits of interest, possibly only to myself; I'm not sure how the below reflects on my own Chomsky Problem. But I think there is some insight to be had...

Dell Hymes, who was one of the great sociolinguists, said he thought Chomsky's work was amazing, but that Chomsky ought to be doing sociolinguistics. Of course, I agree, and why he isn't at all interested in sociolinguistics was part of what actuated my own Chomsky Problem. See The Politics of Linguistics by Frederick J. Newmeyer, pp.121-122.
On Noam's style:

A poet I really love named David Antin, who is known for taking an intellectual topic, then appearing before an audience and "improvising" long, jazzy, poetic takes on the topic, then transcribing sessions that turned out well and putting them into books, said in Conversation With David Antin that he thought Chomsky was able to explain his abstruse linguistic theories in "an educated vernacular." (p.58)
I thought that was an interesting take...

Matt Ridley, a popularizer of current topics in biology, said in his book Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, that Chomsky quasi-acolyte Steven Pinker is "the first linguist capable of writing readable prose." (p.94) Methinks this says something paradoxical about linguists: that they're deeply concerned with language, but write with such dull styles; but I think it says more about Ridley, a rather top-notch, very tweedy Oxbridge writer. (I once asked Matt Ridley a question at a book talk he gave in Santa Monica, California. It was about junk DNA and a very fanciful idea I had about what its function might be, and he very nicely told me the idea was "science fiction.")

For anyone interested in the deep history of Chomsky and linguistics, Randy Allen Harris's The Linguistics Wars is a must-read. Here's Harris on this topic:

"There is certainly no question - whatever Chomsky's distaste for the observation - that he is a tremendously skilled rhetor. He isn't an especially impressive prose stylist. His writing can be as dense, gnarled, and forbidding as a blackberry patch, full of fruit you can see but you just can't get to, though Chomsky can also reach moments of persuasive lucidity unmatched in linguistics." (p.244)

In Christine Kenneally's riveting book from 2007, The First Word, which I recommend to Generalists who want a good overview of linguistics from Chomsky's point of view and from three or four other major divergent stances, some of Chomsky's best students got fed up with his schemas because they couldn't account for meaning in language, so they broke with him and started their own competing system, Generative Semantics. (Not to be confused with Korzybski's General Semantics!) These brilliant ex-students were caught up in the late 1960s counterculture and were, as Kenneally writes, "irreverent, exuberant, and combative. Their criticisms of Chomsky extended from the way he divided up language to his ascetic style. One running joke of the era was inventing a title for the world's shortest book, like "Problems of the Obese" by Twiggy; a popular candidate among linguists was The Bawdy Humor of Noam Chomsky." (p.34)

From another linguist, Michael Agar, in his Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation (1994): 

"I remember, during my graduate days, reading Chomsky's Aspects of a Theory of Syntax. God, what a beautiful book, what elegant arguments and intricate models. Chomsky is a genius, and the linguistics he invented is much more interesting than the old chop-'em-up and sort-'em-out kind of grammar that existed before him.

"But he stayed inside the circle. Did he ever. Here's an excerpt from the first page:
Linguistic theory is concerned primarily with an ideal speaker-listener, 
in a completely homogenous speech-community, who knows its 
language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant 
conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and
interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge
of the language to actual performance.

"I suffered the classic case of mixed emotions. Chomsky's beautiful, elegant book had little to do with what I, as an ethnographer, wanted to do with language." (pp.150-151)
I'm struck by the deep animosity Chomsky and Lakoff seem to have for each other. Dig this, from Harris's book:

In a 1980 issue of the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, which gives authors chances to respond to their colleagues' criticisms, Chomsky, on Lakoff:

"[Lakoff's] remarks betray a very serious misunderstanding.

"[He] shows no awareness [of important issues]

"Lakoff seems totally unaware of the actual character of the technical work to which he refers. 

"[The semantic work of interpretive semantics is] a matter Lakoff has never understood. 

"Lakoff's misunderstanding of the technical work is so far-reaching that his comments on it are completely irrelevant.

"Lakoff shows no awareness of these issues." (p. 243)

Now, Harris again: "For his part, Lakoff is less than fond of Chomsky. In conversation, this disaffection takes the form of concern about his politics, his honesty, and his ego (three subjects that figure prominently in many unfavorable discussions about Chomsky). But in print he is considerably more circumspect than Chomsky. Still, Lakoff rarely foregoes the chance to attack a Chomskyan stance, with enthusiasm. [...] Chomsky takes offense quite easily, and Lakoff could likely have annoyed him in any number of ways, but he goes right for Chomsky's most sensitive area, calling him all talk and no science.  Lakoff focuses on those aspects of Chomsky's work where 'we are in the realm of rhetoric, not science.' Much of Chomsky's work, Lakoff says, is vacuous for practical purposes, 'but as rhetoric, it is effective - at least so far as academic politics is concerned.' Chomsky is particularly guilty for having 'artfully chosen' some of his terms, an accusation Chomsky finds deeply repugnant." (pp.243-244, op. cit)

The Harris book is old enough to vote in Unistat now, and sadly, he has not seen fit to update this wonderful work. But much has happened since 1980, when Chomsky and Lakoff fought it out in the pages of a journal. The rancor seems still there, but has morphed, and I will share some of my delvings and diggings in some posited "future."

Prattle on Books

A year and a half or so I read a wonderful book called Walking With Nobby, by Dale Pendell, which recounted long conversations Pendell had had while taking extended hikes with the legendary intellectual Norman O. Brown through the hills and meadows and forests in the general area of University of California at Santa Cruz, where Brown had taught since its inception. Pendell had studied under Brown, and there are some golden passages about book-talk, but what made me laugh was Pendell's idea of "biblio-osmosis": when you obtain a book and seem to think that simply having it on your shelf is good enough for you. Some part of your mind thinks somehow that you will absorb its vibrations at night in your sleep! I don't think I've ever consciously thought this, but I do catch myself feeling more secure when I have copies of books I want to "know" or know better, on the table next to my bed.
Speaking of Dale Pendell, I read something in his marvelous book on drugs, Pharmako/Gnosis, that bothered me, because it's apparently a precedent in law: "One's personal library could be used as evidence in court." This set my mind to imagining all sorts of scenarios (this is all part of the reason the "Circe" episode in Ulysses resonates for me?) where I'd have to answer to just "why" I had in my possession some books on anarchy, or Mein Kampf, or my at least 50 books on drugs, or maybe even something that was deemed "pornographic." My basic answer would be on First Amendment grounds, but the deeper reason is that I'm one of those Walter Mitty types who loves to have "forbidden" or "dangerous" books around; I want to read books by crazy people, people whose ideas I find abhorrent, or people whose lives or advocations are thought so out-of-bounds that I catch a bit of their aura just having their books on my shelves, much less paging through them. I love crazy ideas; I want to know what it's possible for others to believe. I actually read something like The Turner Diaries (which I own; it's on my shelves next to Hitler), None Dare Call It Conspiracy - a John Birch Society favorite - something called How To Start Your Own Country, Trilaterals Over Washington, The Occult Technology of Power, a copy of the Koran and The New Revised edition of The Bible (my own little personal in-joke: juxtaposing the Holy Book with Hitler, et.al), and something called The Malleus Maleficarum, or "hammer of witches;" this book was used as a how-to for Inquisitors. I read things like The Turner Diaries and try to get into that "reality tunnel."...Even though the characters - and the militias that love that book and use it as a sort of roadmap or Bible - would want to kill me; I'm every thing they hate. (And boy! Do they ever hate!)

I confess to feeling evermore paranoid about this possible scenario, of being hauled in for questioning and my books piled up at a government prosecutor-inquisitor's table, given the cascade of Patriot Acts since 9/11. But that's probably just the Kafka in me.
"A scholar is a library's way of making another library." - philosopher Daniel Dennett
There are some hilarious exchanges related about the weird things people say in bookshops, in this case in, if I recall correctly, North London at this blog. If you don't laugh at her collection of odd exchanges, you've probably never worked in a library or bookshop. But I bet you'll find her stuff amusing even if you haven't worked around stacks of books.
There are many books for which I am covetous, but my impecuniousness makes their prospects for acquisition a pipe dream. If I somehow come into a cash windfall, the first one I'll go after is the Codex Seraphinianus, by Luigi Serafini. When in Tokyo in late 2000 I was visiting a friend of a friend and he had this book, which I'd never heard of. He took it off the shelf and said, "Check this out." And I was transfixed. It's a modern book, and we know about its author and provenance, but as I paged through it, marveling at its gorgeous weirdness, I thought of my readings of the mysterious Voynich Manuscript.
Here is a recent photo of my little library room, taken from the POV in which I write all these blathering blog-posts on my MacBook:

Note Mr. Jinx, my 16 year-old black cat, sleeping in the foreground.
There are two kinds of responses I get when a visitor enters my modest library, and they precisely match the ones that Nassim Nicholas Taleb relates about the visitors to Umberto Eco's massive personal library.  Eco has around 30,000 books in his home library, and guests, upon seeing the books, either say something like this: "Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?" Others, "a very small minority - who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool..." - see Taleb's The Black Swan, pp.1-2.

Taleb, who seems to me of the intellectual firepower-calibre of Eco, says "The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary."

So, I have something of an antilibrary going, and it is intertwixted and intertwingled with books I'm very familiar with. Most of my books were bought used, because, as I said, I'm in a chronic penury. But I hope things will start to pick up. But since reading Taleb on Eco, I feel less guilty about those unread volumes on my shelves, and more like they are a "research tool."
Speaking of hope, Woody Allen tells us:

"How wrong Emily Dickinson was! Hope is not 'the thing with feathers.' The thing with feathers has turned out to be my nephew. I must take him to a specialist in Zurich." - from "Sketches From the Allen Notebooks," Without Feathers.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Closing In On My Chomsky Problem, OR: The Chomsky From 20,000 Fathoms

Studying this issue highlights my basic epistemological stance of "model agnosticism": I consider all of my perceptions and thoughts about "reality" as necessarily contingent. This is mostly due to my understanding of the way the nervous system processes information, and how easily we fool ourselves into thinking we have the One True Model for some phenomena. Model agnosticism means I try to have at minimum three different models for thinking about any issue or phenomena, and I must always be taking in new information, changing my mind a little bit here, combining some ideas there, discarding or relegating other ideas at other times. As I understand it, modern model agnosticism was born of Niels Bohr's Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, which was influenced by William James and American pragmatism.

So: I'm trying to figure out my version of the Chomsky Problem, which might be stated: Given all the work Noam Chomsky has done in linguistics and in a seemingly unrelated field, politics, how might they cohere? And what's most pressing for me: why does Chomsky seem to not want to deal with semantics in the way that Frank Luntz, George Lakoff, "public relations" and other advertising people, Alfred Korzybski, or George Orwell deal with it? 

I have explicated some of this in previous blogposts; I'm still working on it. Where I've become mired is in Chomsky's seeming fear - and I'm not sure I'm on "the" right track here - that if he admits that the realm of linguistics called "pragmatics" or "sociolinguistics" or especially a Neural Theory of Language as all far more powerful in the phenomenal-existential worlds we live in, then he has to admit he's living in a runaway world where masses of people can be swayed by the manipulation of words and symbols, that some sort of...what might be called...Skinnerian behaviorism is still at play? Despite Chomsky's famous "demolition" of Skinner back in the 1960s/early 70s? One of the intellectual moves that put him on the map as major player in the intellectual world? If Chomsky's semantics/"surface structure" is so trivial because of his overweening emphasis on syntax, he can't really account for this...Monstrous Thing that acts like a virus that eats human brains! 

I may be dramatically overstating it a bit here, but this scenario I call Chomsky's Nightmare, and it's here, it's been here, at least since the advent of "public relations" in the very early 20th century (Nietzsche's and Vico's work in philology suggests it goes back a loooong way), and Chomsky - for some reason I'm still trying to figure out - seems to evade this Hideous Truth, although he certainly hints that he knows it's going on. My working hypothesis/abduction is that admitting that language actually works socially in a way all-too-close to the way Skinner said it did, would amount to admitting his cherished notions of how a "human nature" could be defined had been tragically lost, and that his entire linguistics project was fundamentally flawed.

[For background on Chomsky's famous attack on B.F. Skinner see "Psychology and Ideology" from 1972, collected in The Chomsky Reader and For Reasons of State. I think Chomsky did a fantastic job of demonstrating that the human mind is far more complex than the operant conditioned chimp-like thing Skinner assumes, then proves. But: I see Chomsky's demolition as a tad too nifty: people need to decide not to be automatons; very many of them do not do that, and that's part of My Nightmare. Skinner still lurks; he's still relevant. Chomsky's Nightmare and mine seem closely related; I seem to have a more jaundiced take on "human nature." But I still hold hope...ironically for the very reason Chomsky does, which I hope to briefly elucidate at the end of this post - the OG]

Chomsky is taking questions from the audience from 1989 -1996, the text for "Community Activists," chapter six of Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky is unclear on where/when this exchange took place:

Another Man: People often ask you about the connections between your scientific work in linguistics and your politics, and you tend to say something about, "Yes, there are a few tenuous connections." Would you amplify on that? I myself have been thinking that maybe part of our political problem is that the human brain is very good at seeing things in competitive terms like "more" and "less" and it's not very good at conceptualizing "enough."

Chomsky: Well, that may be true - but these are topics where the scientific study of language has nothing to say. I mean, you know as much about it as the fanciest linguist around.

Man: Where are they, then - even the tenuous connections? 

Chomsky: Not there; the tenuous connections are somewhere else. First of all, we should remember that the kinds of things that any sort of science can shed light on are pretty narrow: when you start moving to complicated systems, scientific knowledge declines very fast. And when you get to the nature of human beings, the sciences have nothing to say. There are a few areas where you can get a lot of insight and understanding, and certain aspects of language happen to be one of those areas, for some reason - but that insight still doesn't bear on questions of real human concern, at least not at the level that has any consequences for human life...The connections are quite different - and they are tenuous. The only reason for stressing them is because they've been pointed out many times through the course of modern intellectual history, and in fact they lie right at the core of classical liberalism. I mean, contrary to the contemporary version of it, classical liberalism (which remember was pre-capitalist, and in fact, anti-capitalist) focused on the right of people to control their own work, and the need for free creative work under your own control - for human freedom and creativity. So to a classical liberal, wage labor under capitalism would have been considered totally immoral, because it frustrates the fundamental need of people to control their own work: you're a slave to someone else.
-pp. 215-216, op cit
Noam then goes on for four more paragraphs about Descartes, Rousseau, Humboldt, and his - Chomsky's - ideas about "human nature" that are in that line of Old Enlightenment, 18th century thought. It's a marvelous idea, it's romantic, I tend to agree with it, but it's an idea about "reason" that, it turns out, is wrong in about eight ways, I'm sorry to say. I will elaborate on this in a blog post soon. What galls me is Chomsky's radically - maybe even arrogant - deflationary view of modern research. At the end of the answer to this "Man" in the audience, Chomsky says this:

"You can read any book you want about sociobiology [theory that specific social behaviors and not just physical characteristics result from evolution], and it's mostly fairy tales - I mean, it's all fine when it's talking about ants; when it goes up to the level of mammals, it starts being guesswork; and when it gets to humans it's like, say anything that comes to your head. But I think you can see a possible connection of that sort - a potential connection. Whether that connection can actually be made substantive, who knows? It's all so far beyond scientific understanding at this point that you can't even dream about it. So that's the main reason why I don't talk about these things much. I just think they're interesting ideas, which are maybe worth thinking about in the back of your mind, or maybe writing poems about or something. But they're simply not topics for scientific inquiry at this point." 
I find this maddening. The "tenuous connections" are "somewhere else"? 
What more do I need to address? Does anyone reading this have something to add? A citation from a text that would illuminate me? Do I need to elaborate on something more, or have I elucidated My Chomsky Problem sufficiently above, taken with previous posts on the topic?
Oh yea: Chomsky's reason for optimism regarding political and social problems: It's based on Pascal's Wager.  Chomsky's adaptation: "On this issue of human freedom, if you assume that there's no hope, you guarantee that there will be no hope. If you assume that there is an instinct for freedom, that there are opportunities to change things, that hope is possible, then hope may be justified, and a better world may be built. That's your choice."- adapted from Milan Rai's Chomsky's Politics, p. 58

Saturday, June 25, 2011

"Free-Floating Intellectuals" and Their Enemies: Scattershot Take

One thing the relatively unattached free-floating intellectual (FFUI) is not is a specialist "expert." There now exists an entire shelf of books on Expertology (my current favorite is titled The Experts Speak), and I find them funny, then lamentable (not the books, the so-called "experts"), then galling. Galling because our culture is still so authoritarian that anyone with a modicum of knowledge and some chutzpah or maybe some sociopathy going on...can call themselves an "expert" and be paraded on TV "news" shows, interviewed by a failed actor/actress who was assured by the producers they themselves are "journalists" who aren't supposed to have an informed opinion anyway. And these "experts" get asked all the questions I would not have asked...and then, apparently, no one in the TV news media bothers to keep a track record of these so-called "experts." Because often, you and I could have prognosticated as well as the "experts."

Rather than "experts" it's more like "Here's someone to fill space in our broadcast, and the graphics you read right there on your screen and the books behind the space-filler say 'You can trust me to know something you're too lazy to have tried to find out for yourself. Trust me. I know.' Now relax and calmly tell yourself over and over, repeat after me: I am being informed...I am being informed...I am being informed.'"

Yea, apparently the TV "news" (nuzak?) -watching crowd needs to be told what to think by an "expert." I find this embarrassing. For one, their expertise usually isn't worth much, but worse: what's wrong with trying to figure things out for yourself? Hey all you citizens who watch Face The Nation: have you ever spent a few days trying to figure out, from the ground up, how the Finance Capital system really works?

Naw, didn't think so. Relax. Breathe deeply, exhale slowly, the serious white men will inform you.

Recently Daniel Bell died. He was a Man of Knowledge who was thought of as an expert and who didn't go out of his way to dispel the idea. In 1960 he published a book called The End of Ideology: On the Exhaustion of Political Ideas in the Fifties;with "The Resumption of History in the New Century", this linked book being his way of covering for himself. (Anytime you see a book called "The End of an abstract word," you can be sure you're looking at a book that will be an embarrassment to the author in ten years. Hello, Francis Fukuyama! How are your Neo-Con pals? Oh? They won't have you because you disagreed with them on some tenet? Sounds Stalinist to me...Oh? Oh! I see: you quit them.)

Get a load of Daniel Bell in an article in Commentary in 1964. He claimed - in 1964! - we had achieved, "The egalitarian and socially mobile society which the 'free-floating intellectuals' associated with the Marxist tradition have been calling for during the last hundred years."

First off, thanks for the longer pedigree. And what made you think we had achieved such a thing? And that it would apparently remain? Your reading of Hegel? (Here's an interview with Bell, probably his last before his death; it gives the flavor, in my opinion, of someone who was brilliant but too cozy with institutions - Bell was nothing close to free-floating - that supported him, and he seems incapable of saying, "Boy, did I get that wrong!" This is one of the reasons the 40-50 year reign of the New York Intellectuals as self-appointed Philosopher Kings was a world well-lost. Still, of all the New York Intellectuals, Bell was probably the best generalist and maybe the smartest of them all. Still: Welcome, Third Culture.)
But even more welcome: the FFUIs and polymaths, synthesizers, flaneurs, multi-interdisciplinarians, systems thinkers, holistic versatile divergently-thinking cultural creatives, diligent magpie researchers, promiscuous and inveterate readers of fiction/ non-fiction/and everything else and your practiced syntopicalist methods of thought and writing, you brilliant cranky autodidacts with compendious minds, you historically-informed poets. Welcome, you homo ludens erudites and organic intellectuals with nonviolent stealthy methods for community, creativity, liberty, and love!
I end with a sermon for the FFUI, from one Friedrich Nietzsche. The FFUI and any free-thinker's mind must contend with the mind-deadening act of the priest in an organized religion. (I realize there seem to be some very interesting exceptions.) He is a shepherd of his flock of sheep. He spreads his oral pox via the Word from on high...or so his act goes. Gosh, Father...thanks a lot! videlicet:

"I have been understood. The beginning of the Bible contains the whole psychology of the priest. The priest knows only one great danger: that is science, the sound conception of cause and effect. But on the whole science prospers only under happy circumstances - there must be a surplus of time, of spirit, to make 'knowledge' possible. 'Consequently man must be made unhappy' - that was the logic of the priest in every age.

"It will now be clear what was introduced into the world for the first time, in accordance with this logic: 'sin.' The concept of guilt and punishment, the whole 'moral world order,' was invented against science, against the emancipation of man from the priest. Man shall not look outside; he shall look into himself; he shall not look into things cleverly and cautiously, like a learner, he shall not look at all - he shall suffer. And he shall suffer in such a way that he has need of the priest at all times. Away with physicians! A Savior is needed. The concept of guilt and punishment, including the doctrine of 'grace,' of 'redemption,' of 'forgiveness' - lies through and through, and without any psychological reality - were invented to destroy man's causal sense: they are an attempt to assassinate cause and effect. And not an attempt to assassinate with the fist, with the knife, with honesty in hatred and love! But born of the most cowardly, most cunning, lowest instincts. A priestly attempt! A parasite's attempt! A vampirism of pale, subterranean bloodsuckers!

"When the natural consequences of a deed are no longer 'natural," but thought of as caused by the conceptual specters of superstition, by 'God,' by 'spirits,' by 'souls,' as if they were merely 'moral' consequences, as reward, punishment, hint, means of education, then the presupposition of knowledge has been destroyed - then the greatest crime against humanity has been committed. Sin, to repeat it once more, this form of man's self-violation par excellence, was invented to make science, culture, every elevation and nobility of man, impossible. The priest rules through the invention of sin."
-section #49 of The Antichrist
Wow! You don't get to hear a firebrand like that every day, do ya? I have some qualms with Fred's points here, but reading stuff like this is a tonic for the FFUI: sometimes we're just glad that someone said that, in that way, with that...style... even if maybe we don't go along with it 100%. (Or maybe you do? Really? Forgiveness is part of the priest's con? How "free-floating" are we?)

Some Colorful Chemists

Often, when we go to study the earliest history of philosophy, we find that they were concerned with what everything was made of. Thales of Miletus said everything could be reduced to water, for example.

Very quickly the metaphysics of air became a heated topic. Plato (probably influenced by the Pythagoreans), thought air was made up of octahedrons, and it was "elementally" between fire and water. Plato also guessed (divine intuition?) that water, when it was "divided by fire or by air, on re-forming, may become one part fire and two parts air." We now know water is one part oxygen and two parts hydrogen. Not a bad guess, Plato! Score one for the right wing rich kid whose favorite teacher was Socrates...

When Anaximenes said, contra Thales, that all was ultimately air, which via motion, caused transformations in everything in the universe (these Greeks thought Big!), Nietzsche later said Anaximenes's statement that "Everything is created by the condensation and rarefication of air, but motion is eternally arising...," that this was the first scientific worldview. "As our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air surround the universe." - Anaximenes

During the French Enlightenment, Antoine Lavoisier, building on his predecessors' findings about air, really nailed it, getting rid of extraneous jargon, and conducting ingeniously creative experiments to demonstrate the chemical composition of air. He said that there was about one-fifth of air that was "oxygen." Then he figured out that most of the rest was nitrogen, and that fire seemed inherent in oxygen and its play with nitrogen. Then, during the Terror, because he seemed too highly placed, he was guillotined, which seems something less than Enlightened.
But what about alchemy and Paracelsus and those guys? Alchemy was definitely the forerunner of chemistry, and quite ancient. It is also rarely discussed in university chemistry classes, I understand. 'Tis a pity, because the overall flavor of desire to find the Primordial Stuff, turn cheap metals into gold, live forever and abolish evil: these still are worthy goals. And the chemists might not want to hear about alchemy, they might be embarrassed about it, as if it was a story about a crazy great-greatfather, but the long hard road to where the chemists are now can be appreciated, to my eyes, by how diligently knowledge was accumulated by alchemists all over the world, for perhaps 1500 years. One book I read recently said there were Vedic texts on alchemical ideas from 10,000 years ago...For many alchemists toiling throughout its long history, it was necessary to avoid Authority; whatever they were doing was mysterious and therefore threatening to the Ruling Class. (A select few alchemists worked as Wizards for the Ruling Class: reading auspices, as court astrologers, etc) The 3rd CE Roman Emperor Diocletian decreed that all alchemical manuscripts were "against nature," and must be destroyed. He would have fit right in with the George W. Bush administration.

I hear one of you asking, plaintively, "what about drugs?" Indeed. What about them! Were the earliest beer makers (6th BCE, according to Wikipedia) "doing" chemistry? Alchemy? I don't know, but surely, there were a few fermenters who tinkered (this business of tinkering turns out to be maybe the most underrated aspect of chemists' work), and gradually beer became more interesting.
There is a long history of amateur herbalists that seems to intersect with alchemy/chemistry. The Inquisition thought that the mere gathering of plants was an indication of witchcraft. Please ponder the deep sickness in the human race that wants to persecute some people for investigating the magick of certain plants. Thou shalt not eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil! OR: As Oscar Wilde said, and I agree, obedience to authority is the original sin...
The "al" in alchemy comes from Arabic, so right away we see some reason why it's threatening to Westerners. But the "chemy" comes from Khemia, the Greek name for Egypt, the "black land." So much in the philology seems fraught with peril! (To the ordinary, fearful homo sap.) On the other hand, the tall pointy cone hats? I'm waiting for those to come back into style.

(Which reminds me: many years ago I had a friend whose father was a math wizard. Some corporation would call him with a problem and he'd work on it for six months, often, as I remember him telling me, inventing a computer language in order to devise the right circuit/part/whatever for the company. He worked out of his house, so he was home a lot and was a nudist, too. When he solved the problem he celebrated by wearing a wizard hat around the house. Then the company sent him a check for $75,000. Why did I bring this up? Oh yea...)
Well, physics and chemistry and then biology and now, over the last 120 years or so, "modern medicine" have flowered from all the toiling. Methodologies seem crucial in the turn toward the relatively sudden and rapid logarithmic gains made there. And sufficient wealth scattered amongst the population to allow a significant number of tinkerers armed with basic knowledge and methodologies. And then there is the downside: chemical warfare, depleted topsoil, disease-causing air, obesity. But all in all, I'll take it, given the upsides.
Back to alchemy and its long, rich, odd history: to many physical scientists in universities, the social sciences are in something like the alchemy state. (I personally do not think this, but it's an interesting way to look at it. Economics has certainly seemed topheavy with absolute bovine excreta for much of its history, for example.)

But maybe sociology, psychology, economics, linguistics...are poised on the brink of "real" science: of the human mind-in-society? Why the worship of flags? Why the racism? Why the chimp-like status hierarchies that must be defended to the death? Why the the knee-jerk search for Authorities to tell us what to do and think? Why the inhumane grasping for the symbols of wealth, above all other values? Why does anyone starve, not have access to clean drinking water, and a safe place to sleep? Anyone who tells us we've got most of it All Figured Out, must have workable answers to these Questions.
A workable Theory of Everything might look like this:


Where T is the hypothetical ultimate theory, A is what we understand now, and B is what we don't understand yet. Robert Anton Wilson gives us this equation, in Right Where You Are Sitting Now, and he calls it a "theophany." It could function in the neo-alchemical desiderata as well.

Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Religious Function of Physicists

Recently I read in M.I.T.'s Technology Review this article. As a lay follower of quantum mechanics and cosmology, this was sheer gold; it gave me the frisson of the Ineffable. As a non-believer in any organized religion, especially any monotheistic creed, I cop the lion's share of my awe from...science. And for a long time I've thought that the public intellectuals - Third Culture-ists - who bring the uncanny, the weirdness from their fields: they serve as secular priests to the atheistic or agnostic Educated Classes.

Now, whether you skipped the link above or not, note how speculative it is, really. But the function of speculative thought is for us to play with those ideas for awhile; who knows, something might come of it. This seems related to abduction.

The multiverse idea seems lately to be taken more seriously by String Theorists, whose ideas are so marvelous it's about all the religion I need. At the same time, from an epistemological standpoint, String Theory seems overly Platonic, and there are severe problems with testing its ideas.

The other idea in the article - the so-called Many Worlds Hypothesis of quantum mechanics, says that, if we interpret the Schrodinger's Wave Equation, the most parsimonious solution is that, any time any observation is made, by anyone anywhere and anywhen, the universe splits into every possible outcome of that observation! First posed in the mid-1950s by Hugh C. Everett, R. Neill Graham, and the incomparable John Archibald Wheeler, it was largely taken as a "wild" idea, even if, of all the interpretations of quantum mechanics, the one that seemed best fit to survive Occam's Razor...it was not taken seriously until the 1970s, and has been gaining more converts since then.

Science fiction writers loved the idea from its beginning. You are reading the next blog over in another possible universe, according to this idea. You've never seen this blog. In another universe, I'm reading YOUR blog right at this very moment. I wanted to start a blog but thought maybe I ought to get a job instead. I was aborted in a billion other universes; in a trillion (I'm winging it, but who cares?) I was born a female. In another possible universe, I had followed the exact course the person who is writing followed, but then was killed eight years ago when visiting London; forgetting about the traffic difference, I stepped off a curb and you hit me. (There are more than enough universes in this theory that when I say "you" I literally mean anyone reading this blog.) It was an accident; try not to let it bother you! These things happen - theoretically - in this interpretation of quantum mechanics.

(I just hope you weren't hurt.)

According to this interpretation/abduction/hypothesis - which is taken quite seriously by many physicists with the PhD from highly reputable universities - you are or are not going to finish reading the OG dude's blog post. And the version of you that does has some sort of counterpart - in a matter of thinking - in another nearby universe in which you do finish this post. "They" - other "you"s - exist, in some philosophical-logical-mathematical sense. Why does this all feel like art? Like surrealism, or really good cannabis?

So, 30 years or so after the Everett-Wheeler-Graham hypothesis (abduction?), some String Theorists did their boggling-beyond abstruse mathematics and came up with an idea that there are possibly either an infinite number of universes or some Very Large Number of the them. Anything that can be imagined seemingly "really" exists in the sum total of those universes, because the physical laws "there" are different...
The late Professor George Carlin wondered in his Napalm and Silly Putty, "If there really are multiple universes, what do they call the thing they're all a part of?"-p.32
Edward Shils, a sociologist who also happened to have translated Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia, once wrote in an essay in a book whose title I have forgotten: intellectuals have long served this function: as secular speakers particularly adept at relaying the marvelous to the masses, the given religion one subscribed to was one thing; we all want to hear a mindblowing story that just might be true!
In his book The End of Science John Horgan wrote about Ironic Science. What is it? Okay, well, most scientists are people who want to wake up in the morning and go to a secure area to work on a Problem. In this age, these days, those problems are so specialized it takes them 45 minutes to try to tell you what the problem is and why it's important, what's at stake, and why this part of the problem has proven difficult, etc. They need continued funding. Their 45 minute explanation you just heard might have been interesting to you, but politicians are usually morons compared to your understanding of science, and we're not even talking about the scientists themselves yet! So, they must WOW! the morons who control the money. So we get, say, Stephen Hawking, intoning via a remarkable device that, we're not far from "Knowing the mind of God." In the late 1970s, Carl Sagan reached the living rooms of Americans with Cosmos and enchanted us. Today we have Michio Kaku, who I think is better than Sagan in many ways, but I digress...Think of the emissaries from the world of science today: there are many; they have worm-holed their way into the popular imagination and colonized us: Neil de Grasse Tyson, Brian Greene. I'm not saying they're "lying," I'm just saying, "how much of this is a pitch?"

The point is: it's one thing for us Generalists to read all the latest popularizations about String Theory, Theories of Everything (TOEs), nanotechnology, exoplanets, robotics, cloud-computing, etc: but there may be something funny going on too: the specialist technical intelligentsia have gotten better and better at their own version of Public Relations. And perhaps a lot of that has to do with their need to romance us with possible marvels down the road, so they can keep the flow of funds fluid, so that they can get up tomorrow and work on that something-problem that, when explained, does not break down into a 20-second soundbite that fills us with awe and wonder.

But I'm only a Generalist, albeit an overweening one, so take all this with grain of salt...or some melatonin...or HGH?...or methylenedioxymethamphetamine?...or cannabis indica? (There seems more than one road to Religion.)
"Imagination is more important than knowledge."- Albert Einstein
Hey! You finished reading! In n number of other worlds, you gave up earlier and went to porn, or email, or dinner, or... n number of "things." Now what will "you" do in "this" universe?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

On Writing: Scattered Mind

Of the deep history of writing as a carefully guarded technique of magick: this is something you all know. But I often fall to wondering about some relatively short epoch when the entire system of writing became near-optimal, and it took off, with many writers using the implements, the total media - the bulk of it ephemeral, now long-lost, disintegrated, burnt in a raid from the hordes out of the north...there are many narratives about this, none totally persuasive. But the brain at some point met with an adequate system - whether alphabet or ideogram of hieroglyph - and found an optimal environment. It was a moment in our evolution. They probably had no idea they were Binding Time; they probably had no idea some of us in 2011 might still be reading and trying to understand them. I hope they enjoyed it. It seems certain they had, via practice, constructed neural circuitry that was novel.
It seems there's a long history of writers who reflect on what they wrote and assert that it felt like they were channeling their characters or their dialogue or their discursive take on some phenomena. It is only now that neuroscience is beginning to develop its own narrative about how this happens. And there will be writers who will cry foul and balk at this unraveling of the mysterium. But they needn't worry: no matter how robust the narrative from the brain sciences in, say, 15 years, the mystery will still be there for the writer.
The Freudian theory about the phenomenon of "transference" has always fascinated me. At first, much was theorized about the dangers of transference. Now, many theorists think it is the transference that makes any psychotherapy "work," if it works at all for you. (And I hope it does/did.) I also think this idea is easily applicable to writing: when we write about a person, it works both ways: we necessarily project ourselves "onto" them, for the most basic reason that we cannot escape our own subjectivity; we're writing from our own nervous systems (I will suspend the practice of "automatic writing" and those texts that were "dictated by the god(s)" for now). And the algebraic reciprocity holds as well: when we write about them, we appropriate something of their energies, and maybe a touch of "character" or "style." This may be a well-kept occult reason why some people write in the first place, but I will not dogmatize here...
When I was much younger I ran across Joan Didion's line about her writing to find out what she thinks; I thought it was witty. Then, when I started writing for my own purposes, I was astonished to find how relatively literal the idea was.
In the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, vol II, I ran across this line:

"'Imaginative' writing is as it were a flank attack upon positions that are impregnable from the front. A writer attempting anything that is not coldly 'intellectual' can do very little with words in their primary meanings. He gets his effect, if at all, by using words in a tricky roundabout way."

If I have been tricky and roundabout, I make no apologies. (I said "if.")
Do you wish to write something very outrageous and heretical? Consider "translating" a non-existent book from an exotic language, and have at it! You must pile up layers of fictions, though. And remember the old saw about liars? - that they must have excellent memories? - you, the "translator" will have to implement memory. But you should undertake the operation with little or no ethical qualms, for you have Poetic License. And oh by the way: congratulations on entering the Realms of the Trickster.

Will someone do the research and call you on your fraud? Of course! But at least you tried. People admire that.
On writing when you have read enough to get in and out of Chapel Perilous at least once, having internalized some portion of the Nightmare of History? Listen to these lines from Peter Dale Scott, who seems like a cross between Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn and a zen poet:

                                       how do we live with evil
                                                    we can profit from it
                                            we can preach against it

                                       but if we write poetry
                                                    how not to misrepresent
                                             the great conspiracy

                                        of organized denial
                                                      we call civilization?
                                              From the protected mob

                                        around JFK airport
                                                      with ties to the Russian
                                              mafia at Brighton Beach

                                        and the plane which every day
                                                     flies a million dollars in cash
                                              to the drug banks of Russia

                                        at a time when Russia
                                                     owes $17 billion a year
                                           in interest to its creditors

                                         to the universities
                                                     continuously inventing new ways
                                              not to think of such things

-excerpt from Minding The Darkness (2000)
Clearly, writing itself can present some form of peril to at least one person, so let us be mindful.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Night of the Living Chomsky Problem

In our previous adventures, the Overweening Generalist and his crew (he has no crew) have marshaled what meager intellectual reserves they had, and set out on the open road (a small room filled with books, mostly) to seek out the answer to a question posed in the NY Times Book Review section in 1979 by Paul Robinson: how do Chomsky's linguistics intersect with his politics? Robinson thought Chomsky was arguably the most important intellectual alive, and his achievement in linguistics was monumental (or something like that), while his political books seemed maddeningly simple-minded. I'm about a 180 from Professor Robinson, but the Big Q remains: how do the politics and linguistic works intersect? Lots of people have asked Chomsky that over the years, and he's given enough variation of answers that it's an intriguing puzzle to dyed-in-the-wool-weirdos like myself. I'm hacking away, folks. But it's fun. On with the show...

I should get this out of the way: there is a linguist who's made a career out of hating Chomsky named Geoffrey Sampson. I actually own one of his books, Schools of Linguistics. He seems to deliberately misunderstand Chomsky, but maybe he just really doesn't get him. Or maybe he despises Chomsky for Noam's criticisms of Israel. Anyway, he has tackled the Chomsky Problem too, rather lamely, especially in his book Liberty and Language. Sampson wants to warn us all about Chomsky in this book, especially Chomsky's supposed "scientism," and here's a slice of Sampson's non-lapidary prose with regard to this issue:

"[Scientism is] the prejudice which holds that the scientific method applies to all possible subjects of human thought, or (what amounts to the same in practice) that matters which cannot be treated by the method of science are somehow unreal or unimportant." - p.1

Well, in an earlier post about Chomsky I quoted him saying that we may learn more about the human condition by reading novels. He has made similar statements many times. What's even more embarrassing about Sampson's status as a teacher of young people, is how far he gets the "scientism" thing wrong. Chomsky has written scads and scads of stuff on the limits of science; one of the things that strikes me most about his thought are his ideas about "limitology": for some reason our nervous systems were able to tease out the quantum theory, but we really don't know much about the social worlds, in scientific terms. In an interview with Wiktor Osiatinsky in 1983 Chomsky says, "There are huge areas where the human mind is apparently incapable of forming sciences or at least has not done so. There are other areas, so far in fact one area only, in which we have demonstrated the capacity for true scientific progress."

Osiatinsky: Physics?

Chomsky: Physics and those parts of other fields that grow out of physics: chemistry, the structure of the big molecules - in those domains there is a lot of progress. In many other domains there is very little progress in developing real scientific understanding.

But if one reads Chomsky, he admits the foundations for his vision of a libertarian socialist society are not solid; however, he likes to talk about this other possible society.

I guess Chomsky wasn't impressed by the moves Wilhelm Dilthey and his colleagues made in the late 19th century/early 20th: an understanding that social sciences (geisteswissenschaften) were indeed different than the physical sciences (naturwissenschaften), and that they deserved different hermeneutics. The natural sciences (what Chomsky seems to think are the only true, successful "science"), which worked wonderfully via nomothetic or law-like descriptions (F=Ma); while the social sciences, because of their inherent difficulty due to the involvement of complex human Being, should be described in ideographic or picture-like language. Lakoff would call this metaphor...

I was being coy: of COURSE Chomsky rejected Dilthey and co: they stressed the presence of a living, breathing interpreter of the world - they were Romantics! - while Chomsky seems to always have the ideal Cartesian as the model for making sense of the world. (Please see neuroscientist Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error.)

Here's Sampson again, regarding his version of the Chomsky Problem. Sampson is going to inform us "with the ideas of man who represents this scientistic pseudo-opposition to scientism more forcefully and influentially than anyone else in the contemporary world, and who bids fair to corner the forces opposed to scientism so completely as to render any genuine fight against scientism impossible of success."-p.3 of Liberty and Language. You can't make this shit up, folks! Sampson is David, you see. Chomsky is Goliath. Goliath is awesome! But David will carry the day. Sampson has a PhD, folks. And what an incredible edifice of a straw man Sampson has concocted! Goliath will burn!


Back to my Chomsky Problem:

In a May, 1968 interview originally done for The Listener (London), Chomsky gets this question:

Q: Do you think that when one thinks of these principles of order and transformation and preferred structures in language as restrictions, they set a restriction on scientific thought?

Chomsky: I suspect that the properties of the language faculty are probably closely associated to the faculties that lead us to what we call common sense - our common-sense knowledge of the world, that is.

[He then elaborates about maturity and language competence and a the vast knowledge of the physical world: it's intricate, complex, highly organized, and mysterious.]


Chomsky: This whole mass of knowledge falls into what we roughly call common sense and we know from the history of science that common sense knowledge has had its limitations, that it's necessary to try to make this incredibly difficult leap beyond common sense to some sort of abstract picture of the nature of experience, of the nature of the physical world. Making this leap is a uniquely human ability, and it involves properties of the mind that we do not yet even begin to understand. I would suppose that there are restrictions on these further faculties. And a very fascinating question would be to try to think of a way of discovering these restrictions. If we could discover some of them, we could begin to say something about the possible bounds of human knowledge.
How does this play in my Chomsky Problem? I think that it's wonderfully illustrative and pithy regarding his epistemological stance, to this day, 42 years later. It's a marvelous idea to think about. How far can we go before we look into the abyss, where possible knowledge ends and beyond there's nothing but hopeless darkness? I don't particularly subscribe to it, simply because neuroscience is relatively new. Chomsky, in all my readings of him, seems only trivially interested in axon potentials, neurochemistry and neuroanatomy, and anything limbic seems terra incognita to him. He has marveled at Hubel and Wiesel's work with vision (to me: one of the most stupendously great works in all the sciences), and he's mentioned Gestalists and their findings in perception, but found them too "peripheral." He's mentioned Karl Lashley and Yosef Grodzinsky, but he's never really been interested in going, as Jerome Feldman's book title has it, From Molecule To Metaphor, subtitled "A Neural Theory of Language." Feldman's approach just makes sense to me; it can account for why people fall for "The Death Tax," or "Collateral Damage" or "heartland values" or "American is the greatest country that God has ever seen fit to create in the history of the world," a version of something heard on right-wing TV and radio in Unistat every day.

I don't worry that much about the limits of knowledge. It's an interesting question to ponder though. In the social sciences, I think ideographic approaches are more appropriate, but there are some statistical methodologies that are being combined with descriptive language and yielding some mindblowing results in, say, economics. See the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, for example!
"Intellectual passions are more bewitching than love affairs, which is why they last longer. A man can adore a woman until she changes or grows surly, but he can be madly infatuated with a Theory all his life." - from Robert Anton Wilsons' novel Nature's God.
Okay, I'm not sure I've sufficiently begun to nail down a concise answer to my own puzzle of a Chomsky Problem. I'll keep working on it. Any poking or prodding or provoking from The Reader might help. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

A Foray Into The Logic of Abduction

When you see the word "abduction" in print these days, it's usually a crime story: some larger person is holding a smaller, probably younger person. Probably unlawfully, we're not sure. Do we really want to delve deeper into that story? (Maybe so, but maybe no.)

The other less-common but still seen by all of us are the claims of being "abducted" by aliens, who are probably not of the Earth. I confess I tend to continue reading these stories, because they're so ubiquitous and baffling. There is no shortage of experts who want to make fun of people who believe the aliens are here and need our fluids, or a little kinky action. I agree, it is funny, but what bores me is these self-congratulatory "experts" who "know" it's all impossible, and pat themselves on the back for being so much smarter than most people, and these fundamentalist materialists are here to help us be more rational, but we just won't listen. But they're here for us. Boring clods. (See just about any issue of The Skeptical Enquirer for these types.) 

What bugs me: when I continue to follow these stories and read books about them, I find:

1.) There are no end to these stories. They seemingly happen to all sorts of people; farmers living in Possum Crotch and white-collar professionals are victimized as well. It could be anyone...except myself?

2.) I have come to strongly suspect that almost all of the people greatly troubled by their exceedingly weird experience truly believe it happened to them. Most are not playing games in order to ripoff the public. I don't believe these poor souls are simply "starving for attention." (Or maybe they are in need of attention, but both we and they don't know quite know why yet?)

3.) As a reader of books on the theory of relativity, cosmology and astronomy, given our current understanding of physics, I just can't buy that They are here. There has to be some other explanation.

And that's where I part with the Know-It-Alls. If, as some of the fundamentalist materialists want us to believe - that mass sightings of a ball of light landing and doing physically impossible things are really "only" "mass hallucinations," then...isn't that something we ought to study? How do we account for sudden "mass hallucinations"? That seems like a marvelous field, open for research. 

Oh, I have 17 models of what I think might "really" be going on with these people abducted by aliens, but that's for some future blog maunder. (Number 17 is "They really are here, toying with us." I have 16 more plausible ideas.)
What I have come to talk to you all about today is another meaning of the term "abduction." In logic, we have deduction, in which the conclusion follows necessarily from the premises:

All bachelors are unmarried males.
This guy right here is a bachelor.
Therefore, he's not married.

We have induction, in which the conclusion seems to follow with a generally high degree of probability:

Most Swedes are blonde.
My brother's girlfriend is from Sweden.
She must be blonde.

These two - deduction and induction - get all the logic press, it seems. But far, far, far more intriguing to me, and maybe to you too, is abduction.

Imagine our earliest homo sapiens ancestors. They're in a group of about 50, making their trek through the forest, looking for food or a place to make camp and sing. And suddenly it's raining. And then: thunder and lightning! What did they think about it? Given if I throw the rock at the rabbit and the rabbit dies and we eat meat an hour later, I'm thinking someone caused that loud sound that rumbled the ground, and possibly threw those bolts of lightning at us! What did we do to deserve that? Did someone say something that pissed off that...Big Man? What can we do to make Him not angry at us anymore?

Abduction happens when there is some phenomena, and we really don't know how to explain it; we make something that seems like a plausible hypothesis. And then someone else comes up with something just as plausible. Abduction, in fact, is thought of as that part of logic almost synonymous with hypothesis. It's played a big part of any scientific method.

Another word for abduction might be "guessing." But there ought to be some appeal to intuitive probability at least. Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914), one of those odd geniuses the public really should know more about, was trained as a chemist, but made contributions to math, logic, philosophy, and semiotics. He had a very colorful life. He was brilliant beyond words but not the most exemplary character. Go read about him soon!

Anyway, Peirce (pronounced "purse") ended up enchanting William James, and James, being an Adept at the role of public intellectual, championed Peirce's ideas, and American pragmatism was born. And it has been, for around 100 years now, "the" reigning philosophy in Unistat. 

Lots of serious philosophers detest pragmatism because it seems to be an "anti-philosophy." William James tackled the "free-will" vs. "determinism" problem by reasoning that they both have their merits, and so a sort of free-willed determinism must rule the day...Hey, whatever works!
But back to C.S. Peirce. He seemed fascinated by this idea of abduction, and it's difficult to pin him down on it; in his collected papers he seems to define it differently every few years, adds a wrinkle, expands it here, talks about it in a completely new context there, changes the name of it a few times. He gets very technical with it, massages the idea, combines it with other ideas. But what strikes me is that his many years of meditating and cogitating about the idea of "abduction" in logical reasoning led him to a fallibilism that engenders an affection from a lover of speculative thought such as myself, the OG.

Because I know you have important things to do, people to see, video games to play, and sexual positions to try out, I will just get in this one last thing before I let you all out of class and into the sunshine...

In a paper titled "The Scientific Attitude and Fallibilism," dating from 1896 or 1898, even the curators of his papers are not sure - he wrote stuff willy-nilly and let it pile up - he says there are four types of bullshit arguments that other philosophers or Authority figures or self-appointed "experts" will try to pull on us to get us to stop thinking about one phenomena or idea or another, and they are:

  • There are ancient and eternal truths that have been discovered; we must never question them.
  • There are just some things that can never be known.
  • (Here's where it gets muy interesante for the OG, and I will quote Peirce so you get a feel for his rhythms:) "The third philosophical stratagem for cutting off inquiry consists in maintaining that this, that, of the other element of science is basic, ultimate, independent of aught else, and utterly inexplicable - not so much from any defect in our knowing as because there is nothing beneath it to know. The only type of reasoning by which such a conclusion could possibly reached is retroduction. (This was one of Peirce's other words for "abduction." - OG) Now nothing justifies a retroductive inference except its affording an explanation for the facts. It is, however, no explanation at all of a fact to pronounce it inexplicable. That, therefore, is a conclusion which no reasoning can ever justify or excuse."
  • We have finally found the "last and perfect formulation" so don't bug us with anything that attempts to contradict it. Peirce: "'Stones do not fall from heaven,' said Laplace, although they had been falling upon inhabited ground every day from the earliest of times. But there is no kind of inference which can lend the slightest probability to any such absolute denial of an unusual phenomenon."- pp.55-56 Philosophical Writings of Peirce
In a discussion of Umberto Eco's novel Foucault's Pendulum, Mark Fenster brings in the idea of abduction, which was ultimately derived from Peirce : "Abduction is the process of interpreting unexplained events or results by figuring out a law that can explain them, a process of 'figuring out' that often, in the case of great scientific discoveries, requires imaginative or analogical steps. In the process of abduction, the text to be interpreted contains a 'secret code' of the law but requires an inventive or at least quite dynamic and productive interpretive act to identify and decipher the explanatory law." - pp.99-100 of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power In America, 1999 edition; I have seen a newer expanded edition. It seems most conspiracy theorists are far better at using abductive logic than they probably ever knew! (But it doesn't mean all conspiracy theories "are wrong.")

...Which brings us back to the aliens abducting humans thingamabob? Passing strange, eh? Or is it only word-play?