Philosophy: Rationalism, in part, is the idea that there’s such a thing as innate ideas or innate knowledge. Rationalism as a philosophical, or better still scientific, thesis should not be confused with rationalism as ideology. These are two different things. I’d say I’m a rationalist in the former sense, but certainly not the latter sense.
It turns out that antirationalism itself is innate, according to research published at MIT’s Open Mind Journal, discussed in a good Northeastern University media article (one of the researchers, Iris Berent, is of Northeastern)
“In one of eight experiments, Berent and her co-authors asked participants to think about what it’d be like to grow up on a deserted island, speculating which traits might spontaneously emerge in someone who hasn’t had a chance to observe them in others. In another experiment, they asked participants which traits might spontaneously appear in birds; in another, they asked the same question about aliens.
Time after time, people were more likely to reason that the only traits that would appear would be motor skills and emotions—not cognitive skills, or “knowledge”—even when the researchers made reference to real-world experiments that showed the contrary.”
That being the case the interesting question then becomes; why does this cognitive bias toward antirationalism arise? Here things are by no means settled, but Berent has a good theory
“Of the certain principles that help us make sense of the world, one is believing that the “essence” of an object is at its core and is tangible: Research has shown that children assert that a brown dog’s offspring is also brown because a tiny piece of matter transfers from the former to the latter. This suggests that kids have a grasp of inheritance even before they’re taught as much.
However, imagining inheritance as a physical process competes with another principle: thinking of the mind and body as separate (even though science tells us otherwise, notes Berent). For example, if your hairdresser wants to pick up his pair of scissors, no one needs to push his hand for him to do it; if he has the physical ability to pick it up, he need only decide to pick it up, and the hand moves—by shear will, so to speak. His mind acts, and his body follows.”
There’s some irony there, of course. The doctrine of innate ideas and mind-body dualism are both associated with Rene Descartes, and so we have a kind of Cartesian circle at play. Our innate Cartesian dualism leads us to exhibit a cognitive bias against Cartesian innatism, so the dualism has us rejecting the innatism. That may well be the case, but I suspect something else might be at play or at the very least additionally at play. That’s the idea of knowledge itself. There’s been some stuff done in Xphi or experimental philosophy regarding our intuitive, innate if you will, ideas regarding knowledge. A lot of that seeks to tease out our ideas regarding warranted assertibility or justification (internalist, externalist, foundationalist, coherentist and so on) and I think a fruitful link might be drawn with the work on innate antirationalism. My understanding is Xphi tends to show our intuitions regarding knowledge to be externalist, and that’s consistent with Berent’s explanation for the underlying source of our innate antirationalism. Knowledge is something that arises through induction, association, and the conscious use of reason and as such is something that’s acquired as we go about the world. This innate externalism has us ruling out innate knowledge.
To go deeper still, I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t all tied up to the justified true belief conceptualisation of knowledge. Our intuitive concept of knowledge is strongly tied up to warranted assertibility and it is this that leads to an innate externalist epistemology. However, the Gettier examples demonstrate this traditional JTB conceptualisation of knowledge does not hold. So, we get another interesting little circle, namely Plato’s. This is because Plato held two competing theses, one a theory of innate knowledge via the slave boy argument and the other a JTB conceptualisation of knowledge. One must go, and that’s the traditional idea of knowledge.
Notice the thesis of innate antirationalism, going down this epistemic axis of attack, strongly implies a little theory I’ve held for many years. Namely, knowledge itself is a physical category and a true theory of knowledge, a true naturalistic epistemology, would be one which provides a physicalist rendering of knowledge. This, however, would first require us to rethink our concepts of the physical such that they become more mental.
Finally, just because there’s a natural cognitive bias at work does not mean antirationalism in the wider intellectual culture gets a free pass. Our cognitive biases regarding mass, space, time, gravity and so on we know to be false, and that fact is widely accepted and appreciated. This means the antirationalism of the broader intellectual culture cannot be solely attributed to an innate cognitive bias. Here we require sociological explanations, by which I mean sociological analyses of the intelligentsia as a social class.
Plutonium: Scientists at the European Synchrotron have discovered a new stable, solid state, form of plutonium which “features an unexpected, pentavalent oxidation state.” This will affect our understanding of plutonium aging over very long lifetimes, something of relevance for the modelling of nuclear waste. Speaking of plutonium, researchers have claimed to have found evidence of heavy element formation in colliding neutron stars in this case strontium. It is hoped further refining and development of data gathering, analysis and interpretation of kilonovas will also empirically detect the astrophysical formation of the other heavy elements such as uranium thus solving the problem of how the heavy elements were formed
“But how elements heavier than iron, such as gold and uranium, were created has long been uncertain. Previous research suggested a key clue: For atoms to grow to massive sizes, they needed to quickly absorb neutrons. Such rapid neutron capture, known as the “r-process” for short, only happens in nature in extreme environments where atoms are bombarded by large numbers of neutrons.
Prior work suggested that a likely source of r-process elements could be the catastrophic aftermath of mergers between neutron stars”
As we know too well, a neutron flux can make things go bang.
Science and Society: There’s a good interview at the New York Review of Books with Noami Oreskes on science and climate change denial. The interview comes as her latest book Why Trust Science reaches publication. Oreskes is concerned with something quite important, the abuse and denial of science with potentially deadly consequences for human civilisation. This concern of Oreskes contrasts with Steven Pinker who is exercised by too much PoMo at the Harvard Faculty Club (the humanities part that is). In a New Republic essay (just linked) on science and the humanities he wrote
“This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.”
There’s a connection to Oreskes and climate change denial there. A lot of the commentary I’ve read about climate change denial, which focuses on the political and economic influence of the fossil fuel industry, too readily focuses on the merchants of doubt rather than their audience. One cannot explain matters fully by assuming the masses are an unthinking lump of clay readily moulded by the merchants (see how empiricist ideas of human nature die hard). Why has their message found fertile ground? In my view, Karl Polanyi’s ideas in his classic The Great Transformation are important here. Neoliberalism has led to the rise of irrational belief in society, just as the original version chronicled by Polanyi had done (a factor accounting for the rise of fascism in his view). This is seen in more domains than climate change. People understand that they’re being shafted and being lied to, and this leads to a generalised suspension of belief. Oreskes asks for trust in science at a time when many aren’t given to trust. For Pinker science underpins the very order against which many in society increasingly direct a generalised rage toward. Don’t forget the injustices and inequities of neoliberal capitalism are justified upon the basis of a metaphysically naturalist science of economics. The minimum wage should stay where it is because that’s what the science of economics tells us. The more Pinker and others like him say the social order is underpinned by science the less apt are people to trust science, and more to the point scientists. This fertile ground, provided by the depredations and inequities of neoliberal capitalism, is the essential soil upon which the merchants of doubt sow their seeds. This needs to be more readily acknowledged. It’s one of the reasons why we need a Green New Deal or a transition with justice.
Was Einstein Right? So asked Clifford Will in his classis on the renaissance of general relativity. Yes, says this great overview of the experimental basis of general relativity at International Engineering. It’s often said quantum electrodynamics is the most precisely experimentally confirmed physical theory, although Roger Penrose has always argued general relativity is. Richard Feynman, I think, did most to popularise the claims of QED to having this status, which makes sense given, to paraphrase Silvan Schweber, he was one of the men who made it. The claim for QED is not unrelated to the case for quantum gravity; general relativity must be superseded because the quantum is more empirically precise. It’s interesting that there’s been a few theories of quantum gravity in the last 70 years, but not one of them has made a single, let alone the single most precise, experimentally verified prediction.
Space Exploration or Space Exploitation: Monica Vidaurri has an interesting essay at Quartz on the ethics of space exploration.
“When it comes to an industry as young as space exploration, its important to recognize colonization, imperialism, and exploitation as not just a series of major historical events that humanity is still recovering from, but as things that can conceivably inspire the future laws that will determine our fate in space…(Snip)
But we need rules, regulations, and recourse for justice. And how can we achieve that if we have never succeeded in solving those issues on our own planet? The minute we launch into space, our human tendencies and ideologies are not magically left on Earth…(Snip)
If we want to create a truly sustainable and responsible space environment, we must ensure that our efforts are transparent, ethical, and inclusive, and that we fully understand our historical tendencies as wealthy nations with an affinity for capitalism.”
She’s surely right about that. The space age was preceded by sort of cosmic or cosmological theories of emancipation. Space exploration would provide for a type of spiritual transformation and material abundance facilitating cooperation, solidarity, and mutual aid among humanity as a whole. This was carried into popular representations during the space age itself, witness for instance Star Trek. Space exploration was a way of solving worldly problems, and this idea survives in all sorts of interesting ways. But what Vidaurri is saying here is we’ve got all that wrong. We must sort our shit on Earth first, otherwise we’ll just take it all with us to space. Yep, that’s spot on. We think space will make of us Vulcans, but we’re the fuckin’ Klingons, Ferengi and Vogons rolled into one. In a way we have taken our ways to space, if you view Earth in both Spaceship Earth and Anthropocene terms. One way we’ll continue to do this is through the securitisation of space.
Missile Defence: Speaking of which, there were interesting remarks coming from the Missile Defense Agency this month on a few aspects to future BMD or MD as it’s now called. One was the expressed need to develop a more integral missile defence architecture. The slate of sensor technologies across the multiple BMD platforms, such as PAC-3 and THAAD etc, need to be better integrated through timely communication of information according to the link above. This would have implications for regional BMD architectures, especially in Northeast Asia. So South Korean BMD could more readily receive battle management data from US and Japanese sensors, and vice versa. Opposition law makers in South Korea have called for more information sharing with Japan. The basis on which this call was made, South Korea didn’t detect many of North Korea’s missile tests from May this year onward, was false. It did, however there was uncertainty, especially early on, about what precisely was being flight tested. Japan and South Korea do have an intelligence sharing pact, General Security of Military Information Agreement, but that’s come under strain given the recent rise of tensions between Seoul and Tokyo. Seoul announced it would withdraw from the pact, but it remains in force
“Under GSOMIA, South Korea earlier this month shared with Japan its assessment of North Korea’s submarine-launched ballistic missile, helping Japan correct its mistaken evaluation that Pyongyang launched two short-range missiles, rather than a single sub-launched ballistic missile that can strike more extended-range targets.”
An integrated BMD architecture communicating information across Northeast Asia means you wouldn’t be talking about South Korean or Japanese BMD but rather a single integrated system including US interceptors and sensors. North Korea would want to take regional BMD out early in a conflict on the Korean peninsula in that instance. Regardless of the niceties of data sharing diplomacy surely KPA strategic planners will consider regional BMD to be a single integrated system, and the recent comments by the MDA would give them no reason to disabuse themselves of this notion. A lot of what North Korea has tested since May has a BMD focus to it, and it serves as further reminder that missile defence is one of the world’s main sources of strategic instability.
Russia and China’s Early Warning System: Also, this month Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia is helping China build an early warning system for detecting ballistic missile launches, presumably including both ground based and space based sensors. This is something definitely worth keeping on your radar. Will China adopt a launch on warning posture? If so, what would that entail for Beijing’s no first use doctrine and the manner in which it deploys its nuclear warheads? There’s little point in having a launch on warning system if warheads are stored separately from missiles. Also, Serbia’s President, Aleksandar Vucic, announced that Russia would be sending to Serbia its S-400 SAM system for the “Slavic Shield” joint air defence exercises at Batajnica airfield, whereupon they’ll go back whence they came. Batajnica was bombed by NATO in 1999 when Putin was head of Yeltsin’s Security Council of Russia, therefore NATO’s “technical courier,” as he himself put it at the time, so the Slavic shield is 20 years too late.
North Korea and Socialism: There’s been some important stuff coming out of North Korea since Kim Jong-un’s ascent of Mt Paektu on a white horse. This deserves an entry in its own right. There was one wee KCNA commentary that drew my eye. It relayed an article published by Rodong Sinmun on the “3rd anniversary of the publication of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s work ‘The Duty of the Working Class of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il for the Times and the Tasks Facing Trade Union Organizations’”. The commentary goes on;
“It is the unwavering will of the whole working class to be loyal to the idea and guidance of the leaders all the times.
Today the heroic Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il working class lives with their lots cast in with the Party Central Committee and shares the intention, breath and step with the leader.”
In recent North Korean news reports, there’s been much mentioned of both self reliance and socialism. The comments quoted above have absolutely nothing to do with socialism, and they encapsulate well the inherently anti socialist character of North Korean society. The article calls for the absolute and perpetual subordination of the working class to the state and the party central committee. Notice it does so on the basis of a type of organicism. Neohegelian ideas regarding the organic nature of collectivist entities are important features of our own conceptions of corporate personhood, and they can be found in Stalinist and fascist thought as well. I think organicist conceptions of society are well suited to inherently hierarchical and nondemocratic forms of collectivism.