On "Big" Universities

It’s tough to know how much philosophical instruction anybody can absorb at age 20, before most of life has happened, but seeds can be planted. Universities could more intentionally provide those enchanted goods that the marketplace doesn’t offer. If that happens, the future of the university will be found in its original moral and spiritual mission, but secularized, and in an open and aspiring way.

"The Big University" - http://nyti.ms/1VAyB6U

On a Philosophical Life

Frank (which is how he was always referred to) has recently become the subject of an interesting book by David Ellis, ‘Frank Cioffi: The Philosopher in Shirt Sleeves.’ It gives a very good sense of what it felt like to be in a room with Frank. Truth to tell, Ellis’s title is deceptive, as I never recall Frank in shirtsleeves. He wore a sweater, usually inside out. He never had laces in the work boots he always wore, and strangest of all, because of an acute sensitivity to fabrics, he wore pajamas underneath his clothes at all times. The word ‘disheveled’ doesn’t begin to describe the visual effect that Frank had on the senses. He was a physically large, strong-looking man, about 6-foot-4. The pajamas were clearly visible at the edges of his sweater, his fly was often undone (some years later, his only word of teaching advice to me was ‘always check your fly’) and he sometimes seemed to hold his pants up with a piece of string. In his pockets would be scraps of paper with typewritten quotations from favorite writers like George Eliot, Tolstoy or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, whom he revered.

Simon Critchley, "There Is No Theory of Everything," The Stone - http://nyti.ms/1QvStlC. A lovely homage to a philosophical life.

On Privileged Conclusions

The debate persists, too, because both sides are winning on their own turf—the lab tests continue to support authenticity, the textual analysis continues to suggest fraud. What is really at stake here is not the status of this one small fragment. It is, rather, what kind of information, and what kind of conclusions, are privileged: those from the data-driven world of the sciences, or those generated by the collective expertise of the humanities?

"Why Scientists and Scholars Can't Get Their Facts Straight" - http://theatln.tc/1KF3GiZ
"The ongoing dispute over the authenticity of a scrap of papyrus from the ancient world highlights a larger question of how history is established."

On Religion in India

Ambedkar and Gandhi were both deeply religious. Their rivalry was that of utterly opposed types of religious reformers... But he [Ambedkar] does not jettison religion. He understands the need for moral ideals that have a community and a history, even a poetry, attached to them. Here too he joins hands with Kant, though there is no sign that he ever read him: for Kant held that imperfect people need religion, meaning communal ritual practices of some type, to reinforce their dedication to the moral law. Ambedkar would have added too, I think, that people need religion to express human love fully and adequately, overcoming parochialism and self-interest. His take on the need for religion seems less about avoiding evil than about the whole-hearted embrace of good.

On Panglossianism

Those who think that the horrors of the nineteen-thirties and forties were eclipses of the sun, rather than an eternal darkness of the earth, are invariably mocked as Panglossian. But Dr. Pangloss, Voltaire’s fatuously optimistic philosopher, is an unfairly reviled man. The Enlightenment philosophers who insisted that the world could be improved were right. Voltaire was one of them. The mistake was to think that, once improved, it couldn’t get worse again. Voltaire’s point was not that optimism about mankind’s fate is false. It was that, in the face of a Heaven known to be decidedly unbenevolent, it takes unrelenting, thankless, and mostly ill-rewarded work to cultivate happiness here on earth, no matter what color the soil. That was the lesson Dr. Pangloss and his students had yet to learn.

Adam Gopnik, "Blood and Soil: A Historian Returns to the Holocaust" - http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/09/21/blood-and-soil

On Sandwiches

What kinds of acts are made possible when we believe we know the objective truth? In what ways are our social practices, personal relationships, moral judgments, foreign policies, and political beliefs based on foundations of ‘knowledge’ that, when pressed, we can’t even satisfactorily define or demonstrate? What implications does this have, for how we see the world and our place in it, for how we relate to one another, for how we move through space and time? And why, actually, IS this kind of debate so frustrating? Why is critical thinking experienced as uncomfortable? Why, for example, did the Athenian senate vote to have Socrates LITERALLY KILLED for engaging people in debates like the sandwich debate? What were the charges they actually brought against him? They said he ‘turns the worse argument into the stronger’ and that he ‘teaches these things to the young.’ Socrates’ annoying arguments about definitions were felt to be such a threat to the existing power structure of ancient Athens that even some of his supporters’ attempts to get his sentence changed to lifetime exile were unconvincing, and he was democratically voted into death.

"Is This a Sandwich?" Medium - http://bit.ly/1itdIZQ

On Human Technology

JEFFREY BROWN: Thinking about what robots do or don’t do, or can or cannot do means to think about what it is to be human. Right?
JEFFREY BROWN: What is it that only humans can do?
JOHN MARKOFF: Well, I have been asked that question. What is it to be human? And I think the nature of humanity is found between the interaction that you and I have. And it’s actually something that makes me slightly hopeful, because even though we’re being surrounded with all this automation technology, there is the possibility that that interaction between you and I might actually become more valuable. And, you know, it might work out that way. That would be great.

"Why Humanity is Essential to the Future of Artificial Intelligence," - http://to.pbs.org/1itcPjV. Interesting interview with the author of Machines of Loving Grace

On Vanity

RICHARD DAWKINS: They’re vulnerable. I also would like them to know the Bible for literary reasons.
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: Precisely. We both, I was pleased to see, have written pieces about the King James Bible. The AV [Authorised Version], as it was called in my boyhood. A huge amount of English literature would be opaque if people didn’t know it.
RD: Absolutely, yes. Have you read some of the modern translations? ‘Futile, said the preacher. Utterly futile.’
CH: He doesn’t!
RD: He does, honestly. ‘Futile, futile said the priest. It’s all futile.’
CH: That’s Lamentations.
RD: No, it’s Ecclesiastes. ‘Vanity, vanity.’
CH: ‘Vanity, vanity.’ Good God. That’s the least religious book in the Bible. That’s the one that Orwell wanted at his funeral.

"'Never Be Afraid of Stridency': Richard Dawkins' Interview with Christopher Hitchens," - http://www.newstatesman.com/node/200931

On New Romanticism

Just once I’d like to have a college student come up to me and say, ‘I really wanted to major in accounting, but my parents forced me to major in medieval art.’ That probably won’t happen... But you see a counterreaction setting in. You see, here and there, signs of a new romanticism... I’m not sure we’re about to be overrun with waves of Byronic romantics, but we have been living through an unromantic period and there’s bound to be a correction. People eventually want their souls stirred, especially if the stuff regarded as soft and squishy turns out in a relational economy to be hard and practical.

David Brooks, "The New Romantics in the Computer Age" - http://nyti.ms/1hGhL4e

On Coddling and Critical Thinking

There’s a saying common in education circles: Don’t teach students what to think; teach them how to think. The idea goes back at least as far as Socrates. Today, what we call the Socratic method is a way of teaching that fosters critical thinking, in part by encouraging students to question their own unexamined beliefs, as well as the received wisdom of those around them. Such questioning sometimes leads to discomfort, and even to anger, on the way to understanding.

"The Coddling of the American Mind," - http://theatln.tc/1IXIRdd


Watson Goes to University

Deakin University will be the first university in the world to utilise IBM Watson to enhance the quality of the student experience, developing with IBM a breakthrough system that will transform the way students get advice and answers to questions... Watson will answer questions about courses but will also be able to help guide students through the maze of decision-making about their future careers to enhance their employment opportunities. Over time every student who asks Watson a question can expect tailored information and personalised advice and information based on their individual profile.


IBM's website suggests that this will be  "a new partnership that aims to exceed students’ needs." It's at the early stages of development, but if successful, that may well be an understatement. 

On Citation Metrics

We started out our story with our professors in Science out-performing our professors in the Social Sciences and Humanities to a staggering extent, by having 17 times as many ISI citations. At the end of our story, we find that when using the most comprehensive data source and correcting for the number of co-authors and the length of the academic’s publishing career, academics in the Social Sciences and Humanities on average out-perform academics in the Sciences.

Anne-Wil Harzing, "Citation Analysis across Disciplines: The Impact of Different Data Sources and Citation Metrics" - http://www.harzing.com/data_metrics_comparison.htm. An interesting white paper summary of different citation metrics, with some justification to rethink how humanities research is assessed.


When Algorithms Discriminate

There is a widespread belief that software and algorithms that rely on data are objective. But software is not free of human influence. Algorithms are written and maintained by people, and machine learning algorithms adjust what they do based on people’s behavior. As a result, say researchers in computer science, ethics and law, algorithms can reinforce human prejudices. Google’s online advertising system, for instance, showed an ad for high-income jobs to men much more often than it showed the ad to women, a new study by Carnegie Mellon University researchers found.

"When Algorithms Discriminate," - http://nyti.ms/1JX8Wwv

On Learning to Think

Knowing how to think demands a set of cognitive skills — quantitative ability, conceptual flexibility, analytical acumen, expressive clarity. But beyond those skills, learning how to think requires the development of a set of intellectual virtues that make good students, good professionals, and good citizens. I use the word ‘virtues,’ as opposed to ‘skills,’ deliberately. As Aristotle knew, all of the traits I will discuss have a fundamental moral dimension. I won’t provide an exhaustive list of intellectual virtues, but I will provide a list, just to get the conversation started... love of truth... honesty... fair-mindedness... humility... perseverance... good listening... perspective taking and empathy... wisdom.

Barry Schwartz, "What 'Learning How to Think' Really Means," The Chronicle of Higher Education - http://bit.ly/1G8lfkk. Schwartz elaborates on each skill and maybe one of the more interesting is his summary of why love of truth is first on his list.

Love of truth is an intellectual virtue because its absence has serious moral consequences. Relativism chips away at our fundamental respect for one another as human beings. When people have respect for the truth, they seek it out and speak it in dialogue. Once truth becomes suspect, debates become little more than efforts at manipulation. Instead of trying to enlighten or persuade people by giving them reasons to see things as we do, we can use any form of influence we think will work. This is what political ‘spin’ is all about.


On Ex Machina

Because if that [Turing] test is passed, you are dead center of the greatest scientific event in the history of man.
— Nathan
If you’ve created a conscious machine, it’s not the history of man. That’s the history of gods.
— Caleb

This is an exchange between two of the main characters in Ex Machina. A superb thriller, the film explores a range of ethical implications concerning the human ability to transcend itself through technological innovation. In this case, it focused upon the Turing Test, and the possibility of creating a conscious machine. Early on, the two characters cited above touch on what is in my mind a crucial ambiguity in the philosophy of technology. It goes back to Plato's Phaedrus, where Socrates cites writing's divine origins. Central to my recent work has been this question of the problematic way in which technique implies transcendence in philosophical discourse. With this problem in focus, I have aimed to provide an alternative approach to basic aspects of technique, such as writing in books. In any case, Ex Machina maintained a philosophical ambition worth noting alongside its coldly narrated suspense.  


On Drones

What does Francis Fukuyama do after the end of history? In his leisure hours, he puts together little drones in his garage and then proudly exhibits them on his blog. He is part of an rapidly developing subculture: that of the homemade drone. Following in the footsteps of the model enthusiasts of the 1960s, there today exists a whole little community of amateurs who buy or construct drones at the cost of a few hundred dollars. With their microcameras on board, these machines make it possible to produce unofficial little films, some of which are strikingly beautiful. I am thinking in particular of a flight over New York in which, once over the Brooklyn Bridge, the camera scans the facades of the skyline, ending up by gliding past the flame on the Statue of Liberty. Proof enough of the validity of Walter Benjamin’s thesis that technology, today used for death-dealing purposes, may eventually recover its emancipating potential and readopt the playful and aesthetic aspirations that secretly inspire it.

Grégoire Chamayou "Theorizing the Drone," - http://wp.me/p4KhvY-4me

Longreads blog posted this interesting excerpt of four chapters from Chamayou's book A Theory of the Drone. The article contrasts the logic of the kamikaze and drone as follows: "The drone and the kamikaze stand in contrast as two opposed forms of moral sensibility, two forms of ethos that reflect each other but are each other’s antithesis and nightmare." And yes, Francis Fukuyama really is a drone hobbyist - http://on.ft.com/1EG4PyU. For another take on critical aesthetics of drone practices, the National Gallery Victoria in Melbourne, was displaying the "Untitled (Drone)" series by Trevor Paglen. The works can be seen on his website here, but really need to be seen in person to appreciate their scale. 

On Freedom Regained

Gazzaniga is interested in how complexity provides a way of understanding how minds operate in ways that can’t be either predicted or understood by only studying brain processes. Mind and consciousness are ‘emergent properties’ which arise out of nothing more than brain processes, because the complex organization of these processes creates new properties which are not found at the fundamental physical level. This explains how it can be that beliefs, desires and intentions can actually change things, without us having to think that they are mysterious, non-physical things.... This is one of the most important scientific facts we need to bear in mind when thinking about free will. Too often it can seem that, if brains are the engines of thought, then thoughts themselves cannot change anything. Complexity theory shows us how this can be false, without the need to postulate any strange, weird, supernatural or non-physical will or soul. It shows that the idea that thoughts, beliefs and desires can cause things to happen is not outmoded metaphysics, but bang up-to-date science.

Julian Baggini "Freedom Regained," - http://wp.me/p4rWb7-jR

On Free Will

Commitment, public or private, to human dignity should not entail perpetuating fictions about free will, even if we need to ward off the counter-mythology of mechanical models of agency. And behind all these discussions stands the need to remind ourselves to go on being surprised, puzzled and prompted by what we take for granted about action itself – initiating events in the world – and language: speech that makes things different. No philosophy, politics or sociology worth the name will survive without that surprise; without at least a faint taste of Golding’s potatoes.

Rowan Williams, "Can We Ever Be in Charge of Our Own Lives," - http://www.newstatesman.com/node/227255

On University Specialization

In late-18th- and early-19th-century Germany, readers troubled by the huge increase in printed material felt imperiled by a veritable ‘plague’ of books circulating among the reading public. Deep concerns about what counted as authoritative knowledge made writers and intellectuals anxious as they heard and read increasingly pointed critiques of universities as outmoded guilds that needed to justify their existence in an age of easily accessible information. Philosophers and thinkers like J.G. Fichte, F.W.J. Schelling, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Wilhelm von Humboldt were the first to embrace and argue for the idea of a renewed university with specialized academic knowledge as its organizing system... Specialized academic knowledge, Wissenschaft, was not simply an ideology imposed by the vague rationalizing imperatives of modernity. It was a normative and ethical framework that valorized particular intellectual goods (the never-ending production of knowledge and the ability to perceive the relationships of various sciences) and inculcated particular virtues (rigor, collaboration, intellectual imagination, industriousness, responsibility, and a critical disposition). Academic knowledge tied epistemology to ethics. It formed people and grounded knowledge in a community that could sustain, cultivate, and evaluate it. And it gave rise to great achievements, from the first well-funded and organized laboratories to large philology projects used to this day.

Chad Wellmon, "In Defense of Specialization," - http://chronicle.com/article/In-Defense-of-Specialization/229023/

"Academic knowledge tied epistemology to ethics."