Enlightenment and Utopianism

one of the main problems of the Enlightenment stems from the assumption that the mind alone is the source of meaning. This often led to an unwarranted intellectual confidence. Many appeared insufficiently aware of the limitations of the historically conditioned individual mind and tended to identify it with the universal, transcendental reason. Kant, who coined the term ‘transcendental ego,’’ warned against equating it with the empirical self. Others did not adequately distinguish them and ended up with an idea of reason that badly needed to be desublimated. One effect of it was that they tended to overestimate the realistic chances of their projects. Utopian treatises on perpetual peace, on a permanent international brotherhood, on the unification of all sciences, and on the future extinction of crime, bear the sign of a naive presumptuousness. For a brief period many intellectuals, especially but not exclusively in France, expected that the French Revolution, the ultimate utopia, was about to realize all the Enlightenment’s hopes.

Louis Dupré, The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, p. 336

February 19, 2024

The changing meaning of atheism

The term ‘atheism’’ has rarely preserved the same meaning for a long time. Socrates was condemned for one kind of atheism and Epicurus was accused of another. Both of them believed in gods and today we regard neither as an atheist. Spinoza, that most religious thinker, was considered an atheist because he changed the relation between divine immanence and transcendence, though he continued to maintain a distinction between the two. In the eighteenth century, critics became less inclined to brand as atheist anyone who was not an orthodox Christian or Jew. Yet new candidates for the title appeared. In the preface to his long poem, Creation . . . Demonstrating the Existence and Providence of God (1702), Richard Blackmore states that two sorts of men have rightly been called atheists: ‘those who frankly and in plain terms have denied the being of a God; and those who though they asserted his being, denied those attributes and perfections, which the idea of a God includes.’’

Louis Dupré, The Enlightenment and the Intellectual Foundations of Modern Culture, p. 256

February 15, 2024

Parfit’s Triple Theory

I never cared much for Parfit’s Triple Theory. When I engaged with On What Matters (which I admittedly did very little), I was still too much of a consequentialist to be interested in this project.

I’ve since become more interested in contractualist framings of morality, in large part as a result of reading a lot about the history of humanity and cultural evolution and coming to see that morality—insofar as it exists—is a social technology that evolved to solve problems of cooperation and coordination.

From this perspective, integrating our three primary ethical frameworks—contractualism, consequentialism, and deontology—seems like a worthwhile exercise in self-understanding, even if the end result won’t be a robustly yet non-metaphysically real morality.

(Thoughts prompted by reading Levine et al’s Resource-rational contractualism: A triple theory of moral cognition)

February 14, 2024

Do the locomotion

in the United Kingdom, the Locomotive Act 1865, popularly known as the Red Flag Act, mandated speed limits for self-propelled vehicles—i.e. cars—of 4 mph (6 km/h) on country roads and 2 mph (3 km/h ) in cities

Andrea Baronchelli (2023). Shaping new norms for AI

February 14, 2024

Long-sightedness in politics

How do we know long- or short-sightedness when we see it? Clearly there is the risk of polemical use, but there are some objective markers one could point to. One lies in discourse: the willingness to identify long-term objectives and build policy programmes that, rhetorically at least, are committed to their pursuit. Party manifestos are one kind of text that can be studied, often cited as evidence of unambitious or backward-looking views in the present (Zielonka, 2023). Investments are another possible indicator: the willingness to devote resources to projects that take time to mature (e.g. the building of infrastructure), or to hold back resources for future use (e.g. by creating a sovereign wealth fund), or to introduce regulations likely to produce short-term costs and long-term benefits (e.g. carbon taxing) (Boston, 2017; Smith, 2021, p. 3). Having regard for the future often means the willingness to make sacrifices in the short term.

Another indicator of long-sightedness widely invoked is consistency. Often this rests on the assumption that a certain line of policy is optimal (see e.g. the attachment of central bankers to an inflation target of 2–3 per cent), and that responsible policymaking involves minimising deviation from it. Commitment in adversity would be another way to conceive this: the willingness to stick to an agenda when progress seems in doubt or opinion turns against it. 3 Finally, as an additional marker of long-sightedness, one may refer to the sustainability of methods. This describes an actor’s willingness to pursue policies in a way that does not weaken the institutions and authority on which future deliberation and policymaking will need to rely. Transparency, capacity and clear procedure are amongst the values that may be embraced to this end (Thompson, 2010).

Jonathan White (2024). Technocratic myopia: On the pitfalls of depoliticising the future

February 13, 2024

Insect insights

The modern insect societies have a vast amount to teach us today. They show how it is possible to”speak” in complex messages with pheromones. And they illustrate, through thousands of examples, how the division of labor can be crafted with flexible behavior programs to achieve an optimal efficiency of a working group. Their networks of cooperating individuals have suggested new designs in computers and shed light on how neurons of the brain might interact in the creation of mind. They are in many ways an inspiration. The study of ants, President Lowell, of Harvard University, said when he bestowed an honorary degree on the great myrmecologist William Morton Wheeler in the 1920s, has demonstrated that these insects, like human beings, can create civilizations without the use of reason.”

Bert Hölldobler & E. O. Wilson (2009). The Superorganism: The Beauty, Elegance and Strangeness of Insect societies, p. XVIII

Think I might read this book at some point. Might be interesting to try to understand human sociality by contrasting it with insect sociality. And seeing the various kinds of selection pressures and circumstances that can favor the emergence of cooperation.

February 12, 2024