Category Archives: Philosophy

Bewilderment: Politics, Technology and Ecology in a World that Stopped Making Sense

moon surface

The lunar surface, photographed in 1966.

Since the second world war, our politics has become increasingly distant from people. Voter participation has declined, distrust in politicians has grown, and corruption perceptions have increased in many jurisdictions. Inequality has accelerated as those with the highest wealth and income acquire ever greater resources – far more than they can reasonably consume – while those at the other end of the economic spectrum see their lot diminish. The relationships between commerce and politics have deepened as free market policies have governed national policy in western liberal democracies across the range of services, from social welfare and healthcare to infrastructure and defence. These institutions, invested with authority and legitimacy by democratic processes, appear foreign to the people they claim to serve; their values – of costs, efficiencies, and performance – seem distant from their clients. These institutions often instil fear, driven as they are by objectives of enforcement, compliance, and law.

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Snippet: Fuzzy, Uncertain Nature

Lotfi Zadeh, inventor of fuzzy logic, who died earlier this month at the age of 96.

I’ve long had an idea about the curved nature of things, the non-binary natural order. This is not the same as relativism versus absolutism, which is one sense a binary opposition in itself; rather, it is a straight acknowledgement that truth is never fully observable, that is it at least always subjective, and that even in the subjective moment it is mutable. What I see may not be what you see; and what I see is inconstant. Time impacts on that observation such that its character is unstable. Take pain and pleasure, for example. While on the one hand some people take a kind of satisfaction from pain, and are attracted to it, whether physical or emotional, so too others recoil from pleasure, perhaps based on guilt, or other psychological alignments. Still further, the same act – a touch – can bring immediate pleasure, while the same act, more forcefully applied, can either increase the pleasure or turn at some point to pain.  Continue reading

Hayek’s Absolutism

Hayek lived long enough to see his ideas ascendant in western politics, which was something of a gift; perhaps it was an equally valuable reward to have missed the bit when it all went pear-shaped.

In reading several articles on Friedrich Hayek recently, two words kept coming to mind: absolutism and elegance. Hayek appears to my inexpert reading to have been a highly scientific thinker, one with a good degree of faith in the scientific method. Attached to this is a consciousness of the sublime, a sense that there is a truth to be found in thought, an awareness of a tangible human goal of understanding. There is, in other words, a destination for our species. Continue reading

Galadriel’s Inversion

Cate Blanchett

Cate Blanchett’s Galadriel from the Lord of The Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (Dir. Peter Jackson, 2001)

On the day when Apple are supposed to be launching a new iPhone with facial scanning capability, the Guardian has delightfully timed a piece warning of the dangers of the technology. Its functions potentially extend to predicting sexual orientation, political disposition, or nefarious intent. What secrets can remain in the face of this extraordinary power! Indeed, it’s two years ago since I heard Martin Geddes talking about people continuing to wear face masks in Hong Kong not because of the smog, but to avoid facial scanning technologies deployed by an overbearing security apparatus. There’s no hiding from the data, no forgetting.

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Alien Technology (2)

Feuerbach, like Marx, also had a hipster beard.

(…continued from Alien Technology)

Marx’ extension of Feuerbach was accompanied by one of his more famous quotations. Writing in the Theses on Feuerbach, ‘the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways,’ Marx said. ‘[T]he point is to change it.’ Feuerbach concerned himself with the spiritual and theological, while Marx was more revolutionary. How then could one take an abstract concept of alienation and explain how it meant something tangible, more actionable?

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Alien Technology

Things are pretty strange, it’s got to be said. But are they actually alien? (image credit Kim Hunter)

The question of technology and our relationship to it is one that has preoccupied me for some time now. It is separate from us as a concept – technology is not, so to speak, human – and yet it is deeply intimate in so many ways, so much as to make us think that our existence is dependent on it, as is our identity; Winner’s formulation of technology as a Wittgensteinian form of life (as I wrote about in my recent thesis) appears to me to be an appropriate joining of the human being and our technology, like Kevin Kelly’s ‘technium’, a kind of skin. But just as it becomes more deeply insinuated into our lives, there is something discomfiting about it, something unnatural, something foreign. Something alien, perhaps.

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The Neoliberal Inevitability of Vegetarian Hegemony

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It’s a tofu taco bowl. Sure it is.

The election of Donald Trump may signal a slap in the face for our neoliberal orthodoxy, but it’s certainly not a death blow. It remains to be seen how effective he will be in disrupting the stasis that has gripped western liberal democratic governance for much of the past quarter century. That it requires disruption is certainly true; reform, at least. But it remains unclear what will replace it other than a ball of resentment and anger. Just as Rick Page declared that ‘hope is not a strategy’ in 2001, the same can be said of anger. But what has that got to do with vegetarianism? Stick with me.

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Facebook as a Form of Life?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 1889-1951

Wittgenstein’s ‘form of life’ construction, one which has addled my brain for over a year now, is a philosophical device that allows us to think about life, and what it means, in a layered and constructed form. Human beings, in their pure essence, are not really a form of life, but merely a life-form, shorn as they are of context and relativity. If you take a human, take away everything that is non-essential for the preservation of mere existence – legs, arms and so on, and then replace those organs vital for the maintenance of that state of existence with machines – a mechanical heart, even the parts of the brain that are not required, such as those controlling motor functions. There is very little in the bare, denuded essence of man that is in any respect a form of life. It is mere existence, presence; it may even be argued that while rational potential exists, reason does not, as that potential has no access to nurturing functions. It is only when the human interacts with the outside world, with the world that exists beyond consciousness and the self, that she becomes a form of life.

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Trump/Brexit: Popular Legitimacy and the Rule of Law

Morten Morland's cartoon from The Times, November 4th.

Morten Morland‘s cartoon from The Times, November 4th.

The New York Times ran an editorial yesterday on what it called ‘a coup’ against the Supreme Court. The death of Antonin Scalia earlier this year, and the Republican Party’s refusal to entertain a replacement has rendered the previously nine, now eight judge court unable to resolve some important cases, split evenly as they are between four generally liberal and four generally conservative justices. The GOP Presidential Nominee, Donald Trump, has recklessly attacked other institutions in his scorched earth strategy that followed his poor showing at the debates, including the Military, the FBI, the President, the Federal Reserve, and the Media. Early on in the campaign, he attacked a judge who ruled against him, claiming the judge was biased because he was Mexican-American. He has threatened to jail his opponent if he wins, he has consistently attacked and undermined the electoral process itself, and encouraged voter suppression.  Every pillar of democracy in America has been weakened by Mr Trump’s candidacy whether he wins or not, and people love him for it.

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The Temper of the Machine

DSC_0068 cropped

Temper – Tempus – Temporal: Machines are clocks, but they have no temper.

I had the pleasure this week of addressing the Royal Irish Academy on the subject of Digital Citizenship, which, rather than addressing the narrow construct of person-state relationship, instead took in a broad sweep of life in the digital world. Part of a series themed around the constitution, it focused on issues of growing up a teenager in the digital world, data protection (there were a lot of lawyers in the room, not least my fellow presenter Oisín Tobin of Mason Hayes & Curran), privacy, artificial intelligence and the politics of all that. In two hours, it was a hurried skip across disciplines and dystopias, which illustrated in equal measure the interest and enthusiasm people have for addressing the issue (there was barely a seat left in the hall), and the strange paucity (it seems to me, at least) of opportunities that there are to pursue in particular the ethical, policy, and political implications of our digital lives. Convened by Dr John Morrison, the Academy Chair of the Ethical, Political, Legal and Philsophical Committee, and expertly chaired by Dr Noreen O’Carroll, perhaps this is the beginning of an attempt to address that.

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