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John Holbo

Food For Thought

by John Holbo on February 14, 2018

It was not until I had attended a few post‐mortems that I realized that even the ugliest human exteriors may contain the most beautiful viscera, and was able to console myself for the facial drabness of my neighbors in omnibuses by dissecting them in my imagination.

J. B. S. Haldane

I got that one from a book on thought-experiments [amazon]. How have I not come across it in a book about serial killers? I read both sorts of books, like any person with normal beliefs and desires, healthy impulses and interests.


Adam Roberts has been fighting the good fight, keeping blogging real. He’s been reading his way through H.G. Wells’ collected works so you don’t have to. You can just piggy-back along for the ride. But all good things must end. He just published the post for Wells’ final work, Mind At The End of Its Tether. I’m no Wells scholar but I actually had read that one. It’s astonishingly pessimistic. Nigh-Lovecraftian. And it isn’t even supposed to be fiction. It’s what Wells was feeling in his last days. Here is the book’s opening: [click to continue…]

Pride and Prejudice and P-Zombies

by John Holbo on February 6, 2018

Yeah, the zombie version was good. But what if you wrote a version in which they are all zombies? I’m not sure if any actual edits to the original text would be required. Passages like the following are fine. They just need to be understood properly. [click to continue…]

Schopenhauer On Philosophy’s Overton Window

by John Holbo on February 4, 2018

On Facebook a friend was mentioning that good old Francis Bacon bit:

The men of experiment are like the ant, they only collect and use; the reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. But the bee takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own. Not unlike this is the true business of philosophy; for it neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of the mind, nor does it take the matter which it gathers from natural history and mechanical experiments and lay it up in the memory whole, as it finds it, but lays it up in the understanding altered and digested. Therefore from a closer and purer league between these two faculties, the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made), much may be hoped.

This reminds me of a bit from Arthur Schopenhauer I really love. In this other thread I joked about The World As Willed Misrepresentation, but here’s the real deal: Schopenhauer on philosophy’s Overton Window, so to speak. This is from his Parerga and Paralipomena (the title means something like ‘extras and omissions’), which used to be damned hard to find but was reissued last year (volume 1, volume 2). [click to continue…]

The Birth of Intermediacy?

by John Holbo on February 1, 2018

I’m taking a break from reading stuff about political theory and liberalism and reading, instead, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness [amazon]. It turns out Peter Godfrey-Smith on the octopus brain is more like Jacob Levy on Montesquieu and intermediacy than I was expecting. (The cover of Levy’s book is a bit tentacular. Maybe they should have played that up?)


The cephalopod body, and especially the octopus body, is a unique object with respect to these demands. When part of the molluscan “foot” differentiated into a mass of tentacles, with no joints or shell, the result was a very unwieldy organ to control. The result was also an enormously useful thing, if it could be controlled. The octopus’s loss of almost all hard parts compounded both the challenge and the opportunities. A vast range of movements became possible, but they had to be organized, had to be made coherent. Octopuses have not dealt with this challenge by imposing centralized governance on the body; rather, they have fashioned a mixture of local and central control. One might say the octopus has turned each arm into an intermediate-scale actor. But it also imposes order, top-down, on the huge and complex system that is the octopus body.

This is something a lot of people know about the politics of being an octopus: your various members enjoy semi-autonomy. Tentacles are federated, after a fashion. They continue to act in a purposive manner even if they are cut off from the center. Weird! (See also: Montesquieu on monarchy.) But what does he mean by ‘these demands’? [click to continue…]

The Overton Window As Metaphysics

by John Holbo on January 31, 2018

Eric Schwitzgebel informs me that, annoyingly, the Overton Window turns out to be, like, something a libertarian dude published after he died. But, you know, there is actually a lot of plausibility to it. Eric is thinking about how, in philosophy, ideas migrate from unthinkable to sensible to popular. Maybe even policy! It would be fun to write a history of philosophical common sense. Try to trace shifts in what people have thought is obvious vs. weird. Eric is thinking, specifically, about local, recent shifts in attitudes towards panpsychism. Pretty wild idea, panpsychism! But if it moves from unthinkable to merely radical, probably notions like plant cognition and group cognition move from radical to … acceptable?

But here’s the thing. He’s burying the lede, my old poker buddy Eric is. (Or maybe he’s just playing his cards close to his chest.) If panpsychism is true, the universe could, like, BE an Overton Window. It started as unthinkable. Then there was that Big Bang moment when it passed from unthinkable to radical, and rapidly moves from there to acceptable, sensible. I would say that the existence of the universe is a very popular policy, in space and time, at present. It just makes sense, and the thought of nothing actually seems the radical option, by contrast.

Perhaps you would also like to subscribe to my metaphysics of cognitive bias newsletter: The World As Willed Misrepresentation.

Yeah, I know, the free stuff is what you want. So here you go. [click to continue…]

Academic political science blog?

Never had I seen a clearer bat signal lighted to the effect that I am letting down the side in terms of comicsblogging.

(I was going to post something about political science, but screw that noise!) [click to continue…]

How can it be Obama’s fault that Trump claims credit for the fact that no commercial planes fell from the skies in 2017? Ah, I’ve got it!

Of course this isn’t narcissism on the President’s part. Of course it’s not an indication of his almost comical obsession with being praised and respected. Of course it’s not a reflection on the state of our national character that we have elected in successive terms men who take credit for stopping the rise of the oceans and for keeping planes in the sky.

Here it is. Caught on video.

Actually, it’s worse, though it pains conservatives to admit it. I’m old enough to remember when Reagan claimed to be responsible for single-handedly placating the Aztec sun god, Tonatiuh. “It’s morning in America.” The clear, counter-factual implication of this famous 1984 ad was that, had America unwisely re-elected Jimmy Carter, Tonatiuh would have brought an end to the current cosmic era. (Tonatiuh must be placated with ritual human sacrifice, although these days we call them ‘welfare cuts’.)

These days conservatives prefer not to remember their embarrassing mass flirtation with Aztec apocalypse. It was the 80’s, and a lot of things that seemed totally plausible then look a bit silly now.

The stuff we know already is, of course, bad, Russia-wise and just plain Trump self-dealing-wise. Mueller may drop the hammer, or he may not. If the hammer doesn’t drop with full force, it may be hard to sustain outrage regarding a lot of things that are outrageous, but that Republicans have no interest in acknowledging as such. [click to continue…]

Why Does The US Lack A Major Center-Right Party?

by John Holbo on December 31, 2017

I’m reading Neither Liberal nor Conservative: Ideological Innocence in the American Public [amazon] by Kinder and Kalmoe. I’ll report back later when I have learned something interesting. For now, I’ll point to a NY Times Erik Levitz editorial from November that discusses the book. [click to continue…]

Merry Christmas!

by John Holbo on December 25, 2017

It’s still dark out but I hear my 8 year old nephew stirring in the next room. Christmas is about to get real. Merry X-Mas to you and yours!

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

by John Holbo on December 16, 2017

‘Tis the season! For that uncanny one on your list who is always hard to shop for I would recommend My Favorite Thing Is Monsters [amazon]. The only bad thing about it is we have to wait a year for vol. 2. The good thing is everything else. The story. The art. The combination of those two. It’s the best graphic novel I’ve read all year. I haven’t really been excited about new comics for a while, sad to say. (I liked Seth’s latest. I always love Seth’s latest.)

As I was saying: Monsters. This one stopped me dead in my tracks, spun me around. I read it late into the night, feeling kind of weird. My cat was looking at me curiously. Then I reread parts of it. Then just stared at some of the pictures. It’s about a 10-year old girl, Karen, living in Chicago in the late 60’s, who wants to be a werewolf (but isn’t.) She’s trying to solve the mystery of the murder of the woman – Anka, a Holocaust survivor – who lived upstairs. Karen has a lot of problems in her life.

The author, Emil Ferris, has an amazing story story as well. From this NPR story:

She was a 40-year-old single mom who supported herself doing illustrations when she was bitten by a mosquito, she contracted West Nile Virus, became paralyzed from the waist down, and lost the use of her drawing hand. Fighting chronic pain, she taught herself to draw again, then reinvented herself as a graphic novelist, spending six long years creating what’s clearly an emotional autobiography.
The detailed crosshatching throughout the book is a wonder to behold. You see that cover? It’s all like that.

‘Tis also the season for me to remind you I myself have a fine, uncanny Christmas work available on Amazon. It makes a fine stocking-stuffer. Mama In Her Kerchief and I In My Madness, A Visitation of Sog-Nug-Hotep: A Truly Awful Christmas Volume.

The book will also test your eyesight – in a good way, I say. All those finicky ligatures I added, just to make your eyes water. [click to continue…]

The Cat, The Goof and Musical Mose – Some Notes

by John Holbo on December 16, 2017

I’ve been meaning to write something about Philip Nel’s new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books [amazon]. It’s caused some fuss. But I was already a Nel reader because, as a sometime Seussian myself, I read and enjoyed and learned a lot from his earlier book Dr. Seuss: American Icon.

There is an inherent risk that any degree of analytic subtly and investigative archaeology breeds ethical over-sensitivity, in a case like this. It isn’t scholarship if it doesn’t bring to light something a reasonably intelligent, moderately informed reader might miss. It isn’t dangerous to tender young minds if it sails over their heads. No 5-year old is going to notice the Cat owes a visual debt to minstrelsy, much less that Dr. Seuss apparently took some visual inspiration from a white-gloved African-American elevator operator named Annie Williams. Who knew? If that’s the concern, maybe it’s not much of one. (Not in the same league as giving a slightly older kid an original edition of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory with the original, racist Oompa-Loompa illustrations. Here is Nel on the subject, some years ago.)

Since conservatives are super-hyper-sensitive to the risk that someone besides their snowflake-y selves might be even slightly over-sensitive, it’s pretty much impossible for Nel to broach his whole topic without ‘triggering’ the fainting couch set, be he ever so mild about minatory whispers in your shell-like.

But fair is fair: let me give an example of analysis and plausible harm wires maybe getting crossed. [click to continue…]

The Fallacy of Unnatural Deceleration?

by John Holbo on December 9, 2017

As a reward for my sins, I read this review of Daniel Dennett’s latest, by David Bentley Hart. (My efficiently causal sin being: reading The Corner.) [click to continue…]