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John Holbo

This Does Not Look Like You Care About These Adults

by John Holbo on February 22, 2018

A lot of conservatives are taking a ‘who will think of the children?’ approach to the aftermath of the most recent school shooting. As Erick Erickson writes: “I think putting them on television after a mass murder at their school is not caring about them. It is using them.” True, these kids have first-hand experience with guns that seems to qualify them to speak, but the truth is that they are too close to the issue. For them, this is their identity now. It’s existential. They aren’t prepared to debate policy, and the raw emotions behind their speech – even if they express themselves eloquently and apparently reasonably – are not conducive to level-headed policy debate. No one is allowed to question the authenticity of their experience with guns, so no one is allowed to suggest they are just wrong about policy.

Let it be so. In the aftermath of the next school shooting, no one for whom gun-ownership is a deeply-felt identity issue is allowed on TV. For their own good. [click to continue…]

Psychomyths and Thought Experiments

by John Holbo on February 22, 2018

I’m writing something about Ursula K. Le Guin’s most famous tale, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” (I’m sure you’ve read it.) I’m reading the author’s story notes, in The Wind’s Twelve Quarters [amazon]. She calls it a ‘psychomyth’. In her introduction she elucidates the neologism thusly: “more or less sur-realistic tales, which share with fantasy the quality of taking place outside any history, outside of time, in that region of the living mind which — without invoking any consideration of immortality — seems to be without spatial or temporal limits at all.”

So reads my Kindle edition. I suspect ‘sur-realistic’ is not what it says in the paper edition. But maybe Le Guin is literalizing the ‘beyond real’ sense, for some reason, by hyphenating, playfully? Will someone kindly walk over to their shelf, check the paper, and confirm or disconfirm the hyphen. Thank you. (Amazon ‘Look Inside’ is not settling it for me.)

While we are on the subject, and awaiting our test results, a few thoughts. [click to continue…]

Panpsychism, Erewhon Edition

by John Holbo on February 19, 2018

A couple weeks back I posted about panpsychism. Is it as preposterous as all that? Opinions differ! Today I discovered that there are arguments for it, in effect, in Erewhon, by Samuel Butler (1872).

As you may know, the utopian Erewhonians, in Butler’s famous novel, are anti-machinist. But I hadn’t realized their attitude was grounded in explicit fear of the rise of conscious machines, rather than some other model of industrial catastrophe. The narrator himself has some trouble piecing it together: [click to continue…]

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!