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John Holbo


by John Holbo on June 20, 2018

Well, I suppose we can take ‘Tender Age’ Jail as a test of my Epistemic Sunk Costs hypothesis.

For example, here’s Ben Shapiro.

“We’ve heard that the Trump administration has heartlessly sought to rip toddlers from the arms of their weeping mothers in order to punish illegal-immigrant parents who are merely seeking asylum. But the truth is more complex …”

Not that it isn’t true, mind you. But there’s … more to it. (For example, toddler jail is a great way to trigger the libs. I’m triggered. They got me.) Something-something. Ah!

“In other words, this isn’t a Trumpian attempt to dump kids in hellholes. It’s a longtime problem that has yet to be solved.”

What happened to complexity? Why can’t it be both?


The World Needs More Blogs

by John Holbo on June 13, 2018

Remember when there were blogs? Ah, those were the good old days. Whenever I see we haven’t been watering CT properly with fresh posts, I feel ashamed.

You know who’s got a blog? My dear old advisor at UC Berkeley, Hans Sluga! Here it is. Remember when blogs used to link to blogs all the time, and that was a lively and friendly thing to do? We should do that again.

(You may say I’m just an old man, clinging to my legacy media platform here at CT. Maybe you are right. But I truly do miss when there were more blogs.)

In comments, feel free to promote your favorite blog, including your own.

Here’s a thought about the Trudeau incident. (Remember that?) Possibly an obvious thought. Or obviously wrong. (You tell me.)

The first rule of persuasion is: make your audience want to believe. Trump has a talent for that. But I think it’s fair to say that he has often lived his business life by a different maxim: if you owe the bank $100 it’s your problem. If you owe the bank $100 million it’s the bank’s problem. There is a sense in which that works at the persuasion level, as epistemology. In the Trudeau case there are two options as to things you might believe.

1) Justin Trudeau is a weak, nefarious dairy extortionist.

2) 1 is just fucking ridiculous.

If 2 is true, Trump voters ought to be ashamed of themselves. Anyone can make mistakes. But the President of the United States should not be ridiculous.

If you have to choose between being being ashamed of yourself or thinking Justin Trudeau is going to hell for dairy-related reasons, the latter option is far superior on grounds of psychic comfort. (Exception: you yourself are Justin Trudeau.)

But it adds up. I don’t just mean: you get wronger and wronger. It gets harder and harder to doubt the next ridiculous thing – since admitting Trump said or did one thing that was not just wrong but ridiculous would make it highly credible that he has done or said other ridiculous things. But that would raise the likelihood that you, a Trump supporter, have already believed or praised not just mistaken but flat-out ridiculous things, which would be an annoying thing to have to admit. So the comfortable option is to buy it all – the more so, the more ridiculous it threatens to be. [click to continue…]

It’s a little-known fact that John Dewey, the father of Pragmatism, started his career as ‘the midnight philosopher’, a lab assistant for Victor Frankenstein. (He didn’t have the ‘stache yet, you will note. He grew that later, to cover his exit shortly before the mob with the torches and pitchforks showed. But the resemblance is unmistakable.)

Eric Schliesser on Omelas and Ideology

by John Holbo on June 1, 2018


… the representation of Omelas shows how an ideology that is grounded in the truth, in a society in which philosophy and knowledge exist, is possible … Even so, I insist that their self-understanding is a form of ideology. By ‘ideology’ I mean (without pretending to have offered an analysis or to be at all precise) a discourse that (i) justifies a status quo – in which some are subjugated (made miserable, exploited, etc.) – and (ii) which prevents from conceiving alternatives to the status quo. Only (i) is necessary for something to be an ideology, but (ii) is an important function. This (i-ii) is precisely what happens when the children begin to realize that even if the child could be released, it would not get much good of its freedom.” What they say is (let’s stipulate) all true, but it ends up justifying continued misery for the child.

I’m interested because I wrote about this a while back. I’m not sure I like this semi-definition of ‘ideology’. I confess, I’ve really never thought about how ‘ideology’ can be usefully teased apart from error-implying notions like rationalization, bias, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, more neutral, but socially thicker terms like belief-system, value-system. (I am aware a great deal of ink has been spilled over ‘ideology’, over the years, yes. Just not by me.) One of the things that’s disturbing about Omelas is our strong suspicion that, even if the citizens are justified, they would keep on doing it even if they weren’t. Because they are human. But this is cross-cut by the fact that the Omelans do something that humans never would: namely, confront the facts squarely and honestly. Is ideology always psychic self-preservation from inconvenient facts? The Omelans, oddly, have no such mechanisms. Which makes the story surreal, which is satisfying. But perhaps inhumanly unhelpful as political parables go?

Henry Sidgwick and the World Unseen

by John Holbo on May 31, 2018

I’m still pursuing intermittent uncanny researches as a result of which – when I’m not reading about the Scottish Enlightenment! – I’m dabbling in late-19th Century Spiritualism. This is rather new to me. As I confessed in comments to that last post, I had this vague idea that there were probably two Henry Sidgwicks (one, the well-known utilitarian ethicist; the other, the guy who did psychic research.) Turns out he was just a busy guy (unless one of them was, like, a crisis apparition, so there really were two.) So I’m reading books like this one [amazon]: Spectres of the Self, by Shane McCorristine. Here’s a bit that really struck me. His fellow SPR psychic researcher, F. W. H. Myers, wrote this as part of his Sidgwick obituary, in 1900:

In a star-light walk [in 1869] which I shall not forget … I asked him, almost with trembling, whether he thought that when Tradition, Intuition, Metaphysic, had failed to solve the riddle of the Universe, there was still a chance that from any actual observable phenomena, – ghosts, spirits, whatsoever there might be, – some valid knowledge might be drawn as to a World Unseen. Already, it seemed, he had thought that this was possible; steadily though in no sanguine fashion, he indicated some last grounds of hope; and from that night onwards I resolved to pursue this quest, if it might be, at his side. Even thus a wanderer in the desert, abandoning in despair the fair mirages which he has followed in vain, might turn and help an older explorer in the poor search for scanty roots and muddy water-holes.

So he spent the next 30 years looking for that!

I’m quoting this the next time I have to teach those bits in Nietzsche about the English utilitarians! It’s like a side-quest between stage 3 and 4 of the main mission in Twilight of the Idols. You find a ‘true world’ that is attainable – but still not discernably consoling, redeeming or obligating?

1. The true world — attainable for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man; he lives in it, he is it.
(The oldest form of the idea, relatively sensible, simple, and persuasive. A circumlocution for the sentence, “I, Plato, am the truth.”)
2. The true world — unattainable for now, but promised for the sage, the pious, the virtuous man (“for the sinner who repents”).
(Progress of the idea: it becomes more subtle, insidious, incomprehensible — it becomes female, it becomes Christian. )
3. The true world — unattainable, indemonstrable, unpromisable; but the very thought of it — a consolation, an obligation, an imperative.
(At bottom, the old sun, but seen through mist and skepticism. The idea has become elusive, pale, Nordic, Königsbergian.)
4. The true world — unattainable? At any rate, unattained. And being unattained, also unknown. Consequently, not consoling, redeeming, or obligating: how could something unknown obligate us?
(Gray morning. The first yawn of reason. The cockcrow of positivism.)
5. The “true” world — an idea which is no longer good for anything, not even obligating — an idea which has become useless and superfluous — consequently, a refuted idea: let us abolish it!
(Bright day; breakfast; return of bon sens and cheerfulness; Plato’s embarrassed blush; pandemonium of all free spirits.)
6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.
(Noon; moment of the briefest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA.)

In general, I’m having a lot of fun reading about Scottish Enlightenment and late-19th Century Spiritualism. Any book recommendations about the latter in particular? There are a lot of books on the subject and not all of them are good, I’m finding.

Myers, in addition to co-authoring the SPR magnum opus, Phantasms of the Living, was a poet.

The Solution To Slavery Is … More Slavery?

by John Holbo on May 27, 2018

I’m reading about the Scottish Enlightenment. Among other things, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It [amazon] by Arthur Herman. It’s pop history by a right-winger with a perch at the Hudson Institute. It has an (ahem) boosterish quality, per the title. (As one might say: Schopenhauer’s The World As Will and Representation is rather big on will.) But shameless marketing in the title department seems not to have infected the insides to a hopeless degree. I feel I can factor out the neoliberalism in the frame to extract facts. (Anyone say this book is hopeless bullshit? If so, how so?)

After this, James Buchan, then probably back into good ol’ Jonathan Israel.

Right. I’m amused by this joker, Andrew Fletcher. Christ.

Andrew Fletcher cared passionately about freedom, but it was a peculiar kind of freedom. In 1697 he had called for a compulsory universal militia, creating four camps, one in Scotland and three in England, where every young man, on beginning his twenty-second birthday, would receive military training of the most rigorous kind. “No woman should be suffered to come within the camp, and the crimes of abusing their own bodies any manner of way, punished with death.” The next year he proposed solving Scotland’s economic depression by in effect turning the Scottish peasantry into slaves, dividing up the indigent poor among the local landlords (such as himself), and giving the latter the power of life and death over their human herds.

By instinct and temperment, Fletcher was an authoritarian anarchist.

Fletcher is bitterly opposed to union with England, which he argues will turn Scots into slaves, which would be terrible.

Almost his last words were, “Lord have mercy on my poor Country that is so barbarously oppressed.” Ironically enough, he died in the oppressor’s capital, in London — on his way home from Europe, where he spent most of the years after the Union treaty. Someone had asked him when he left Scotland, “Will you forsake your country?” He answered, “It is only fit for the slaves who sold it.” How strange that the laird of Saltoun, who had once been prepared to turn a large portion of his fellow countrymen into slaves, should use that word to describe the Scots who had repudiated his retrograde vision for the kingdom. How strange, too, that a man who claimed to despise trade and traders should choose to spend so much of his life in large, cosmopolitan cities — London, Paris, Amsterdam — that were built by mercantile wealth. It was precisely that wealth which he had hoped to deny Scotland, for the sake of an abstract and austere ideal of liberty. It was that wealth which Scotland’s urban centers now enjoyed by being part of Britain, and which promised to create a new and very different Scotland.

I get it that maybe Arthur Herman has an axe to grind on Fletcher, about whom I knew not a thing before reading this. And now I know just this, plus Wikipedia.

But I do like a good, explicit ‘in order to free them, we must enslave them’ argument. Anyone want to come out of the woodwork and defend Andrew Fletcher as not the utter tool Herman makes him out to be. Quoting Wikipedia, Thomas Jefferson said: “The political principles of that patriot [Fletcher] were worthy of the purest periods of the British constitution. They are those which were in vigour at the epoch of the American emigration. Our ancestors brought them here, and they needed little strengthening to make us what we are.”

Alisdair Macintyre evidently said: “Almost alone among his contemporaries Fletcher understood the dilemma confronting Scotland as involving more radical alternatives than they were prepared to entertain.”

Oh, plain people of the internet, what should I think of Andrew Fletcher? (And Arthur Herman’s Scotland book.)

Frederik Pohl On The Ideas In Science Fiction

by John Holbo on May 23, 2018

A whole page of videos, mostly consisting of old interviews with science fiction authors. I just watched Fred Pohl on “The Ideas In Science Fiction”. I guess I’ll check out the Michael Moorcock one next. (Only on Facebook, it seems, so I guess you have to deal with that if you want to watch.)

I’ve also been reading old 70’s comics. For the dialogue.

Also, this. How can they NOT have called their paper “We Can Remember It For You Whole Snail”? Standards, people.

Peter Beinart Makes Good Points

by John Holbo on May 13, 2018

This is good, from Peter Beinart.

This is malpractice. It’s malpractice because whether the Trump administration has given “serious thought” to “what comes next,” and whether its post–Iran deal strategy “can be successfully implemented” are questions Stephens, Dubowitz, and Gerecht have an obligation to factor into their analysis of whether Trump should withdraw at all. You can’t cordon off the practical consequences of leaving the deal from the theoretical virtue of doing so. In theory, I’d like my 10-year-old to cook our family a four-course meal. But unless I have good reason to believe she’s “capable of pulling this off,” it’s irresponsible for me to scrap our current dinner plans.

The point he made the other day – namely, if it’s the same damn people who lied last time, and they seem to be telling you the same damn thing, maybe it’s a lie – is also inductively reasonable. And draws down some doubt on the alleged theoretical virtue.

But the first point seems to me important, going forward. There are a lot of Joker-by-proxy Hawks out there. Some men wouldn’t dream of burning the world down. But they seem happy to watch someone else do it, so long as they don’t get the blame. That sort of thing should be called out.


by John Holbo on May 13, 2018

Lots of folks shaking heads at this Dark Web Intellectuals business. Henry makes the obvious red pill connection. Think about it. You get to wake up and believe whatever you want. So everyone is going to want to believe they took the red pill. The blue pill, man. It’s the One.

Damn kids, get off my how far down the rabbit hole goes. (I’m looking at you, Jordan Peterson.)

Own Troll

by John Holbo on April 29, 2018

Robin Hanson is catching it for this post. There is something so … elegant about such developments.

It was supposed to be a simple troll. If you think goods redistribution is a good idea (inequality = bad), you must be in favor of a bit of the old forced sexual redistribution. (Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.) Also: it’s gotta be just envy. “Their purpose seems to be to induce envy, to induce political action to increase redistribution.” “Two Kinds of Envy”. That’s the title. (This envy bit is going to be key. See below.)

Forced redistribution of sex out of envy sounds pretty rape-y, as you may notice. Of course it’s a bad argument. It’s easy to explain how and why one might favor redistribution but not rape. But in politics, if you’re explaining you’re losing. Having to argue for a ‘no rape included’ on your social welfare proposal kind of puts you on the rhetorical back-foot. I’m sure that was Hanson’s plan.

But then it backfired.

Even though Hanson is not himself proposing forced sexual redistribution – he’s merely making a bad argument that leftists should – folks on Twitter are reading him, straight up, as advocating ‘sexual redistribution’, which they take to be something rape-y. (Since he kind of went out of his way to make it sound rape-y.)

Hanson tries a leftier-than-thou head-fake. “A tweet on this post induced a lot of discussion on twitter, much of which accuses me of advocating enslaving and raping women. Apparently many people can’t imagine any other way to reduce or moderate sex inequality.”

Oh, why aren’t people more imaginative about creative social welfare solutions to inequality problems!

This seems like a great point for Hanson to double-down! Take critics to task! He could school ‘em by introducing these fools to the ideas of, oh say, Charles Fourier, who proposed a ‘sexual minimum’. (Oh, the shame. To be lectured by a George Mason economist about the woke wisdom of Charles Fourier!) Hell, Hanson could read ‘em Dan Savage’s excellent column. Proposing ‘redistribution of sex’ doesn’t have to mean rape! It doesn’t have to mean trying to pay some sex workers enough to be heroic first responders to potentially deadly levels of masculine resentment and anger. Suppose – just suppose! – we tackled the very real (!) problem of sexual inequality and suffering by 1) trying to detoxify the culture in various ways; 2) valuing and respecting sex work, and sex workers. (What Savage said, but maybe the government kicks in with support.)

Tragically, it’s at this point – when by rights the troll ought to roll! – that Hanson is hobbled, unfairly, by his own ‘envy’ premise (which he pretty clearly only intended to trip other people, unfairly, not himself.)

He’s assuming this social justice thing is basically envy on the verge of eruption into outright violence. He says any push for this sort of thing “strengthens an implicit threat of violence.” If, by hypothesis, the sexually deprived won’t be motivated by a desire for equality and respect, they just want to tear down those they resent for being above them, then, yes, ‘sexual redistribution’ can only mean asking a bunch of women to volunteer for a beat-down (so others won’t be outright killed by violent men.)

Hanson assumes it in his first paragraph. Why shouldn’t others assume he assumes it?

I think the larger moral of the story is that Hanson needs to face up to the elephant in the room. The tricky problem of non-hidden motivations in everyday life. Maybe he should give them a look.

At this point Belle says to me: hey, you know what this Hanson guy wrote way back? This!

And I’m like: ah, crap. I’m making this too complicated. (There I was, just trying to troll a guy about how it’s his own damn fault that he’s getting trolled for being in favor of rape, because he was just trying to troll leftists for how they should be in favor of rape. And it turns out? This? This? People are messed up, man.)

The Impossible World Called America!

by John Holbo on April 25, 2018

Sorry for lack of posts. More uncanny researches to follow. Here are some old comics covers. I think you are rather easy to please, apparently. I’ve gotten rather fascinated by an old DC series with the excellent title, “From Beyond The Unknown”, which is enough to strike even as undisciplined a mind as – oh, say Zizek’s – as a bit undisciplined, as para-Rumsfeldianisms go. (You’ve got your unknown beyond the unknowns, your known beyond the unknowns, but also presumably you want to introduce a beyond-the-beyond-ness axis. I leave construction of a box, exhausting the range of impossibility spaces, as an exercise for the interested reader.)

As I was saying, just some of the best. covers. ever. But the stories were all retreads of 1950’s comics, hence the need to update the material in one case. [click to continue…]

Spiritualism and Uncanny Fiction

by John Holbo on April 16, 2018

Pursuant of to my uncanny researches I’ve been thinking about ‘supernatural’ and how the term has wandered over time. I got to thinking, as well, about the growth of ‘spiritualism’ in the 19th Century – theosophy, all that stuff – and how that fed into fiction. What with one thing and another, I found myself reading The Supernatural In Modern English Fiction (1917), by Dorothy Scarborough [Project Gutenberg link]. It’s interesting to see through the eyes of an author who has done her best to read it all up to the early 20th Century, for the sake of offering a broad, general survey. She knows Blackwood and Machen. She doesn’t mention Hodgson or M.R. James. (I realize I don’t know how widely either of those now-classic authors was known by, say, 1915.) Here is one passage in which Scarborough scribbles out, off-handedly, a lot of things to come.

The investigations in modern Spiritualism have done much to affect ghostly literature. The terrors of the later apparitions are not physical, but psychical, and probably the stories of the future will be more and more allied to Spiritualism. Hamlin Garland, John Corbin, William Dean Howells, Algernon Blackwood, Arnold Bennett, and others have written novels and stories of this material, though scarcely the fringe of the garment of possibilities has yet been touched.

If one but grant the hypothesis of Spiritualism, what vistas open up for the novelist! What thrilling complications might come from the skillful manipulation of astrals alone,— as aids in establishing alibis, for instance! Even the limitations that at present bind ghost stories would be abolished and the effects of the dramatic employment of spiritualistic faith would be highly sensational. If the will be all powerful, then not only tables but mountains may be moved. The laws of physics would be as nothing in the presence of such powers. A lovelorn youth bent on attaining the object of his desires could, by merely willing it so, sink ocean liners, demolish skyscrapers, call up tempests, and rival German secret agents in his havoc. Intensely dramatic psychological material might be produced by the conflict resulting from the double or multiple personalities in one’s own nature, according to spiritualistic ideas. There might be complicated crossings in love, wherein one would be jealous of his alter ego, and conflicting ambitions of exciting character. The struggle necessary for the model story might be intensely dramatic though altogether internal, between one’s own selves. One finds himself so much more interesting in the light of such research than one has ever dreamed. The distinctions between materializations and astralizations, etherealizations and plain apparitions might furnish good plot structure. The personality of the “sensitives” alone would be fascinating material and the cosmic clashes of will possible under these conceived conditions suggest thrilling stories.

Titanic psychic battles! Astrally-projecting criminals, detectives and secret agents oh my! Mike Mignola, call your agent! This passage is the earliest occurrence I know of some ideas for really gonzo comic book and occult action plotlines. (Obviously you’ve still got to actually write them for it really to count!) [click to continue…]

The History of the Uncanny Valley?

by John Holbo on April 9, 2018

I’m tracking the history of the cross-disciplinary uptake and general popularization of the concept of the uncanny valley. The term was coined in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, in a paper entitled “The Uncanny Valley”, that did not get attention at the time. Its first English occurrence is in 1978, in Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction [amazon], by Jasia Reichardt. I don’t have a copy. Reichardt, apparently, coins the translation of the Japanese title, giving us our name for the concept. Wikipedia suggests Reichardt hit on it without awareness of the Jentsch-Freud precedent. But here’s a (2009) paper that speculates that Reichardt might have intended to make the link. It seems a bit … serendipitous that a Polish-English art critic, with an interest in cybernetics, would know to pluck an utterly obscure Japanese-language paper out of oblivion. So presumably the paper got independent traction in robotics circles between 1970 and 1978, bringing it to Reichardt’s attention? Or maybe Reichardt indeed knows Japanese and very perceptively saved it from obscurity? If so, does the paper’s currency in Japan result from it first having traveled abroad, in 1978? Is Reichardt the reason this paper didn’t disappear? I would be curious to know.

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Happy Easter!

by John Holbo on April 1, 2018

I have continuing my annual tradition of Kirby-themed eggs. I’ve been reading “Tales of Suspense” and have taken monstrous inspiration. A father-son egg set. As my younger daughter observed: needs tiny diapers.

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