From the category archives:

Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic

After a couple days to think on it, I think this post is right on. I just stumbled on a paper that stumbles, badly, over one of my two obvious thoughts about originalism. So let me point that out. [click to continue…]

Originalism For Realists: Two Obvious Thoughts

by John Holbo on May 12, 2024

Looks like I haven’t posted for a couple years. Probably time to fix that!

This one kicks off from a tweet I fired off, off-handedly, that led somewhere useful. “If you were wanting a paradigm case-in-point to illustrate the plausibility of legal realism, the history of legal originalism would be hard to improve on.” [click to continue…]

Henry’s post on the correct way to argue with Hanania was good. In light of late revelations (probably you’ve heard), revisitation, for extra emphasis, may not be taken amiss. (Or skip it, if it looks like a dead horse.) [click to continue…]

Trolley Problems and AI

by John Holbo on July 15, 2023

More AI madness! Couple of months ago there was a weird Daily Beast piece. It’s bad, but in a goofy way, causing me to say at the time ‘not today, Hal!’

But now I’m collecting op-ed-ish short writings about AI for use as models of good and bad and just plain weird writing and thinking, to teach undergrads how hard it is to write and think, so they can do better. And this one stands out as distinctively bad-weird. First the headline is goofy: “ChatGPT May Be Able to Convince You Killing a Person Is OK.” Think about that. But it’s unfair to blame the author, maybe. But read the rest. Go ahead. I’ll wait. What do you think? It’s funny that the author just assumes you should NEVER let yourself be influenced by output from Chat-GPT. Like: if Chat-GPT told you to not jump off a bridge, would you jump off a bridge? There is this failure to allow as we can, like, check claims as to whether they make sense? A bit mysterious how we do this yet we do. And ethics is a super common area in which to do this thing: so it only makes sense that you could get Chat-GPT to generate ethical claims and then people could read them and, if they make sense, you can believe them due to that. Never mind that the thing generating the prospective sensible claims is just a statistics-based mindless shoggoth.

If a shoggoth is talking trolley sense about OK killing, believe it!

Anyway, I thought it was funny. [click to continue…]

Let me try to focus my thoughts from the previous post.

Do is as do does.

Agent-like entities are equivalent to real agents. If GPT-4 can trick people into thinking it’s a trickster, it’s a trickster. If you can mimic a chess master, you’re a chess master. It’s fun to wonder whether there will be anything it’s ‘like’ to be superintelligent AI, ending us, if it does, but that’s by the by.

Is this right? [click to continue…]

To celebrate my new-found determination to do the right thing and blog I’m going to blog.

Specifically, I’m going to blog about something I’m dumb about and don’t understand – because that should be possible, among friends. We’re all friends here on the internet? That’s kind of the point.

This semester I am going to talk to students about all this new-fangled AI – LLM’s. And I don’t understand it. It’s somewhat consoling that everyone who understands it doesn’t understand it either. That is, they may know HOW to work it (which I sure don’t) but they don’t understand WHY what works works. They don’t really grok HOW what works works, or why what works works as well as it does – oddly well and badly by obscure turns. That’s kind of creepy and scifi. [click to continue…]

Russell Jacoby Against the Buzzwords

by John Holbo on December 26, 2022

Russell Jacoby has a piece out in “Tablet” that got approvingly retweeted by Richard Dawkins, then by Elon Musk. So maybe it’s worth giving it a read. (This post lightly edits my tweet response.)

I’m sympathetic to Jacoby’s old line: a lot of ‘theory’ silliness got spread about in the humanities in the 80’s-90’s. There were perverse incentives – professional rewards – for doing ‘philosophy’ badly in various ways. This was not good. I’m happy to badmouth bad stuff. But honestly, as Jacoby himself used to acknowledge, it wasn’t threat-to-the-republic-grade. Anyone who pretends ‘ivory tower-types being eccentric’ = ‘barbarians at the gates of western civ’ is one more funny, bug-in-his-ear character in some David Lodge novel. [click to continue…]

The following is a lightly blog-ized version of a Twitter thread. I fear Twitter is going downhill so I really should transition back to blogging. Back to the land!

Start with a Chris Hayes tweet: “he’s a right-wing billionaire who was motivated to buy twitter because he thought it was antagonistic to right-wingers and wants, instead, to make it friendly to them. that’s it. that’s the whole story.”

And I respond. [click to continue…]

“Ye higher men, free the sepulchres, awaken the corpses! Ah, why doth the worm still burrow? There approacheth, there approacheth, the hour, — — There boometh the clock-bell, there thrilleth still the heart, there burroweth still the wood-worm, the heart-worm. Ah! Ah! THE WORLD IS DEEP!”

– F. Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

So I ran another of those Twitterpoll thingies and it was decisive. Seven people voted, including one rubbernecker who likes to watch. And so the people have spoken! So I’m back to explaining jokes, like before. (Racking numbers like those, I should start a Nietzsche joke explanation Substack. Which is to say: webcomics is hard, kids. Like the King said, ‘comics will break your heart.’)

The questions was basically: what’s up with pages like this? [click to continue…]

Hollow Nuts

by John Holbo on March 18, 2021

Now that I’m back, I should stick around. My discovery that Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra started as ‘a Seuss book’ is pretty neat, I admit. But, it turns out, the surprises run in the other direction as well. A lot of famous comics started out as attempts to adapt Nietzsche’s great work into English – to popularize German metaphysics. These original Charles Schulz ‘woodcut comics’, for example. (Very rare. I’m working on ‘discovering’ a few more.) You can see a lot of Schulz’ later work already here, in seed form. (There was no money in it, and he said he got sick of carving the pearwood blocks to make the prints.)

Radically Transformative Virtue Ethics

by John Holbo on January 23, 2019

I have an idea that there is sort of a hole in the ethics literature. I could be wrong! So tell me where I’m wrong.

The idea is this: transhumanism is virtue ethics. But no one seems to call it that. “Man remaining man, but transcending himself.” That’s Huxley, introducing transhumanism, and it specifies a delicate virtue balance to be maintained, if I make no mistake. Yet ‘virtue ethics’ is associated with conservative opposition to this sort of radical change option. (Here is Steve Fuller saying so. Not that him saying so proves it is so. But he says exactly what I expect lots of people to say, and it was the first Google hit.)

It’s like there’s this open question: what sort of people should there be? [Amazon – damn, Glover used to offer it free from his personal site, but it appears to have evaporated.] And ‘virtue ethics’ names only views that answer conservatively. Virtue ethics says: the sort we’ve already got. A subset of that.

Why not also call it ‘virtue ethics’ if the answer is: some new sort we haven’t got yet?

It isn’t mysterious that virtue ethics is associated with conservative attitudes towards virtue, given its connection with natural law thinking and grumpy old After Virtue and a bunch of other stuff. But that ought to be regarded as a contingent link.

Glover has an epigraph from Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men: [click to continue…]

Air Is Real

by John Holbo on October 20, 2018

This image (I snagged it from an FB group) is evidently from this book [Amazon]. Science For Work And Play (1954).

I think someone should write Philosophy For Work and Play. “Error is real.” We could keep the picture the same.

Zizek Says Something Smart

by John Holbo on September 27, 2018

Once in a while it’s good for the soul to acknowledge that someone you regard as stupid said something smart. Here’s Slavoj Žižek on the wisdom – that is, stupidity – of proverbs: [click to continue…]


by John Holbo on September 8, 2018

As Sparknotes writes,

Endgame‘s opening lines repeat the word “finished,” and the rest of the play hammers away at the idea that beginnings and endings are intertwined, that existence is cyclical. Whether it is the story about the tailor, which juxtaposes its conceit of creation with never-ending delays, Hamm and Clov’s killing the flea from which humanity may be reborn, or the numerous references to Christ, whose death gave birth to a new religion, death-related endings in the play are one and the same with beginnings.

I cannot help but think of this passage as I read Jonah Goldberg’s erudite musings in the pages of National Review.

In the classic absurdist dramas of the 1950s and 1960s, explains, European playwrights “did away with most of the logical structures of traditional theatre. There is little dramatic action as conventionally understood; however frantically the characters perform, their busyness serves to underscore the fact that nothing happens to change their existence.”

That’s a pretty good description of the sound and fury signifying nothing on display this week from Democrats and protesters alike.

In this blog post I would like to argue that, as in the classic absurdist dramas of the 1950’s and 1960’s, in Goldberg’s essay, “Theater of the Absurd Has Taken Over The Senate,” what we see is a conservative intellectual tradition that is ‘finished’, and yet at the same time intertwined with its own beginnings. The life of the conservative mind is cyclical, juxtaposing attempts to kill the stubborn flea of liberalism with lofty dreams of the rebirth – ever-promised, never fulfilled – of the conservative mind.

To put it another way, as Shmoop writes:

Waiting for Godot is hailed as a classic example of “Theater of the Absurd,” dramatic works that promote the philosophy of its name. This particular play presents a world in which daily actions are without meaning, language fails to effectively communicate, and the characters at times reflect a sense of artifice, even wondering aloud whether perhaps they are on a stage.

In conclusion I would like to argue that, just as the ‘theater of the absurd’ is about dramatic works that promote the philosophy of its name, so ‘conservatism’ is about works that promote the philosophy of its name: namely, conservatism. And, just as this particular play presents a world in which language fails to effectively communicate, so Goldberg’s essay fails, effectively, to communicate. It seems like “a walking shadow, a poor player/That struts and frets [its] hour upon the” front page of National Review, then is heard of no more.

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…]