Thursday, 25 August 2011

Mountains of the Mind

Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind is a history of how we understand, see, and live with mountains. It's both high-quality public communication of scholarship, of a kind I'd like to emulate, and an engaging personal memoir of the attractions and pains of mountaineering.

My interest here is what it suggests about the perception of value. Mountains of the Mind shows, by well-chosen anecdote and readings of travel-writing, that several values we might now take to be central to human flourishing - discovery, originality, the experience of wild beauty - have short, local histories. Quite recently, mountains were experienced as ugly wastes, not as provocations to Romantic emotion or heroic effort. How should we react to this revelation of contingency in our ways of valuing mountains, and in our forms of valuing generally? Here are four possibilities:

1) Profanation The discovery that others valued differently in the past, and that our own values have a history, throws all value into doubt. My perceptions of value are just what my history has made me perceive, not access to anything real.

Response: of course our value-judgements don't meet the impossible standard of being without history, but that doesn't show that they aren't true. One of the shifts in understanding Macfarlane maps is the discovery of deep time: the world is ancient, and mountains, far from being permanent, are brief by comparison to it. They're thrown up and worn down by vast geological processes operating over millions of years. But that mountains are temporary doesn't show that they aren't real.

2) Fluidity Human flourishing, and our experiences of value, are infinitely, culturally variable.

Response: we don't have evidence for infinite variability, only for difference within a range, and a pretty narrow range at that. Our shared nature as talkative, tool-using, child-rearing East African plains apes with a very recent common ancestor suggests that our possibilities have limits. The interesting problem is to map the range of difference and the loci of similarity.

3) Multiple expressions There are many ways to enact core human activities and passions, and different cultures have accessed and expressed that core differently. Mountaineering is our way of approaching what others approached through bullfighting or spiritual exercises: triumph, the numinous, addictive terror.

Response: this could be true, but it needn't be. There are some new things under the sun: contour maps aren't just an alternative way of describing mountains, they're a better way. Some forms of expression may be deeper and clearer than others.

4) Discovery Rousseau, Coleridge, and other central figures in the history of understanding mountains uncovered something latent in human nature. What we now recognise in wild beauty wakes something in us which, before them, was much harder to bring to fruition. These pioneers may also have discovered new forms of corruption: Macfarlane is very clear on the addict's selfishness of the mountaineer.

Response: but how are we to tell that some new experience of value is a discovery, rather than just another  one of the nine and sixty ways of constructing tribal lays, and every single one of them is right? I don't know. Much of my thinking at the moment - including this post - is about that question.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Commenting elsewhere: eating fish

Erik Loomis, in passing in a post about the destruction caused by tuna fishing:

how did fish become not meat? Whether Catholics or quasi-vegetarians who occasionally eat fish, how did we make a distinction between the dead flesh of a land animal versus the dead flesh of an ocean animal? It makes absolutely no sense.

It makes sense if, like me, your problem with eating meat is complicity with the suffering and premature death of creatures who understand themselves as selves over time, make plans, recognise other individuals, and love their children. ‘Fish’ is too broad a category to make judgements here, but I think it very unlikely that tuna have those capacities, and very likely that pigs do. So I’m OK with eating tuna but not pigs.
That doesn’t answer your main point about the destructive impact of fishing technology, which has given me pause. But the distinction between fish on one hand and cows, pigs, etc. on the other does make sense.


It occurs to me that my last post's final dismissal of 'the usual bullshit about responsibility' could be misinterpreted. I don't mean to say that the idea of responsibility is bullshit, I mean to say that the use of responsibility-talk by politicians is usually, and in this case, bullshit. Genuine assignment of responsibility - properly holding someone to account for something - requires serious work uncovering: (1) causation - who and which actions caused what?; what were the roots of those actions? (2) the actual choice-sets available to the actors - what could they do, given their range of options and their resources and capacities? & (3) the moral psychology of action - how do people come to act in particular situations? how are their passions, scripts, and reasoning powers engaged or bypassed? Politicians do not typically do this work, so their invocations of responsibility aren't even trying to track the truth. They are therefore, in the technical Frankfurtian* sense, bullshitting.

* Harry G. Frankfurt, 'On Bullshit' in The Importance of What We Care About (Cambridge University Press 1998).

"Tomorrow You're Homeless, Tonight It's a Blast"

Impressive quantities of drivel is being talked about the recent riots. Here's some non-drivel:

For myself, the only conclusion I've come to is that simple-minded 'they're all criminals' explanations won't do. 'The rioters' are not a homogenous group, and the reasons why one person gets involved - smashes a shop window, grabs a pair of trainers from a window already smashed, throws rocks at the police, gets in a fight, watches a fire without trying to put it out, starts a fire - may be quite different from the reasons another does. Some have grievances - against the police, against particular austerities, against the political and social conditions of their lives; some have just had it up to here, and grabbed an opportunity to express their anger; some are more-or-less opportunistic thieves; some see other people getting everything they've been taught to value while they have nothing, and think it's only fair to rebalance things; some are bored kids excited by destruction and communal action; some just got caught up in a crowd.

My main worry is a turn towards authoritarianism: the current government will sell what any big constituency wants to buy, and just now it looks like that's revenge and security theatre. So, more money and powers for the police; collective punishment for the families of people accused (not even convicted) of rioting; the usual bullshit about responsibility.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Top 100 SF

NPR's top 100 SF & fantasy books is as contestable as any such list, of course. Ones I've read are bolded.

1. The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien
2. The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
3. Ender’s Game, by Orson Scott Card
4. The Dune Chronicles, by Frank Herbert (the first two, anyway)

5. A Song Of Ice And Fire Series, by George R. R. Martin
6. 1984, by George Orwell

7. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
8. The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov
9. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
10. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman

11. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
12. The Wheel Of Time Series, by Robert Jordan
13. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
14. Neuromancer, by William Gibson

15. Watchmen, by Alan Moore
16. I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov

17. Stranger In A Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein (I've started this, but couldn't stand it, and I'm a Heinlein fan)
18. The Kingkiller Chronicles, by Patrick Rothfuss
19. Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
20. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
21. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
23. The Dark Tower Series, by Stephen King (lost interest somewhere in the middle)
24. 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Arthur C. Clarke
25. The Stand, by Stephen King
26. Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

27. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
28. Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut
29. The Sandman Series, by Neil Gaiman
30. A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess
31. Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein (not even slightly like the film)
32. Watership Down, by Richard Adams

33. Dragonflight, by Anne McCaffrey
34. The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, by Robert Heinlein
35. A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller
36. The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

37. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, by Jules Verne
38. Flowers For Algernon, by Daniel Keys
39. The War Of The Worlds, by H.G. Wells
40. The Chronicles Of Amber, by Roger Zelazny
41. The Belgariad, by David Eddings (I think; can't remember anything about them, though)

42. The Mists Of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley
43. The Mistborn Series, by Brandon Sanderson
44. Ringworld, by Larry Niven
45. The Left Hand Of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

46. The Silmarillion, by J.R.R. Tolkien
47. The Once And Future King, by T.H. White
48. Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
49. Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
50. Contact, by Carl Sagan
51. The Hyperion Cantos, by Dan Simmons
52. Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
53. Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
54. World War Z, by Max Brooks
55. The Last Unicorn, by Peter S. Beagle
56. The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
57. Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett
58. The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever, by Stephen R. Donaldson
59. The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
60. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett
61. The Mote In God’s Eye, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
62. The Sword Of Truth, by Terry Goodkind
63. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
64. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
65. I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson
66. The Riftwar Saga, by Raymond E. Feist

67. The Shannara Trilogy, by Terry Brooks
68. The Conan The Barbarian Series, by R.E. Howard
69. The Farseer Trilogy, by Robin Hobb
70. The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
71. The Way Of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson
72. A Journey To The Center Of The Earth, by Jules Verne
73. The Legend Of Drizzt Series, by R.A. Salvatore
74. Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
75. The Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson
76. Rendezvous With Rama, by Arthur C. Clarke

77. The Kushiel’s Legacy Series, by Jacqueline Carey
78. The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
79. Something Wicked This Way Comes, by Ray Bradbury
80. Wicked, by Gregory Maguire
81. The Malazan Book Of The Fallen Series, by Steven Erikson
82. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
83. The Culture Series, by Iain M. Banks
84. The Crystal Cave, by Mary Stewart
85. Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
86. The Codex Alera Series, by Jim Butcher
87. The Book Of The New Sun, by Gene Wolfe
88. The Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn
89. The Outlander Series, by Diana Gabaldan
90. The Elric Saga, by Michael Moorcock
91. The Illustrated Man, by Ray Bradbury
92. Sunshine, by Robin McKinley
93. A Fire Upon The Deep, by Vernor Vinge
94. The Caves Of Steel, by Isaac Asimov
95. The Mars Trilogy, by Kim Stanley Robinson
96. Lucifer’s Hammer, by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle
97. Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis
98. Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville
99. The Xanth Series, by Piers Anthony
100. The Space Trilogy, by C.S. Lewis

(Hat tip: Siris)

Friday, 5 August 2011

John Stuart Mill, Autobiography

I spent much of this week rereading Mill's Autobiography, which I haven't read all the way through in one gulp for a while. Here's my current take:

Autobiography is, first, a theory of individual development towards flourishing (aka well-being, happiness, success), using Mill's own life exemplar and warning; second, it's Mill's attempt to understand and account for himself on his own psychological and ethical principles. As a theory of development, it contains an ethology (an associationist account of the development of character out of circumstance) and an ideal of successful virtue and sensibility (Mill's wife Harriet, doing the rhetorical work for Mill that Cleanthes does for Hume in section 9 of Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals). Its central ideas are, first, progress (and it hints at parallels between individual and social development - Mill presents his intellectual life as gradual progress punctuated by revolution, for example); second, experiment and empiricism against intuition and the status quo.

As usually happens when I read Mill, I now want to drop what I was doing and read more. I have never read Principles of Political Economy, for example, and I could stand to reread Subjection of Women and Logic of the Moral Sciences.