Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hubert Harrison's 130th birthday

I can't believe that, with the exception of a passing mention, I haven't blogged about the great autodidact, freethinker, radical, polymath Hubert Harrison (April 27, 1883 - December 17, 1927), the 'father of Harlem radicalism'.

Many years ago, in 1993 I believe, I was introduced to the Harrison scholar Jeff Perry by my late friend and colleague Jim Murray. I had long been interested in Harrison as a neglected figure but important to me because of his atheism and autodidacticism. As librarian/archivist of the C.L.R. James Institute, I created a web presence for Harrison and Jeff's work:

The Hubert Harrison Center

We hosted Jeff and Harrison's granddaughter for a book talk when A Hubert Harrison Reader appeared:

The C.L.R. James Institute Presents: Researching Hubert Harrison: An Evening with Jeff Perry

Since then, Jeff has developed his own web site: Jeffrey B. Perry. The first volume of his Harrison autobiography has been published:

Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918

Recently, Jeff gave a talk in Washington, DC on Harrison and Theodore W. Allen's On "The Invention of the 'White' Race". It was a masterful presentation and not dumbed down as the general culture has become. It is important to know that Allen was a serious autodidactic scholar whose research into the origins of racial slavery is different from the silly stuff that goes under the rubric of "Whiteness Studies" today, and the notion of "white skin privilege" as a means of ruling class social control could not be more different from today's self-serving cant about "white male privilege."

But today let us toast to the 130th birthday of Hubert Harrison. Here's to the resurrection of historical memory!

See also, on my web site:

Black / African-American / African Atheism

African American / Black autodidacticism, intellectual life, education: bibliography

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Confucian 'humanism' revisited

Revisiting this post on the The New Humanism Blog:

Confucian Humanism

This is an unintentional reminder of the corruption and exploitation that is the "People's Republic" of China. Note my comment, posted on June 16, 2010:
The resurgence of Confucianism as a cynical ideological deflection of corruption and social inequality is nauseating in itself, but it also raises the question of the vague deployment of the term “humanism”. Confucius has often been mislabeled a humanist because this philosophy is this-worldly, rather than other-worldly, but in this one instance the Maoists were right. Confucianism and secular humanism are completely incompatible. “Humanism”, while anathema to the Christian right, sounds warm and cuddly to others, hence the promulgation of obscurantist humanisms among intellectuals from various cultures, e.g. “African humanism”, also a spurious ideological construct.
Note also the follow-up comment by Jim Farmelant.

Monday, April 15, 2013

John Horgan on scientific materialism / scientific debate on "nothing"

Is Scientific Materialism “Almost Certainly False”? By John Horgan. Scientific American blogs: Cross-Check; January 30, 2013.

I have decidedly contrary feelings about this article. Towards the beginning, Horgan states:
. . . science’s limits have never been more glaringly apparent. In their desperation for a “theory of everything”—which unifies quantum mechanics and relativity and explains the origin and structure of our cosmos—physicists have embraced pseudo-scientific speculation such as multi-universe theories and the anthropic principle (which says that the universe must be as we observe it to be because otherwise we wouldn’t be here to observe it). Fields such as neuroscience, evolutionary psychology and behavioral genetics and complexity have fallen far short of their hype.
I begin sympathetically. Horgan then cites Thomas Nagel's objections to evolutionary theory (the origin of life itself) and evolutionary psychology, which Horgan shares. Horgan becomes rather confused in his assertions and arguments, thus vitiating his thesis. He should have been more specific in targeting the ideological dimension of science popularization. His discrediting of "scientific materialism" tout court as if it equates with positivism and reductionism discredits his argument.

Horgan concludes:
These qualms asides, I recommend Nagel’s book, which serves as a much-needed counterweight to the smug, know-it-all stance of many modern scientists. Hawking and Krauss both claim that science has rendered philosophy obsolete. Actually, now more than ever we need philosophers, especially skeptics like Socrates, Descartes, Thomas Kuhn and Nagel, who seek to prevent us from becoming trapped in the cave of our beliefs.
Horgan is on the right track regarding the philosophical popularizing of Hawking and Krauss, but otherwise he messes up.

I am now reminded that I need to finish and publish my essay "Can science render philosophy obsolete?". Here is a passage:
Only in the case where our intuitions are completely defeated by scientific knowledge, as in the case of quantum mechanics, could scientific knowledge be viewed as uninterpreted mathematically organized experimentally organized data sets. And yet the notorious history of popularization and mystical appropriations of physics over the past century reveal that no one in practice appropriates physics—the alleged master science—purely as uninterpreted mathematically organized data sets, though that is one ideology of science among others. And in the apprenticeship of physics, students surely create or appropriate some intuitions that allow their models to be graspable, however elusive they may be or inexpressible in ordinary language.
My larger argument is that philosophy has not been rendered obsolete, and such an assertion betrays the naivete of even the greatest of scientists who blithely promulgate such ideological piffle. Horgan, unfortunately, wastes his opportunity to make a meaningful correction. Readers' comments are also uninspiring.

A revealing case study of the issue can be found in a forum moderated by Neil de Grasse Tyson:

2013 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate: The Existence of Nothing (March 20, 2013)

Here is the YouTube video itself:

Here is some of my running commentary in real time:
Physical, not philosophical question? Understand something, then absence . . . Let's see what develops. Space & time --> create universes? Problem with words indeed. (Krauss)

Objection: vacuum isn't nothing. Krauss perturbed. How, not why? Our universe didn't exist -- gravity with zero energy. Even laws don't have to exist. Multiverse: laws of universe come into existence with universe. Some universes without quantum mechanics? Eve Silverstein: space-time is emergent . . . . dimensions.

8:35 pm: argument over philosophical issues: in history of physics, e.g. Mach on reality of atoms; Einstein vs quantum mechanics . . . . Jim Holt isn't buying the pro-nothing position. Krauss has an interesting spiel, but I'm with Holt so far.

Holt: nothing is not a fruitful philosophical notion.

8:52pm: J. Richard Gott: nothing not even there. Tyson: after death, like before birth: your consciousness does not exist.

8:54pm: Krauss: universe came from nothing. Empty space, no time, no laws: everything came from nothing. Photons come from nothing. (Tyson: wrong.) Universe like zero energy photon. Our universe came from nothing. What if all possible laws exist? ME: incoherent.

8:57pm: Eve Silverstein: nothing ground state of ---- quantum system.

9:00pm: Tyson: nothing behind head of universes .....?? evolution of what's there not there with advance of scientific knowledge. Empty space . . . . now space not empty either . . . . now thinking outside our universe . . . . nothing? "Nothing" elusive . . . . just an illusion? There's always something behind it, even laws . . . . maybe no resolution. Nothing just null set in the final analysis?

9:01pm: Q-A begins.

9:03 pm: Charles Seife: infinity and nothing interdependent concepts.

9:07 pm: Eva: Experimental evidence of nothing? There's evidence of inflationary theory.

9:22 pm Krauss: Why always means how. ME: This I agree with.
Jim Holt and Lawrence Krauss are in vigorous opposition. Holt finds Krauss's assertions about nothing incoherent, as do I. Note for example the oddity of asserting that the laws of physics exist prior to any actual universe: this sounds like Platonism. My fragmentary commentary above doesn't really cover what's going on here; you will have to watch the video. But note how difficult it is to translate physico-mathematical theories into ordinary language. Tyson himself grapples with this difficulty in querying Krauss. He is not vociferous as Holt is, but he seems to find the same difficulties as we laypersons do in making sense of the concept of "nothing" as applied to cosmology. I conclude that those who trumpet that philosophy is obsolete ought instead to refrain from popularization altogether, especially when combined with (anti-)philosophical propaganda.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Science, Scientism, & Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism

Science, Scientism, and Anti-Science in the Age of Preposterism
by Susan Haack,
Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 21.6, November / December 1997.

I once attended a lecture by Susan Haack on logic, in 1980. I subsequently read her book Philosophy of Logics (Cambridge, UK; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1978). Since then, she's written on broader issues.

Here she decries the corruption of standards in academia, particularly in philosophy. She sees it being corrupted by business imperatives, careerism, and the interdependent dynamic of scientism and anti-scientism. An example of the former is the lucrative area of cognitive science, eclipsing epistemology. As for anti-science, she roundly condemns, as she should, feminist philosophy, which she regards as a sham.

A key quote on the interdependence of scientism and anti-science:

"Now one begins to see why the revolutionary scientism encountered in contemporary philosophy often manifests a peculiar affinity with the anti-scientific attitudes which, as I conjecture, are prompted by resentment, as scientism is prompted by envy, of the sciences. Both parties have become disillusioned with the very idea of honest inquiry, of truth-seeking."