28 February 2014

Krugman on TPP: Failure no big deal

See Free Trader Paul Krugman in the NYT today. He fails to mention the very negative effects the TPP would likely have (had) on internet privacy and the ability of the US to favor its own manufacturers in government procurement, which I believe is important for the preservation of a viable manufacturing sector in our country, but even he acknowledges that the administration's zeal for TPP, when there really are no barriers to trade involving the potential signers (including even China, which is not part of the proposed deal so far), is quixotic.

I remain opposed to TPP, and if the free trade establishment is beginning to realize that the thing is going to go nowhere, I say, great... in a country that sometimes seems to have gone stark raving mad in the last few years, it's one less thing to bemoan.

06 February 2014

«R.I.P., G.O.P.» & «Blue Texas»

So Boehner says no immigration bill will pass this year, even though it's obvious to everyone if the Senate bill were put before the House for a vote, it would immediately pass. 

Can we all sing a chorus of a new song: "R.I.P., G.O.P." please? Because with zero Latino votes, zero Asian American votes, and zero other ethnic American votes, they may be in a bit of trouble, ya think? 

I hear the chorus of another new song wafting in the air, too... "Blue Texas."

03 February 2014

Inevitability of Science, and the Rise of Science in the West v. China

A friend posed a question, which I attempt to give my answer to.

Q: In Paul Davies's Eerie Silence, there's a section titled 'Is Science Inevitable?' In the paragraph beginning 'Suppose an asteroid had hit Paris ... It goes on to say: In medieval China, no clear distinction was drawn between moral laws and laws of nature. Do you think that is still the case? After 65 years of communist rule?

A: There are really two questions here. First, whether the rise of science is inevitable given the rise of a toolmaking intelligent species, and second whether Chinese society today reflects the same sort of philosophical attitude towards epistemology as it did in the Middle Ages. (To paraphrase). Never one to shy away from discussing things I only slightly understand, I will attempt some comments.

If I took his point, what Davies was saying is that science; or, more specifically, the scientific method, arose because of a contingent series of historical accidents, beginning with ancient Greek logic, followed by late Medieval philosophical developments which themselves were dependent on certain intellectual currents in the Islamic world, followed by a new age of exploration and technological development in the Renaissance. Take away any of these elements— q.e.d., no science, and presumably much slower or non-existent progress towards systematic procedures for uncovering the actual nature of physical reality, slower technological growth, etc. Counter-example being China, which in 1000 AD was far ahead of the West in every way, including technology and what you might call practical engineering and descriptive science, but which had not developed a procedural system or methodology for investigating scientific truth. And as a result, in a few short centuries it fell hopelessly behind the west in science and technology.

Davies apparently infers (from what, I’m not entirely sure) that the Medieval Chinese drew “no clear distinction… between moral laws and laws of nature.”  To the extent that statement is true, though, I’m not sure that the development or failure to develop scientific methodology is explained by it, or that either is necessarily dependent on the other. (Although it would seem likely that the state of philosophical development could significantly affect the timing of scientific advances). There are those (such as Thomas Nagel) who even today reject the modern secular notion that values are purely relative, so the idea that a civilization could not have a systematic set of cultural norms that espoused “moral laws” as objectively true, and at the same time develop a truly scientific methodology, does not seem obvious or even plausible to me.

For example, the Ming Emperors Hong Xi (r. 1424-1425) and his son Xuan De stopped the voyages of exploration of the great admiral Zheng De, who had explored the Indian ocean and rounded the tip of Africa in huge trading fleets during the late 14th and early 15th centuries, well before Columbus. And, interestingly, their reasons for doing so were apparently moral, i.e., that it was unfit to require crippling tribute from foreigners. (Anti-Imperialism in 15th century Chinese political philosophy!). (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_he). But I have to say, can there be any real doubt that had history not caught up with China, i.e., had the Europeans not beat them to the punch, they would have, in time, resumed these voyages of exploration? And the Chinese may have had more intellectual baggage surrounding the nature of truth, and so on, but Buddhist philosophy contains the principle of determination of truth through direct investigation, which could quite easily have led in time to something hardly distinguishable from the scientific method. I actually think the parallels between more or less isolated Chinese civilization and the civilization of the West (including Islam) up to around this time more plausibly leads to the inference that something like science, and certainly engineering and technological development, were very much inevitable developments.

Looking at it from the broader context (the assessment of the likelihood that extraterrestrial intelligence, if you posit its existence, would necessarily develop advanced science and technology),  what Davies is saying seems to me to be a variation on his Anti-Copernican theme. Namely, that maybe we here on Earth, both in terms of the serendipity of the origin of life, the suitability over deep time of our home planet for life to thrive and for complex, and ultimately intelligent, life to arise, maybe actually ARE kind of special, after all. That this series of events is not only contingent but maybe rather spectacularly unlikely, in the greater universe. Add some apparently rather unlikely contingencies for the development of advanced science and technology, even given a toolmaking intelligent species, and you get an argument for extreme rarity of technological civilizations, which is pretty much exactly where Davies seems to be going with this.

To my mind, there’s  a lot of sort of anti-teleology going on here. Or what you might think of as negative special pleading. Sure, there are a lot of things that have to have gone right to get us to the point, say 10,000 years ago, where civilization was about to arise on Earth. There are all kinds of arguments for why that is terribly unlikely to happen elsewhere in the universe, to which those who advocate that extraterrestrial intelligence likely is out there counter, yes, but there are so many, many stars and worlds, surely some of them must have had their own favorable contingencies (and not necessarily the same ones), etc. etc.

But looking only at the question of whether science was purely dependent on the specific contingencies of European civilization ca. 1500, I have to say I don’t buy it.

As for the second question here, which is whether there is some kind of continuity with the what I’m referring to the epistemological cultural attitudes of Chinese civilization vis-à-vis the West, and whether it continues today in Modern China, well. That’s inscrutable. No, seriously, I think of the Chinese as being pre-disposed to longer term thinking than Westerners, by and large (a stereotype, of course, but like many stereotypes, with a grain of truth). And the same goes for their history. As a nation on the edge of the World’s great continent, subject to repeated barbarian invasion, occupation, and eventual assimilation of the barbarians to the (to them) obviously superior Chinese civilization, Chinese history almost looks like a series of pendulum swings between stable empire (Heaven’s favor) and the chaos of various interregnums, (Heaven’s disfavor), when thugs and brigands rule and Confucian morality is trampled upon. Not hard to see the period from 1930 to the present (and beyond?) as such a “warring states” period. I don’t doubt that many in China, even though it’s not yet safe to say it, would argue that Deng Xiao Ping was a restoration emperor, who brought back a civil order, but I suspect others would say that the deeply corrupt and nepotistic Communist Party, the unrest of the people, and the environmental instability and unsustainable growth of the modern Chinese society all are indicators that the period of Chaos isn’t over yet. (It is pretty clear that specifically Maoist/Communist rule came to an end sometime before 1990, but the regime didn't change. An entire historical treatise on how Marxism, and even Leninism, were subverted to become mere ideological pretexts for totalitarian regimes, but I've already ventured far enough afield. It is notable, though, that the Chinese regime has pretty undeniably retreated somewhat from the kind of totalitarianism that held sway under the worst days of Mao).

All of which is to say that moral truth may not be a major issue for Chinese leaders today. They have embraced Western technology, and its science, and perhaps even more significantly the currently fashionable Western moral relativism. China has produced, for example, some fine physicists and other scientific leaders, and their society has seemingly embraced amoral market capitalism even more enthusiastically than is the case in the countries of the birth of that concept. But whether, in the long run, a purely Chinese traditional philosophical system will re-emerge and modify their attitude towards science, it’s hard to say. I like to think that what will emerge, perhaps during this century, is a synthesis of western and traditional eastern attitudes towards what truth is, and how it is arrived at, which may allow for a syncretistic and secularized acceptance of certain key moral values as objectively necessary and true. Perhaps then, the favor of Heaven may come to bless our whole world, and the people and the rulers will live in harmony; the Confucian ideal. (Don’t hold your breath, but we have to have something to work towards).

This has been a rambling and verbose answer to these questions, but there you have it.