Drive-by orchids

Street orchids in Rio de Janeiro.

The Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro is almost a pure grid. The longitudinal streets parallel to the beach carry heavy traffic and support only a few trees struggling against the diesel fumes. The shorter transversal streets are much quieter, and many have fine and quite luxuriant street trees, all of course the property of the city. Rua Anita Garibaldi is one of these streets near to Lu and me. Several of the trees support this:

The orchids have been planted by the inhabitants, and it´s become something of a competition between the blocks of condo flats. A few are in pots, but most are rooted normally in the tree bark. They look like florist´s hybrids to my unskilled eye rather than species, but that doesn´t seem to faze them.

Orchids in the cold North are iconic hothouse plants, and thought of as fragile as well as exotic. The CIA´s famous Cold War counterintelligence chief James Jesus Angleton hybridised orchids as a hobby, and as a rather obscure metaphor for his work. Did his orchids represent the KGB moles he saw everywhere, or his own equally obsessive and parasitic mole-hunters? But on their own tropical turf, or rather bark, orchids are the tough opportunists their way of life requires.The complex flowers target specialised pollinators: these will be harder to find in urban streets than congenial habitat, so don´t expect orchids to spread spontaneously to other streets. Calls to Angleton´s ghost on the question whether the seed of hybrid orchids is viable were not returned.

Brazilians are not famed for the sort of ostentatious civic virtue that leads Dutch housewives to sweep the pavements (AmE: sidewalks) in front of their houses, which traditionally have no curtains in the front windows hiding the family´s virtue and cleanliness from passers-by. Significantly, the concierges in Anita Garibaldi do sweep the pavements. I don´t want to read too much into a localised street orchid competition, but it is a good sign when our instinctive striving for status is channelled into such positive-sum games as, er, epifights.

More Claptrap on Science on the NYT webpage

The NYT has done it again — posted more claptrap on science.  But this time it’s by a respected philosopher, Thomas Nagel.   Nagel’s post is a cliff notes version of his book published last year, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.  

This book title alone provides a good indication that Nagel should be ignored on these matters,  since any scientific theory is likely to be “false” in an old-fashioned philosophical  sense of an exact description of nature– as Newtonian mechanics is “false” because it does not comprehend relativistic or quantum interactions.    So we need to ask what is it about our academic institutions and intellectual cultures that allow tenured faculty at NYU (at least a second-tier University) and Oxford University Press (a premier publishing house that publishes academic and quasi-academic books) to advance misleading nonsense that proceeds in ignorance of  how other professors in nearby offices do their work.

Let’s try to go through Nagel’s argument and see what it relies on and what it misses.

First he builds a strawman that physics aspires to be a “theory of everything.”  Leave out the silly grammar where a field of study is anthropomorphically given aspirations.   When physicists talked about a “theory of everything” they didn’t mean a theory that comprehends such things as consciousness, morality, aesthetics, free will, or even  the stock market —  they meant, to use informal terms,  a theory that provided unified explanations of gravitation and the previously unified theory of electricity, magnetism, and strong forces within atomic nucleii.  This was an ambition to unite the world of physics, not to use physics to subsume all other sciences.

So let’s not beat up on physics.

When we get to neuroscience and psychology, there is a hard  question about what is the relation of the biochemistry and connective structures of the brain to conscious life –part of the conundrum is about subjective experience, and another part of this is about agency and free will.    Neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers, and humanists struggle with these issues.  Granted there is a lot of nonsense in these fields, but there is a lot of serious investigation also, involving both theoretical constructs and experimentation of various kinds — in other words, science.

Nagel’s response is to wave his wand and act as if none of this science exists.  He argues that if physics cannot explain subjective experience, then we need wholly new theories “of a different type from any we have seen so far.”    But we have lots of scientific theories that have no direct contact with physics, and many of these relate to understanding complexes of  human behavior.  Nagel acts as if he has never met an economist or an information theorist or a computer scientist or a  social psychologist or an ecologist or even a logician (obviously impossible for a modern philosopher) — but these people routinely deploy theories that are different in character from those of physics, and many of them deal with systems that behave teleogically.  Teleology turns out to be the wholly different element that Nagel says needs to be melded into natural science.

Nagel wants to declare “mind” as a fundamental part of “nature”  — certainly one would have a hard time explaining the historical trajectory of the post 1900 evolution of the Earth environment without reference to mind, so it’s clearly important now, but that does not mean it’s a fundamental part of the natural order everywhere.  Nagel seems to believe that mind cannot not spring up from nothing, and so it can’t have arisen by evolution.  Never mind that this is formally equivalent to saying that we need a fire element because you can’t create fire from nothing.   He wants morality and reason to exist outside of history and evolutionary contingency because he can’t seem to vanquish the bugaboo of relativism otherwise.  (This is spelled out in detail, if speciously, in the book).  So his response is to insist on somehow mentalizing nature itself, in some way yet to be determined — maybe like the aether was needed to conduct light.

I suppose we should not foreclose this possibility — but what sort of theory would it be and how would it be testable?  More tellingly, it is not at all necessary to make progress.  In fact,  Nagel considers and rejects the primary overall frame within which active scientists are making progress on these issues– the notion of “emergent properties.”  So far as I can tell, Nagel’s rejection is purely aesthetic — he doesn’t think you can create something just by increasing complexity of interactions and changing the level of analysis.  Similarly, his rejection of the evolutionary emergence of reason is also primarily aesthetic — he fears that recognizing that reason and morality arose historically and contingently undercuts their legitimacy by making them appear more unreliable.   In my view this recognition engenders a more critical stance that should open up the possibility to make them more reliable, but I wouldn’t use this personal judgment as a way to sniff out truth and falsehood.

It’s entirely clear that one can fully resist Nagel’s conclusion on the need to mentalize nature without resorting to any of his supposedly exhaustive four-fold options for resistance.   You don’t need to mentalize physical nature to recognize the power of thought once mind comes into being — especially social mind backed up by culture and language.   I don’t mean to minimize questions about, for example, whether you could have a different logic and where logic comes from, and I am also not going to completely foreclose the possibility that one day a scientific theory might somehow look like what Nagel is proposing now.  This would be mere speculation.

It’s completely clear that Nagel has not made anywhere near the case he thinks he has.  There is lots of room for improved understanding of the nature of mind and consciousness in ways that are completely consistent with materialist physics and neo-Darwinism, with the addition of complex systems understanding.

A NYU professor who pronounces science’s conception of reality to be false without engaging with any current science should be ashamed of himself.    Oxford University Press should not have published this book.   The fact that Nagel is respected and picked up in the New York Times is a symptom of our fragmented and fundamentally un-serious intellectual culture.

If the universe had any sensible teleology or nature were infused with Mind we would no doubt be served much better than this.

Update:  A comment notes that, according to one apparently reputable ranking, the NYU Philosophy Department is the best in the English speaking world, which just makes me shake my head more.


The iron bun

The US Senate and the European Parliament likened to the ostrich that Sir Thomas Browne tried to feed an iron bun.

A bad week in democratic politics. By the virtual filibuster procedure conceded by Harry Reid, the Republican minority in the US Senate killed the minimal Manchin-Toomey bill ever so slightly tightening background checks on gun sales. It almost adopted Cornyn’s amendment imposing interstate recognition for concealed carry, a step toward the gun nut dystopia of arms everywhere, all the time.

American politicians are crazy, I thought, European ones are just stupid, I thought. Until the European Parliament voted down the Commission’s proposal to tighten carbon emissions allowances and revive the cap-and-trade market, now at a zero lower bound that makes the scheme a nonsense.

At least the American public, if it’s interested, can find out instantly who crashed the plane. I can’t find a proper analysis of the EP vote. Here is the raw voting list by parties (doc, page 23, vote on item 10, amendment 20 to reject the proposal). List of political groups, to explain the acronyms. Debate transcript – not yet translated, so you get the multilingual flavour of the plenary, if not a full understanding, unless you read Greek and Finnish.

ostrich2In an engagingly eccentric BBC programme on 17th century sensibilities, they picked Sir Thomas Browne, provincial doctor, polymath, writer of prose as rich and flavourful as Malmsey, and enthusiastic but unstructured Baconian experimenter. His best-selling(!) compendium of received errors, Pseudodoxia Epidemica: or, Enquiries into very many received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths (1646), has a chapter attacking the belief that ostriches eat iron.

The ground of this conceit is its swallowing down fragments of Iron, which men observing, by a froward illation, have therefore conceived it digesteth them; which is an inference not to be admitted, as being a fallacy of the consequent, that is, concluding a position of the consequent, from the position of the antecedent. For many things are swallowed by animals, rather for condiment, gust or medicament, then any substantial nutriment. So Poultrey, and especially the Turkey, do of themselves take down stones; and we have found at one time in the gizzard of a Turkey no less then seven hundred.

Browne finally encountered a live ostrich. According to Leslie Stephens [microupdate, see comments]:

Sir Thomas takes a keen interest in the fate of an unlucky ‘oestridge’ which found its way to London in 1681, and was doomed to illustrate some of the vulgar errors. The poor bird was induced to swallow a piece of iron weighing two and a-half ounces, which, strange to say, it could not digest. It soon afterwards died ‘of a soden,’ either from the severity of the weather or from the peculiar nature of its diet.

pain au chocolat The BBC presenter Adam Nicolson claims, relying on Browne’s copious notebooks, that he first tried to tempt the ostrich by concealing the iron in a pastry, like a haematic pain au chocolat. (Browne’s style is catching.) The ostrich ate the bun, but spurned the filling.

By what illation do we get our ostrich politicians to swallow their iron bun?


The blogosphere lost a favorite netizen this week.  We’ll miss you, Inkblot, master loll cat and patio prince.

It seems Inkblot was sent to cat heaven by a coyote, in the middle of a neighborhood where everything in your field of view in every direction except the sky is there because of a conscious human decision: Et in suburbia ego.  We have strict zoning, building codes, design review, neighborhood associations, real cops and private security, neighborhood watch associations, home alarm systems – all the awesome powers of organized humanity – but nature has her ways, and creatures specialized for the edge of the forest (deer) and unspecialized creatures open to anything (coyotes, opossums, skunks, raccoons; cockroaches, Argentine ants, crabgrass, mosquitos) know a niche when they see one.

When we moved to Berkeley, we lived a half-mile downhill from the East Bay’s wonderful hilltop park reserve, and our standard poodle saw a splendid, sleek, six-point buck enjoying the rose bushes and some vegetables.  The dog had met the occasional deer in Vermont, wild deer with traditional views of ungulate/carnivore relationships, and charged out to teach this one some manners. But this deer had learned what wusses Berkeley dogs are, and didn’t give an inch; confronted with a set of lowered antlers and a  look that meant business, Winnie gave a whimper and hotfooted it back in the house.

Now we live in a more urbanized neighborhood, and we still have the odd deer bounding through backyards, a whiff of skunk on the night air now and then and, wonderfully, a half dozen wild turkeys who amble down the sidewalk every few months.  Where the deer come out of the park, and I have seen them several times on the Cal campus, mountain lions follow, and coyotes are no longer unusual deep into settled areas. `It’s one thing to have your garden browsed by Bambi’s extended family, and another to be afraid to let your cat or cocker out. Vegan, peacable Berkeley, like a lot of suburban communities full of city slickers with romantic ideas about nature, is having some difficult moments recognizing what it means to live neither in the city nor the country.