Category Archives: Philosophy

Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus

Albert Camus – The Myth of Sisyphus

There is value in engaging worldviews very different from one’s own. It is an exercise in empathy, and can also sharpen one’s own arguments and views. As for Camus, I am not sure I successfully engaged with his views in this book. Even after reading and thinking it over, I genuinely wonder if he was more interested in fashion than he was in sincerity, wearing his ideas as though they were a costume in order to draw attention. It could also just be that I simply don’t understand him, or that he didn’t want to be understood.

In Greek myth, Sisyphus’ punishment for his hubris against the gods was to push a boulder up a mountain, only for it to fall back down at the end of the day. He was to repeat this punishment every day for eternity. For Camus, the goal of each day of life is a Sisyphean task of not committing suicide. Much of the rest of the book is as overly dramatic as it sounds. Maybe Camus was going through a hard time and needed to talk himself out of suicide, or maybe he just wanted to impress women at the local café by playing the brooding countercultural type. Maybe he was just a drama queen. It’s hard to tell. Camus does offer some commentary on Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Kafka, and others, but I still can’t say I got more out of this book than the $1.95 I paid for it besides some insight into his boutique definition of the word “absurd.”

Herman Wouk – The Caine Mutiny

Herman Wouk – The Caine Mutiny

This Pulitzer-winning 1951 novel is starkly relevant today. When a commander is clearly unfit for the job, at what point is it ok to depose them, and on what grounds? John Locke wrestled with this question. So did the American revolutionaries he influenced—as did their opponents. This book, set in World War II, explores the same question onboard the Caine, a fictional World War II U.S. navy minesweeping ship. The main character, who is something of a privileged twit though with redeeming qualities, enlists in the Navy and finds himself aboard an old bucket of a ship near the end of its lifecycle. The Caine‘s captain is as mediocre as his ship, and is eventually transferred elsewhere.

His replacement, with the Melville-esque name Captain Queeg, quickly establishes his popularity with the crew with his attention to details the previous captain had neglected, and boosts morale. But after the initial wave of good feeling, the mood quickly shifts. He is indecisive and wavering during several critical points of action, and nearly loses the ship and its crew more than once. He isolates himself in his cabin, avoiding both crew and duty. When they enter his cabin to bring him news, he is nearly always asleep, undressed, or unshaven. Captain Queeg resorts to harsh, arbitrary discipline, such as cutting the crew off from all non-subsistence water rations for 48 hours while the non-air-conditioned ship is sailing near the equator. The crew had earlier exceeded their water usage quotas by ten percent. This and other nonsensical measures, along with another panic attack during action induce the grumbling, frightened crew to relieve him of command.

The book is interesting because the case is not so cut-and-dry. During the court-martial trial that follows the mutiny, Queeg never exceeded his bounds of authority under regulations, and gives decent justifications. Despite showing some signs of mental illness, doctors refuse to formally diagnose him with anything that would render him unfit for command. Queeg is also able to give plausible justifications for his command decisions. Meanwhile, the crew clearly had an animus against him. There is clear evidence they conspired against Queeg in a premeditated mutiny, which the crew members admit to. After the trial, both of the mutinying crew members find themselves captaining the Caine at various points before its decommissioning. They find their performance in that difficult job to be not much better than Queeg’s.

The Caine Mutiny presents more questions than answers, on purpose. That is what makes it both an excellent novel and a good lesson for today’s predicament with President Trump. There are clear signs that his temperament is not suitable for the presidency, yet it’s not so cut-and-dry in a legal case. He has little respect for the rule of law, has an arbitrary, uncertain approach to policy, is an alienating diplomatic presence, and deliberately polarizes the electorate. His age and mental state are also tempting to question. But at the same time, does he meet the threshold for 25th Amendment action, or for impeachment? It’s not black-and-white, and both sides have good arguments. Moreover, Trump’s potential replacements from either party don’t necessarily guarantee improvement.

The weighty matter of mutiny is both leavened and paralleled in the main character’s romantic subplot. He comes from an upper-middle class WASP-ish upbringing. In his first post-Princeton job, as a nightclub pianist, he meets a young singer of poorer Italian-Catholic background. They genuinely love each other, but the main character’s reticence to marry outside of his class and religion, along with some mommy issues, complicate things. They are a cute couple together and the reader naturally wants to root for them, but both external circumstances and mutual idiocy keep them apart—though far more his than hers. At the end of the book, as with the question of mutiny, their relationship is unresolved, but it seems hopeful that things will work out.

Bernard Bailyn – The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

Bernard Bailyn – The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution

This 1967 book has long been a Cato Institute favorite, and had been on my to-read list for years. It was particularly influential on Gene Healy’s Cult of the Presidency, which makes a compelling case for reining in an executive branch that has grown proportionally too powerful compared to the legislative and judicial branches.

Bailyn is a very detailed writer; his more recent The Peopling of British North America: An Introduction is so filled with minutiae in its chapter-by-chapter crawl of the different regions of North America’s east coast takes almost as long as the actual journey. Ideological Origins of the American Revolution is much livelier in comparison. It opens with a close look at the origins of pamphlets as a medium, in Bailyn’s usual microscopic detail, discussing everything from page size to word counts to stylistic conventions—yet it’s genuinely interesting, and difficult to put down.

Other themes get similar treatment, but Bailyn always keeps in mind the bigger picture; there is method to his madness. Along the way I was surprised to learn of John Adams’ skepticism of Montesquieu, who inspired many revolutionary ideas. Adams, ever practical, thought Montesquieu’s thought too theoretical and idealized. Bailyn also offers insights into the debates over when rebellion was a legitimate course of action (Locke was not the only inspiration); the rejection of rigid European-style social hierarchy and titled nobility; slavery; freedom of religion; and more.

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin

Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin

A big part of the process of modernity is widening one’s circle of concern. People have always looked out for themselves and their family. As trade grew, people’s circle widened from the tribe to include one’s trading partners, whether in a farm-and-village dynamic or including long distance traders. As the scale widened, people had to be more accepting of people who dressed differently, spoke different languages, and worshipped different gods. The process is not over. In the last 70 years or so, the circle of concern has grown to address racism, homophobia, transgender rights, and more. The proper size of one’s circle of concern is at the heart of today’s debates over issues such as LGBT rights, trade, and immigration. Animal rights activists are even trying to expand the circle of concern to other species.

What does the circle of concern have to do with a science fiction novel? A lot. In Children of Time, the first book in this series, a botched attempt at seeding an alien planet with Earth life leads to an advanced civilization of spiders and ants, instead of the intended apes (a literal barrel of monkeys burns up while entering the atmosphere). The nanovirus-enhanced intelligent spiders and humans eventually become allies, widening their circles of concern to include two very different sentient species.

This book is the sequel; I do not know if further volumes are planned in the series. It introduces a race of nanovirus-enhanced octopi as well as an alien life form that is something like a slime mold. Where the first volume was evolution-themed, this volume is about psychology and consciousness. It is more interested in exploring and understanding how different species think, feel, and communicate. It as though Tchaikovsky is expanding Adam Smith’s circle of concern as broadly as he possibly can, and seeing what happens.

Tchaikovsky’s spiders communicate through vibration and touch, and are unable to hear human speech. Both spiders and humans come up with all kinds of translators and ways to understand each other, and though their friendships are sincere, some differences are too vast for them to comprehend. Also of interest is the spiders’ own gender disparity, in which males are discriminated against and discounted as inferior, mirroring our own species’ issues. The spiders have even been making progress in recent generations, with male spiders advancing to prominent scientific research positions, though workplace politics are touchy.

The stars of this book are nanovirus enhanced octopi, who ancient humans seeded on one of two habitable planets in a different star system than the spider planet from the first book. Tchakivsky researched the subject, and the octopi in his book are impulsive, emotional, factional, and quick to change their minds as their emotions explore different sides of an issue. Not being able to use speech like humans or vibrations like spiders, octopi instead communicate by changing colors. Different feelings are automatically expressed in different colorations, which they are unable to hide. They almost literally wear their emotions on their sleeve, and their intellectual deliberations are plainly visible.

Also putting in a turn is an alien life form with a collective consciousness, kind of like an intelligent slime mold or a bacteria with a long collective memory and the ability to interface with and control other organisms. This lets Tchaikovsky explore a whole other form of consciousness, of which we don’t have any examples on Earth.

The plot throws these very different consciousnesses together and lets them try to sort out who is on who’s side, how to overcome communication barriers, and try to come to some kind of understanding. The extent to which they can succeed requires a circle of concern rather greater than most people on Earth have today.

Jerry Z. Muller – The Tyranny of Metrics

Jerry Z. Muller – The Tyranny of Metrics

This short book is one of the most useful I’ve read in recent years. I will be citing it often. Measurement is a good and useful thing, but it has its limits. Muller’s job in this book is to remind people of those limits. For example, improving school test scores sounds like a good idea, and was a key part of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind education bill. But teachers started teaching to the test, ruining the purpose. This on-the-ground was entirely predictable, but regulators were so intent on using metrics to measure performance, they didn’t think it through.

One key point has to do with social science research. Few journals will publish papers that don’t measure anything–but not everything is measurable. This means that when policymakers and pundits are evaluating a policy, they can leave out important policy impacts. Either they dismiss non-measurable concerns because there is no published empirical research on it, or such concerns never enter their minds in the first place. Like a drunk looking for his lost keys, they only look where the light shines. Better to admit that things exist outside of that light. Better still to create one’s own light and see what is out there. Statistical significance matters, but it should not replace human judgment. It is a complement, not a substitute.

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson – The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson – The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

Brutal honesty has been a running theme of Hanson’s career, and he has caused some controversy because of it, though it is nearly always overblown. Simler has a similar approach in his research, and the two make a good pair in this book. Mostly a blend of psychology and economics, Simler and Hanson explore why people lie to themselves as well as to others in justifying their actions in a number of spheres, from work to romance to everyday life.

The drawbacks of this are obvious, from the lies themselves to the bad behaviors they can enable and rationalize. But the benefits are an avoidance of cognitive dissonance and negative views of self and others. Total honesty would decimate nearly everyone’s sense of self-worth, as well as peoples’ ability to trust and interact with others.

In that sense, Hanson and Simler have put together a view of human nature that mixes Hobbe’s nasty and brutish view of human nature with a David Hume- or Adam Smith-style emphasis on humanity’s inherent need for social interaction. As Smith put it, people need both to love and be lovely (by which Smith means worthy of being loved). Reconciling the two is a messy business, but Hanson and Simler do it uncomfortably well, backing their arguments with plenty of empirical research.

Healthy Attitudes of Inquiry

From p. 6 of Vlad Tarko’s 2017 book Elinor Ostrom: An Intellectual Biography:

Good social scientists are like tourists who have yet to familiarize with the local rules or a little bit like children, asking funny questions about what everyone else just takes for granted.

This is a much healthier attitude of inquiry than the capital-C certainty many analysts have in their answers to social problems.