Sunday, January 25, 2015

David Stockman

quick view chart

David Stockman, who decades ago served as President Reagan's budget director, he of the "Trojan horse" gaffe, has written a wonderful brief essay on the latest move by the European Central Bank, which has jumped pumped one trillion new euros into circulation with a mammoth bond-buying program.

Trillion. With a "t".

This has all the looks of a desperation move to keep together a single-Eurozone system where the centrifugal forces are powerful.

Here is Stockman's take on it. Charlatan of the Apparatchiks.

Stockman introduces the graph above, which shows Europe's consumer price index since 1990.

There has been a good deal of talk about how the ECB's dramatic move is necessary to slay the monster of "deflation." But as you can see below, that isn't much of a dragon worth slaying. The lowest the CPI has gotten since 1990 was -0.5, a mark it hit only once, briefly, in 2009. Then it quickly rose back to 3% and has fallen since, following the course of world oil prices chiefly.

In recent weeks, the CPI has just barely gotten below 0. Stockman calls this a "hairline puncture of the zero inflation line" and rightly ridicules the notion that it is an economic calamity.

Go, David, go.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Honeymoon in Vegas

Honeymoon in Vegas (1992) - Plot Summary Poster

Honeymoon in Vegas opened this week on Broadway.

This is a live musical based on the Nicolas Cage movie of the same title from 1992. If you click on that link you'll get to the imdb page for the movie.

I enjoyed the movie, but the on-line reviews were lukewarm (5.8 out of a possible 10 stars).

Here's the plot summary, in case you're click-ophobic:

On her deathbed, a mother makes her son promise never to get married, which scars him with psychological blocks to a commitment with his girlfriend. They finally decide to tie the knot in Vegas, but a wealthy gambler arranges for the man to lose $65K in a poker game and offers to clear the debt for a weekend with his fiancée. Suddenly the man is insanely jealous, and pursues his fiancée and her rich companion, but finds pitfalls in his path as the gambler tries to delay his interference.

Anyway, I wish the Broadway production the best of luck.

Friday, January 23, 2015

An axiom

I came across the following while web surfing. It doesn't seem to have any elevated origin, besides an anonymous person trying to be clever (and in this case succeeding).

Predict everything, expect nothing.

I like it.

"Predict everything, expect nothing" is a perfectly good axiom. I take it to mean, "plan your future as best you can, but don't be disappointed if and when the plans don't work out right -- they seldom will -- and learn to roll with the punches." But of course it's a lot snappier than my paraphrase.

Let's get behind this and try to make a cliché of it. I predict success for that endeavor. But of course I don't expect it.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Lyrics I admire

Michael Bolton

Michael Bolton's big hit "How am I Supposed to Live without You" begins thus:

"I could hardly believe it/When I heard the news today/I had to come and get it straight from you/They said you were leavin'/Someone swept your heart away/From the look upon your face I see it's true."

That  strikes me as a marvelous bit of story telling. The rest of the song, unfortunately, soon slips into standard-issue '80s ballad.

But what exactly do I like about the above?

The first line sets up the rest, pressing the listener to ask what was so unbelievable.

We might guess that a romantic disappointment was the hardly-believed thing, but we are steered subtly in another direction by "when I heard the news today." That's very different from, say, "when the gossip reached my ears" or "when someone told me so." We've come to regard the news as something authoritative and public in nature. The Beatles played on this same expectation in "A Day in the Life," which has "I read the news today" in the first line.

So Bolton starts with "I could hardly believe it," then mentions hearing "news." Our expectations are sifting again in the line that follows that. "I had to come and get it straight from you."

"You" it seems clear, isn't you, the listener within earshot of a radio. The "you" is a person at the center of the "news" in question. Yet it is the fourth line that tells us our original likely-expectation was right after all. The "news" is of a breaking-up sort.

The fifth line indicates that the narrator heard this "news" from more than one source while remaining incredulous. "They" said. Not just one mutual acquaintance. This makes the initial incredulity a more solid fact.

I could go on, but I won't. This was good writing. That's the only point.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

The Three Amigos

I employed the last three blog entries to discuss a book that offers a much-contested interpretation of  certain critical passages in the writings of David Hume.

The conclusion of it was that Galen Strawson sees a closer relationship amongst Berkeley, Hume, and Kant than many other commenters do. He sees a single message coming from the three of them.

I'm going beyond Strawson now, but I'll try to formulate the philosophy of these amigos in a series of propositions.

1. The world we unreflexively think we're living in is real only in a conditional sense, it is less than fully real.

2. Since our intellect and senses are adapted for [or to] this living world, we are definitionally not adapted to comprehension of the fully real world.

3. It is reasonable to expect that in that Really Real world there exists a relationship of cause and effect, though as implied in (2) there is much we cannot know about that.

4. One possibility we might imagine (though we may not claim to know it) about the Really real world is that it centers on a deep cosmic intelligence, a God, with whom we are all in direct contact, for he sends us the ideas that we mistake for self-standing material objects.

5. It is possible to do more than imagine this, (4) but to believe in it, to have faith in it. It simply isn't possible to know it to be the case.

Is that unified vision of the world as it appeared to these three thinkers an appealing one to us in the 21st century?

Probably not. One problem: doesn't it amount to postulating a God who is at work deceiving us? Isn't that uncomfortably akin to the creature Descartes worried about, a malicious deceiving demon?

"Demon, be thou my God." Is that the gist?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Secret Connexion, Part III

Painting of David Hume.jpg

Continuing the line of thought from yesterday and the day before....

So far in this discussion I've quoted Hume only once, that bit from the Enquiry about how "we are ignorant of those powers and forces" etc. So here are a couple of other quotes used by Strawson in laying out his broad thesis. From the Treatise he quotes, "[I am] ready to allow, that there may be several qualities both in material and immaterial objects, with which we are utterly unacquainted."

Note the duality, "material and immaterial." One of Strawson's underlying points is that Hume considered Berkeley's metaphysics a plausible one -- neither certain nor probable, but coherent and on its own terms irrefutable. Berkeley saw the world as consisting of a God, various human minds, and the ideas that God implants into their/our minds. These ideas include the entire sensory world, including the regularities we might describe as examples of causality. Berkeley too, then, believes in a separation between causation lower-case and Causation. In causation, a first sensory event (a) precedes another (b) and we say that a caused b -- the hand that dropped the ball in that action caused the ball to fall to the ground. In the deeper meaning, Causation, the first and second sensory events are both given us/caused/produced by the Divine Mind directly. All reality is immaterial and true Cause likewise.

Hume didn't endorse that view, but he always took it into account. This even shows up in the wording of statements that seem only tangentially related. Consider Philo, Hume's mouthpiece in the Dialogues, arguing against the inference that a supernatural intelligence must have created the world. Philo says there are at least two possibilities, "For aught we can know a priori, matter may contain the source or spring of order originally within itself ... there is no more difficulty in conceiving, that the several elements, from an internal unknown cause, may fall into the most exquisite arrangement, than to conceive that their ideas, in the great, universal mind, from a like internal unknown cause, may fall into that arrangement., The equal possibility of both these suppositions is allowed."

Consider the language in which Philo allows for the theistic supposition. It isn't a matter of God as an architect creating a material world. Rater, it is of God, as the great universal mind, falling into a particular "arrangement" of His own "ideas" which corresponds to the "most exquisite arrangement" in which we find things. That's a rather Berkelayan wording of the possibility of a world with God at its heart.

One common trope in the history of philosophy takes Berkeley, Hume, and Kant as a triptych of epistemological and metaphysical warriors, each setting out to overthrow the one before, to become the new champion. In a sense Strawson takes over this trope. Berkeley and Kant are both referenced quite often in this book centered on Hume. BUT ... Strawson sees their relations differently.

Just as Hume respectfully incorporates the possibility of a Berkeleyan world into his writing, so Hume anticipates Kant's distinction between noumenal and phenomenal worlds. In Strawson's view, these three aren't contending warriors, they are allies, the Three Amigos of philosophy!

And with that happy thought I conclude my discussion of this Christmas gift.

Well, sort of. I'll have some thoughts tomorrow that go beyond Strawson and further into this Three-Amigos conception.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Secret Connexion, Part II

Continuing yesterday's train of thought...

Galen Strawson

Strawson (pictured here) observes that there are differences between the young Hume and the mature Hume: the fellow who wrote the TREATISE (1740) and the man who wrote the ENQUIRY (1748). To some extent, at least, the positivistic reading of Hume on causation follows from some dramatic overstatements in the earlier book, overstatements that Hume later regretted. In the latter book he said, "the positive air, which prevails in that book, and which may be imputed to the ardor of youth, so much displeases me, that I have no patience to review it."

Strawson also sometimes quotes from DIALOGUES ON NATURAL RELIGION, which was written subsequent to the ENQUIRY by at least another couple of years, and specifically of course the words of Philo, the Humean mouthpiece there.

At any rate: Strawson reads Hume, at all stages of his working life, in such a way as to connect the issue of causation/Causation to the issue of the independent reality of material objects -- another point on which Hume's epistemological skepticism can (but shouldn't) be taken as a metaphysical denial. This is, after all, why the word "realism" appears in the subtitle of the book.

On the reality of material objects, Strawson says, Hume at least allowed for the possibility that objects in a Lockean sense do exist, "tables and chairs more or less as ordinarily conceived" as Strawson puts it. Given this, even as a possibility, we have to have our doubts already that Hume would have entertained a regular-succession-only dogma about causation. For the combination of realism about objects and positivism about causation is at best a volatile one.  It amounts to saying that regularity rather than chaos occurs from moment to moment in this realm of tables and chairs, but there is no reason why regularity occurs. The highly regular nature of the world we observe is a huge continuing fluke. That is the sort of belief that we ought to attribute to Hume only upon finding unambiguous textual evidence, and Strawson can't find it.

Indeed at one point, admittedly tucked away in a footnote on p. 89, Strawson suggests that positivists about causation don't so much need to be refuted as to be cured. Here is part of that footnote, "A generally positivist approach to things may ... be presented as admirably modest and clean-limbed in its self-denying austerity, while simultaneously fulfilling a deep and unacknowledged psychological need, insofar as it renders everything safe, tidy, inspectable, masterable, encompassable, and relieves anxiety or unease about the unknown or unknowable."

It is possible to believe that there is a level of objective indeterminacy in nature (because of quantum mechanics or whatever) without jumping all the way into the denial of real objects or Causation. To say hat "99% of all Xs which have Y become Z" is still to state a regularity, and to keep chaos at bay, and still raises the question whether it is a fact about the nature of Xs, and thus about the nature of the world, or just a fluke.