Friday, September 19, 2014

Angela Merkel scolds a group of Nobel laureate kettles

Jens Berger in Eurokrise: Kleine Hoffnungszeichen beim Mainstream, kein Lernfortschritt bei Angela Merkel 16.09.2014 references the following two articles describing criticism by Nobel laureates in economics of Angela Merkel's Herbert Hoover/Heinrich Brüning economic policies that are wrecking the eurozone economy and hurting millions of people:

Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, Nobel economists say policy blunders pushing Europe into depression The Telegraph 08/20/2014

Holger Zschäpitz, Nobelpreisträger rechnen mit Merkel ab Die Welt 24.08.14

Evans-Pritchard quotes Joe Stiglitz:

Professor Joseph Stiglitz said austerity policies had been a "disastrous failure" and are directly responsible for the failed recovery over the first half of this year, with Italy falling into a triple-dip recession, France registering zero growth and even Germany contracting in the second quarter.

"There is a risk of a depression lasting years, leaving even Japan's Lost Decade in the shade. The eurozone economy is 20pc below its trend growth rate," he said.

Mr Stiglitz said the eurozone authorities had massively underestimated the contractionary effects of austerity and continue to persist in error despite claims that the crisis is over. "I am very concerned about the future of monetary union, and they haven't yet felt the impact of geopolitical tensions."

He said the eurozone needs joint debt issuance to repair the structural flaws of EMU, but almost no progress has been made. "Europe suffers from fatal politics," he said.
That's an excellent summary: Europe suffers from fatal politics. Angela Merkel's politics.

Angie gave the keynote address in English to this year's Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau last month, on which those article are reporting. Video here, but embedding doesn't seem to be available.

Deutsche Welle English reports on her speech in Chancellor Merkel challenges Nobel economists 20.08.2014. It opens with this priceless linein the summary: "German Chancellor Angela Merkel has asked Nobel laureate economists why their discipline got so much so wrong in recent years."

Frau Pot, meet the Herrn Kettle.

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Thomas Jefferson's secular "trinity" (3a): John Locke

"Bacon, Locke and Newton, ... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences." - Thomas Jefferson, 1787

John Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) made an argument for the separation of Church and State primarily from the point of view of a Protestant Christian perspective on freedom of conscience. It became one of the classic works of liberal democracy.

The conflict that has come down in history as the First English Civil War, conventionally dated 1842-46, occurred during Locke's childhood. The conflict was precipitated by efforts of Charles I and his Catholic wife Henrietta Maria to impose unpopular reforms in the Church of England in England itself and to impose Church of England rules in Scotland and Ireland. It would be neither the first or the last time in history that religious ideas and secular forces would achieve a convenient alliance. But there was little doubt to contemporaries like Locke that religion was very much involved.

François Dubois painting of the St. Bartholmew's Day Massacre, part of what John Locke saw as the nightmare side of the merging of Church and State

It's become a common theme among American and European conservatives that Islam is stuck in "medieval" viewpoints. This is not the case for Christianity, the argument goes, because Christianity had the Protestant Reformation that brought Christianity into the modern world. And so Islam needs its own Reformation. The implication in this argument that Islam as a religion is centuries more "backwards" than the religion of the consistently peaceful and civilized Christians.

Sadly, many American Christians are not quite so clear on how ludicrous it is to consider Christianity of the last several centuries as a predominantly peaceful religion. In the case of a repeat of the Protestant Reformation for Islam, conservatives should really be careful what they pray for.

The Protestant Reformation, conventionally dated from 1517, was followed by the so-called Wars of Religion, featuring highlights such as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572. The following century saw the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, with which the First English Civil War was contemporary. The Thirty Years War was the most death-dealing conflict in world history prior to the First World War (scroll down at the link). And while not strictly religious, confessional conflicts were a major part of the Thirty Years War.

It's useful to think of this in relation to Thomas Jefferson's life. He wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. That was 138 years after the end of the Thirty Years War. Today is 2014, which means the American Civil War ended 149 years ago. And the issues of that war and Americans' varying understandings of it continue to shape our ideas about politics and government very much in 2014.

Jefferson and his contemporaries were intensely aware of what religious wars could do and had done. Locke himself was a contemporary of the Thirty Years War. And religious tolerance - making religion no business of the government and government no part of the formal business of the Church, any church - was a revolutionary, democratic demand in 1689, the date of the Letter Concerning Toleration, 41 years after the end of the Thirty Years War.

Locke writes in the Letter:

I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interests of men's souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth.
He distinguishes the legitimate role of the State as concerning "civil interests": "Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like."

From the side of the Church, it is the responsibility of Christians to win others to the faith and to promote Christian conduct among the faithful. And it must be done by non-coercive means. Certainly without the coercion of the kind exercised by the State:

Because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another as to compel anyone to his religion. Nor can any such power be veiled in the magistrate by the 'consent of the people;' because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation, as blindly to leave it to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what what faith or worship he shall embrace: for no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.
He argued that "the care of the salvation of men's souls cannot belong to the magistrate; because, though the rigour of laws and the force of penalties were capable to convince and change men's minds, yet would not that help at all to the salvation of their souls."

Choice of religion, Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, are not legitimate concerns of the State. "I affirm," Locke writes, "that the magistrate's power extends not to the establishing of any articles of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws."

Locke stressed that freedom is essential to honest religion:

A church, then I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshiping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.

I say it is a free and voluntary society. ... No man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect, but everyone joins himself voluntarily to that society in which he believes he has found that profession and worship which is truly acceptable to God.
And both the civil and religious perspectives Locke articulates stress the practical consequences of melding Church and State:

... neither single persons nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other upon pretence of religion. Those that are of another opinion would do well to consider with themselves how pernicious a see3d of discord and war, how powerful a provocation to endless hatreds, rapines, and slaughters they thereby furnish unto mankind.
Christian Right theocrats in the US today who make the bizarre argument that if Hobby Lobby can't dictate the sex lives of their female employees weren't around in that form in the England of 1789. But they and their allies on the Roberts Supreme Court preach the same kind of theocracy that Locke condemned as both illegitimate government and bad Christianity.

Locke didn't limit his view of the value of tolerance to matters of religion. As he says in the dedication of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), "Truth scarce ever yet carried it by vote anywhere at its first appearance: new opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common."

Tolerance for scientific and political ideas were important for him, as well. Locke provided some of the most important classical liberal political theory on freedom of speech, as well as freedom of religion.


Christoph Halbig, Michael Quante und Ludwig Siep, "Hegels Erbe- eine Einleitung" Hegels Erbe; Suhrkamp 2004

G.W.F. Hegel, Glauben und Wissen oder Reflexionsphilosophie der Subjektivität in der Vollständigkeit ihrer Formen als Kantische, Jacobische und Fichtesche Philosophie (1802). The version used here is that of G.W.F. Hegel Werke 2, Jenaer Schriften (1801-1807); Suhrkamp; 1970.

The John Locke Collection: 6 Classic Works (Waxkeep Publishing; Kindle edition)

John Locke, On Politics and Education (Classics Club edition; introduction by Howard Penniman)

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding with introductory material by Alexander Campbell Fraser (Dover; 1959; 2 vols.)

Dumas Malone, Thomas Jefferson: A Brief Biography (1933)

William Uzgalis, "John Locke" (2012) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Thursday, September 18, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's secular "trinity" (3): John Locke

"Bacon, Locke and Newton, ... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences." - Thomas Jefferson, 1787

John Locke is the third member of Jefferson's secular trinity that I'm discussing, along with Bacon and Newton.

John Locke 1632-1709

However much or little Jefferson may have been directly influenced by Locke's writing, it's hard not to see a strong philosophical kinship between Jefferson's insistence on separation of church and state of the document of non-sectarian government Locke elaborated in A Letter Concerning Tolerance, first published in Latin in 1685 in Holland.

Religious freedom and the separation of church and state was a key political principle for Jefferson. Dumas Malone writes in Thomas Jefferson: A Brief Biography (1933):

His Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, presented in 1779 by John Harvie of Albemarle and passed, with slight but significant modifications in the preamble in 1786 when Jefferson was in France, was regarded by him as one of his greatest contributions to humanity. In its assertion that the mind is not subject to coercion, that civil rights have no dependence on religious opinions, and that the opinions of men are not the concern of civil government, it is indeed one of the great American charters of freedom. [my emphasis]
He emphasized how important it was to him in the arrangements for his burial. As Malone writes:

On the simple stone over his grave in the family burial ground at Monticello, he is described as he wished to be remembered, not as the holder of great offices, but as the author of the Declaration oflndependence and the Virginia statute for religious freedom, and as the father of the University of Virginia. [my emphasis

Back in 2008, I posted about Locke and the development of democratic theory (Why democracy and Christianity need science 08/05/2008), summarizing the argument of F.S.C. Northrup in The Meeting of East and West (1946):

The Jeffersonian notions of freedom of speech and religion and the need for rule by a democratic majority were heavily based on the ideas of English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), who derived his basic understanding of human equality from working out the implications of the physics of Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton.

I won't go into the more excruciating details here. But basically, Locke's philosophy addressed the nature of the observer in the theoretical scheme of the physics of his day, in which "the sensed qualities in sensed space and time" are not considered direct qualities of the object being observed, but qualities perceived "indirectly by way of the observer".

There are obviously quite a few intermediate steps to get from there to the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and the Continental Congress. Freedom in practice had to be obtained through a political and military revolution against the British, not by arguments over the philosophy of science. But Northrup's point is valid and important. Our democratic notions of freedom stem from a scientific understanding of the world, as well as from moral and religious notions of the dignity of the individual human. Science is an integral part of democracy, not a luxury that can be treated as a fad or partisan preference without undercutting the basis of democracy.

Locke's philosophical influence extended well beyond political theory. Hegel in his Glauben and Wissen (Faith and Knowledge) of 1802 quotes the following passage from John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689):

For I thought that the first step towards satisfying several inquiries the mind of man was very apt to run into, was, to take a survey of our own understandings, examine our own powers, and see to what things they were adapted. Till that was done I suspected we began at the wrong end, and in vain sought for satisfaction in a quiet and sure possession of truths that most concerned us, whilst we let loose our thoughts into the vast ocean of Being; as if all that boundless extent were the natural and undoubted possession of our understandings, wherein there was nothing exempt from its decisions, or that escaped its comprehension. Thus men, extending their inquiries beyond their capacities, and letting their thoughts wander into those depths where they can find no sure footing, it is no wonder that they raise questions and multiply disputes, which, never coming to any clear resolution, are proper only to continue and increase their doubts, and to confirm them at last in perfect scepticism. Whereas, were the capacities of our understandings well considered, the extent of our knowledge once discovered, and the horizon found which sets the bounds between the enlightened and dark parts of things; between what is and what is not comprehensible by us, men would perhaps with less scruple acquiesce in the avowed ignorance of the one, and employ their thoughts and discourse with more advantage and satisfaction in the other. [my emphasis]
Hegel cited this as something that Kant could have said of his own view, as a way of emphasizing how deeply Kant's philosophy drew from the English empiricist tradition of which David Hume and John Locke were leading lights. Along with the other two members of Jefferson's secular trinity, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton.

Hegel also used this quote to flag a core feature of this tradtion which he found extremely problematic, the ways in which is defined certain features of empirical reality as beyond the full cognition of human beings. Hegel's thesis, as Christoph Halbig et al describe it, was "that there is no outer border to which can be conceptualized" ("dass es keine AuBengrenze des Begrifflichen gibt"; Hegels Erbe; 2004)


Christoph Halbig, Michael Quante und Ludwig Siep, "Hegels Erbe- eine Einleitung" Hegels Erbe; Suhrkamp 2004

G.W.F. Hegel, Glauben und Wissen oder Reflexionsphilosophie der Subjektivität in der Vollständigkeit ihrer Formen als Kantische, Jacobische und Fichtesche Philosophie (1802). The version used here is that of G.W.F. Hegel Werke 2, Jenaer Schriften (1801-1807); Suhrkamp; 1970.

The John Locke Collection: 6 Classic Works (Waxkeep Publishing; Kindle edition)

John Locke, On Politics and Education (Classics Club edition; introduction by Howard Penniman)

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding with introductory material by Alexander Campbell Fraser (Dover; 1959; 2 vols.)

Dumas Malone, Thomas Jefferson: A Brief Biography (1933)

William Uzgalis, "John Locke" (2012) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's secular "trinity" (2a): Isaac Newton

"Bacon, Locke and Newton, ... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences." - Thomas Jefferson, 1787

As I mentioned in the first Jefferson-Newton post, Martin Gardiner in "Isaac Newton: Alchemist and Fundamentalist" Skeptical Inquirer Sept/Oct 1996, summarized Isaac Newton's accomplishments this way:

For several centuries the best-known Newton has been the great mathematical physicist who in his early twenties invented calculus, discovered the binominal theoren, introduced polar coordinates, proved that white light was a mixture of colors, explained the rainbow, built the first reflecting telescope, and showed that the force causing apples to £all is the same as the force that guides the planets, moons, and comets, and produces tides. His discoveries revolutionized physics. His genius is undisputed.
And, as one might expect from the article's title, Gardiner goes on, "Unknown to most people, even today, are two other Newtons. One is the alchemist who struggled for decades to turn base metals into gold. The other is Newton the Protestant fundamentalist."

Isaac Newton (1642–1727)

The former list of accomplishments includes the things that constituted Newton's influence during most of the time since his death. Including during Thomas Jefferson's lifetime.

The latter aspects are important biographically. And it's not as though his religious writing was unknown. His Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John was published posthumously in 1733.

Newton might have felt pretty comfortable theologicvalloy among today's Christian Right. He wrote extensively on his generally very conservative ideas about Protestant theology, much of which would be considered "fundamentalist" today. In fact, he thought that he would be remembered for those writings more than for his science.

But his rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity certainly distinguishes him from today's Christian fundamentalists. And he scarcely can be accused of being anti-science!

Gardiner's article mainly focuses on Newton's religious ideas. But he seems to hold both Newton's religious and alchemical work and writing against him, as some kind of weakness of character. He writes of Newton's religious work, "It is sad to envision the discoveries in mathematics and physics Newton might have made if his great intellect had not been diverted by such bizarre speculations."

Of course, that too is speculation. Not unlike the cliche about how soldiers killed in war might have gone on in life to be Homers or Shakespeares. The real existing Isaac Newton wrote seriously on religion and did serious experiments on alchemy, as well his now more respectable scientific work. Who's to say he would have accomplished the latter had he not also indulged the former?

Newton was a prominent member of the Royal Society, the institution that supposedly was inspired by Francis Bacon's The New Atlantis. He also served as Master of the Mint, in which role he became known for successfully cracking down on currency counterfeiters. Gardiner notes, "He was the first to recommend gold as a monetary standard."

As George Smith reminds us (Isaac Newton, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy 2007):

Only the public Newton influenced the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, yet any account of Newton himself confined to this material can at best be only fragmentary. Second is the contrast, often shocking, between the actual content of Newton's public writings and the positions attributed to him by others, including most importantly his popularizers. The term “Newtonian” refers to several different intellectual strands unfolding in the eighteenth century, some of them tied more closely to Voltaire, Pemberton, and Maclaurin — or for that matter to those who saw themselves as extending his work, such as Clairaut, Euler, d'Alembert, Lagrange, and Laplace — than to Newton himself.

Wolfgang Bonsiepen, "Die Aktualitat der Hegelschen Naturphilosophie" Philosophische Rundschau 35:3; 1988

Martin Gardiner, "Isaac Newton: Alchemist and Fundamentalist" Skeptical Inquirer Sept/Oct 1996,

G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie (Lectures on the History of Philosophy) Bolland edition; 1908

Antonio Pérez-Ramos, "Bacon's legacy" The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (1996)

George Smith, "Isaac Newton" (2007) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Richard Westfall, "Sir Isaac Newton" (2012) Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite; 2014 Online version: "Sir Isaac Newton"

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's secular "trinity" (2): Isaac Newton

"Bacon, Locke and Newton, ... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences." - Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is the second member I'm discussing of Thomas Jefferson's "trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced." There is some irony in the inclusion of Newton in that group, because in his religious writing Newton took an anti-Trinitarian position, one that he was discreet about making known publicly. Jefferson also held an anti-Trinitarian view, so we could speculate that may have been a factor in his particular admiration for Newton. But it's likely his scientific work is what particularly impressed Jefferson.

William Blake's vision of Issac Newton 

Newton is of course known for the theory of gravity. Which, for our science-denying, anti-evolution Republican friends, I should note is "just a theory." He is also known for his three laws of motion, his theory of optics, and the discovery of calculus. He shares credit for the latter with his German contemporary Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716). Who deserved how much credit for the latter was the subject of some lively dispute in Newton's and Leibniz' lifetimes.

Newton's theory of gravity enabled a better understanding of the rotation of the planets around the sun and to understand that those orbits were elliptical.

A popular misconception about Newton, particularly heard among the esoteric/New Age crowd, is the claim that Albert Einstein somehow proved that Newton was wrong. This is a broad claim, and a groan-inducing one to those more familiar with the history of science. It generally is put in the context of the Newtonian theory of gravity. But you can try it for yourself. Take one of those apples that legend has it gave Newton a flash of revelation about gravity. Drop it. Drop it several times. It still falls to the ground.

The main difference between Newton's theory of gravity and Einstein's was better telescopes. Newton discovered how gravity works and build a scientific theory to explain it. Einstein observed phenomena that the telescopes of Newton's time couldn't detect and built theories to explain those. Fundis are fond of fusing the English colloquial meaning of "theory" with the meaning of "theory" in science and saying, "Evolution is just a theory." As in, evolution is just a guess.

Pete Seeger used to keep a bumper sticker in his house that said, "Gravity is just a theory." I don't recommend trying to walk on air from the tenth story of a building on the assumption that gravity is an unproven theory. Or that Newtonian gravity has been abolished.

Newtonian gravity works well in the solar system, though there is some tiny variation in the orbit of the outer planets that the Newtonian theory of gravity doesn't completely explain. But the fact that Einstein discovered that gravity exists because spacetime is curved doesn't mean Newtonian science or his theory of gravity were wrong. Eistein's theories of relativity were a broader theory that include Newtonian gravity but are based on better telescopes. And presumably on mathematical developments that Newton facilitated as well.

Newton's most important work is the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, which the Britannica article on Newton edited by Newton biographer Richard Westfall calls "not only Newton's masterpiece but also the fundamental work for the whole of modern science." (Westfall's 1980 biography of him is is Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton).

Martin Gardiner in "Isaac Newton: Alchemist and Fundamentalist" Skeptical Inquirer Sept/Oct 1996, summarized Isaac Newton's accomplishments this way:

For several centuries the best-known Newton has been the great mathematical physicist who in his early twenties invented calculus, discovered the binominal theoren, introduced polar coordinates, proved that white light was a mixture of colors, explained the rainbow, built the first reflecting telescope, and showed that the force causing apples to £all is the same as the force that guides the planets, moons, and comets, and produces tides. His discoveries revolutionized physics.

Hegel considers Newton's empiricism as halting itself at the point where genuine philosophical reflection begins. He calls the Principia "a writing that contains only the methodology of finite science through observation and conclusion." (p. 805) From a materialist philosophical perspective, of course, that is quite a lot! (Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie [Lectures on the History of Philosophy ; I'm quoting here from the Bolland edition of 1908; translations mine])

Antonio Pérez-Ramos in "Bacon's legacy," The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (1996) notes that beginning with Scottish Enlightenment philosopher Thomas Reid, "from the very start the successes of Newtonian science was attributed to its author's faithful following of the rules laid down in the Novum organum some fifty or seventy years earlier. It is true that Newton does once refer to the 'argument from induction'". In other words, Newton was generally seen as a philosopher-scientist working very much in Bacon's tradition.

Hegel associated both Newton and Locke with "the English manner of philosophizing." And, in a bit of Hegelian humor, he explained this by interpreting Newton admonition to physics to guard itself against metaphysics as meaning, "Science, guard yourself against thought." (p. 919)

Newton thought very highly of his own accomplishments. This is not unusual among academics since, of course, though Newton perhaps had more objective justification for his faith in his work than most.

But though his theory of light has been validated by later work, he had something of a challenge in convincing his contemporaries. And that was in part because duplicating his prism experiment required clear and detailed instructions from Newton. And he found that a challenge to provide. He discovered that white light was composed of the various colors of the light spectrum that combined to form white light. He speculated that light was composed of particles. It took quantum physics and much better measuring instruments to determine that the components of light are photons, which both waves and particles.

Goethe worked with Hegel on light experiments, which led Goethe to intensely challenge Newton's theory of light and vision. Hegel agreed with Goethe's criticism of Newton. As Wolfgang Bonsiepen explains, Hegel rejected both the particle and wave theories of light, took light to be weightless, and in fact saw light as the opposite principle to weight. On of the key validations of Einstein's theory of relativity was the observation by 20th-century telescopes that light in fact curved, being affected by the gravity of heavenly bodies. ("Die Aktualitat der Hegelschen Naturphilosophie" Philosophische Rundschau 35:3; 1988)

Bonsiepen also speculates that Hegel must have been particularly attracted to the aspect of Goethe's theory that focused on the contrast between light and dark as an explanation of the refraction of light into colors, because it resonated with Hegel's concept of light as the opposite principle of weight.

Hegel also was skeptical of Newton's theory of gravity, not least because of a problem of which Newton was aware, which is that he had no convincing explanation of the mechanism by which gravity exerts a force on distant bodies. That problems was not solved until Einstein's theories of relativity showed how gravity is a function of the curvature of spacetime.


Wolfgang Bonsiepen, "Die Aktualitat der Hegelschen Naturphilosophie" Philosophische Rundschau 35:3; 1988

Martin Gardiner, "Isaac Newton: Alchemist and Fundamentalist" Skeptical Inquirer Sept/Oct 1996,

G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie (Lectures on the History of Philosophy) Bolland edition; 1908

Antonio Pérez-Ramos, "Bacon's legacy" The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (1996)

George Smith, "Isaac Newton" (2007) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Richard Westfall, "Sir Isaac Newton" (2012) Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite; 2014 Online version: "Sir Isaac Newton"

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Monday, September 15, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's secular "trinity" (1a): Francis Bacon

"Bacon, Locke and Newton, ... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences." - Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Bacon's Utopian literary project, The New Atlantis (1614-1617), described an island society organized largely along the principles of scientific learning, apparently implemented by a elite not unlike the English monarchy of Bacon's own time (1561-1626).

New Atlantis articulated a vision of science as a social process with scientists having particular social obligations that should be governed by ethical considerations. Antonio Pérez-Ramos argues "that the ethos [Bacon] infused into modem science as something inherently related to social development remains by and large a substantial part of our categorial framework." ("Bacon's legacy," The Cambridge Companion to Bacon; 1996)

In it, the Government of Bensalem, the name of the island society, describes the realm's social organization to the narrator. For example:

"We have also a mathematical-house, where are represented all instruments, as well of geometry as astronomy, exquisitely made.

"We have also houses of deceits of the senses, where we represent all manner of feats of juggling, false apparitions, impostures, and illusions, and their fallacies. And surely you will easily believe that we, that have so many things truly natural which induce admiration, could in a world of particulars deceive the senses if we would disguise those things, and labour to make them seem more miraculous. But we do hate all impostures and lies, insomuch as we have severely forbidden it to all our fellows, under pain of ignominy and fines, that they do not show any natural work or thing adorned or swelling, but only pure as it is, and without all affectation of strangeness.["]
They reverenced inventors in Bensalem:

"For our ordinances and rites, we have two very long and fair galleries: in one of these we place patterns and samples of all manner of the more rare and excellent inventions: in the other we place the statues of all principal inventors. There we have the statue of your Columbus, that discovered the West Indies: also the inventor of ships: your Monk that was the inventor of ordnance and of gunpowder: the inventor of music: the inventor of letters: the inventor of printing: the inventor of observations of astronomy: the inventor of works in metal: the inventor of glass: the inventor of silk of the worm: the inventor of wine: the inventor of corn and bread: the inventor of sugars: and all these by more certain tradition than you have. Then we have divers inventors of our own, of excellent works, which since you have not seen, it were too long to make descriptions of them; and besides, in the right understanding of those descriptions you might easily err. For upon every invention of value we erect a statue to the inventor, and give him a liberal and honourable reward. These statues are some of brass, some of marble and touchstone, some of cedar and other special woods gilt and adorned; some of iron, some of silver, some of gold.["]
It's easy to imagine that Jefferson found such a reverence of inventors appealing.

The narrator informs us that the residents of Bensalem are Christians. Mostly. There are Jews there, too:

By that time six or seven days were spent, I was fallen into straight acquaintance with a merchant of that city, whose name was Joabin. He was a Jew and circumcised; for they have some few stirps [kinship groups] of Jews yet remaining amongst them, whom they leave to their own religion. Which they may the better do, because they are of a far differing disposition from the Jews in other parts. For whereas they hate the name of Christ, and have a secret inbred rancour against the people amongst whom they live; these, contrariwise, give unto our Saviour many high attributes, and love the nation of Bensalem extremely. Surely this man of whom I speak would ever acknowledge that Christ was born of a Virgin and that He was more than a man; and he would tell how God made Him ruler of the seraphim, which guard His throne; and they call Him also the Milken Way, and the Eliah of the Messiah, and many other high names, which though they be inferior to His divine majesty, yet they are far from the language of other Jews.

And for the country of Bensalem, this man would make no end of commending it, being desirous by tradition among the Jews there to have it believed that the people thereof were of the generations of Abraham, by another son, whom they call Nachoran; and that Moses by a secret cabala ordained the laws of Bensalem which they now use; and that when the Messiah should come, and sit in His throne at Jerusalem, the King of Bensalem should sit at His feet, whereas other kings should keep a great distance. But yet setting aside these Jewish dreams, the man was a wise man and learned, and of great policy, and excellently seen in the laws and customs of that nation.p. 209)
Joabin also notes of his Christian fellow islanders, "I have not read of any such chastity in any people as theirs." Scientific and organized, but evidently not such a fun bunch!

Hostility to Jews had been particularly intent in England in the Middle Ages. As Josef Joffe wrote, "Britain ... tolerated murderous pogroms [against Jews] in the Middle Ages [and] was judenrein [free of Jews] for 400 years." (Goldhagen in Germany New York Review of Books 11/28/1996 issue) Jews were expelled from England by an edict in 1290 by Edward I's Edict of Expulsion and all their property confiscated.

Hans Küng writes in Das Judentum (1991):

The development of modern capitalism therefore did not have to do, as Max Weber thought, with Protestant-Calvinist ethics, but also with Jewish pragmatism. For these economic-political (in any case theological-Messianic) reasons, under Oliver Cromwell and the philo-Semitic Puritans, in 1656 the Jews were again allowed into England, and at the same time into the migration to North America ... (pp. 238-9, my translation)
So it appears that Bacon's vision of religious tolerance toward Jews was a broader one than English attitudes and practices of his time. He seemed to be willing to admit that a Jew could have decent enough qualities to be allowed to live among Christians without being persecuted, denied the practice of his religion, expelled or having his property confiscated by thieving Christians acting with or without the cover of law.

But Bacon's mythical Joabin is a proto-Christian who the narrator assumes believes in the Virgin Birth of Christ. The Jews of Bensalem that Bacon describes call Jesus by "high names, which though they be inferior to His divine majesty, yet they are far from the language of other Jews." In other words, they are tolerable because they aren't real Jews. And even these fictional Good Jews of Bacon's "hate the name of Christ, and have a secret inbred rancour against the people amongst whom they live." Christ-haters, if maybe not quite Christ-killers, and enemies of whatever nation it is in which they live. This seems to be a far cry from the "philo-Semitic Puritans" that Küng describes of the time of Cromwell's reign!

Jefferson had a far more expansive view of religious toleration than the Baconian member of his "trinity."


Francis Bacon, Achievement of Learning/Novum Organum/New Atlantis (Encyclopeadia Britannica edition; 1952)

Barbara Friedberg, "Francis Bacon and the True Ends of Skepticism" Skeptical Inquirer Nov/Dec 2000

G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie (Lectures on the History of Philosophy) Bolland edition; 1908

Jürgen Klein, "Francis Bacon" (2012) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Hans Küng, Das Judentum (1991)

Antonio Pérez-Ramos, "Bacon's legacy" The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (1996)

Anthony M. Quinton, Baron Quinton, "Bacon, Francis, Viscount Saint Alban (or Albans), Baron of Verulam" (2012) Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite; 2013 Online version: Francis Bacon, Viscount Saint Alban

David Simpson, "Francis Bacon (1561-1626)" (2005) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Argentina and the vultures #GrieFault #GriesaFault

Argentina's fight with the vulture funds and their poodle, the Nixon zombie judge Thomas Griesa, continues.

The fight has provided opportunities for the paper Página/12 to do some imaginative representations of it. For instance, August 22, featuring the Nixon zombie judge:

August 30, stressing the global dimensions of the Nixon zombie judge's mischief:

The country took a big step this past week by passing a law allowing themselves to bypass American jurisdiction on the payments to the renegotiated bondholders (CFK signs Sovereign Debt bill: We can pay, we want to pay, we will pay Buenos Aires Herald 09/11/2014):

President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has passed into law the Sovereign Debt bill, which changes the payment location of Argentine bondholders and was approved by Congress earlier this morning.

After the announcement made by Economy Minister Axel Kicillof of the “Now 12” initiative, a new government plan aiming to boost local consumption levels, Fernández de Kirchner assured that with the new bill “Argentina wants to pay, can pay and will pay all the contracted debts,” in a clear reference to the judicial dispute with the holdouts and the consequent adverse ruling by US Federal Judge Thomas Griesa.

“This law assures the payment for 92,4 percent of bondholders which in addition contemplates the interest for those investors who did not took part of the two previous debt swap processes,” the head of state explained. [my emphasis]
Cristina addressed the debt situation in a public statement, 11 de SEP. Lanzamiento del Programa "Ahora 12". Cristina Fernández Casa Rosada 11.09.2014 (40 min.):

And Argentina just received a new loan commitment from the staunchly neoliberal World Bank, demonstrating once again the the vulture funds' attempted bandit move in conjunction with Nixon zombie Judge Thomas Griesa is not endangering Argentina's national credit-worthiness as such. (Charlie Devereux, World Bank to Lend Argentina Up to $1.2 Billion Through 2018 Bloomberg News 09/09/2014; New WBG Strategy to Support Poverty Reduction & Inclusive Growth in Argentina World Bank 11/09/2014)

The World Bank press release just linked includes this quote from Argentine Economics Minister Axel Kiciloff, who has been a very prominent figure in the fight against the vulture funds:

In the past 10 years, Argentina has gone through an historical process of development based on employment and production. We are aware that industrial revitalization is the only way for Argentina to achieve sustained and socially inclusive growth. The Government has supported public policies that resulted in this growth process. International financing associated to employment creation, infrastructure development and supporting the needs of vulnerable sectors is a tool to achieve inclusive growth.
And, the UN General Assembly voted to set up a global legal framework for sovereign debt restructuring, an initiative of the Group of 77+China (Kicillof says UN debt restructuring resolution 'historic,' telling vulture funds 'no more' Buenos Aires Herald 09/10/2014). Only 11 nations voted in opposition. Including the US, with our Nobel Peace Prize President.

Cristina addresses that development in 09 de SEP. Cristina Fernández promulgó Ley de Moratoria Previsional. Cadena Nacional Casa Rosada 09.09.2014:

Página/12 came up with an image for that, too (14.09.2014), showing the vulture funds "without a place in the world":

It's a #GrieFault that's going on, not a genuine default. And Argentina is arranging a course around their scam.

Even the International Capital Market Association (ICMA) is calling for new international rules to present nasty characters like the vulture funds and their Nixon zombie judge accomplice from doing what they're trying to do to Argentina. (ICMA publishes revised collective action clauses (CACs) and a new standard pari passu clause to
facilitate future sovereign debt restructuring

Leland Goss, ICMA’s General Counsel said: "The potential adverse fallout globally from the default and restructuring of Argentina’s debt demonstrates the importance of having clear, unambiguous contract terms for sovereign bonds. In‐depth consultations with our members and other interested public and private sector representatives have led to the development of enhanced legal technology that will  make more orderly and efficient sovereign debt restructurings achievable in the future".
See also, Cambian reglas de reestructuraciones para evitar un nuevo caso como el de Argentina La Economía Online 29.08.2014. The ICMA has provided details of their proposals if you want to geek out on them: STANDARD COLLECTIVE ACTION AND PARI PASSU CLAUSES FOR THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF SOVEREIGN NOTES (Aug 2014).

David Dayen, who has an impressive gift for explaining complex financial issues in a generally accessible way without dumbing them down writes about Argentina's fight in Why Argentina’s Crazy Debt Gambit Could Make Sense Fiscal Times 08/22/2014. He compares Argentina's current approach as a kind of "Calvinball," changing the rules as the game is played:

The thing is, Argentina is kind of allowed to play Calvinball; it’s a side benefit of being a country. By definition, sovereign nations get to make up their own laws and even alter them on a whim. If they don’t want to obey the dictates laid down by other countries or international norms, there’s only so much the international community can do about it.

Which is why expecting U.S. courts to unilaterally delineate Argentina’s payment schedules was predictably impossible. They should have never inserted themselves in the first place into what is little more than a hedge fund’s moneymaking scheme. And Argentina’s response, however unorthodox and bizarre, might even help the U.S. economy, in a cock-eyed way.
Daniel Ozarow describes the stakes for the global financial system in Let's end this madness in the global debt system Aljazeera America 08/25/2014:

The [Nixon zombie judge's] decision has also set a legal precedent: Now that investment funds know that they can successfully appeal to the courts to claim millions of dollars in profits on their original outlay, any incentive they once had to restructure the value of their bonds following debt defaults has now been removed.

This will not only drain the already depleted treasuries of indebted nations, it will also create far-reaching instability in the global financial system, as the IMF has warned. However, the damage caused by a lack of regulation of speculation is not a concern for only poorer nations. Indeed, vulture fund activity has recently intensified closer to home with Aurelius' investment in the UK's Cooperative Bank having forced it to abandon its mutual structure in 2013, and Elliot Management's CEO Paul Singer squeezing huge payments from the Greek government during the eurozone crisis by threatening to create a mass default of banks across Europe.
Ellen Brown talks in some detail about some of the long-range implications of the vulture funds' play in the Argentina conflict in Colonization by Bankruptcy: The High-stakes Chess Match for Argentina Web of Debt 08/25/2014:

Argentina is playing hardball with the vulture funds, which have been trying to force it into an involuntary bankruptcy. The vultures are demanding what amounts to a 600% return on bonds bought for pennies on the dollar, defeating a 2005 settlement in which 92% of creditors agreed to accept a 70% haircut on their bonds. A US court has backed the vulture funds; but last week, Argentina sidestepped its jurisdiction by transferring the trustee for payment from Bank of New York Mellon to its own central bank. That play, if approved by the Argentine Congress, will allow the country to continue making payments under its 2005 settlement, avoiding default on the majority of its bonds.

Argentina is already foreclosed from international capital markets, so it doesn’t have much to lose by thwarting the US court system. Similar bold moves by Ecuador and Iceland have left those countries in substantially better shape than Greece, which went along with the agendas of the international financiers.
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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's secular "trinity" (1): Francis Bacon

Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Benjamin Rush of 01/16/1811 (Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 11:168 [1905]), who was another of the leading intellectuals of the early US, described a meeting during the Washington Administration among himself (the Secretary of State), Vice President John Adams and Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton:

Another incident took place on the same occasion, which will further delineate Mr. Hamilton's political principles. The room being hung around with a collection of the portraits of remarkable men, among them were those of Bacon, Newton and Locke, Hamilton asked me who they were. I told him they were my trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced, naming them. He paused for some time: "the greatest man," said he, "that ever lived, was Julius Cæsar." Mr. Adams was honest as a politician, as well as a man; Hamilton honest as a man, but, as a politician, believing in the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men. [my emphasis]
In the pious and fake American history promoted by Christian fundamentalist homeschoolers, such a conversation couldn't have taken place, because of course all the Founders would have had to name Jesus Christ as the greatest man who ever lived.

But in the real world where real history takes place, this passage is interesting in several ways. For one thing, it enunciates the biggest difference in political outlook Jefferson had with Hamilton. He judged Hamilton's review to be a monarchist, anti-democracy view that democratic self-government was not possible because he assumed "the necessity of either force or corruption to govern men."

That was also the main basis of Jefferson's objection to the Bank of the United States that Hamilton championed, because he understood Hamilton to view it as a method of corruption to manipulate the Congress. And that is how it functioned in practice and continue to function in years in which President Andrew Jackson fought successfully to abolish it.

It's also fascinating that Jefferson named as his "trinity of the three greatest men the world had ever produced" the philosophers Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Isaac Newton (1642–1727) and John Locke (1632-1704). Of those three, only Locke is mainly known as a political theorist.

In a letter of 02/15/1789 to John Trumbull from his post in Paris as US Minister to France, Jefferson wrote of the three scientist-philosophers: "Bacon, Locke and Newton, ... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences." (A Library of Congress image of the handwritten letter is linked; a less legible image from the LOC is here. An HTML version of the quote is also available from the LOC.)

Francis Bacon, Viscount Saint Alban, Baron of Verulam (1561-1626)

Bacon had an interesting political career, including serving as Lord Chancellor under King James I, an office which in that time was mainly devoted to overseeing the judiciary, and seems to have been generally of a conservative, royalist turn of mind. Which didn't manage to get him out of a short stint as a prisoner in the Tower of London on charges of bribery at one point.

Jefferson's younger contemporary Hegel (1770-1831) wrote about Francis Bacon in his Lectures on the History of Philosophy (Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie; I'm quoting here from the Bolland edition of 1908; translations mine). Hegel's framework for European history was a tripartite one that he applied to philosophy, as well, designating three major periods: the Greco-Roman, the medieval and the modern period. He wrote that the third period "first emerged since the time of the Thirty Years War with Bacon, Jacob Bœhme and Descartes." (p. 89) Hegel seemed to think the outlook of the practical, scheming statesman, "an educated man of the world," weighed heavily on Bacon's philosophical thought:

So he had experienced the depravity of men who were at the rudder of the state. Next to the depravity of his character he was a man of intellect and clear sight, but did not have the ability to reflect according to general thoughts and concepts. A methodical scientific view is not available from him, but rather only the superficial reflection of a man of the world above all. (p. 821)
Jefferson presumably didn't take quite such a dim view of the depravity of Bacon's character. Hegel nevertheless rated Bacon's contributions to philosophy highly. Hegel's German Idealist tradition was a distinct one from the British empirical tradition of which Jefferson's "trinity" of Bacon, Newton and Locke was very much a part. But Hegel valued the empiricist tradition highly. He praises Bacon especially for his critique of the theological-idealist philosophical tradition of the Catholic scholastics and for his emphasis on the value of empirical observation and experimentation.

Hegel points out that Bacon's two best-known works are the Novum Organum and De augmentis scientiarum. The latter was a translation into Latin with some revision of The Advancement of Learning, considered the first major work of philosophy written originally in English. In both works, Bacon polemicized against the scholastic Aristotelian metaphysical methodology that had become common in his time. That method involved reasoning from Scriptural assumptions and established theological premises to frame all experience. Bacon called instead for beginning with sensual experience and drawing conclusions from that experience, an "explanation" or "reading out" of Nature. Bacon strived to draw "conclusion by induction and analogy," Hegel quotes him from Novum Organon. In the later work, Bacon postulates four basic causes (Ursachen): matter, form, effective cause, and final cause.

Hegel argues that while Bacon assumed to derive "immanent, true perception" out of empirical observation and experimentation, without relying on pre-established assumptions or concepts, in fact Bacon was relying on assumptions and concepts in the classifications of knowledge he made in De augmentis scientiarum. (Hegel p. 818)

But Hegel's criticism of Bacon focuses more on what he sees as Bacon's insufficient empiricism than on his lack of an idealist perspective. In Hegel's view of philosophy as the Idea progressively manifesting itself in the history of thought, Bacon's refutation of scholastic Aristotelianism and his focus on investigating the material world were critically important advances in thought. It's notable that Hegel makes his point about Bacon's claims for deductive understanding of empirical observations by citing physical phenomenon that nevertheless are not understandable in a purely deductive sense such as that posited by Bacon:

Man does not remain with isolated facts and cannot. He seeks the general; but this is "thoughts," if not also "concepts." The most distinguished form of thought is that of "force"; so one speaks of a force of electricity, of magnetism, of weight. But "force" is a general thing, not directly empirically observable [nicht Wahrnehmbares]; therefore, the empiricist is completely uncritical, unconscious in devoting himself to such analyses [as those of Bacon's deductive approach]. (p. 819)
Hegel saw Bacon as having made a major advance in the research of natural phenomenon by focusing on the search for "effective causes" instead of teleological ones. Hegel also praised Bacon for his arguments against astrology, magic and other forms of superstition.

Given his passion for classification, it's fitting that Bacon should be especially remembered for lists of categories, such as his four types of "idols," his metaphor for major errors in thinking that prevent accurate perception of material realities: Idols of the tribe (careless but common assumptions), idols of the cave (individual preferences), idols of the marketplace (limitations of language) and idols of the theater (philosophical systems). He also classified three major faculties of knowledge: memory, imagination and reason. Though what troubled Hegel about the later was it was so heavily restricted to inductive reasoning without, in Hegel's view, adequate reflection on the underlying theoretical assumptions of his approach.

Bacon also is known for stressing the importance of the idea of falsification in physical experiments, a key part of the present-day scientific method which assumes that hypothesis need to be carefully formulated in a way that the possibility of their falsehood can be directly tested - although Bacon himself has been criticized for not sufficiently appreciating the importance of hypotheses. Jürgen Klein in very useful, long 2012 article about Bacon in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Bacon's Utopian fable The New Atlantis described his model for an institution devoted to scientific research for the benefit of humankind and is considered influential in the formation of the British Royal Society, founded in 1660.

In his Francis Bacon in entry for the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, David Simpson observes of The New Atlantis:

The work ... stands in the great tradition of the utopian-philosophical novel that stretches from Plato and More to Huxley and Skinner.

The thin plot or fable is little more than a fictional shell to contain the real meat of Bacon’s story: the elaborate description of Salomon’s House (also known as the College of the Six Days Works), a centrally organized research facility where specially trained teams of investigators collect data, conduct experiments, and (most importantly from Bacon’s point of view) apply the knowledge they gain to produce "things of use and practice for man's life." These new arts and inventions they eventually share with the outside world.

In terms of its sci-fi adventure elements, the New Atlantis is about as exciting as a government or university re-organization plan. But in terms of its historical impact, the novel has proven to be nothing less than revolutionary, having served not only as an effective inspiration and model for the British Royal Society, but also as an early blueprint and prophecy of the modern research center and international scientific community.

Barbara Friedberg in the popular journal Skeptical Inquirer, Francis Bacon and the True Ends of Skepticism Nov/Dec 2000, calls attention to Bacon's emphasis on debunking superstition and the need for methodological corrections against psychological prejudice in evaluating scientific findings:

Bacon's paradoxical message- the mind is faulty, the mind can achieve wonders - is usually misunderstood, ignored, or quoted misleadingly.' Yet it is at the heart of the mission of SKEPTICAL INQUIRER. For Bacon grasped that the scientific method must be intimately linked with a critique of pseudoscience, and that such a critique was not to be just a start-up routine for modern science, bur would be of continuing, even increasing, importance. The more that inquiry prospered. the more its intellectual, semantic, and institutional offshoots would be vulnerable to the Idols of the mind.

She writes that in Bacon's time:

Empiricism was, not lacking, but it did not underlie broad scientific theories. These tended to soar aloft, in obedience to what Bacon called "Idols of the mind" because they diverged men from examining divinely created narure. What was needed was "a closer and purer league between ... the experimental and the rational (such as has never yet been made) ..."

Francis Bacon, Achievement of Learning/Novum Organum/New Atlantis (Encyclopeadia Britannica edition; 1952)

Barbara Friedberg, "Francis Bacon and the True Ends of Skepticism" Skeptical Inquirer Nov/Dec 2000

G.W.F. Hegel, Vorlesungen über die Geschichte der Philosophie (Lectures on the History of Philosophy) Bolland edition; 1908

Jürgen Klein, "Francis Bacon" (2012) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Hans Küng, Das Judentum (1991)

Antonio Pérez-Ramos, "Bacon's legacy" The Cambridge Companion to Bacon (1996)

Anthony M. Quinton, Baron Quinton, "Bacon, Francis, Viscount Saint Alban (or Albans), Baron of Verulam" (2012) Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite; 2013 Online version: Francis Bacon, Viscount Saint Alban

David Simpson, "Francis Bacon (1561-1626)" (2005) Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Yellen and inflation

Janet Yellen as head of the Federal Reserve has refused to give in to the inflation Chicken Littles and is declining to raise interest rates the way they would like.

One of the zombie ideas of conservative economics is the "natural rate of unemployment," which is normally taken to be a percentage point or so below the actual rate of unemployment at a given time. Not that anything besides the raw materials in the economy is actually "natural."

But this allows conservatives who think high unemployment is either good or, at worst, a minor inconvenience too insignificant to have national policies aimed at lowering it, to argue that we're almost at the level of employment that will set off INFLAA-AATION!! Germany! Hyper-inflation! Hitler! It will hurt the old people! Aiii-eeee!!!

Peter Coy and Matthew Philips in How Much Surplus Labor Do We Have? Bloomberg Businessweek 08/21/2014 articulate a sensible view of Yellen's decision:

To Yellen’s credit, an inflationary spike in wages is nowhere in sight. Given current inflation and productivity growth, workers should see wage gains above 3 percent, says Ethan Harris, co-head of global economics research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (BAC). Wage growth has been closer to 2 percent, no higher than overall inflation. It’s possible, as the hawks worry, that wage pressure is building up unnoticed. But Yellen has said that a little bit of above-target wage growth is OK as long as the public continues to believe that inflation will remain low over the long term. For now, the slackers at the Fed are running the show.
Not that Businessweek is immune from spouting the conventional wisdom in the face of realities that fairly obviously contradict it on other occasions.

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Friday, September 12, 2014

Skeptics' dirty laundry

Mark Oppenheimer has a report on some troubling trends in the skeptic/atheist movement, Will Misogyny Bring Down The Atheist Movement? Buzzfeed 09/11/2014.

I'm not sure how successfully the reporter struggles through the ethical issues involved in some of the reports, particularly one involving a rape accusation that the accused denies and the accuser apparently semi-retracted.

But it's a reminder that there are scientists who debunk superstition spread by Christian fundamentalists, esoterics, pseudoscientists and charlatans but who also have attitudes toward women that would fit fairly comfortably among Christian Rightists or yee-haw frat boys.

Since women are often the victims of pseudoscience and superstition, it's great to see that women including feminist activists are taking a larger role in the skeptics' movement.

Although I'm a big fan of Skeptical Inquirer and have been for two decades, I've never been especially tempted to try to make one of the skeptics' conference. One of the main reasons is that I suspected they would attract too many socially-challenged nerdy guys.

The main skeptic feminist website seems to be Skepchick. (I guess the Dixie Chicks gave a new implication to the "chick" word.)

It currently features a post relating to the Oppenheimer article by Courtney Caldwell, Five More Things Richard Dawkins Thinks You Should Be Held Criminally Responsible For When Drunk 09/12/2014. Since I'm linking it, I should add that if Oppenheimer is right about the victim of alleged sexual misconduct is explicitly saying she's not calling it "rape," then it's questionable for someone else to call it rape, as occurs in the second sentence of that post. Although the alleged abuser does come off as a major jerk in Oppenheimer's report.

Caldwell does take a memorable shot against famous atheist and major prick Richard Dawkins: "Richard Dawkins’ only use for women is when he can trot out behavior against them as proof of why religion is bad. All other acts by women should be criminalized."

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Thursday, September 11, 2014

"Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die": Obama's Iraq-Syria Non-War War

Our Nobel Peace Prize President is looking less and less like a peace President all the time.

Here is the PBS Newshour video of his Non-War War speech yesterday, PBS NewsHour special report Sept. 10, 2014:

It's prefaced and following with commentary by Sleepy Mark Shields and David "Bobo" Brooks.

The White House has the prepared text here.

Juan Cole has a kinda-sorta hopeful take on the speech. He's hoping that Obama was basically faking it when he talked about the goal of destroying ISIS/ISIL/whatever-we-call-it-today. He hopes instead that Obama really intends to do limited containment. (Obama’s ISIL Actions are Defensive, Despite Rhetoric of going on Offense Informed Comment 09/11/2014)

Cole's arguments actually have more the sound of hoping for the best. But the thread of hope is stretched pretty thin when its based on hoping the President doesn't really mean that his war aims are what he says they are.

Then there was this before the speech:

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the possibility Wednesday that U.S. troops might be committed to ground operations in Iraq in extreme circumstances, the first hedging by an administration official on President Barack Obama’s pledge that there will be no U.S. boots on the ground to battle the Islamic State. ...

Kerry reiterated that Obama has said no U.S. combat troops would be deployed to fight the Islamic State in Iraq, before adding, “Unless, obviously, something very, very dramatic changes.”

That formulation hasn’t been used previously by administration officials in discussing the growing U.S. confrontation with the Islamic State, and it’s sure to feed concerns that the United States may be making a greater commitment to a new conflict in the Middle East than it first intended. (Roy Gutman, Kerry: US troops might deploy to Iraq if there are ‘very dramatic changes’ McClatchy/Stars and Stripes 09/10/2014)
Uh,yes, it will feed such concerns. Although I'm sure that's what the merry trio of the bold Maverick McCain, Huckleberry "the-sky-is-falling-aaaiiii!!!" Graham, and Tailgunner Ted Cruz would love to see:

The speech was immediately criticized by some of Obama’s fiercest foreign policy opponents. Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz dubbed the speech “fundamentally unserious” on Fox News. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), using another acronym for ISIL, said on CNN that “the president really doesn’t have a grasp for how serious the threat from ISIS is.”

“The president’s plan will likely be insufficient to destroy ISIS, which is the world’s largest, richest terrorist army,” McCain said in a subsequent statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). (Lauren French, Hill mixed on Obama speech Politico 09/11/2014)
And, yes, I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked!! that the Republicans are criticizing the President In A Time Of War.

This whole think is discouraging to me because of what Howard LaFranchi says, "In presenting to the American people his strategy for 'degrading and ultimately destroying' the Islamic State (IS), President Obama essentially launched what he came into office pledging to get the United States out of: an open-ended military campaign in the Middle East." (With Islamic State speech, Obama deepens US involvement in Middle East (+video) Christian Science Monitor 09/11/2014)

LaFranchi quotes Andrew Bacevich, who takes a conscious Niebuhrian view of foreign affairs:

For others, though, Obama’s strategy in its essence is no different from what has guided the war on terrorism since the aftermath of 9/11.

“This is absolutely a continuation of the long war,” says Andrew Bacevich, a professor emeritus at Boston University and national security expert prominent for his criticism of America’s Middle East wars. “Whether or not the effort to defeat ISIS succeeds, this new intervention is not going to bring the long war to an end.”

Obama is following a familiar pattern of “use force or don’t act,” Professor Bacevich says, but he adds that force did not work in Afghanistan or Iraq and that it won’t address the roots of a challenge like IS.

“Relying on force to do what – bring stability to, democratize, pacify, and make friends with the Islamic world – does not seem with experience to offer anything in the way of a remedy,” he says. “Military action is not going to solve the larger problem of the conflict between traditional forms of Islam and a world tending increasingly towards secular modernity.”

Bacevich, who says he is not advocating inaction, insists there is a moral argument to be made for intervention against IS – but that is not what he sees Obama doing. “His argument is that ISIS poses a clear threat to the United States,” he says, “and that's wrong.”
Bacevich is his genuinely innovative writing considers the Long War to begin with the Cold War, and doesn't restrict the term to the so-called War on Terrorism. Gareth Porter analyzes the same phenomenon from the perspective of US military dominance in the world since the Second World War.

There are lots of nasty flies in this ointment.

There's Iran, with whom we entered into a de facto alliance when the Cheney-Bush Administration invaded Iraq, although that wasn't their intention in their imperial daydream about knocking of one Middle East government after the other with minimal forces, their own version of the Light Brigade celebrated by Alfred Lord Tennyson in the poem quoted in the title to this post.

Using the [US] military tool in any major way simply is not a viable option for the United States, except as a last resort. Prepositioning assets to signal intent and capability is probably the only significant role for the U.S. military at the moment, because the United States would be better served by Iran’s military bolstering both the Iraqi and Syrian governments. (Larry Goodson, Syria and the Great Middle Eastern War Army Strategic Studies Institute 07/08/2014)
There's Turkey. "It should be remembered as well that Erdogan's Turkey provided shelter, supply lines, transit rights and training space for IS among other Sunni jihadi groups fighting in Syria. The Turks are still doing this." (Pat Lang, Too many moving parts, too many Sic Semper Tyrannis 09/11/2014)

And, of course, there's Syria:

For President Barack Obama, the decision to go after Islamic State militants in Syria also creates a dilemma, as doing so could help Assad, who Obama has said needs to relinquish power.

“Whilst it’s true that attacks will serve Syrian ends, it will also serve the ends of Syrian opposition groups, whom Obama has committed to supporting,” Joshi said. The Islamic State may be weakened, “but the opposition will also be getting stronger and that's bad news for Assad.” (John Vandver et al, What can we expect from the anti-Islamic State coalition? Stars and Stripes 09/11/2014)
Then there's the bizarre predicament of targeting ISIS, which is the Syrian goverment's most powerful opposition in the civil war raging there, making us the de facto allies of President Bashar Assad's regime. But we're also backing another one of Assad's opponents in the civil war, our fabled "moderate" Sunni allies:

One major difficulty is that some Sunni nations see a need for an armed group that will protect Sunni interests against the Shiite-led government in Iraq and the Alawite-dominated government of President Bashar Assad in Syria.

“All things being equal, in a perfect universe, the Saudis would like to harness a group like IS. The problem is, IS doesn’t say, ‘Oh, sir, how high do I jump?” said Kamran Bokhari, an adviser on Middle East and South Asian affairs with the global intelligence company Stratfor.

Support for a broad offensive against the Islamic State from some key allies is likely to come only in return for greater political power for Sunnis in Iraq and stepped-up U.S. support for anti-Assad forces in Syria. That will complicate the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, whom Obama has dispatched to the region to drum up support for the initiative from Sunni allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan.

Still, analysts say, the old Sunni bulwarks have little choice but to support, at least cosmetically, a U.S. coalition, since the Islamic State is at their borders and unwilling to act as a proxy for them against Shiite foes such as Iran and Hezbollah. They’ll push for the creation of a Syrian rebel force strong enough to fight both the Islamic State and the Iranian-backed Assad regime. (Hannah Allam and Jonathan Landay, Obama strategy to beat Islamic State likely to draw U.S. into years of conflict McClatchy Newspapers 09/05/2014)
That would be the Iran by which, according to Larry Goodson, "the United States would be better served by Iran’s military bolstering both the Iraqi and Syrian governments" than by direct military action against ISIS.

Jeffrey White, a former senior Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, said it appears that Obama has been forced by the Islamic State’s military successes and its growing threat to undertake a serious effort to build and arm a Syrian opposition force capable of defeating the Islamist extremists with the help of U.S. air power.

“It certainly sounds like we’re more serious,” said White, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, though he cautioned: “We’ve heard this so many times before, but little has come of it.”

​Obama’s language Friday on Syria reinforced the idea that crushing the Islamic State has replaced Assad’s ouster as the main U.S. priority​ in Syria, White said. ...

There are indications that the hard work to build such a force is already underway, overseen by the CIA, despite remarks by Obama last month disparaging the moderate U.S.-backed Syrian opposition as “doctors, farmers, pharmacists, and so forth.”

The top general of the Free Syrian Army told McClatchy last week that since December secret U.S. military and non-lethal support has bypassed the group’s Turkey-based leadership and gone directly to up to 14 commanders inside northern Syria and some 60 smaller groups in the south. All of them report to the U.S. spy agency, he said.

“The leadership of the FSA is American,” said Gen. Abdul-llah al Bashir, who defected from Assad’s army two year ago.

Free Syrian Army field commanders confirmed that the United States is providing their men with training outside Syria and with weapons, including TOW anti-tank missiles. (Allam and Landay)
John Vandver et al also talk about the perspectives of various and sundry allies in spirit or in fact: Australia (who knows why?), Bahrain, Canada, France (whose Socialist President apparently loves him some war as much as he loves Herbert Hoover economics), Germany (where Angela Merkel doesn't limit her goals to impoverishing the eurozone population but also wants to make Germany a bigger military player), Great Britain (our faithful poodle in such matters), Italy (that is trying to survive Angie-nomics), Jordon (possibly maybe), Kuwait, Poland (who doesn't have any immediate eastern European concerns to worry about, except for, you know, the Ukraine crisis), Qatar (whose monarchy has been supporting Sunni opposition to our Iraqi allies and Iranian friends), Saudi Arabia (whose government and citizens continue to be major funders of violent Islamic extremism), and the United Arab Emirates.

What could go wrong in such a coalition?

Also, this from Hannah Allam, Obama’s Islamic State strategy relies on allies with own reputations for brutality McClatchy Newspapers 09/09/2014:

Whatever strategy President Barack Obama lays out Wednesday to combat the Islamic State is sure to rely heavily on buy-in from rival Muslim powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran – one a Sunni Muslim kingdom with its own grim penchant for beheadings and the other a Shiite pariah state that’s executed thousands of dissidents. ...

Virtually any action against the Islamic State inside of Syria will help the forces of President Bashar Assad, whose ouster the United States has demanded for years.

Iran, meanwhile, is what Shaikh called the “silent partner” in the coalition, too radioactive to be explicitly included but whose presence and influence are too great to be ignored.

The expectation, analysts said, is that Iran would contribute discreetly by leaning on the new government in Baghdad to make more concessions to Sunni leaders and by nudging the Assad regime in Damascus toward reviving the idea of a negotiated resolution to the crisis.

“What Iran does now will determine to what extent the other Gulf and Arab states will more visibly accept its role,” Shaikh said. “It’s a key moment.”

U.S.-Iranian talks on the Islamic State are kept very quiet, but evidence crops up in occasional leaks or news items. One recent example is the emergence of a photo that purported to show Iranian spymaster Qassem Suleimani with Iraqi Shiite militiamen near Amerli, where U.S. warplanes had just helped to break a months-long siege. Put more simply: Americans provided the air cover and Iranian-backed militias provided the ground forces to retake territory from the Islamic State. [my emphasis]
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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Frank Schaeffer lectures Both Sides on ISIS

Frank Schaeffer knows a lot about Christianity, Christian fundamentalism and the Christian Right and its politics, his father having been a key figure in the latter.

When it comes to politics generally, and to the politics of war more particularly, he seems to have pretty much conventional, MSNBC-Obama-loyalist views. And his knowledge of Islam lags considerably behind his knowledge of Christianity.

In American Liberals and Conservatives Created ISIS Together Deal With It 09/08/2014 at his Patheos blog, he indulges a bit of both-sides-do-it-ism over the latest Greatest Threat We've Ever Faced, ISIS.

He provides a series of paired lessons for Each Side. Like this:

Liberals can't get their minds around the fact that we needed Saddam Hussein, Muammar [Gaddafi] and Bashar al-Assad they were doing us a favor by keeping brutal order

Conservatives can't get their minds around the fact that American military power is creating wars and that we'll never "win" another war
The first is kind of fair; the humanitarian hawks among Democratic liberals were often lacking in realism about the role those unsavory leaders have played in keeping order in a way that benefited the US.

And it's true that conservatives tend to indulge in magical thinking when it comes to the abilities of the US military to achieve political results in wars. And they also tend to be excessively gullible about military claims of winning and winning and winning. But the idea that ""we'll never 'win' another war" doesn't exactly make sense. A war like the first Gulf War of 1991 could occur again, in which the US military faced a conventional army occupying a foreign country that didn't want to be occupied.

On the whole, his criticism of conservative limitations comes off stronger. That may be because he's concentrated on countering the Christian Right political and religious ideology and is more deeply familiar with their thinking.

Even so, I wonder about a line like this, "Conservatives can't get their minds around the fact that they are responsible for undermining President Obama at every turn thus weakening our country at a critical time." Actually, the Republican strategy of "undermining President Obama at every turn" has been explicit and conscious. Certainly among Republican officeholders, activists and conservative commentators, they understand that's what's happening.

And the "weakening our country at a critical time" is Joe Liebermanesque bathos. And in the matter of military action against ISIS, there doesn't seem to be any "weakening" when it comes to cheering for military action. Polls show wide support for it, even though that will very likely prove to be thin.

And there seems to be a bipartisan consensus in the Congress for Obama's plans, though we can expect the Republicans to complain constantly that it's inadequate. As Robert Hunter writes, "Much of what challenges us today [in the Middle East] derives directly from the misbegotten US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which we blundered into willy-nilly, with intense support from an unthinking commentariat. Well, these chickens have come home to roost and have caused the hen house to overflow." (Obama's Speech on ISIS: The Big Picture LobeLog Foreign Policy) 09/10/2014)

That situation is replaying itself with ISIS. And the commentariat is, if anything, more vapid that in 2002-3. (Eric Boehlert, How Lazy "Optics" Chatter Replaced Beltway Analysis Media Matters 09/09/2014)

But Schaeffer's advice to liberals on the topic is generally pretty thin.

Liberals can’t get their minds around the fact that radical Islam is evil
I'm not at all sure what Schaeffer puts under the umbrella of "radical Islam." Especially since in the same post he conflates Wahhabism with violent Salafism of the al-Qa'ida/ISIS type. In the conclusion, he also makes the fanciful claim, "The Saudis have been the source of all global radical Islam." Except for, you know, all the Egyptians, Pakistanis, Afghans and others who helped develop it. And there was that US-sponsored guerilla war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union that spawned the al-Qa'ida version of violent Salafism.

Conservatives tend to hate Muslims, radical or otherwise, and to cheer indiscriminately for war against them. Many of the same conservation conflate The Libruls with whoever else they hate. So we frequently see conservative complaints about how the evil libruls admire Islamic terrorists.

But this is spacy white-guy ditsiness. How pro-democracy, pro-religious freedom, pro-women's rights liberals would find a way to admire even mild political Islam, like that of the current ruling party in Turkey, much less loony theocrats like Osama bin Laden, has always been a puzzle to me. More to the point, you don't find the webpages of The Nation or The American Prospect or Think Progress filled with admiring tribues to "radical Islam." We're lucky if we get liberals analyses that make realistic distinctions between Islamist groups and clear-headed assessments of the actual challenges they propose.

Do any of the talking heads on MSNBC see ISIS as not-evil? I don't watch the channel much, so I can't speak from my own observations. But I would be very surprised if that were so.

If only foreign policy were as easy as picking the Evil Ones to be the Other Side to the American Exceptionally good Our Side!

President Harry Truman declared in a speech in 1951 meant to rally Americans to support what we now call the Cold War against the officially atheist Soviet Union, with the hot war in Korea under way:

[O]ur nation is engaged in a great effort to maintain justice and peace in the world. An essential feature of this effort is our program to build up the defenses of our country.

There has never been a greater cause. There has never been a cause which had a stronger moral claim on all of us.

We are defending the religious principles upon which our Nation and our whole way of life are founded. We are defending the right to worship God - each as he sees fit according to his own conscience. We are defending the right to follow the precepts and the example which God has set for us. We are defending the right of people to gather together, all across our land, in churches such as this one.

For the danger that threatens us in the world today is utterly and totally opposed to all these things. The international Communist movement is based on a fierce and terrible fanaticism. It denies the existence of God and, wherever it can, it stamps out the worship of God. [my emphasis] (quoted by Andrew Preston, Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy, 2012)
Today's humanitarian hawks are hardly the first to invoke sharp contrasts of good and evil, of righteousness and sin, in favor of Our Side and against the Other Side.

Substitute "radical Islam" for "the international Communist movement" and, in the last sentence, "Christianity" for "God," and this could be from a boilerplate speech in today's War of Terrorism.

Unfortunately, being the American Exceptionally Good Side doesn't make the allies we're supporting in the Non-War War on ISIS Exceptionally Good themselves. Those include, to some degree: the Iraqi government, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iran, the Shia Badr Army in Iraq, the Syrian government, the Free Syrian Army, Lebanese Hizbullah, Turkey. Not all of them play nice. (See, for instance: Isabel Coles, Iraq's Shi'ite militia, Kurds use U.S. air strikes to further own agendas Reuters 09/09/2014)

Juan Cole writes in 3 Years War? Obama to Bomb Syria in fight against ISIL Informed Comment 09/10/2014:

In other reports, Obama officials have leaked that they think this is a 3 years war. (Ronald Reagan began vastly increasing the aid to Afghan rebels against the then Communist government in Kabul in 1982, and US counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency in that country is still going on in 2014, 32 years later; so three years have a way of becoming multiplied by 10). ...

At the same time, Obama appears to envisage arming and training the “moderates” of the Free Syrian Army, who have consistently been pushed to the margins by al-Qaeda offshoots and affiliates. Private billionaires in the Gulf will continue to support ISIL or its rival, Jabhat al-Nusra (the Succor Front, which has pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda). Strengthening yet another guerrilla group will, again, likely prolong the fighting. Moreover, in the past two years, Free Syrian Army moderate groups have gone radical and joined Nusrah or ISIL at an alarming rate. Defectors or defeated groups from the FSA will take their skills and arms with them into the al-Qaeda offshoots.
Sadly, when it comes to the real-world fight against ISIS, the boundaries of Good and Evil aren't quite so clear as Frank Schaeffer's simplistic formula might suggest.

And when Schaeffer gets into a peroration like this in his conclusion, he's just indulging hysteria: "ISIS is establishing a world-threatening caliphate from the Mediterranean to the Indian border ... and maybe beyond. They also have supporters in nuclear-armed Pakistan. They also will send radicalized Americans back ready to kill us here."

ISIS controls a stretch of discontented, sparsely populated desert in Syria and Iraq thanks to its cooperation with Sunni tribes. But anyone who thinks it's "establishing a world-threatening caliphate from the Mediterranean to the Indian border" just needs to get a grip.

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