September 08, 2007

Mike Gravel

Were I an American, that is who I should vote with, with Dennis Kucinich running a distant second though both are not options I'd be happy with, apparantly 35% of my platform matches Gravel and 22% Kucinich with Tommy Thompson third on a 5% match and Romney the first of the major candidates in there at 4%. Obviously its quite unreliable as a test of what one might do- but this US Presidential candidate calculator is good fun- anyway I'm off to find some leftwing Democrats- looks like I might have a lot in common with them...

September 05, 2007

The Structure of Protagoras

Protagoras is one of Plato's most interesting dialogues- focusing on the question of how we might teach excellence and ultimately what excellence is itself, Socrates unfolds a theory that to be evil is to be ignorant. One of the most interesting things about the dialogue though is that in itself it contains a defence of the dialogic form- a defence of the principle of theoretical discussion in question and answer format. Its interesting because it reflects on what Plato meant by philosophy and also upon what he took to be the best procedure to educate with and also the starting point of philosophical enquiry- one senses in this dialogue for Plato that those two things are one and the same.

The dialogue's setting is fairly simply conveyed. A young friend of Socrates, Hippocrates who wishes to be educated in the arts of government, leads Socrates off to meet with Protagoras who resides at the house of Critias. Despite the fact that there are many people there- up to 21- it appears that they are all content to listen to Protagoras and Socrates square off in a philosophical dual. There are interruptions and some of them are important to this argument- in particular it is important to note the presence of two characters Alciabedes and Prodicus, both of whom we shall return to.

The discussion between Protagoras and Socrates is fairly ill tempered- at various points, one or other threatens to leave or seems upset with the others approach in argument (see for example 331c, 334c-338e5 and 348b). Its worth examining several segments of this argument and in particular the middle segment which encapsulates the key issues between the two individuals, Socrates and Protagoras. Protagoras's view of the good life is that the good life can be learned from individuals who teach how to live it. He is keen to offer Hippocrates his teaching in public (317c) because he contends that being a sophist is something that it is not neccessary to hide, it is he says an 'ancient' calling (316d). As Socrates tells us Protagoras wants to 'put on a performance' to the large audience. (317c-d) Protagoras then proceeds to tell Socrates and Hippocrates and the others exactly what Hippocrates will learn from him:

What I teach is the proper management of one's own affairs, how best to run one's household and the management of public affairs, how to make the most effective contribution to the affairs of the city both by word and by action.
During the dialogue Protagoras continually assumes a teaching role- there is a sense in which the dialogue is indeed a seminar with him in the role of teacher, in 320c for example he tells Socrates that he will 'as an older man speaking to his juniors' tell a parable to explain his argument. There is much about Protagoras's method that strikes one as longwinded- he is addicted to making long and verbose speeches about various subjects- an example could be for instance his parable (320c8-328d2).

Both Socrates and Alciabedes reflect on the fact that this though isn't a perfect method of teaching people. Both of them state that the problem is that even an educated man can only 'nearly' remember what has been said after such a long time (Socrates 329b) and Alciabedes is even more blunt, arguing that it merely demonstrates the teacher's inadequacy to the subject if he makes
a long speech in reply to every question, staving off objections and not giving answers, but spinning it out until most of the people forgot what the question was.(336d)
What Socrates and Alcibiades seek on the other hand is a model of argument by question and answer, where propositions are disputed and then discarded if found untrue. This is the model that prevails during the rest of the dialogue after the middle section.

But its worth noting what this form of argument does. Firstly it discards the use of elegance and allusion. Hippias is right to deem that Socrates's argument is plainer than Protagoras's style of argument (338a) and its also worth noting that when Protogaras seeks to teach through literary example, Socrates disables that kind of argument with ease when he shows that you can bend the words of the poet Simonides (who Protogaras alludes to) into a Socratic form (338e6-347a5). The point of this discussion of Simonides is to undermine yet another Protogaran approach to education, it undermines the virtue of using literary or textual exempla in order to convey a point. Socrates wants us to argue in plain language and question and answer format and that is how the crucial theoretical points within the argument are made- including the revelation that both Socrates and Protogaras have learnt from the argument. (361a-b) Secondly its worth noting that the question and answer format is much less confrontational and much more egalitarian than the Protogaran format. Protagoras assumes his age and wisdom allows him to make speeches and for those speeches to be accepted by the others. Socrates though establishes a format of equality, without a chairman, where each protagonist in the argument takes turns to ask and answer simple questions about their position (338d-e). Under the Protogaran format egos had broken loose and it seemed likely that one of the participants at least might leave (335c8-d), Socrates' format allows both participants to remain, philosophically grow and even promise to meet each other once more to discuss issues not yet resolved (361e-362a).

If we turn once more to the issue of education, what is Socrates saying here- because I do beleive it has a wider importance than just the choice of long speeches as against dialogue as a form for learning. The first thing that I think Socrates is getting at is that sophistical or Protogaran education merely breeds ego and respect for seniority. He suggests that alluding to philosophy is ultimately a waste of time- that it distracts from the actual argument and as Alciabedes says it avoids the questions at stake. Indeed Socrates attacks even the idea of writing philosophy down in Phaedrus (275c). And I think that leads us on to a second point which is that philosophy in Plato's scheme is authorityless- short extracts from poetry are cited by Socrates often to explain a point- but a knowledge of a poem (poets taken by many Greeks to be as wise as philosophers- Protagoras in this very dialogue compares himself to Homer for example (316d)) is irrelevant to the true study of philosophy- it is dialogue and examination in the here and now that matters, not authorities cited or footnotes shown.

Obviously Plato's argument has relevance only for philosophy, which he is willing to admit is a distinct type of knowledge (312a-b) from others like music or literary studies. But the simple point that the structure of the Protagoras makes is that long speeches, disquisitions filled with allusions and argument by means of continuous illustration without questioning is flawed and does not bring forth truth or light, but in the end culminates with discord, pride and wounded dignity. Dialogue on the other hand is the way not merely to produce a discussion in which both parties are partners, and neither age nor increased literary or even historical knowledge separates them, but a rigorous examination of the logical coherence of concepts and arguments unites them, produces real results and also real comity between those engaged within it.

More from Mr Lehrer- His views on Pollution!

I've put the other video of Lehrer I just found up at Imagined Community where I'm doing a bit of guest posting- head across for Lehrer's take on nuclear war!

A casualty of War

There isn't much to say- save for read this.

Why wars are neccessary

Chris Bradley like most of us is in an ideal world a pacifist and to be honest I agree with him entirely about that- a world without war would be a fine thing. Chris in the post linked to above goes a little further- and I think its worth following him to speculate about the causes of war. Just war theory is of course one of the oldest branches of philosophy and is exceedingly complicated- but there is something in Chris's article that I think needs to be addressed and its in the way that during his discussion Chris deals with the origins of the second world war.

For most of us the instant response to pacificism and a valid one is what would you (the pacifist) have done about Hitler. Hitler being here the archetype of totalitarian evil- though as Chris notes he didn't kill as many people as either Stalin or Mao. In 1939 would your pacifism have gone as far as saying that we should not have fought the invasion of Poland, would your pacifism have gone as far as tolerating the invasion of France, Greece, Russia, Rumania, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Norway and so many other 'old and famous states'. Would your pacifism have remained coherent when Hitler bombed London or when he gassed the Jews. All these are questions a Pacifist has to answer- and some sincerely answer that yes the evils of war would be worse than the evils of oppression. Chris though doesn't make that argument- rather he states that the reasons for Hitler's rise lay in a foolish postwar settlement in the 1918- that the causes for the second war lay in the mishandling of the aftermath of the first.

He is right- the Treaty of Versailles and the myth that Germany had been stabbed in the back, combined with the economic crisis of the late 1930s were fundamental to Hitler's rise. Both in that the huimilation to the Prussian officer elite meant that many of them secretly supported Hitler in the 1920s as Ian Kershaw's biography makes plain, and that the situation supplied Hitler with the popular cause to animate his movement of misfits. Chris therefore leaves the reader with the impression that if only the Treaty of Versailles had been drafted in a more sensible way- then the choice of 1939 would not have existed. The corruption of Versailles preceded the corruption of war- in a sense he is obviously right- but in a very real sense he is also wrong.

Its often rightly said that Generals fight the last war in their battles in the next war- the French command in World War Two who set up fantastic lines of trenches, lines which would have stopped Moltke, but couldn't stop the panzer tanks and bombers, are a wonderful example. But the same thing applies to peace treaties- they are often made to prevent the last war. The Treaty of Versailles was made to prevent a European war caused by the preponderence of Germany on the continent- Germany was taken down to a more managable size- and most of the clauses of Versailles were about the solution to what those statesmen saw as the German problem. Their measures failed of course- and they were wrong in their analysis- but its worth remembering that before using hindsight to condemn them. For it also illustrates another big issue- that we ourselves may unwittingly be here today stoking the fires of future wars- there is no way of us knowing it but we may. Its worth remembering that in the 1920s one of the major causes of anxiety was the fear of a world war- between Europe and America- or between the West and Russia- all that seems obvious today might not seem so obvious in the future.

The problem illustrated by Versailles is that situations indeed do cause wars but that the fundamental elements of those situations are unpredictable. The Great Depression and the individual actions of a couple of foolish German politicians led to Hitler's rise and dominance as well as Versailles. Indeed its perfectly possible to imagine a situation in which Germany formed part of a Western alliance against Russia in this period instead- or in which there was no war at all. Just because history happened in a certain way, doesn't mean it had to happen that way. The problem with saying that war can be avoided if we are not foolish, is that we do not know what the word foolish means- we can guess and most of our political debate is a guess- but ultimately we do not know and will never know until its too late to reverse our own Versailles.

The problem with Chris's argument is that its too easy to go back to the past and find the mistakes that led to war. People at the time didn't plan for war- nobody in 1918 wanted the second world war to start! They planned for peace- their plans were disastrously wrong partly because of things that they could never have predicted, because of information they did not know, because of errors that were implicit in the very way that they understood international politics. As its my belief that you will never eliminate mistakes from diplomacy, its also my belief that you will never really eliminate the need to ask the question, what happens if despite everyone's best efforts another aggressive tyranny like Nazi Germany arises and invades other countries, for me I'm afraid the answer is that in that case we have to go to war.

September 04, 2007

Global Warming Again

The Daily Tech website has a lead story today, Less than half of scientists support Global Warming. A rather interesting story you might think and you'd be right- afterall if less than half of the world's published scientists did support global warming- we non-scientists might have to change our opinions of what was going on. Once you go further down you realise that we are dealing with a research paper, which used the same search terms as a previous research exercise which found large support for global warming up till 2003, and which was written by an accredited academic, but it doesn't appear to be published yet. Fair enough- there are still things we can work out from the Daily Tech story as the website helpfully supplies a summary of his results:

Of 528 total papers on climate change, only 38 (7%) gave an explicit endorsement of the consensus. If one considers "implicit" endorsement (accepting the consensus without explicit statement), the figure rises to 45%. However, while only 32 papers (6%) reject the consensus outright, the largest category (48%) are neutral papers, refusing to either accept or reject the hypothesis. This is no "consensus."

The website sums up the research by stating affirmatively that this means that there is 'no consensus' on global warming.

Well lets be careful about this. That's not exactly what the results say. Its worth at this point remembering what happens when you write an academic paper- as someone who has written a good fair few in his time, and given seminars in various places, the standerd practice is to try and be concise. That means that you avoid mentioning what you don't have to mention in order to support your argument- even though I agree with the statement that the English Civil War was not a straightforward class revolution, I don't need to really say it because my paper concerning the political theory of Henry Ireton doesn't really deal with the question. Similarly these neutral papers are papers which got published without taking a view on global warming- ie their arguments made sense no matter what way the question was decided- ie and this is the crucial step their authors for the sake of concision didn't need to mention global warming.

The neutral papers in this case are a red herring. Instead of taking them into the calculation lets take all those papers which according to this research expressed a view about global warming- that's 38 which took a view for, 237 or 238 which took a view vaguely assuming global warming (sorry the numbers aren't clear because 45% of 528 is 237.6 it could be either lets presume for the sake of argument 237, it won't make much difference in the end) and 32 which argued against. Out of this new sample of 307 papers which took a view on global warming- only 32 that is roughly 10% took a view against the idea of manmade global warming, and roughly 12% took a view for it whereas 77% of the scientists who took a view implied or assumed it existed. If we discard therefore those whose research didn't involve global warming, we find according to this boasted report that 89% of scientists who made a reference to global warming supported the theory in some way.

Now its worth going further just to explain those numbers even more- and as a PhD student I can use my own experience of how academia works in my area to substantiate that. When something achieves consensus very few academics write about it at all. In the 1960s the way to write about the English Civil War was as a Marxist, in the 1970s great historians including my supervisor discarded the Marxist interpretation of the war and nowadays noone writes about it because its not an issue- people research other things. Indeed its quite possible that the majority of articles about the Marxist theory of the English Civil War published last year supported it! That's not because it was right- but because quite simply most historians have moved on to study other aspects of the English Revolution. Similar things happen in science- I think its very interesting that the largest group of papers in this sample are the group which assumes global warming- that would suggest to me a scientific consensus- indeed exactly what one might expect from the IPCC report. At the moment just as scientists assume Einstein is right and work on the basis of special or general relativity, so they assume global warming is right. There are a small group of people still working to reinforce the theory- and as in all scientific areas rightly a small group working to overthrow the consensus- but most scientists seem from this research to be assuming the theory works, and working on other things.

That is apart from the other group which furnishes the material for the headlines, who feel no need to include any discussion of climate change in their work. Now that could suggest that climate change is dying as an explanation for other things- but given the paper is yet to be published and therefore we can't see the methodology behind it, its difficult to say. What we can say for the moment, is that of the group of scientists who mentioned global warming between 2003 and 2007, most of them assumed it, a few on either side challenged it and that is exactly what we would expect from a consensus interpretation.

Others have pondered on this- particularly Tim Lambert who examines some of the contenders for being against climate change- again the picture is unclear- and the difficulty appears to be in the definition of what exactly against means. It is also worth noting that the author of the original survey which suggested a scientific consensus, Naomi Oreskes responds here citing many misrepresentations of her work in what has been published so far of this new research and she also has republished a book chapter in which she discusses her earlier conclusions but in 2007 here.

September 03, 2007


When thinking about sin, one thinks normally of atonement. In Joe Wright's new film, Atonement, based on the Ian McEwan novel- the sin is committed within the first hour, and the second hour shows the consequences of that sin spinning out of control, spinning through three people's lives and leaving a fourth, the perpetrator, in that icy circle of hell that Dante reserved for traitors. Wright's film, like McEwan's book, plays also with the way that teenagers and adults relate to their sexuality- the way that teenagers in particular relate to adult sexuality and adult desire within them and within others. The binding between these two concepts- atonement through a life for a sin committed in childhood which may have proceeded from a childlike fear and attraction to sexuality.

Atonement is about a moment in a life. Briony Tallis, a thirteen year old girl, tells the police that her sister's boyfriend is a rapist who has raped another young girl. Briony's statement comes out of facts we learn later on that it would be unfair to ruin the film through using, but also because she misunderstands the situation. Seeing her sister's boyfriend and her sister together in two incidents she interprets her sister's boyfriend as a sexual predator- and her sister as his victim. When she picks up a note from the boyfriend to the sister which mentions kissing her sister's soft wet oriface, she presumes that this is yet another part of the boyfriend's aggressive strategy against the sister. Consequently she out of a mixture of motives and a mixture of understandings, decides to inform the police that the rapist of her cousin is the boyfriend, Robbie. She tells them that despite the fact that later on she recalls having seen another man doing the crime, despite the fact that it may be that she actually knows at the time that it was another man.

That lie catapults Robbie straight into prison- and then as an exchange for his freedom he is sent to France as a private, where he loses his unit and has to struggle back to Dunkirk and to home. One of the film's few faults is that we see none of the life in prison that Robbie lived, a life which was horrible and harsh, but we see enough of the second world war to know why that too was a horrible experience. Meanwhile the sister, Cecilia, disowns her family, refuses to speak to them at all and becomes a nurse down in Balham. Her bitterness towards Briony is demonstrated by the fact that she refuses to return any of her letters. Oh and the rape victim, a young girl called Lola, she ends up marrying the rapist. Three lives are ruined by one lie- and we see Briony in her youth and age having to carry the torment of knowing how those lives were ruined, of knowing the destruction her one lie has caused.

The film is well acted. In particular the youngest of the performers, an Irish girl Saoirsie Ronan who plays Briony acts her part incredibly well- she captures the 13 year old Briony's childishness but also her incipient adulthood, her emergent sexuality as well as her simplistic and childish disgust for sexuality. James McAvoy does very well- he gives us a Robbie filled with resignation and determination and handles one sequence in which his character slowly goes mad with the effect of war brilliantly, going from determination to disintegration in a slow move which the audience barely captures before it realises. Keira Knightley has at last found a part which exercises her natural hauteur without calling her to emote in her uniquely embarrassing way. Miss Knightley was almost bred for thirties films- she conveys stiffness hiding sensuality brilliantly. Romola Garai also does very well- her poise is affecting as the 18 year old Briony, but more than that her moment of mental breakdown again is handled very well- she gives a sense of the mental chaos within her by effectively turning down life, becoming an instrument rather than instrumental to it. Within her tense face one grasps what it is to have contempt for onesself.

Joe Wright also manages to direct this well- there is some lovely use of typewriting throughout. He attempts to blend his film into the background of the period- there is an effort to capture some of the awkward emotionalism of thirties England and there are some wonderful touches. When Cecilia for example beleives that her brother's friend invited down for the weekend, isn't taking any notice of her charms that she so lavishly displays whilst sun bathing, she petulantly dives into the water. A soldier passing through France comments that if only the Germans could invade Trafalgar Square the British would beat them (reminds one of Bogie's comment in Casablanca that there are some segments of New York he wouldn't advise a Fascist to enter).

Over and above that though the film keeps coming back to this issue- which is a central moral and psychological issue as well- if you do something terrible and what you do has consequences you can see in terms of dead bodies and dead lives, then have you by chronicling it or by living your life as a homage to it attoned for it. What Briony does destroys three lives- it sends a victim off to marriage with her rapist, sends a girl off to leave her family behind and lose her boyfriend to prison and sends that man off to war and prison, losing him all the fruits of adulthood- all his attempts to become a doctor and a good husband. The central issue to the film and to McEwan's book is this- its the question of what price one can pay to have that moment that Briony implicates her brother in law in rape back again. For Briony the suffering lasts right until the moment, which we see, in which she effectively dies. In some ways J.S. Mill's judgement that lifelong prison is worse than death comes back to one- the others all get real deaths, for Briony there is the lifelong prison of her guilt- a prison that will never let her escape the moment when she was thirteen and falsely accused an innocent man.

This is a very good film- its unsatisfying in the way that all unhappy stories are unsatisfying- and its unsatisfying in that neither we nor old Briony on the screen are fully satisfied that she has attoned, and furthermore neither of us are fully satisfied that her life spent in attonement has been worth it. The film leaves questions unanswered, problems unsolved. Very like Priestley's Inspector Calls- also a fine film- it merely asks the question of how far are we responsible for the results of our actions, even if committed partially unknowingly. For Briony that responsibility lasts the whole of her life- and tortures her even on her deathbed- she suffers like the others, though they suffered guiltlessly, she suffers on the wrack of conscience.

Everyone suffers from that decision taken by a thirteen year old, and that decision reverbrates through these lives, doubling and redoubling, having more and more impact as the years go by and Briony's guilt increases and her inactivity increases with it.


Fred Kagan has published one of the more interesting articles about Iraq from a hawkish perspective I have read for a while. His analysis of Al Quaeda itself and its ideology and the way that it differs from orthodox Islam is the bit in which I have most knowledge to support him and in emphasising the importance of takfir he is entirely right. He might add to that that in orthodox Sunni theology there is a fear of fitna (which we might roughly translate as anarchy) which means that Sunni theologians normally have advocated backing the Islamic government of the day. Al Quaeda's ideology has its roots in Said Qutb's thinking in Nasser's Egypt whose roots lie both as Kagan argues in Leninism and in some aspects of third world post-colonialist thinking but also in the response from the Arabs in the 14th Century to the Mongol invasion.

Kagan's article isn't perfect though. He thinks that violence is falling in Iraq, Juan Cole suggests that actually it is still going up. The argument about the surge isn't one I want to get into here- but Cole's disagreement should make one think about that part of Kagan's article. Having said that his description of what Bin Laden means is interesting and useful- read the article for that, if not necessarily for the analysis of Iraq's situation.

September 02, 2007

Global Warming

One of the major problems facing the world today is global warming. There is an argument going on at the moment on several blogs- including Matt Sinclair's blog and Vino's blog about how to organise our response to Global Warming. Matt seems keen for example not to take action to forestall global warming- but to take action to deal with the consequences of Global Warming- building flood defences and securing houses. Vino asks the very sensible question- which is that for most of the world the places most likely to suffer are not the places that produce emmissions- if Bangladesh is flooded because of the actions of the United States, why should not the Americans pay for Bangladeshis to be rehoused securely. How can it be fair that they don't?

Ultimately there are two issues here- one which Matt is keen to discuss which is how we deal with global warming- and he may be right that all green policies are redundent and unhelpful. But there is a second major issue which is how we cost global warming and spread that cost from the countries causing the damage to those who will suffer more from it. One way of dealing with this is to proceed as the market and as the power relations in the world today would demand- afterall Bangladeshi farmers don't matter- whereas Chinese or American factory owners do. That is a legitimate argument- and yet like Thrasymachus's argument in the Republic- it contains a basic counterintuitive claim that might makes right. The other way of doing things is to set up some scheme of prices which will internationally redistribute money to help those in vulnerable and poor regions- otherwise the basic inequality will remain.

You see ultimately if you beleive in the science of global warming (and that is another argument- but until someone produces for me a scientific critique of global warming based on peer reviewed papers I'm going to stick with the climate scientists) then either you have to forestall it or you have to deal with the consequences. The first means setting up a global emissions control- as in Kyoto- which would regulate the world's emissions of CO2, but the second also involves international cooperation because it involves setting an international price for CO2 and ultimately an international fund to save flooded areas. Many conservatives fear that the first would bring in unwanted state action- but what is the conservative solution to the problem of Bangladesh because at the moment, and perhaps this is stupidity, I don't see a just way of not having an international transfer of funds to poor and vulnerable countries from large emitters.

Citizen Trump

This interview between Erroll Morris, the documentary maker and Donald Trump about Citizen Kane is fascinating. The only real issue is does what Trump says about the film say more about Trump or Kane?