Wednesday, February 1, 2017

A View From Nowhere

It's worth while stepping back once in a while (but especially now) and attempt to create a big picture gestalt of where things are and where we are headed. Doing this exercise forces us to step out of the normal (or abnormal as the case may be) churn of events and allows us to catch our breaths. Hopefully this results in a larger perspective which can then be deployed to orient ourselves.

I found the following links to be very useful and helpful in creating this larger perspective.

Peter Turchin has been working for a very long period of time on cliodynamics (named after Clio the muse). His book, Ages of Discord, which I just finished has an ominous prediction: we are headed for Civil War II in the US. Turchin goes far beyond others in using data analytics to build an actual model of discord. Central to his model is a factor that he calls excessive elite competition. In his model, over-production of elites (extremely wealthy people in this cycle) almost always leads to excessive competition between them. This leads to a breakdown of consensus and at a particular point in time could lead to Civil War II (between globalists and populists and between progressives and conservatives now). Turchin predicts maximum discord for the decade ahead. (There's quite a bit of agreement between Turchin and the Fourth Turning predictions profiled in this previous post. Please see the Generational Theory Forum for more correlations.)

Ken WIlber and the Integral Theory folks have spent the better part of the past fifteen years building a model of personal and social development that is truly all encompassing. In Trump and a Post-Truth World, Wilber lays the blame for our fractured consensus at the feet of deconstructive postmodernism. He argues that whatever Trump and Bannon are, they are not-progressive and much clarity can be obtained by defining them via this negative category. The scope of the book is much larger than its title would suggest but for our purposes, the take away from this model is one of a progressive (constructivist, aperspectival, contextual) elite at war with dominator hierarchies (traditional, ethnocentric etc.).

Walter Russell Mead (in Foreign Affairs) has a wonderful article "The Jacksonian Revolt" comparing Trump to the previously successful populist - Andrew Jackson. Echoing some of the other perspectives collected here, he writes "In this new world disorder, the power of identity politics can no longer be denied. Western elites believed that in the twenty-first century, cosmopolitanism and globalism would triumph over atavism and tribal loyalties. They failed to understand the deep roots of identity politics in the human psyche and the necessity for those roots to find political expression in both foreign and domestic policy arenas. And they failed to understand that the very forces of economic and social development that cosmopolitanism and globalization fostered would generate turbulence and eventually resistance, as Gemeinschaft (community) fought back against the onrushing Gesellschaft (market society), in the classic terms sociologists favored a century ago."

George Friedman (the architect behind Geopolitical Futures) is the person you read to find out about geopolitics. In "The World before World War II re-emerges" (behind a paywall, so I'll condense and summarize), he argues that the entirety of Eurasia (with the exception of India) is destabilizing. He writes "The conflict in the Middle East is generating a huge flow of migrants to Europe. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, over 2 million refugees and migrants have arrived in Europe since the beginning of 2014. Russia is engaged in the Middle East as well, while simultaneously maintaining support for anti-West forces in Ukraine. The Chinese economic crisis has reverberated throughout Eurasia. Since China’s foreign exchange reserves almost hit $4 trillion in June 2014, they have fallen to $3.2 trillion, the lowest figure since 2011. Meanwhile, the Chinese have confronted Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia over sovereignty claims in the South and East China seas. Central Asia is in the process of entering crisis mode, in large part due to the collapse of oil prices, which has weakened central governments and generated regional hostility. With the exception of India, which was only marginally involved in pre-war and wartime events during World War II, the entire region is destabilizing.  There are no clear forces that can stop the fighting in the Middle East, the EU internal crisis, the Russian economic and strategic crisis or the Chinese political, social and economic crises. Without arrestors, the crises will continue and intensify. There doesn’t seem to be a force to contain it."

When one takes into account the myriad global destabilizing factors and models, it's hard not to conclude that we are entering a period of intense global disruption to which we can now add the US. Regardless of politics, it's quite likely that the world will be fundamentally changed over the next decade as the neoliberal world built after World War II unravels. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Battle of Pelennor Fields

We have gained sufficient distance from the US election of Nov 8th, 2016 and are therefore able to view it from a wider perspective. In very brief terms, Donald Trump was able to channel the frustrations of the white working class to win with very narrow margins in PA, WI, MI, OH and also in IA, NC and FL (among others) and this put him over the top.

Interesting links:

Chris Ladd (a former Republican) has begun a very interesting new site called Political Orphans. Out of the many articles on the site, I recommend "When whiteness fails."

Think Progress has a long piece on "The center has fallen, and white nationalism is filling the vacuum" making the argument that the neoliberal order in place since WW II is now over.

Claremont Review of Books had a sensational and widely read piece called "The Flight 93 Election" arguing that " a Hillary Clinton presidency is Russian Roulette with a semi-auto. With Trump, at least you can spin the cylinder and take your chances."

I can't recall any article that attempts to bring a consciousness studies perspective to the election. I'll try and briefly sketch how this might go (and probably fail miserably but at least it's worth trying).

White identity is obviously very complex. And in a race category obsessed country like the US, it's very difficult to obtain any kind of objectivity w.r.t. race. Since it's clearly vital to understanding what happened in the election, we should try and find data on interior accounts of Anglo-American-ness and extrapolate from there. Of all the people associated with Trump, Bannon seems to be the one most closely affiliated with the race and culture nexus. When one digs into Bannon and attempts to find out what makes him tick, the Fourth Turning concept (introduced by Strauss and Howe) stands out as something that crops up over and over and so if you can, watch Bannon's documentary "Generation Zero" and read Strauss and Howe's book "The Fourth Turning."

The Fourth Turning (and google Saeculum Research for more) looks at Anglo-American generations going way back. According to the authors, there have been a set of epochs prior to this one - the post WWII globalization epoch. They are : (i) late medieval ending with the War of the Roses, (ii) reformation ending with the Armada crisis, (iii) new world ending with the Glorious Revolution, (iv) revolutionary ending with revolutionary war, (v) civil war ending with....., (vi) great power ending with WW II, and finally (vii) millennial ending in the 202X time frame with a global financial war (the book's main prediction written in 1997 and why the book is gaining traction now). The reason why it's called the Fourth Turning is that they divide the post WW II epoch into (I) High: 1945-1964, (II) Awakening: 1964-1984, (III) Unraveling: 1984-200X and (IV) Crisis: 200X-202X. The High "turning" was when we had a unified culture, the Awakening was when we dared to be different, the Unraveling was when we started fracturing and the Crisis is when it all falls apart.

Normally, this sort of cyclic view of history would be dismissed out of hand, except that some of the predictions made in the book are starting to come true. I searched for an academic historian who also used these ideas and came up with David Kaiser. (Please see his "History Unfolding" blog for more information.)

The Fourth Turning book reminded me of Nightfall (by Asimov) in which a culture repeatedly immolates itself with only a few people left alive to carry information into the next epoch.

The authors (Strauss and Howe) stress repeatedly that they are looking at only Anglo-American cultures from within and that's how they came up with this taxonomy.They claim that we entered the Crisis period in 2008 with the financial meltdown and that this era will end with an even bigger financial world war. The key prophecy in the book is the messy transfer of power from boomers to millennials in the next decade with Gen Xers acting as midwives. Since an era is coming to an end, it will feel like an existential threat to the republic. Bannon covers this in his documentary "Generation Zero" with Neil Howe's voice consistently featured in the background.

What are we to make of all this? I think it's clear that a segment of white Anglo-American culture is certain that we're headed for a monumental clash leading to a Crisis which will resolve itself in the next decade or so. Since the same segment has all the reins of power at the moment, it can also try and make this happen. Consequently, given the ethnic, nationalist, socially conservative and isolationist strains emerging from Trump's win, we can expect our view of reality itself to change with supply-side economics (trickle down, etc.) AND demand-side sociology (victimhood as status, etc.) going into a death spiral over the next decade. To paraphrase the Matrix, "Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, 'cause Kansas is going bye-bye!"

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Liberals, Conservatives and Realignment

The Republican primaries held on Super Tuesday, March 1st, 2016 may signal a fundamental change in American politics - an actual political realignment. Essentially, a revolution is taking place in the Republican party (GOP) and actually to a lesser extent in the Democratic party as well. However, it is the changes taking place in the GOP that could lead to a realignment.

There are many ways to slice and dice the American political scene of the past forty years. To keep things simple, we focus on the Reagan revolution of 1981 which ushered in the era of supply side economics (and paved the way for globalization). Also, the cultural changes wrought by the baby boomer generation paved the way for a genuine American multiculturalism and the recognition of rights of blacks, women, minorities, GLBT etc. As these changes made their way through society and were accelerated by the arrival of the Internet, one segment of society - mainly composed of lower middle class whites without access to good education - fell behind. With no one to champion their rights or to look out for them economically and culturally, the time was ripe for an authoritarian leader to emerge (after destabilizing events like 9/11, the dot com meltdown and the 2008 financial collapse).

Enter Donald Trump. By 2015, the fear and anger stoked by Fox News and the GOP had already reached fever pitch. Since there was/is a fundamental disconnect between the big business (socially liberal and economically conservative) GOP upper class and the poorer (and socially conservative and economically liberal) lower classes, the fear and anger acted as a catalyst for transformation. This uneasy alliance broke down in 2016 and we can symbolically attach Super Tuesday (March 1st) as the day the floodgates were opened. It is quite likely the GOP will not be the same party going forward and this will likely impact the Democratic party as well (especially considering the Bernie Sanders democratic socialist wing whose followers have a lot in common with Trump on the economic front). A political realignment now looks quite likely along a new Authoritarian <====> Libertarian axis. Or, we could see a realignment which spans a Retro <=====> Metro divide with nationalist, isolationist, economic liberals on end of the spectrum and internationalist, globalized, economic conservatives at the other end. For more on these possibilities, please see Ben Domenech (Federalist) here, a Vox article on authoritarianism here and Michael Lind's speculation on realignment  here.

I have not seen anyone discuss these (possible) changes from a consciousness perspective. Here's a very informal stab at this. We can model the Reagan era GOP coalition as comprising both social and economic conservatives. American social conservatives tended to be white and Christian and therefore this was their cultural center. While this was stable culturally it did have an ethnocentric (white rather than colorblind and Christian rather than neutral) underbelly. The Democratic coalition comprised social and economic liberals. American liberals (again mainly white and Christian) embarked upon a multicultural rainbow coalition mission which was largely successful but somewhat unstable and with an identity politics underbelly. If we are going to see a realignment, both coalitions will have to first undergo symbolic deaths followed by regrouping. To the extent this model is accurate, one would expect the millennials (the new group that will be politically active) to challenge both the emphasis on identity politics on the socially liberal side and the ethnocentric politics on the socially conservative side with both groups open to a transformation wherein identity is a priori secure with everyone accepted as having a seat at the table. We shall have to wait and see what transpires. These are fascinating times.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

In Praise of Porcupine Tree

I've been listening - rather obsessively I must admit - to Porcupine Tree of late. I started following Porcupine Tree in 2007 but didn't become a full blown fan until now.

Porcupine Tree started life as a parody - a Spinal Tap of progressive rock bands if you will - but as is starting to become common in the irony-drenched era we live in (Sarah Palin anyone?), parody gave way to reality and the mythical 70s supergroup became an actual 90s post-progressive outfit.

Early efforts by Porcupine Tree track the evolution of Pink Floyd rather closely but updated for the 90s - think trance rather than psychedelia. It was not until the middle of naughty oughts (00s) that more mature works like In Absentia and Deadwing appeared. In these two records, Porcupine Tree started including elements of metal and grunge - arguably staking a claim to being really progressive (in the sense of the term). Critical and commercial recognition followed firmly establishing the band as a leading progressive outfit. The two more recent releases - Fear of a Blank Planet and The Incident - showcase the diversity of the band (within the narrow rock context). The former is a clever synthesis of trance, soundscapes, psychedelia and hard rock whereas the latter revisits the concept album motif (popular in the 70s) but is more musically straightforward. As we enter a new decade, the band is a leading live act with band founder Steven Wilson (singer, songwriter and guitarist) hailed as a genius.

Recommended songs:

  1. Anesthetize
  2. Arriving somewhere not here
  3. The Creator has a Mastertape
  4. Time flies
  5. Waiting phase one
  6. Heartattack in a Layby
  7. Start of something beautiful
  8. Way out of here
  9. The sleep of no dreaming
  10. .3

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Subject matter of science

I just finished reading Daniel Stoljar's "Physicalism" and David Chalmers' "The Character of Consciousness." Putting these two books together, here's my current impression of the state of consciousness studies. Chalmers' point always seems to be "Why is it accompanied by experience?" That is, he relentlessly asks why any theory should entail the presence of experience. This is a strong charge and almost forces us to consider experience to be fundamental. Galen Strawson, as we previously have seen, approximately follows this line, embraces panpsychism, and launches a broadside on emergence.

Stoljar's approach is more subtle and is the one that appeals to me. His book - distilled into a few lines - makes the claim that we don't have to abandon physicalism for the simple reason that physicalism has never been tried! There is no present theory that is worthy of the name. Why does he claim this? At the risk of distorting the technical contributions in the book, this is due to the fact that present day physics is so far removed from our daily experience that it becomes impossible to rule out fantastical entities - angels and ectoplasm for instance - while accounting for everything else.

Stoljar's characterization of physicalism gives us an avenue to proceed. The steps needed to build a new physicalism that can accommodate experience are: i) Tease out the fundamental characteristics of experience and work out the minimal requirements for a physicalism to entail experience. ii) Go underneath present day physicalism and build a new theory that can accommodate the requirements of (i). Obviously a tall order but if we don't do this, we'll be stuck with radical emergence, panpsychism and idealism which are all unappealing.

While both steps outlined above are challenging, the first step seems to be much more daunting than the second. After all, once we know what entails experience, we should be able to modify present day physics to account for it. Now, I obviously don't have a proof that the idea presented below is the only way to proceed, but it is offered as a possible approach.

The new idea that is very appealing to me at the moment is to consider subjects of experience to be fundamental physical entities. That is, instead of making experience fundamental, I wish to make subjects fundamental. This obviously raises the specter of idealism, but as long as the subjects of experience are i) many and not necessarily just one, and ii) momentary in the sense that they can pop in and out of spacetime, I think the threat of idealism is diminished. With fundamental subjects included in the physicalist base, we can answer Chalmers' question: Why is it accompanied by experience? Answer: "It is accompanied by experience because it is accompanied by experience." Unpacking this answer, for us, subjects are its and accompanied by experience. The immediate question then is: What about objects? For us, objects like fermions and bosons are no longer fundamental and become something more akin to computational entities. In other words, we (when we are a we) are subjects in a computational universe. But what is the universe computing? That will have to be another blog entry.

Why should a subject be accompanied by experience? That depends on how the word "subject" is unpacked. I believe that we can make progress by defining subjects in such a way that it becomes obvious that they are carriers of experience. And by eliminating all objects from the category of fundamental entities, we do not run the risk of objects being carriers of experience. We will later elaborate on this basic theme.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Genetic Journeys

I signed up for National Geographic's Genographic project a while ago. They sent me a DNA testing kit in the mail. It contained two cheek swabs. You swirl the cheek swab around in your mouth, collect the DNA samples, drop the swab in a bottle and mail it to them. They create a web page with only your project number on it (for the sake of privacy) and you check your genetic ancestry there.

It turns out that I belong to the R2 (M124) Y chromosome haplogroup. Now, I'm no molecular biologist but will take a crack at explaining what R2 is. First, as a male, I inherited a Y chromosome from my dad and an X chromosome from my mom. The Genographic project only tests Y chromosomes in men, so the rest of the info below is restricted to Y chromosomes.

R2 (M124) is a Y chromosome haplogroup. A haplogroup is distinguished by a series of alleles at specific locations on the chromosome. An allele is a particular sequence of a DNA coding (GATC for example) at a certain location. [Here, GATC stands for Guanine-Adenine-Thymine-Cytosine each of which is a chemical compound made up of nitrogen, hydrogen and oxygen atoms.] What this boils down to is that molecular biologists look for specific patterns of alleles. In order to classify people into haplogroups, they look for Short Tandem Repeats (STRs) which are repeating segments that have a high mutation rate. [For example, I have a repeat of TAGA 12 times at a particular location which is considered significant for classification purposes.]

To cut a long story short, after examining the Y chromosome for significant repeating patterns, the chromosome is classified into a haplogroup. My haplogroup is R2 (M124) which basically means that my chromosome is the result of a specific set of mutations - M168 -> M89 -> M9 -> M45 -> M207 -> M124 of an African ancestor who was born about 60000 years ago.

For more information, please check out National Geographic's Genographic project, ysearch and the DNA forum. And for more information on R2, please see Jean-Gregoire Manoukian's paper.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nagarjuna and Emptiness

I've always deeply admired Jay L. Garfield's stunningly beautiful translation of Nāgārjuna's Mūlamadhyamakakārikā or "The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way." It is very demanding reading but will pay off especially if you have an analytic philosophy background. Garfield's translation is rigorous and precise - hence the effort needed to comprehend it.

Rather than babble about emptiness (Śūnyatā in Sanskrit), I think it is better to let other more qualified people give a description. Emptiness refers to our innate ability to see forms, patterns, events, possibilities and perspectives as they are rather than the way we'd like to see them. Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" - another phenomenal book [:-)] - describes emptiness as: "So form is empty. But empty of what? Form is empty of our preconceptions, empty of our judgments. If we do not evaluate and categorize the maple leaf falling and landing on the stream as opposed to the garbage heap in New York, then they are there, what is. They are empty of preconception. They are precisely, what they are, of course! Garbage is garbage, a maple leaf is a maple leaf, "what is" is "what is." Form is empty if we see it in the absence of our own personal interpretations of it." [page 188]

Unfortunately, and because of the subtlety of emptiness, we can be misled. Emptiness does not mean that we should see - let's say - a physical world for what it is rather than our preconceptions of it. The problem here is that the very notion of a physical world is a concept and obscures the real world. And it does not help to equate emptiness with a Buddhist no-self position either since the concept of no-self is, er, just another concept.

As Garfield's translation gathers pace, he writes "The root delusion---the fundamental cognitive error---is the confusion of merely conventional existence with inherent existence. The realization of emptiness eliminates that fabrication of essence, which eliminates grasping, contaminated action, and its pernicious consequences." [page 248]

And this is followed by,

Chapter 18:6

"That there is a self has been taught,
And the doctrine of no-self,
By the buddhas, as well as the
Doctrine of neither self nor nonself."

To neither the concept of self nor to no-self does there correspond an entity. These designations are conventional through and through and the mistake we keep making is trying to reify conventional designations. Garfield writes "To say neither self nor non-self is, from this perspective, not to shrug one's shoulders in indecision but to recognize that while each of these is a useful characterization of the situation for some purposes, neither can be understood as correctly ascribing a property to an independently existing entity. And if they cannot be understood in this way, what are we really saying?"

And almost immediately following this, he says "Nagarjuna begins to move toward his famous and surprising identification of nirvana with samsara, and of emptiness with conventional reality." [page 249]

If there are no entities lurking behind our conventional designations, aren't our conventional designations, er, merely conventional and empty of being ultimates? It is our tendency to reify conventions that causes problems, right?

Nāgārjuna's Śūnyatā is literally groundbreaking - sorry, sorry, couldn't resist - and paved the way for tantra and the realization of only Ati to emerge.