Sunday, April 20, 2014

"The result is that much reading robs the mind of all elasticity, as the continual pressure of a weight does a spring, and that the surest way of never having any thoughts of your own is to pick up a book every time you have a free moment."

Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
(Translated from Parerga and Paralipomena by R. J. Hollingdale)

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Thrasymachus: To sum up, what shall I be after my death? Be clear and precise!
Philalethes: Everything and nothing.

Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
(Translated from Parerga and Paralipomena by R. J. Hollingdale)

Friday, April 18, 2014

"They are insecure and as parents emotionally dependent on their children. This is how emotions become destructive and self-fulfilling: Your parents are afraid of abandonment. They want to hold on to their children desperately. Yet, in that desperation they hold too tight, suffocating the children, riddling them with emotional guilt of a crime yet uncommitted. This naturally only serves to alienate the children. The desperation and fear of abandonment leads precisely to that. They push away through folly what they so desire to keep close. That is the hallmark of neurotic relationships."

Almost surprising that the pessimistic philosophy of Schopenhauer entails such a morality:

"... the appropriate form of address between man and man ought to be, not monsieur, sir but fellow sufferer, compagnon de misères. However strange this may sound it corresponds to the nature of the case, makes us see other men in a true light and reminds us of what are the most necessary of all things: tolerance, patience, forbearance and charity, which each of us needs and which each of us therefore owes."

Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms
(Translated from Parerga and Paralipomena by R. J. Hollingdale)

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Talk to me. Let me give meaning to your madness."

Monday, March 10, 2014

"Certainly, it can come as a jolt to discover that, with a single exception, we have no extant descriptions of the Battle of Badr that date from before the ninth century AD. We do not even have Ibn Ishaq’s original biography of Muhammad—only revisions and reworkings. As for the material on which Ibn Ishaq himself drew upon for his researches, it has long since vanished. Set against the triumphal hubbub raised by Arab historians in the ninth century, let alone the centuries that followed, the silence is deafening and perplexing. The precise state of play bears spelling out. Over the course of almost two hundred years, the Arabs, a people never noted for their reticence, and whose motivation, we are told, had been an utterly consuming sense of religious certitude, had set themselves to conquering the world—and yet in all that time, they composed not a single record of their victories, not one, that has survived into the present day. How could this possibly have been so, when even on the most barbarous fringes of civilisation, even in Britain, even in the north of England, books of history were being written during this same period, and copied, and lovingly tended? Why, when the savage Northumbrians were capable of preserving the writings of a scholar such as Bede, do we have no Muslim records from the age of Muhammad? Why not a single Arab account of his life, nor of his followers’ conquests, nor of the progress of his religion, from the whole of the near two centuries that followed his death?"

Oil Sketch for ‘Medicine’ by Gustav Klimt

A black and white photograph of the original painting which was destroyed

It was part of a trio of paintings (Philosophy, Medicine and Jurisprudence) made by Klimt for the ceiling of the University of Vienna's Great Hall.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

"See, we all got what I call a life trap, this gene-deep certainty that things will be different, that you'll move to another city, and meet the people that'll be the friends for the rest of your life, that you'll fall in love and be fulfilled. Fucking fulfillment, heh, and closure, whatever the fuck those two... Fucking empty jars to hold this shitstorm, and nothing is ever fulfilled until the very end, and closure... No, no, no. Nothing is ever over."

True Detective, Episode 1x03

"My own preferred term for the enemy of God is misotheist. [...] Since God is not a person or an interlocutor, to be hostile to God means really to marshal the negative emotions of hatred toward an entity that is absolutely outside the human sphere, something intangible [...] Thus, the most immediate effect of God-hatred is on the misotheist himself, for whom it serves a therapeutic function. Although seemingly directed at the figure of God, misotheism reflects a passionate concern for the affairs of man. [...]

Simply put, misotheism is a response to suffering, injustice, and disorder in a troubled world. Misotheists feel that humanity is the subject of divine carelessness or sadism, and they question God's love for humanity [...]"

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

"The position of the psychiatrist around 1900 was not a particularly happy one. Although he was better able to classify the psychosis and predict their outcome than his predecessors a century before, he still suffered from the same ignorance of the causes of mental illness and he still had to be content with the same miserable methods of treatment. If he worked in an institution or a clinic he saw only severe and hopeless psychoses, and although anatomy and physiology had been so helpful to his medical colleagues, they had failed to teach him anything about the nature of these illnesses except in the case of general paresis. His patients were prisoners, and in a way he himself was a prisoner caught up in the difficulties of the field in which he had chosen to work."

Erwin H Ackerknecht, Short History of Psychiatry (1959)

The state of psychiatry now is, of course, dramatically better from what it was in 1900. Our treatments, although far from curative, have restored majority of psychiatric patients back to functional lives, and the neuroscientific understanding of the causes is progressing rapidly. I was, however, struck by the last line of the passage, which resonated with a chord in me. I am not certain whether he refers to patients as prisoners in a literal sense, but there is a literal sense in which a small subset of psychiatric patients can be called prisoners: the patients who are admitted in inpatient units against consent because their state of mind (suicidality, mania, psychosis, etc) poses an acute and significant danger of harm to self and/or other. Majority of these patients when they are discharged acknowledge and recognize the need for the admission, nonetheless, dealing with these prisoner-patients is unfortunately a difficulty of the field of psychiatry, one which takes an emotional toll on a psychiatrist with moral sensitivity, and a responsibility from which a psychiatrist cannot flee.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

My article 'Mental Illness vs Brain Disorders: From Szasz to DSM-5' has been published in the February 2014 issue of Psychiatric Times

Unfortunately (free) membership is required to read the article on the website, but if you are even remotely interested in psychiatry, and you are not already a member, it would be worthwhile to sign up for Psychiatric Times, as it is a popular online resource and one of the most widely read psychiatry journals. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

“But we are alone, darling child, terribly, isolated each from the other; so fierce is the world's ridicule we cannot speak or show our tenderness; for us, death is stronger than life, it pulls like a wind through the dark, all our cries burlesqued in joyless laughter; and with the garbage of loneliness stuffed down us until our guts burst bleeding green, we go screaming round the world, dying in our rented rooms, nightmare hotels, eternal homes of the transient heart.” 

Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Screenshot. Suits 1x07

Sunday, January 26, 2014

"Needless to say, our fixation on the ideal of happiness diverts our attention from collective social ills, such as socioeconomic disparities. As Barbara Ehrenreich has shown, when we believe that our happiness is a matter of thinking the right kinds of (positive) thoughts, we become blind to the ways in which some of our unhappiness might be generated by collective forces, such as racism or sexism. Worst of all, we become callous to the lot of others, assuming that if they aren't doing well, if they aren't perfectly happy, it's not because they're poor, oppressed, or unemployed but because they're not trying hard enough.

If all of that isn't enough to make you suspicious of the cultural injunction to be happy, consider this basic psychoanalytic insight: Human beings may not be designed for happy, balanced lives. The irony of happiness is that it's precisely when we manage to feel happy that we are also most keenly aware that the feeling might not last. Insofar as each passing moment of happiness brings us closer to its imminent collapse, happiness is merely a way of anticipating unhappiness; it's a deviously roundabout means of producing anxiety. [...]

Why, exactly, is a healthy and well-adjusted life superior to one that is filled with ardor and personal vision but that is also, at times, a little unhealthy and maladjusted? [...] Might not the best lives be ones in which we sometimes allow ourselves to become a little imprudent or even a tad unhinged? [...]

I don't wish to fetishize psychological or emotional instability; I'm aware of the enormous toll it can exact. And I know that there are many people who live under unbearable burdens of uncertainty. But we are mistaken when we interpret anxiety and other forms of existential disorientation as being at odds with a well-lived life. It may well be that they are an essential part of such a life."

Friday, January 24, 2014

More than 5 years ago, I wrote about my perception of weddings in Pakistani society:

"The ceremony has become more about appeasing the society than about celebrating the union of two people. [The wedding] has lost its purpose in this manner, and hence it is not surprising that the feeling which I have most markedly noticed while attending any [wedding] is that of absurdity.

Weddings have never been enjoyable for me, even as a child. Perhaps because the wedding ceremony appears to me to be the perfect example of the superficialities and hypocrisies of our culture; it has become a symbol for me of whatever I hate about our society."

It is only fair that I should approach my own wedding now with the same marked sense of absurdity. Aside from that, there is also in my own case, a distinct taste of alienation. In a concrete sense, my wedding is about me, but in a larger, abstract and more important way, my wedding is not my own. My presence is a nominal formality, an excuse for the society to do what it does. (I am speaking here specifically of the wedding ceremony, the function, the social customs and traditions, and not about my marriage, regarding which my sentiments are of a more positive and pleasant nature.) How did I end up in a position where I have to allow the society to do what it does, especially when it is steeped in practices I find ethically reprehensible? I know that I brought it on myself, playing a game of give-and-take with this society, only to realize that any victory may well turn out to be pyrrhic. I am not here to whine or complain. This is a record of my last of human freedoms, a small sign that though I may have been subdued, I have not yet been silenced.

Perhaps I despair too much; perhaps I will be able to derive some joy out of this occasion after all.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Interviewer: Do you think of yourself as having a relationship with God?

Anne Carson: [...] reading a lot of mystics, especially Simone Weil, I’ve come to understand that the best one can hope for as a human is to have a relationship with that emptiness where God would be if God were available, but God isn’t.

As Carson talks of a relationship with the emptiness where God would be, it seems she has developed a relationship with another sort of a emptiness... the empty poetic spaces we have in Sappho's poetry, poetry of which we have inherited only fragments. Just like God, those missing slivers of verses are unavailable (while existing in a sense), but the readers and interpreters are invariably drawn into a relationship.

Anne Carson: [...] this is the magic of fragments—the way that poem breaks off leads into a thought that can’t ever be apprehended. There is the space where a thought would be, but which you can’t get hold of. I love that space. It’s the reason I like to deal with fragments. Because no matter what the thought would be if it were fully worked out, it wouldn’t be as good as the suggestion of a thought that the space gives you. Nothing fully worked out could be so arresting, spooky.

Read also in the interview how the mysterious half-verse of Sappho's fragment 31 ("But all is to be dared, because even a person of poverty") leads Carson to a mystical interpretation of the poem. 

Here is a philosophical analysis of the critically-acclaimed film Her, in which a male character develops a romantic relationship with an artificially-intelligent operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). While brilliantly depicting the quirks and pitfalls of human relationships by making them more poignant by this peculiar sort of romance, the film is also an account of the development of artificial intelligence, and how they may evolve rapidly to a state beyond human comprehension. Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

"So what do you think is your diagnosis?"
"I am a human being and I have symptoms of humanity."

(actual quote from a patient)

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

What can be more 'normal' and universal than aging? And yet, what can be more ripe a target for medical intervention? Aging will soon (if it is not already) be conceptualized as a 'medical condition', a 'disorder', a 'disease'. As more and more options become available for us to slow, delay, halt, or perhaps even reverse, the process of aging, aging as we currently understand it will become the outlier of 'normal' functioning. Eternal youth, that is how we see the normal state of health. The modern insistence on maintaining one's social and occupational functioning within the expected norms will see to it that anything outside these expected norms is pathologized and subjected to treatment.

Consider these matter-of-fact statements taken from the web: "Aging is a medical condition because an aged body does not function properly. A body that does not function properly has a disease. A disease is a medical condition." I'm sure it leaves many of you aghast but these conclusions are obvious and inevitable once we accept this notion of a medical condition. It is also inevitable practically... if a pill to stop aging is available, who will not opt for it? Except for a small minority of rebels, the vast majority of humanity would rush for the promise of never ending youth. This is the power of medicine.

The boundaries of what constitutes a medical condition/disorder/disease are not fixed. They are determined by their social context. We have been 'medicalizing' and 'pathologizing' what is 'normal' and 'natural' ever since the beginning of medical sciences. Every age has its own fictions.

Awais Aftab

I wish I were such a poet
who could conjure poetry on request
not just any request
- a love poem,
not of growth pains of relationships
or everyday delusions of intimacy
- a poem of tenderness
long-distance heartache
an I-love-you note
a blow-me-a-kiss
perhaps I could, but
the rose is obsolete, WCW says
(ask me instead to quote Neruda, my darling
'I want to do with you what spring does with cherry trees.')
In the warmth of our embrace
we no longer need the pretext of poetry
and so it would seem
poetry no longer needs the pretext of our embrace

Saturday, January 11, 2014

"In the midst of the serene world of mental illness, modern man no longer communicates with the madman: on the one hand is the man of reason, who delegates madness to the doctor, thereby authorising no relation other than through the abstract universality of illness; and on the other is the man of madness, who only communicates with the other through the intermediary of a reason that is no less abstract, which is order, physical and moral constraint, the anonymous pressure of the group, the demand for conformity. There is no common language: or rather, it no longer exists; the constitution of madness as mental illness, at the end of the eighteenth century, bears witness to a rupture in a dialogue, gives the separation as already enacted, and expels from the memory all those imperfect words, of no fixed syntax, spoken falteringly, in which the exchange between madness and reason was carried out. The language of psychiatry, which is a monologue by reason about madness, could only have come into existence in such a silence."

Michel Foucault, History of Madness 
(Translated by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa, Routledge 2006)

Monday, January 6, 2014

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #13: The Capitalist Creed

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding. All ideas and examples are by Dr. Harari.)

The most unique and important characteristic of the modern capitalist economy is growth. The total global production of goods and services – ‘the economic pie’ – is constantly increasing and has been increasing since the emergence of capitalist economy. 

Consider a simple example. People deposit their earnings in the bank, and the bank loans out that money to investors. Suppose you want to start a bakery. You go to the bank and ask for the loan. A big contractor has deposited 1 million dollars in cash in his new bank account. The bank takes that 1 million dollars cash and loans it you. You take the money, and hire the same contractor to build your bakery, and you pay him 1 million dollars as fee. The contractor takes that 1 million dollars and deposits it again in his bank account. His bank account now contains 2 million dollars, even though the 'actual money in the account, or the money in cash, is still 1 million dollars. You can extend this scenario further. The cost of the bakery construction rises, and the constructor asks you for an additional 1 million dollars. You got to the bank again, and get an additional 1 million dollars loan in cash, which the bank again takes from the contractor’s account. You give that 1 million dollars again to the contractor, who deposits it again in his account. He now has 3 million dollars in his account, even though the actual money in cash is still the original 1 million dollars. This is possible because the banking laws allow the bank to loan out $10 for every $1 the bank actually possesses. Where does this extra $9 come from? What covers this extra $9 is actually our trust in the future. It is our trust that the investments will generate even more money which will cover the deficit between what exists and what has been loaned out. More than 90% of the money in all the banks of the world in this sense does not exist.

This is why the capitalist economy grows so rapidly. “The secret is a magic of capitalism is that it finances present expenses with make believe money that has no cover in the present and may only may have cover in the future.” (Dr. Harari)

This was not the case prior in history, where most of the money was frozen. It was extremely difficult to start new businesses and to expand existing ones. Capitalist system is based on ‘credit’, which is a special sort of money which represents future imaginary goods. Credit is based on trust in the future. Traditional economies only had trust in the present, because traditional societies did not believe in progress. People believed that the total amount of wealth in the world is limited and static. To get richer was to get richer at the expense of someone. The economic pie was of a fixed size, and taking a bigger piece meant taking a portion from someone else’s piece. This was why money and riches were considered as sinful. But capitalism believes that the economic pie keeps getting bigger, and credit is the difference between the size of the pie today and the size of the pie tomorrow.

As the scientific revolution led to an increase in the sum total of human production, human trade and human wealth, the belief in progress and trust in the future became more and more solid. In 1776 Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations making a revolutionary argument: An increase in the profits of private entrepreneurs is the basis for the increase in collective wealth and prosperity. When business owners have increased profits, they use them to expand their businesses, which opens up more employment opportunities, increasing the overall amount of wealth in the community. What is radical about this argument from a moral-political perspective is that it links individual selfishness and greed with collective welfare.

However, this works, only, if the rich actually use their profits for new investments instead of spending them in ways that do not lead to further productivity. From this realization emerges the ethical code of capitalism: profits must be reinvested in production. This investment can be in many ways: opening new factories, enlarging existing businesses, funding scientific research, etc. This is what distinguishes between wealth and capital. Capital refers to resources that are invested in production. Wealth, on the other hand, is unproductive money.

Science has a close relationship with capitalism, because most scientific research is sponsored by governments or private businesses. The scientific projects that enable an increase in production are the ones that are preferentially funded. Scientific discoveries enable the development of technologies which will create new products and new businesses, fulfilling the promise of economic return on which we had pinned our trust. 90% of the money in the world has been created out of thin air. It is based on our hopes for the future.
“… if these hopes are not realized, it doesn't mean that we stay with what we have now. It means that more than 90% of the money, we think we have now, will just disappear.”

The history of capitalism is also interwoven with the history of imperialism. Credit and capitalism were not unique European inventions, but nowhere else did they enjoy the supports of rulers and governments. While previously in history and elsewhere in the world wars were funded through taxation of the people, the European conquests were increasingly financed through credit and therefore they were increasingly directed by capitalists, whose motivations were primarily to generate the maximum returns from their investments. To a large extent, the English, French and Dutch colonies were created and run not by the states but rather by private companies. The emergence of limited liability companies spread the risk of investment between many investors. A company would be set up to conquest a new colony, it would sell its shares in the stock exchange to a large number of investors generating a large amount of money, which would be used for exploration and conquest, and all investors would share the profits. These companies had their own private armies, waged their own private wars and ruled over conquered territories privately. Examples of these companies include 

* The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC), which financed the military conquest of Indonesia and ruled over it privately till 1800 when the Dutch state assumed control.

* The Dutch West Indies Company, which operated in the Atlanic Ocean in order to control the trade on the Hudson River in North America. This company built the settlement called New Amsterdam, which was captured by the British and the name was changed to New York. “The remains of the wall that a Dutch company built to defend its colony against the British and the Indians, are today paved over by the most famous street in the world, it's called Wall Street”

* The British East India Company, which conquered and ruled over India, until 1858 when the British crown nationalized India along with the company’s army.

The nationalizations of the colonies did not sever the ties between capitalism and imperialism because by this point in history the governments in London, Amsterdam and Paris were being controlled by the capitalists and looked after their interests. “Karl Marx famously said that western governments, at least in the 19th Century, were actually the trade union of the capitalists.”

The issue of the relationship between politics and economics is one that has become quite contentious. Capitalists believe in the freedom of the market, and maintain that Government restrictions only stunt the economic growth, and that the markets make the wisest decisions by themselves. This belief in free market, however, when taken to the extreme has led to many terrible consequences.

The business owners can exploit and oppress the workers in the pursuit of profits, for instance by offering very low pay for long working hours. In a free market with competitors, the workers can simply quit to work for someone else who offers better pay and working conditions, but if the business owners have monopoly over the market or if all the competitors cooperate in this oppression, as happens in practice very often, then the workers have no way out. The whole Atlantic slave trade from Africa to America was a consequence of free-running capitalism. “[The slave trade was a] purely economic enterprise organized and managed and financed by the free market, according to the laws of supply and demand.”

A free market capitalist system adopts any means necessary to ensure profits. The outcomes are crimes against humanity such as the Atlantic slave trade and the Great Bengal Famine. Even though the global wealth has increased manifolds, many individuals around the world still work long hours and live in hunger.

Capitalists have two main responses to this criticism. First, they argue that capitalism has created a world in which there is no longer an alternative economic system (following the failure of communism) capable of running the world. Second, they say that capitalism has learnt from its mistakes of exploitation, and if we remain patient, the economic pie would grow large enough that despite inequalities of wealth everyone would receive a satisfactory share. Whether the economic pie can grow indefinitely and whether this promise will ever be fulfilled, only time will tell. 

(For prior posts covering this course, see the label A Brief History of Humankind.)

Saturday, January 4, 2014

3 years ago on this day I gave up on my country. 

The assassination of Salman Taseer and the subsequent reaction of the populace exposed the extent to which the poison of religious fanaticism has percolated to the roots of this nation. These three years have done nothing to change that judgement. The national mindset is diseased beyond healing. I don't even know any more if it even deserves healing.

I have friends who still live in Pakistan, and who will continue to try to reform the society in whatever ways they can. I admire and support their efforts, and wish them well, and I hope that they do not suffer when this society collapses under the collective weight of its self-inflicted sins.

"If this is what has beaten us... the guilt is ours." (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)

Friday, January 3, 2014

"Russell sometimes seems to be moving towards the view that how one believes, and not just what one believes, is ethically significant – a view that will be embraced by any reflective religious person."

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Mortality is Christopher Hitchens's account of confronting his own death, hopeful till the end that he may yet escape its clutches but at the same time very realistic about his prospects of failure. Hitchens was a strong-willed man, unwavering in his materialism, deflecting the prayers and condemnations of the faithful, and retorting with jabs of wit and sarcasm, even as the last remaining drops of physical strength in his body were being sucked by the cancer and its treatment alike. It's a short book, you can read it in a single sitting, and its aphoristic quality well-represents the dignity Hitchens maintained till the end. To do so without wallowing in self-pity and without perceiving oneself to be a victim of an indifferent universe, or engaging in dialogue with a cryptic deity, is no mean feat:

* 'To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?'

* 'It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.'

* 'I’m not fighting or battling cancer—it’s fighting me.'

* 'If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.'

"If life were merely a habit, I should commit suicide; but even now, more or less desperate, I cannot but think, ‘Something wonderful may happen.’ It is not optimism, it is a rejection of self-pity (I hope) which leaves a loophole for life… I merely choose to remain living out of respect for possibility. And possibility is the great good."

Frank O’Hara, Early Writing

Sunday, December 29, 2013

*Warning. Major Spoilers Ahead*

Another Earth (2011) is a beautiful indie film that is an elegant emotional exploration of our longing for redemption and second chances. The sci-fi elements serve, for the most part, as background ploy for bringing to life that possibility of meeting another you who might not have made the same mistakes that you did. (The scientific basis of another completely identical Earth appearing and moving in the manner shown in the film is extremely sloppy, which can be a turn-off for many.) The way film ends leaves much to think about, not just in terms of emotional processing, but also because several interpretations are possible. Below I'll try to outline some of the explanations that seem plausible to me. One crucial element regarding the different interpretations is deciding at what exact point the synchronicity between the two storylines is broken.

* The accident never happened on Earth 2, probably because Rhonda 2 looked at the sky towards Earth 1 in the opposite direction to Rhonda 1, and therefore the car veered away from the collision course. John 2 and his family are still alive. Rhonda 2 goes on to MIT, and has a successful life. Eventually she travels to Earth 1, either because she won the essay competition in Earth 2 as well, or because John 1 went there and told her what happened to Rhonda 1, leading her to travel to Earth 1, where she ends up face to face with Rhonda 1. (Various alternating shots show Rhonda in a white dress, joyful and amidst flowers, while for most part she is shown in a black-blue dress with an over-all depressed demeanor. The former may in fact be depictions of Rhonda 2.)

* The accident happened on Earth 2 as well. Both Rhondas go through the same events. However, synchronicity is broken when Rhonda 1 gives her ticket to John 1 as a gesture of repentance, while Rhonda 2 keeps her ticket and travels to Earth 1. This is a pessimistic ending of sorts, because John's family is dead on both Earths, and John 1's hope of reuniting with his family will be dashed. (Rhonda, while she is in her attic, is holding a white ticket. The ticket Rhonda leaves at John's house is a black ticket. Some believe this means that these are two different Rhondas. We probably don't realize there are possibly many scenes which alternate between the two Earths.)

* The accident happened on Earth 2 as well. Both Rhondas go through the same events. However, synchronicity is broken when Rhonda 2 musters enough courage to admit her identity to John 2 and ask for his forgiveness instead of lying that she's a house-cleaning maid. She goes on to overcome her guilt, finds peace in her life, wins the essay and travels to Earth 1. (Again, the Rhonda in the white dress amidst flowers may be Rhonda 2.)

* There are some who argue that the entire existence of Earth 2 is a projected fantasy on Rhonda's part, an exteriorization of Rhonda's internal monologue, so to speak, and her longing for redemption in the possibility of a world where a different Rhonda might have done differently. The mysterious character of Purdeep would support this interpretation, who is inexplicable to me otherwise, but I find it unsatisfactory to consider Earth 2 as entirely metaphorical.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist."

G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Law of Immiseration by Dr Colin Brewer (with reference to Psychiatry): misery increases to meet the means available for its alleviation.

I have been unable to find a direct source for this, but it has been quoted in two articles.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #11 and #12: The Discovery of Ignorance & The Marriage of Science and Empire

(These are personal summaries and paraphrasings of some of the major points of the lectures that I felt to be important. They are not meant to be comprehensive records nor intended to be reproductions of copyright materials. I encourage you to participate in the course for better understanding. All ideas and examples are by Dr. Harari.)

The scientific revolution was not the result of scientific research alone. Scientific research can flourish only in an alliance with an ideology or a political force which justifies the cost of research. The ideology determines the scientific agenda and determines how its discoveries and inventions will be utilized. The two most important political and economic forces that have shaped modern science are European imperialism and capitalism. 

This lesson is on the relationship between European imperialism and science.

Before the modern era, Western Europe was a poor and marginalized area of the world, but in a matter of few centuries it conquered practically the whole world. Technological advancement did play a role in this but it became significant quite late, 1850 and onwards. Prior to 1800, the technological gap between European, Asian and African powers was relatively small.

The technology of the first industrial wave wasn’t particularly complicated. When Britain opened its first commercial railroad in 1830, rest of Europe followed quickly, but China, Persia and Turks lagged behind tremendously. They could easily have obtained the technology as well if they had pursued it. They had the resources. What they lacked were the values and social-political structures that had developed over centuries in the West. Europe had an ideological mindset that favored modern science and capitalism.

The unique character of modern science began to take shape in the early modern period, simultaneously with the imperial expansion of European countries such as Spain, Portugal, Britain, France, the Netherlands and Russia. The bond between imperialism and science was forged by the fact that both the scientists and the conquerors of early modern Europe, shared the same basic mindset and worldview. They admitted the fact that they know very little about the world, and they felt compelled to go out to the furthest corners and explore, to gain new knowledge, and to utilize that knowledge for their power and mastery.

The connection is apparent in the great European voyages of exploration, of the early modern period. “These voyages were at one at the same time both scientific voyages of exploration and imperial voyages of conquest. European imperialism was in this way very unique, very different, from all previous imperial projects in history.” (Dr Harari)

Voyagers explored new coasts and lands, gained new geographical knowledge but also claimed control over the lands they had discovered. In the 18th and 19th century, almost every important military expedition had scientists in it, and almost every scientific expedition had political motives. Famous example of this includes the expedition of James Cook to the South Pacific Ocean and Australia, in 1778 (which had a team of 10 scientists). The expedition provided the first detailed account of this geographical region and found a cure for scurvy, but James Cook also claimed sovereignty of Britain over the lands he had discovered, including Australia, subjugating the Aboriginal Australians and Maori of New Zealand. The projects of science and imperialism were essentially inseparable. Another famous example is the expedition of the ship Beagle, sent in 1831 to map the coasts of South America, the Falkland Islands and the Galapagos Island in expectation of war. Charles Darwin was a part of this expedition and his observations proved to be instrumental to the development of his theory of evolution.

Pre-modern maps had no empty spaces in them; unknown areas were either left out completely or filled with imaginary details. The new world maps with empty spaces in them that emerged in the 15th and 16th century represented a significant change in outlook. In 1492 Columbus set out to discover a new trade route to East Asia. He discovered America instead, a completely unknown continent to humans dwelling elsewhere on the planet. Columbus mistakenly believed he had discovered India, and kept this mistaken belief throughout his life, because it was simply inconceivable for him that a completely unknown continent not present on their maps could even exist. “In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a man of the Middle Ages. The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci.” Amerigo was an Italian sailor, who was first to argue in 1502 that the continent Columbus had discovered was a continent unknown to classical geographers. In 1507 a famous German cartographer Martin Valdez Muller published the first world map in Europe that showed America as a new and separate continent, naming the landmass after Amerigo. “And this was the foundational event of the scientific revolution, the discovery of America is what really began the scientific revolution because it taught Europeans to favor present observations over past traditions and sacred texts.” From then on, European explorers were drawn to the blank spaces on the map. These explore and conquer expeditions were first of a kind in history. Even great empires in the past had shown little interest in exploring and conquering far away distant, unknown lands. Romans, for instance, conquered Britain after about 400 years of step-by-step land expansion, but in the early days of the Roman empire, no Roman would’ve thought of sailing directly to Britain to explore and conquer. Even when some rare ambitious ruler or adventurer embarked on a long range campaign of conquest, such as Alexander, the intention was not to explore and conquer unknown lands, but rather to take over existing known empires. There is, however, one close precedence of these explorations. Between 1405 and 1433, a Chinese admiral, Zheng He, led seven huge fleets to explore the Indian ocean. The largest of these seven expeditions, contained almost 300 ships, and carried close to 30,000 people. (In comparison, Columbus’s 1492 expedition had 3 small ships and 120 sailors.) He explored from Indonesia to as far as present-day Kenya. Crucially, he made no attempt to conquer and colonize these countries. “[T]hese expeditions of Zheng He, they were not deeply rooted in Chinese politics and culture. They were the result of some chance policy of one particular ruling faction in Beijing.” When the ruling factions changed, the expeditions came to an absolute end. The fact that Zheng He successfully made these expeditions reveals that the expeditions of Europeans were not the result of any outstanding technological or economic advantage. Any of the other world empires could have done it; they simply were not interested. They did not share the ferocious European ambition to explore and conquer, which was a strange madness of sorts.

“The Romans never had any interest in conquering Scandinavia or India, the Persians never attempted to conquer Madagascar or Spain, and the Chinese never attempted to conquer Indonesia or Africa. And again, this shouldn't surprise us, because why should the Romans try to conquer far away India? Or why should the Chinese try to conquer Indonesia or Africa? What sense does it make? The really strange thing is that early modern Europeans caught some kind of madness that drove them to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one small step on the beach and immediately declare, I claim all this land for my country, for my king.”

“The first time that a non-European power tried to send a military expedition to America was only in the Second World War when Japan, in 1942, sent an expedition towards Alaska that managed to conquer two small islands near the Alaskan coast, Kiska and Attu.”

In this way modern science and European imperialism have shared roots. Empires supported scientific explorations because they proved to be of use again and again. Scientific revolution began with geography, giving Europeans mastery over the new world. The same spirit of exploration then spread to other areas of science.

Look at the discovery of Indus Valley Civilization, the first great civilization of India which was destroyed around 2000 BC. Ruins of its cities had existed for ages, but no native or invader had bothered to study them until the British arrived and did so, discovering the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro in 1922. Or take the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics, the knowledge of which was lost by early first millennium AD. No invader of Egypt made any serious attempt to study them. It was during Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt that Rosetta Stone was discovered by French soldiers and brought to the attention of scientists in Napoleon’s army. The stone carried three inscriptions of it in Ancient Greek, Demotic script and Egyptian hieroglyphics. When Napoleon was defeated, the British took over the Rosetta stone and put it in the museum, where it was extensively studied and eventually led to the deciphering of Egyptian hieroglyphics. 

(For prior posts covering this course, see the label A Brief History of Humankind.)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Some Trees

"These are amazing: each 
Joining a neighbor, as though speech 
Were a still performance. 
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning 
From the world as agreeing 
With it, you and I 
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are: 
That their merely being there 
Means something; that soon 
We may touch, love, explain."

from Some Trees, John Ashbery

Al Filreis: "I think this poem is a love poem, but I also think it's a poem about a higher order than love, if that's possible, which is relation. Meaning is made by relation, meaning never happens in isolation. One needs juxtaposition. Here you have the juxtaposition of these two people who don't really know each other, who are arranged by chance to meet. Standing under a model for accidental relationship. And the trees are saying, "All you need to do is be here." It's not a nature poem. It could read as a nature poem. This poem has been read at weddings for instance, about relationship. About the accident, the lovely accident of relationship. But it's going further. Merely being there means something. Meaning can get generated by accidental relationship. If there is any kind of message that post-modern poetry is giving to us in this course and in general, it is right there. Meaning is created by juxtaposition, and juxtaposition is accidental, but don't think of it as inhuman, think of it as actually quite natural. The world is, prior to meaning, we derive meaning from the accidental relationships." (from the video discussion of the poem in Modern & Contemporary American Poetry)

[A group photo containing some members of the New York School poets. John Ashbery (standing right), Frank O’Hara (seated left), Kenneth Koch (seated right). Frank O’Hara’s loft, 1964. Photograph: Mario Schifano.]

Reading the New York School poets reminds me of what Gabriel Garcia Marquez said about Kafka: 'I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that.'

Read the poem 'What is Poetry' by John Ashbery, and then read this imitative response by a student which humorously spells out the central idea of the poem.

Friday, November 29, 2013

'[Bertrand Russell's] autobiography occasionally reveals a more complex and ambivalent relationship to religion. In particular, he relates an episode in 1901 when he witnessed the wife of his Cambridge colleague Alfred Whitehead suffer intense pain due to heart problems, causing Russell to have what can only be described as a spiritual insight. "The ground seemed to give way beneath me and I found myself in quite another region," he writes. "Within five minutes I went through such reflections as the following: the loneliness of the human soul is unendurable; nothing can penetrate it except the highest intensity of the sort of love that religious teachers have preached; whatever does not spring from this motive is harmful, or at best useless; it follows that war is wrong, that a public school education is abominable, that the use of force is to be deprecated, and that in human relations one should penetrate to the core of loneliness in each person and speak to that.


What caused the disparity between Russell's "official" view of religion and his personal experience? Why was he unwilling to bring this experience to bear on his critique of religion? The answer seems to lie in his deep methodological commitment to both rationalism and scientific empiricism: Russell tended to treat "religion" as either a body of doctrines to be intellectually analysed, or as a phenomenon to be observed objectively from the outside. In the first case, Russell found flawed arguments; in the second, flawed institutions perpetrating violence and oppression. His own spiritual insights belonged to a different order – and although they changed his life deeply, they were not allowed to change his philosophical position.'

Sunday, November 17, 2013

In a culture of sombre oppression, silliness assumes a radical significance.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

"... what happened to poetry in the twentieth century was that it began to be written for the page."

Power Relations - I: Advice of an old-school psychiatrist to a young trainee on managing a domineering drug-seeker as Foucault frowns from heaven
Awais Aftab

till he knows who is in charge."
restrain and medicate,
restrain and medicate,
A hint of any more trouble:
Give him a taste of humiliation
You have to take control

How obnoxious is he!
Manipulating other patients into giving him their meds
Shouting at nurses and doctors
The benzos and the opiates
And make us prescribe what he wants
"He thinks he can raise a storm

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Awais Aftab

shredding lines;
waiting for poetry
to happen

Saturday, November 9, 2013

"By the mid-1940s Camus had begun to speak about his books as being organized according to different "stages" (étages) or "cycles" (cycles). The first draft of that organization appears in his notebooks in 1946, just shortly after the publication of The Plague. Camus continued to refine and nuance its formulation well into the fifties. The last version we have occurs in Carnets III and was written in 1955. The version to which most commentators refer when discussing this aspect of Camus' work is usually a synthesis of two separate versions. The 1950 version found in Notebooks, 1942-1951 uses a familiar triptych of Greek myths as its organizing principle. "I. The Myth of Sisyphus (absurd) — II. The Myth of Prometheus (revolt) — III. The Myth of Nemesis. 1951." The final 1955 version does not change this one substantially. Rather it completes it by supplying the governing theme missing from the Nemesis cycle—love..."

The absurd, the revolt, and love.

"In one of his most revealing essays, ‘The Enigma’ (1950), Camus expressed his annoyance at being constantly associated with the philosophy of the absurd. He had only explored a topic much in the air. His analysis of absurdity was always meant to be a starting point, nothing more. It is neither possible nor consistent, he asserted, to “limit oneself to the idea that nothing has meaning and we must despair of everything… As soon as we say that all is nonsense we express something that has sense.” Denying that the world has meaning involves “suppressing all value judgments.” However, living is in itself “a value judgment.”

This essay spoke directly to the contrasting strains in Camus’ thought: the cold materialism of contemporary philosophy, and the warm joy of lived experience. The road beyond absurdity lay close at hand. It had nothing to do with embracing transcendence or abstract absolutes, it was rather a confidence in directly savored experience. He described this path as an “instinctive fidelity to a light where I was born and where, for millennia, men have learned to salute life even in suffering.” Celebrate both life’s joys and its suffering. Embrace neither a simple ‘yes’ nor a simple ‘no.’ Rather seek an integrative ‘yes’ that makes room for a ‘no’. At the heart of things there is for Camus what he says was central to Aeschylus – not a lack of meaning, but an enigma. [...]

Camus had projected a comprehensive series of works divided into three cycles. The first two, the cycle of the absurd and the cycle of revolt, he got to accomplish. The third could have taken him into a realm where an overarching ‘yes’ nonetheless incorporates the need to struggle associated with a ‘no’. He called it the cycle of love. To our dismay and loss, he never got to create it."

Ray Boisvert, Camus: Between Yes & No, Philosophy Now

"Reading through the odds and ends that have been published since [Susan Sontag's] death almost 10 years ago—the two volumes of her journals, in particular—you get the sense of a person who was always working toward an ideal version of herself. The ideal changed in its particulars over time, but the ideal of change remained constant. She’s often a reassuringly pretentious figure in the early diaries, which are themselves a useful reminder that being a pseudo-intellectual is a necessary stage on the way to being a nonpseudo-intellectual, and that the two classifications aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. Being an intellectual is often, after all, a matter of getting away with trying to be seen as one."

Mark O'Connell, The Intellectual, review of Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview by Jonathan Cott.


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