Saturday, October 26, 2013

by Dr. Yuval Noah Harari

Personal Lecture Notes from Lesson #8: The Direction of History 

(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.)

If we see the over-all trend in human history, we can see that it has been heading in the direction of global unification. The prospects of such unification emerge for the first time in the first millennium BC with 3 potentially universal orders:

1) Economic order
2) Political (Imperial) order
3) Religious order

This lecture is about the emergence of the economic order, or the invention of money.

In hunter-gatherer societies and agricultural societies, humans lived in economically self-contained units with some barter exhange in-between different units. Within units, people did things for each others based on personal relationships and a system of favors. With the development of cities, professionals devoted to specialized tasks (such as shoe-makers or doctors) emerged. Villages started specializing in agricultural products, given its climate and geography. This necessitated a more complex and different kind of economy, which the barter system couldn't provide.

The creation of money was the creation of a new imagined reality. Money doesn't depend on coins or bank notes. 90% of current money in the world exists as bits inside computers; it is electronic data. As long as people are willing to exchange goods and services for transferring bits of data between computers, it works. Money enables people to determine the relative value of all the goods and services in the market. Money is a universal medium of exchange. It is the most efficient and universal system of mutual trust.

Money is based on two basic principles: 
1) Universal convertibility (it can convert any type of good or service into another kind of good or service)
2) Universal trust (two complete strangers can agree on using the same money)

Barley money in Sumeria in 3000 BC is the first type of money that we know of. Its unit was the selo, and there were standardized bowls to measure selo. In ancient Mesopotamia, around 2500 BC, silver shekels emerged as currency. These weren't coins but rather specified the weight of silver, around 8 grams of silver. Lumps of silver were used as currency, and their weight had to be measured before each exchange. Silver shekel had no inherent value, unlike barely, which could be eaten. First coins in history were developed in 640 BC by King Elliotus of the Kingdom of Lydia in the region of western Turkey. Each coin had engraved on it its value and the mark of the king as a sign of authority. Counterfeiting money from thereon became an act of impersonating the king or the government, which is an act of subversion. Political authority, therefore, gives people trust in money.

Eventually gold and silver became the universal money. Once trade begins to connect two areas, the forces of supply and demand tend to equalize the prices of all the goods that can be transported between the two areas. This applies to money as well. The mere fact that one group of people values something highly (say gold) that another group doesn't value much, can make the other group value it highly as well, because they can sell that gold to first group of people with huge profits, eventually leading to an equalization of value of gold between the two groups.

"In truth, money is the climax, the apogee of human tolerance. There is nothing more tolerant it the world than money. Money is far more open-minded than any religion, than any state, than any cultural code, than any social habits. Money is the only trust system that humans created in history that can bridge almost all cultural gaps and it does not discriminate on the basis of religion or gender or race or age or anything else." (Dr. Harari)

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

Thursday, October 24, 2013

"... you can provide the relief that comes from giving a name to nameless fears."

Abraham Nussbaum, The Pocket Guide to the DSM 5 Diagnostic Exam

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The eyes of Vincent van Gogh: Self Portraits, 1886 - 1889.

Ronald Dworkin was a professor of law and philosophy at New York University. I happened to read Religion Without God last week, his short, stimulating book, based on his 2011 Einstein lectures, and one which I can relate to in many ways. Dworkin's central task is disengaging the religious attitude from theistic attitude and linking it instead to the domain of objective values, making it possible for atheists to have a religious attitude as well. This is how Dworkin describes the religious atheists:

"The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude. Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious. They say that though they do not believe in a “personal” god, they nevertheless believe in a “force” in the universe “greater than we are.” They feel an inescapable responsibility to live their lives well, with due respect for the lives of others; they take pride in a life they think well lived and suffer sometimes inconsolable regret at a life they think, in retrospect, wasted. They find the Grand Canyon not just arresting but breathtakingly and eerily wonderful. They are not simply interested in the latest discoveries about the vast universe but enthralled by them. These are not, for them, just a matter of immediate sensuous and otherwise inexplicable response. They express a conviction that the force and wonder they sense are real, just as real as planets or pain, that moral truth and natural wonder do not simply evoke awe but call for it."

The religious attitude is the "faith that some transcendental and objective value permeates the universe, value that is neither a natural phenomenon nor a subjective reaction to natural phenomenon". The religious attitude believes in the objective truth of two central judgements: that human life has objective meaning (it matters how you live) and that nature, or universe as a whole, possesses intrinsic value and wonder.

Devoted theists of various religious traditions are likely to dispute this watered down version of what constitutes religion, but call it what you may, I do think that Dworkin's identification of this particular axiological attitude that cuts across the theistic-atheistic divide is valid, and may in many ways be more fundamental than that divide and may provide a basis, as Dworkin hopes, for improved communication between some atheists and theists.

Beauty is an important topic to Dworkin, as he devotes the entire second chapter to dissecting the notion of cosmic beauty, or the beauty that some physicists claim to see in nature at its most fundamental level. After a long discussion, Dworkin proposes that the sublime beauty of physics is actually a presumption on the part of physicists which is actually linked to another presumption:

"The physicists who believe that the universe has great beauty also believe that it has some fundamental unity: they presume that there is, waiting to be discovered, a comprehensive, simple, and unified explanation of how the universe was born and how it works, from the largest galaxy to the tiniest particles."

"The presumption of beauty is a presumption about how things really are: the religious faith holds that the universe really is, at bottom, in the final explanation of everything, beautiful. But that presumption makes no sense if there is no bottom, no final explanation. If we must accept an infinite regress of explanation, beauty can be no more than skin deep."

The third chapter argues that the special legal and ethical right to religious freedom is actually untenable and that the right to religious freedom can actually be re-interpreted as a general right to ethical independence. (Difficult to summarize the arguments here.)

The fourth and last chapter, also the briefest, is about death and immortality, and Dworkin suggests his own interpretation of what may count as immortality: life as a work of art, a life well-lived. "Why can't a life also be an achievement complete in itself, with its own value in the art in living it displays? If we do crave that kind of achievement, as I believe we should, then we could treat it as a kind of immortality... it is the only kind of immortality we can imagine; at least the only kind we have any business wanting."


"the tired sunsets and the tired
people -
it takes a lifetime to die and
no time at
all."

Charles Bukowski

Monday, October 14, 2013

"Why is art beautiful? Because it's useless. Why is life ugly? Because it's all ends and purposes and intentions."

Fernando PessoaThe Book of Disquiet

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

"Your absence has gone through me
Like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color."

W. S. Merwin, Separation

(via Proustitute)

Friday, October 4, 2013

"Wisdom is different from intelligence. Intelligence seeks knowledge and seeks to eliminate ambiguity. Wisdom on the other hand, resists automatic thinking, seeks to understand ambiguity better, to grasp the deeper meaning of what is known and to understand the limits of knowledge. (Sternberg). Monika Ardelt is a modern wisdom researcher who has put all of these into a 3 dimensional model of wisdom: cognitive, reflective and affective. The cognitive dimension includes the desire to deeply know and understand things, including the limits of our knowing. The reflective dimension represents the capacity for self-reflection, and the capacity to see things from many perspectives. The affective dimension of wisdom is empathy and compassion. So, a wise person is one who desires to deeply understand things, who is humble and aware of the limitations of knowing, who can see things from many perspectives and avoids black and white thinking, and who radiates compassion. [...]

If no one can hand us wisdom on a silver platter, and we must discover this for ourselves through our own experiences, our own journey, what kind of experience might be the best teacher?  I would argue that for all the downsides of adversity, just like necessity is the mother of invention, adversity is the seedbed for wisdom.  What better teacher of compassion than one’s own experience of suffering?  How better to learn humility than to make a mistake?  And what better to discover the deeper meaning of one’s life than to face a circumstance that forces you to focus on that which is of most value to your life? [...]

Of course, not everyone who suffers through a difficult experience comes out with something positive.  In fact, you could argue, adversity is just as likely to make someone bitter, angry, cynical and entrenched as it is to make them compassionate, humble, more able to see things from other’s perspectives. So I will argue that it is not just adversity, but rather adversity plus the right matrix and the inner capacity to use that difficult experience in a positive way that leads to wisdom."

Margaret Plews-Ogan, What is Wisdom?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

In week 3 of Modern & Contemporary American Poetry by Al Filreis, we discuss the poetic movement of Imagism and William Carlos Williams. 

Imagism was the first organized movement in modern American poetry and it advocated the use of sharp, clear language to vividly depict an image, much like a painter or a sculptor. It aimed to render language like a clear glass through which a precise visual image can be conveyed without distortion. Especially, it stressed to use ‘the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word’ and to ‘render particulars exactly’. Here is a brief description, along with principles from Imagist manifesto.

The quintessential imagist poem is Ezra Pound's In a Station of the Metro. He tried to capture a moment he experienced in the underground metro station; the original poem he wrote had 30 lines, which he eventually condensed into a final poem of merely 14 words:

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd   :
Petals      on a wet, black    bough   .

Wikipedia has a good entry on the poem, and you can read Ezra Pound's own thoughts on it here. Other imagist poets discussed were H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) and Wallace Stevens.

William Carlos Williams was influenced by imagism but he also experimented with many different styles of poetry. Contrary to traditional poets who preferred the natural over artificial, Williams insisted on seeing beauty, significance and life in the modern, made-made world. Consider Lines and Between Walls, in both the reference to green, broken glass comes up. Williams also experimented with poetry to show that anything, no matter how trivial, could be an appropriate subject of poetry. For instance, This Is Just To Say, which is actually a poem made out of a refrigerator note left to his wife, and The Red Wheelbarrow. Al Filreis compares this to Duchamp's Fountain, which turns a urinal into a work of art, and makes a similar statement about the subject matter of art. Other poems of WCW that were discussed include The rose is obsolete, which discusses how rose as a romantic symbol is dead, and Portrait of a Lady, which represents the frustrated, failed attempted to make a (linguistic) portrait of a person (especially as it was done in traditional poetry and art), and does so by a dialogue between two voices, one of a poet, sketching the portrait in a conventional way, which is more of a caricature given the terrible metaphors, and the other of the skeptical, modernist alter-ego of the poet.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

In  Lesson #7: There is No Justice in History of the course A Brief History of Humankind, Dr. Yuval Noah Harari discusses how imagined realities create hierarchies that are unfair. 

Hierarchies serve an important social function: they make it possible for a person to know how to treat a complete stranger without expending any time and energy that is needed to become personally acquainted.

All societies have imagined hierarchies of some sort, but they are different in different societies. For instance, traditional Hindu society had a hierarchy based on caste system while in modern American society the hierarchy is based on race and wealth. On analysis it turns out that it is mere accidental historical circumstances that underlie why a particular society develops a particular hierarchy. For example, the Indian caste system was created after Central Asians invaded India and divided the society into castes to maintain their own privilege (and convinced everyone that it reflected some kind of natural order). Consider slavery in America: American plantations were mostly located in tropical areas, and these tropical areas were plagued by tropical diseases, such as Malaria. Europeans themselves did not have immunity against them (the native Americans had already perished in large numbers thanks to the unfamiliar diseases brought by Europeans), but Africans had immunity against them. In Africa there was an already well-developed slave trade and all Americans had to do was to buy and import slaves from there. Ironically, the biological superiority of Africans led them to become socially inferior. Just like the Indian attributed the caste system to the natural order of things, the European masters invented all kinds of stories. Theologians said that Africans had descended from Ham, son of Noah, who was cursed by Noah that his offspring would be slaves. Biologists argued that blacks were less intelligent and had less developed moral sense. Etc.

There is one hierarchy, however, that cannot be explained on the basis of chance historical event. It is hierarchy of gender, which has been universally present in all human societies. While there are biological differences between the sexes, they are not sufficient to explain the existence of patriarchy. All explanations that have been offered have problems with them, and the truth is that we simply don't have a good answer to the question of why men gained a social and cultural superiority over women.

(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.)

For previous posts in this series, see the tag A Brief History of Humankind

 

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