Koestler, A. (1947) The Yogi and the Commissar
Having been a member of the Dutch social-democratic party with Marxist tendencies when I was in my twenties, of course I should have read this book at that time. It was mentioned a lot at that time, but always with a certain disdain. But actually it is well informed, well written and raises important issues.
Already in 1947 it gives a lot of facts about the Soviet Union that makes it very clear that it in no way can be understood as a socialist state or even a state that is striving to become one. Rather, under Stalin it was reformed back to a Tsarist - but now totalitarian - regime. Koestler paints a very specific picture about changes in the law and assigning state heroes from the old regime that leave no doubt about how Stalin saw himself. Even now worth the read I think.
Still, Koestler defines himself as a socialist at that time. In his analysis about what went wrong and how to escape, he points to the ethics of the Commissar as against that of the Yogi. Ethics has been reduced to psychology (Freud - Superego), physiology, self-interest etc. This leads of course to cynicism and a practice where attaining a goal justifies the use of any means. It leads to the power politics of the Commissar.
Using insights from science about the irreducibility of complex phenomena to `lower’ levels - insights that are broadly in line with contemporary ideas about it -, Koestler argues for the irreducibility of ethics as an experience of human beings in society.
Now, whereas normally our practices are done in a specific level of complexity, Koestler sees the Yogi as looking `sideways’ at these levels and thus having a broad view of reality. Koestler argues that such a view is needed to transcend being stuck in the view of the Commissar and in power politics.
Although not very convincing in it self, Koestler’s Commissar / Yogi view points to difficulties in ethical practices in modern society that are very real. In this sense this part of the book is a forerunner of Peter Sloterdijk’s Critic of Cynical Reason. The problems can be summed up as the decline of `good will’ under the force of circumstance; everyone really wants to act ethically correct, but the force of circumstance dictates otherwise.
Said differently, we are trapped in subsystems for which ethics is not a meaningful way of communication. We have to act according to the practices of the subsystem or radically step out of it (unthinkable). We don’t want to pollute the environment, but we need a car to get to work. Our company wants to use non-slave-produced materials, but it has to compete with other companies in the field. The commissar does not want to chop off heads, but the damned capitalists are after his throat.
All in all this book is a better read for its facts and the questions that it raises, than for its analysis of them.
So, would you use power politics if your life is in danger?
(actually my Amazon review)
D.K. Lewis on counterfactuals and truth
I.e. according to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Lewis_(philosopher):
“According to Lewis, what makes a counterfactual conditional of the form
"Had I made that shot our team would have won the game."
true is that there is a world, as concrete as ours and significantly similar to it, in which my counterpart makes rather than misses the shot and the counterpart of our team wins the game. Had there been a world even more similar to ours in which my counterpart makes the shot but the counterpart of our team still loses the counterfactual would have been false. When we speak of counterfactual possibilities we speak of what is the case in some possible world or worlds. “
So, even if you grant all possible worlds the reality that Lewis seems to attribute to them, this still leaves his truth criterion for counterfactuals quite problematic. It supposes a metric for all possible worlds which allows us to measure how ‘far’ two worlds are apart. I.e. how ‘alike’ two worlds are. The metric would produce a real number for any two possible worlds (including our own) to give a statement about their ‘likeness’: D(W1,W2). Given the complexity of ‘worlds’ it seems highly debatable to me that such a metric would exist.
But even granted such a metric exists. The truth criterion for counterfactuals calls for the comparison with all possible worlds when it says that the counterfactual is false if it is false in a world even more similar to ours than a world where it is true. Now what if it is true in W1 and false in W2, but D(W,W1) = D(W,W2). I.e. both worlds are equally similar two our actual world. And mind you, such things might easily happen when you project a multidimensional entity onto a one dimensional entity like a metric (think of persons and their IQ’s).
Things get even more interesting if we ponder a bit about the ontology of the possible worlds, i.e. one could ask how many different possible worlds there might be. This clearly depends on the number of constituents of the possible worlds themselves. E.g. if every possible world would have only a finite number of constituents, the number of all possible worlds would be countable infinite at the most.
Such is not the case however, since a possible world could be made of ‘gunk’, a concept D.K. Lewis uses which refers to stuff that is infinitely constituted of parts. So, not like there would in the end be elementary particles where the divisions would end, but the divisions can go on and on and on. While ‘gunk’ is in itself an interesting (if not mind boggling) concept, for now we can use it to assert that there will be worlds which have at least an uncountable infinite number of constituents.
Now, to fly-by some elementary calculus, it is not difficult to imagine a series of possible worlds Wi (i = 1, 2, …) converging to our actual world i.e. lim (i to infinte) D(W,Wi) = 0, but where for every n : if the counterfactual is true in world Wn than it is false in world Wn+1. In other words, there is no truth convergence for the counterfactual.
Both examples clearly leave us with three classes of counterfactuals: (1) True, (2) False, (3) Undecidable. Which I think is a nice result. Do you feel the same way about it?
This was inspired by isomorphismes (http://isomorphismes.tumblr.com/post/65257487291/gunk)
We often speak of an object being composed of various other objects. We say that the deck is composed of the cards, that a road is [composed of asphalt or concrete], that a house is composed of its walls, ceilings, floors, doors, etc.
Suppose we have some material objects. Here is a philosophical question: what conditions must obtain for those objects to compose something?
If something is made of atomless gunk then it divides forever into smaller and smaller parts—it is infinitely divisible. However, a line segment is infinitely divisible, and yet has atomic parts: the points. A hunk of gunk does not even have atomic parts ‘at infinity’; all parts of such an object have proper parts.
Ted Sider, Van Inwagen and the Possibility of Gunk