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Materialism holds the high ground these days in debates over that most ultimate of scientific questions: the nature of consciousness. When tackling the problem of mind and brain, many prominent researchers advocate for a universe fully reducible to matter. ‘Of course you are nothing but the activity of your neurons,’ they proclaim. That position seems reasonable and sober in light of neuroscience’s advances, with brilliant images of brains lighting up like Christmas trees while test subjects eat apples, watch movies or dream. And aren’t all the underlying physical laws already known?

From this seemly hard-nosed vantage, the problem of consciousness seems to be just one of wiring, as the American physicist Michio Kaku argued in The Future of the Mind (2014). In the very public version of the debate over consciousness, those who advocate that understanding the mind might require something other than a ‘nothing but matter’ position are often painted as victims of wishful thinking, imprecise reasoning or, worst of all, an adherence to a mystical ‘woo’.

It’s hard not to feel the intuitional weight of today’s metaphysical sobriety. Like Pickett’s Charge up the hill at Gettysburg, who wants to argue with the superior position of those armed with ever more precise fMRIs, EEGs and the other material artefacts of the materialist position? There is, however, a significant weakness hiding in the imposing-looking materialist redoubt. It is as simple as it is undeniable: after more than a century of profound explorations into the subatomic world, our best theory for how matter behaves still tells us very little about what matter is. Materialists appeal to physics to explain the mind, but in modern physics the particles that make up a brain remain, in many ways, as mysterious as consciousness itself.

Materialism Alone Cannot Explain Consciousness by Adam Frank


Greek philosophic term of the week:
Physis - “Nature”, from verb phynai (aorist pass. inf.), “to grow, to be begotten or born”. When we speak of Nature, we actually use the Latinized version of the Greek word physis, from which we also derive the word “physics”. As is happens, physis is one of the most important terms in Greek philosophy and theology, and one of the most contentious - as we can readily tell from the various connotations that the word “Nature” now evokes in the English language. This, in fact, is a fair reflection of the various competing schools of thought which have fought for supremacy over the last few centuries.

Thus, all at once, Nature can be meant to express something which is separate from what is specifically human (i.e. the environment vs. the human world, its inventions, and conventions - it’s nomoi), an all-encompassing totality of which humanity forms a part (i.e. the Greek “to pan”, or “holon” [whole, as in holistic]), or the essence which is proper to something (e.g. human nature, or the nature of a cat, or the nature of atoms). These various contentions actually found their first factions in Ancient Greece, in the generation of Parmenides and Heraclitus - and they’ve only been reproduced in the post-Renaissance philosophy which has structured modern languages and concepts.

In it’s original formulation, Physis designated what we would call the process of growth of things. When Greek philosophers - first in ancient Ionia then later throughout Magna Graecia - first turned their attention to the problem of processes, they were the able to distinguish that all processes involving finite things involve three aspects - a beginning (arche), a middle (the growth, becoming, or unfolding proper), and an end (telos). Though, logically, a proper understanding of the Physis of anything would need at least to address all three aspects, for decades different philosophers tended to chase down and focus on one, and come to, e.g. the first two meanings listed above. It would take Plato, Aristotle (and reputably, Socrates), to bring the question of Physis fully to the point of investigating all three, and from there, investigating all the questions which arise from there (e.g. all study of human nature, of society understood as “the soul writ large”, and of the processes of the visible cosmos).

Physics and modern cosmology, as it so happens, mainly focus on the question of natural beginnings - thus happily continuing the work of the Ionian philosophers, aka. the physiologoi.
A few years ago, while I was still sitting in Carleton's Senate, we managed to pry figures out of the University's fingers which revealed that the drop-out and failure rate of their "faster, cheaper, better" online courses were spectacularly higher than for in-the-flesh courses. Apparently, the figures only get worse as you scale up.

What is not frequently mentioned in the praise of online courses is the completion rate. CS50x Introduction to Computer Science I, Harvard’s largest online course, had an enrollment of 150,349 students. Of those 150,349 students, only 1388 of them completed the course. That is a completion rate of 0.9 per cent. If my courses had a completion rate of 0.9 per cent, I would have been fired long ago –- and justly so. Fortunately, the completion rates for my courses are well higher than that, often above 90 per cent. And almost 100 per cent of the students who took the on-campus version of Harvard’s computer course finished it.

We – those of us who spend time in the classroom teaching undergraduates – know what works and what does not work. We know that, regardless of technological novelties, the larger the class is, the less the student is engaged in the material. We know that the less the student is engaged in the material, the less they will learn and the poorer they will perform. We know that smaller classes, taught by eager professors, who are able to challenge students and treat them as “thinkers” and not merely as “clients” or “users” will ultimately produce the best results.

Who teaches university students? Contract teachers - The Globe and Mail
Meanwhile, in Canada...

A billionaire Ontario developer with an Order of Canada, a senior vice-president with media giant Rogers Communications and the owners of Winnipeg's famed Nutty Club candy factory are among numerous wealthy Canadians who appear to be linked to a secret tax dodge in the Isle of Man, according to an investigation by CBC's the fifth estate and Radio-Canada's Enquête.

In its internal marketing pitches, KPMG solicited Canadians with a "minimum" of $5 million to invest in an "Offshore Company Structure," charging clients $100,000 simply to start it up. KPMG also guaranteed confidentiality.

In its Isle of Man scheme developed in 1999, KPMG also promised "no tax" on offshore investments — a scheme the Canada Revenue Agency later described as a "sham" in court documents.

The Canada Revenue Agency eventually offered a secret amnesty to the accounting firm's clients who had been using the scheme.

But now, some of that secrecy has been exposed...

Wealthy Canadians exposed in KPMG offshore tax 'sham' - Business - CBC News
Trump had spoken, and his audience had heard him. Then I did what I’ve been doing for two and a half months now. I Googled “mainstream media is…” And there it was. Google’s autocomplete suggestions: “mainstream media is… dead, dying, fake news, fake, finished”. Is it dead, I wonder? Has FAKE news won? Are we now the FAKE news? Is the mainstream media – we, us, I – dying?

I click Google’s first suggested link. It leads to a website called CNSnews.com and an article: “The Mainstream media are dead.” They’re dead, I learn, because they – we, I – “cannot be trusted”. How had it, an obscure site I’d never heard of, dominated Google’s search algorithm on the topic? In the “About us” tab, I learn CNSnews is owned by the Media Research Center, which a click later I learn is “America’s media watchdog”, an organisation that claims an “unwavering commitment to neutralising leftwing bias in the news, media and popular culture”.

Another couple of clicks and I discover that it receives a large bulk of its funding – more than $10m in the past decade – from a single source, the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer. If you follow US politics you may recognise the name. Robert Mercer is the money behind Donald Trump. But then, I will come to learn, Robert Mercer is the money behind an awful lot of things. He was Trump’s single biggest donor. Mercer started backing Ted Cruz, but when he fell out of the presidential race he threw his money – $13.5m of it – behind the Trump campaign.

It’s money he’s made as a result of his career as a brilliant but reclusive computer scientist. He started his career at IBM, where he made what the Association for Computational Linguistics called “revolutionary” breakthroughs in language processing – a science that went on to be key in developing today’s AI – and later became joint CEO of Renaissance Technologies, a hedge fund that makes its money by using algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets.

One of its funds, Medallion, which manages only its employees’ money, is the most successful in the world – generating $55bn so far. And since 2010, Mercer has donated $45m to different political campaigns – all Republican – and another $50m to non-profits – all rightwing, ultra-conservative. This is a billionaire who is, as billionaires are won't, trying to reshape the world according to his personal beliefs.
Robert Mercer: the big data billionaire waging war on mainstream media
Astronomers have never seen anything like this before: Seven Earth-size alien worlds orbit the same tiny, dim star, and all of them may be capable of supporting life as we know it, a new study reports.

"Looking for life elsewhere, this system is probably our best bet as of today," study co-author Brice-Olivier Demory, a professor at the Center for Space and Habitability at the University of Bern in Switzerland, said in a statement.

The exoplanets circle the star TRAPPIST-1, which lies just 39 light-years from Earth — a mere stone's throw in the cosmic scheme of things. So speculation about the alien worlds' life-hosting potential should soon be informed by hard data, study team members said. [Images: The 7 Earth-Size Worlds of TRAPPIST-1]

"We can expect that, within a few years, we will know a lot more about these planets, and with hope, if there is life there, [we will know] within a decade," co-author Amaury Triaud, of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge in England, told reporters on Tuesday (Feb. 21).

Major Discovery! 7 Earth-Size Alien Planets Circle Nearby Star

Israel and Revelation

Israel and RevelationIsrael and Revelation by Eric Voegelin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Voegelin is the rarest of writer's and philosophers: the sort who will take you on a thousand-year journey that will, by it's nature, completely and utterly break all of your preconceptions about the ways of the world. "Israel and Revelation" does so by contrasting the way and order of being of ancient Mesopotamians and Egyptians to that of a peculiar people who suddenly emerged in their midst - the ancient Hebrew tribes, viz. the people who would be known as Israel. In the process of unfolding the stories of these parallel orders, Voegelin shows just how alien ancient, cosmological civilizations are to our actual, post-cosmological experience. He also subtly reveals just how much of the Western understanding of time (i.e. as "history"), of the representative function of rulers (i.e. as simply the existential representatives of a people in pursuit of pragmatic, worldly goals), secularization, and of an understanding of a transcendent calling to personal morality even in spite of or in opposition to society and the world, is a consequence of the breakthroughs in the thousand-year struggle of Israel, it's Patriarchs, Judges, Priests, and Prophets.

"Order and History" is a necessary read for anyone wishing to break free of the mental straight-jacket of modern Western ideological thinking. He will leave you with no historical materialism, no historical idealism, no romanticism, no -ism's whatsoever. What he'll leave you is an understanding of what people actually experienced, what they wrestled mightily with, and their struggles to communicate it.

View all my reviews

On Profound Ignorance - by Eva Brann

Plato’s Charmides is not one of the more famous dialogues or one often thought of as central, and it is not on the St. John’s reading list. The latter fact is probably irremediable; the former opinion is now, once and for all, remedied by Profound Ignorance.[1]

I’ve long had a fleeting intuition, which David Levine has now worked out deeply and extensively, that the Charmides is of all the Platonic dialogues, the one that most immediately bears on our own contemporary political condition, the one that most directly illuminates the root problems of modernity. The Table of Contents, in fact, signals his understanding of this dialogue as peculiarly future-fraught. There are ten chapters, all but the first of which are devoted to a lively and careful exegesis of successive sections of the text. The first chapter, however, is a retrospective of ancient tyranny from the viewpoint of the “mega-phenomenon” that is modern totalitarianism. It seems to me that, whereas in the Republic we are invited to analyze the full soul as writ large in an imagined city, in the Charmides we are bidden to focus on the shrunk soul of an actual tyrant-to-be in a real city. The tyrant’s actions are infinitesimal in murderous effect compared to those of recent totalitarian leaders, but by that very smallness possibly more comprehensible in their badness than is the all but incomprehensible evil of the last and this century. David Levine works out these comparative realities in the initial chapter. The surface differences between old tyranny and new totalitarianism are, in brief, “lawlessness and terror,” expressed in an untrammeled appetite, as against “criminal rationality” expressed in a brute ideology. But there is a root similarity: “profound ignorance.” It is most perfectly exemplified in Critias, the eventual main figure of the Charmides, as Charmides, the externally beautiful boy without a mind of his own, recedes—only to return at the end with ominous threats, boyishly delivered...

On Profound Ignorance - The Imaginative Conservative

The Art of Carleton

The Art of Carleton: "And to your left, you can see a mural of the Faceless, standing waist-deep in blood and worshipping Moloch as the circular horizon receeds behind them. And up these stairs are the offices of the executive administration..."

Grandma & Gabriel & Ginny

A picture from a photo-shoot arranged by my sister at my Grandparents' home in Summerstown, a pair of years ago.

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