Latest Entries »

I wrote a pretty good article in 2010, and only today did I realize it. What a feeing!





this man holds the guiness world record for the world’s smallest thermometer. i like his sweater!

When I was learning to do policy analysis one point I had trouble with was that my final product would be read by a Senator in two minutes or less. You have to know your stuff, but they don’t have to know your stuff. If they want more they’ll ask someone else, and probably get a different policy recommendation from yours. And you’re supposed to jump at the opportunity to do this for a living? I think not. Better to be the Senator reinventing policy analysis than to be a policy analyst by the wayside.

If you read Intelligent Design publications as a form of mental martial arts training, as I do, you will start to believe one of their claims without hesitation: namely, that a growing number of ID arguments are being couched in technical terminology. Actually, if you want a crash course in basic molecular biology, biophysics, or nanobiotechnology, you could find much less informative sources than a place like the Discovery Institute or the Center for Science and Culture. To make their case with clarity, authors like Michael Behe and Stephen Mayer have to provide the basics and they also have to present the reader with a minimally sophisticated view of their opponent’s position. I can forgive ID writers for building straw man arguments, because their opponents do the same. I find a good deal of the ID work downright titillating.

Many people think the most powerful argument against ID is the argument from socialization, that policymakers have A DUTY NOT TO teach creationism as if it were a presently accepted scientific fact or credible theory. In response to that line of thinking, Steve Fuller has put forth the strongest response. Fuller simply points out that modern science was originally an Intelligent Design movement. If we teach our children to appreciate the history of science, we will teach them the history of Intelligent Design arguments without undermining the role of Darwin in bringing forth a new vision that accounts for a large array of accumulated evidence.

Many great contemporary Nobel Laureates and leading lights in theoretical physics and applied mathematics are ID supporters. They don’t seem to have trouble adjusting to the tension involved in maintaining an ID worldview while having a capacious mind to entertain alternative methods of explanation.

That being said, I am not nearly prepared to endorse Intelligent Design myself. My reason, however, is not that I don’t think there are unsolved mysteries that the latest Modern Synthesis of Evolutionary Theory have no answer for. On the contrary! My basic feeling is that the antagonism between evolution and ID is a sign that something is missing in our knowledge that will turn the problem into pseudo-problem. Right now the debate takes place on epistemic grounds — what is the actual fact of the matter?!?! But I suspect that as new evidence uncovered through new microscope capabilities, and as new theoretical biophysics models develop, these epistemic battles will give way to stylistic and aesthetic and ethical battles.

For example, take the case of Donald D. Hoffman’s cognitive science work at UC Irvine. One of his arguments goes like this:

1) It wasn’t until the 1981 that Alain Aspect’s team in France demonstrated conclusively that quantum entanglement operates in the real observable world. 

2) In the history of philosophy, it takes decades for verified insights from theoretical physics to percolate into other sciences.

3) We should begin to ask ourselves to what extent the brain takes advantage of quantum entanglement.

4) Even if the answer is “not at all” this answer cannot be arrived at until we give our best effort to investigate the question.

5) Thus, we need to systematically develop models and experimental designs that will probe mental activity through many methods for evidence of the appropriation of quantum mechanical properties.

That’s a pretty solid argument, I think. So, suppose that in 10 years we find out that 3.5 billion years ago some kind of quantum mechanical trick became part of the normal machinery of multi-celled organisms. It doesn’t even have to be quantum — it could be some other kind of trick that we hadn’t thought possible before. When this new evidence arrives, both the ID news outlets and the New Atheist outlets will drum up the band — “This shows the handiwork of an intelligence with a specific intention,” the ID crowd will say. “Cranes, not sky-hooks” the New Atheists will say (to use Daniel Dennett’s famous quip).

And which will be true? As more and more evidence of the intelligence of inert matter is uncovered, how will the divergent values systems manage to gather their wits and remain separate entities, with separate myths, and separate school systems?

That’s my take on the socialization argument. But my main point is different; my main point is that Intelligent Design proponents today are blandly Judeo-Christian.

To be more specific: When the ID movement claims that biomolecules and various constant values are customized for producing human life, they are claiming that the intelligence responsible has a “very particular intention” to produce human intelligence. Typically, they stop short of taking that logic the next step, that perhaps some intelligence beyond human intelligence is the real design intention of the creative intelligence responsible for “evolution”.

You will not usually find ID enthusiasts making those kind of transhumanist or posthumanist claims — but clearly their argument can be countered by claiming, along with Friedrich Nietzsche — not just Jesus and Daniel — that the view of the human we entertain today is a mere bridge to something greater.  

My own position, however, is different from both of these views. I don’t think Nietzsche had any idea what the human was already capable of in his own time. And I think almost all Christians aren’t concerned with the transformative capabilities of today’s human form. The born-again narrative of conversion and glorification that swallows religion in its maw these days is a far cry from my own view of what a creator intelligence would intend our bodies and minds to become.

What is the desired outcome of creation for the ID community? For me this is the biggest question, and it is the source of what I think is really the best argument against today’s ID arguments. In short, ID strikes me as a radical conservative movement. Rather than spew opinions about what sort of world ID proponents believe would fulfill the design intentions of the creator intelligence, I’ll simply say that this is an empirical question that could be researched. Someone could go around to all the ID proponents in the scientific community, and ask them what they think the desired outcome of creation is, in terms of what the specific intentions of the creative intelligence might be. Perhaps they will speak of free will and self-determination — we have been given the choice, and that is the creative intelligence’s intention — or perhaps some will be religious transhumanists — the lion shall lie with the lamb and the human shall receive a glorified body. But then we should also survey all those ID adherents that are not scientists.

This is where the real counter-argument to ID gains traction, I think. Some or many of the scientists who argue for ID may be rather brilliant or even visionary. They may inspire some new scholarship that will garner a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 5 or 10 years — wouldn’t that be something! But if you consider the ID movement in terms of the history of public policy, and the association between creationist worldview and mis-appropriation of scientific claims for purposes of cultural antagonism, you will hesitate to jump on the bandwagon when someone publishes a titillating book on cell biology.

Of course, the counter argument to the argument from the history of public policy is that evolution also brought a worldview that mis-appropriated scientific claims — eugenics, anyone?

This is precisely why I don’t endorse either position. I think the debate itself is a symptom of a lack of knowledge and a surfeit of ideology. If you want an alternative mingling between religion and secularism, check out

I am determined to apply for PhD programs, but this shit ain’t easy.

Heeding the exaggerated expectations of mentors, I’m aiming for the stratosphere, the best programs. To satisfy some requirements, one needs to read French and German. Can I learn to read French and German in one year? It would take Nietzschean will for that; but then, nothing less than Nietzschean will will do!

I would like to study overseas, but again the search process is laborious, and I have a job to do here in Japan. A creeping sense of how quickly my 3 months here will conclude is haunting my daydreams. No one wants to be an unemployed scholar.

I am hoping also to travel to India by year’s end to deliver some invited lectures. If all goes well I will have a tiny bundle of publications and lecture presentations, internships and work experiences — along with a documentary film appearance — to show admissions committees by early 2014. 



Deep Shit

Marc Abeles is a brilliant writer. He suggests, in the linked essay, that a politics of survival is emerging where “what matters…is to attain harmony between humans and their future” — a problem that is much more difficult to address than a question of which economic or political system to struggle for. He asks, “how do individuals exercise agency” when a politics of survival is pressed upon people by “natural or man-made catastrophes”?

Not just the specter of catastrophe in the future, but also refugee communities, narco-warzones, ruined ecosystems — Lake Victoria.


Abeles’ essay “Foucault and Political Anthropology” is directed toward ethnographers. He suggests that Foucault’s “blind empiricist” is a good mindset for the researcher to take — “the researcher who proceeds by trial and error and tries to make their own tools without paying much attention to their discipline.” (p 67 International Social Science Journal vol 59 issue 191)

When it comes to problematizing a situation like Lake Victoria, though, I’m not so sure that the image of Foucault — the lone subversive archeologist — as blind empiricist is sufficient for our human future. Actually, I’m not sure that a global tribe of blind empiricists — each finding their own tools for the job — would do the trick either. To me that seems to imply a free-market approach to problem solving via curiosity-driven research. When it comes to certain wicked problems that seem to be obstacles to attaining a harmony between humans and their future, we need certain kinds of blind empiricism and not others — a blind empiricism of blind empiricism conducted in groups.

Arnim Wiek, a sustainability scholar at Arizona State University, writes so beautifully about this problem. For Arnim, disciplinary boundaries need to be problematized, as do boundaries between sectors, cultures, ecologies, and just about all else. What he calls Transformational Sustainability Research combines, I think, the best of Foucault’s blind empiricism with a pragmatic realization that developing, evaluating, and implementing solution options — the intended outcome of a problematization — is one of the hardest things humans have ever had to do. Our universities are only weakly equipped, as are nation-states, international institutions, NGOs, publics North and South, et al. The wickedness of the complexity refers to a mismatch between the problem and the present institutional capacity to solve the problem.

To make the matter of attaining a harmony between humans and their future more involved, consider the discussion about transhumanism in the academy. Most academics find fault with determinist accounts of a disembodied future — too extreme a view for them, not enough ethics and agency, too many poor people left behind, and so much uncertainty! The Unabomber’s back-to-nature platform fairs no better in academia — too extreme, but useful to instigate thoughtful conversation. There is a great deal of “blind empiricism” , “audacity and imagination” happening in between the extremes, but also at these extremes.

Somehow, though, the literature I’ve come across that addresses transhumanist themes doesn’t lay bare “what deep shit we’re in”, to use Zizek’s phrase. The techno-determinists think super-intelligent machines will solve the Lake Victoria problem without lifting a finger — even while placidly napping. The academic might recoil with a trope expressed by David Collingridge in 1980: these are not just technical problems, they are human problems. What makes the techno-determinist think that intelligent machines will solve those problems? The techno-determinist often gives the impression that the exponential growth of processing power and nuanced knowledge spontaneously obliterates the blockages in the pipes of civilization.

“Attaining harmony between humans and their future” captures very nicely the major emerging plight of our time — in this I agree with Marc Abeles. However, I disagree with the suggestion that, among ethnographers, the blind empiricist is the aesthetic ideal in this fucked up situation.

*Thanks to Kelly Kroehle for linking me to Aster Aweke’s music.

Jonardon Ganeri is a professional philosopher with appointments at University of Sussex, Nehru University in New Delhi, and other places. I came across his work through a subscription to Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. I myself, having a degree in philosophy and having briefly studied at a monastery, am quite excited that people like Ganeri are working so prolifically with philosophy as a global human thing. Ganeri edited a volume on the metaphor of philosophy as medicinal therapy for reducing mental suffering, for example, that spans a huge terrain of culture and history

. Image

Ganeri’s recent work on early modern Indian philosophy is of particular interest to me, as I am about to perform a collaborative research experiment with a contemporary Indian polymath, Anirban Bandyopadhyay, who composes Sanskrit poetry that encapsulates his pattern-based computation theories. Ganeri suggests that a disjunctive transition to modernism is not what happened in Indian philosophy; rather, early modern thinkers continued to engage Sanskrit sutra traditions and writing styles that nevertheless demonstrate deeply “contemporary” global philosophical concerns — ethics, epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, reflections on the nature of the self, etc. [I would suggest that in the Western tradition the transition to modernism also isn’t a major rupture — Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy (an early modern text) were written in a Jesuit style that had a religious pedigree of several hundred years.

It is in this connection that I find it so interesting to learn that David Hume was likely conversant with Tibetan and Theravadan Buddhist theories. Ganeri says in a 3am interview:

“Incidentally, Hume, as Alison Gopnik has demonstrated in a recent article, seems to have had access to a swathe of materials about Tibetan and Theravāda Buddhist theory from the documents of the Jesuits Desideri and Dolu.”

Dolu was part of the French embassy in Siam in the late 17th century, and was a prominent landmark at the Jesuit university in La Fleche during the 1730s when Hume was writing his Treatise of Human Nature in La Fleche. Hume describes in a letter from the 1760s how his argument in On Miracles came to him while discussing “nonsensical miracles” with a Jesuit who had travelled the world. Hume basically lived at the library in La Fleche, and he is famous for his international curiosity, soaking up like a sponge stories of distant lands.

Desideri was Dolu’s friend who lived in Tibet from 1716-1721. Keep in mind that Hume was obsessed with being at the forefront of international culture; as my former professor Norbert Samuelson says, “Hume’s greatest ambition was to be a member of the French Court.” It wasn’t just sexy women and costume parties that Hume (the Scotsman who wrote a history of Britain) wanted so desperately. He wanted access to the best international perspectives, and he wanted to say the most important, true, controversial things that might influence his own culture.

Hume continues to be all the rage these days, especially in debates about metaphysics / causality. Bernard Berofsky, one of the leading thinkers in America on metaphysics, published a book in 2012, Nature’s Challenge to Free Will, which claims to be “the first full defense of Humean Compatibilism” ever penned. Berofsky is prone to bold claims — he is a world-class stage magician who enjoys racing Indy cars and singing the Marseillaise.

But you will not find Berofsky talking about Hume’s links to Tibetan and Theravadan Buddhism.
That’s just something the reader has to do on their own. When I was an undergrad, I came across Berofsky’s magisterial Liberation from Self: A Theory of Personal Autonomy, “the most sophisticated treatment of autonomy currently available” — again that boldness. That book lit my philosophical attic on fire. It also got me thinking about how resonant the language was with eastern themes — “liberation from self” is a pun, if you imagine that the author is conscious of the Indian tradition.

What I am wanting to explore now is the role of this global philosophical view to the fields of science studies, STS, and science & technology policy. Have western scholars probed the depths of the cultural context of Indian polymath scientists? Can some form of authentic listening take place when the western “ethicist” enters a laboratory with such cultural resonances?

Time will tell.

Legislative Self-Assembly


Isaiah Berlin once wrote, “We cannot legislate
for unknown consequences of consequences of consequences.”

He wasn’t making a statement about the mind’s resemblance to a broken record,
it wasn’t that he COULD NOT GET OVER consequences.

He was making a deep point about science and society…in the 20th century.

But suppose we produce a scientific approach that gets uncommonly robust forecasts
from cadres of superintelligent autonomous nano-brains,
and they all vote on a spectrum;
and suppose we decide to value their opinions?

We have so much that is known so well, an overdetermination of excellent forecasts. Is that so remarkably impossible? I mean, we get that
with global circulation models — which by the way aren’t so autonomous
or superintelligent and super excellent.

But would we legislate for consequences of consequences of consequences if they were OVERKNOWN?

When we have all the terrible nightmares of the world and bright dreams to be thinking, what can we do?

Nietzsche Reloaded