Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thinking about the Whole Education System

Which Australian 80s band performed “Who Can it Be Now?” and “Down Under” (Oh! do you come from the land down under (oh yeah yeah), where women glow and men plunder …)? Ok, Which US President managed to get the first federal progressive tax passed, pushed for the creation of a “League of Nations” and won the Nobel Peace Prize for the creation of the League of Nations in 1919, even though the Senate blocked the US from joining it?
How many of you knew the answer to the first question, but not the second? America has an extremely effective education system, but the system is much broader than simply what you learn in school, indeed schooling is an comparatively minor part of the overall system. Our system excels at aiding Americans in learning pop cultural information, and in developing strong and complex consumer preferences, but is sometimes lackluster at teaching the ability to enjoy poetry, or to make wise investment decisions. Sharon Astyk has, as usual, a good piece on our education system on her blog, but I wanted to respond with a much longer meditation. I believe that we need to see the whole scope of the education-system, especially how it pervades culture beyond formal schooling; we need to think about why some topics are promoted more heavily or effectively than others; we need to think about why some topics are learned more effectively than others when curriculums are in conflict; and lastly we need to think about what we can do.

The Whole Education System
Adults continue to learn new things throughout their life even though they are no longer in school. One common new thing we learn is the “news,” although we learn facts about the entertainments we enjoy, the names and faces of people we have newly met, and occasionally even new job skills. Children learn things outside of school, at least as much and probably more often as they learn things in school. Humans are constantly learning, but we don’t necessarily learn all different topics at an equal rate. Our own talents and interests are part of why we learn some things more thoroughly than other things, but our culture and education-system as a whole are part of the story too. Too often we think of “education-system” as a euphemism for “schooling,” but even in the US which has a lot of schooling comparatively speaking, only about 20% of the population is in school at any given point, and even for them schooling is probably at most ½ of their total education, although perhaps we do learn more while young and working on learning than later on, so I’d estimate that schooling (public schooling, private schooling, home schooling, and higher education) all together is probably only about 10%-15% of our overall education system. Not trivial, but not exactly central either.
The biggest chunk of our education system is the mainstream media and its curriculum of pop culture, TV, Radio, Movies, pop music, magazines, billboards, etc. Advertising is an especially important part of this section of the education system, but non-advertising content is pretty relevant too. The advertising curriculum focuses on getting to consumers to want or even feel that they need certain products, while the non-advertising content caters to entertaining the consumers. Often an attempt is made to blend other goals besides entertainment in with the entertainment, creating infotainment, edutainment, advertainment, etc. In the US, people watch an average of 4 hours of TV a day alone, (and sleep for another 8 hours) so estimating TV at about 25% of the total US education-system is probably about right. If we add in also movies, radio, magazines, newspapers, other forms of advertising, and mainstream media web sites with advertising, we are probably in the 50% range.
Third, we learn by direct observation of the people around us. By meeting them, talking with them, often imitating them. The brilliant educational psychologist Albert Bandura hammered this point home in many ways during his work over the past several decades, and the school of thought he created is typically called Social Cognitive theory, now. Children watch what adults do, they watch what other kids do and whether they get rewarded or punished for it. They chart out possibilities and options by looking at the people around them (or those they are exposed to via the media), in a process we call observational learning. Adults do this too, although we are typically already more set in our ways. Another form of social learning that adults habitually engage in is the opinion-leader effect. On a topic that one perceives as non-controversial one will form an opinion based largely on their media exposure. On a topic that one perceives as controversial, but well within one’s expertise or in an area of particular interest, one will spend the time to sort through the many competing claims and form your own opinion. But on a topic that one perceives as controversial, but not in ones areas of particular expertise or interest, one will seek out a trusted peer who is perceived as being more interested or more expert in the area and chat with them to form an opinion. For example, I’m a philosopher and I form my own opinions on anything I see as related to philosophy, but if I’m trying to decide what new computer to buy, or which blog-provider to put my blog on, I’ll talk with friends and learn what they have to say on the topic before deciding. An “opinion-leader” needs to be perceived as being a peer, and you need to be able to actually interact with them, but they also need to seem especially knowledgeable or passionate about the topic. Again this is a thoroughly social and cognitive form of learning, we are seeking fellow people directly as sources of learning. Peer pressure is another classic social cognitive learning phenomena. Social cognitive learning within the family is central to early development of children prior to school, and is also pretty key during school years, as well. If we add up these various social cognitive learning situations (early childhood learning, peer pressure, observational learning, opinion leadership, networking, informal mentoring, etc.) I suspect we have at least 10% of our overall education-system, albeit a particularly unorganized, unsystematic section of the overall system.
Fourth, we often learn things on the job, or via our work. Workplace learning is more organized than just social cognitive learning, (although of course, all of the sections I’ve mentioned interpenetrate quite a bit). Most jobs have a pretty high repetition rate, one is doing the same sorts of tasks over and over and over. But there is usually some degree of variation and learning involved as well. Work place learning, often includes occasional seminars or training exercises of various kinds, especially at the beginning, or when major changes are about to take place. Jobs are not focused on learning the way that schooling is, but we spend a lot of time on jobs, and there are a lot more people in work than in schools. I think it is probably reasonable to see working life as 10-20% of our education-system.
Fifth, we have issues of leisure life, high culture, and social capital. Now a lot of our leisure activities revolve around mainstream media, or shopping both of which I’ve already mentioned. But what about a bowling league, or boy scouts, or religious education, or visiting museums? I think there are 3 distinct but related things to talk about here. First, not all of culture has been successfully captured by the mainstream media. There is “highbrow” culture that doesn’t really fit in it, and counter-cultures that are actively trying to maintain some distance from it. Museums, symphonies, theatre, and poetry slams are all contexts where learning sometimes takes place, but so are underground newspapers, local bands in bars, pagan festivals, or Amish barnraisings. Secondly, culture contexts outside of the mainstream media, often revolve around small local organizations, of like-minded folk. Bowling leagues, amateur astronomy clubs, churches, a band’s fan club, etc. Sociologists talk about these in terms of “Social Capital” networks of social relationships that provide frameworks for certain kinds of social action. I, for example, learned a LOT from the Boy Scouts while I was growing up, even though most of my “teachers” were volunteers without particular expertise in what they were teaching. Small, organized groups can provide learning situations which are quite a bit richer than unstructured peer groups, or direct one on one relationships, precisely because of the organization or social capital involved. Small organized groups like this were once a far more prominent part of American life (and education) than they are now, but they are still fairly common, and crop up in lots of different ways. Often, culture and social capital are mixed together. My church, for example, is a cultural context at least as much as a hobby, but one that is run mostly by volunteers (with a few professionals) in ways very in line with the social capital model, and local sports leagues are culture as well as small-scale organizations. The third big factor here is the notion of self-directed leisure. Unlike work or school, participation in these kinds of groups is largely voluntary and thus directly intrinsically motivated (more on that later). Now both for my wife and I, this kind of learning through groups that we have done volunteer work for, or interacted with on a leisure basis has been at least as important as our schooling, but I’m not convinced we’re typical and I can’t find any statistics to use to estimate the overall impact of this style of learning, so I’d guess that it probably collectively less than 10% of the US’s overall education system.
Sixth, I think it does occasionally happen that people engage in self-teaching or directed research. Sometimes we go to a library and try to look up information we want, rather than going to a place where someone will teach us something. Sometimes we experiment with various ways of doing things until we find one we like. Libraries, Wikipedia, and basement workshops are part of our education-system too, even though they don’t really function much like the first 5 I’ve mentioned. My guess is that this is the least significant of the sectors I’ve discussed at the moment, maybe only 1-2% (meaning I have maybe 10% left over for error in estimation, or sectors I haven’t thought of). But self-directed education is also quite cheap, and has a lot of potential for the future.
In a sense, what we have are multiple curricula, math class teaches us one set of things, boy scouts another, and hip-hop music a third. Sometimes the curricula, are designed to be coordinated or work together, sometimes they are disparate but not really conflicting, but sometimes they are in more direct conflict. Boy Scouts teaches one set of values, and some Hip Hop music is teaching a very different set of values. Home economics class teaches us thrifty food prep behaviors, and food advertising teaches us to spend as much as possible to make food prep easier. When curricula directly conflict, it is often because there are conflicting agendas underwriting the education system. And these conflicting agendas mean that in practice the task of teaching, and the task of unteaching or anti-teaching are usually united, and teaching is often persuasion by hidden means.

E-ducation and De-ducation
The food advertiser wants to teach you to use pre-packaged foods as short cuts wherever possible, the cooking instructor wants to teach you to make from scratch wherever possible. Some teaching merely tries to convey facts, but usually you are trying to instill values, habits, and styles of thought as well, and that means that you habitually need to try to undo existing habits, values, or styles of thought. Education, comes from the Latin e-duco to lead out or lead upward, to build up or raise, often specifically to raise a child. The Latin has an antonym, de-duco, to lead downward, to subtract or reduce, to lead away or draw away, as a distraction leads away from the real issue. We do sometimes talk of deduction (where premises “lead down” to a conclusion under them), but we don’t usually use it as an antonym for education. So let mean coin the term “deducation” for the process of leading someone away from a particular pieces of knowledge, skill, value, or character trait, just as education is the process of leading someone towards a particular piece of knowledge, value, skill or character trait. Now deducation is not always a bad thing, breaking a bad habit counts. But deducation does often have fairly horrible motivations, the law forbidding teaching literacy to slaves in the old South were deducation policies, for example. Other cases are trickier, many facts are kept secret even in peacetime as matters of national security, and various tricks are used to prevent them from being known, and sometimes this is clearly defensible, and sometimes it is clearly immoral, and sometimes reasonable people disagree.
Our education-system frequently involves deducation as well, and often for reasons that are not entirely commendable. Governments want to keep some things secret, but they also want to be able to spin things that they cannot keep entirely secret, and the boundaries between spin and outright propaganda via conventional mainstream news outlets gets pretty shaky. Businesses likewise frequently wish to shape public discourse in ways that will prevent certain options from being considered or portray positions hostile to theirs in an inferior light. Advertisers want us to desire their products, but they often wish us to not think about certain downsides of the products as well. American’s die because of poor diet hundreds of times more often than they die because of terrorism, but food advertisers have every incentive to prevent us from realizing this, and are skilled at leading people away from serious contemplation of the dangers of poor diet. The creation of doubt and anti-knowledge as a PR technique (often called denialism) was pioneered by cigarette companies who fought a multi-decade battle against the fact that cigarettes are deadly, but has been applied to many other fields since. Our education system is used, and used effectively for PR, propaganda, to tranquilize legitimate fears, and to channel habits, and patterns of thinking into ways that are convenient for those with power over the education system.
And this happens at levels below government and corporate policy as well, and is often to some extent unconscious. For example, a profession earns its wage, by selling its skills. But the monetary value of those skills depends on exactly how rare they are. Thus, in order to keep a profession well paying, and thus high class, and well “professional” you have to limit how many people in the society have access to the skills. Lawyers command good pay BECAUSE legal skills are not particularly common. So any organization of lawyers (and lawyers are well-organized) has a strong incentive to prevent legal skills from being widely taught. There is a reason we teach very little law in public schools. Lawyer have a keen interest in deducation, and really most professions do even if they aren’t very upfront about it. Adam Smith has some interesting and counter-intuitive insights into the economics of education and apprenticeship for example (Wealth of Nation Book1 chap x part II, and Book V chap I part III).
But how does one go about preventing people from learning something? What are the best techniques for deducation? Well, you can simply suppress or forbid knowledge, as for example, our nuclear launch codes are kept tightly secret and any real attempt to inquire into them has terrible consequences. But suppression is a bad tactic in most cases. It makes the target tempting, it clearly shows the value of the knowledge being suppressed, it piques curiosity and motivates us. What is usually more effective, especially if the knowledge is not exactly dangerous, but merely must not become widespread, is to make the knowledge available, but very inconvenient to get. Put institutional barriers in the way of the knowledge or skill, forms, permissions, hoops to jump through. Make it a pain in the ass to learn the skill unless you do so through the carefully controlled channels. Anyone can learn the legal profession, but if you try to do it outside of a law school it takes an awful lot of work. Another common technique for preventing knowledge from becoming widespread is jargon, structure the knowledge so that the uninitiated will have difficulty understanding it even if they do happen to find it. But by far the best technique for preventing people from learning a particular skill, habit, or piece of knowledge is misdirection, get them to learn something else instead. Humans are wired to learn. We love learning, and we learn a lot all during our lives. No matter how bad your education system is, people will learn. But what will they learn? It is sadly easy to direct our learning away from a particular topic by directing it towards a different topic.
And this is the dark secret of entertainment. Americans are exposed to a lot of entertainment largely to prevent us from learning other things that might threaten the interests of the folk who have power over the education system. If we learned too much history, or politics, or economics, or even just cooking skills or legal skills, things would be quite different.

Competing Curricula
So our education system is characterized by disparate and often competing curricula, where different segments of the system are trying to teach children and adults disparate and often directly conflicting things. Should my values be shaped by my church or by heavy metal music? Or perhaps by the church down the road? Should I spend my time working on math or listening to pop songs? Should I store food, or buy as I go?
When people decry the problems of the education system, they usually mean to point out the problems with the schooling system, but the main problem that the schooling system has is that it can’t really compete with the mainstream media and pop culture. Our children are learning fine, they are just learning the curriculum promoted by the mainstream media corporations, far better than the curriculum promoted by public schools.
Consider the conflict between the math problem and the pop song. Which is more interesting? Which is more relevant to the life of the student? Which is better promoted? Which is taught in ways that better conform to our current best theories about educational psychology? I’m a mathematician so I like math, but even I think that pop songs are usually more interesting than math problems. Further, we focus on boring math problems, because those are the ones that are easiest to test over, and teachers incentives are tied to testing far more than to other areas of teaching. The math skill may eventually be useful to the life of the student (and even there we do a bad job, focusing a lot of math skills that were relevant to the life of the 19th century), but the pop song is relevant right now. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and PBS and a few other organizations may occasionally try to promote mathematics as a topic, but not nearly as extensively or expertly as the music industry promotes itself. Indeed, what are the primary motivations for listening to a pop song or doing a math problem. We listen to pop songs for their OWN sake, but we do math problems to get a grade and perhaps a diploma or good job someday. Everything we know about the psychology of learning tells us that intrinsic motivations (doing something for its own sake) are far more powerful and long lasting, than extrinsic motivations (doing something for so other reward). External rewards teach students that a subject is boring, and that they must be rewarded for the effort of doing it, they help motivation a lot over the short run, but absolutely destroy it over medium and long runs. The pop song probably talks about sex, and relationships, and things that the student actually cares about, but the math problem is probably divorced from anything that might be controversial. It is not JUST that pop culture is much better funded and more powerful, pop culture is frequently simply doing a better job of teaching than schooling is.
But the advantages are not all on the pop culture side. Schooling involves a large segment of a child’s time, and frequently can make good use of peer pressure. More importantly, many teachers manifestly care about the student, whereas even student can often tell that pop culture is trying to sell something to them and manipulate them. Some segments of schooling are things that the students can see the relevance of to their own lives. But many chunks of schooling have only dubious relevance, and far worse, schooling systematically transforms intrinsic motivations into extrinsic motivations, thereby killing most student’s love of the subject matters, and the motivation of all but the most ambitious students.

So what should we do?
First, simply be aware that an education system is more than just a schooling system. Think of education as something that happens over a whole life, and in many aspects of life outside of schooling. Think of schooling as one part of a broader whole. This helps to see that there are many, many possible places to make improvements beyond just school policies.
Second, be able to adopt a critical thinking “mental posture.” Some thinkers like to call this a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” The idea is to stop and think, and in thinking try to look at the big picture and to identify the agendas of the various factions involved in the picture. If you see an ad, stop and think, and try to place the ad in a broader context, and try to identify the agendas and techniques of the ad. If your teacher lectures at you, stop and think about the content, try to place it in its broader contexts, try to identify the agendas of the teacher and the techniques he or she used. With enough practice this can become almost reflex. It doesn’t have to be an exercise in cynicism, perhaps the message fits in its broader contexts and the agendas in play are one’s you agree with. Criticism can include admiration for one’s goals or techniques as well as identifying worrisome features that might have slipped your notice if you had not taken the extra effort to stop and think. Critical thinking is a form of intellectual self-defense, and helps to prevent you from being manipulated by agents with agendas opposed to your own. There isn’t really very much teaching of critical thinking in our school system (it gets a lot of lip service, but every study ever done on it has found that it gets very little actual teaching), and it is strongly discouraged by the mainstream media. But teaching critical thinking in little chunks is pretty easy to integrate into social learning situations, and even into workplace learning. Ask someone why they think someone else did what they did. Get people to stop and think about the agenda and techniques that others use to advance their agendas.
Third, realize that learning and teaching in amateur contexts still counts. Learn about the things you love, the things you find yourself intrinsically motivated to learn about. Our society values professionalism too much and amateurism too little. There is a place for professionalism, I’m not really trying to insult it as much as say that we have too much and need to back off. Enjoy what you enjoy and let your enthusiasm show in teaching and learning. Our culture is poisoning our education, and our careerism is poisoning our culture so that everything is done for the sake of a career rather than for its own sake or some other sake. Joy is itself transformative of the educational system.
Fourth, we have lost a lot of social capital over the last few decades. Re-build social capital where possible and use these organizations for teaching and learning especially in amateur and non-school contexts. Similarly, seek to be a little extra knowledgeable on the things you care about so that you can act as a good opinion leader for your friends, and seek the educated opinions of your friends on topics that you think they count as good opinion leaders on. Usually it is a mistake to rely on experts, unless you are at least a “half-expert” yourself and can sort through the disagreements between experts adequately. Instead rely on someone you can trust who is at least half-expert and can sort through the issues honestly.
Fifth, think a little about the techniques being used to seduce people away from learning certain topics. It is hard to see your own blind-spots or hang ups, some tricks are used against us precisely because they are likely to work. But occasionally looking at the big picture, and regularly thinking about the context one step up from whatever issue we are working on, helps provide a little protection from misdirection.
Sixth, some techniques just plain work better in education than others. Often we want to tailor the technique to the context, but there are some fair generalities. Involving several senses in learning almost always helps, as does repetition, as does increasing the interactivity of the technique. Tapping into intrinsic motivations always does better in the long run, than tapping into extrinsic ones. I think there are a lot of things we can do besides trying to reform the school system, but trying to reform the school system makes sense too. We put too much emphasis on standardized tests, and this has a lot of negative consequences. Back off on emphasis on standardized testing a little in the school system would help.
Our education system pervades our culture, we cannot put boundaries around it, we certainly cannot confine it do the school system. But that means that improving our educational system is inseparable from improving our culture, and adapting our educational system for the end of growth economics is inseparable from adapting our culture to the end of growth economics. And I think this involves de-emphasizing the great cultural engines of growth economics, mass media, advertising, careers and professionalism, consumption, and social isolation, and re-emphasizing the cultural factors that were more central before growth economics became quite so bloated, social contacts, small organizations, amateurism, enjoyment, and self-directed exploration. Mass media and careerism and advertising are not going to go away, but it is not impossible for them to be taken down a peg or two.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

An Unrelated Sermon

This Sunday I did a sermon for my church*. The topic is not particularly related to this blog, and is something that my minister asked me to do a sermon on, I doubt I would have chosen the topic myself. However, it went pretty well, and my wife has posted the sermon on her personal blog, so if you are interested it is availible here. It's entitled "What Would Jesus Do: Liberal Christianity and the Theology of Prosperity." It doesn't really say anything about what Jesus would do, but is more a history of the "What Would Jesus Do" movement in Christianity, and how it relates to Andrew Carnegie, Christian Socialism, Televangelists and board games, with a few conclusions about fads and the tensions within Christian thought about social action.

*[technically it is the Terre Haute Unitarian Universalist Congregation, and isn't a church. Most UUs are Humanists, Atheists, Agnostics, Pagans, or a bit of several things like me; folk that don't fit elsewhere but still find some value in trying to be part of a religious community peopled mostly by folk that disagree with you on the basics. Only 10-15% of UUs consider themselves Christian, so the term "church" can be misleading, but we routinely call it church anyway, and the term church captures it about as well as any term can deal with the wonderful weirdness that is contemporary Unitarian-Universalism.]

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Philosophy and Collapse

The questions of what exactly philosophy is and what it is for, are old central questions in philosophy, (working on them is called “metaphilosophy”), and there are a lot of quite different answers. Here is the handout I give my students. The ancients thought philosophy was the love of wisdom, the literal roots of the word. Moderns often portrayed philosophy as some form of searching for truth. Kant thought that philosophy was about finding the limits of our reasoning ability. Marx thought it was about understanding the world so that we could change the world. Wittgenstein thought that philosophy was about clarifying the claims of other disciplines but that it can really make claims of its own.

Myself, I side with the ancients, that philosophy is the love of wisdom, but when talking to moderns, I often find Husserl’s picture helpful. Husserl says that philosophy has two fairly different aspects, one is aimed at contemplating timeless truths, searching for those things that are true in all times, what he calls “philosophy as an exact science.” Just as the laws of physics or geology care nothing for whether our society is flourishing with an expanding economy and hope for the future, or collapsing facing the end of growth economy with fear and despair for the future, so perhaps there are truths of logic, or metaphysics, or epistemology, or even ethics or aesthetics that care nothing for the particulars of the age. And indeed, it would be all too easy to confuse the prejudices of one’s own age with timeless truths, so when we are pursuing philosophy as an exact science, it is critical to try to find reasons for our beliefs that will not be exposed as merely the prejudice of our age when we poke at them hard. Many, including Husserl, have thought that philosophy-as-an-exact-science has made no or very little progress over the centuries, and have had various explanations for this curious supposed fact. The second aspect of philosophy in Husserl’s picture is what he calls “World-and-life Philosophy” and its job is to give us wise advice on how to live in our own particular time, place, and world. Here, it is critical to examine and understand the particulars of the age you live in, rather than abstracting away from them. Here, wisdom and advice are more central to the project than truth. Again, world-and-life philosophy seems to make little or no progress, but this is not surprising as its subject matter is always changing out from under it.

So as we are facing a collapse of some kind, a collapsing economy, but probably a broader societal collapse as well, philosophy has as usual its two main tasks, helping us seek for timeless truths, things that will not change despite the social and economic changes, and giving us advice on how to navigate the changes. And these projects are fairly distinct, but they are deeply interlinked. Navigating a changing world well probably requires understanding it deeply and insightfully (as well as luck and flexibility, and other virtues). But insight into the world of today usually requires seeing past to moment to the timeless truths that act as the skeleton of the age. So world-and-life philosophy brings us back to philosophy-as-an-exact science. But insight into the timeless truths usually involves understanding your own biases, and how you yourself have been shaped by your own times and society, and that requires insight into the particulars of your own age. So philosophy-as-an-exact science brings us back to world-and-life philosophy as well.

So what timeless truths are most salient for understanding our world’s situation right now? Well, a Christian and a Communist will give you quite different answers, and a devout Neoliberal economist will give you a third set of answers. But MY teachings are this. From metaphysics we learn that events rarely have a single cause, and that there is rarely a single best way of looking at things, rather different visions of the world have different strengths and weaknesses, and the world itself transcends them all. From epistemology, we learn that the world is too complex for anyone to really understand, that all strategies of human knowing have limitations. We make do with our imperfect models of reality, and divvy it up into many specialties and use division of labor in our epistemology as well as in our economy. But this relies on the ability to trust the honesty and competency of folk charged with keeping track of parts of the world that we are not ourselves specialists in. Any honest person, in dozens of specialities could see that exponential growth was going to hit resource limits eventually, whether in energy, population, habitats, atmospheric carbon, available freshwater, credit or something odder. Yet honesty itself is a resource that might be in short supply, and self-deception is a common problem for humans. From logic we learn that even when we try to communicate honestly what we have learned of the world to people of a different specialty or lifestyle, many problems can occur. At best, we summarize in ways that are helpful to our audience. Speaking claims that are formally true is usually impossible, for the same basic reasons that theories never reach reality, or that knowledge is never comprehensive. From ethics and value theory we learn that material wealth is not the end all and be all of happiness. Sometimes lack of wealth does cause misery, but other times more wealth is not going to solve the problems or make people happier. Nonetheless many people do seek more wealth (often as a stand in for social prestige or self-worth) and are often willing to compromise other values to do so. So we are often in the position of trying to make the best of a bad situation, and the ethics of acting as well as we can in a deeply f***ed up situation can be quite tricky, and quite different than the ethics of flourishing in good times, or of trying to prevent f***ed up situations from arising when they are still preventable. These are the themes that I will return to again and again in trying to explore my positions.

So what advice can world-and-life philosophy give? In flush times we seek every good we can, expanding in many directions; in contractions we seek to return to essentials, prioritizing goods as more or less pressing. What is most essential to your life and your happiness? Advice is not making the decisions for the advisee, it is seeking to augment the insight of the advisee, so that they can see more deeply into the situation than they could before. So how do I see the situation? We have reached the limits of exponential growth, and the ability of the global economy to create and sustain credit seems to be the most immediate limit. Perhaps the limits of water, carbon or oil will become increasingly salient soon. Like Sharon Astyk, I imagine that we will return to a level of ordinary human poverty, very much in line with prior historical ages, rather than some Mad Max world or zombie apocalypse or new dark age. Although wars, famines, and social unrest are certainly common elements in historical transitions. I predict that the US median income in real purchase parity power will drop to between 1/3rd and ½ of its 2005 value by the end of 2010 and remain under ½ of its 2005 value until at least 2020. This is going to change many aspects of our society, and certainly have global effects. I am optimistic that American life in 2025 will actually be better than in 2005 in a variety of ways, as America has suffered a number of problems related to having too much wealth, but the next 10-15 years are going to be extremely hard, and there will surely be plenty of injustice, death, and heartbreak along the way. I do not believe the government can be relied on to help us through this, but that preparations should be at the family and community level. Credit and money in a credit society act as a kind of artificial trust and these are breaking down, in large part because our society has become addicted to dishonesty, and lack of trustworthiness. As these breakdown, old fashioned trust, person to person bonds of obligation and trustworthiness, will become more important. I follow Stoneleigh in anticipating hard deflation in 2009 and 2010, with inflation setting in, in the US, sometime after that. You will lose much, your family will lose much. Some folk will lose everything. But many folk will lose much, but also keep much. What is most essential to your life and your happiness? What can you give up, and what must you fight to keep, knowing that no matter how hard you fight you probably can’t keep it all? That is a question that is at once intensely practical and intensely philosophical, and I can’t answer it for you, although I hope we’ll talk about it in dozens of different ways over the next months.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Beauty in Hard Times

Beauty is a wonderful thing, a thing of true value. Stocks look valuable at sometimes, and seem worthless in others. Posters of one’s favorite band seem valuable when you are a teen, and just cheesy latter in life. But beauty is of real and enduring value, in swell times and lean times. God forbid I should speak against beauty.

What I do want to say is that Beauty has a whole host of relatives that are worthy too. Beauty is a good thing, but not the only good thing.

The ancients and medievals in the West, valued beautiful art, but had plenty of other goals for art too. Grotesque art (like statues of rotting corpses) which nonetheless managed to convey religious truths like the ephemerality of this life, were considered art and valued. Horror stories, political art, and homely arts, all of these were valued as well even if what they produced wasn’t exactly beauty. But beauty proper had a place too, in the cathedrals, in the songs, in the decoration of clothes. It was part of how the wealthy showed off there wealth, how the young showed of their youth, and how the content showed off their contentment.

But this picture changed in the 1700s and 1800s. Beauty (and its very close relatives the sublime and the delightful) came to seem central to art, and to aesthetics, and aesthetics was cashed out as the science of beauty. A Baroque artist, a Rococo artist, and a Neo-Classical artist would have very different pictures of what beauty is, and what techniques best achieve it, but all three think that all real art is aimed primarily, even exclusively at creating beauty. And the philosophers of this time are very interest in how the philosophy of beauty related to the philosophy of moral value, and of economic value. To David Hume, Edmunde Burke, or Adam Smith, the question which of these paintings is genuinely better is philosophically very parallel to the questions which of the actions is genuinely morally superior, which of these assets is genuinely worth more, and which of these political systems is genuinely better. For the Scottish Enlightenment, the artist exploring beauty is in effect exploring morality, politics, and economics as well, even though that isn’t their real goal.

But by the end of the 1800s and the early 1900s you begin to see a rebellion against beauty by artists, and it continues during the twentieth century so that you see plenty of anti-beauty art in the 1990s and the 2000s. Arthur Rimbaud is the first person I know of to speak against beauty in public, at the beginning of his poem “A Season in Hell”

“Once, if my memory serves me well, my life was a banquet where every heart revealed itself, where every wine flowed.
One evening I took Beauty in my arms - and I thought her bitter - and I insulted her.
I steeled myself against justice.
I fled. O witches, O misery, O hate, my treasure was left in your care! …”

But the basic critique of beauty is found in many different arts and artists during this time, and it takes slightly different forms. Sometimes, the artist is pursuing some other goal besides beauty but thinks that they wind up hitting beauty as well, such as in Picasso’s Cubism; Picasso’s goal isn’t beauty, but he thinks his painting do succeed at being (oddly) beautiful incidentally. Sometimes, they are hoping to help people see beauty within a piece that looks ugly at first, but that they think is not genuinely ugly, as in Stravinsky’s ballet the Rites of Spring. But sometimes, the artist is actually opposed to beauty. The Dadaists thought that beauty was used by the powers that be to tranquilize the populous into accepting stupid policies like WWI. For them, undercutting beauty was part of undercutting the ruling regime. For Lichtenstein, obsession with beauty forced us to focus on the culture of the upper class, whereas art needed to wrestle with the culture of the whole society, thus must also struggle with pop culture. For Yoko Ono, beauty caused us to dwell on pleasant emotions, and situations where things were basically working, whereas art needed to confront life in both its pleasant and unpleasant forms. In a broken world, beauty is a balm, but it is in danger of being a lie or a distraction, and maybe the people need to be riled up rather than soothed. Many artists felt that art ought to confront the audience at least as much as it should cater to the tastes of the audience. So by the 20th century, beauty seemed like the coward's way out of refusing to look at the harsh realities of the world.

So do we need to be riled or soothed? Well, BOTH! Sometimes we need to be riled up and sometimes we need to be soothed, so I’m just not as willing to oppose beauty as a lot of 20th century thinkers were, but I’m also not as staunchly in favor of it as a lot of 18th and 19th century thinkers were. Further, I’m pretty impressed by Frank Sibley’s article “Aesthetic Concepts” from 1963. He argues that aesthetics is the study of human experience especially as it is colored by a particular kind of emotional experience such as when we experience beauty. But he argues that we have dozens and dozens of genuinely aesthetic concepts, like graceful, convoluted, or intriguing. According to Sibley, the vocabulary we use to talk about art falls into 3 basic categories, sensory talk that isn’t aesthetic yet (red, circular, polyphonal), aesthetic concepts (balanced, suggestive, harmonious), and overall judgment terms (good, lackluster, a classic).

So my position is that it makes sense to find ways to bring beauty into our lives, even in hard times, probably especially in hard times, but that beauty has a number of relatives that we should also try to bring into our lives during hard times.

There have been a lot of fights on exactly what beauty is, but a harmonious fit between parts, and a sense of delightfulness divorced from our immediate self-interest are classic elements. Winning a million dollars is delightful (at first), but our interests are directly involved. Watching a beautiful sunset is delightful too, even though it doesn’t really advance our interests in a direct way. Beauty is classically related to sexuality, youth and ephemerality as well. Sunsets are beautiful in large part because they don’t last. Beauty soothes us when things are hard. It makes it look as if things fit together, as if even the hard bits are just small parts of a larger more glorious design. One of my families’ favorite movies is O Brother Where Art Thou? which strives to convey the ways in which song and music weaved through the lives of common folk before the time of television and movies and Ipods. And here the music of beauty, solace and wistfulness dominates, not the music of anger, alienation, and reflection that I grew up with.

So beauty is a kind of delight but it is not the only variety of delight or even the only important one. When my kids get a new toy, they sometimes experience a delight that is not exactly beauty. It is a delight of fun, or hopefulness. Likewise when they learn a new skill that they can use, they experience a kind of delight twinged with pride and self-discovery. Delight is a close ally of curiousity, and so I will often find a book delightful even if it is not exactly beautiful. Beauty, as well as soothing, can give a lightness of spirit that we call delight, but delight is a broader concept than just beauty. And in hard times, delight is important too, not just soothing beauty. We need to keep our curiousity, our capacity for surprise and wonder. It is part of what allows us to retain openness to new and changing situations, it is part of what allows us to continue to adapt, and to enjoy adapting. In hard times, we need also a delight beyond mere beauty.

There is also a deeper kind of wonder, an experience tinged with awe, where we encounter what is far greater than ourselves. Traditionally, this close relative of beauty is called the sublime. In the sublime, we experience a glimpse of the transcendent, we are taken out of ourselves into a relation with things far vaster than ourselves. We stare through a telescope at the majesty of the Milky Way, and briefly experience our smallness. We look at an exquisite Greek vase from thousands of years ago and for a moment catch a glimpse of the brevity of our lives. The light filters through the trees of a forest, just so, and we are transported for a moment beyond time and space in the play of the dust motes in the beam of light. The sublime helps us to remember our place within the vastness, it helps our humility and our openness to wonder. It helps re-ground us in the essentials of our life. In hard times, we need splashes of the sublime, beyond just beauty.

And there are plenty more relatives of beauty that are important along side beauty. It makes sense to want a home to be familiar, comforting, ... well homey. Especially in hard times, some little corner of the world where one can be at home is a great luxury. The interesting helps to keep us engaged. The nostalgic helps us to remember our past. The graceful helps to lift us beyond mere necessity. The humorous, the cheerful, the silly, the festive, the cool, even the elegant are aesthetic goals worth seeking, if you can afford them, and usually you can afford at least some. And none of these aesthetic concepts is exactly the same thing as beauty. The angry, inspired, passionate, insightful, honest post-punk music I listened to as a youth, isn't really beautiful, but it is cool, and it is valuable, even aesthetically valuable. I do not think people should be cheerful all the time, or that one should be forced to live or work in a cheerful place. Enforced cheer is one of the more twisted aspects of our society. But we ought to have a place in our lives for cheerfulness on occasion. Cheerfulness isn't beauty or vice versa, but cheerful decor is sometimes appropriate, and I think that contemplating the differences helps us to see how lots of relatives of beauty all have a role in helping us to maintain a balanced and open perspective for confronting challenges.

Now I said that I don’t think a home should be beautiful, or at least not regularly beautiful. I think that a home should be homey, familiar, inviting and comfortable, and that is quite a different goal than beauty. But I do not mean that beauty should be missing, just that it should have a different place, or be an occasional visitor to the home, rather than the main aesthetic goal of a home.

But what of the ugly, the horrific, the terrifying, the repulsive, the tragic? Well, horror and tragedy in art usually thrive during economic downturns. People feel fear, and bitterness, and a whole host of foul emotions during hard times, and I think that is a good thing. Our world is not sweetness and light and people need to be able to face the dark as well as the bright aspects of our world. But pain is easier to bear when the pain makes sense than when it just seems meaningless. Childbirth involves intense pain, but women often find the pain far more manageable than other lesser pains precisely because they understand the point of it. Artistic explorations of the horrors and tragedies of our lives, can often help us to deal with them better precisely my making them more comprehensible. Some can find beauty even in horrors and tragedies (I’m quite good at that, and its one of the reasons I’m a goth), but even if you can’t experience them as beautiful, darker art, and darker aesthetic goals can still be valuable. But I wouldn’t want to live in a tragic house, or a horrific one, even if I want to read tragedies or horrors occasionally. Even ugliness itself is not always to be avoided. There are ugly truths, there are ugly tools. We must be willing to look on the ugly, even if we prefer the beautiful. I listen to beautiful music, like those haunting Depression era gospels, but I listen to ugly music too, like Einsturzende Neubauten. Without the beauty, it would be hard for me to find peace, without the ugliness, it would be hard to keep up the struggle, and I think both are important responses to our lives in hard times.

When life is a banquet where every wine flows it is possible to take beauty but find it bitter, and prefer as Rimbaud did camp and kitsch (it has been suggested that Rimbaud invented the idea of campiness). But after a season in hell, well … after that as Rimbaud says “All that is over. Today, I know how to celebrate beauty.”

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Problem With Prefaces

Philosophy has a problem with prefaces, or rather quite a few problems. Hegel argued in the preface to his first major work, that prefaces in philosophy invariably violate the spirit of the work as a whole. The point of the piece is the way one makes the case, and the side comments at the beginning about the author’s aims, or the main drift of the content to come, these can only get in the way.

Heidegger has a different worry. Our interpretation of the meaning of a piece is based on our fore-understanding of the ideas presented in it, but as we come to understand the point of the author we re-understand the meaning of each of the author’s ideas. This looks like circular reasoning, and it is, a “hermeneutical circle” which exists in the very heart of the human way of understanding things. We understand each idea or thing we encounter based on the ideas and things we already understand. Circles are just how humans think. But this means that there is nowhere to start, no first thing to understand, no possibility for preface. You must understand each aspect of a system of thought in order to understand any aspect of a system of thought. By the time any philosopher worth a damn is ready to say anything of any importance, they want to say many, many things at once, and can find no best place to start.

Analytic philosophy has another worry, noticed first by Australian logician David Makinson. Authors often say something in the preface to the effect of “doubtlessly there must be some errors in my book somewhere.” And they have good grounds to - most books of any importance have errors. Yet the author believes each of the claims in the book, while also believing that not all of the claims of the book are true. How is this possible? How is it rational? It looks like it requires the author to believe a contradiction, that each of their claims individually is true, but that not all of them are true at once. Yet, even on reflection it seems that we want to believe both, to assert that yes I think I am right about each individual case, but I think I am probable not right about each and every case.

You see a preface requires putting together the whole of what is to follow into a simpler and shorter form than what is to follow. And yet if you could do that you would have said it all more briefly in the first place. So almost by definition a preface is always a lie; it always makes things short, by getting things wrong. The whole and the preface are always in tension.

Writing a preface is about synthesizing the material, and synthesis is hard. Writing a good summary requires distilling the essence of a lot of careful and detailed thought and writing, and summarizing oneself requires being better than you already are at exactly what you are already trying to do.

And yet the fields of literature and wisdom abound with examples of people trying to distill an important point down to the tersest summary possible. We have whole genres of epigram, aphorism, proverb and haiku. The great poet Catullus summarizes his own terribly complex feelings for his beloved in 2 lines

I love and I hate. Perhaps you’re asking why I do it.
I don’t know. But I feel it so, and I am tortured.

And so a summary, like most literature, is always both a lie and a truth. My own (terribly long) dissertation, involves among many other things a genre of Buddhist writings called “perfection of wisdom” literature (prajnaparamitas). There was one in 8000 lines (the one I studied), and later expansions to 18,000 lines, 25,000 lines, and even to 100,000 lines, but then people started writing summaries. The perfection of wisdom in 300 lines is called the Diamond Sutra, and is quite popular. Even more popular is the Heart Sutra, a prajnaparamita only 28 lines long. But those wiley Buddhists even developed the most heroic of all summaries I am aware of, “The Perfection of Wisdom in a Single Syllable.” That’s right, they believed that they had summarized their wisdom and teaching to a single syllable. It was “a-“. In Sanskrit, as well as English, this is the generic negation prefix, as in a-theist, or a-symmetric or a-historical. This summary too, is both a lie and a truth.

What a preface is really trying to do is to summarize a book down to a page or even a paragraph. To summarize a blog that with luck will go on for months and years and be filled with interesting ideas, profound insights and wonderful prose (ok I’ll settle for vaguely amusing prose), into a single prefatory blog entry.

Try heroic summary sometime. Summarize everything of value you have learned into a single page, a single paragraph or a single aphorism. It isn’t impossible, but it is hard, and it is a lie and a truth. It is also valuable. It forces us to return to essentials, to seek the meaning behind the chatter. So this post is pretty much what you will get on my blog: ruminations, sidetracks, academic trivia, and a genuine attempt to get past all that to the things that really matter.

Once in the past I summarized my understanding, with the whole numbers, 0, 1, 2, 3, … But that point was pretty obscure. Maybe I’ll try to explain it, someday. Instead I’ll try putting it into the classic aphorism couplet.

Wisdom helps one flourish, avoid problems, and cope.
We’re fools, but for wisdom like that we can still hope.

Other have talked about flourishing and avoiding problems, but I don’t think enough has been said on the philosophy of coping, and I think that a lot of the philosophical points I have tried to make over the years on ethics and epistemology and logic, can be understood in terms of coping. And the way I read the news, and the signs of the times, and the blogs of smart people, we are going to have to do a lot of coping over the next few years.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Single Etiology Theory

One of the philosophical errors that I complain about a lot is single-etiology theory. Single etiology theory is the theory than an event has a single cause, an etiology, rather than a huge host of different causal factors. Most ancient Western theories of causation imagined that every event had multiple causes, and typically thought that there were several different kinds of cause for any event. In Aristotle’s picture of causation, every event had at least 3 causes, a material cause, a formal cause, and an efficient cause, and it was normal to have final causes as well if living creatures were involved, and normal for an event to have a long series of related efficient causes. In Galen’s theory of medicine, the health of the body was importantly related to the balance of 4 humors in the body, and many, many factors affected the overall balance of the humors. That meant that if a body was sick, it was because the humors were out of balance, and even if one factor was the main cause of the imbalance, many other factors were also part of the overall picture, and you could attempt to treat the problem by addressing any of the factors, or often many of them in combination. A similar picture dominated in China, imagining balancing of yin and yang, or of multiple forms of chi, or of the 5 elemental processes to be a fairly holistic phenomena, so that natural occurences, especially in medicine, tend to have many different distinct causes. In India, even from ancient times, there was a lot of formal complexity to the debates on the nature of causation. It is normal in ancient India to make fine distinctions between causes, correlations, conditions, and other kinds of factors. The Buddhists, for example, largely restrict their claims to co-arising dependent factors. Still, if we think of these as all being species of conditioning factors, any given event is likely to have a whole host of conditioning factors of different kinds.

But Islamic medicine under Ibn Sina and Ibn Zuhr championed the notion that some diseases like stridor or tuberculosis or STDs had a single cause, as opposed to being caused by many factors together as in Galen’s humorism. There is something right about these cases, if we ask why does ‘Ali have an STD, then saying because he slept with Aisha who has the STD is more salient than saying, because he was in overall poor health when he contracted it. In that sense, sex looks like “the” cause of STDs. But, even here this isn’t the full story. Sex with a carrier is often a necessary condition of contracting an STD as well as being “a” cause, but this doesn’t make it “the” cause of the STD, because it isn’t a sufficient condition. Perhaps, Hussein slept with Aisha too, but didn’t contract the STD, and if we ask why did ‘Ali contract it but not Hussein, the answer might turn on issues of overall health, or perhaps on a combination of many factors. Even if sexual contact with a STD carrier is in some sense the “main” cause of contracting an STD, it still isn’t “the” cause, much less “the sole” cause.

Nonetheless, single etiology theory, the idea that some events have a single cause, or at least a single most proximate efficient cause with perhaps a chain of causation stretching into the past, became more and more popular in the West, in medicine and in other sciences over the centuries between the 14th and 20th. Mechanist philosophies of nature struggled against Vitalist philosophies of nature and Westerns came to think of many things as being more like machines than living entities: the stars, the earth, the human body, other plants and animals, even nations and societies. And the machine metaphors for everything made it more plausible to think of events as having a single etiology, a “the” cause. After all, that is how machines are often designed to work; this gear causes another gear to turn which causes a shaft to turn which moves the second hand on the clock. In this theory, causation happens in chains, but in one on one relations with each effect having a single cause or a single chain of causes.

Single etiology theory also fit nicely with the increased emphasis on individual selves in social philosophy, during modernity. If events have a single cause, then maybe a single person is to blame when things go wrong, the cause of the problem. And maybe a single person gets the glory when things go right too, a great artist or politician. Personal responsibility is a sort of social correlate of a metaphysics of causation where events have a single cause. And if the divine hierarchy of divinely ordained kings and bishops no longer seems plausible, perhaps the machine hierarchy of cogs and regulators can replace it, where the chain of causation, has its analogs in the chain of command and the chain of responsibility.

By the 19th century, Europeans routinely talked as if events had a single cause, rather than a host of causal factors, and this came to seem normal rather than seeming like a philosophical position. The idea that events typically have a single cause becomes a cornerstone of the official medical philosophy of the US in the 19th and 20th centuries, although the “holistic” approach that events typically have many causes has certainly reclaimed some respectability in the last few decades. But single etiology theory pervades many levels of American thinking, from our “folk” metaphysics when we are speaking loosely, to our most careful formalizations of the metaphysics of causation. It is a frequent unconscious assumption of our science and policies, although physics in particular has been backing away from single-etiology theory during the 20th century. Sometimes you can push people to admit that when they say “the cause” they mean “the main cause,” but it is a philosophical error of great importance to assume that events always have even a “main” cause. I hold that most events have a whole host of causal factors, often of quite different kinds. Each event happens the way it does because of many, many interlocking factors. Change any one factor and the event would turn out differently, at least a little bit differently, and often quite a bit differently. Single etiology theory is a decent simplification of the truth when an event really does have a single main cause (which does happen sometimes), or a single very relevant causal factor that has been overlooked or misunderstood. It works sometimes, or works well enough, and there are certainly success stories for single etiology theory. But it bollixes up the many, many situations in which many quite different causal factors are interacting to produce the overall event.

The fact that single-etiology theories of causation are extremely popular, but also are flawed, has a number of important consequences for our understanding of social collapse, and our adapting successfully to it. First, our usual sense of blame rests on an erroneous picture of causation and responsibility. What is “the” cause of our societal collapse? There is no one answer to this question, because there is no single sole cause, and probably not even a single main cause, but many, many causal factors combining to result in what is actually happening. The right causal story of our social collapse involves individual greed and fraud, the tensions built into growth economics, the arrogance and optimism of those who assumed we could keep growing on forever, the failures of the education system and the media to help people to understand, the power-hungriness of the elite, the patterns of generations, the biological impulse to overpopulate, and probably plenty more factors as well. The moral, the biological, the political, the economic, the historical, the social, and even the philosophical are all genuine parts of the causal story, and do not even form a single chain of efficient causation, but a vast web of interlocking causal factors. So who is to blame for our troubles? Well, many, many people and categories of people. Everyone shares the blame, but not everyone equally or all in the same way. Some people were definitely more causally influential than others, or more blameworthy in their influence, or influenced different parts of the long complex event of our collapse. Tim Geithner, Bernard Madoff, and your mother are all to blame, but they are not all equally to blame.

Second, when we are trying to plan our responses to problems, we need to understand that societies and economies are more like living things than they are like complex machines, in that events usually have many causes. Imagining that we can control the rate of change of a Consumer Price Index, simply by manipulating the interest rate on overnight debt in line with the Taylor Rule, is a philosophical error (misunderstanding the nature of causation) even before it is an error in economics or monetary policy. Interest rates are an important causal factor in the change of a CPI, but a little reflection shows that they aren’t the only important factor, and that means that even if they are the main factor under many circumstances, they aren’t the sole cause, or a sufficient cause, and thus aren’t the main factor under all circumstances. Often manipulating overnight interest rates will succeed in manipulating CPIs, but not always, and not when it is most important. And that is just one example. Our economics, our medicine, and often our own attempts at adaptation frequently involve erroneously exaggerating the importance of one causal factor, because we think of it as “the” cause of the problem, rather than “a” cause of the problem. This is just a common error in our culture, because of the tenor of philosophy over the last few centuries. Just as holistic medicine struggles against single etiology theory in medical philosophy, so a holistic psychology, holistic economics, and holistic politics need to struggle against single etiology theory in psychology, economics, or politics. Human psyches do not work like dominoes, with causal chains falling neatly in rows and orders, they are deeply interconnected meshes of causal factors, and so are economies, and political systems.

Third, holistic lifestyle adaptations need to struggle against single-etiology theory in lifestyle adaptation. Our medical system is going to collapse, and that means you need to plan for problems with medical care in the future. And that means you should address your medical situation holistically, thinking about your particular problems or issues, but also you should address the causal factors that relate to them, and whatever your issues, diet, exercise, stress, exposure to toxins, your access to preventative medicine, etc are probably among the causal factors. But that means you need to adapt how you eat, where you buy your food, how you spend your time, how you think about your life, etc. Each strand of adaptation will tug on the surrounding strands of our lifestyle, and that is to be expected because our lives are the product of the interconnection of the many, many factors that cause our lives to be as they are. Giving up on single etiology theory means that addressing most problems honestly involves revising whole systems, rather than making a single change and feeling that we are done, because no single part of the system is wholly to blame, rather the system as a whole is the problem to be confronted.

A Philosopher's Corner in the Collapsnik Zone

The other day the denizens of "The Automatic Earth" took a moment out of there normal work of arguing about the details of the upcoming economic collapse of America and the world, to argue about the proper way to interpret Laozi's great work the Daodejing, how to summarize his insights, and what translations to use. But, well, taking about Laozi, isn't really what the Automatic Earth is for.

At Casaubon's Book, the magnificent Sharon Asytk argued that beauty must be an element of proper household economics, even in a collapsing society, but that we must reach for a beauty beyond the sterile elegance of a wealthy home that hides its toasters for the Town and Country photo spread. And I argued that the proper aesthetic goals of a home, should be other relatives of beauty rather than beauty itself, and that the conflation of aesthetics with beauty was a bad side-effect of 18th century reflection on aesthetics from Kant and Hogarth. And Astyk replied, roughly "get your own blog!"

And she is right. If you want to explore the role of energy policy on our collapsing society, and the role of societal collapse on energy policy, well, there are plenty of places in the blogosphere to do that. If you want to step back and look at the big picture of our collapsing society, I recommend the blogs of Kunstler and Orlov. If you want news on the emerging realities of collapse, and first rate commentary on economics, then read The Automatic Earth. If you want advice on adapting your lifestyle to the realities of a collapsing society, the home economics of collapse, then read my wife's Adapting in Place, or Astyk's Casaubon's book. If you poke, you can find blogs of people who are already well-adapted, of foodies, of environmentalists, of optimistic political organizers, of psychologists, and so on.

But I know of no particularly good place to argue about Laozi or the relation between aesthetics and beauty, or the ethics of triage, or the metaphysics of single-etiology causation as it relates to health care, or ... well a thousand little philosophical topics hiding around the edges of the big issues of a collapsing society. So I am creating one. The goal of this blog is to be a place for philosophical discussion of issues related to our ongoing societal collapse. I have quite a number of things to say myself, but I want to make a space for discussions to take place, at least as much as I want to push my own positions. Next time there is an argument about whether despair can ever be a virtue, or whether it is always a vice, I hope that Stoneleigh and Ilargi can say in good conscience, HEY take that discussion over to Self-Referential Collapse, our blog is for economics commentary!

Because philosophy DOES have a role to play in our collapse and our coping with it. Philosophy played a role in letting things get out of hand, and it ought to play a role in helping to cope with the mess were in as well.

Laozi said "little self minimal desires" and therein lies our problem in a nutshell. A strong sense of individual selfhood in the West led to ever expanding desires, and a growth economy that saw minimal desires, or even happiness and contentment as opposed to the need for ever expanding growth.

But Laozi also said "greatest eloquence seems like stammering" and therein lies a warning for all bloggers and blog readers.

So let us inaugurate this little corner for philosophizing in the collapsnik zone of the Blogosphere.
Any thoughts?

[P.S. I didn't really write this in 2010, that is just a trick to keep the introductory post at the top until I fix it]