Lacking Absolute Certainty, Evidence Can Get Us to “True Enough”

(p. A17) As in his earlier books, Mr. Blackburn displays a rare combination of erudite precision and an ability to make complex ideas clear in unfussy prose.

If truth has seemed unattainable, he argues, it is because in the hands of philosophers such as Plato and Descartes it became so purified, rarefied and abstract that it eluded human comprehension. Mr. Blackburn colorfully describes their presentation of truth as a “picture of an entirely self-enclosed world of thought, spinning frictionless in the void.”

The alternative is inspired by more grounded philosophers, like David Hume and especially the American pragmatists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Mr. Blackburn repeatedly returns to a quote from Peirce that serves as one of the book’s epigraphs: “We must not begin by talking of pure ideas—vagabond thoughts that tramp the public highways without any human habitation—but must begin with men and their conversation.” The best way to think about truth is not in the abstract but in media res, as it is found in the warp and weft of human life.

Put crudely, for the pragmatists “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” We take to be true what works. Newton’s laws got us to the moon, so it would be perverse to deny that they are true. It doesn’t matter if they are not the final laws of physics; they are true enough. “We must remember that a tentative judgment of truth is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty,” says Mr. Blackburn, a sentence that glib deniers of the possibility of truth should be made to copy out a hundred times. Skepticism about truth only gets off the ground if we demand that true enough is not good enough—that truth be beyond all possible doubt and not just the reasonable kind.

For the full review, see:

Julian Baggini. “BOOKSHELF; Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; A philosopher argues that truth is humble, not absolute: “A tentative judgment . . . is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty”.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, July 25, 2018): A17.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 24, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘On Truth’ Review: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; A philosopher argues that truth is humble, not absolute: “A tentative judgment . . . is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty”.”)

The book under review is:

Blackburn, Simon. On Truth. Reprint ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

“Rand’s Entrepreneur Is the Promethean Hero of Capitalism”

(p. B1) Few, if any, literary philosophers have had as much influence on American business and politics as Ayn Rand, especially now that Donald J. Trump occupies the White House.

President Trump named Rand his favorite writer and “The Fountainhead” his favorite novel. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson has cited “Atlas Shrugged” as a favorite work, and the C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo, said the book “really had an impact on me.”

. . .

(p. B2) In business, Rand’s influence has been especially pronounced in Silicon Valley, where her overarching philosophy that “man exists for his own sake, that the pursuit of his own happiness is his highest moral purpose, that he must not sacrifice himself to others, nor sacrifice others to himself,” as she described it in a 1964 Playboy interview, has an obvious appeal for self-made entrepreneurs. Last year Vanity Fair anointed her the most influential figure in the technology industry, surpassing Steve Jobs.

. . .

“Rand’s entrepreneur is the Promethean hero of capitalism,” said Lawrence E. Cahoone, professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, whose lecture on Rand is part of his Great Courses series, “The Modern Political Tradition.” “But she never really explores how a dynamic entrepreneur actually runs a business.”

. . .

“Mention Ayn Rand to a group of academic philosophers and you’ll get laughed out of the room,” Mr. Cahoone said. “But I think there’s something to be said for Rand. She takes Nietzschean individualism to an extreme, but she’s undeniably inspirational.”

As the mysterious character John Galt proclaims near the end of “Atlas Shrugged”: “Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark, in the hopeless swamps of the approximate, the not-quite, the not-yet, the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish, in lonely frustration for the life you deserved, but have never been able to reach. Check your road and the nature of your battle. The world you desired can be won, it exists, it is real, it is possible, it’s yours.”

For the full commentary, see:

James B. Stewart. “COMMON SENSE; Tough Times For Disciples Of Ayn Rand.” The New York Times (Friday, July 14, 2017): B1-B2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 13, 2017, and has the title “COMMON SENSE; As a Guru, Ayn Rand May Have Limits. Ask Travis Kalanick.”)

Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, quoted above, is:

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Random House, 1957.

Caring Bonds Among Sentient Beings Refute “Anthropodenial”

(p. 1) The two old friends hadn’t seen each other lately. Now one of them was on her deathbed, crippled with arthritis, refusing food and drink, dying of old age. Her friend had come to say goodbye. At first she didn’t seem to notice him. But when she realized he was there, her reaction was unmistakable: Her face broke into an ecstatic grin. She cried out in delight. She reached for her visitor’s head and stroked his hair. As he caressed her face, she draped her arm around his neck and pulled him closer.

The mutual emotion so evident in this deathbed reunion was especially moving and remarkable because the visitor, Dr. Jan Van Hooff, was a Dutch biologist, and his friend, Mama, was a chimpanzee. The event — recorded on a cellphone, shown on TV and widely shared on the internet — provides the opening story and title for the ethologist Frans de Waal’s game-changing new book, “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves.” Continue reading “Caring Bonds Among Sentient Beings Refute “Anthropodenial””

Dogs Feel Guilt When They Hurt Their Humans

(p. 6) Dr. Horowitz concluded that whether dogs take on a guilty look — lowered gaze, ears pressed back, tail rapidly beating between the legs — is unrelated to whether or not they followed orders. If the owner scolds them, they look extremely guilty. If the owner doesn’t, they still sometimes look like this, but less often.

One problem, however, is that our rules are of our own making, such as “Don’t jump on that couch!” or “Keep your nails off my leather chair!” It must be as tough for our pets to grasp these prohibitions as it was for me to understand why I couldn’t chew gum in Singapore.

It would be better to test behavior that is wrong by almost any standard, including that of their own species. The Austrian ethologist Konrad Lorenz gave one of my favorite examples, about his dog, Bully, who broke the fundamental rule never to bite your superior.

Humans don’t need to teach this rule, and indeed Bully had never been punished for it. The dog bit his master’s hand when Dr. Lorenz (p. 7) tried to break up a dogfight. Even though Dr. Lorenz petted him right away, Bully suffered a complete nervous breakdown. For days, he was virtually paralyzed and ignored his food. He would lie on the rug breathing shallowly, occasionally interrupted by a deep sigh. He had violated a natural taboo, which among ancestral canines could have had the worst imaginable consequences, such as expulsion from the pack.

For the full commentary, see:

(Note:  the online version of the commentary has the date March 8, 2019.)

Many Believe Women Should Have Equal Work Opportunity, but Are Better Than Men at Child-Rearing

(p. B1) A new study, based on national survey data from 1977 to 2016, helps explain why the path to equality seems in some ways to have stalled — despite the significant increases in women’s educational and professional opportunities during that period.
Two-thirds of Americans and three-quarters of millennials say they believe that men and women should be equal in both the public sphere of work and the private sphere of home. Only a small share of people, young or old, still say that men and women should be unequal in both spheres — 5 percent of millennials and 7 percent of those born from 1946 to 1980.
But the study revealed that roughly a quarter of people’s views about gender equality are more complicated, and differ regarding work and home. Most of them say that while women should have the same opportunities as men to work or participate in politics, they should do more homemaking and child-rearing, found the study, which is set to be published in the journal Gender and Society.
“You can believe men and women have truly different natural tendencies and skills, that women are better nurturers and caretakers, and still believe women should have equal rights in the labor force,” said Barbara Risman, a sociology professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and an author of the paper along with William Scarborough, a sociology doctoral candidate there and Ray Sin, a behavioral scientist at Morningstar.

For the full commentary, see:
Miller, Claire Cain. “THE UPSHORT; Equality Valued at Work, Not Necessarily at Home.” The New York Times (Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018): B1 & B5.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 3, 2018, and has the title “THE UPSHORT; Americans Value Equality at Work More Than Equality at Home.”)

The academic paper mentioned above, has been published online in advance of print publication:
Scarborough, William J., Ray Sin, and Barbara Risman. “Attitudes and the Stalled Gender Revolution: Egalitarianism, Traditionalism, and Ambivalence from 1977 through 2016.” Gender & Society (2018): https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243218809604

Star Wars Details Allow “a Fully Believable, Escapist Experience”

(p. A15) Mr. Jameson clearly lays out the qualities that geeks appreciate in their art: realism bolstered by a deep internal history and the sort of “world-building” exemplified by Tolkien. But in Hollywood “Star Wars” changed the game thanks to its verisimilitude, “which immediately and thoroughly convinces viewers that they are watching humans and aliens skip from planet to planet in a vast, crowded other galaxy with its own detailed history.” Similarly, the biological background of the “Alien” series includes Xenomorphs “whose intricate life cycle can be described from beginning to end in grisly detail.” Books like “The Star Trek Encyclopedia,” in which the show’s designers document “all the alien planets and species that they’d invented” and present starship engineering schematics, are quintessential works of geek culture.
Detail is important to geeks, the author suggests, because they want without “any boundaries, any limits. . . . They don’t want the artwork to ever end.” Whether it’s playing a tabletop game filled with lore about previously unknown characters from the “Star Wars” galaxy or reading a “textbook” to study the fantastic beasts of the “Harry Potter” world, geeks want to believe–at least for a bit. As Mr. Jameson says, “geeks have long thought of artworks as places where one can hang out.” That’s one reason why single films have given way to trilogies and why characters have cross-populated to create Marvel’s seemingly endless “cinematic universe.”

For the full review, see:
Brian P. Kelly. “BOOKSHELF; The Geeks Strike Back.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 8, 2018): A15.
(Note: ellipsis in original.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 7, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing’ Review: The Geeks Strike Back; The “Star Wars” franchise and Marvel’s superhero films reign supreme in today’s Hollywood. How did that happen?”)

The book under review, is:
Jameson, A. D. I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing: Star Wars and the Triumph of Geek Culture. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018.

What Wofford’s Family “Lacked in Money, They Made Up for in Expectations”

(p. A19) Growing up on Buffalo’s rough and often neglected East Side, Keith H. Wofford recalled many crisp autumn Sundays spent with his father bonding over the Bills, following the team’s losses and wins on the radio.
Tickets to football games were not in the family’s budget: His father, John Wofford, worked at the nearby Chevrolet factory for 32 years, and his mother, Ruby, picked up odd jobs in retail to bring in extra income. But what the Woffords lacked in money, they made up for in expectations for their two sons.
“They always had an incredible amount of confidence in us,” Mr. Wofford, 49, said in an interview. “They made very clear that they didn’t see any limitations.”
Mr. Wofford held tight to that ideal as he left high school as a 17-year-old junior to attend Harvard University on a scholarship. Seven years later, he graduated from Harvard Law School. Last year, Mr. Wofford earned at least $4.3 million as a partner overseeing 300 lawyers and 700 employees at the New York office of international law firm Ropes & Gray, LLP, according to financial disclosure forms.
Now he’s the Republican nominee for state attorney general in New York, vying to become one of the most powerful law enforcement officials in the country.
“How many guys who work at a white shoe law firm had dads who had a union job?” asked C. Teo Balbach, 50, the chief executive of a software firm who grew up in Buffalo, and played intramural rugby at Harvard with Mr. Wofford.
“He’s a real hard worker and grinder, and that comes from that upbringing where you come from a middle-class family in a difficult neighborhood and you don’t take anything for granted,” Mr. Balbach added.
. . .
. . . issues facing Mr. Wofford should he win are potential conflicts of interest from his law practice.
. . .
Mr. Wofford said the criticism about him is indicative of Ms. James’s “hyperpartisan” attitude, and he sought to distinguish himself from her by characterizing himself as an outsider.
“Being on the wrong side of the tracks in Buffalo,” Mr. Wofford said, “is about as far from insider as you can get.”
His success as a lawyer, however, did allow him one heartfelt opportunity: In his father’s last years, Mr. Wofford returned to Buffalo, and during football season, they would bond again over Bills games — but in person, at the stadium, as a season-ticket holder.

For the full story, see:
Jeffery C. Mays. “Can an Unknown G.O.P. Candidate Become Attorney General?” The New York Times (Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018): A19.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 12, 2018, and has the title “Can a Black Republican Who Voted for Trump Be New York’s Next Attorney General?”)