Sunday, July 31, 2005

How to Make Our Ideas Muddled

You are probably aware of Charles Sanders Peirce’s four ways of forming and holding an opinion, outlined in 'How to Make Our Ideas Clear’. These are:
(1) Tenacity. Sticking to what you happen to believe and ignoring anything that might change your mind.
(2) Authority: Picking someone who knows more than you do and believing what they tell you to.
(3) A Priori Reasoning: Working out a couple of core axioms with like-minded friends and extrapolate everything you need to believe from them.
(4) Experiment: Which as we all know, is the only one that really works.

I think there is another way, which is even more intellectually lazy than (1) and (2), since it saves the person using it from having to commit to anything. I call this despicable intellectual vice the habit of Moderation. If, when confronted with two vociferously argued points of view, you determine the arithmetic mean between the arguments you hear, and decide to hold those opinions, you are following this terminally lazy method. You can say that you are tolerant and wise, and that you can see the valid points in each side's argument, but you will be in the one place you can be sure to be totally useless, smugly suspended over the abyss between two coherent points of view.
I assert that the position that the great Sages and Prophets would recommend; the position that will seem self-evident to posterity; the position that will have the greatest chance, if adopted, of advancing understanding of the point of contention and solving it, will almost always be found in one of two places: (1) On or beyond the extreme fringe of one of the two opposing points of view, or (2) Somewhere completely removed from the continuum between parties A and B, beyond the limits of ‘known idea space’.

Consider the following long-forgotten arguments:
* Radical Abolitionists vs. Gradualists. By the end of the Civil War, the stated policy of the US Government was further to the extreme than all but a very few radical abolitionists had suggested at the War’s beginning.
* Containment vs. D├ętente. The premises of both fell apart.
* Leninism vs. Trotskyism. Ditto.
* Practically any argument at all from the history of science.
* Bundists vs. Zionists. In hindsight, the best course of action for the Jews of Poland would have been something only the most extreme Zionists of all advocated.
* Chalcedonians vs. Monophysites. For hundreds of years, the Eastern Roman Empire was convulsed by arguments between Chalcedonians and Monophysites. I’ve read hundreds of pages about the argument and am still not entirely sure what it was about. A series of decent and competent Emperors proposed compromise positions between them, all of which came to naught and serve only to complicate the catalogue of heresies. The problem was eventually ‘solved’ only by the conquest of the main Monophysite regions of the Empire by an ideology that rejected the premises of the argument in toto. Today, the page in my atlas where the world is mapped by traditional religious affiliation shows the successors of the two parties mapped in the same colour (pink), and the majority of the world’s Christians- as near as I can follow- belong to groups that are more Chalcedonian than the Chalcedonians.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

"You haven't alienated all your friends. You just haven't posted about Buffy enough."

I really had anticipated a wave of criticism from the barbaric hinterland of cyberspace following my attack on Harry Potter. Oh well. The same people who sent me the email last year about lobbying my MP on the sanctity of traditional marriage sent me another about the evils of Harry Potter. I was intrigued by the suggestion that Harry Potter was a force for moral relativism, and read a bit more widely, coming to the conclusion that the people who claimed this didn't really understand what moral relativism means. F'rinstance, this guy says it encourages moral relativism because the good characters sometimes do bad things. That's like, let's see, the soldiers in "Saving Private Ryan", or the quintessential moral relativist, George Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life", or, let's go out on a limb, every character in every film ever made with the possible exception of the Flying Nun.
All the "Harry Potter: Innocent Anklebiter or Spawn of Satan?" sites also quote the bad guy on moral relativism, without ever making it clear that the so-called good guys, er, kind of disagree with him: "A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil. Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was. There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it..."

Now, Buffy: I've watched to the end of series seven now, and I am convinced that it really did all happen inside Buffy's head, which accounts for the strongly solipsistic flavour of the series. Of course I don't think it invalidates a story if it is 'only a story', it just means that we can talk about not two, but three levels of causation, which is fun:
(1) What does something mean within the Buffiverse?
(2) What does it mean in the universe where Buffy really lives?
(3) What did the creators mean by including it?
What clinched it for me was the treatment of the deaths of Anya and Spike vis-a-vis the death of Buffy's Mum in the final episode. Sure, there are good dramatic reasons within level (3) to downplay them, and not a lot of time left in the series, so it wouldn't be appropriate to devote three angsty episodes to them, but still... Xander's joke about the mall in the final minutes of the episode left me in no doubt that only characters who have an existence on level (2) are really real. Buffy knows it subconsciously: that is why she keeps them at arm's length. That is why there are no profound conversations: Buffy is incapable of profound conversation, and so are the projected fragments of her personality. That is why there is no science or religion in the universe: Buffy doesn't have any science or religion. Another clue is how, if Buffy can't have a love interest, neither can anybody else. The miserable love-lives of the other characters are the fault of Buffy, projecting her misery into the universe she has created.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da

It seems this is day 365 of the Accidental Blog. What trends can I remark on in the past year, beyond a marked deterioration in quality?

* It has been good fun talking to Marco again.
* I think I have been gradually moving from proclaiming my beliefs, through justifying them, to addressing the practical question, 'How do we get there from here?'
* People are still buying Harry Potter novels, the idiots.

No-one could call him a fussy man...

...but he does like a bit of empirical evidsence with his discourse. Dave is perfectly right, of course! I must admit that I haven't yet looked for any evidence one way or the other, being too busy playing World of Warcraft. I did see a lot of big shiny office buildings belonging to Islamic banks in the UAE, but I don't know whether they are actually profitable- and if they are, if it is just because of government subsidies and/or customers who patronise them purely as a religious duty. Unfortunately all the countries that have mandated a purely Islamic banking system have been corrupt basket-cases, war-ravaged wastelands, or targets of long-term international sanctions, so they probably don't make a very good sample set.

I am keen for Marco to reveal where he disagrees with the analysis, so I can see if it is my bits of the analysis or Elias Khachourian's. I suspect, from my reading of The Economist, that that magazine bears rather the same relationship to real economics as New Scientist does to real science- that is, basically okay, but a teensy-bit sexed-up and gee-whizzified. Hence, if we are going to appeal to authority, I would claim that an economist might well outrank The Economist. Hmm, and I also know that Marco is much more devoted to the cause of The Economist as a nigh-infallible source of information than to the idea (which I might have manufactured myself by misreading a few throwaway lines on his blog) that an Islamic economy is necessarily inferior to a Western one, so I have just derailed the discussion completely. Damn.

Monday, July 18, 2005

As much discussion of Islamic Banking as I could manage

Marco appears to have made the assumption in our discussion of a hypothetical future caliphate that such a state would be economically uncompetitive compared to states organised economically along Western lines. I don’t know that this would neccessarily be the case. It was manifestly not true twelve-hundred years ago, before Dar al-Islam broke up into feuding states. The trade of China and of West Africa was handled by merchants based in the caliphate. The hoards of silver that they keep digging up in Scandinavia are all Arab coins. Is there anything intrinsically inferior about an ‘Islamic’ economic system, or has it merely stagnated while continual developments have been made in the West?

Let us consider the options open to me with my superannuation fund. I can put my money in a low-risk, low-return fund based on usurious principles of traditional Western banking, or I can put it in a high-risk, high-return fund based on the principle of shared risk- that is, the provision of capital for entrepreneurial activities-much like the mudaraba contract of a traditional Islamic bank. Surely the fund with the higher rate of return is ensuring the more efficient use of capital? A modern banking system organised along Islamic lines should encourage the use of capital in productive ways, rather than for the purchase of static assets in the hope that they will appreciate in value. I have just been reading a book- “Islamic vs. Traditional Banking: Financial Innovation in Egypt”, by an economist with an armenian name based in Sweden- which is why I know that mudaraba word, which says there are clear theoretical advantages of Islamic banking, especially in developing countries:

(1) Riskier, longer-term investments are promoted, providing a greater incentive to adopt new technologies.

(2) The absence of a requirement for collateral increases the demand for investment capital.

Practically, the book concludes that Islamic banks in Egypt have performed poorly, but largely because they have not exercised their mandate to invest in long-term, higher-risk projects. In fact, they have not even been particularly Islamic in their investments, depositing most of their funds in traditional banks overseas.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

In the tradition of "Swashbuckling and the Hegelian Dialectic"

On my way to work I pass a sign that says 'Gorges by Chopper'- advertising, of course, tourist helicopter flights in the nearby scenic gorges. The other morning I blearily read it as 'Borges by Chopper', which has given me the premise for the First Annual Accidental Blog Literary Competition. Given that the first anniversary of this blog is fast approaching, and that the very first post was more or less Jorge Luis Borges fanfic, it seems entirely appropriate to celebrate by calling upon my gentle readers to rewrite any passage from the works of Borges as though it was written by Mark 'Chopper' Read. Post a link here, or email to

Hmm, I will need to offer some sort of prize. The 'Swashbuckling and the Hegelian Dialectic' essay competition prize was something like a Candelabra 9000 Pulse-Vape Mobstopper laser cannon, which will be hard to match. Maybe I could offer a major role to the winner as an immortalised uploaded version of their 21st century selves in my upcoming Christmas story about giant robots, "A Christmas Story About Giant Robots". Maybe not. Er... I will think of something...

Next week I am on holiday, so watch this space for a turgid discussion of Islamic banking! Hurrah! :D