The Limits Of New Scientism

Jan 26 2015 @ 9:02am

Steven Shapin explores the question of whether or not science can make us good. He notes that while modern iterations have shorn religion of its claims to authority, “the ambitions of the new scientism may be self-limiting”:

Different scientists draw different moral inferences from science. Some have concluded that it is natural and good to be ruthlessly competitive; others see it natural to cooperate and trust; still others embrace the lesson of the naturalistic fallacy and oppose the project of inferring the moral from the natural. That was the basis of T. H. Huxley’s skepticism in 1893:

The thief and the murderer follow nature just as much as the philanthropist. Cosmic evolution may teach us how the good and the evil tendencies of man may have come about; but, in itself, it is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.

Nor does the new scientism solve the long-standing problem of whom to trust. Just like every modern scientist, the advocates of the new scientism do what they can to sell their wares in the marketplace of credibility. And here the new scientism, for all its claims that there is a way science can make you good, shares one crucial sensibility with its opponents: having secularized nature, and sharing in the vocational circumstances of late modern science, the proponents of the new scientism can make no plausible claims to moral superiority, nor even moral specialness.

Map Of The Day

Jan 26 2015 @ 8:15am

Nathan Yau made a zoomable map of how we commute:


He zeros in on some outliers:

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Why Do We Call Terrorists Cowards?

Jan 26 2015 @ 7:32am

Reviewing Chris Walsh’s Cowardice: A Brief History, Kyle Williams offers an answer:

The first and perhaps most visceral is that, short of obscenities, it is one of the nastiest words that can be wielded against someone—and has been for a long time. Cowards are anathema in the Revelation of St. John, among the first to be damned to the lake of fire, and among the most despicable in Dante’s Inferno. Samuel Johnson confirmed the prejudices of ages before and after him when he wrote that cowardice is “always considered as a topic of unlimited and licentious censure, on which all the virulence of reproach may be lawfully exerted.” One wonders what could be worse.

Walsh also suggests that the term provides comfort to Americans. Believing that terrorists are cowardly may assuage the fear of terrorism. “If they were cowardly then they were scared too—vulnerable and weak,” he writes. “And thinking them weak somehow made another new phrase—‘Boston Strong’—seem more convincingly true.” Terrorism targets innocent civilians, relies on secrecy and infiltration. It stands, at least rhetorically, in contrast to the more open apparatus of the American nation-state and its military might.

Art After Auschwitz

Jan 25 2015 @ 8:35pm


Ryu Spaeth reviews Suspended Sentences, the recently-translated collection of works by Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, noting the author’s interest in Paris during the Nazi occupation. He considers how Modian exhibits “the postwar generation’s wariness of the redemptive power of art”:

Modiano expresses this in an episode in “Afterimage” in which [a character, the photographer Francis] Jansen, newly released from the transit camp for Jews that should have sent him to his doom, searches for the relatives of a fellow detainee who wasn’t so lucky. He finds none of them, “[a]nd so, feeling helpless, he’d taken those photos so that the place where his friend and his friend’s loved ones had lived would at least be preserved on film. But the courtyard, the square, and the deserted buildings under the sun made their absence even more irremediable.”

In other words, there are only so many people the artist can save. It is as if the sum effect of Suspended Sentences is a gesture at a silence that rings far louder than the words on the page — the silence of the millions of souls who died in the Holocaust, and broader still, the silence of a ceaseless loss that stretches across millennia and defines our time on Earth. Suspended Sentences, then, is a purposeful act of misdirection, a candle that only serves to emphasize the surrounding darkness. As the narrator in “Afterimage” says of Jansen, “A photograph can express silence. But words? That he would have found interesting: managing to create silence with words.”

(Photo by Flickr user slgckgc)

Playing God

Jan 25 2015 @ 7:29pm

Will Wiles explores the phenomenon of “god games,” like Banished, “in which the player guides a small group of people in building a small village, which with careful guidance can become a small town.” He contemplates what their growing popularity suggests about players:

Post-apocalyptic scenarios often have undertones of amoral consumerist wish-fulfilment, in which we roam the shopping malls and other treasure houses of the modern world and take whatever we want, blasting anyone who gets in our way. Survival games are, at least, a little more honest about the challenges of such a situation and an individual’s chances within it. But perhaps it’s better just to focus on what this phenomenon means for this immature art form. With technological limitations falling away, game design might be exhausting the possibilities of more and increasingly discovering the power of less.

At the heart of the new digital melancholy – wrapped in all that beauty – is primal simplicity, the basic animal equation: eat, don’t get eaten, keep going. The value of that simplicity, the playability of it, perhaps we could even say the fun of it, is watching the unexpected ways this elemental calculus can work itself out. And there is more watching involved. Vulnerability imposes a measure of passivity – in some situations, for instance, the only workable strategy might be to wait for danger to pass, to hide behind a hedge, to stay in the shelter until dawn or nightfall – so the environment and the atmosphere become more important, they are not just a Niagara of garish detail to be rushed past. There is a world to be experienced, and we must learn our place in it.

The Landscape Of Loss

Jan 25 2015 @ 6:21pm


In an interview worth reading in full, the poet Christian Wiman explores how being raised in West Texas has shaped his thinking:

Loss is conspicuous in “Keynote”: “I had a dream of Elks, / antlerless but arousable all the same, // before whom I proclaimed the Void / and its paradoxical intoxicating joy.” The “infinities of fields” also bring a “satisfaction of a landscape / adequate to loss.” Did West Texas instigate this obsession of a recursive Void?

Addicted to loss? Maybe once, long ago. Then I got a good, deep miasmic draught of the real thing and have been nauseated ever since. But the connection between that landscape and loss is, for me, quite real. I wrote a novel once (it died in a drawer) in which a character says that the landscape of West Texas is a terrible landscape for depression, which is a “moist” emotion (she’s a psychiatrist). The desert just crushes that, makes it seem somehow impossible. Grief, though, has its place in such emptiness, that endless sense of something missing—God, for instance. You wonder why there’s so many right-wing wing-nuts grieving God in the deserts of the world (righteous wrath is simply the fumes of unacknowledged grief). I’ve solved the quandary, I tell you.

Subscribers can read our Deep Dish essay on Wiman here, and listen to a podcast with him here.

(Image from Edward Musiak)

A Poem For Sunday

Jan 25 2015 @ 5:05pm


“Report to the Mother” by Etheridge Knight:

Well, things / be / pretty bad now, Mother—
Got very little to eat.
The kids got no shoes for their tiny feet.
Been fighting with my woman, and one / other
Woe:—Ain’t got a cent to pay the rent.

Been oiling / up / my pistol, too—
Tho I / be / down with the flu,
So what / are / You going to do . . . ?

O Mother don’t sing me
To the Father to fix / it—
He will blow-it. He fails
and kills
His sons—and / you / know it.

(From The Essential Etheridge Knight © 1986 by Etheridge Knight. Used by permission of the University of Pittsburgh Press. Photo by Phil Warren)

Mental Health Break

Jan 25 2015 @ 4:20pm

Go full-screen for this, and don’t worry, you don’t have to watch the whole thing:

From the description:

80 Minutes from the Bow of the Gunhilder Maersk as she traverses the South China Sea from Vietnam to China. Shot and assembled in 4K as a single take with no frame-breaks.

(Hat tip: Kottke)

Quote For The Day II

Jan 25 2015 @ 3:28pm

“Faith is sensitiveness to what transcends nature, knowledge and will, awareness of the ultimate, alertness to the holy dimension of all reality. Faith is a force in man, lying deeper than the stratum of reason and its nature cannot be defined in abstract, static terms. To have faith is not to infer the beyond from the wretched here, but to perceive the wonder that is here and to be stirred by the desire to integrate the self into the holy order of living. It is not a deduction but an intuition, not a form of knowledge, of being convinced without proof, but the attitude of mind toward ideas whose scope is wider than its own capacity to grasp.

Such alertness grows from the sense for the meaningful, for the marvel of matter, for the core of thoughts. It is begotten in passionate love for the significance of all reality, in devotion to the ultimate meaning which is only God. By our very existence we are in dire need of meaning, and anything that calls for meaning is always an allusion to Him. We live by the certainty that we are not dust in the wind, that our life is related to the ultimate, the meaning of all meanings. And the system of meanings that permeates the universe is like an endless flight of stairs. Even when the upper stairs are beyond our sight, we constantly rise toward the distant goal,” – Abraham Joshua Heschel, “The Holy Dimension,” in Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays.

Remains Of The Day

Jan 25 2015 @ 2:28pm


Oliver Morton, pausing before a reconstructed gorgosaurus at the Manchester Museum, marvels that “absolutely all that remains of that creature’s life is this scarred skeleton”:

We often think of fossils as being in some way ancestral relatives, if not of humans, then of some other aspect of nature, parts of some great unfolding story. But for the gorgosaurs, the tyrannosaurs and indeed all the dinosaurs of the Cretaceous period, this simply isn’t true. The most fecund of their matriarchs has left no deeper imprint than a hatchling that died fresh out of its shell. No species alive today can be traced back to any of the dinosaur species except those few from which birds descended.

Fair enough; what everyone knows about dinosaurs is that they became extinct. What is not as well appreciated—but which, for some reason, the peculiar individuality of this one specimen brought home with some force—is this:

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