On Beauty, the Good, and the Value of Abstract Thought.

Who can say with certainty what beauty is? Today beauty is not a mutually shared value, but an individual property, it’s in the ‘eye of the beholder’. But what if the ‘beholder’ is wrong?

While we’re skilled at assigning value to many events or properties, we prefer to render our opinion using tangible indicators. With formulas or a monetary gauge, the outcome is black and white and doesn’t require any sort of torturous, ambiguous weighing of pros and cons. The critics can be shut down by a simple retort: it’s just math.

We are on much shakier ground, however, when we attempt to assign value to events of philosophical nature: things that are good or bad, right and wrong.

Like beauty, which is hard to define but easy to point out, the right and the wrong are abstractions, escaping a definition.  We know it when we see it.

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Apollo

I know that Ancient Greek statues and Renaissance paintings are beautiful. To know this I don’t need to rely on technical measurements. Classical art evokes stronger emotions and a sense of awe. It invites contemplation and promotes selfless thoughts. It represents universal humanity and its collective struggles and victories. However, when we observe a piece of postmodernist art, like, say, a shark in a formaldehyde tank, we’re not invited to ponder what it represents or what it’s meant to evoke or inspire. The value of a Damien Hirst’s shark tank, unlike that of a Renaissance painting, is rather in its originality, in that ‘no one has thought of that before’. Novelty and originality are cute, but they are not synonymous with beauty. Novelty art may carry a shock or entertainment value but it does not bring out something that is ‘unsaid but strongly felt’. But, novelty aside, there’s a more trenchant analysis of value here: we’re asked to marvel at the commercial value of the entity: what it was sold for and who bought it. Against such an ironclad argument one will be hard pressed to mount an adequate objection.

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Because of this overreliance, either out of fear or out of habit, on the technical tools to assess the intangibles and abstractions (like beauty), we have developed a ‘spiritual’ disability. We’re afraid or unable to declare that something is ‘wrong’ or ‘ugly’, because then we would be forced to make our case without relying on our preferred methods of argument. In order for our argument to be heard and taken seriously, we would have to show that what we think is wrong is ‘unprofitable’. But what if ugliness is profitable? How do we make our case then?

This discomfort with abstractions has broader implications. It seeps into and corrupts our public life.

The spirit of law is routinely violated even when the letter of law is upheld. Technically many criminals, especially white collar ones, are found to have done nothing wrong, and yet we often feel that the justice has not been served. How do we get that feeling? The law was upheld, we should accept it and go on with our business. But that feeling of a lack of closure, that some wrong hasn’t been righted doesn’t leave us. No law was broken when banks structured and sold mortgage-backed securities to gullible customers. The same bankers could not be touched or stripped of their bonuses because they were bound by contracts. The sanctity of contracts is sacred under the law and is indifferent to public ire. A decade later, the President of the United States pardons a conspiracy peddler and a racist felon. Technically, all of the above abides the letter of the law, but violates the spirit of the law. This spirit is something that we struggle to define even when we feel its validity and importance. Here, our reliance on numbers and technology and the letter of law gave an opening to clever, self-serving charlatans: they appeal to our reason to get away with crime. Reason, they say, tells us we have to move on. We nod, as if under a spell, and move along.

One can argue that it’s quite a big leap from Damien Hirst’s art to the pardoning of Joe Arpaio. I think these two are connected, two sides of the same coin. It’s a libertine ethos, when things are done simply because they can be done. It’s the proverbial “everything is allowed” Karamazovian lament. This mode of thinking and operating, that ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable, has debased our moral radar: we have forgotten how to discern the good from the bad. And it’s not like we were very good at it to begin with, but at least back in the day we could use religion is a guide – a poor and violent guide, sure, but one that facilitated a communal, agreed upon appreciation of things that can not be measured by P&L. Today we don’t even have that.

This intellectual capitulation creates social apathy and sense of hopelessness. The apathy, in turn, opens the door for various self-serving hucksters.

Technocratic arguments are routinely and skillfully deployed to wear us down, to make us doubt our own assessments. The poor can not be helped because ‘numbers’. The rich needs another tax cut because ‘growth’. ‘Numbers’ and ‘growth’ are magic words, near-religious incantations coming out of the Koch brothers pantheon, that are tailored to shut down any nascent public debate. And, indeed, how can one counter ‘numbers’ and ‘growth’ with ‘feelings’ and ‘spirit’? He will be laughed out of the room.

We’re in a bind here. If ugliness and beauty are the same because both can be profitable how do we discern one from the other? Furthermore, if one, against all odds, is capable to arrive at conclusion about what ‘good’ is, he will not only face a lack of available avenues to address the disbalance, but a whole variety of social, economic and political impediments that prevent him from acting out the ‘good.’

A few years ago on this blog I ruminated on the concept of freedom and I arrived at the definition of freedom as the ability to be a good citizen. And how can one be a good citizen today? Does that also follow that without the ability to know beauty we can not be free?

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A Trader Learns About the Universe

If a question was posed to me ten years ago, at my professional peak, whether a tree makes a sound if it falls in the woods with no one around, I’d pause, wondering whether the questioner had too much spare time on his hands or was just being a dick, then, with a stare and a tone tailored to let him know that he’s an idiot, I’d answer with a smug “Of course it does. Now fuck off” and go back to my Bloomberg.

Back then I practiced what I called a ‘pragmatic practicality’ philosophy. That pragmatic, no-nonsense worldview came in handy for the low-brow (albeit pretend, ironic low-brow), hustling, locker room world of a trading floor, with its references to Goodfellas and Airplane! and Caddyshack. I thought I have found all the answers – and they resided in science and logic, in numbers and common sense. Never a philosopher I worshipped reason; Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins were authorities on thought and staples in my modest library – modest, you see, because no time to read – with highlighted passages and main arguments memorized as I prepared myself for a random argument with an imaginary religious person: If your god is omnipotent can he create a stone that he himself can’t lift? If God loves us why does he allow the unimaginable sufferings in this world? The burden of proof is on you to prove His existence, not on me to prove the negative. Check, mate. Pretty solid.

Ironically, it was quantum mechanics – a discipline of physics – that put cracks in my philosophical certainty. The conventional Newtonian physics failed to provide a satisfying answer to a few things, one among them is a problem of conscience. As a busy person with no time to ponder I tucked it into the farthest mental compartment to be dealt with later. That part, which I now know is called ‘the Hard Problem’, deals with an elusive but stubborn problem of consciousness origins. Not the mechanical part, which merely explains how the neurons interact with each other and how information received through eyes and ears is stored in the brain. Hard Problem deals with figuring out how those physical processes produce thought, and more importantly, feelings of awe and other irrational human emotions. How does that neural interaction produce goosebumps when I hear a, say, David Gilmour’s sick guitar riff? Is it similar to a Catholic nun crying rapturously after meeting the Pope? Are these experiences rooted in the same place, even though she’s religious and I’m not? This has put me into intellectual stupor.

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Beauty after the rain on a random drive.

Just as Hitchens and Dawkins like to portray religion as a safety blanket used by those who are afraid to search for answers, my worship of scientific reason was no different: a subconscious search for certainty so that I can get on with my life. Psychologically it was the same security blanket, but only for those who are too smart to believe in the supernatural.

Well, I am too smart to believe in the supernatural, but at some point I also acknowledge that my scientific inflexibility manifested the other side of the same coin – fear of the unknown. I wanted to know, but instead of fairy tales I wanted formulas.

That search led me to quantum physics – a series of books for beginners and YouTube videos, where formulas revealed a world functioning under a totally different set of rules – rules that are incompatible with our standard understanding of the physical world. A world where the presence (or absence) of the observer affects the subsequent events. This is where the ‘tree in the woods’ quiz came up again. This time I wasn’t so sure it made a sound: if there’s no ear or any sort of receiver, the sound wave simply dissipates without being captured. Thus no sound! A devotee of logic I couldn’t argue with that.

Mouth agape I kept reading. Some things were too hard to comprehend, like the entangled particles phenomenon, where two particles no matter how far from each other behave in a simultaneous manner. You observe one particle and its twin, which, no matter the distance between them, act in total unison with each other. There’s not even a fraction of a millisecond between their moves. Einstein called this phenomenon a ‘Spooky action at a distance.’ Or take even the simple concept of space: would we even know what space is if it was empty; if there were no objects in the universe would it be possible for us to know the difference between a centimeter and a million miles? A working person, in a numbing daily grind, doesn’t think about this stuff at all. Well, I have time to think about it now – so I should.

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Atlantic City, inviting to contemplation.

So how do these findings – that the universe is an observer-dependent entity, square off with our philosophical longings?

The philosophical questions arise from our mental facilities. Subatomic particles act out in a manner that suggests a link between our thoughts and their behavior. Our neural circuitry has the power to form reality. Our reality is a collapsed wave function of probabilities. We were given tools, unlike animals, to ponder our existence. The problem is we were given the tools but no instruction manual. If we didn’t have conscience then there would be no such concepts as morality and the good and the bad, just like there’s no morals in the animal kingdom. Lions eating an antelope is neither good nor bad. But we, humans, we were given a hammer; there must be a nail somewhere.

In a nutshell that was the logic behind Kant’s Categorical Imperative. To put Kant in simple terms, he posited that because we possess a faculty of reason we should use it to discern good from bad. (As an aside, this kind of thinking is incompatible with the way Wall Street thinks: everything is looked at through the profit angle. On Wall Street, like in an animal kingdom, there is no right or wrong; whatever makes money is right. Which is, if you think about it further, a sad commentary on a bunch of super smart guys suppressing their ample mental facilities and their sense of wonderment at the altar of profit. But deep down they know they’re too smart for this shit. This dissonance manifests itself in odd ways like ‘radical transparency’ and ‘transcendental meditation’ – pseudo-philosophies whose sole purpose is not enlightenment but profit. A vicious circle.)

But there are things that exist outside our thoughts. While out thoughts change the outcome of a quantum experiment they can not change certain abstract concepts like mathematical formulas. They exist outside of our mental realm.

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Abandoned Railway in Philly

If we accept Kant’s notion that there IS such a thing as ‘the right thing to do’ and it is as certain as a mathematical concept that exists even if we don’t think of it (2+2 = 4 even before we were born and will remain so after we die), then our duty as sentient species is to find out what it is.

But how? How do we get to determine what is good and what is bad. This is where the science fails. How does one proceed further then?

I think it is the confluence of science, philosophy and arts (particularly literature) – the trifecta – that should be employed to help us understand our predicament. The three disciplines should be given equal weight; each alone can never be sufficient enough for our inquiry. Traditional science explains the mechanics of the world; quantum physics elevates the role of the observer; philosophy poses the questions we have to (no, must!) ask ourselves as sentient beings; and literature frames the human existence into a context which in turn helps us to categorize the events and give them moral meaning.

Don’t you already feel like a fugitive from Plato’s cave seeing the light for the first time? After thinking this way there is no going back.

So what does that all mean? Is there good or bad and how does one have to live? Again and again through history, people from different walks of live who ever embarked on contemplating on this question came up with similar answer. An atheist Tolstoy and a religious Dostoyevsky have similar conclusions: the suffering that we see around us is not indicative of a vengeful deity nor of a singular depravity of a human soul. It is but inevitable part of our existence, like a crest of a wave would not be a crest without a trough. Without the bad we would not know what good is. But, still if we MUST know what is good, certain classics might help. Tolstoy found meaning in the irrational; Dostoyevsky found meaning in loving others.

I like this idea. I like the idea of meaning in the irrational – that is things that carry no profit or fame. Can you put a price on a sense of awe?

 

 

Free Market vs. Conservative Moralists

“A God who rewards and punishes is inconceivable for the simple reason that a man’s actions are determined by necessity, external and internal, so that in God’s eyes he cannot be responsible, any more than an inanimate object is responsible for the motions it undergoes. A man’s ethical behavior should be based effectually on sympathy, education and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary.” Albert Einstein

For an average American the economic reality is increasingly dual – you’re either on the working “treadmill” running faster and faster or you’re a bum, and there are few choices in between. Some people work longer hours for less pay, while others can’t get a job at all.

The praise on the right of the current economic system of “treadmill” lifestyle does not fit well with their demands of the return of traditional values. Let’s assume that we magically return to the desired “nuclear family” era that the right so nostalgically revere. If only we work harder we will become more moral, the thinking goes.  Such a family would immediately drop out of the treadmill participation simply because the middle class has long been relying on two person incomes, not one.

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Tea Partiers and the Constitution

Tea Parties have a strange love-hate relationship with the Constitution.

I think they have some sort of their own version of the Constitution, just like Conservatives have their own idealized version of the 1950s or Reagan or like any of us have our own idealized memories of childhood. Sober analysis would conclude that it’s not like times were better, but perhaps it was just that we were younger.

So I downloaded the full text of the Constitution in an attempt to see where do they get their talking points. To begin, I searched for the word “religion” in the text, given the recent demand by Tea Party darling Christine O’Donnell, delivered with an air of knowing superiority during her debate, to know where in the Constitution there’s a separation of church and state. The word “religion” did come up once in the text. In the context of “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States”. Further, in the First Amendment, is the following: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion”. I have to give her that – she really did believe that there’s a mention of God or Jesus in the Constitution, because she looked like a child who just found out that there’s no Santa Claus. When her opponent quoted the First amendment it was like an unpleasant revelation to her. I hope that the first thing she did after the debate is to go and check the text to see it with her own eyes.

Many Tea Parties, without fully knowing what the Constitution actually contains, nonetheless like to throw weighty words around, especially when asked a practical question, for example how to balance the budget. You will be hearing words like “tyranny”, “Founding Fathers”, “Constitution”, “God-given rights” without actually getting an answer to your question. In fact many conservatives like to mock liberals for deriving their rights from the Government. Liberals, those spineless fucks, you see, take the rights mercifully granted to them by the omnipotent Government while the steel-balled conservatives themselves insist that all rights are God-given. They conveniently forget that the enforcement of God-given rights is still the job of the dreadful Government. Rights have to be protected and even though I would love to carry a gun around all the time in case I need to dispute, say, a claim from my insurer, I hire a Government to do that for me. Sure, they mostly suck, they tax you, they grow corrupt with time, but the alternative is a do-it-yourself Wild West. Don’t get me wrong, I, of all people, would succeed in a kill-or-be-killed setting like this, but the point is why not hire somebody else to do the enforcement job for you, while you can engage in, say, some money making or world saving? Besides, every 2 or 4 years you have a recourse against the Government in form of election. It’s amusing to hear all those yells of “tyranny” and calls to “violent rebellion” from middle-aged middle class nearing retirement who, for way too long, had a boot of Socialism planted firmly on their necks! But no more! Down with Socialism!

Funny, how I always digress in my writings. I do like to rant though, if you haven’t noticed.

So anyway, a Tea Party rally would not be a Tea Party rally without some dude in a tricorner hat waving the copy of the Constitution. But now I wonder whether they just like the original document or all of those amendments that came afterwards. If they just like the original then they would have to admit that they would repeal the subsequent amendments, like giving women the right to vote or abolishing slavery or granting citizenship to persons who are born here. Some brave and honest tea parties, like Rand Paul, would repeal the 14th amendment, for example. At least he’s honest and I give him kudos for that. I only wish that he went all the way – calling for repeal of all of the amendments, instead of picking and choosing only the ones he likes. That’s where I have a problem with the tea partiers supposed love of the Constitution. They love it but they want it changed. They imagine things to be in the Constitution that are not actually there. They choose to ignore some inconvenient articles. This problem can be solved if they just write their own Tea Party version of the Constitution. Just to give you a few highlights: Abolish federal income tax (Sharon Angle); Establish the presence of Christian God in state affairs (Christine O’Donnell, Sarah Palin); Abolish Department of Education and a right to citizenship for those born here (Rand Paul). And wave this document instead – that will keep you honest.

After watching that Christine O’Donnell video I thought that it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad. No matter how civil a society we’re bound to have citizens who have no idea what the Constitution is all about and have their own fantasies about what’s in it. But to have a public official who runs for office not to have a clue about one of the most important cornerstones of the current law, the establishment clause, is sad and even scary. It does not necessarily show her stupidity, although she’s pretty ignorant, unable to name even Roe v Wade – the mandatory pet peeve of any self-respecting conservative – as an example of Supreme Court decision she disagrees with (not because she agrees with it, but because she doesn’t know what the fuck that is!), it shows her inability to think. If she truly believed that government does not guarantee the separation of church and state, then what particular church does the government have in mind? And just to be on the safe side – to check with herself to make sure that she belongs to that particular brand of religion. Because, you know, she a Catholic after all, and Catholics used to be, shall we say, frowned upon, in the good ol’ days.

Don’t be a sucker

“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”

Sinclair Lewis

I’ve known this quote for quite a while but I always resisted using it in my blog, because I’d like to avoid using loaded words. But since the Right has bend the rules of the game so much that they have no shame comparing Obama to a Nazi – I had to come down from my high horse and get into dirty combat. I’m a small time crook. My profits are modest, my aspirations – laughable. Every day I have to coexist with a number of suckers and sometimes on a bad day when my guard is down I become a sucker myself. My poker winnings are in direct proportion to the number of fish at the table. My trading profits depend on the herd mentality of other players. I used to be upset when someone makes a stupid play and beat me with one-outer at the poker table or when everyone is buying when in my opinion they should be selling, but I got over it. Instead I learned to embrace it. Now I congratulate and cheer and encourage stupid behavior among my fellow players. I make sure to say ‘Nice hand’ or ‘Well done’ to a sucker to promote incorrect play. Why fight it if you can take advantage of it?

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