April 26, 2012

Philosophy Now

Green Army: Communications

Avatar (2009)

James Cameron (1954)

[You] are stupid, like a child!

The wealth of this world isn't in the ground, it's all around us.

I'll do [the forced relocation] with minimal casualties to the indigenous. …
It'll be humane — more or less. …

Our only security lies in pre-emptive attack. …
We will fight terror with terror.

See the world we come from.
There's no green there.
[The Sky People] killed their Mother.
They're going to do the same here. …
They're going to come like a rain that never ends. …


Language-Using Apes

Philosophical Quibbles

Four Flavors of Liberalism

A Call to Arms

Philosophy Now

Issue 89 (March/April 2012)

  • Language-Using Apes.
    J’aime Wells: PhD in Philosophy, Rutgers University.

    Apes and Anthropomorphizing

    If your starting assumption is a hard division between the categories ‘humans’ and ‘(just) animals’, then attributing any human-like characteristic to ‘mere animals’ appears to be sentimental anthropomorphism.
    On the other hand, if we start by acknowledging the close relationship between humans and our fellow apes, then it no longer seems as surprising that other ape species might have qualities we usually consider human-like.
    So when discussing whether apes can learn language, it is useful to keep in mind that all the participants in the conversation – human researchers, writers, and commentators – are apes, using language. …

    [Chimpanzees] use tools [and they] display cultural practices that are specific to particular family groups and transmitted from parent to child …
    [These includes] ways of making and using tools, hunting practices, and gestures used to communicate.

    Cross-Fostering Projects

    Washoe learned first to babble signs to herself, then to use them properly in context.
    When she had acquired eight reliable signs, she began putting together two signs to form simple phrases such as COME OPEN (when the door was locked) or MORE TICKLE (when a caregiver stopped tickling her). …
    [Several] infant chimpanzees [who] were raised together [used] signs to communicate with each other [—] not just with their human caregivers.

    Signs of Language

    1. [Chimpanzees] sign even when they are not prompted by a human …
    2. [Chimpanzees] talk about a variety of subjects, including describing their surroundings and initiating games.
      [Sign] use does not primarily consist of begging for food.
    3. [Chimpanzees’] signs are understandable and recognizable to independent observers who are fluent in [American Sign Language]. …
    4. [Chimpanzees] use signs creatively and in new contexts. …
      [They] treated toys as if they were alive, as when Dar signed PEEKABOO to a teddy bear.
      A chimpanzee may also pretend that an object is something else, as when Loulis put a block of wood on his head and signed HAT.
    5. [Chimpanzees] combine signs in original ways, creating new phrases and sentences. …
      Although [Washoe's] caregivers referred to the refrigerator as COLD BOX, she called it OPEN FOOD DRINK. …
      [Like to small children] they learned phrase patterns like ‘verb + object’ and then used that pattern to generate new phrases [e.g.] GROOM DAR and CHASE SUSAN …
    6. [Chimpanzees] understand and use correct ASL grammar, which relies on inflection and facial expressions.
      [Chimpanzees appear to] understand semantic categories [eg] they answer
      • ‘Who’ questions with names, and
      • ‘Where’ questions with locations.

    A Language Module In The Brain?

    Nativists hold that we are born with a specialized mental facility for learning language. …

    Chimpanzees in the wild do have methods to communicate, via gesture and vocalization, but it does not appear that those methods constitute a full language.
    Chimpanzees have actually acquired language only under specialized conditions, with humans serving as teachers and models of language use.

    Who Is A Language User?

    [Chimpanzees] were found to develop their language use in similar ways to children, although not at the same rate. …

    [There may] have been a less efficient version at some point in our species’ [evolutionary] history …
    If we move towards thinking of language use as a matter of degree, it is not clear whether the idea of a dedicated language module is still useful.
    We may instead choose to talk about general intellectual abilities which can be used for language acquisition as well as for other kinds of learning and adaptation.

Issue 85 (July/August 2011)

  • Avatar vs Mononoke.
    Alejandra Mantilla: PhD candidate, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Canberra, Australia.

    [Figuratively] black and white …[Shades] and nuances …
    [Over-simplistic …][More] subtle …
    [Forces] the spectator to choose between two extremes, as if no intermediate path were available …
    [A] Manichaean world-view, where two incompatible forces [can only] triumph by annihilating the opposite.
    [Offers] a much more balanced and less idealized way forward, where compromise is acknowledged as the only realistic possible arrangement between human beings and non-human nature. …
    [A] metaphor of Western colonialism.
    [A] struggle where the winner has to annihilate their rival …[A] struggle where both sides end up learning from each other.

    [There] is no [way to live] in true harmony with nature [other than] by retreating to the 'caves' …
    [A] caricature of ecologism which has served to discredit it as a serious element of policy-making.
    [An] oversimplified characterization of the 'holistic bio centric' approach.
    The solution [offered is] unrealizable, and so useless for guiding action. …
    [Viewers] are left: with two options: to resume their individualistic and hedonistic personae, and to party while the global party lasts, or to retreat to a hippie commune, preferably in some big old forest.
    No intermediate paths are offered.
    [A] much more realistic and effective lesson …
    [The] natural realm will have to accept limited intrusion from humans …
    [Humans] will have to accept that co-existence and not rampant exploitation is the right relationship with the natural world …
    [Aiming] for the impossible[Closer] to what a real-world solution would look like. …

    Arne Naess
    The flourishing of human [Na'vi] and non-human [non-Na'vi] life has inherent value.
    The value of non-human [non-Na'vi] life-forms is independent of the usefulness of the non-human [non-Na'vi] world for human [Na'vi] purposes.
    In former times, nature and man lived in harmony; but this harmony is broken when men, through the use of guns, set out to conquer and establish dominion over all.
    The richness and diversity of life-forms are also values in themselves, and contribute to the flourishing of human [Na'vi] and of non-human [non-Na'vi] life. Antithesis:
    Nature and man are in conflict.
    There is hatred, intolerance and warfare.
    The parties do not seek to resolve their dispute by dialogue, but by brute force.
    Humans [Na'vi] have no right to reduce this richness and diversity, except to satisfy vital needs.Synthesis:
    After the battle, both sides have lost.
    Iron Town has been destroyed.
    The Old Forest has been burnt down, and the era of the Forest Spirit has come to an end.
    Yet the leading figures of the new period, Ashitaka and Mononoke, have the power to connect both worlds.
    Primeval innocence is gone forever, but all hope is not lost.

    Avatar teaches a poor lesson. …
    [It] is tainted from beginning to end with a doomed vision of the future of our species. …
    [A species] incapable of learning from [it's] mistakes until it is too late and nothing can be done to avert disaster.
    [Human character is] irrevocable or fixed …
    So weak is the film's faith in humanity [that change is only possible by] fullblown metamorphosis … from human to non-human. …
    [Human] beings evolve toward a state of greater awareness and wisdom, which comes only after having experienced and realized the mistakes of the past.

    Peace And Long Life

    A Manichean review.

    Avatar: Intransigence and Despair
    Alejandra Mantilla:
    Avatar teaches a poor lesson. …
    [It] is tainted from beginning to end with a doomed vision of the future of our species. …

    [A species] incapable of learning from [it's] mistakes until it is too late and nothing can be done to avert disaster.
    [Human character is] irrevocable or fixed …

    [Human] beings are seen as incapable of evolving in harmony with their environment, inflexible in their beliefs, and insensitive to realities different from their own.
    [The] only possible [solution] is for them to be defeated …
    One of science fiction's longest traditions is the portrayal of nuclear or ecological apocalypse as a warning (and a call to arms) in a dramatic context.
    In the Avatar Universe, Earth's biosphere has already been sacrificed to the Juggernaut of industrialization.
    Pandora is a second chance.
    An opportunity for humans to repeat the mistakes of the past or to redeem themselves.
    It's about having a choice, and making that choice.
    Jake's example is not one of species treachery, but of conscientious objection.
    United Nations Environment Program [October 2008]:
    From 1981 to 2005 the global economy more than doubled, but 60 percent of the world’s ecosystems were either degraded or over-used.

    Mononoke: Compromise and Hope
    Alejandra Mantilla:
    [In Princess Monononke] human beings evolve toward a state of greater awareness and wisdom, which comes only after having experienced and realized the mistakes of the past.
    The outcome here may not so much a "synthesis" as a temporary armed truce born out of a bloody stalemate.
    The American Indians (Australian Aboriginals, or any number of other indigenous cultures) may well have hoped that the many treaties they made with the encroaching Europeans would herald a new era of peaceful and prosperous coexistence.
    That they turned out to be brief respites in the inexorable annihilation of their cultures and the eradication of the biological diversity that underpinned them, is a less uplifting historical parallel.

    A Call to Arms

    To dismiss the Na'vi's desperate defense of the spiritual and biological integrity of their civilization (the planetary neural network) as a failed model of conflict resolution seems decidedly odd.
    To illustrate the disastrous consequences of failed diplomacy is not the same as advocating confrontation over negotiation.
    To take another historical example, the spirited and ultimately successful defense of the Franklin river is hardly an example of a discredited policy making.

    The failure of environmental values to achieve a popular mandate is not due only to an unwillingness to compromise; or to the pursuit of politically suicidal solutions such as deindustrialization.
    It is apathy, not extremism that remains its greatest obstacle.
    In the battle for hearts and minds, it is in the struggle for hearts that environmentalism is critically failing to gain ground.

    To the extent that Avatar succeeds, is in its evocation of an idealized, anime inspired vision of the wonder and interconnectedness of nature.

    We are all descended from hunter gatherers.
    The values of the fictional Na'vi are obviously not alien values.
    They are human values that, though dormant in the West, still survive in the remnants of indigenous cultures all over the world and in many Eastern philosophical traditions.
    It is a fundamentally different view of nature to the instrumental, human dominion model that prevails in the West.

    The human race is like a toddler with a hand gun (or a hydrogen bomb).
    What we lack is not knowledge, but wisdom.
    We have neglected an ancient wisdom.
    A wisdom that valuable not because it is old, but because it is wise.

    The battle to preserve biological stability cannot be won by the wholesale abandonment of technology — quite the reverse.
    But what is essential, is a fundamental shift in emphasis.
    A reconciliation of ecological values (wisdom) with modern knowledge (science).

    The industrial Juggernaut has enormous inertia, but ultimately it consists of individuals, individuals with the capacity to make different choices.

    Would you like to know more?

Issue 82 (July/August 2011)

  • Morality is a Culturally Conditioned Response.
    Jesse Prinz: Distinguished Professor of Philosophy, City University of New York.
  • What is Liberalism?
    Phil Badger: Philosophy and Social Science teacher, Sheffield.

    In the nineteenth century [the British Government] raised revenue through importation tariffs …
    [The] landed classes defended these tariffs because they helped maintain the price of agricultural produce.
    Ultimately, this situation resulted in a humanitarian and political crisis [which] led to the repeal of the so-called Corn Laws.
    [The] result was the formation of a political party which was committed to free trade - the Liberal Party. …

    [Adam Smith] applauded the idea of workers becoming free of the almost serf-like status that traditional arrangements dictated. …

    [Modern] conservatives have a Burkian basis for shunning the activist state. …

    Neo-liberals [later combined] economic liberalism and social conservatism, [seeing] conservatism as a necessary brake upon the socially disruptive tendencies of the free market.
    [Thatcher rejected] social liberty [—] alternative lifestyles, sexual preferences etc [— in favor of an] exclusively economic understanding of freedom.

    Mill and the New Liberals

    [Because of his utilitarianism, Mill considered that] any economic system's worth [including capitalism] was 'contingent' (dependent) upon its results, rather than being 'necessary' …

    Mill [feared] 'the tyranny of the majority' [(de Tocqueville); consequently, he believed that one's] freedom of action should only be limited in order to prevent … harm to others.

    He argued that liberty was essential for … 'utility in its widest sense' [i.e. for] the individual to grow and develop according to his or her own nature.

    [But what] social conditions are necessary for individual development to best take [place?]
    If … all that is needed is for others to leave an individual alone, we get 'classical' liberalism.
    [However, if] the developing individual needs access to things like [education, but is unable to afford it,] we are well on our way to 'new' liberalism.

    [The] new liberals saw liberty as [not only] the simple absence of restraint [but also] the development of … 'autonomy' or 'self-government'.
    [That] the unequal starting points of individuals in society meant that any notions of individual freedom were … meaningless without significant state intervention.
    These men … were the progenitors of the 'big state' liberalism.

    Hedonism and Anarchy

    [In his Theory of Justice (1972), John] Rawls combined an absolute commitment to social liberty with a significant nod in the direction of judging social inequalities by their consequences [i.e.] social and economic inequalities should be limited so that they provide the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society [the 'difference principle'].

    [Criticism of] new liberalism has involved two increasingly interwoven strands.

    Firstly, there has been what we could call an 'empirical' critique …
    [That] the welfare state has failed [due to] an inaccurate view of human psychology and motivation.
    ['Welfarism'] has created a dependency culture which … has created [perverse disincentives] to work [and social participation.]
    [That it has created] opportunities for free riders [willing] to live off welfare handouts, and a wider group of people who see the state's provision as absolving them from any responsibility to [care for the disadvantaged].
    This has led to a breakdown of civil society and the weakening of the intermediate organisations which make it up.

    Secondly, [a] purely conceptual or philosophical critique … focused on its a priori injustices.
    Robert Nozick [viewed] the redistribution of wealth in the form of taxation [as an] act of theft from those who hold it legitimately, in order to benefit those who have done nothing to contribute towards its creation. …
    [For Nozick the means could never justify the ends.]
    [Even] if welfare had worked [this] would not justify its coercive impact on the lives of those who had to pay for it. …
    In any conflict between freedom and welfare, freedom will always win because ignoring people's liberty, even to benefit them - let alone to benefit others - is tyrannical. …

    [It] turns out that there is copious evidence that more equal societies [have] significantly less suffering in terms of crime, infant mortality, premature death, educational failure and drug addiction, than [more unequal ones.]
    Interestingly, the benefits of greater equality seem to be felt by the rich as well as the poor.

    Reconciling Freedoms

    Hard-working and talented people are entitled to the fruits of their labours [but] is it always our moral merit which determines where we end up in the pecking order?
    Do the less talented deserve to have a poor life?
    Do we really think that an equal chance is granted to people who have very different starting positions in life? …
    [Can we rely on] the 'invisible hand' of the free market … to distribute rewards according to genuine social worth and [contribution?]

    [Neoliberals sometimes] seem to suggest that unemployment is a function of the fluctuating level of collective laziness rather than the product of the instabilities of the famously 'self-regulating' market.
    [As an alternative to cutting welfare] increasing the minimum wage [in recessionary times would promote] the incentive to work … recapitalize the poorest [and] increase consumer demand.
    (By contrast, middle class people tend to use extra cash to pay off debt.)

    A general reduction in inequality helps from a utilitarian point of view because … it is not the absolute standard of living of the poor which produces social ills, but their relative disadvantage. …
    The so-called 'trickle down' effect … has failed the empirical test.
    [A] rising tide [does not lift] all boats.

    [From] a progressive liberal view [the state] intervenes only in order to [enable and empower] individuals to control their own lives.
    [For example,] enhanced welfare payments for unemployed people who agree to take part in community and environmental work [as a way of facilitating involvement in civil society.]

Issue 29 (October/November 2000)

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