Rationality in Action

Raimo Tuomela reviews John Searle’s Rationality in Action, in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

This book is vintage Searle, with the good (and less good) features that one is accustomed to find in his previous books. It is written in engaging style and is accessible to a wide audience, even if it is not perhaps meant for the layman. It contains lots of interesting arguments and some new things, especially the ideas about non-sufficient causation of action and a comprehensive account of reasons for action. The main contributions of the book are indeed about these two topics. Especially the account of reasons, and among them of desire-independent reasons, will probably be of lasting value in the philosophy of action.

I will below concentrate on a couple of topics that are central in the book. The first topic is causation of action. Briefly, the agent’s desires and beliefs do not cause the agent’s decisions and intentions – at least from the first person point of view (Searle’s standpoint until the last chapter). This is due to the agent’s free will: he is free to decide which desires and beliefs he will act on. This is the first “gap”. In Searle’s action theory an intentional action “normally” comes about due to an agent’s prior intention which leads causally, but not with necessitating causality, to action. The latter itself consists of the agent’s intention-in-action (“volitional” element) and the behavior caused by it. The second gap is that between the prior intention and the intention-in-action, and is dramatically exemplified by the phenomena of weakness of the will. The third gap is that between the initiated action and its completion. According to Searle, “ ’the gap’ is the general name that I have introduced for the phenomenon that we do not normally experience the stages of our deliberations and voluntary actions as having causally sufficient conditions or as setting causally sufficient conditions for the next stage” (p. 50). All of these gaps are familiar phenomena and have been extensively discussed in the literature.

If there is a piece of news here it is that there is only non-sufficient causation between the prior intention and the intention-in-action.

farrah dead too


In hindsight, of course, Farrah was a problematic role model. Scanning the entire hot-cop lineup, she was by far the most kittenish, the most little-girl-like and least threatening–which unquestionably added to her popularity, especially among men. (Not that the curves and hair weren’t enough.) In that way, she was a bit like Marilyn Monroe, simultaneously girlish and yet jaw-droppingly sexual. (Or, more recently, Scarlett Johansson–who, my husband shrewdly observes, has stormed to acclaim as an overgrown little girl with enomous knockers.) But my six-year-old friends and I never thought in those terms; we were years away from understanding the concept of “Jiggle TV,” much less why it might be a bad thing. We liked the guns and the gowns and the karate kicks and the sight of a bunch of really pretty ladies getting the best of the bad guys. And, oh yes, we loved the fact that, week after week, the chicks dashed out to save the day while their faithful handler, John Bosley, functioned as a genial, glorified manservant; I vividly recall our neighborhood recreations of the show featuring much abuse of poor Bosley. What can I say? Even in the Deep South in the ’70s we were tired of the guys having all the fun.

more from Michelle Cottle at TNR here.

It remains for poets to write honest poetry


Poets usually write about themselves, even when they are pretending not to. But few can have put themselves forward quite so much as Umberto Saba, the Triestine writer who has sometimes been rated one of Italy’s best poets of the twentieth century and who, in his own opinion, was quite simply the greatest since Leopardi. What is strange is that the more you read Saba, the less the “autolatria” or self-worship, as Montale called it, seems off-putting. Rather than self-aggrandizement, it comes over more as an unstable, knowing series of self-projections, which the reader is implicitly asked to recognize and empathize with and which, when everything goes well, give rise to poetry. Saba freely acknowledged that it didn’t always go well, but the one thing he was convinced about all his life was that great poetry, including his own best work, provided a special kind of enjoyment that made up for the misery and confusion from which it emerged, not just for himself (he was a lifelong depressive) but for everyone. You don’t have to take him at his word to feel that some of his poems combine wonderful qualities of song with emotional density in a way that is rare in modern poetry and that others subtly and often ironically recast traditional Italian poetry from within rather than by taking it apart. “M’incantò la rima fiore / amore, / la più antica difficile del mondo”, he wrote in a short late poem – “I was enchanted by the rhyme June, / moon, the oldest and most stubborn in the world”, in the version given here by George Hochfield and Leonard Nathan who find plausible English equivalents for the rhyme “fiore / amore” but distort “difficile” with “stubborn”. Perhaps it was indeed a kind of lowest common denominator of the Italian tradition that he worked with, though he added a dose of Heine to give it a tart edge and a certain syntactic awkwardness which stops the reader from being too carried away by the flow.

more from Peter Hainsworth at the TLS here.

writing about music is like dancing about architecture


I just published a novel about music. Early in the process of writing it, I was warned by a similarly music-obsessive friend that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”[1] Since that first somewhat menacing reminder, I’ve heard the line frequently. At first blush, the claim is a smugly dismissive one: verbal descriptions of music are doomed to be pointlessly, perhaps even ridiculously, inferior to actual music. As a reader, I resisted this idea; it just felt false, though I couldn’t quite say why. But as a writer, this assertion paralyzed me: I didn’t want to waste two or three years trying to produce something that could not be produced.[2] I tried to put aside the line’s foundational snobbery (“My music is too ineffable for your inky art”), and then, reassuringly, it seemed like nothing more than a truism: words are words and music is music. And perfume is perfume; paintings are paintings; facial features are facial features. Yet writers are never counseled against attempting to evoke paintings or smells or faces or feelings or buildings or the nonmelodic sounds of jackhammers, thunder, or snoring. What was so elusive about music that it couldn’t be captured by words?

more from Arthur Phillips at The Believer here.

Thursday Poem

Feng Shui
Bob Bradshaw

You stir fry your bok choy,
your Chinese mushrooms
and noodles. There
is no other pair of chopsticks
dipping into your pot.

Is the feng shui wrong?

Your mother advised you at 6
that if you get lost
don’t move.
Someone will find you.
Where is the husband
your mother promised?

Your luck will surely
turn. For the third time this month
you rearrange the furniture.
You hang wind chimes,
add plants. Nothing
must impede the flow

of Chi. You need harmony
in your life. Then
an old class mate calls.

He asks you out to dinner
where casually he drops the news:
He’s divorced, a recovering alcoholic.
Even bankrupt. But he’s blessed

with four teenage girls

who need a mother.

from: Apple Valley Review
Vol 2, No. 1 (Spring (2007)

The Hajj, Screened Large

From Harvard Magazine:

Hajj Journey to Mecca took five years to make, and required no fewer than 85 permits from government agencies in Saudi Arabia; the diplomatic process of building relationships was one that Cunningham-Reid summarizes as “a million cups of tea.” Cosmic Picture also raised the $13-million budget from an international corps of investors, hired actor Ben Kingsley to narrate, made a distribution deal with the National Geographic Society, and booked the January 2009 world premiere in Abu Dhabi. In coming months, Journey to Mecca will show at the Smithsonian Institution, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other American cities. Endorsed by both the Dalai Lama and the archbishop of Canterbury, the film has drawn audiences in Kuwait, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and Canada.

Non-Muslims like Davies and Cunningham-Reid cannot enter the holy city, so they trained two all-Islamic camera crews to shoot images like the spectacular aerial shot of thousands of pilgrims circling the Ka‘ba, the black cubical building in the center of Mecca that is the most sacred site in Islam. (Islamic tradition holds that Abraham [Ibrahim] built the first structure on the site, and all Muslims face the Ka‘ba when praying. Abraham’s centrality indicates, as Davies explains, that the hajj actually connects with Jewish and Christian, as well as Islamic, traditions.)

Journey to Mecca tells its story by dramatizing the pilgrimage of Ibn Battuta, who set out from Tangier in 1325 and arrived in Mecca 18 months later. (He then kept voyaging, for 29 years and 75,000 miles more, becoming the best-traveled person of antiquity—and also the only person to have both a crater on the moon and a mall in Dubai named after him.) His hajj, described in his memoir, the Rihla, waited only seven centuries to find its way onto the big screen.

More here.

Walking On Air in Chicago

From The Washington Post:

Chi Don't look down. Or do, since that's the idea. But brace for vertigo. In the city of big shoulders, this is like standing on an eyelash. It's a glass ledge, 1 1/2 inches thick and poking out about four feet from the 103rd floor of the Sears Tower. There is no frame under the floor, only air — 1,353 feet of it, straight down to the miniature taxis on Wacker Drive. Picture Wile E. Coyote racing off the cliff. Think of the moment when he suddenly looks down. Only you don't actually fall. The reason is an intriguing feat of engineering, a team of designers and builders said Wednesday, swearing on a stack of liability policies as they unveiled the project. The ledge — actually four identical glass boxes suspended near the top of the nation's tallest building — opens to the intrepid Thursday.

The natural instinct is to inch out onto the glass very, very slowly, said sheet metal worker Leo Thier, who took a break from another job to venture into the box. Still in his hard hat and construction boots, he delivered his verdict: “It's fantastic. It's insane.”

More here.

The exaggerated fears over digital warfare

Evgeny Morozov in the Boston Review:

Cyber_warfare The age of cyber-warfare has arrived. That, at any rate, is the message we are now hearing from a broad range of journalists, policy analysts, and government officials. Introducing a comprehensive White House report on cyber-security released at the end of May, President Obama called cyber-security “one of the most serious economic and national security challenges we face as a nation.” His words echo a flurry of gloomy think-tank reports. The Defense Science Board, a federal advisory group, recently warned that “cyber-warfare is here to stay,” and that it will “encompass not only military attacks but also civilian commercial systems.” And “Securing Cyberspace for the 44th President,” prepared by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggests that cyber-security is as great a concern as “weapons of mass destruction or global jihad.”

Unfortunately, these reports are usually richer in vivid metaphor—with fears of “digital Pearl Harbors” and “cyber-Katrinas”—than in factual foundation.

Consider a frequently quoted CIA claim about using the Internet to cause widespread power outages. It derives from a public presentation by a senior CIA cyber-security analyst in early 2008. Here is what he said:

We have information, from multiple regions outside the United States, of cyber-intrusions into utilities, followed by extortion demands. We suspect, but cannot confirm, that some of these attackers had the benefit of inside knowledge. We have information that cyber-attacks have been used to disrupt power equipment in several regions outside the United States. In at least one case, the disruption caused a power outage affecting multiple cities. We do not know who executed these attacks or why, but all involved intrusions through the Internet.

So “there is information” that cyber-attacks “ have been used.” When? Why? By whom? And have the attacks caused any power outages? The CIA may have some classified information, but very little that is unclassified suggests that such cyber-intrusions have occurred.

More here.

Newton, P.I.

Sean Carroll in Cosmic Variance:

levenson-newtoncounter-us-cover1.jpgWhen I was studying for my Ph.D., a fellow grad student and I asked our advisor if he could think of one single characteristic that was common to all of the best scientists he knew. Without too much hesitation, he answered: “Hard work.” That certainly wasn’t the answer we wanted to hear — you mean there isn’t some secret recipe to being brilliant? And of course hard work is not nearly enough to elevate you to the ranks of the world’s great scientists. But now that I have marinated for some time in the juices of experience myself, I see the truth of what he was getting at; there are a lot of smart people out there, so it shouldn’t be any surprise that what elevates a few of them above their peers is an extraordinary focus on their work and a great amount of simple effort.

So it should come as no surprise that Isaac Newton, the greatest physicist of all time, was a relentless worker. In his days at Cambridge, when he focused on the workings of the natural world, he would spend as little time as possible on anything that drew him away from the researches in his rooms. Over the couple of years he was writing the Principia Mathematica, he took things to extremes, going for extended periods without food or sleep. (He also, apparently, died a virgin. Extremes come in many guises.)

Most contemporary physicists have heard that Newton eventually left Cambridge and more or less turned his back on scientific research, to take up activities in later life that we associate with varying degrees of disreputability: alchemy, religious studies, taking a bureaucratic position at the Royal Mint, using the Royal Society to attack his scientific rivals. Lots of us shrug and agree that many older scientists do all sorts of crazy things, and don’t wonder too much about the details.

Happily, Tom Levenson (of The Inverse Square, and one of our honored guest bloggers) has provided us with a fascinating peek into a telling episode in Newton’s later life — his career as a criminal investigator. Not really “P.I.”, as Newton was acting in his capacity as a government official, the Warden of the Mint. The story is closer to something from Law and Order or CSI — remarkably close, in fact.

More here.

Act to Stop the Violence in Iran

Via Nico Pitney, something you can do right now to stop the violence in Iran:

Iran%20violence%20-%20election%20fraud-%20injured%20protester Iranian Americans and people all over the world have been touched by the courage of the Iranian people–and horrified by the violence used against them.

Throughout the recent crisis, NIAC has been in contact with the White House almost daily to convey the views of our community, and policymakers have been listening. Based on your feedback, we have strongly condemned the crackdown and called for new elections as the best way to end the violence.
But we need to do more. We need to stop the bloodshed.
Send a letter to the Ambassadors from Russia, China, and the EU, and tell them to use their influence with Iran to bring the violence to an end.
Iran is a signatory to a number of international agreements, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and therefore has a responsibility to respect the human rights of the Iranian people. The government's brutality since the election is completely unacceptable regardless of the circumstances; irrespective of whether the election was fair or unfair, the ongoing violence cannot stand.
Without formal diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran, there simply isn't a lot that the US can do. That is why it is so important for countries that do have formal ties with Iran to use their influence to stop the crackdown. By virtue of their diplomatic relations and extensive trade ties to Iran, the Europeans, Chinese, and Russians should seize the opportunity to use their influence with the Iranian government to end the violence.
Unfortunately, many of these governments have done little, if anything, to end the violence. That is why they need to hear from you.
Take a moment to ask the Europeans, Chinese, and Russians to leverage their relationships with Iran to ensure an end to the violence against the Iranian people.

Go here to send the email letter.

A halo without the light


The battle on the streets of Tehran and the provincial towns of Iran arises not merely in a disputed election but in the clash of two views of Persian history that have become hard to reconcile. For Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared the 10th president of the Islamic republic in what even his supporters hail as a “miracle”, history ended on 1 February 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini returned from exile in Paris to inaugurate the new revolutionary government. The story of humanity, which up to that moment had been the persistent thwarting of God’s will by Jews, Arabs, heretics, kings, drunkards, liberals and the British, had now entered its end phase. It was just a matter for a learned cleric to administer first Iran, then the whole world, until the Lord of Time revealed himself to his favourite nation and ushered in an age of justice and the end of the world. The Lord of Time, or Mahdi, the 12th descendant of the prophet Muhammad through his daughter Fatemeh, escaped Arab persecution as a small boy in Iraq and went into hiding in 874. Present in the world in flesh and bone, the Mahdi passes unrecognised through the Shia cities, walking perhaps even among the Tehran crowds streaming between Enqelab and Azad. Yet for many supporters of the defeated candidates in the election, there is another view of history that rejects Khomeini’s fantastic theories of clerical government, the religiosity of Ahmadinejad, the grinding air of eschatological menace and, above all, the regime’s metaphysical liberties with the truth.

more from James Buchan at The Guardian here.

deus ex machina


“Employ these new technologies to make the Gospel known, so that the Good News of God’s infinite love for all people will resound in new ways across our increasingly technological world!” These could have been the words of Johannes Gutenberg or Billy Graham. In fact, they belong to the current pope, Benedict XVI. He spoke them last month in anticipation of World Social Communication Day, an annual event intended to spread the Good News of God’s infinite love using mass media outlets. The message this year was mostly for the kids: “Young people in particular, I appeal to you: Bear witness to your faith through the digital world!” Catholics aren’t the only Christians connecting on the Web. When it was created in 2007, GodTube — an alternative to YouTube created for Christians and since renamed tangle — was the fastest-growing website in the U.S. Two years later, it’s just one of millions of such sites where people of Christian faith can find each other, date, discuss scripture, promote business, and debate the effects of technology on believers. There’s christiananswers.net and biblegateway.com, which lets you search Bible passages in over 100 languages (Always wanted to say “The Lord is my Shepherd” in Tagalog?), the rather moderate jesusfreak.com, christian.com, .net, .org…. You get the idea.

more from Stefany Anne Golberg at The Smart Set here.

gladwell v. anderson


At a hearing on Capitol Hill in May, James Moroney, the publisher of the Dallas Morning News, told Congress about negotiations he’d just had with the online retailer Amazon. The idea was to license his newspaper’s content to the Kindle, Amazon’s new electronic reader. “They want seventy per cent of the subscription revenue,” Moroney testified. “I get thirty per cent, they get seventy per cent. On top of that, they have said we get the right to republish your intellectual property to any portable device.” The idea was that if a Kindle subscription to the Dallas Morning News cost ten dollars a month, seven dollars of that belonged to Amazon, the provider of the gadget on which the news was read, and just three dollars belonged to the newspaper, the provider of an expensive and ever-changing variety of editorial content. The people at Amazon valued the newspaper’s contribution so little, in fact, that they felt they ought then to be able to license it to anyone else they wanted. Another witness at the hearing, Arianna Huffington, of the Huffington Post, said that she thought the Kindle could provide a business model to save the beleaguered newspaper industry. Moroney disagreed. “I get thirty per cent and they get the right to license my content to any portable device—not just ones made by Amazon?” He was incredulous. “That, to me, is not a model.”

more from Malcolm Gladwell at The New Yorker here.

Wednesday Poem

Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy
Thomas Lux

For some semitropical reason
when the rains fall
relentlessly they fall

into swimming pools, these otherwise
bright and scary
arachnids. They can swim
a little, but not for long

and they can't climb the ladder out.
They usually drown – but
if you want their favor,
if you believe there is justice,
a reward for not loving

the death of ugly
and even dangerous (the eel, hog snake,
rats) creatures, if

you believe these things, then
you would leave a lifebuoy
or two in your swimming pool at night.

And in the morning
you would haul ashore
the huddled, hairy survivors

and escort them
back to the bush, and know,
be assured that at least these saved,
as individuals, would not turn up

again someday
in your hat, drawer,
or the tangled underworld

of your socks, and that even –
when your belief in justice
merges with your belief in dreams –
they may tell the others

in a sign language
four times as subtle
and complicated as man's

that you are good,
that you love them,
that you would save them again.

Hanif Kureishi: turning The Black Album into a stage play

From The Guardian:

Hanif-Kureishi-002 Last summer I suggested to Jatinder Verma that we attempt a dramatisation of my second novel, The Black Album. This was a novel I had begun to think about in 1991, not long after the publication of The Buddha of Suburbia. Unlike that story, which I'd been trying to tell in numerous versions since I first decided to become a writer, aged 14, The Black Album was more or less contemporary, a “state of Britain” narrative not unlike those I'd grown up watching, enthralled and excited, on television and in the theatre, particularly the Royal Court.

Around the time of its publication in 1993, there had been talk of filming The Black Album. But instead of returning to something I had just written and was relieved to have done with, it seemed easier to write a new piece, with similar themes. This was My Son the Fanatic, a film shot in and around Halifax, starring Rachel Griffiths and Om Puri. Now, with the 20th anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie approaching, and since The Black Album is set in 1988/9 and concentrates on a small group of religious extremists, we thought my pre-7/7 novel might shed some light on some of the things that have happened since. Not that I had read the novel since writing it; and if I felt hesitant – as I did – to see it revived in another form, it was because I was anxious that in the present mood it might, in places, seem a little frivolous. But the young radical Muslims I came to know at the time did appear to me to be both serious and intelligent – as well as naive, impressionable and half-mad. And it wasn't as if the subject of liberalism and its relation to extreme religion had gone away.

More here.

Take two video games and call me in the morning

From Scientific American:

Video-games-by-prescription_1 There has been increasing interest on the possibility that video games may actually induce brain changes that lead to behavioral benefits. A number of applications of computer games have been developed for education and rehabilitation. At least anecdotally, individuals who have played a lot of video games using joy stick controllers in their youth are supposed to make better airline pilots when they grow-up. However, finding that familiarity with the motor skills required to operate a computer or a gaming console conveys advantages for the control of similar technology is not that surprising or exciting. We have long known that practice can make perfect.

A recent study by Daphne Bavelier and colleagues at the University of Rochester offers the intriguing suggestion that playing video games may not only be beneficial because of practicing specific skills, but may also enhance core functions of vision – something that has been classically viewed as immutable as an adult. These investigators have reported that playing certain action video games results in a significant improvement in “visual contrast sensitivity,” a measure of how well an individual is able to discern low-contrast targets. Interestingly, it mattered what type of video game was played. The study group that showed enhancements in contrast sensitivity played “Unreal Tournament 2004” and “Call of Duty 2,” — both fast-paced and action-oriented games. In contrast, control subjects played games like “The Sims 2,” a visual engaging game of social interactions which is much less demanding in terms of visual attention and visuo-motor coordination.

It seems likely, the study suggests, that the specific characteristics and demands of a video game induce different brain changes and thus promote different behavioral advantages. If action games that train visual scanning and visuo-motor coordination, like “Unreal Tournament 2004” and “Call of Duty 2” result in improved visual contrast sensitivity and improved fine motor coordination, perhaps games like “The Sims 2” or “Warcraft” may be beneficial in promoting empathy or social interaction skills. A careful scientific exploration of such issues may lead to the development of video games and technologies with targeted applications of different cognitive functions and even certain patient populations.

More here.