Why Are Physicists Hating On Philosophy (and Philosophers)?

Adam Frank photoAdam Frank in NPR's Cosmos and Culture blog, 13.7 [h/t: Jennifer Ouellette]:

Krauss is not alone in his blindly dismissive attitude concerning philosophy. There is also the case of Leonard Susskind.

Susskind is an accomplished theorist who has proposed changing the very nature of cosmological science in light of recent developments in String Theory. In his book The Cosmic Landscape, Susskind argued that physics must give up the ideal of predicting the nature of the one Universe we observe because String Theory can't make these kinds of predictions. It's a huge claim that draws upon a contentious idea known as the “anthropic principle.” Ironically Susskind does not exert much effort dealing with the deep and deeply philosophical objections to this perspective. Waving his hands, Susskind poo-poo's philosophy's perspective on his radical idea saying “Frankly, I would have preferred to avoid the Philosophical discourse the Anthropic Principle excites”. Yea, obviously.

Susskind and Krauss think they are channelling the great Richard Feynman in their dismissive attitudes toward philosophy. Richard Feynman was famously scornful of the philosophy of science. He thought it was immune to finding relevant results or making real progress. But the problem is that we aren't living in Richard Feynman's age of physics anymore. Something strange happened on the way to the modern intersection of cosmology and foundational physics. Some measure of philosophical sophistication seems helpful, if nothing else, in confronting this new landscape.

New World Trade Center Tower Will Reclaim the Manhattan Sky


David W. Dunlap in the New York Times:

If the winds are forgiving enough over Lower Manhattan — up where workers can see the whole outline of the island’s tip — a steel column will be hoisted into place Monday afternoon atop the exoskeleton of 1 World Trade Center and New York will have a new tallest building.

More important, downtown will have reclaimed its pole star.

Poking into the sky, the first column of the 100th floor of 1 World Trade Center will bring the tower to a height of 1,271 feet, making it 21 feet higher than the Empire State Building.

After several notorious false starts, a skyscraper has finally taken form at ground zero. At first, its twin cranes could be detected creeping over the jumbled tops of nearby towers. Then, at the rate of a new floor every week, it began reshaping the Manhattan skyline as seen from New Jersey. By late last fall, it could be spotted from the control tower at La Guardia Airport, eight and a half miles away.

A tower has again become an inescapable presence at the southern end of Manhattan.

More here.

A Separation directed by Asghar Farhadi

Alan A. Stone in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_01 May. 01 17.36While the Iran-Israel conflict threatened to explode into yet another war in the Middle East, filmmakers from both countries were honored together at an event before this year’s Oscars. Each country had a nominee for best foreign film—Footnote, from Israel, and A Separation, the winner, from Iran. The films and their makers had much in common, and the Israelis reported warm exchanges; they had been invited to Tehran and the Iranians to Tel Aviv. It will be a political miracle if that cultural exchange happens, but Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi has already achieved a miracle of modern cinema with A Separation.

This unpretentious, low-budget film, which Farhadi says he made for an Iranian audience, has touched the hearts and minds of global viewers. Critics, festival audiences, and cineastes everywhere are united in their praise. In Europe and Asia it was acclaimed best picture of the year. Woody Allen agrees. Totally without glitz and sizzle, A Separation is the thing itself—an art form that speaks to all humanity.

Farhadi’s overseas triumphs may bring his downfall in Iran. The film has fueled the wrath of domestic critics who see him pandering to Western bias. His colleague Jafar Panahi is under house arrest and barred from filmmaking. The theocrats were unhappy about Farhadi’s Oscar acceptance speech, in which he offered his “award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”

More here.

Flannery O’Connor and the Habit of Art

From The Paris Review:

Oh-Well-I-can-always-be-a-PhD“For the writer of fiction,” Flannery O’Connor once said, “everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” This way of seeing she described as part of the “habit of art,” a concept borrowed from the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. She used the expression to explain the way of seeing that the artist must cultivate, one that does not separate meaning from experience. The visual arts became one of her favorite touchstones for explaining this process. Many disciplines could help your writing, she said, but especially drawing: “Anything that helps you to see. Anything that makes you look.” Why was this emphasis on seeing and vision so important to her in explaining how fiction works? Because she came to writing from a background in the visual arts, where everything the artist communicates is apprehended, first, by the eye.

…Beginning at about age five, O’Connor drew and made cartoons, created small books, and wrote stories and comical sketches, often accompanied by her own illustrations. Although her interest in writing was equally evident, by the time she reached high school her abilities as a cartoonist had moved to the forefront. After her first cartoon was published in the fall of 1940, her work appeared in nearly every issue of her high-school and college newspapers, as well as yearbooks—roughly a hundred between 1940 and 1945—and most of these were produced from linoleum block cuts. When she graduated from the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville in 1945, she was a celebrated local cartoonist preparing for a career in journalism that would, she hoped, combine work as a professional writer and cartoonist.

More here.

Assumptions and Attitudes Don’t Survive Cancer

Abigail Zuger M.D. in The New York Times:

BookDoctors who become ill have written about the emotional whiplash of the experience so often that the “had I but known” theme has grown a little old. Two new books bring some welcome variation: Many other professionals spend their workdays focused on the body, and even those who don’t actually perform hands-on care may find precious assumptions demolished by serious illness. Ethicists are medicine’s theoreticians; some are primarily scholars, while others head right onto hospital wards as a combination of critic, coach and umpire. They come to know the terminology of illness and the perils of treatment very well, and because insoluble clinical problems are their daily fodder, they have rehearsed the standard “if this ever happens to me” scenario as often as anyone. Still, nothing prepares anyone for the horizontal experience, as seven medical ethicists discovered when they or a spouse received a diagnosis of cancer. They were so collectively shaken that they formed a discussion group, and then, like good academics, turned the proceedings into a book.

Rebecca Dresser, editor of “Malignant,” is a professor of law and medical ethics at Washington University in St. Louis and a survivor of oral cancer. As an ethicist, she has a firm professional commitment to patient autonomy, the doctrine of “it’s your body and you alone decide what happens to it”. As a patient, she got herself into serious trouble wielding that autonomy: Unable to eat or drink, she firmly refused a feeding tube until she almost starved to death. Finally, her caretakers strong-armed her into changing her mind, and she eventually made a full and grateful recovery.

As director of the bioethics program at the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Norman Fost regularly deplores our national pastime of wasteful and unnecessary medical testing. Yet as a patient, he writes, he has personally benefited enormously from just such testing, with not one, not two but three separate serious illnesses diagnosed with entirely unwarranted tests, leaving him with a bad case of what he calls “hypocrite’s guilt.”

More here.

From Faust to Frankenstein


Should people be paid for donating blood? In the United States, there is a mixed economy of free donation and the sale of blood through commercial blood banks. Predictably, most of the blood that is dealt with on a commercial basis comes from the very poor, including the homeless and the unemployed. The system entails a large-scale redistribution of blood from the poor to the rich. This is only one of the examples cited by Michael Sandel, the political philosopher and former Reith Lecturer, in his survey of the rapidly growing commercialisation of social transactions, but it is symbolically a pretty powerful one. We hear of international markets in organs for transplant and are, on the whole, queasy about it; but here is a routine instance of life, quite literally, being transferred from the poor to the rich on a recognised legal basis. The force of Sandel’s book is in his insistence that we think hard about why exactly we might see this as wrong; we are urged to move beyond the “yuck factor” and to consider whether there is anything that is intrinsically not capable of being treated as a commodity, and if so why. The examples related show that in practice there is virtually nothing that has not somewhere or other (usually but not exclusively in the USA) been packaged as a commodity and subjected to “market” principles.

more from Rowan Williams at Prospect Magazine here.

on the believer


Recently I read, or partially read, thereby proving the point of this book, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr (British subtitle: How the Internet is Changing the Way We Think, Read and Remember). Carr tells the story of a friend who can’t read blog posts that exceed three paragraphs before he starts skimming. So there’s our new boundary, I guess – not page real estate, but people’s evolved (and shortened) attention spans. It suggests an interesting new way to approach structure; and, ironically, it tosses us back into the conundrum of the newspaper review squib, the limits of which initiated the creation of the Believer in the first place. No matter how well (or not well) something might be written, the new challenge is this: how much time a reader will read any text before his or her brain flips to another text. If, as Carr argues, our brains have reconfigured themselves to comply with this attention-hopping model, shouldn’t we want, in part, to appeal to those brains? In which case how can we justify continuing to produce a print magazine?

more from Heidi Julavits at The New Statesman here.

What happens to poetry when everybody is a poet?


The national (or even transnational) demand for a certain kind of prize-winning, “well-crafted” poem—a poem that the New Yorker would see fit to print and that would help its author get one of the “good jobs” advertised by the Association of Writers & Writing Programs—has produced an extraordinary uniformity. Whatever the poet’s ostensible subject—and here identity politics has produced a degree of variation, so that we have Latina poetry, Asian American poetry, queer poetry, the poetry of the disabled, and so on—the poems you will read in American Poetry Review or similar publications will, with rare exceptions, exhibit the following characteristics: 1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.

more from Marjorie Perloff at Boston Review here.