The Philosopher Who Believes in Living Things

Morgan Meis in The New Yorker:

I often watch the television show “Hoarders.” One of my favorite episodes features the pack rats Patty and Debra. Patty is a typical trash-and-filth hoarder: her bathroom contains horrors I’d rather not describe, and her story follows the show’s typical arc of reform and redemption. But Debra, who hoards clothes, home decorations, and tchotchkes, is more unusual. She doesn’t believe that she has a problem; in fact, she’s completely unimpressed by the producers’ efforts to fix her house. “It’s just not my color, white,” she says, walking through her newly de-hoarded rooms. “Everything that I really loved in my house is gone.” She is unrepentant, concluding, “This is horrible—I hate it!” Debra just loves to hoard, and people who want her to stop don’t get it.

I was never sure why Debra’s stubbornness fascinated me until I came across the work of Jane Bennett, a philosopher and political theorist at Johns Hopkins. A few years ago, while delivering a lecture, Bennett played clips from “Hoarders,” commenting on them in detail. She is sympathetic to people like Debra, partly because, like the hoarders themselves, she is focussed on the hoard. She has philosophical questions about it. Why are these objects so alluring? What are they “trying” to do? We tend to think of the show’s hoards as inert, attributing blame, influence, and the possibility of redemption to the human beings who create them. But what if the hoard, as Bennett asked in her lecture, has more agency than that? What if these piles of junk exert some power of their own?

More here.

3 unexplainable mysteries of life on Earth

Brian Resnick in Vox:

The defining feature of our world is life. For all we know, Earth is the only planet with life on it. Despite our age of environmental destruction, there’s life in every corner of the globe, under its water, nestled in the most extreme environments we can imagine. But why? How did life start on Earth? What was the series of events that led to birds, bugs, amoebas, you, and me? That’s the subject of Origins, a three-episode series from Unexplainable — Vox’s podcast that explores big mysteries, unanswered questions, and all the things we learn by diving into the unknown.

The quest of discovering the “how” of life on Earth is bigger than just filling in the missing chapters of the history book of our world. To search for the origins of life on Earth is to ask other big questions: How rare is it for life to form on any planet? How improbable is it for life to form on any planet, anywhere? We don’t have all the pieces of the story, but what we do know tells an origin story of epic scope that takes us on an adventure to the primordial days of our world.

More here.

Anxiety can be created by the body, mouse heart study suggests

Sara Reardon in Nature:

Emotions such as fear and anxiety can make the heart beat faster. Now a study in mice has found that the reverse is also true — artificially increasing the heart rate can raise anxiety levels1. Links between emotions and physical sensations are familiar to everyone: hairs rising on the backs of your arms when you hear an eerie sound, or the sinking feeling in your gut when you receive bad news. But the question of whether emotions drive bodily functions or vice versa has long vexed researchers, because it is hard to control either factor independently.

“It was a chicken-and-egg question that has been the subject of debate for a century,” says Karl Deisseroth, a neuroscientist at Stanford University in California. He learned about this conundrum — first proposed by the psychologist William James in the 1880s — while at medical school and says the question has haunted him ever since.

Well-dressed mice

To test the phenomenon directly, Deisseroth and his colleagues turned to optogenetics, a method that involves using light to control cell activity. The team bioengineered mice to make muscle cells in the rodents’ hearts sensitive to light. The authors also designed tiny vests for the animals that emitted red light, which could pass through the rodents’ bodies all the way to their hearts. When a mouse’s vest emitted a pulse of light, the animal’s engineered heart muscles fired, causing the heart to beat.

More here.

Thursday Poem

The Young Men at the Bar are Too Tired Even to Die

We wear our work below our eyes.
How can someone so young be so tired?
my mother asks on voicemail, again.
But I am too tired to call back, too
tired to explain, too tired, even,
to walk home and close my eyes.
When’s the last time the sun rose?
I don’t remember. The only light
I know now is electric and hideous.
The ring on the bartop from my glass
is incomplete, broken like the moon
in the sky that could be in any season,
if I could bring myself to look up.

by Ariel Francisco
from Pank Magazine, Fall/Winter 2016

Hannah Arendt And The Loss Of A Common World

Michael Weinman at Hedgehog Review:

What is the matter with theory? More specifically, what does a distinctively modern approach to theorizing have to do with the prevalence of the kind of conspiracist thinking that thrives in our era of post-truth politics? To find answers to that question, political and cultural analysts have recently returned to the work of Hannah Arendt—and for good reason. Despite her training as a philosopher in her native Germany, the brilliant Jewish émigré thinker (1906–75) was not only not a theorist but even something of an anti-theorist, a practitioner of exercises of political thinking that were never theoretical in the usual sense. Ranging from her magisterial Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition to her many essays, reviews, and works of analytical reportage (notably in Eichmann in Jerusalem), her oeuvre might best be characterized as a form of praxis, of thought in action. Grounded in the common world, this form of political thinking aims to support continued and active engagement in that world.

more here.

A Joyous Pope

Paul Baumann at Commonweal:

Why did I want a Californian? Well, that was not exactly what I wrote, although I appreciated the headline writer’s teasing provocation. What I did write was that the next pope should be “a bit of a Californian.” I opened the piece by quoting the novelist Walker Percy’s cantankerous assertion that Catholics had to choose between “either Rome or California.” In Percy’s mind, California stood for everything alienating, dehumanizing, and spiritually moribund in modern life, while Roman Catholicism offered the true, if demanding, path to human flourishing. I thought that was a false choice. The Church would have to come to terms with everything California represented; retreating from the modern world was not an option. “Rome is no refuge; it never has been, and as recent scandals remind us, never could be,” I wrote. “Yet Rome has much missionary work to do—in California and elsewhere. That work will require a change in tone and a refusal to condemn what it cannot yet understand.” In conclusion, I quoted the philosopher Charles Taylor. Rome proposes “too many answers choking off questions and too little sense of the enigmas that accompany a life of faith; these are what stop a conversation from ever starting between our Church and much of our world.”

more here.

How to navigate the AI apocalypse as a sane person

Erik Hoel in The Intrinsic Perspective:

Last week, The New York Times published the transcript of a conversation with Microsoft’s Bing (AKA Sydney) wherein over the course of a long chat the next-gen AI tried, very consistently, and without any prompting to do so, to break up the reporter’s marriage and to emotionally manipulate him in every way possible. I had been up late the night before researching reports coming out of similar phenomena as Sydney threatened and cajoled users across the globe, later arguing that same day in “I am Bing, and I am evil” that it was time to panic about AI safety. Like many, while I knew that current AIs were capable of these acts, what I didn’t expect was Microsoft to release one that was so obviously unhinged and yet, at the same time, so creepily convincing and intelligent.

Since then, over the last week almost everyone has given their takes and objections concerning AI safety, and I’ve compiled and charted a cartography of them. What follows a lay of the land of AI safety, as well as a series of replies to common objections over whether AI safety is a real concern, and sane and simple things we can do to promote AI safety. So if you want to know in detail why an AI might kill you and everyone you know, and what can be done to prevent that, it’s worth checking out.

More here.

With Nothing to Eat Except Viruses, Some Microbes Thrive

Yasemin Saplakoglu in Quanta:

Viruses are notorious as scourges of cellular life, destroying as ruthlessly as any predator. Yet as microbiologists are now piecing together, these killers also sometimes perish as prey.

New research suggests that for some aquatic microorganisms, viruses can be a nutritious food source — delicious little bags chock-full of proteins, phosphorus and other yummy nutrients. Viruses “must be being eaten all the time,” said John DeLong, the lead author of the new study and an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. And if viruses are a popular enough snack for organisms across the globe, then they may have a significant impact on the cycling of energy through the food web. The study appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in December.

More here.

Aristotle (and the Stoics): An Interview with John Sellars

Riley Moore in Quillette:

Riley Moore: It’s difficult to discuss Aristotle without discussing everything, because Aristotle wrote about everything—ethics, logic, biology, politics, literature; anything knowable, he investigated it. You go through this in detail in your newest book, Aristotle: Understanding the World’s Greatest Philosopher. Let’s pretend I have never heard of Aristotle. Who was Aristotle, biographically? Was he a pupil of Plato just as Plato was a pupil of Socrates? Is there a direct lineage there?

John Sellars: Yes, there is. Aristotle was originally from northern Greece. His father was a doctor who died when Aristotle was about 10 years old. Aristotle is then brought up by his uncle who had been a student at Plato’s Academy some years earlier. When Aristotle reaches 17 or 18, he goes to Athens to study at Plato’s Academy and stays there for 20 years. Plato is certainly the key point of reference. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle make up this kind of triumvirate of significant Greek thinkers, and they’re all engaging with their predecessors. We see Aristotle wrestling with Plato’s ideas and ultimately trying to break away from them in order to develop his own independent views. That’s the beginning of Aristotle’s career.

Then Plato dies, and the Academy passes to Plato’s nephew. Aristotle decides that’s a good point to leave.

More here.

Affinities – in the eye of the beholder

Anil Gomes in The Guardian:

Why do some things combine and others separate? Add nitric acid to gold, and nothing happens. Pour on aqua regia, a mixture of nitric and hydrochloric acids, and the gold dissolves. The chemical doctrine of affinity emerged as a way to explain these reactions. In his 1809 novel Elective AffinitiesJohann Wolfgang Goethe applied the idea to human relationships. Charlotte and Edward may form a stable union but if Edward has an affinity with young Ottilie – ah, well, then all bets are off.

What is an affinity? A little like a crush, I suppose, at least at the beginning. And sometimes just as fleeting. But sometimes more stable, more serious, and more revealing of our ways of engaging with things. Brian Dillon’s writings have always been marked by affinities – for artworks, for writers, even for particular sentences. In this work he turns his attention to the notion of affinity itself, through an examination of images that have drawn his gaze.

We start with a picture from Robert Hooke’s 1665 work Micrographia: a full stop as seen under a microscope, the tiny circle revealed in magnification to be “disfigured, ragged, deformed”. We pass through Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait of her niece, pictures of seahorses from a documentary, a scientific drawing of a migraine aura from 1870. There are abstract patterns captured in the ruins of Hiroshima, dadaist collages, a still from the BBC film production of Samuel Beckett’s Not I – our attention guided always by Dillon’s attraction and fascination. The effect is not unlike having a better-read friend take you by the hand and show you around the things he loves.

More here.

How did life begin? One key ingredient is coming into view

Amber Dance in Nature:

Billions of years ago, before there were beasts, bacteria or any living organism, there were RNAs. These molecules were probably swirling around with amino acids and other rudimentary biomolecules, merging and diverging, on an otherwise lifeless crucible of a planet.

Then, somehow, something special emerged: a simple machine, a pocket made of RNAs, with the ability to place amino acids next to one another and maybe link them into chains. This was the macromolecule that would gradually evolve into the ribosome, the RNA–protein complex responsible for translating genetic information into proteins. Its birth — the details of which remain hypothetical — would have created a fundamental shift in this prebiotic, RNA-dominated world, providing a key ingredient to all life as we know it. Ada Yonath, a structural biologist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and her team first conceptualized this ‘protoribosome’ idea nearly two decades ago, after she and others determined the structure of the modern ribosome, a feat that later secured Yonath a share of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

But to solidify the case for the hypothetical protoribosome, Yonath and her laboratory would have to build it.

More here.