Yes, It’s Your Doom and Gloom Roundup, But Maybe With Light at the End of the Tunnel

Arthur Schopenhauer, “On the Sufferings of the World” (1836):

In early youth, as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theater before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen. 

You tell ’em, Art.

Craig Unger, “Trump’s Russian Laundromat”, The New Republic:

A review of the public record reveals a clear and disturbing pattern: Trump owes much of his business success, and by extension his presidency, to a flow of highly suspicious money from Russia. Over the past three decades, at least 13 people with known or alleged links to Russian mobsters or oligarchs have owned, lived in, and even run criminal activities out of Trump Tower and other Trump properties. Many used his apartments and casinos to launder untold millions in dirty money…. Others provided Trump with lucrative branding deals that required no investment on his part. Taken together, the flow of money from Russia provided Trump with a crucial infusion of financing that helped rescue his empire from ruin, burnish his image, and launch his career in television and politics….

By 2004, to the outside world, it appeared that Trump was back on top after his failures in Atlantic City. That January, flush with the appearance of success, Trump launched his newly burnished brand into another medium.

[The Apprentice] instantly revived his career. “The Apprentice turned Trump from a blowhard Richie Rich who had just gone through his most difficult decade into an unlikely symbol of straight talk, an evangelist for the American gospel of success, a decider who insisted on standards in a country that had somehow slipped into handing out trophies for just showing up,” … Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher observe in their book Trump Revealed. “Above all, Apprentice sold an image of the host-boss as supremely competent and confident, dispensing his authority and getting immediate results. The analogy to politics was palpable”….

Without the Russian mafia, it is fair to say, Donald Trump would not be president of the United States.

I sometimes wonder how many of the millions of people who watched The Apprentice for years and years voted for this “poor person’s idea of a rich person” and whether DT’s shady business deals will ever catch up with him.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, “Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting sure sounds like a Russian intelligence operation”, The Washington Post:

….everything we know about the meeting — from whom it involved to how it was set up to how it unfolded — is in line with what intelligence analysts would expect an overture in a Russian influence operation to look like. It bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected. And the Trump campaign’s willingness to take the meeting — and, more important, its failure to report the episode to U.S. authorities — may have been exactly the green light Russia was looking for to launch a more aggressive phase of intervention in the U.S. election….

Had this Russian overture been rejected or promptly reported by the Trump campaign to U.S. authorities, Russian intelligence would have been forced to recalculate the risk vs. gain of continuing its aggressive operation to influence U.S. domestic politics. Russian meddling might have been compromised in its early stages and stopped in its tracks by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies before it reached fruition by the late fall.

So the suggestion that this was a nothing meeting without consequence is, in all likelihood, badly mistaken.

Paul Krugman, “Takers and Fakers”, The New York Times

… throughout the whole campaign against Obamacare, Republicans have been lying about their intentions.

Believe it or not, conservatives actually do have a more or less coherent vision of health care. It’s basically pure Ayn Rand: if you’re sick or poor, you’re on your own…. Specifically:

1. Health care, even the most essential care, is a privilege, not a right. If you can’t get insurance because you have a preexisting condition, because your income isn’t high enough, or both, too bad.

2. People who manage to get insurance through government aid, whether Medicaid, subsidies, or regulation and mandates that force healthy people to buy into a common risk pool, are “takers” exploiting the wealth creators, aka the rich.

3. Even for those who have insurance, it covers too much. Deductibles and co-pays should be much higher, to give people “skin in the game”…

4. All of this applies to seniors as well as younger people. Medicare as we know it should be abolished, replaced with a voucher system that can be used to help pay for private policies – and funding will be steadily cut below currently projected levels, pushing people into high-deductible, high-copay private policies.

This is … what conservative health care “experts” say when they aren’t running for public office, or closely connected to anyone who is. I think it’s a terrible doctrine … because buying health care isn’t and can’t be like buying furniture….

But think of how Republicans have actually run against Obamacare. They’ve lambasted the law for not covering everyone, even though their fundamental philosophy is NOT to cover everyone, or accept any responsibility for the uninsured. They’ve denied that their massive cuts to Medicaid are actually cuts, pretending to care about the people they not-so-privately consider moochers. They’ve denounced Obamacare policies for having excessively high deductibles, when higher deductibles are at the core of their ideas about cost control. And they’ve accused Obamacare of raiding Medicare, a program they’ve been trying to kill since 1995.

In other words, their whole political strategy has been based on lies – not shading the truth, not spinning, but pretending to want exactly the opposite of what they actually want.

And this strategy was wildly successful, right up to the moment when Republicans finally got a chance to put their money – or actually your money – where their mouths were. The trouble they’re having therefore has nothing to do with tactics, or for that matter with Trump. It’s what happens when many years of complete fraudulence come up against reality.

As Krugman writes elsewhere:

… everyone, and I mean everyone, who knows something about insurance markets is declaring the same thing: that the [Republican] bill would be a disaster. We’ve got the insurance industry declaring it “simply unworkable”; the American Academy of Actuaries saying effectively the same thing; AARP up in arms; and more [doctors, nurses, state governors, voters]. 

And yet, it still might become law this month. Why?

Jennifer Rubin, “The GOP’s Moral Rot Is the Problem, Not Donald Trump”, The Washington Post:

… for decades now, demonization — of gays, immigrants, Democrats, the media, feminists, etc. — has been the animating spirit behind much of the right. It has distorted its assessment of reality, … elevating Fox News hosts’ blatantly false propaganda as the counterweight to liberal media bias and preventing serious policy debate. For seven years, the party vilified Obamacare without an accurate assessment of its faults and feasible alternative plans. “Obama bad” or “Clinton bad” became the only credo — leaving the party … with “no attachment to any external moral truth or ethical code” — and no coherent policies for governing.

We have always had in our political culture narcissists, ideologues and flimflammers, but it took the 21st-century GOP to put one in the White House….

Out of its collective sense of victimhood came the GOP’s disdain for not just intellectuals but also intellectualism, science, Economics 101, history and constitutional fidelity….the GOP became slaves to its own demons and false narratives. A party that has to deny climate change and insist illegal immigrants are creating a crime wave — because that is what “conservatives” must believe, since liberals do not — is a party that will deny Trump’s complicity in gross misconduct. It’s a party as unfit to govern as Trump is unfit to occupy the White House. It’s not by accident that Trump chose to inhabit the party that has defined itself in opposition to reality and to any “external moral truth or ethical code”. 

Helen Keller, Optimism: An Essay (1903):

The test of all beliefs is their practical effects in life. If it be true that optimism compels the world forward, and pessimism retards it, then it is dangerous to propagate a pessimistic philosophy. One who believes that the pain in the world outweighs the joy, and expresses that unhappy conviction, only adds to the pain. Schopenhauer is an enemy to the race. Even if he earnestly believed that this is the most wretched of possible worlds, he should not promulgate a doctrine which robs men of the incentive to fight with circumstance.

All right, Helen, the good news is that a Republican senator is recovering from surgery and won’t be in Washington this coming week. His vote would be needed to move the Republican bill forward, so the vote has been delayed, giving the opposition more time to terminate this horror show with extreme prejudice.

The Extremely Special Third Realm

The German mathematician, logician and part-time philosopher Gottlob Frege (1848-1925) wasn’t well-known during his lifetime, but he’s now considered the father of analytic philosophy, the type of philosophy most professors in English-speaking countries and Scandinavia do. (Being the father of analytic philosophy makes you very well-known in certain circles.)

In 1918, Frege published an article called “The Thought” (Der Gedanke), in which he drew an interesting distinction. In addition to the standard categories of the mental and the physical, Frege said that “a third realm must be recognized”. This is the realm of meaning or sense that’s independent of anyone’s particular ideas.

First, therefore, is the realm of spatiotemporal things (“such as trees, stones and houses”). Then there is the realm of particular ideas in specific people’s minds (“an inner world distinct from the outer world, a world of sense impressions, of creations of [the] imagination, of sensations, of feelings and moods”). Lastly, there is the realm of what Frege called “thought”. The occupants of this third realm are similar to ideas, in that they “cannot be perceived by the senses”, but they are also similar to things, in that they “need no bearer”, i.e. they need not exist in anyone’s mind. 

Thus, the thought [expressed by the Pythagorean theorem, for example] is timelessly true, true independently of whether anyone takes it to be true. It needs no bearer. It is not true for the first time when it is discovered….

It’s only because there is a single, commonly accessible thought that expresses the Pythagorean theorem that each of us can refer to it (the identical theorem) and agree or disagree about its truth value. Otherwise, my Pythagorean theorem would differ from yours, since the particular ideas in my mind are always and necessarily my ideas and never yours (and vice versa). 

Indeed, the fact that we are able to use language to agree or disagree about particular propositions is evidence that this third realm exists:

If it is not the same thought … which is taken to be the content of the Pythagorean theorem by me and by another person, one should not really say “the Pythagorean theorem” but “my Pythagorean theorem, “his Pythagorean theorem”, and these would be different.

According to Frege, the thoughts that inhabit this third realm aren’t all propositions of mathematics or logic. He asks us to consider a statement like “This tree had green leaves”. Once we specify a time — “This tree had green leaves on July 1, 2004” — we have a statement that expresses a thought, which “if it is true, is true not only today or tomorrow but timelessly”.

Personally, I don’t find Frege’s notion of a third realm terribly convincing. I think there’s only one realm that has anything in it. But, as a metaphor, the “third realm” captures something extremely important. Along the same lines, the philosopher Charlie Huenemann recently began a post called “Reality Is Down the Hall” by quoting Schopenhauer:

“It is therefore worth noting and indeed wonderful to see, how man, besides his life in the concrete, always lives a second life in the abstract.”

Schopenhauer’s “second life” has this in common with Frege’s “third realm”: they both evoke what philosophers now call “abstract entities” or “abstract objects”:

Thus it is universally acknowledged that numbers and the other objects of pure mathematics are abstract (if they exist), whereas rocks and trees and human beings are concrete. Some clear cases of abstracta are classes, propositions, concepts, the letter ‘A’, and Dante’s Inferno. Some clear cases of concreta are stars, protons, electromagnetic fields, the chalk tokens of the letter ‘A’ written on a certain blackboard, and James Joyce’s copy of Dante’s Inferno. [Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

Instead of “realms” or “lives”, however, Huenemann refers to the concrete and abstract “worlds” in which we live:

One world is at our fingertips, at the tips of our tongues, and folded into our fields of vision. The concrete world is just the world; and the more we try to describe it, the more we fail, as the here and now is immeasurably more vivid than the words “here” and “now” could ever suggest…. 

The second world is the one we encounter just as soon as we begin thinking and talking about the here and now. It is such stuff as dreams are made on; its substance is concept, theory, relation.

He then describes how we construct models of the concrete world, in particular, how scientists construct models that are increasingly intricate. He quotes Sir Arthur Eddington’s famous description of two tables:

[One table] has extension; it is comparatively permanent; it is coloured; above all it is substantial. By substantial I do not merely mean that it does not collapse when I lean upon it; I mean that it is constituted of “substance” and by that word I am trying to convey to you some conception of its intrinsic nature. It is a thing; not like space, which is a mere negation; nor like time, which is – Heaven knows what! … I do not think substantiality can be described better than by saying that it is the kind of nature exemplified by an ordinary table…. 

My scientific table is mostly emptiness. Sparsely scattered in that emptiness are numerous electric charges rushing about with great speed; but their combined bulk amounts to less than a billionth of the bulk of the table itself. Notwithstanding its strange construction it turns out to be an entirely efficient table. It supports my writing paper as satisfactorily as table No. 1; for when I lay the paper on it the little electric particles with their headlong speed keep on hitting the underside, so that the paper is maintained in shuttlecock fashion at a nearly steady level. If I lean upon this table I shall not go through; or, to be strictly accurate, the chance of my scientific elbow going through my scientific table is so excessively small that it can be neglected in practical life.

Huenemann points out that, “as educated beings”, we accept that the table described by science is “ultimately the real one”. He writes that the “second table somehow gives rise to the first table”, the one that seems perfectly solid from our human perspective. (At least, those of us who are “scientific realists” accept the ultimate reality of the second table, unlike those sometimes called “instrumentalists” who think the theoretical entities of science are merely useful devices for coping with the world.)

But then Hueneman seems to question our belief in the reality of the second, scientific table: 

…here is an odd inversion – the first table, the one in the concrete world, is not quite as fully real as the abstract and dreamy second table, the one we never actually see, the one that is supposed to be a swarm of charged gnats, or packets of probabilities. The concrete table turns out to be an illusion. It arises somehow from the abstract world as does a mirage from heat and the bending of light. Isn’t that remarkable? Our official policy is to take the abstract to be more real than the concrete.

But, of course, the second, scientific table isn’t abstract or dreamy at all. It’s true that we can’t perceive it, but if the physicists are correct, it’s completely concrete. Instead, it’s the physicists’ description of the table, the theory of atoms and electrons, that’s abstract. Using Frege’s terminology, the meaningful propositions that scientifically describe the table belong to the third realm; the subatomic particles in the table, the marks in physics textbooks and the table in your dining room are concrete and belong to the first realm; and the particular ideas you and I have in our minds about such things belong to the second realm. It’s only the third realm of meaning or sense that is abstract. It’s abstract but, according to Frege, very real, even though its reality “is of quite a different kind than that of things”.

In practical terms, of course, it makes little difference whether we say abstract objects like numbers and propositions exist or not. Nobody thinks they float around in some ethereal, non-spatiotemporal realm (it would be quite impressive if they did). However, the fact that we can think about such things, real or not, is obviously one of the characteristics that makes humanity special, maybe the only thing that makes us special.

Furthermore, we act as if abstract objects were real, treating them with the utmost respect. Where would we be without the number 7, for example? Or 3 or 19, for that matter? Where would you be without the abstract object that is your name? And how about the Golden Rule? Or the concepts of truth or justice? As Schopenhauer said, it’s remarkably wonderful that we live with such things.

A Pessimist’s Pessimist

Giacomo Leopardi, born in 1798, was the son of a minor Italian aristocrat. He spent most of his youth in his father’s extensive library. By the time he was ten, he had taught himself Latin, Greek, German and French. Leopardi suffered from poor health throughout his life and died at the age of 38. He is now considered one of Italy’s greatest poets.

He is also revered as the author of a massive intellectual diary, first published in 1898 in seven volumes. Originally titled Pensieri di varia filosofia e bella letteratura (“Various thoughts on philosophy and literature”), it’s now known as Zibaldone (“Hodge-podge”). Last year, a complete English translation was published for the first time. (The translated text is 2,000 pages long, so if you’re interested, an electronic edition might be a good idea.)

In addition to being a great poet, Leopardi was one of Western culture’s great pessimists. Arthur Schopenhauer, probably philosophy’s most famous pessimist, had this to say about him: 

But no one has treated [the misery of our existence] so thoroughly and exhaustively as Leopardi…. He is entirely imbued and penetrated with it; everywhere his theme is the mockery and wretchedness of this existence. He presents it on every page of his works, yet in such a multiplicity of forms and applications, with such a wealth of imagery, that he never wearies us, but, on the contrary, has a diverting and stimulating effect [The World as Will and Idea].

More recently, Tim Parks summarizes Leopardi in The New York Review of Books (behind a paywall):

Obliged by frequent illness to pass his firstborn’s right to inherit to his younger brother, troubled by constant problems with his eyes, frail and almost grotesque, Giacomo saw before him a life without physical love or financial independence. Studying was the one thing he knew how to do, but the knowledge so gained only revealed to him that knowledge does not help us to live; on the contrary it corrodes those happy errors, or illusions as he came to call them, that give life meaning, shifting energy to the mental and rational and away from the physical and instinctive, where, in complicity with illusion, happiness lies.

In a later biography of his son, [Leopardi’s father] would write of Giacomo in this period that “setting himself to thinking about how one breathes” he found he could no longer breathe… “Thought,” Giacomo wrote in a letter in his early twenties, “can crucify and torment a person.”

Maybe more careful thought, perhaps a life devoted to philosophy, might help? That’s what Plato and Spinoza recommended. Leopardi is skeptical:

Those innumerable and immense questions about time and space, argued over from the beginnings of metaphysics onward,…are none other than wars of words, caused by misunderstandings, and imprecision of thought, and limited ability to understand our mind, which is the only place where time and space, like many other abstract things, exist independently and for themselves…”

In his review, Tim Parks suggests that if Leopardi were writing Zibaldone today, it would be a blog. I wonder if he’d throw in a few lighthearted posts to generate traffic.