Nixon Was a Strange, Strange Man…

My obsession with Nixon started a few years ago and it just keeps on growing and growing… Hence, I got really excited when I learned that the spectacular Harry Shearer, man of a thousand voices (just in The Simpsons he does Mr. Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Kent Brockman, Dr. Hibbert and many more), has portrayed Nixon in what was first a one off episode from the series "Playhouse Presents" titled Nixon’s The One and which later turned into a mini-series of five episodes (I have yet too see these, but I’m itching to do so). I found out through the following clip, which I urge everyone to see! The impression is spot on. Not just the voice is perfectly imitated but the mannerisms are too.

This is actually a reenactment, word by word, of what happened in the minutes before Nixon delivered his resignation speech. The original video, including the speech, can be viewed here:

Someone (apparently secretly, or perhaps it just wasn’t meant to leak) started recording before the broadcast started and Nixon’s weirdness and awkwardness is on full display. This is hardly the only instance wherein Nixon’s bizarre social manners are evinced. David Frost, who conducted the famous Frost/Nixon interviews in 1977, spoke about the experience in this 2007 interview and there are some really… interesting… anecdotes about Nixon’s behavior in there:

The original interviews with the former president are also on YouTube:

I recommend you view the whole thing. The interview has also been made into a film entitled Frost/Nixon (I haven’t seen it yet, but I hear it’s quite good).

Now, there’s a lot of viewing for you, but if you want even more, I also recommend Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Though often overly dramatic and sentimental (especially the childhood scenes are cringeworthy), it is a quite good portrayal of the key events of the carrier of Nixon. The legendary Anthony Hopkins does an excellent job as usual (it’s fun watching all these different actors with their own personal takes on Nixon) and Kissinger is equally brilliantly portrayed by Paul Sorvino). I’m definitely no political or historical expert, but there’s a discussion about the accuracy of the film up on YouTube (the last YouTube-embed you’ll get in this post, I swear!) and from what I can gather from it (I haven’t seen it in a while, and I don’t have the time to watch the whole two hour thing again at the moment, so my memory might fail me a bit) it really is quite accurate. An added bonus in watching this is seeing an actually knowledgeable historian calling Stone out on his JFK assassination crankery. Watch it here:

Just one final movie tip for completeness (in relation to my own catalog of watched Nixon video materials) sake and to end on a lighter note. In Stone’s Nixon the actor Dan Hedaya played the, apparently fictional (the accuracy of Stone’s film takes a slight blow), character Trini Cardoza. In the 1999 movie Dick, Hedaya instead plays Nixon, which is slightly confusing if you watch this after seeing Stone’s film first. The film is an intentionally silly story about two teenage girls who by chance get into close contact with the president. There is definitely no attempt at historical accuracy here as we get a glimpse into an alternative universe in which we learn how even more bizarre the whole Watergate affair could have been, “Deep Throat” is not the “Deep Throat” of our universe for example (though at the time the film was made, Deep Throat’s identity had not been revealed yet, so I bet there were a few conspiracy theorists taking at least this part of the film’s plot seriously). In addition to Hedaya we also get the wonderful Dave Foley (as H. R. “Bob” Haldeman) and Bruce McCulloch (as Carl Bernstein) of Kids in the Hall fame (you don’t know Kids in the Hall? Get off my web site until you’ve located it on your own, you’ll get no link from me!) The icing on the cake is seeing Bernstein’s partner, Bob Woodward, played by Will Ferrell (the same goes for him as for Kids in the Hall).

Phew, that got a lot longer than I first intended. You have a lot of movies, YouTube-videos, and other links to check out now (if anyone is actually reading this after my long, long absence from the site, which in any case only drew an audience for the artwork and comics when it did have an audience). Get to it!

There is no other method than science

John Loftus links to a video worth watching.

It’s just a short clip trying to explain the very basis of scientific thinking. It doesn’t provide any real understanding of the scientific method of course (you’d have to take university courses on the philosophy/theory of science for that) but it’s a good start. Finally, I’d like to issue a mild complaint about the title of Loftus’ blog post: it doesn’t go far enough. When it comes to obtaining general knowledge about the nature of reality (going beyond the kind of knowledge concerning particular entities in one’s immediate experience, obtainable from the sense organs) there is not only no better method than science, there is no other workable method at all.

Sean Carroll Urges Physicists to Stop Saying Stupid Things About Philosophy…

here, and it is a much needed exhortation!

I’ve seen way too much stupidity coming from non-philosophers (often physicists, but I don’t think there’s anything symptomatic going on here stemming from the nature of physics as a discipline), somehow imagining themselves to understand what philosophy is while displaying a complete lack of understanding regarding the kinds of questions posed by actual academic philosophers as well as a mindbogglingly naive conception of some sort of magical boundary separating “actual empirical findings” from “mere intellectual speculation”. As if philosophy of physics, for example, was not continuous with physics; as if philosophy of language was not continuous with linguistics; as if philosophy of mind was not continuous with neuroscience; and on and on.

There is no easy way to characterize philosophy (just as there is no easy way to characterize science) but what is absolutely clear just from looking a philosophical practice is that philosophy is not a collection of subjects separate from the subjects studied by scientists (or others for that matter). The general difference being that clear examples of pure science consist in empirical investigations trying to answer questions about quantifiable phenomena whereas clear examples of pure philosophy consist in logical analysis of concepts found in science and elsewhere. Clearly, much of scientific theory building involves conceptual analysis and questions regarding “what all these findings really mean” apart from the quantifiable measurements. The debate over the correct interpretation of quantum physics strikes me as a prime example of scientific findings necessitating such philosophical exploration. To suggest that while science can lead to knowledge about the workings of the world while philosophy has nothing to contribute, is tantamount to saying that there is some fixed border between those investigations that rely solely on empirical findings (as if such a thing were possible) and those that also try to figure out how to interpret such findings, what such findings mean for the understanding of other findings, what to say about the ontology (which kinds of things exist) of the subject matter given that the findings suggest the existence of some sort of phenomenon (is the phenomenon in question merely a methodological tool, only existing in the theoretical constructs, or does it actually exist as a somehow observable entity? and do such distinctions even make sense?). Trying to establish such demarcations and trying to use them to legitimize science while delegitimizing philosophy is naive, simplistic and displays a complete lack of understanding of the nature of philosophy and the necessity of philosophical analysis for the understanding of scientific findings as well as postulated phenomena not yet (or perhaps ever) under the purview of empirical investigation.

And this is nothing more than an answer to the ludicrous claim that philosophy of science (and the fields of philosophy of physics, philosophy of biology, et al.) has nothing to contribute to science. The general answer to “why do philosophy” is the same as the one given by the mathematician working on abstract algebra, category theory, the foundations of mathematics, or any other area not immediately usable for practical purposes: it’s a fun thing to explore if that’s your thing. Some people like to look at algebras as mathematical structures and prove theorems about their properties, some people enjoy trying to find out the relationship between arithmetic and logic by building a theory of the former using the latter, and some people like to work on the definitions of concepts such as truth and reference, knowledge, consciousness, values, or really any abstract concept. Exploring such things has a value in itself and anyone agreeing that these concepts name actually existing phenomena in the world has to also agree to this and can not cling to their idea of philosophy as a useless enterprise by claiming that such explorations need be thoroughly empirical, without a hint of conceptual analysis, all the way down in order to be legitimate. Guess what? Conceptual analysis and interpretation of findings is essential to understanding the mechanics of the world, and such things are under the purview of philosophy. Dismiss all conceptual analysis or accept the inevitability of philosophy. Those are your choices.

I’m being followed by tennis players?

This was kind of fun, it’s a list of your “most valuable followers” (I presume based on the number of their followers) on Twitter. I don’t care about ranking at all, but thought it’d be fun to see who follows me aside from random people. Number one was… WTA – Women’s Tennis Association? (I’ll refrain from making a joke based on what happens were the A in the acronym to be replaced with an F to express my puzzlement, it’s just too easy.) I have absolutely no interest in sports so it seemed weird but apparently I was following them first, don’t know how that happened but it’s undone, sorry to abandon my “most valued follower”… Further down in the list we find some that seem more reasonable if you presume big players on Twitter only follow completely unknown people like me if they’re followed by them in the first place. We have: Science Friday, TED News, thinkgeek, Insomniac Games (so far, so good) and… The Heritage Foundation and Karl Rove?! I guess following people and groups based on some common interest even if you don’t like them will lead to you being followed by some who would definitely not be fans of yours were they to know your views, but I never thought I’d get to say that Karl Rove is one of my most valued followers! Shall I run for office here in Sweden with that as my slogan?

Conan O’Brien and His 360 Video Experiment

This is amazing! The link is to a 360 degree video (one among several) Conan has just published on his website. While the video is playing, you can drag your mouse to look around in the scene. (You can also use the mouse wheel to zoom in and out but irritatingly enough, the page scrolls at the same time.)

Maybe I’m just behind on technology a bit, but I’ve never seen 360 video before (I’ve seen lots of 360 still images though) and I’ve got to say the experience is something really new. Not that there are a lot of interesting things to see in this particular video besides Conan and his shenanigans (so there’s no real need to look around), but I can imagine this kind of technology could be used to create some interesting video art, or for certain movies or shows. Another thing to note is that if we start to use cameras like these, and especially if we get them on our cell phones, this might change criminal investigations. We’ve already seen how people use their camera phones to record encounters with the police at demonstrations and other places, and that this at least can raise public awareness of police brutality even if it often fails to lead to convictions of the officers in question. Not that the police are always the ones at fault of course. Here in Sweden, we have a crime show focusing on reporting about everyday crimes (and some more serious cases) and seeking help from the audience. Since starting to watch the show probably around 20 years ago, I’ve noticed the effects of having fairly high resolution cameras on subways, buses, and other places. Every week, we see good, clear images of faces of robbers, assaulters, rapists and others and every week, they announce the identification of at least one or a few of these.

If we had 360 recordings, we would know so much more about what happened all around in crime scenes. To take an extreme example, imagine if the Zapruder film had been a 360 recording. The film as it is forms an important piece of evidence regarding the shooting, if it was in 360 degrees, that would seem to enable a more thorough analysis on the path of the bullets.

The Vatican is smuggling drugs now?

Eeeh, what the fuck? Apparently not satisfied with “merely” raping thousands of children and covering up for the criminals (perhaps emboldened by the absence of any serious legal consequences for said actions), the Vatican is now involved in another notorious criminal activity: drug smuggling! Adding to the absurdity (as well as the hilarity) of this story is the choice of containers to use for the transportation of the drugs: condoms! I guess there are some acts for which the Catholic church endorses the use of those rubbery instruments of birth control…

To preclude the possibility of some serious misunderstanding here (or at least to attempt to minimize it): I understand we have no reason to believe (at the moment and, if I’m going to bet, that won’t change after the investigation) that the Vatican leadership were involved and I realize not everyone living, or merely working, in the Vatican is part of the clergy (so the culprits may be found among the lay citizenry). I’m using this bizarre event for making some fun of the Catholic church, but the pope or others in the leadership are probably not behind this.

Comic book dinosaurs ridiculing tired and vacuous platitudes: a must read!

Over at Dinosaur Comics, Ryan North has a bit of fun with pop-psychology.

It’s always nice to see a takedown of simplistic, indeed vacuous, metaphorical statements posing as deep insights into human nature. A more substantial intellectual analysis is certainly needed for the evaporation of the delusions of the simple minded (if there’s any hope at all for that goal!), but in avenues where there is no space for such endeavors (such as in the dialogues of a humorous webcomic), good old plain and simple ridicule is to be welcomed and applauded. Every simple statement about human nature, appropriate outlooks on life, and related matters can be countered by equally simple statements leading to opposite conclusions because of the nature of such questions: there are no simple answers and the important questions about how to live (as if there was a recipe) can only be answered by delving into the subjects of philosophy, biology, psychology and other fields of science, in other words, into the only places where knowledge is to be found. Certainly, people can find their own way of dealing with their life and its struggles without taking the intellectual route, but such approaches can lead to nothing more than the realization of what seems to work for oneself. When the successful users of such not intellectually informed strategies go on to make bigger claims meant to express some kind of “truth” about life, they go way too far and need to be rebuked. The pop-psychology which continues to produce these laughable platitudes is to be despised, but when we don’t feel like taking the issue seriously, at the moment, ridicule is the next best thing.

Searle is simplistic and naïve, but sometimes funny!

I’m reading John Searle’s The Mystery of Consciousness and I’m feeling appropriately enraged, I actually have to put the book down from time to time and let out a quiet scream of frustration. His way of dealing with philosophical questions is just so naïve I find myself constantly asking out loud: “Can you be serious?!”

He’s not like some annoying philosophers (perhaps found most commonly among philosophers of mind, which is by its nature more speculative than, say, general philosophy of science or philosophy of language): metaphysically extravagant, positing all kinds of exotic and empirically unverified entities. No, Searle is annoying in almost the opposite direction: being satisfied with the conclusions he can reach through common sense he then goes on to explain how these common sense concepts fit together, what logical relationships maintain between them and so on. Whenever he uses some term or exclaims some memorable catchphrase which appeals to his unexamined intuitions (and supposedly those of his readers, though I certainly find very little even in the intuitions that seem convincing, and even less in the attempted defenses of these common sense positions).

However much time I’d like to spend venting my frustration over the almost complete lack of an attempt, on the part of Searle, to analyze his concepts, their interpretations and their implications (phrases like “syntax is not sufficient for semantics!” are repeated as mantras… ad nauseam… ad vomica [please have mercy on my invented Latin phrase there, I'm sure that's all wrong grammatically somehow...]) I won’t do that here and now, though I might try to summon the strength to write a review when I’m finished. Today, I just wanted to call your attention to a passage where Searle manages to make some sense and to do so in a subtly mocking, and therefore fun-bone tickling, manner. The target is an annoying philosopher of the first kind, you know, the one of which Searle was the “almost-opposite”: David Chalmers. Now Chalmers is travelling, apparently happily and leisurely, along the kookier roads of Metaphysical Land and Searle, rightly, scorns Chalmers’ metaphysical woo. He does so in a manner that almost reminds one of the way in which Dennett, at least equally rightfully, treats many of Searle’s own ideas. I’ll let the passage speak for itself as I have long since overstayed my visit in Introductory Commentaries of Short Quotes Land (which is hopefully a more coherent and less enraging place than Metaphysical Land):

I have so far been considering only those absurdities that [Chalmers] explicitly commits himself to. These are bad enough, but when at one point he warns the reader that he is about to enter “the realm of speculative metaphysics” (p. 302) (unlike the previous 300 pages?), he goes off the rails completely.

— John Searle, The Mystery of Consciousness, p. 157

Obama is the Pharaoh now?

Apparently so, according to one Joseph Farah of WorldNetDaily. (HT Right Wing Watch).

In the minds of the Christian right, Obama is all kinds of things: the anti-Christ, a secret Muslim, a socialist as well as (somehow) simultaneously a nazi/fascist, a Kenyan and now… the Pharaoh! That particular part of the Bible seems to me to be one of the most perplexing (and it’s practically all crazy when it comes to that book). God wants the Pharaoh to release “his people”. How does he do this? Does he perform a miracle, magically transporting them out of there? No, God seems to want to make the Jews escape on their own, by making them beg the Pharaoh to let them go. Interesting how often God’s plan involves a course of action that could have been taken by people living in a world absent of any gods. Had these people heard of and understood Ockham’s razor they would have perhaps been more inclined towards an account of the Jews’ escape assuming at least one fewer unconfirmed being (had the events described been based in reality at all, and modern historical research suggests otherwise). You know, the one not presuming the agency of a supernatural being having any involvement (or even existence), but i digress.

In any case, God seems less than fully committed to this idea of letting the Jews handle matters on their own, he lends a helping hand. That’s nice, you say, he’s not completely absent, he just doesn’t want to do too much for them. Like a responsible parent he gives a little push but encourages his “children” to grow and learn how to handle things on their own. No, not really. First of all, God’s involvement in the events is hardly a mere “push”: he “hardens the heart” of the Pharaoh, rendering him insensitive to Moses’ pleas for freedom, all so he can then punish the Pharaoh for not complying (this is where things get really crazy) by sending all kinds of horrible plagues on the land of Egypt. So… what was the point again? God wishes for the Jews to go free, the Pharaoh refuses, he gets punished (actually, all of Egypt gets punished) supposedly in order to change the Pharaoh’s mind but God simultaneously changes his mind in another way which counteracts any incentive he’d get to release the Jews from having his land struck by plagues!

It’s all very much insane and horribly cruel of course, but at the moment I’m primarily wondering about how, in the deranged minds of the Christian right, any of this applies to Obama. Is Obama about to be punished with plagues for “enslaving” the American people and does God “harden his heart” in order to… what exactly? Make him not “see the light” and the “error of his ways” so that he (and perhaps the whole American people) can suffer for a while before Obama will finally relent and comply with Farah who boldly stands proclaiming: “let my people go!” before this tyrannical, nazi/socialist/Muslim/Kenyan of a president/Pharaoh?

On the public misunderstanding of philosophy

Brian Leiter brings up the question of what to say when someone asks the misguided question “What’s your philosophy?”

Not that I’ve ever personally received this particular question (that I can recall), but I’ve come into contact with the same sort of fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of philosophy. I’ve received questions like “who’s your favorite philosopher?” as if personal views were somehow central to an enterprise that is actually entirely theoretical and, in a broad sense of the term, scientific. There’s nothing wrong with asking about favorite philosophers in itself of course, but people seem more inclined to pose these sort of questions to philosophers than to say, physicists. Imagine telling someone you are studying physics and being presented with questions like “what’s your personal physics?” (lets call this question 1 in order to be able to refer back to it in the following discussion) and “who’s your favorite physicist?” (question 2).

Question 1 is entirely misguided, there can be no such thing as a “personal physics” and likewise, there can be no such thing as a “personal philosophy”. Individual philosophers have their own favorite theories of course, but so do physicists. In both cases it’s a question of which theory seems to make the most sense of the available material. Things to take into consideration are logical implications of other theories and of experimental evidence. Good philosophy is impersonal, even though philosophers (being human) will sometimes (perhaps often) tend to stick to their pet theories even when other theories with better rational and empirical support are readily available. The same is true of physics or any other rational discipline (perfect rationality being nothing but a dream) and there’s no reason to look at philosophy differently in this regard.

Question 2 is perfectly fine, but there seems to be a suggestion in it that one’s philosophy should naturally be tied to individual philosophers and their sayings in a way that people don’t expect in physics or other disciplines.

Philosophy is hard to characterize, but in general terms, it’s an investigation into some kind of facts. Even if one is not of the view that there are objective answers to be found regarding philosophical questions (and I would strongly suggest that there are!), these facts can still be identified as facts about what kind of conclusions are entailed by other philosophical theories and experimental evidence from the sciences (in the more narrow sense of the term). The tools of philosophy are basically the tools of logic, making philosophy, not a way to form a “worldview” (whatever that would mean exactly), but a toolbox for investigating the kinds of questions that are not immediately testable in the more direct way that is possible in the sciences (again, in the narrow sense). I see no other way to make sense of either the current activity or the historical development of philosophy than to see it as continuous with science. Questions that could once only be dealt with by philosophers such as the ultimate nature of matter, the human mind and consciousness, or the cosmos, have been taken over, at least in large part, by science as the methods of science progress to the point of being able to address these question through experimental investigation.

Where does that leave philosophy then? Well, first of all, there are open question not yet under the purview of experimental testing. We should expect these to be taken over by science in the future and in the mean time, philosophy can help in trying to understand what the right questions are. Secondly, there are the more abstract questions of what is logically entailed by other philosophical theories and scientific findings. Questions such as “has quantum physics shown that the world is not entirely deterministic?”, “Do recent neuroscientific findings make the idea of free will untenable?”, and “given the vast success of the sciences, what does that tell us about the nature of the scientific method, how and why does it work?”.

There is significant overlap between scientific questions of, say, physics and philosophical questions of the same. Interpretations of the findings of quantum physics has been part of the scientific discussion of the results since the beginning of the field for example, but these questions, even when posed by physicists, are of a mixed nature: both scientific and philosophical. Likewise, philosophical investigations have to, in order to be credible, take scientific findings into account. Take the example of ethics. There are multiple philosophical theories about the nature of ethics, one of them being virtue ethics, which deals with ethical questions as being about virtues of character. One flavor of virtue ethics says that the rightness of actions can not be dealt with through a rigid framework through which one can determine which actions are “good” and which are “bad”. Rather, or so a virtue ethicist of this sort would say, a virtuous person will be such that he can determine in particular scenarios what action to take and that his virtuous nature will enable him to “do the right thing”. Experimental evidence, though, seems to suggest that what determines whether a person will help others in need or do any other thing we think is right, is much more a question of the particular circumstances of the situation and the state of mind of the person than it is a question of his virtuous nature. Another question, in the philosophy of logic, is whether there is “one true logic” or a multitude of logics (which are, perhaps, merely useful tools rather than a viewport into the logical structure of the world). Again, quantum physics enters the picture: there is a special quantum logic that seems, if not necessary, than at least more appropriate than so-called classical logic to describe quantum mechanical phenomena. Does this mean that there are, at least, two different logics describing the relationships of phenomena in the world, one for macroscopic phenomena (classical logic) and another for subatomic phenomena (quantum logic)? Science can not be said, at least currently, to determine the question, but it does have a bearing on it. Scientific findings have to be taken into consideration when its results seem to have logical implications for the philosophical questions.

This text, which started out as a very short commentary, has now turned into something a bit larger and I might have wandered off too far from the original topic, but I wanted to explain what philosophers actually do seeing as how philosophy seems to be much more fundamentally misunderstood than science.