On Al-Farabi's Democratic City and the Transition Problem

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/09/2019 - 9:50pm in


Politics, Religion

115. Of [all] their cities, this [democratic city] is the marvelous and happy city. On the sur­face, it is like an embroidered garment replete with colored figures and dyes. Everyone loves it and loves to dwell in it, because every human being who has a passion or desire for anything is able to gain it in this city. The nations repair to it and dwell in it, so it becomes great beyond mea­sure. People of every tribe are procreated in it by every sort of pairing off and sexual intercourse. The children generated in it are of very different innate characters and of very different education and upbringing.
Thus this city comes to be many cities, not distinguished from one another but interwoven with one another, the parts of one interspersed among the parts of another. Nor is the foreigner distinguished from the native resident. All of the passions and ways of life come together in it. Therefore, it is not impossible as time draws on that virtuous people emerge in it. There may chance to exist in it wise men, rhetoricians, and poets concerned with every type of object. It is possible to glean from it parts of the virtuous city, and this is the best that emerges in this city. Thus, of the ignorant cities this city has both the most good and the most evil. The bigger, more prosperous, more populous, more fertile, and more perfect it becomes for people, the more prevalent and greater are these two...

117. According to them, the virtuous ruler is the one who is excellent at deliberation and fine at using stratagems to gain them their different and variegated desires and passions, preserving that from their enemies, and not depriving [them] of any of their money but restricting himself only to what is necessary for his power.
The one who is virtuous in truth-namely, the one who, when he rules them, determines their actions and directs them toward happiness-is not made a ruler by them. If he chances to rule them, he is soon deposed or killed, or his rulership is disturbed and challenged. The same holds for [102] the rest of the ignorant cities: each of them wants only to be ruled by someone who sets its choices and desires before it, makes the path to them easy, gains them for them, and preserves them for them. They reject the rulership of the virtuous and censure it. However, it is more possible and easier for the virtuous cities and the rulership of the virtuous to emerge from the necessary and democratic cities than from the other [ignorant] cities.--Al-Farabi, Political Regime, Translated by Charles Butterworth.

Regular readers know that Al-Farabi's treatment of the cosmopolitan democratic city/polity has not lost its relevance (recall here and here). Today, I treat a matter of great significance obliquely. I do so, by focusing on how he treats the transition problem (recall last week; see here and here on Ibn Rushd; recall and here), that is, is how to create an ideal political future with a population raised under bad institutions (or worse, that is, bad breeding). As the last sentence of the quoted passage suggests, Al-Farabi thinks the democratic city is one of two kinds of regimes from which the best regime can emerge. This is puzzling because Al-Farabi is clear that while democracies are tolerant enough of the virtuous in their midst, they turn murderous ("deposed or killed") toward would-be truly virtuous rulers. This made me think that, perhaps, he thought Muhammad was the last prophet, even though there is no reason to think that in his metaphysics the possibility of further revelation had ended.

Yet, in light of some other passages, I had also thought that Al-Farabi could also be taken to suggest that a would be virtuous ruler would have to go into exile with would be virtuous followers and start a virtuous regime elsewhere. Think of Muhammad's exile from Mecca to Medina; or Moses in the dessert, etc. But the evidence for this possibility is thin.

But in addition to exile, I now think there are two other options to solve the transition problem.* First, Al-Farabi notes about the cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic democratic city that it "comes to be many cities" (see  the paragraph from 133). This is due to the fact that without constraints human beings have a natural tendency toward multiplicity. (According to Al-Farabi, when people don't mix sexually and are stationary, they are under influence of environment. And then their differences are marked by ethnicity and language.) In one sense this -- that a the democratic city "comes to be many cities" -- is quite damning because it means that the democratic city is not a unity; it is even in a certain sense a kind of contradiction (one is many, etc.). 

But in another sense it means that a virtuous community, ruled by a virtuous leader, could live in a kind of self-governing, inner exile amidst the splendor of the democratic city. (I think of this as the pre-1979-Shia or the pre-1948-Jewish option.)+ The problem with this reading is that Al-Farabi seems, when discussing why a village or a neighborhood is a "defective" political association, adamant that a certain form of self-sufficiency and independence is required for true political life (see par. 64). So, I doubt think that this option really solves the transition problem. But it may be an intermediary step to solving it.

For, second, the key passage -- "If he chances to rule them, he is soon deposed or killed, or his rulership is disturbed and challenged" does not say that a would be virtuous leader is always killed. A lucky would-be virtuous ruler of the whole polity may find his rulership "disturbed and challenged;" but that's compatible with the thought he can (after a rocky start) survive it. I missed this option because I have a tendency to read this passage in light of Plato's parable of the cave, where the cave dwellers kill the person who has access to the truth [517a]. The would-be-virtuous leader is more capable of surviving democratic resistance to his rule if, within the democratic city, there is another, more 'virtuous city' laying dormant to take over.**

If that is so, democracy's greatest strength -- to live and let live ["every one of its inhabitants is unrestrained and left to himself to do what he likes" (par. 113)]++ --, mutual toleration, becomes its greatest weakness. Then again, how to preserve a democratic polity without undermining its freedoms, has not lost its urgency.

*I thank my undergraduate students for discussion and for inspiring some of these reflections.

+Shia muslims were, despite the existence of some significant Shia dynasties, traditionally quietist about politics.

**Perhaps the 312 conversion of the Roman empire to Christianity is the model. 

++"Yet those who are praised and honored among them are those who bring the inhabitants of the city to freedom and to everything encompass­ing their passions and desires and those who preserve their freedom and their diverging, differing desires from [infringement] by one another and by their external enemies while restricting their own desires only to what is necessary." (par. 114)

Back to the Trees

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/09/2019 - 1:36am in

Environmentalists have finally come up with at least one practical remedy for climate change.

Political Science to the Rescue; Al-Farabi and Regime Endurance

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 06/09/2019 - 9:43pm in



[The political science that is part of philosophy] explains that what is best and most virtuous in virtuous cities and nations is for their kings and rulers who succeed one another through time to possess the qualifications of the first ruler. It brings about cog­nizance of [a] how it ought to be worked out so that these kings who suc­ceed one another possess the very same states of virtue and [b] which qualifications are to be sought for in the sons of the city's kings so that if they are found in one of them, it is to be hoped that he will become the same kind of king as the first ruler. In addition, it explains how he ought to be educated, how he is to be raised, and in what way he is to be instructed so that he might become a king completely.--Al-Farabi The Book of Religion, 18, translated by Charles Butterworth.

It's not much of an exaggeration that Islamic political philosophers obsessively, and given the history of early Islam, understandably repeatedly return (recall here; here; here; here) to two closely related political phenomena. To simplify: given Muhammad's excellence as a political leader and legislator, how could there be such a quick, precipitous decline (that is, disunity, the corruptions of luxury, etc.) after the period of the four righteousness caliphs? And second, how to re-create an ideal political regime with a population raised under bad institutions. The quoted passage from Al-Farabi's work on the nature of religion (recall here and here) has to be understood in light of a related problem, inherited from Plato (recall here, here; here; here): how to prevent decline once an excellent regime has been established.  

In Al-Farabi's terminology a 'first king' is not unlike a Rousseaian legislator, a divine-like figure who establishes a perfect regime.* By definition such a regime will outlast the founder. He (in Al-Farabi it's generally assumed to be a he) can be succeeded by three kinds of kings: (i) another first king, who emulates the first king, and, without the aid of revelation, manages to make the same kind of choices a first king would make if confronted with new challenges/circumstances. To avoid confusion, let's call such a king 'a superior representative agent' (in the way that Stoic sages are). (ii) A well-meaning king. who lacks the capacities of a superior representative agent, but still pursues the flourishing of the community (and himself). Such a king has to rely on the art of jurisprudence, which reveals, through the study of the founding document(s) and reflection on, and analogical extension of, the sayings and life, the art of governance and offers guidance on (new) legislation. (It is quite natural to read this as a kind of normative ideal for Islamic political life in his day and ours.) Such a kingship will always have imperfect characteristics. And (iii) a king who pursues other goals (for the community and/or himself) than flourishing. 

There are some puzzles here because it is unclear how such a superior representative agent, who in some sense is superior to the one that receives revelation, could exist. More subtly, it is seems miraculous how the partial identity among superior representative agents is ensured. I return to this below.

Okay, with that in place we can turn to to the role of political science. In Al-Farabi's hands -- and this has had an enduring legacy political science is (recall this post) devoted to the study of the conditions of human flourishing (see par. 11 & 15 of the Book of Religion). In its general sense it is a rather abstract science. It is both explanatory and normative.  The natural reading of Al-Farabi's understanding of political science entails that it is primarily concerned with kinds of regimes, rulers, and the institutions & norms (that is, religion) apt to them. Somewhat surprisingly, the part of political science that is properly philosophical is both explanatory and action guiding. The passage quoted above is part of this action-guiding philosophical political science (which we may call a normative, social science broadly conceived).

The point of [a] is to explain the nature of  superior representative agents. The pay-off of such knowledge is to be able to provide [b] a kind of (we would call) psychological screening mechanism/test to prevent the succession to kingship such that there is de facto devolution) from superior type of first kings to lesser kinds. In addition, it would include leadership training. Al-Farabi only treats the utility of this in cases of hereditary kingship where fate may produce lesser offspring. If such a political science is really available than the problem of regime decline can be solved, in principle. I am unsure if such a philosophical political science can be found in Al-Farabi's writings. 

Let me close with a few (ant-climactic) observations: first, Al-Farabi leaves open here if first kings can be elective (as opposed to hereditary). His silence is surprising because in Islamic political philosophy (recall (recall here; here) elective kingship has considerable prestige because the four righteous caliphs were elected. Second, de facto, a regime in which political science has a veto power over kingship is a mixed epistemic, monarchic regime. This is a bit surprising because in  his Political Regime there is not much sign of this. Third, such philosophical political science would be an institution that functions as a kind of insurance against the expected failures of a system of eugenic breeding as Socrates expects in the Republic (recall here and here). It could also be thought as a substitute to such a program. 

Finally, the existence of philosophical political science (and in particular [b] helps resolve the puzzle we had above: in its role as leadership training program (manual) it helps ensure the relevant uniformity of the kings I have been calling superior representative agents. But that means it has also solved how to educate in (kingly) virtue. Presumably if that is so, the with the help of revelation a new (genuine) caliphate is possible. It is, then, no surprise that Al-Farabi managed to attract the most talented successors to his approach.+

*To what degree agrees that this is on the basis of divine revelation or inspiration in Rousseau I leave aside here.

+I thank my wonderful students for class discussion.

Gosh Dang Hypocrites

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 13/08/2019 - 5:30pm in

‘Using he Lord’s name in vain’: Evangelicals chafe at Trump’s blasphemy.

Anti-Disabled People Hate Tweet MP Nadine Dorries Now Minister for Mental Health

In the words of the late, great Victor Meldrew, ‘I don’t believe it!’ Boris Johnson, in his infinite wisdom, or massive lack of it, has decided to make Nadine ‘Mad Nad’ Dorries minister for mental health.

This is nothing more than a slap in the face for disabled people, and shows exactly the contempt Boris has for them. Two years ago Nads Dorries issued a hate tweet at her disabled critics on Twitter. She called them ‘window-lickin’ trolls’. An excerpt on Mike’s post about this, which quotes the leader of Inclusion London, Anne Novis, explains why it’s so offensive. According to the staff running disability equality training sessions, the term ‘window-lickers’ started as an insult to people with Down’s Syndrome or cerebral palsy because these poor souls often have difficult controlling their tongues. Since then, it’s expanded to cover all disabled people. The excerpt then quotes Novis explaining why it’s unacceptable, and makes Dorries completely unsuitable for the post to which she has now been appointed.

Novis said: “It indicates not only that Nadine Dorries would use such offensive language but also that her understanding would be very poor about issues faced by disabled people, including mental health issues.

“You wouldn’t accept it around racist, or religious or cultural difference; you just wouldn’t accept that sort of language and expect someone then to go into a post that is meant to be assisting those people.

“There would be no confidence in her. We would have no confidence in this person being a minister because of what she has brought across through her language.”

Absolutely. It’s hate speech, pure and simple.

And a petition has already gone up calling her to be dismissed. To sign it, as I have, please go to Mike’s article at

Window-lickin’ bad: Disability ‘hate tweet’ MP appointed mental health minister

And follow the link.

But this really is amazing. Johnson seems to be choosing all the wrong people for their ministerial posts. Of course, as they’re Tories they’re not the right people in the first place. But he’s gone further than that and posted men and women who are supremely, actively incompetent or otherwise unfit for their office. Like Sajid Javid. Today Mike put up an article revealing that the Mekon’s minion in the financial sold duff financial policies, CDOs, when he was at Deutsche Bank. These were financial instruments designed to turn toxic bad debts into good investments. Like so much of the other financial investment being flogged by banks like Goldman Sachs before the Crash of 2008, they did nothing of the sort. In fact they contributed to that disaster, which the poor of the rest of the world is now having to pay off while the fat cat rich, like BoJob and Javid himself, get even richer. It’s a good question whether Javid was stupid and naive in selling them, or if he actually knew the open secret in the financial sector that they were toxic. In which case, he’s a fraudster.

Sajid Javid helped cause the UK’s financial crisis. Why did BoJob make him CHANCELLOR?

Then there’s Priti Patel, who was sacked from Tweezer’s cabinet because she decided that her position meant that she could work for herself and for her friends in Netanyahu’s wretched extreme right-wing Israeli government, rather than for her country and its people. She’s an active security risk, but Johnson has made her Home Secretary.

And the leader of the House of Commons is Jacob Rees-Mogg, an ardent Brexiteer, another millionaire, whose riches are based on his investments, with an extreme right-wing voting record, who doesn’t believe in women’s reproductive rights.

It’s almost as if Johnson is doing this deliberately to wind up the British public as far as he can, while the Tory press and lamestream media praise him to the heights as some kind of genius, who will deliver us from the mass poverty Brexit will inflict and has already inflicted.

Get him out, and get these incompetents and frauds out too!

Why Human Evolution Is a Fact

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 31/07/2019 - 12:51am in

There is little doubt that evolution happens, or that humans are products of evolution by natural selection.

On Marilynne Robinson's Edomites

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 29/07/2019 - 10:54pm in


Religion, zionism

Assmann’s argument is the sort of razzle-dazzle that depends on coinages like “mnemohistory,” which is the exalted and useful discipline of interpreting history that collective memory has displaced and suppressed so thoroughly only the writer has an inkling even of the fact of suppression. In this cognitive implosion a fusion occurs between Moses and the Aton cultus which conventional history simply cannot achieve. Assmann is writing this book in response to Freud’s abysmal question about the origins of anti-Semitism. “Strikingly enough, his [Freud’s] question was not how the Gentiles, or the Christians, or the Germans came to hate the Jews, but ‘how the Jew had become what he is and why he has attracted this undying hatred.’” He paraphrases Freud’s answer thus: “Not the Jew but monotheism had attracted this undying hatred. By making Moses an Egyptian, [Freud] deemed himself able to shift the sources of negativity and intolerance out of Judaism and back to Egypt, and to show that the defining fundamentals of Jewish monotheism and mentality came from outside it.” So we are to concede, apparently, that these are “the defining fundamentals of Jewish monotheism and mentality.” Comment is unnecessary, though I will draw attention here to the notion of victimization I remarked on earlier. We gentiles have the Torah to blame for our worst moments, it would appear.

Like others of these writers, Assmann argues that ancient polytheism was essentially tolerant, “cosmotheism,” and readily accepted other gods, translating them into the terms of the culture that received them. Granting that Melqart, a god of Carthage, did indeed lounge around in a lion skin looking just like Hercules, we have the fact that Rome loathed Carthage, and was despised in turn, and reduced that great city to bare earth and then plowed salt into the ground. Athens and Sparta had just the same pantheon, and they fought to the death. And Rome conquered Greece, whose gods it had thoroughly Latinized. That is to say, whatever the merits of polytheism, at best it only obliged people to find other than religious grounds for hostility, which they were clearly very able to do. How the wars of the Hebrews against the Canaanites are more culpable than the wars of the Romans against the Etruscans I fail to see, or why anyone should imagine that these wars were less formative for European civilization than those distant, inconclusive wars among the Semites. Or, for that matter, why they do not prove that the character of the civilization was already formed when Rome set about the conquest of Italy. Jack Miles attributes the structure of Western consciousness to monotheism on the grounds that “the Bible was the popular encyclopedia of the Middle Ages.” But in fact through most of the Common Era in Europe the Bible, and especially the Old Testament, existed almost exclusively in Latin, a language incomprehensible to the great majority of people, who were in any case illiterate. So its influence is easily overstated. Yet ferocious intolerance has characterized most of Western history in the Common Era.

Polytheism is as fashionable now as it has been since fascism was in its prime. As a corollary to the current tendency to blame monotheism for intolerance and aggression and genocide, there is an assumption that polytheism must have been tolerant, pacific and humane. This notion is old, too. In The Natural History of Religion, Hume says, “by limiting the powers and functions of its deities, [idolatry] naturally admits the gods of other sects and nations to a share of divinity, and renders all the various deities, as well as rites, ceremonies, or traditions, compatible with each other … [By comparison] when one sole object of devotion is acknowedged, the worship of other deities is regarded as absurd and impious.”

It is striking to see how the cultural discourse is circling on itself. Perhaps the real familiarity of their arguments explains why these writers I have looked at offer so little in the way of evidence. For example, Assmann, the most scholarly of them, says the Old Testament is deeply informed by aversion to Egypt, then offers no support from the text. And, coincidentally perhaps, little evidence is to be found in the text. One Mosaic law of unambiguous relevance, which goes unmentioned by him, is Deuteronomy 23:7: “You shall not abhor an Edomite, for he is your brother; you shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a sojourner in his land.” This law provides that both Edomites and Egyptians may enter the assembly of the Lord on favorable terms — after three generations, that is, which seems long, but which is liberal by comparison with the ancient Athenians, for instance, who never naturalized the descendants of foreigners. Nor, as I understand, do the modern Germans. This one verse is sufficient to demonstrate that there was not hatred but in fact a certain bond between Hebrews and Egyptians.

This idea, that the hatred of the Other is the signal preoccupation of the Old Testament, is carried to great lengths by Regina Schwartz..."--Marilynne Robinson, "The Fate of Ideas: Moses" in When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), pp. 114-116. [First published in 1999 in Salmagundi.]

During the Summer my mom called attention to a lovely, recent essay by Robinson in the NYRB. (Thank you mom!) In that essay Robinson vindicates the Puritans and Cromwell as (for example) legal reformists who develop the idea of the rule of law. I may be the only would be aspiring contributor to the Republic of Letters who had missed the impact of Robinson's novels and essays and even Obama's endorsement of her. (Serves me right for skipping the NYRB for a few years!) I am trying to use the remainder of this Summer to catch up on what I missed. When I Was a Child I Read Books contains two essays, "Open thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism" and "The Fate of Ideas: Moses," which are the bedrock on which the recent NYRB essay is built. These two essays are often read in tandem by those with an interest in advancing, what we may call, contemporary political theology (see, e.g., Paul Steaton critically; Scott D. Moringiello admirably).

The long quoted passage is kind of exemplary of Robinson's philosemitism. She is very acute on the ways in which biblical scholars and even very progressive intellectuals have a tendency to attribute bad features of European civilization or today's culture to a disparaged version of the Old Testament.

As an aside, she uses "Old Testament" and not "Hebrew Bible" because they have "very different cultural histories [and] the order of the books is different." (96) En passant, Robinson raises the question to what degree these can be said to be, in fact, the same book(s).*

Be that as it may, Robinson, who is often humane and wise, is pretty compelling that often the unlovely critiques of the Old Testament are grounded in lack of familiarity with the actual text. She notes that for much of the history of Christianity such familiarity cannot be presumed among many. (The revival of knowledge of the Old Testament occurred during the reformation by humanists and reformers.)+  And one of her more endearing features is to quote Scriptures to unmask dangerous nonsense presenting itself as scholarship. I don't mean to suggest she is committed to simpleminded literalism or infallibility of scripture; not unlike her hero, Calvin, she uses sola scriptura as a means to expand one's judgment and sensitivity and to ground what she calls free thought. 

Even so, I think something is off in her reading of Deuteronomy 23:7. And I will suggest it's the kind of offness that characterizes the advocate. Before I get to that, everything she says in the passage quoted above is true -- both true as readings of others and about the larger purported truths to which they refer. More important, given the contemporary scene, the passage she quotes from Deuteronomy helps provide background to the kind of claims my friend (and sometime co-author) Yoram Hazony makes (recall, for example, here and here) about what he calls the order of nation states which co-habit in peace. Hebrew, Egyptian, and (especially?) Edomite can be expected to cohabit. In fact, and again with a nod to the contemporary headlines, this is a Hebraic nationalism that rejects ethnic/racial purity and is open to immigrants becoming part of the community (and intermarry). Hazony himself has written eloquently on this (recall).** 

Okay, with that in place, I would like to quote 23:7 in Deuteronomy's slightly larger context:

3An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the LORD; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the LORD for ever: 4because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotamia, to curse thee. 5Nevertheless the LORD thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the LORD thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because theLORD thy God loved thee. 6Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days for ever. Thou shalt not abhor an Edomite; for he is thy brother: thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian; because thou wast a stranger in his land.8The children that are begotten of them shall enter into the congregation of the LORD in their third generation. KJV

It's pretty clear that the Old Testament treats Ammonites and Moabites very differently from Egyptian and Edomite. What's especially striking is not the historical rationale offered by Moses,++ but the insistence that one should not aim to make peace or (I think) trade with  Ammonites and Moabites. To put the point anachronistically, in the order of nation states there will be states that are perpetual enemies (e.g., Ammonites and Moabites) and those that are not (e.g., Edomite and Egyptian. Since the Jews had been slaves in Egypt this is indeed remarkable.) It seems that there is something about the national character of perpetual enemies (lack of hospitality and, to sound Hobbesian, war-preparedness) that makes them (these nations) incapable of change.*** 

I think Robinson would be inclined to read, and she would not be wrong to do so, this passage of the Old Testament as showing that an unwillingness to open one's hand to the stranger is, according to it, almost the worst national character-trait. So, the passage supports her larger spirit.  

Even so, I close with a yes, but

Even if one allows (for the sake of argument) that national character is fixed, I am unsure what the assumed mechanism is by which flawed national character infects each individual such that it makes members of these nations permanently unwelcome. But it's pretty clear that the passage justifies inhumane treatment of those taken to belong to natural enemies. So, surely Robinson is correct to say that the Old Testament shows no signal preoccupation with hatred of the Other. It would be pleasant if we could all be Edomites. But that's compatible with the injunction to be on guard, in the sense of keeping out, alas, some distinct Others, forever.  

*I am reminded of the miracle in Bacon's New Atlantis, where the same text is understood by people in their own (differing) languages.

+Her treatment of Utopia on Moses (101ff.) and punishment anticipates my own (see here; and, for example, here).

**To avoid misunderstanding: I would be surprised if Robinson endorses (Hebraic) nationalism. To the best of my knowledge Hazony has not disavowed any of his earlier writings. 

++I think in context the implied narrator is Moses, but I have not checked carefully. 

***One can read Moses as limiting the claim to the lives of his audience. But this does not strike me as the natural reading.

When Warriors Become Saints

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 28/07/2019 - 6:45pm in

Edward Curtin As I sit on the small balcony on the top floor of an old house in the working-class neighborhood of Alfama in Lisbon, Portugal, it is early evening, the time for wine and voices wafting on the fragrant breeze through the twisting cobble-stoned streets. The National Pantheon (Panteao Nacional) stares me in the …

Philosopher Named to New State Dept. Commission on Unalienable Rights

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 11/07/2019 - 10:45pm in

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo earlier this week announced the creation of a new “Commission on Unalienable Rights,” comprised of scholars and activists interested in various dimensions of human rights, law, and religion, to provide him with “advice on human rights grounded in our nation’s founding principles and the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo announces new Commission on Unalienable Rights

Among the dozen individuals named as members of the committee is University of South Carolina Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Department of Philosophy Chair Christopher Tollefsen.

The commission will be led by Mary Ann Glendon (Harvard Law) and also includes Russell Berman (Stanford, Hoover Institution), Peter Berkowitz (Hoover Institution), Paolo Carozza (Notre Dame Law and Political Science), Hamza Yusuf Hanson (Zaytuna College), Jacqueline Rivers (Seymour Institute), Meir Soloveichik (Rabbi, Congregation Shearith Israel), Kiron Skinner (State Dept.), Katrina Lantos Swett (Lantos Foundation), David Tse-Chien Pan (UC Irvine), and Cartright Weiland (State Dept.).

Pompeo said:

I hope that the commission will revisit the most basic of questions: What does it mean to say or claim that something is, in fact, a human right? How do we know or how do we determine whether that claim that this or that is a human right, is it true, and therefore, ought it to be honored? How can there be human rights, rights we possess not as privileges we are granted or even earn, but simply by virtue of our humanity belong to us? Is it, in fact, true, as our Declaration of Independence asserts, that as human beings, we—all of us, every member of our human family—are endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights? Each of these is an important question, and the mission of the commission is to provide advice on them and others not as purely abstract academic matters, but in a manner deeply informed by the timeless truths embedded in the American founding with a view to guiding our nation’s foreign policy.

The full announcement is here.

The post Philosopher Named to New State Dept. Commission on Unalienable Rights appeared first on Daily Nous.

Book on What’s Really Needed for Artificial Intelligence: Emotion, Spirituality and Creativity

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 06/07/2019 - 8:57pm in

The Muse in the Machine: Computers and Creative Thought, by David Gelernter (London: Fourth Estate 1994).

I came across this book looking around one of Cheltenham’s secondhand bookshops yesterday. I haven’t read it yet, but I fully intend to. Although it was published nearly a quarter of a century ago, I think the issue it addresses is still very real, and one that isn’t acknowledged by many computer scientists. And it’s immensely provocative. Gelernter argues here that the brain is not like a computer, and by concentrating on rationality and logic, computer scientists aren’t developing genuine Artificial Intelligence – true minds – but simply faster calculating machines. What is needed instead is creativity and inspiration, and that can only come from emotion and spirituality.

The blurb for the book in the inside cover runs

Is Artificial Intelligence really getting any closer to understanding the workings of the brain? Or is it, despite generations of smarter, more logical reasoning machines and more refined philosophical theories, missing the point? Is the AI model, for all its apparent sophistication, simply too crude?

David Gelernter believes that it is. In this dazzling, powerfully persuasive new book he argues that conventional AI theory is fatally flawed, ignoring as it does the emotional elements in the human mind. AI can go on improving its creations as much as it likes, but as long as it insists upon seeing the mind as a machine, it will always been building machines and not minds.

It’s time to tackle a fundamental truth: feeling isn’t incidental to thought, a pleasant diversion or unwelcome distraction. It’s essential, a precondition and part of all our thinking. A mind that can’t be irrational can’t be rational; a machine that can’t feel can’t think.

Spirituality is not failed science, anymore than poetry is botched prose. Significant as recent developments have been, suggests Gelernter, the real renaissance is yet to come. The new science of the mind will involve art and theology as closely as it does technology, and will owe as much Wordsworth and Keats as to Papert and Minsky.

Bound to cause a furore in the field of Artificial Intelligence, the Muse in the Machine has far wider implications than this, and far great importance. It is a book which demands to be read by everyone who values human thought and its achievements. If it offers much to intrigue and to provoke in its daring, wide-ranging discussion of the mind and its workings, it provides much, too, to delight and move.

It’s probably no surprise that Gelernter believes that art, literature and spirituality/ theology should also be important components of genuine machine intelligence. Not only is he credited as an associate professor computer science at Yale University, but also a lover of philosophy and published poet, with an MA in Classical Hebrew Literature.

For all that the book and its thesis were – and no doubt still are – controversial, he has correctly identified a major problem. Other philosophers and scientists, both of computers and the human brain, have pointed out that the brain isn’t a computer. Rather, the computer is simply the latest metaphor for the brain. Before then, the metaphor was of an immense telephone exchange. And before that, in the 17th century, when modern neurology was only just beginning, it was as a series of fountains. I also understand that many neurologists now believe, following the ideas of the paranormal researcher Stan Gooch, that much of human thought and cognition actually occurs deeper in the more primitive sections of the brain, connected with emotion. And I can imagine many atheists distinctly unsettled by the idea that true rationality also requires a spiritual, religious and theological component. That’s enough to send Richard Dawkins completely up the wall!

It’s going to be an very interesting, provocative book, and one I shall look forward to reading. And I’ll definitely post about it when I have.