Sunday, March 27, 2011

Recent Reading

I can't stop reading; I wonder if that might be a good idea. No matter, I can't stop, anymore than a hopeless drug addict can seriously consider life without drugs. I want to pass on some snippets of the current reading, which might interest you. While I have my own ideas on these subjects, I'll withhold them this time. Below is a tray of literary appetizers.

Art is order. But order is not necessarily just, kind, or beautiful. Order may be arbitrary, harsh, and cruel. Art has nothing to do with morality. . . Only utopian liberals could be surprised that the Nazis were art connoseurs. Particularly in modern times, when high art has been shoved to the periphery of culture, is it evident that art is aggressive and compulsive. The artist makes art not to save humankind but to save himself. Every benevolent remark by an artist is a fog to cover his tracks, the bloody trail of his assault against reality and others.
Camille Paglia, Sexual Personae

The central enigma of Hitler's life and career: How could he combine a sincere devotion to the arts with totalitarian rule, warfare and racial genocide? 

Hence the paradox of a man who wanted to be an artist, but lacked the talent, who hated politics, but was a political genius. Indeed, at no time did politics—the interplay of people and institutions engaged in public policy—interest him. On the contrary, his career as a statesman was built on a rejection of everything that sort of politics involves. Freedom, debate and compromise, parties, parliaments and the institutions of a pluralist society. As soon as he could, he abolished them all. What absorbed him was ruling. And ruling, in his view, followed the same evolutionary principles as culture. —Frederic Spotts, Hitler and the Power of Aesthetics


Bodies such as stars or black holes cannot just appear out of nothing, but a whole universe can. Because gravity shapes space and time, it allows space-time to be locally stable but globally unstable. On the scale of the entire universe, the positive energy of the matter can be balanced by the negative gravitational energy, and so there is no restriction on the creation of whole universes. Because there is a law like gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing . . . . Spontaneous generation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touchpaper and set the universe going. —Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design

While anxiety and fear are emotions most of us would prefer to live without, they serve as anchors for social and moral norms. Without an ability to feel anxious about one's own transgressions, real or imagined, norms become nothing more than rules that others make up. 

The developmental literature also supports this interpretation. Fearful children have been shown to display greater moral understanding. It remains an open question, therefore, just how free of anxiety we can reasonably want to be. This is something that only an empirical science of morality could decide, and as more effective remedies for anxiety appear on the horizon, this is an issue we will have to confront, in some form. 

No human being stands as author to his own genes or his upbringing, and yet we have every reason to believe that these factors determine his character throughout life. Our system of justice should reflect our understanding that each of us could have been dealt a very different hand in life. In fact, it seems immoral not to recognize how much luck is involved in morality itself. 

It seems to me that on balance, soul/body dualism has been the enemy of compassion. For instance, the moral stigma that still surrounds disorders of mood and cognition seems largely the result of viewing the mind as distinct from the brain. 

We are deeply disposed to perceive people as the authors of their actions, to hold them responsible for the wrongs they do us, and to feel that these debts must be repaid. 

One of the most interesting things to come out of the research on human happiness is the discovery that we are very bad judges of how we will feel in the future, an ability the psychologist Daniel Gilbert has called "effective forecasting." Gilbert and others have shown that we systematically overestimate the degree to which good and bad experiences will affect us. Changes in wealth, health, age, marital status, etc., tend not to matter as much as we think they will. And yet we make our most important decisions in life based on these inaccurate assumptions. It is useful to know that what we think will matter often matters much less than we think. Conversely, things that we consider trivial can actually impact our lives greatly. If you've ever been impressed by how often people rise to the occasion while experiencing great hardship, but can fall to pieces over minor inconveniences, you have seen this principle at work. The general finding of this research is now uncontroversial: We are poorly placed to accurately recall the past, to perceive the present, or to anticipate the future, with respect to our own happiness. It seems little wonder, therefore, that we are so often unfulfilled. 

There is almost nothing more common than the belief that one is above average in intelligence, wisdom, honesty, etc. —Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape

Again, I digress, but I'm sorry, I'm impressed with myself.

I just wanted to do something for a living, where I wasn't drinking from a hose and hanging around with felons.

The best form of home security is a Confederate Flag. The Stars and Bars on the flagpole in front of your house lets everyone know that not only do you have guns, but you're probably cleaning them right now. So if you're a criminal casing the neighborhood, deciding which house will be your next home invasion target, which are you gonna hit, the house with the Confederate flag, or the one with the hummingbird feeder and the cat count sticker for the fire fighters? If this feels too racist for you, the next best thing is the Don't Tread On Me flag. —Adam Carolla, In 50 Years, We'll All Be Chicks

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