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Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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The Reading File: Excerpts from interesting articles

Try being a honeybee

In Atlas Obscura, Natasha Frost takes "a philosophical and neurobiological look into the apian mind." Read "What Is It Like To Be A Bee?" in full at http://bit.ly/2zDgqnW. Here’s an excerpt.

Now that you’re a honeybee you can do all kinds of things you couldn’t before. Your four wings move at 11,400 strokes per minute. You can sense chemicals in the air. You’re fluent in waggle dance, so you’re able to tell the other members of your colony where the nectar supplies are. But how much does any of this tell us about what it actually feels like to be a bee?

We all know what it’s like to be ourselves — to be conscious of the world around us, and be conscious of that consciousness. But what consciousness means more generally, for other people and other creatures, is a hot potato tossed between philosophers, biologists, psychologists, and anyone who’s ever wondered whether it feels the same to be a dog as it does to be an octopus. In general, we think that if you have some kind of unique, subjective experience of the world, you’re conscious to some extent. The problem is that in trying to envisage any consciousness besides our own, we run into the limits of the human imagination. In the case of honeybees, it’s hard to know if interesting behavior is reflective of an interesting experience of the world or masks a more simple stimulus-response existence. The lights are on, but is anyone home? To examine these questions means to take a ride on that hot potato — from philosopher to scientist and back again and again and again. More and more, scientific research seems to suggest that bees do have a kind of consciousness, even as myths and misconceptions about their capacities persist.

Morality as a formula

The New Yorker resurfaces a story from 2011, in which Larissa MacFarquhar pondered the ideas of Derek Parfit, the Oxford professor who died early this year and thought "he can distill all morality into a formula. Is he right?" Read "How To Be Good" in full at http://bit.ly/2pKKluC. Here’s an excerpt.

What makes me the same person throughout my life, and a different person from you? And what is the importance of these facts? I believe that most of us have false beliefs about our own nature, and our identity over time, and that, when we see the truth, we ought to change some of our beliefs about what we have reason to do.

Power play politics

City Journal edits a speech that Jonathan Haidt delivered at the Manhattan Institute on "what the current political climate is doing to our country and our universities." Read "The Age Of Outrage" in full at http://bit.ly/2l7syc6. Here’s an excerpt.

Today’s identity politics has another interesting feature: It teaches students to think in a way antithetical to what a liberal arts education should do. When I was at Yale in the 1980s, I was given so many tools for understanding the world. By the time I graduated, I could think about things as a Utilitarian or a Kantian, as a Freudian or a behaviorist, as a computer scientist or a humanist. I was given many lenses to apply to any one situation.

But nowadays, students who major in departments that prioritize social justice over the disinterested pursuit of truth are given just one lens — power — and told to apply it to all situations. Everything is about power. Every situation is to be analyzed in terms of the bad people acting to preserve their power and privilege over the good people. This is not an education. This is induction into a cult, a fundamentalist religion, a paranoid worldview that separates people from each other and sends them down the road to alienation, anxiety, and intellectual impotence.

Humanities’ last gasp

In American Affairs, Justin Stover says "the humanities are not just dying. By some measures, they are almost dead." Read "There Is No Case For The Humanities" in full at http://bit.ly/2lh88gp. Here’s an excerpt.

We cannot attribute the present decline to some change in historical circumstance. Writing a commentary on Virgil is just as useless now as it was in the year 450. The reality is that the humanities have always been about courtoisie, a constellation of interests, tastes and prejudices which marks one as a member of a particular class. That class does not have to be crudely imagined solely in economic terms.

Indeed, the humanities have sometimes done a good job of producing a class with some socioeconomic diversity. But it is a class nonetheless. Roman boys (of a certain social background) labored under the grammaticus’ rod because their parents wanted to initiate them into the wide community of Virgil readers — a community which spanned much of the vast Roman world, and which gave the bureaucratic class a certain cohesion it otherwise lacked. …

It remains true today. Deep down, what most humanists value about the humanities is that it gives them participation in a community in which they can share similar tastes in reading, art, food, travel, music, media, and yes, politics. We might talk about academic diversity, but the academy is a tribe, and one with relatively predictable tastes. …

As teachers, what humanists want most of all is to initiate their students into that class. Despite occasional conservative paranoia, there is not some sinister academic plot to brainwash students with liberal dogma. Instead, humanists are doing what they have always done, trying to bring students into a class loosely defined around a broad constellation of judgments and tastes. This constellation might include political judgments, but is never reducible to politics. It is also very susceptible to change.

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