Monday, January 31, 2022

Review: The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of TruthThe Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth by Jonathan Rauch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the whole, Rauch’s new book is an important contribution to the culture. It has some problems, philosophically, but the overall sweep of what Rauch is doing is intriguing and worthwhile. The analysis of cultural trends and his advice on how to defend against these harmful trends is useful.

The general idea Rauch is getting it, the real insight of his book, is that knowledge is something that has to be produced and that its production is best accomplished under a particular kind of system. A system where knowledge production is decentralized, has lots of diversity in it, has no sacred totems, and is subject to constant criticism and challenge.

This is the Constitution of Knowledge. Like a political constitution, this constitution provides rules, institutions, and structures by which knowledge is produced. Rauch argues that the best constitution for knowledge is analogous to the best political constitutions: it provides a structure by which difference, disagreement, and contrary interests are transformed into a valuable product. In the sciences, this product is knowledge; in government, liberty and social harmony. A third analogy he uses is the marketplace. Here too there is a structure that coordinates the disparate ends and interests of those in the market, leading to greater efficiency, wealth production, and general overall standard of living.

In all three constitutions of liberal markets, liberal governments, and liberal science, diversity of all kinds is key. In markets, the more diverse actors with different insights, advantages, and experiences, the greater the market. This is akin to Adam Smith’s famous idea that the division of labor is limited by the extent of the market: the bigger the market the greater specialization that is possible. In government, diversity of political ideology and interest is essential to keeping all the factions and interest groups at bay. The more factions there, the harder it is for any one group to take over and impose its will; instead all the groups have to find a way to work together to find the right balance. And in knowledge production, different thinkers and researchers with different ideas, training, and perspectives help to prevent bias and oversight.

This central importance of diversity is part of the other major theme of the book: how the constitution of knowledge is being attacked and undermined. One way is through cancel culture and how that is undermining intellectual and political diversity. Another is the way in which some people manipulate and (mis)use aspects of the Constitution of Knowledge, through the spreading of misinformation, to gain control and power.

This is the book at its strongest: laying out the threats to the Constitution of Knowledge: be it those spreading disinformation in order to sow distrust and confusion, or those who use social media to discourage dissent and criticism. And Rauch offers some good advice on how to combat it.
But Rauch is not a philosopher and when he attempts to give a history of the theories of knowledge, as well as provide his own epistemological foundation for this constitution of knowledge, he’s a bit out of his depth. The discussion is a bit of muddle, or worse, at times.

He wants to defend a view of knowledge that sees knowledge as produced and justified through a network. Relying on C.S. Peirce and others, he sees knowledge as a social product, and not something individual. While I think he’s right to point out the importance of the networks and institutions in creating, maintaining, and extending knowledge, he’s wrong to reject what we might call epistemic individualism: knowledge is something an individual has.

I think Rauch can get his defense of the Constitution of Knowledge and his defense of the importance of the checking and testing of knowledge by many individuals engaged in knowledge production, without having to accept the epistemological foundation he is offering (quite the opposite). He doesn’t need to reject individualism in epistemology, anymore than we need to reject individualism in political or economic constitutions. Individualism is not the rejection of community or networks: it is their core purpose. Individuals make up the communities and the communities exist for the sake of the individuals (not the other way around). To reify community and institution over the individual is a fundamental error and it undermines the very goal for which Rauch is trying to ultimately argue.

The book is still worth reading, even with this serious philosophical error. Rauch’s analysis of cancel culture and the misdeeds of the misinformation networks is important. His advice on how to combat these is also helpful.

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Monday, January 24, 2022

Review: Chaos Rising

Chaos Rising (Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy, #1)Chaos Rising by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thrawn is a great character, one of my favorite in Star Wars. This is an interesting, fleshed out look at Thrawn's home culture and space. It employs a parallel narrative structure of the present and the past (Zahn seems to like this way of story telling, he's used it in other novels). I think it works pretty well here. There are two many criticism: (1) other than a tangential connection to Anakin, there is little that makes this Star Wars. While there are descriptions of things that are likely the Force by another name, this is only hinted at and not developed. (2) There is not a lot character development for Thrawn. What I love (and presume others) love about Thrawn is his Sherlock Holmes-style ability to read out from a situation lots of details that others miss and from that deduce all kinds conclusions. I was hoping we would get some insight into how Thrawn develops/hones this ability. But we don't; it seems to come onto the stage more or less fully formed.

Nevertheless, this was a fun read.

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Friday, January 14, 2022

Review: The Sweet Spot Lib/E: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning

The Sweet Spot Lib/E: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for MeaningThe Sweet Spot Lib/E: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Paul Bloom

This was a really interesting listen. Bloom discusses the role of suffering in life. His main idea is that suffering has an important role to play in the meaningful life. Along the way, he critiques various forms of hedonism (life is only/primarily about seeking pleasure or happiness). At the same time, he's not arguing for some kind of ascetic life or a life beset with suffering. His point is more that suffering is always, in some way, a part of a meaningful, full life. We can't banish it completely; and we wouldn't really want to if we could. He details various forms of what he calls chosen-suffering: from BDSM to watching scary movies, to mountain climbing and so on. Another part of his argument is in favor of what he calls motivational pluralism. This is the idea that we are motivated by many things: not just one. It's not just pleasure, or just happiness, or just _fill in the blank_. It's all of that and more. We have lots of different goals, ends, values that motivates us. Some of this involve some measure of pain or suffering. Indeed many of our life-projects; life long goals, involve a lot of pain and suffering of some kind. It's part of process. Sometimes we would, if we could, avoid that. But sometimes the grittiness, the hardness, the painfulness of the thing is an integral part of it and we wouldn't choose to remove it.

Bloom shares lots of fascinating anecdotes and relevant psychology findings. There is a lot to learn and think about here -- even if you don't agree with Bloom's conclusions.

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Thursday, January 06, 2022

Review: City Of Bones

City Of Bones (Harry Bosch #8; Harry Bosch Universe, #10)City Of Bones by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Connelly is such a master. Bosch is such an interesting and compelling character; and the supporting cast are well-drawn. It's hard to put his stories down. This book served as part of the basis for Season 1 of Bosch. So I knew the general trajectory of the story, however, there are some significant differences, so that kept the mystery a bit more open.

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Monday, January 03, 2022

Review: Games: Agency as Art

Games: Agency as ArtGames: Agency as Art by C Thi Nguyen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

C. Thi Nguyen’s book, Games: Agency as Art , is getting a lot of attention. The current issue of the Journal of Philosophy of Sport has a symposium discussing it; and there was a session at the IAPS virtual conference this past year (both featured replies by Nguyen).

The attention and acclaim the book is getting is well-deserved.

First, Nguyen is an excellent writer. According to the book flap, he used to be a food writer for the LA Times. The writing is crisp and concise. He is funny and personable; bringing together amusing but relevant and insightful anecdotes and illustrations to help make his points. He doesn’t get bogged down in jargon or minutiae; but is still able to bring rigor and preciseness when appropriate.

Second, Nguyen faces a daunting challenge of balancing several disciplines: philosophy of art, philosophy of sport, game design, and game culture. Few have expertise in all of these fields, but Nguyen does a great job of explaining the relevant theories, ideas, and arguments in ways that allow the relative novice to follow along but without dumbing it down for the relative expert.

Lastly, Nguyen’s theories are novel and interesting; and they have had an immediate impact on my thinking about the nature of games. I can’t do justice in this brief review (I plan on writing up a long, more tradition book review soon), but the basic idea is that we can better understand games (and many sports as kinds of games) by seeing them as particular kind of art. If we think of art as capturing and stylizing different aspects of human experience: literature as capturing our narratives; music as recording our experience of sounds; dance as recording and stylizing our experience of human movement, etc., then we might approach games as recording and stylizing our practical agency. Within games of all kinds, we take on a temporary agency and play it out. We play with this agency through playing the game. This is comparable to how we might read Harry Potter and experience the world of wizardry. Playing Jedi: Fallen Order, though, allows to experience (at least in a stylized way) what it’s like to think and choose like a Jedi. The game allows us take on the practical reasoning and thought processes of the kind of character or agency that is created by the game structure. As part of taking on this agency, we get temporary goals and values that we pursue in the context of the game, allowing us to experience the striving and achieving of these goals.

This, argues Nguyen, gives us a better understanding of what games are and also what is so valuable and important about game-playing: both personally and also socially. He also discusses how there are some dangers to this – though I thought this is where the book was weakest (I'll get into this more in my longer review).

I learned a lot from this book. Nguyen’s ideas call for much more study (I‘ve already adjusted my philosophy of sport syllabus to include some of his work), and I am sure they will continue to influence my thinking. And his work will push the field forward his ideas are digested, criticized, and revised.

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