On Transparency
The rise of fake news has been attributed by some to the emergence of postmodern thought. Victor Davis Hanson, a scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University wrote in 2017 that fake news can be ‘traced back to the campus,’ specifically to ‘academic postmodernism,’ which Hanson says, ‘derides facts and absolutes, and insists that there are only narratives and interpretations.’ That’s not quite right. The insistence on the primacy of narratives and interpretations does not involve a deriding of facts but an alternative story of their emergence. Postmodernism sets itself against the notion of facts just lying there discrete and independent, and waiting to be described. Instead it argues that fact is the achievement of argument and debate, not a pre-existing entity by whose measure argument can be assessed. Arguments come first; when they are successful, facts follow — at least for a while, until a new round of arguments replaces them with a new set of facts... This wholesale distrust of authoritative mechanisms leads to the bizarre conclusion that an assertion of fact is more credible if it lacks an institutional source. In this way of thinking, a piece of news originating in a blog maintained by a teenager in a basement in Idaho would be more reliable than a piece of news announced by the anchor of a major network. And, again, what has brought us to this sorry pass is not the writings of Derrida or Foucault or any postmodern guru but the twin mantras of more free speech and absolute transparency.

Stanley Fish, "'Transparency' Is the Mother of Fake News," The Stone, NY Times. Interesting summary of technological ideology today. Fish at least makes the case that philosophical emphases upon the deliberative context of information is not tantamount to the relativistic production of "fake news." This distinction is important to keep in mind when considering the relation between facts and opinions, as did Hannah Arendt in the 1960s context of her essay "Lying in Politics." For a recent film dramatization of those events, The Post, went some way to highlighting how a free press's standards of authorship cannot be extricated from political authority tout court. In any case, these issues are particularly important for political deliberations concerning religion, where the diversity of interlocutors can be extreme. While underdeveloped at times, pragmatist approaches to that issue provide much needed support for those interested in the persistence of democracy. Jefffrey Stout's Democracy and Tradition is a key primer to that end.

On Arguments for the Existence of God
In philosophy generally, decisive ‘knock-down’ arguments against any claim are rare. You can challenge the reasoning of an argument and say that a conclusion doesn’t follow, but the idea of definitively settling once and for all a question like whether objective morality exists seems almost unthinkable. But there seems to be a real bias against the idea that we can even discuss the possibility of God as being on the table at all.
— Charles Styles
Yes, there is a kind of double-standard here. It’s a double-standard that you find not only among New Atheist writers but even, unfortunately, among some academic philosophers. In virtually every other area of philosophy, even the most notoriously bizarre arguments and ideas are taken seriously, such as: How do I know that the table in front of me is real and not just a dream? True, there are almost no philosophers who would take seriously as a live option the idea that the world of our experience is a complete dream or hallucination. But, certainly, every philosopher would say that whether or not we think for a moment that the conclusion is plausible, we need to take seriously the arguments for that conclusion and examine them, see what might be wrong with them, and also consider how a radical sceptic may defend himself against our criticisms.
Philosophical ideas are generally treated as if they are always still on the table. They are always worthy of our consideration and discussion and maybe there’s some aspect or hidden wisdom behind the argument that we haven’t yet noticed.
— Edward Fesser

"The Best Books on Arguments for the Existence of God: Recommended by Edward Feser" - https://fivebooks.com/best-books/arguments-existence-god-edward-feser/

On Kant's Categorical Imperative
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss how, in the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) sought to define the difference between right and wrong by applying reason, looking at the intention behind actions rather than at consequences. He was inspired to find moral laws by natural philosophers such as Newton and Leibniz, who had used reason rather than emotion to analyse the world around them and had identified laws of nature. Kant argued that when someone was doing the right thing, that person was doing what was the universal law for everyone, a formulation that has been influential on moral philosophy ever since and is known as the Categorical Imperative. Arguably even more influential was one of his reformulations, echoed in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which he asserted that humanity has a value of an entirely different kind from that placed on commodities. Kant argued that simply existing as a human being was valuable in itself, so that every human owed moral responsibilities to other humans and was owed responsibilities in turn.
On Truth
From time to time, not very often, it looks as though the world has given philosophy a job to do. Now is such a moment. At last, a big abstract noun – truth – is at the heart of a cultural crisis and philosophers can be called in to sort it out... In whichever guise we encounter truth, it has the curious property of being everything and nothing to do with us. To say something is true is to say that it is the case whether I want it to be so or not. Nothing can be made true by will alone. It is an all-too common nonsense to say that something is “true for me” but might not be for anyone else. At the same time, what is important about the truth is always relative to the knower. The mathematician, the scientist, the artist, the historian and the religious believer are not always concerned with the same truths or the same aspects of truth. Truth is not relative, but we relate to it in innumerable ways.

Julian Baggini, "Truth? It's not Just about the Facts" -https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/post-truth-philosophers/. My current work on Hannah Arendt is addressed to these difficulties concerning a plurality of people recognizing each other's interests in public. My contention is that by focusing on the conditions of recognition some progress can be made on these matters.

On Helplines
Welcome to the Philosophy helpline. If you’re looking to write a college paper, or hope to impress your date, or see life as a featureless void empty of all hope, or our most common answer, ‘all of the above,’ you’ve come to the right place…For Descartes, please press (1,0,0). You have pressed it, therefore you will be connected to him. But who is it that is really doing the pressing? Is it possible to press the act of pressing itself? All that is certain is that you exist, that I exist, and that your call may be recorded for quality assurance purposes.
On the Perception of Time
I’m particularly drawn to the work that is done in the lab on perception of time, because I think that has the ability to make rapid advances in the coming years. For example, there are famous experiments in which people apparently make free decisions at certain moments and yet it’s found that the decision was actually made a little bit earlier, but their own perception of time and their actions within time have been sort of edited after the event. When we observe the world, what we see is an apparently consistent and smooth narrative, but actually the brain is just being bombarded with sense data from different senses and puts all this together. It integrates it and then presents a consistent narrative as it were the conscious self. And so we have this impression that we’re in charge and everything is all smoothly put together. But as a matter of fact, most of this is, is a narrative that’s recreated after the event.

"Where Did Time Come From? And Why Does It Seem to Flow?" - http://nautil.us/blog/-where-did-time-come-from-and-why-does-it-seem-to-flow. Interesting interview with a physicist on the nature of time. Of note is that his response to the question on recent advances is philosophically oriented towards the phenomenology of the perception of time. For instance, Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative seems particularly apropos. 

On Ricouer's Influence
Paul Ricoeur is one of those continental philosophers you have to read with a dictionary in one hand and a strong coffee in the other (‘difficult to categorise’, as one reference work gently puts it). So he’s an unlikely candidate for providing the material to halt the march of populism in Europe. Yet his most famous student Emmanuel Macron is being credited with doing just that, having secured an election victory that has calmed nerves in Brussels and Berlin after the UK’s Brexit vote. Precisely what Macron will deliver remains unclear but there’s no doubt he has been heavily influenced by Ricoeur, with whom he worked for two years before leaving academia and becoming an investment banker.

"Paul Ricouer: The Philosopher Behind Emanuel Macron" - http://www.irishtimes.com/culture/paul-ricoeur-the-philosopher-behind-emmanuel-macron-1.3094792. Interesting reflection upon Ricoeur's Ideology and Utopia, and other various connections with Macron's thought. A few years ago I'd written on this aspect of Ricoeur's work in an essay on "Utopia and the Public Sphere."

On Tautologies
A couple times a week, I hear someone remark ‘It is what it is,’ accompanied by a weary sigh. I always puzzle over the expression a little bit, thinking What else could it be? ‘It is what it is’ is a literal tautology, an apparently needless repetition intended to convey something more. Overused, it has become a cliché, reflecting a too-easy acceptance of bad situations... Likewise ‘If it’s late, it’s late’ can imply nonchalance (on the part of a student: If it’s late, it’s late. Who cares?) or reinforcement of the obligation (on the part of the professor:If it’s late it’s late, even by a minute). And if a deadline-enforcer says ‘If it’s late, it’s late,’ the response might be ‘But it’s not late late.’ Here repetition indicates that the canoncial meaning of late it intended.It’s not late late, it’s just a little late.

Edwin Battistella, "How to Use Repetition," https://blog.oup.com/2017/06/repetition-linguistics/. Relevant advice apropos end of semester essay deadlines.

On Manchester

A note of solidarity with a place I once called home. This mosaic is a much beloved city icon nestled into the corner of Afflecks on Tib and Short Street.

Many of you won’t have ever been to Manchester, but you will definitely have heard of it. It’s famous all over the world for so many wonderful things. Great football teams: Man City, Man United. It’s famous for incredible music: Oasis and Joy Division. It was the birthplace of the leader of the suffragettes. It’s the home of the inventor of the first computer. It’s a place full of comedy and curries and character.

James Corden's Message to Manchester - https://youtu.be/I2xoCFGTi6w

On Today's Library of Alexandria
When the library at Alexandria burned it was said to be an ‘international catastrophe.’ When the most significant humanities project of our time was dismantled in court, the scholars, archivists, and librarians who’d had a hand in its undoing breathed a sigh of relief, for they believed, at the time, that they had narrowly averted disaster... It was strange to me, the idea that somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. It’s like that scene at the end of the first Indiana Jones movie where they put the Ark of the Covenant back on a shelf somewhere, lost in the chaos of a vast warehouse. It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages—to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time—and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.
On Bayes' Probability

Interesting summary of Bayes' probability theorem. "Bayes' theorem tells us how to update our beliefs in light of new evidence, but it can't tell us how to set our prior beliefs. And, so, it's possible for some people to hold that certain things are true with one hundred percent certainty, and other people to hold those same things as true with zero percent certainty. What Bayes' theorem shows us is that in those cases there is absolutely no evidence that anyone could do to change their minds. And so as Nate Silver points out in his book The Signal and the Noise, we should probably not have debates between people with one hundred percent prior certainty and zero percent prior certainty because, well, really, they'll never convince each other of anything." - https://youtu.be/R13BD8qKeTg. Importantly, the notion of belief cited here is similar to that of Immanuel Kant's holding to be true [Fuerwahrhalten]. Andrew Chignell's essay, "Belief in Kant" is quite helpful in this regard, https://philpapers.org/rec/CHIBIK-2.

On Philosophical Heuristics
Philosophers place a premium on certain tools for regimenting our thinking, especially logic and probability theory. However, there is a far richer toolbox at our disposal. Over the years, I have observed philosophers repeatedly using various argumentative moves or strategies, which can be encapsulated in rules of thumb that make their tasks easier. These are what might be called philosophical heuristics... To be sure, the heuristics have their limits. There are many distinct abilities that go into making a good philosopher, and I do not pretend to give heuristics for all that philosophers do, or even a tenth of what they do. In particular, there are no short-cuts to profundity, and I should add that there will always be a role for good judgment and insight – just as there is in mathematics and chess. That said, heuristics can make difficult reasoning tasks easier, as much in philosophy as in mathematics and chess.

Alan Hájek, "With the Use of Heuristics, Anybody Can Think Like a Philosopher" - https://aeon.co/essays/with-the-use-of-heuristics-anybody-can-think-like-a-philosopher

On Illilberalism
‘Illiberalism’ is the permanent fact of life. Moments of social peace and coexistence, however troubled and imperfect, are the brief miracle that needs explaining, and protecting. In this way, Mokyr’s vision of a revolution made by hand retrieves the best side of the Enlightenment, and Voltaire as he really was. An easily overlooked aspect of Voltaire’s thought was the priority it gave, especially in his later life, to practice. Watchmaking, vegetable growing, star charting: the great Enlightenment thinker turned decisively away from abstraction as he aged. The argument of ‘Candide’ is neither that the world gets better nor that it’s all for naught; it’s that happiness is where you find it, and you find it first by making it yourself. The famous injunction to ‘cultivate our garden’ means just that: make something happen, often with your hands. It remains, as it was meant to, a reproach to all ham-fisted intellects and deskbound brooders. Getting out to make good things happen beats sitting down and thinking big things up. The wind blows every which way in the world, and Voltaire’s last word to the windblown remains the right one. There are a lot of babies yet to comfort, and gardens still to grow.

Adam Gopnik, "The Illiberal Imagination: Are Liberals on the Wrong Side of History?" - http://nyer.cm/0dWXTwN

On Arrival

"Like everything metaphysical, the harmony between thought and reality is to be found in the grammar of the language," wrote Ludwig Wittgenstein in his 1974 Philosophical Grammar. This could well be the epigraph for the recent film Arrivaldirected by Denis Villeneuve. The film centers upon an alien invasion that does not immediately explain itself. Twelve ships hover above the earth beckoning human beings to inquire, "Why are they here?" 

Early on two experts are enlisted to help, a physicist named Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a linguist named Louise Banks (Amy Adams). At one point Ian reads from the preface of one of Louise's books, "Language is the foundation of civilization." Louise explains briefly before Ian interjects. Surely she is wrong and science is civilization's true foundation. It is as if Ian is not just correcting Louise, but voicing an attitude of a whole genre of science fiction films. For instance, the 1997 film Contact included aliens who communicated in prime numbers. It also involved a few similar debates between its astronomer protagonist (Jodie Foster) and its religiously minded journalist (Matthew McConaughey). However, Arrival responds by showing Louise's expertise to be crucial. It troubles the typical paradigm in a way that struck me as deeply indebted to philosophies of language and a love of humanistic learning. Or, as Wittgenstein has it above, in order to reframe what is at stake in the "harmony between thought and reality." Others could be cited in the twentieth century turn to language, such as Martin Heidegger's quite different remark that "language is the house of being" in his "Letter on Humanism."

Eric Heisserer's screenplay was based on the 1998 award winning short story "The Story of Your Life," by science fiction writer Ted Chiang. The theme of language recurs in some of Chiang's other work such as, "Understand." A recent New Yorker article observed that origins of "The Story of Your Life," emerged from an idea "about accepting the arrival of the inevitable. A linguist, Chiang thought, might learn such acceptance by deciphering the language of an alien race with a different conception of time." Evidently, this interest in the relation between language and time emerged from Chiang's wider reading in linguistics. It made me think of Heidegger's Being and Timewhich developed a phenomenology of human being grounded in language. A watched pot never boils? Mathematically speaking, of course it does. But such language informs our experience of what it means to be human, impatient and hungry. Concepts such as care and angst later became key themes in existentialist philosophy. Heidegger's "Letter on Humanism" distanced himself from that legacy. Rather, he broadened the scope of his interest in poetry in On the Way to Language

The film draws its audience into this meditation on the nature of language in part [spoiler alert] by depicting the aliens as creatures somewhere between an elephant and an octopus. Both are known to be highly intelligent animals on earth. There was a recent essay on the former creatures' gifts in "If You Were an Elephant," by Charles Foster. It suggests that empathy with elephants may make us better, kinder, wiser people. Arrival's animal likenesses are both otherworldly and yet familiar. They help to illuminate the difficulties of learning the aliens' utterly different way of thinking which is expressed visually through complex pictographs. At one point Louise provides a grammar lesson to impatient military man Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to explain why so much time is needed to cross this gap between human and alien mentalities. The film takes its time in this regard, but worth the wait. It turns out that the reason for this alien arrival is grounded in the very encounter with alien language itself. This may seem rather anticlimactic but understanding the harmony between their thought and language will have significant consequences that cannot be reduced to an advance in technology.

The film left me ruminating on two points. Firstly, humanistic forms of learning often aim to expand our capacity to understand the viewpoints of people in languages and cultures different from our own. How well they succeed in doing so is much debated these days. But the film provides a thought experiment worthy of further reflection. What if the most important skill we need in a crisis is not mathematic but a humanistic capacity to learn languages with all the philosophical, historical and cultural context that involves? Secondly, the film makes the case that somehow by involving herself in this expanded linguistic capacity, Louise's character is better able to live her life with its joys and suffering. Towards the end of the film Louise asks Ian, "If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?" The film responds with a pastiche of memories and an affirmation that maybe it is possible to learn to embrace life as it arrives. I would suggest that this is a difficult hopefulness, and again much worth reflecting upon. 

Lastly, Arrival's soundtrack is deeply moving at times and also made me wonder about the film's philosophical undercurrents. One of the main songs is actually not on the soundtrack, but rather is "On the Nature of Daylight" from Max Richter's The Blue Notebooks album. The piano version of the theme is called "Written on the Sky," and the sheet music is accessible to play. It is not Wittgenstein's Blue Books referenced here as was the case in Alex Garner's 2015 Ex Machina. Rather it is Kafka's posthumously published papers, The Blue Octavo NotebooksThere, on 8 December 1917, one of Kafka's own more elusive comments on language can be found: "For everything outside the phenomenal world, language can only be used allusively, but never even approximately in a comparative way, since, corresponding as it does to the phenomenal world, it is concerned only with property and its relations." It is difficult to know just what he meant by "outside the phenomenal," but he was reading Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling around this time. Whatever the case, literary, linguistic and philosophical concepts coincide here in ways recently explored in Rebecca Schumann's recent monograph on Kafka and Wittgenstein. 

Arendt on In Our Time
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the political philosophy of Hannah Arendt. She developed many of her ideas in response to the rise of totalitarianism in the C20th, partly informed by her own experience as a Jew in Nazi Germany before her escape to France and then America. She wanted to understand how politics had taken such a disastrous turn and, drawing on ideas of Greek philosophers as well as her peers, what might be done to create a better political life. Often unsettling, she wrote of ‘the banality of evil’ when covering the trial of Eichmann, one of the organisers of the Holocaust.