Category: Philosophy


The year and decade in review. 2020s: orderly peace?

December 30th, 2019 — 8:49am

2019 comes to a close, and with it the 2010s. Below are a few thoughts on these periods of time.

The most significant book I’ve read in 2019 is probably Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism. The German title, literally “Elements and Origins of Totalitarian Rule” more closely reflects the contents of this monograph. Arendt explores antisemitism, imperialism and totalitarianism to form a grand analysis of totalitarian forms of government, which she considers to be genuinely new and unprecedented. Those who make it through the somewhat slow early chapters will be richly rewarded. It’s a very timely book – although written in the 1950’s, most of the ideas feel like they could be from last week. Elements of totalitarian rule are absolutely something we should worry about.

Another notable book from this year has been Edward Snowden’s Permanent Record. Aside from the obvious political dynamite, I found myself relating to a lot of the experiences he had growing up. Perhaps this is a generational story. In the late 90s, the Internet suddenly became relatively mainstream and for a short while, it was a very special place, seemingly full of utopian promise and all kinds of possibilities and exploration. For many born in the mid-80s this coincided with our teenage years.

I’ve lived in Japan throughout the 2010s, the final part of the Heisei (平成) era. In 2019 this era came to a close and we are now officially in Reiwa (令和). I can’t easily summarise the 2010s. Both my personal life and Japan seem to have undergone great change during this time, and sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other. The Fukushima incident in 2011 was perhaps a watershed moment that Japan is still grappling with. Although the future of nuclear power has not yet been resolved, the country’s response to such a tense incident has in many ways been admirable, and the famous Japanese virtue (sometimes a double-edge sword) of stability certainly came through. The surrounding world is also changing, and Japan, though still a relatively separate culture, is becoming considerably more open and mixed as a society, perhaps out of necessity. Tourism and labour imports have both increased significantly. This raises interesting questions about what kind of society Japan might be in 10 – 20 years.

During the decade I have had diverse personal and professional experiences. I lived in Tokyo, Osaka, then Tokyo again. I was able to complete a PhD thesis. I visited many countries for the first time, and became interested in bioinformatics (mainly as a field in which to apply fundamental computer science and software engineering). I took up several new hobbies, obtained permanent residency in Japan, and was able to improve my Japanese to the point of reading novels, although I’m still not quite where I’d like to be with the language. I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy and general literature and tried to systematically develop a worldview (fragments of which sometimes appear on this blog). Not everything I tried to do worked out the way I expected, but the learning has felt very valuable, and I do feel much wiser and more capable about my approach to many things. I expect to be sincerely expressing the same sentiment in the year 2029, though.

One technical focus this year was improving my Spark (and Scala) skills and developing an algorithm for De Bruijn graph compaction (similar to what Bcalm does). I was pleased with the efficient research process I was able to achieve, probably my best ever on this kind of project. In terms of my professional path, the overall trend for me seems to be towards smaller firms and greater independence. (Although I remain with Lifematics, I will now also be available for consulting and contracting opportunities in bioinformatics as well as general software development. If you are reading this and think you would like to work with me, do get in touch.)

Thus ends a politically very strange decade, from a global perspective, and we enter the brave new world of the 2020s. Will it be a time of “orderly peace”, as the name 令和 suggests?

Comment » | Bioinformatics, Computer science, Life, Philosophy

Zuboff’s Surveillance Capitalism

June 20th, 2019 — 8:34pm

Earlier this year I read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism and was strongly affected by it. It’s always hard to judge how new works will age, but I found her narrative a poignant comment on the last few decades of the information society: a society that evolved quite differently from what many expected from the early days of the Internet. I’m willing to guess that this book will remain relevant for a long time as a snapshot of the direction that society has taken in our present time. Morozov has analysed the book in more detail than I am capable of. Here I will try to relate some of Zuboff’s points to the ideas I have developed on this blog. Unlike Fleischer (Swedish) I feel that the length of this book is justified.

I’m not categorically against capitalism (yet), but I do believe that capitalism can take problematic forms and sustain negative processes in society. Zuboff argues that what our contemporary social/behavioural data-driven internet giants represent is nothing less than a genuinely new form of capitalism that is essentially dependent on the need to observe and predict (ultimately, influence) increasingly minute forms of human behaviour. All those accidental data leaks from mobile apps, etc., are not accidental. She draws liberally on Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism) to make her case. There’s ample room to draw on Heidegger (enframing/gestellung), but for some reason, Zuboff chooses not to go there.

Humans wish to live in freedom (we usually agree) and perhaps do live in freedom. But what is this freedom? One definition would be that free actions do not have a calculable cause, need not be rational. In a certain way, freedom is the freedom to be arbitrary, to be irrational. This might not mean that causes do not exist, but it may mean that the right to conceal causes is important.

But from a systems point of view, entirely free, as in unconstrained, humans (in a vacuum, or a blank space devoid of meaningful relations or objects, etc) are not free. Probably, we feel most free when we are constrained to the appropriate degree: we need a floor to stand on, momentum to move with, fixed points to brace against… if the constraints are appropriate and partial in this way, then we develop a style of behaviour. In theory, we can imagine a situation where humans are so constrained that they can hardly make any choices from one moment to the next. Exploiting the gap between on one hand totally constrained and specified behaviour, and on the other hand the moderate constraints of an “appropriate” situation in the above sense, a situation with slack, we are free to play, to endow our actions with style, to perform. Perhaps this is one useful notion of freedom. Behavioural markets, then, purchase the right to choose our behavioural styles for us, to invisibly constrain us and introduce more friction. Perhaps they convert the slack into profit, perhaps they transfer it to other actors using money as a conduit. (Of course, we may think of the ability to endow one’s own actions with style in such a constraint gap as the flow of particularity.)

Why is human freedom still a scary notion to us, individually and collectively? Many consumers and techno-optimists would happily trust the voice of the algorithms rather than personally make choices. Many rush to record and give away vast quantities of data. Various forms of private and governmental surveillance combine in ways probably unimaginable to most who participate in it. Which unconscious drives are at work here? What do we hope to gain as a society? Can the internet, software, and modern electronics not be applied to nobler ends?

Comment » | Philosophy, Uncategorized

Enlightenment and the search for meaning

December 26th, 2018 — 5:04pm

The premise of the enlightenment would be that we have finally discovered how to live rationally. Authority is located in natural science, free enterprise and free markets, and empirical knowledge. Thus we can cast aside all the superstitions of the past and finally become what we were meant to be. Can we?

Not everyone agrees. Marx, Freud and Nietzsche are commonly associated with the “school of suspicion”, throwing doubt on capitalism, on the rational mind, and on morality and religion, to take but a few examples. Freud in particular burst open the doors to the unconscious, bringing back, seemingly, the demons that the enlightenment had sought to finally bury. The bottom line of Freud’s Civilisation and its Discontents seems to be that man is doomed unhappiness, since his (sexual, violent, etc) desires will always make him clash with polite society. If true, this is truly a tragic insight.

In contrast to Freud, Jung appears to be a man of compromises. Freud’s view of the unconscious is highly centred on sexuality. The “Id” seems to be  primarily a source of threatening or disturbing impulses. Jung’s view of the unconscious is centred on the possibility of integration, of bringing separate pieces together into a harmonious whole, including the “Shadow”, broadly his equivalent of Freud’s Id. He even postulates an archetype that guides the individual towards meaningful integration of these separate parts, the Self. The self provides the individual with a sort of pattern that is repeated over and over again across a lifetime, increasingly elaborate. Eventually all the parts are, if we are lucky, integrated and even the dark or purely negative parts are given a meaning in the whole. The idea that the individual unconscious can basically provide a teleological, predefined template for an integrated personality reminds one of soul or destiny, and seems much more optimistic than Freud. But perhaps it is more accurate to call Jung a realist. He tends to insist on every phenomenon having both positive and negative aspects. Integration may fail. Life may contain excessive suffering, torment or early death. Although individuals are supposed to be naturally led towards greater integration, Jung doesn’t seem to offer any positive guarantees about mankind’s progress as a whole towards a better moral state.

Enlightenment ideas seem to be alive and well, if in a somewhat mutated form, having survived two world wars. The idea that we can design or plan a better society is perhaps questionable after the collapse of the Soviet Union (a notable exception is China, which sometimes looks as if it operates a semi-planned society, while at other times it looks more capitalist than North America). Instead, we live by the rule of market forces and rationality takes the form of scientific R&D, as well as technocratic administration, where appropriate. The rule of a number of invisible hands, the neutered “individual” as the basic unit of production and consumption. Although technological capitalism has produced immense positive effects, its dark side is also sizable.  Enlightenment has led to nihilism. Alienation is real. Although human beings can endure working as replaceable units for some time (if a man has a why, then he will endure almost any how) in general and over time, this kind of work does destroy meaning and is intolerable. What will be the long term consequences of forcibly suppressing common sense and social conscience on a mass scale?

In this environment, it takes a certain stubborn optimism to insist that technological and economic progress will bring about a better society (Hans Rosling, Steven Pinker). It may be too early to pass judgment on what kind of world we are building, but let us at least be keenly aware of its price.

The problem of loss of meaning is for now mainly a Western one, though it may not remain so for much longer. The same cultural forces that drove the development of Christianity – the search for the one truth – may also have driven the development of science and technology. Thus, according to Nietzsche, Christianity contained the seeds of its own destruction. Countries like India and China have perhaps not yet reached “peak enlightenment”, still absorbing Western ideas and intensifying their implementations of technological capitalism. Japan may quite possibly have reached peak enlightenment some time ago and thus shares in the Western problem, although not on a Christian basis. Thus its solutions may look different. In the near future, this problem can be expected to burden all cultures that are committed to technological capitalism.

According to Jung, God, meaning, and the divine are archetypes, which are so deeply embedded in the human psyche that they must be given a concrete form, lest they be projected and unconscious, with potentially disastrous consequences. Our best solution, temporary as it may be, could be to treat consciousness as holy, in both its social and individual forms, in both its explicit/rational and its pre-rational, implicit, potential, half-finished forms. Existentialist cinema like that of Ingmar Bergman (who would have been 100 this year) seems to locate the holy in interpersonal relationships. Tolstoy does something similar. Their views of love are realist and ambivalent: they endorse it, but it may lead one astray (Anna Karenina, Through a Glass Darkly). Yet they certainly endorse it. This region may serve as a practical locus of the holy. Is love not a form of heightened social consciousness imbued with positive possibilities? Does individual consciousness, even of a mute object, not always refer back to the social, through the meaning it contains and through its driving wish to discover and express truth?

Comment » | Philosophy, Uncategorized

Photography

September 6th, 2018 — 3:02pm

One of my recent interests has been film photography. Of course, I was interested in exploring the difference between digital and analog technology, and having taken more than my share of smartphone pictures in my life, I was ready to jump to the opposite end of the spectrum. It also helps that Japan has an excellent second-hand market for vintage cameras and lenses. Some manual focus lenses made here in the 1970s and 1980s are still considered excellent performers with today’s latest “mirrorless” digital cameras.

I have been surprised by the richness of this activity. Film photography forces a higher level of consciousness than the easy point and click photography of smartphones, which must now be almost as automatic as breathing for many. With film, it is necessary to compose the shot, consider, and then wait for the result. Of course, there will be no previews until the film has been processed. Not only am I forced to think more about the shots, I’m also forced to consider what photography is, becoming aware of myself as someone who observes and records.

Susan Sontag has argued clearly enough that photography is not objective truth. Unless some kind of scientific attitude is applied, there is too much framing, selection and cherry-picking. But photography is maybe the art form that most convincingly makes the claim to being objective truth. A phenomenology of photography, the taking of photos and their viewing, would be something rich and complex. For me as a photographer, photography is almost a pure exploration of the psyche and of my own reaction to subjects. Other people viewing my photographs would, I expect, usually discover a completely different meaning than the one I have already attached to them.

Truth and meaning-considerations aside, impressions of the physical world are on some level captured in photographs, digital as well as analog. Photography exemplifies several ways of relating to particularity through instruments and attitudes. Digital photography imposes a final alphabet and ground level of measurements, and a digital image is thus effectively a number in a very large integer space. Film photography impresses the image upon silver halide crystals, which are not homogenous, not square-shaped, and whose physical properties may or may not have been fully elucidated. In some sense the ground of film photography may be said to be open in a way that digital photography is not. For all that, of course, in 2018 digital photography may be the quickest and most practical way to get sharp and high quality images, by most people’s common sense standards. But it is hard to suppress the feeling that something must be lacking there, that we tend to make the leap too easily and quickly.

Comment » | Life, Philosophy

Nietzschean toxicology

January 25th, 2018 — 10:40am

Although one of my main projects is software for toxicology and toxicogenomics, my background in toxicology is not as strong as in, for example, computer science, and I’m lucky to be able to rely on experienced collaborators. With that said, I’d still like to try to speculate about the field through a mildly Nietzschean lens.

Toxicology focuses in the main on identifying mechanisms of degradation. Ingesting large quantities of the painkiller acetaminophen will cause liver damage and necrosis of liver cells. This will seriously harm the organism, since the liver is such an important organ, and many essential functions that the body depends on will be degraded or perhaps vanish completely. Untreated acute liver failure is fatal. It is very clearly a degradation.

Toxicology wishes to understand the mechanisms that lead to such degradation. If we understand the sequence of molecular events that eventually leads to the degradation, perhaps we can either make some drug or compound safer, by blocking those events, or we can distinguish between safe and unsafe compounds or stimuli.

Safety testing of a new drug, however, is done in aggregate, on a population of cells (or, in a clinical trial for example, on a group of animals or even humans, after a high degree of confidence has been established). If only a few individuals develop symptoms out of a large population, the drug is considered unsafe. But in practice, different individuals have different metabolism, different versions of molecular pathways, different variants of genes and proteins, and so on. Accordingly, personalised medicine holds the promise of – when we have sufficient insight into individual metabolism – being able to prescribe unsafe drugs (for the general population) to only those individuals that can safely metabolise them.

It is easy to take a mechanism apart and stop its functioning. However, while a child can take a radio apart, often he or she cannot put it back together again, and only very rarely can a child improve a radio. And in which way should it be improved? Should it be more tolerant to noise, play sound more loudly, receive more frequencies, perhaps emit a pleasant scent when receiving a good signal? Some of these improvements are as hard to identify, once achieved, as they might be to effect. Severe degradation of function is trivial both to effect and to identify, but improvement is manifold, subtle, may be genuinely novel, and may be hard to spot.

An ideal toxicology of the future should, then, be personalised, taking into account not only what harms people in the average case, but what harms a given individual. In the best case (a sophisticated science of nutrition) it should also take into account how that person might wish to improve themselves, a problem that is psychological and ethical as much as it is biological, especially when such improvement involves further specialisation or a trade-off between different possibilities of life. Here the need for consent is even more imperative than with more basic medical procedures that simply aim to preserve or restore functioning.

In fact, the above issues are relevant not only for toxicology but also for medicine as a whole. Doctors can only address diseases and problems after viewing them as a form of ailment. Such a viewpoint is based on a training that has as its topic the average human being. But species and individuals tend towards specialisation, and perhaps the greatest problems are never merely average problems. Personalised medicine as a field may eventually turn out to be much more complex than we can now imagine, and place entirely new demands on physicians.

Comment » | Bioinformatics, Philosophy

Back to top