Monday, August 14, 2017

On Racism and Bigotry

On Racism and Bigotry 

Arjun Janah: I am a person whose skin happens to be brown and who also grew up in a country [India] that was very different from this country [the U.S.A.]--but was just as troubled and divided, for at least several thousand years, as this country has been for several hundred. However, despite the gross inequities, injustices and violence of the past and the present, and despite the existence of the debased mass cultures that are as typical of civilization as are its achievements and refinements, it was also a place where the many subcultures were still as interwoven and the humans still as essentially alike at core as they are here.

Liberals/progressives and others believe that racism, bigotry and many other things they view as evils are the results of cultural conditioning. To a great degree, they are right. But these would not arise and continue if they also did not find some innate bases within us, on which they could root themselves and grow. So, like everything else in humans and other social animals, they are, I believe, the results of both biology and culture. Children may be born innocent, but they contain within them the instinctive natures that express themselves in many ways as they grow. Cultures can encourage some tendencies and discourage others, but the tendencies themselves exist within us.

If so, they must exist for reasons having to do with survival--as all innate things do, forged as they were in the fires of our past eons on this planet. So we have a propensity for violence as well as instincts that guard against that; we have capacities for callousness and empathy, for cruelty and compassion, for exclusion and inclusion, for selfishness and altruism, etc.

Clearly, the persistence of these instincts must mean that they were needed for survival. But they exist within us in a balance that varies between individuals and between cultures. Also, certain instincts prevail over others, depending on the context and the "other" in the interaction. So we, along with Timur the Lame, Winston Churchill and Shaka Zulu, might behave in one way with regard to a family member, close human or animal friend, or a fellow member of our "tribal" elite--and quite differently with others.

All of this might seem abstruse and irrelevant in the current circumstances in this country and in many other places.

So Matt is of course right. It is a matter of necessity--of collective survival--that, in a multi-ethnic country, we unite to resist attempts at creating or deepening ethnic divides and at scapegoating ethnic groups for our real or imagined woes. This was so in the subcontinent, where we paid a very heavy price for not being able to do this in the 1940's, and are still paying that price. But the background to this, however cynically exploited by the British Empire, goes back many thousands of years, to at least the violent advent of the racist Aryas--along with the Muslim conquests and the excesses of monotheist zealotry that occurred much later.

And this horror has manifested itself in every continent, in almost every country, throughout history, including of course in this country, from its inception in twin genocides. This terror had stalked Europe, from which we draw our main strengths as well as frailties, for many violent centuries. Most of Europe's major nation states were born out of prolonged and violent ethnic cleansing--initially primarily on sectarian, religious grounds.

In Western Europe, Protestants and Catholics were set against each other. The hundred years' war has had its violent repercussions into our lifetimes, as we witnessed in Ireland. Although the drivers of most such conflicts are almost invariably economic and exploitative in nature, ethnic divisions, however superficial, are what most humans easily latch on to, rarely bothering to see beyond these.

So what occurred in Europe in the 1930's and 1940's had its precedents. Jews, specifically, were targeted, not only in pogroms, but through the organized and violent "ethnic cleansing" of entire regions.

Notable among these was the displacement, mostly into the mainly Muslim countries of North Africa and West Asia, of the Sephardim. This occurred around the time of Columbus, following the expulsion of the Moors from Andalusia. The Catholic Church played a prominent role in this and other persecutions.

The echoes of this and other great displacements and massacres will continue to reverberate for us and for those who follow us.

Yet even the descendants of those most adversely affected by such things are often unaware of the tragedies. The dead cannot speak. The memories and even the cultures of their surviving descendants are erased. We are taught the histories written by those who prevailed.

We need to be cognizant that the greatest such massacre, bi-continental in scope, occurred right where we live, and not in the distant past--and was repeated in Australia.

The colonial atrocities in Africa, such as that carried out by Emperor Leopold of Belgium in the Congo, exceeded, in sheer numbers, what occurred to Jews and others under the Nazis and what befell the Armenians and others during and after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire--horrific as these two genocidal massacres were.

But it would be totally wrongheaded to think that Europeans are to blame for all the misery and death that humans have wrought upon one another. The fairly recent dominance of Europe gave it an outsize role in this. Our awareness of its history make some of us cognizant of the attendant horrors.

But human nature, with its angelic and demonic sides, has been basically the same over time and across the races, cultures, kingdoms and empires. The history of almost every "nation" on Earth is steeped in blood and suffering, inflicted and borne in varying degrees. Empires have advanced in violence and have also retreated or collapsed in violence.

What is more, such things have never stopped. One has only to look at the subcontinent in the 1940's, Indonesia in the 1960's, Rwanda subsequently, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and what is brewing and occurring in the subcontinent and in Myanmar even now--just to cite a few examples of ethnic violence on grand scales.

As for other acts of massive violence, carried out by state military forces raining fire on humans from land, sea and air, with millions perishing and many more wishing that they too had died--can we even begin to list such actions, even if we start from after the end of the second world war? We in this country had a good time watching M.A.S.H., on TV in the 1970's, with most of us oblivious to its setting and the horrific events that had occurred there, only two decades in the past.

Yet humans have still gone about their business, and genes and memes have flowed across the boundaries that were drawn, blurred and redrawn.

This was so in the subcontinent, despite all the strictures of caste and divisions of religion, and so also it has been here, in South Africa and elsewhere where attempts were made, as in ancient India, to separate people by ethnicity and to establish ethnic hierarchies. Humans like to have sex, they fall in love, and they learn from each other.

But one must recognize that there are things that drive these divisions, and that there are real grievances and insecurities to which demagogues and bigots may appeal--along with imagined ones.

2017 August 14th, Mon.
Brooklyn, New York

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Comment in reply to Peter Isackson

Comment in reply to Peter Isackson


1) Facebook post:

2) my previous comment:

3) Peter's previous comment:

This is a comment, Peter, that I tried to make in response to a comment of yours on a Facebook post. But it was too long for Facebook to handle. So I could not post it there.

In desperation, I am posting it below instead. I have not had time to properly edit it. Sorry.

Thanks for your considerate comment and explanation, Peter. As I have drawn this dialog out too long, perhaps, let me just focus mainly on our remnant differences of opinion.

A Personal Mental Model

I will describe here some features of my own mental model of the universe we inhabit. In this model, our universe has realms, including the physical and the mental.  These realms are connected and may be one at a deeper level. But to us they appear to be different from each other.

I have abstracted somewhat here from my earlier simple, commonsense examples, which should hopefully have been understandable.  I had given these examples in an earlier comment. For those who have not read that comment or Peter's response, following this might, in places, be a bit difficult.

Since what I describe is a personal mental model, it should be seen as such and no more. I personally believe this model, which is minimal and simplistic, has some good correspondence with reality, in whose existence I still believe, not have been dissuaded of it so far.

My belief is that the existence of this reality does not depend on our own existences, transient and local as these are.

I also had believed that this model, some of whose features I describe here, might not have differed significantly from what many others may also have constructed for themselves, consciously or not, to try to make sense of their own experiences. I may, however, have been quite wrong in this part of my belief!

Of course, I and others are surely influenced by our own instincts, cultures, inclinations and reasoning in the constructions of such models.

In any case, this model, like all models, should be subject to being amended and even being discarded when needed. The need for this would normally arise, most urgently, from some conflict between it and reality--for those who accept the existence of the latter.


I would dare to disagree with Wittgenstein regarding his assertion that two plus two is four only because we agree it is.

I do not know whom Wittgenstein meant by "we". I think that this "we" would have to include birds and many other animals that can count.

Of course they would not use the words we use in English or any other human language. But I would posit that number is a property of the universe that would still be there, if all living things capable of counting were to vanish.

I will not try to claim that this assertion is provable by any obvious means or try to prove it here.

The concept of number (as manifested in the perception of differences in number,) does not need verbalization until we go beyond the first few numbers that we can distinguish, among like objects, by the use of our sight, our touch or our other senses. And even then, the verbalization serves only as an aid.

Nor will I attempt to define or claim I can define what is meant by "like". I know that you and others could claim that this "like-ness" is again is a matter of perception and agreement. I could replace "like" by "identical", but again I will encounter the same difficulty.

Number is, in my opinion, an entity of the mental realm, which we apply in the physical realm. Of course the two realms are connected. I will not try to explain the connection or claim I understand that connection.  I will say more about these two realms, that I mention here, later.

On Mathematics and Science

I believe scientists who have thought about it are acutely aware that they are proceeding based on certain assumptions. They may agree on the assumptions, or they may not. This is one of the things that liberates science, to a degree, from more doctrinaire fields. Of course, scientists, like all other living beings with minds, have their pet beliefs--including, in their case, about their subjects.  So they quarrel about this with those with other beliefs. Yet, although one might give many counterexamples, this does not result in as much acrimony as in the humanities.

As for mathematicians--these usually restrict their criticisms to real or perceived faults in the logical or other means of proof of their conjectures and to the logical or other consistency of their constructions. So there is even less acrimony among them--at least about the things most scholars of the humanities, or even in the natural sciences--argue about.

I am aware of the critiques of what I have stated about the objectivity of scientists and am willing to grant the partial validity of some of the critiques, without ceding much in what I have stated here.

Now some may take this relative lack of dispute about basics among mathematicians and, to a lesser degree, among scientists, to be evidence of their lack of perception or awareness. Perhaps so, perhaps not.

You had said, at one point earlier,

"The pure truth, whether scientific, philosophical or theological, doesn't exist. It's filtered through human interaction, which can never be perfect."

I would put it differently. I will attempt to do this.

Let me leave aside mathematics, where I strongly believe we can make statements that are perhaps as true as we can ever hope about a statement.  Let me also leave aside philosophy and theology, where I am not at all qualified to make any kind of statement regarding truth--and suspect that anything I say will be objected to.

Let me turn instead to the relative simplicity of the natural sciences. These sciences are focused on the physical realm. And now let me venture to make the considered statement that follows.

We can never be certain that we have perceived the truth, or reality, wholly or perfectly. All we can say is that we have created a mental model (or set of such models) that appears to correspond, in many ways, to physical reality. This remains, nonetheless, a mental model, however elegant and time-tested it may be.

So our conception of reality is a model we have constructed; it is not physical reality itself. We need to have the wisdom to always keep this in mind, and the humility to amend or discard this mental model when we find that it cannot describe reality.

Objective Reality

When I talked about objective reality, about which I gave several simple and concrete examples, I meant two things:

Firstly, we can have a substantial degree of agreement about this objective reality, because you and I can try to independently check a statement about it.

I have explained, with examples, that there are situations where we cannot check such a statement.

But if indeed we can check on that statement, but do not agree, it is most unlikely that we will hold that this shows that there is no objective reality. We would say that one of us has probably made a mistake, or that the statement was not precise enough for it to be checked.

So this is simply the kind of disagreement that might occur about an observation, including a measurement.  It is not the kind of disagreement that occurs in human affairs, or, frequently, in the humanities, involving opinions or inclinations or world views,

I had also qualified my assertions by saying that we do have conceptual frameworks based on which we make observations and measurements. I concede that my assertion of the existence of an objective reality might be attacked based upon my concession.

So let me come then to the second point I wish to make about objective reality, and which I might perhaps not have made earlier.  This is going to be an assertion, rather than a proof.

But let me first illustrate this second point with an example: if, by some catastrophe, you and I and all humans--and even all of life--were to vanish tomorrow from this Earth, I would assert that the sun and the planets and moons would continue to exist; they would continue with their motions and interactions; so would the remnant dispersed materials of our bodies.

The sun, the earth, the water and the air exist, independently of our agreement on its existence. This, I assert.

We may have our conceptions about this physical reality. But that, I (along with most scientists and most humans) believe is a cloth that covers and conforms to the reality underneath. If a magician were to whisk away the cloth, that reality would remain, even sans an audience.

And that is my second point. Put quite baldly and generally: objective reality does not need our agreement, or even existence, to be. It is.

Subjective Reality

Let me now come to subjective reality.

Firstly, let me clear up a misunderstanding for which I was probably at fault, as the words "objective" and "subjective" might be open to misinterpretation.

I did not mean to imply that subjective reality is any less real than objective reality. I only meant that it is a different kind of reality.

As I had explained with simple examples, only you have access to your subjective reality. I can only try, at best, to infer it from my observations of you and from what you tell me or others. 

And vice versa: You cannot access my subjective reality.

Subjective reality is the reality of the mental realm. We exist in at least two realms, in my opinion: the physical and the mental. These are surely connected and may be one at a deeper level. But for most practical, commonsense purposes we can clearly differentiate between them.


The Mystery

This brings us to a well known mystery. Our sentience exists in the mental realm. And all our perceptions exist only in that realm, not in the physical one.

Indeed, you and I do not exist in the physical realm.

If I were able to search through every organ, tissue, cell, molecule or atom in your body, seeking for Peter, I would not be able to find him. No neuron knows of your existence. Nor is there a homunculus in your brain or solar plexus that is Peter in essence.

I mean by this, the one who knows he is Peter and answers to that name--and would know he is he, even if he forgot or was never given his name.

And it is exactly the same with me.

Does this mean that you, I, the cat and the cockroach are ethereal beings of this mental realm that I have asserted exists--but which can only be sensed as a subjective reality?

I do not think it is that simple. But it may be so, or even simpler. I really have no clue. None.

We are each, as perceived in the physical realm, a giant collection--a swarm--of a trillion cells, and each of these itself is a giant collection--again a swarm--of untold numbers of molecules and their atoms.

The giant swarm of molecules within each cell is gathered into structures and processes that are as complex as any one can find in our multi-cellular processes and structures--only more so.

As you know, there is probably not an an erg or a gram, or even a photon or an atom, within your physical body, that was there when you were born. So in this we are like clouds or storms that form and dissipate. We are complex processes or flows, rather than static objects. Of course, so also are the hills and the continents. Matter and energy flow through us as they do through clouds and storms and through ocean waves and currents.  And there is no "us" in "us".

There is also no real physical separation between our bodies and the rest of the universe. There is no sharp demarcation in space. There is no real barrier. There is no surface where we start or end. The belief in our separateness is an illusion--not that much different from the illusion that is perceived as a cloud.

It is the same in time. We have no clear beginning or end in time.

So in all of this we are as waves in the ocean, as ripples on a pond.

Patterns persist in us, as they do more briefly in hurricanes or much more persistently in Jupiter's great red spot. The processes that we are made of involve not only the interactions of matter and energy, in space and time, but also the flow (although that may be wrong metaphor) of information.

Our atoms are talking to one another, as are all the parts of the universe, including the galaxies.

Our molecules are also stores of knowledge, as seen in our persistent DNA, passed down through the eons, written to and erased, split apart and combined, and found copied a trillion times over in our living bodies. And our molecules are also processors of knowledge, in constant communication with one another, just as much as they are bricks and machines,

And so also, at different levels of organization, are our cells, tissues and organs in constant communication with one another, using chemical and electro-chemical means.

So where, amidst all the vortices, and where, amidst all the chatter that extends from the atoms to the galaxies, is sentience?  Is it that chatter itself?  Whence  arose this speech that pervades and permeates all?  Whence came this myriad of speakers and listeners at every point in the infinity of space and the eternity of time?  Can they be truly separate from one another--this endless, countless multitude--or are they one?

Or where, we may alternatively ask, are the elusive I, we, you, he, she, it, they of our human grammars? Should they be done away with? And who will do that doing away, pray?  How could the who arise from the what and how could the one ebb back into the other?

The Quantum Realm

You may have noticed that I have stayed away from the mysteries of the quantum realm. I have done so for two reasons. Firstly, there is a tremendous amount of confusion about those mysteries, including among physicists themselves. Secondly, there is mystery enough, as I have described here, for us to wonder at and ponder, even in the realms we thought we understood.

Sunday, May 15, 2016



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(This was generated during a back and forth today [2016 May 15th, Sun]  on the current Democratic primary campaign between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.  However, it touches on much wider issues.)

I personally have lived my own life always trying to see people and their affairs, not in black and white terms, but also noting the grays. That's a harder way to go about things, and one often finds oneself blasted by those who would take the simpler route.

That said, there are things on which one should not just shrug and yield.

These are matters, just for instance, that humans have always held to be crucial in our interpersonal interactions. We see these being violated everywhere, and so tend to become cynical. But the very fact that we still notice these things as they occur shows that these violations are hardly universal.

There is, for instance, such a thing as trust. If a person violates our trust and we get to know of this, it is very difficult to trust him/her again. Indeed, to do so appears foolish in the extreme. But should we then either shrug and trust most people in most things as we might perhaps have done before, or should we now distrust most people in most things, becoming suspicious, even paranoid?

In societies that most of us regard as "primitive", consisting of relatively small clans or tribes--the way most of our ancestors lived through most of our human and probably prehuman evolution--you will often find there is a high degree of trust within the clan or tribe.

This is not to say there are never any violations--but those who violate trust usually cannot escape the consequences.

While there may be occasional conflicts or even violence between clans and tribes (along with many peaceful and essential interactions), agreements between tribes are usually honored--and violations of trust viewed with outrage.

All of this might seem Utopian and absurd to us--but is very real to those who have lived and worked with such people, as my father, for example, did in India, visiting and photographing tribes (similar in some ways to the Amerindian tribes that vanished here) who had then been living in their traditional fashions in remote, forested and hilly areas of the subcontinent, not as other large-group folk did.

Over the past many decades, especially recently, all of that has been rapidly changing. Sadly, this was not unexpected. All over the world, over the last several centuries, the great diversity of our human cultures, each with it languages, arts, crafts, healing, and particular outlook and store of knowledge, has been vanishing just as rapidly as has the great diversity of our biological species, each with its genetic and cultural information, evolved over the eons.

So there is a greater reality that might be lost when we focus only on what we have experienced and understandably grown accustomed to in our own spheres, where each of us must survive. So we see or focus on certain priorities, based upon those experiences, and are blind to or ignore other priorities that might in fact be more pressing by far, and neglect of which might have far greater consequences.

In this, I am surely as limited as are others. However, I should say that the views I have expressed earlier in discussions about politics, economics and other matters have not usually been come to lightly.  Often I have arrived at them reluctantly, after years of observation and so also of reflection. This hardly makes me sage or expert about all such matters.

There are certain things (such as the science and mathematics it was my lot to study and work in for many years before I began teaching in the high schools here in New York City almost thirty years ago) in which one can make rather strong, definitive statements, noting also the limitations on the generality of such statements.

In other things, especially human affairs (including teaching) one finds oneself on much shakier ground.

One of the reasons for this is that it is not possible, even within a family or a close relationship, to know all that is going on or what the other persons are really thinking and feeling--nor would it be desirable to attempt to do so. So there is that trust that one extends, hoping it will not be violated, and trying not to violate others' trust.

But when it comes to what happened two hundred years ago, or what is happening right now in a place on the other side of the planet, or even in another section of town or even across the street, we are often very much in the dark.

Meanwhile, even within what might remain of our past clans, that we might be born into or construct through our interactions, we see breakdowns of trust, often brought about by distance, preoccupation and the general economic and social milieu we live in.  This is also often so between co-workers and neighbors.

Yet, that same modern human world that so isolates us from one another also makes us dependent on one another, and affecting one another, within a city, and across the globe, in ways that could never have been imagined before.  

What others do affects us, and what we do affects them.  

There are imbalances of power in this, and those who make decisions that vitally affect the lives of others are often able to escape what would, in the past, have been the consequences of their actions on themselves.

This cannot be sustained.

Arjun Janah
2016 May 15th, Sun.

Brooklyn, New York

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

On Progress

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On Progress 

When we were children in school, and (for some of us) even students in college, we were taught and even believed that we were in an extraordinary era of "progress".

But we should by now have come to realize that this "progress" was clearly along several directions.

If we consider, for instance, the degree of biological diversity on the planet or the degree of cultural diversity within our species, then clearly the "progress" made over the past century has been in the direction of decreasing both of these diversities.

Since the viability of the biosphere is dependent on its biological diversity, and that of our own species is dependent also on our cultural diversity, it follows that the progress in these two areas has also been towards greatly decreasing the chances of survival of our ecosystems and of our own species. This is so even if we only consider our prospects through the next few centuries.

The current ecosystems might be replaced by or transition to degraded substitutes, and our own species might also, for a while, experience something similar. However, in the latter case (that of our own species), the direction in which we are making progress seems to be towards extinction or near-extinction in the not-too-distant future, with extreme suffering in store for most of us en route to that.

Such a fate would perhaps be only fitting, since we have also been the prime movers in the recent extinctions of countless other species.  This has taken place in a time-span perhaps shorter than those of most of the great mass extinctions of the past. These ancient mass extinctions, as recorded in our planet's sedimentary rock layers as part of its fossil history, followed impacts by comets or asteroids or eruptions from super-volcanoes that rapidly altered, over decades or centuries, ambient conditions on most of the planet's surface.

So perhaps what should be taught in today's schools is that we are heading, ever faster, towards multiple catastrophes unless we take individual and collective action. The main thing we can do to avert or diminish these disasters is to slow production and consumption. Unfortunately, our economies are dependent on maintaining and increasing the rates of production and consumption.

This is what is touted by economists and governments as indicators of "growth", what drives corporate profits and government revenues and, let it be said, gives many workers and small businesses their incomes.

These incomes could be received directly from jobs or contracts that depend upon these corporate profits and government revenues, or they could be obtained indirectly from consumers who spend part of their own incomes on purchases, rentals, etc.

Increasingly, the sector that profits most from all of this activity is the financial sector--the banks and investment firms, along with the insurance businesses associated with these. Of every dollar or rupee that we produce through our labor (or even take home as pay) it would be interesting to figure out how much, on average, goes to a bank or other financial institution.

While human labor is still the fuel, interest from debt, along with rent, are the gears and crankshafts of our economic engines.

Some might point to fossil fuels and other energy sources as the more basic fuel, along with the labor of living plants that gather energy from the sun and so power the flows through the food webs on which we are still as dependent as ever for survival.  But human labor, physical and mental, remains essential even in the utilization of these and other natural resources.

Of course, the labor of those who do not work at paid jobs, but carry on those perennial human activities without which none of us would have survived even the first few months of our lives, will never be counted by economists and financiers.

Unless we figure out a way to get out of this economic trap, preferably without causing great hardships for ordinary folk, we seem doomed to continue on this path of "progress".

Most of the movement that many would agree has constituted progress that they consider positive and meaningful can be traced back to those advances in science and technology which have been put to what we consider good use. Of course, for every one such positive effect, one could find, perhaps, one or more that are negative.  "A better world through chemistry" had once been the advertised promise.  The reality turned out to be rather different.

Nevertheless, in the realms of public health, medicine and more, there have been advances that have been beneficial--at least for many humans.  However, increasing pollution, climate change, land scarcity, drainage of resources and capital, wars driven by globalized economic forces and made even more horrific through technology--and much more--have negated much of the benefit accruing from the kinder applications of science and technology.

Another area, in which many will agree there has been some positive movement, is in the social domain, where there has come to be some recognition of past and current injustice and unfairness.

In the economic realm, progress had been made, over the course of the last century, in advancing the rights of workers to a greater share of the wealth they produce. This had only been possible when workers were able to gain more political power. And this was not won easily or quickly.

But we have seen, over the past several decades, a global push back against even that advance, concomitant with the loss of whatever little political power workers and their political organizations had gained.

Other species will never, of course, have any power over human politics and economics, except through whatever voice may be gained by environmentalists and whatever political and economic power those who are affected directly by the loss of species might be able to exert.

The parallel loss of so many of our human cultures, including the accelerating loss of languages and even of entire language families, seems also almost unstoppable, given the fact that the people affected have been relentlessly displaced, scattered and reduced in number, with little or no power or influence over the great juggernauts that drive our economies and our species on their tracks of relentless "progress".  Many of us seem to have less regard for the fate of entire populations of our own species than we do for those of some others that we now suddenly favor after having driven them to near extinction.
The question that should be asked of those who still tout human "progress" remains the same as always, except that it is increasingly more urgent: "Towards what?"

Arjun Janah
2016  January 26th, Tue.

Brooklyn, New York

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

On Putin and Trump—a Shallow Analysis

On Putin and Trump—a Shallow Analysis

Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have recently been praising each other. This may not last, but it makes one step back and look at these two, however superficially. One then notices some similarities, at least in context if not personality, that might help explain their rising.

Of course, Putin has effectively ruled Russia since the start of this century, while Trump is still an aspirant to the U.S. presidency.  So Putin has accomplished far more than Trump in the political and economic spheres, as well as in the field of slaughter.

In this last accomplishment, however, Putin has merely joined many other current and past leaders of nations and empires--including our own.
Trump is a classic bully—a coward at heart, with a thin skin, unable to bear criticism, with a constant need to put down others and inflate himself.

Putin feeds into the same need of some to have a "strong man" in charge at the top. He made his mark by bombing Grozny into oblivion, going far beyond what the Russians had tried to do earlier to end the Chechen rebellion. In the process, he radicalized the Chechen (and other nearby Muslim) opposition, eradicating it by extreme, brutal force from Chechnya and its adjacent territories but in the process also eliminating the more moderate opposition and spewing out an aggrieved and desperate diaspora that included increasingly fanatical folk (feeding on transplanted Wahabi theology) who have been active, in Asia alone, in an arena ranging from Afghanistan in the east to Syria in the west (not that far from Chechnya and other Russian or former Soviet territories).

The collapse of the Soviet Union, and the misery experienced by many ordinary Russians subsequently (with even life expectancy showing a sharp downturn) and the sustained economic and political pressure on Russia by the West, especially the U.S., including the expansion of NATO right up to Russia's borders, led to a feeling of humiliation among many Russians (even as the capitalist class there, feeding off assets that once belonged to the state--and so at least nominally and to some extent in practice to the people--that were sold off or given away in an orgy of nepotistic looting, was feasting on its newly gained reaches, and producing its oil billionaires and more).

In such situations, there is an opportunity for fascist leaders to rise. This is what happened in Russia--although it could have been worse, judging from the situation in some other parts of the old Soviet Union, especially in Asia, where narrow ethnic nationalisms have often prevailed, throwing minorities (especially the larger ones, who are seen as a threat) into a very difficult place.

One can see in Trump's rise some of the same kinds of discontent, fed by an increasingly unequal economy, an increasingly ethnically mixed population, and perhaps our perceived ineffectiveness in exerting power in world affairs, resulting (especially in what used to be called the "lumpen proletariat") into enthusiastic support for a perceived "strong man" and "winner" who will "make America win again"--a role happily filled by the egotistical Trump.

The jihadi attacks on this country (which, except for the lone catastrophe of 9-11, have still been nowhere as intense as those that reached even into Moscow, where suicide bombers made spectacular and horrendous attacks, both during the Afghanistan war--with our support--and later during the conflict in Chechnya and adjacent areas) have led to an increasing Islamophobia that has also helped Trump as it did Putin during his rise.

There is no longer a socialist bloc (with a memory of what fascism is and can do) to counter the fascists or even the globalizing capitalists who show increasing fascist and neo-colonial tendencies, now that their main opposition is gone. Fascism is, among other things, an alliance between the powerful capitalists and the state, with labor tamed, suppressed and compliant, and with ethnic and other issues used to divide the working classes.

What we have instead are competing capitalist blocs, with each trying to outdo the other in pursuit of wealth accumulation, too often going mainly into the pockets of an oligarch class, with labor increasingly marginalized and divided, forced to work more and for less.

Computerization, immigration providing cheap labor in the homeland and the export and loss of jobs, first in manufacturing and then even in services, has led to anxiety and discouragement, even hopelessness, among many workers or would-be workers in this country, especially those without the increasingly formidable skills needed to survive and succeed in the "new economies". Job security is a thing of the past, and employability of those not within a rather narrow window of age and constantly changing skillsets is in question.

This is no new development in capitalist evolution. Parallels can be seen in the past. But what remains the same is the need to increase the rate and scale of production and consumption in order to increase profits. So there is the usual race to secure natural and human resources, as cheaply and relentlessly as possible, to expand markets and to encourage consumption of goods and services. The consequent environmental and human damage, including that from the wars that these races for resources and markets inevitably produce, are evident to anyone who cares to look. Even civil wars that appear to be arise from ethnic conflicts have economic drivers--as I learned again and again from talking to refugees (mostly Hindu, but also with many Muslims) fleeing East Pakistan in 1970.

To slow down these races would be the only thing that could slow down the rate of destruction. But we are caught in a paradigm where the slowing of the economic engines is the worst nightmare of capitalist and worker alike.
Returning to Trump and Putin--although there are the similarities between the backgrounds that led to their rise that I have listed--there are also of course many difference, both in their local contexts and careers and in the men themselves. Although Trump is a New Yorker, he displays little of the better qualities seen in my fellow urbanites, including tolerance and respect for diversity, and much of the worst, including unwarranted, loud aggression.

To this, he adds either great ignorance or deception or both, along with an obvious bigotry against those who are different from him in any way--be it from gender, "race", origin, religion or whatever. While he hobnobbed with the Clintons, he never could accept that a "black" man (as Obama is classified in this country, despite having a "white" mother) could become president of this country.

Beyond this, Trump wants to keep in place a system in which politicians are subservient to people like him. He is working for his class interests, as many of the affluent and powerful do, but in a rather different way--by brashly turning towards the jingoistic populism and the distracting, rough and tumble public exposure that they mostly avoid, preferring to let their bought politicians do that work for them.

Putin, for all his faults, displays a wider understanding of history and of the world in general than Trump ever will.
2015 Dec 22nd, Tue.
Brooklyn, New York

Sunday, April 20, 2014

On the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Thought-Experiment

On the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen Thought-Experiment
From:  E.D.
To:  Arjun Janah
Cc:  R.B.
Sent:  Sat, Apr 19, 2014 10:23 pm
Subject:  RE: Blog post of our correspondence re. probability.


<personal details, deleted by Arjun 04/20/14>
    Also,  a correction or clarification about Bell's theorem. My understanding of it at this time is that Bell's theorem does establish non-local causation in the following sense. If two particles depart from one another in different directions and then, later, the spin of one of the particles is altered, the spin of the other particle instantaneously changes also. However, this fact can not be used to communicate instantaneously (or faster than the speed of light). So in that sense, there is not non-local causation, because we at the macro level can not observe it.

    I could have it all wrong, but I think the main point is that in the end q.m. does not explain non-local causation or action-at-a-distance (such as telepathy, precognition, other mystical states of union, etc.) at the level of human consciousness. So q.m. is disappointing for people who wanted to use it for that purpose.

<See also the third section added below this one -- the e-mail I received at 6:34 pm on 04/20/14 from E.D. -- for a sharper clarification of this issue. -- Arjun 04/20/14>

    I think I mentioned this book to you before, but this is the sort of thing I'm referring to here:

    "How the Hippies Saved Physics"


From:  Arjun Janah
To:  E.D.
Cc:  R.B., blank01, P.B.,V.K
Sent:  Sun, Apr 20, 2014 12:55 am
Re:  Blog post of our correspondence re. probability.

<personal  details, deleted by Arjun 04/20/14>

    Yes, I think you have described the core quantum-entanglement situation concisely and correctly. But my knowledge of this is limited. I will try to go into some details below, which may or may not shed more light on what you have neatly summarized.

    This was (to my knowledge) first posed as a challenge to q.m. (or its emergent interpretation at the time) by Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen. It is a strange sort of instantaneous action-at-a-distance.  Bell later formulated, I am told, what had come to be known as the EPR paradox as a testable inequality.

    Electrons possess an internal or intrinsic angular momentum, called "spin", which has, in certain natural units, a value of 1/2. From quantum mechanics, the projected value of this spin, along any chosen spatial direction, can have only two observed values: +1/2 or -1/2 (in those same natural units).

    Two electrons can combine into either a total-spin = zero state (where the two electron spin-vectors are aligned oppositely: 1/2 -1/2 =0) or a total-spin = one state (where their spin-vectors are aligned in the same direction, 1/2 + 1/2 =1).  These are the only definite total-spin states allowed by the rules of q.m.

    Consider two electrons that are known to be in, say, a total-spin = zero state, but for which the individual spin directions of the two electrons are unknown.  If those two electrons move apart in space without further disturbances (caused, for example, by our further observations), then they should remain in that total-spin = 0 state.

    In the usual intepretation of q.m., the spin-values of each electron along any given direction are not only not known to us (and here's where we may strongly quibble with that interpretation) they are indeterminate in an absolute sense. This is the thing that Einstein and his colleagues could not (with good reason, in their minds) accept.

    If we now make an observation on one of the electrons and find its spin value along a certain direction is, say, +1/2, then we know that the spin value of the distant electron along the same direction will have to be -1/2.

    While it is perhaps understandable, as per the usual interpretation, that it was our act of observation (a measurement of spin value along a chosen axis) that "threw" the observed electron from an undetermined individual-spin-alignment state into the definite +1/2 state, how could we say the same of the distant electron?

    Could our measurement made on the local electron here truly have "thrown" that distant electron there into its spin -1/2 state?  Or was it already in that state before we made our local measurement on its partner?

    E, P & R had presented the instantaneous throw of the individual spin of the distant electron (following an observation of its local partner) into a definite state as a paradox, something that arose out of q.m. and its accepted interpretation, but appeared to violate the precept that the fastest way in which an event at one place could affect an event in another place was via a signal sent from the first event to the second -- which signal could not travel faster than the speed of light (or other electromagnetic waves) in a vacuum. And this speed, though large, is finite. So instantaneous causation was considered impossible.

    So E, P & R argued that either the accepted interpretation of q.m. was wrong -- i.e., the electron-spins were in fact aligned along a certain direction (in which case the observation was only a discovery of what had already existed in reality) rather than being truly indeterminate in an absolute sense -- or else one would have to accept instantaneous causation, which violated a precept that was considered sacred, one on which Einstein's theory of relativity and so also all of physics had rested.

    But after Bell had formulated this as an inequality that could in principle be tested, tests were done that showed (so it is alleged) that the accepted interpretation of q.m. is in fact correct.

    However, although instantaneous causation does apparently occur (if we swallow all of this, which is a mixture of observed fact, mathematical q.m. rules and an interpretation that was formulated by some of the most thoughtful people, including Niels Bohr) it is alleged that this cannot be used to do any true communication.  This alleged fact has been taught to physics students for some time now as the saving grace in this situation.  I am not clear in my mind, at this time, on how to understand or explain that point.

    This is my own (surely incomplete and faulty) understanding of the situation, dating back many decades to my undergraduate days in India, when I came upon EPR by chance. (I did not learn about Bell's inequality till later, and still am pretty ignorant about that.)

    As far as the relevance of any of this to paranormal phenomena, I have no understanding at all about that aspect.  That is not to rule out such phenomena, only to state the lack of any linkage that I know of.


From:  P. B.
To:  Arjun Janah
Cc:  E.D., R.B., blank01, V.K.
Re:  Blog post of our correspondence re. probability.
Sent:  Sun, Apr 20, 2014 2:31 am

Dear Arjun,

 <personal detail, deleted by Arjun 04/20/14>

  The actual description of the EPR thought experiment evades the question
of fluctuations, of electron spin for instance, which destroy coherence.

  In other words, if the electrons in the EPR paradox are in the normal
paramagnetic state, as we take for granted, then spin correlations will be
exponentially damped in space and time. In a ferromagnet, the spin states
will be correlated and will be entangled. Flipping the spin of a majority spin
will ensure that a minority spin will be promoted to the Bose condensed state.

  Verifying this entanglement hypothesis means verifying that the
Bose condensed state depends only on temperature ( in classical
critical phenomena) or on a bias (in quantum critical phenomena),
as for instance in the breaking of symmetry at different energy scales.

From: E. D.
To: Arjun Janah
Sent: Sun, Apr 20, 2014 6:34 pm
Subject: RE: More blog posts


These (things I wrote that you posted) were mostly off-the-cuff remarks made by e-mail.

You might want to add this as an addendum, in answer to your question about what parapsychology has to do with Bell's theorem.

The connection between parapsychology and Bell's theorem is that the existence of non-local causation is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for the existence of parapsychological phenomena. Telepathy, for example, suggests that there is an immediate and instantaneous connection between minds (and the brains that embody those minds). Psychokinetic phenomena suggest that the mind has an immediate (non-local) causal power over physical objects held at a distance. If Bell's theorem proved that non-local causation exists, it would fulfill one condition for the existence of parapsychological phenomena.
Of course, parapsychological phenomena might still not exist because there might be other conditions that are necessary for them to occur that can not be fulfilled. But the impossibility of non-local causation is the most commonly cited reason to reject the possibility of parapsychological phenomena. So demonstrating the possibility of non-local causation would greatly increase the possibility that parapsychological phenomena might occur.


E.D.: on the philosopher John Schumacher (in connection with the previous post)

E.D.: on the philosopher John Schumacher (in connection with the previous post) 

From: E.D.
    To: Arjun Janah
    Sent: Fri, Apr 18, 2014 3:00 pm
    Subject: RE: Blog post of our correspondence re. probability. 

<Some personal details in the e-mail below, not directly related to the main discussion, were deleted by Arjun when posting on 04/20/14.>


    I didn't realize that physicists didn't have an answer to this question. I thought the standard interpretation of q.m. was that there is no "objective" reality until an observation occurs, collapsing the wave function. I thought Schrodinger's Cat Paradox was supposed to raise doubts about this interpretation, but that most physicists did not see it as a problem.

   I never studied q.m in any depth. I studied physics when I was an engineering student at RPI.  In addition to that, I took philosophy classes with John Schumacher, who was a former math student who became a philosopher. He graduated from RPI  in 1966 and was radicalized by the student movements of the 60s. A classic "hippy" in his appearance and philosophy,  he was interested in eastern mysticism (buddhism) and, because of his RPI education, also interested in combining his interest in buddhism with his knowledge of physics.

   (John Schumacher) and a couple of other members of the RPI philosophy department knew David Bohm and invited him to speak on campus. They were particularly interested in David Bohm's interpretation of q.m. and in the "holographic" theory of the universe.  All this was very heady stuff and I was quite interested, although I never did learn enough q.m. to know what to make of it. John Schumacher published only one book in the late 80s which was a synthesis of philosophy and q.m., titled "Human Posture".  He died young at age 54 in 1999.

    The crux of the issue was non-local causation. Q.M., in some interpretations, at least, allows for immediate causal connections over a distance. Bell's theorem was supposed to provide proof for such local causation. But later I learned that, in fact, Bell's theorem can't be used to prove non-local causation.*
<* See also E.D.'s modification of this statement in the next post -- Arjun 04/20/14.>

    During his student years at RPI, John Schumacher was a student of John Koller, who is a expert on Eastern Philosophy--especially Indian philosophy. John Koller is still alive and I see him occasionally. There were other philosophers at RPI in the 60s that also exposed John to eastern philosophy. Also at RPI in the 60s was David Thoreau Wieck, a leading post-war American anarchist philosopher.

    Ultimately, I think David had the biggest impact on John, and both directly and indirectly through John, on me.

     During his student years at RPI, John Schumacher was a student of John Koller, who is a expert on Eastern Philosophy--especially Indian philosophy. John Koller is still alive and I see him occasionally. There were other philosophers at RPI in the 60s that also exposed John to eastern philosophy. Also at RPI in the 60s was David Thoreau Wieck, a leading post-war American anarchist philosopher.

    Ultimately, I think David had the biggest impact on John, and both directly and indirectly through John, on me.

    John Schumacher was an anarchist, and his anarchism leaned pretty heavily towards communist anarchism.

    I think his interest in non-local causation was an attempt to show how the capitalist view of social reality, in which individuals are separate and competing entities, is false. In fact, John wanted to show, people are more radically connected to one another. Thus social life is held in common, and an egalitarian, non-hierarchical society, in which we are all "one," fits best with reality.

    A lot of John's book, "Human Posture," I think, tries to explain how we ever came to believe we are separate if the reality is that we are not. It does that in a psychological, sociological and metaphysical way.

    Ultimately, I have come to believe that John's primary commitment was political, and that he merely used mysticism, physics and metaphysics to help him meet his political commitments. I have also come to doubt his interpretations of mysticism and physics and to think that he would have been better off just focusing directly on politics.

    Although I've come to see this as a chink in his sterling armor, I still think of him as an extraordinary personality--practically a mythic being come to life, or rather, an archetypal persona, and it is tragic he's no longer with us.