Taxonomies and ‘the Reichenbach rule’

This post is more for informational purposes and not so much making my mind up about something. Lately I’ve come across differing notions in the taxonomical organisation of life forms in contemporamous biology, as opposed to the Early Modern Period which I normally make reference to. The role of taxonomy is an issue which relates to an aspect of Immanuel Kant’s philosophy of science which I see having a big importance. I will consider a specific case of dispute in biology, brought to my attention by Samir Okasha (2002).

While virtually all biologists maintain the veritude of a system of ordering life forms. I say life forms as the most general taxon term to include as robust a set from viruses to bananas. What some quibble over, however, is the ordering system of these life forms. In a contemporary context, there are differing notions of classifying species. One concerns addressing ancestry, and so a life form is ordered in a taxonomical structure in relation to its ancestral species. Cladistics is the approach which looks at organisms by organisation of their ancestors and descendants, and nothing more. This may allow for a family or ‘clade’ of species to emerge from any given ancestor. Cladistics can be distinguished from earlier ‘Linnaean’ approaches which emphasis specific classification schemes like ‘phylum’ and ‘genus’, in order to reflect the complexity of genealogy. It is said that Cladistics is a more parsimonious approach to the traditional Linnaeus taxonomical scheme, because taxa are used sparingly in the former approach by its appeal to ancestry.

By contrast there is another notion of taxonomy: Evolutionary systematics. Systematics is an approach which varies from Cladistics in that it identifies and organises organisms not by ancestry, but by accounting for evolutionary heritage (let’s call this vertical ordering), as well as preserving a form of ‘horizonal’ classes of species akin to the traditional Linnaean approach. This approach varies in its emphasis on trying to merge the 18thC Linnaean scheme, with the 19thC notion of natural selection. Instead of looking at individual organisms, the focus for systematics are the emergence of groups of species, such as dinosaurs, and their descendants. In some respects the approach of systematics allows for more flexibility in the organisational scheme, and is less rigorous.

These two approaches of systematics and cladistics vary in the way that they cut across organisms to create taxonomies, to invoke a philosophical phrase, they quibble on how they ‘carve nature at its joints’. It gets philosophical when we consider the role of the notion of a ‘common ancestor’. A taxonomical scheme can be said to be monophyletic if there is a common ancestor to a group. The two approaches construe the notion of of common ancestry in different ways. Systematics approaches hold that a grouping has a similar ancestor, while Cladistics holds that the whole ancestral group is a common ancestor of a given group.

Why is this important for someone thinking about Kant?

This is potentially an example of how systematicity, a dictum about the nature of science, actually works in practice. The one thing that is not disputed in any way, is that there needs to be a taxonomical system. New evidence, and differing approaches allow for the system to be refined, expanded and even significantly re-ordered. Yet, the idea of Kant’s system is distinctly a priori. The potential area that needs more work in my view, if the claim that biological taxonomy is an actual example of Kantian Systematicity, is the role of the monophyletic, or the common ancestor. in Kant’s view, the ‘higher genus’ concept required that in principle there is a single highest taxon or entity to give rise to its ‘lower’ concepts. I used to think that this meant an a priori claim that there was a potential single taxon at the highest level, even if it is not discovered.

The case of Reichenbach’s critique of Kant’s metaphysics of space and time come relevant here. Kant was criticised severely on the basis that his rational geometry was fundamentally Euclidean, which was the basis of his metaphysics and epistemology of time and space. Spacetime, as the physicists have come to know it, is a much more complicated affair than Kant had come to know it the 18thC. If a philosophical theory makes a claim that is subject to empirical review, then the evidence of whether the claim stands up to empirical scrutiny makes the theory stand or fall, on the basis of the evidence. I shall call this the Reichenbach rule. To what extent is there an issue of Kant violating ‘the Reichenbach rule’ in Kant’s theory of systematicity in relation to the issue of taxonomy. I think that it relies heavily on what the taxonomical approaches hold in relation to the notion of the common ancestor, and how it is possible to interpret biological taxonomy in terms of systematicity.There are other issues as well as the Reichenbach rule, which also weighs of importance to compare, namely: whether a theory can change its components and structuring, while maintaining some aspect of truth to it, or the a priori ‘necessity’ of structure and also whether the fact ‘that there is a system’ is preserved through the differing contemporary theoretical perspectives to taxonomy.


Book Review: Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens

I have a penchant for big books. At the present moment, I’m trying to prepare for a very hard job assessment interview by reading a whole textbook on social research methods, at the same time I am reading a book by Anthony (‘AC’) Grayling which is also a large book, but according to the cover of the book (and the title), its not just a big book, it’s “The Good Book”, talk about self-publicity. Because I surround myself purposely with difficult things: big books; books on scientific method; books written by Adorno; black metal, or trying to learn badminton with a motor skills disability, I make an effort to lighten up my life from time to time. I enjoy a good laugh, I enjoy children’s literature, I act like a child. This is usually a way of making myself seem more accessible to people, if they really knew that I was thinking about the importance of despair, or whether Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer uphold Kantian tradition, I don’t think people can really peer inside.

Why have I just written a paragraph about myself in what is titled a book review for Christopher Hitchens? It is my ode to the man. A good essay should start with a preamble, an academic essay should start with ‘In this essay I shall do x,y,z which relates to systematic concerns a,b,c’. Hitchens writes in the former style, for a man who reads things of the former. Hitchens is a man of diverse personality and immensely wide interests. Hitchens consistently writes in a personable manner and shows humour that is unexpected and pathos in things we so easily wish to forget.

Hitchens’ series of Essays in this publication, released earlier this year (perhaps the most ‘newest’ book I’ve read that’s worth blogging about), are on a variety of subjects, most are from various publications such as Vanity Fair, Slate Magazine and The Nation, and most are within the past decade. Many of the topics are contemporary, such as the use of words such as ‘like’ or ‘y’know’ which are filler words taking place in sentences. When I find Guardian Journalists such as Jess Cartner-Morley and politicians even as eminent as the Prime Minister using such filler sentences, I know that a cultural epidemic is taking place. A great essay is one which makes one so self conscious they look over their back, or in the mirror, to become more self aware. I personally am, like, y’know, trying to sort of, kinda get rid of, y’know, the filler words that I over use, really.

Hitchens should not be typified as one of the ‘Four Horsemen’, or the archetype of ‘New Atheists’. This would undermine the breadth of his work. Perhaps notably, few of his essays address the typical subjects he embraces in his public talks on the evils of religion or from his book ‘God is Not Great’. This is a good thing, it’s terrible to repeat your ideas (note to self, keep this one in mind). Hitchens reveals a more nuanced appreciation of the Arab world in this anthology, as he addresses many of his experiences in countries such as Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a level of liberalism and sophistication in many of these countries which is ignored by the mainstream media. Hitchens addresses the side effects of war through his book reviews on figures such as Rebecca West, events during the inter-war years, and a very powerful essay on the consequences of ‘Agent Orange’ in Vietnam. Hitchens addresses subjects of great gravitas, many of which are often ignored.

Some subjects couldn’t be more contemporary, One essay on the Eurozone crisis (written in 2010) may well have been written a fortnight ago. Hitchens addresses issues relating to EU diplomacy and tensions in this political communion. I tend to read the author as more British than American, but Hitchens is very apt at speaking from a US point of view as well. I forget (perhaps too easily) that Hitchens predominantly writes for a North American audience. Hitchens displays familiarity with many of the literary greats of the 20th Century, from his visit to see author V.S Naipaul, to a review on J.G. Ballard, as wll as his numerous allusions to Gore Vidal (a man who is often compared with Hitchens) and Martin Amis. Hitchens is a man with many famous friends. This is evidenced by an evend held this month at the London Southbank, which celebrated the life and work of Christopher Hitchens (Hitchens was set to attend but became suddenly unwell prior to the event).

One forgets too easily that Hitchens, before he became the fanboy object of many a ‘New Atheist’, was a journalist for his bread and butter, who observed on many foreign affairs. One theme prevalent in this anthology is the cultural role of a ‘hack’ in the modern world. Hitchens addresses the numerous views on how ‘inferior’ the journalist is in comparison to the historian, or the poet. Hitchens rightly points out how the public intellectual at least in perception, varies significantly from the journalist, yet despite the criticism to what is his bread-and-butter profession, Hitchens shows by example that one can be a journalist as well as an intellectual. I think that one day, Librivox will release an edition of Hitchens’ ‘Arguably’ and future people will see it in the same way I would see a collection of essays by George Orwell, another journalist of merit. It will be a work of historical importance, successfully capturing the zeitgeist of what was the Noughties generation; a baby-boomer and gen x, y generation; what life was like during the early internet age. Hitchens made art out of the internet newspaper, it may be true that online ‘publications’ are mostly full of things that will easily be forgotten over the decades, but buried in all that shit are a few gems of authorship. Gems such as the work of Christopher Hitchens.

The anthology was written, if I am to believe the introduction, at the urgency of keeping active. As many readers may know, Christopher Hitchens is enduring oesophageal cancer. Hitchens addresses his condition briefly and in his candour, admits that his writing and public engagements are the one thing that keep him going. Knowing that his death is immanent, it is as if he writes now (or perhaps better said, he reads now) as if her is already a dead man.

As a closing remark, I recommend anyone whether reading the book or not, who is not squeamish about matters sexual, to read the insightful, humourous and profoundly unusual essay ‘As American as Apple Pie’. To put it crudely, it’s about blowjobs.I can’t imagine George Orwell or Gore Vidal writing about such a subject!


My visit to the St. Paul’s occupy camp

Lately I’ve been reading Adorno on a variety of issues. I’ve also been reading up on theories of history and progress. I found an interesting connection with something contemporary in my reading of the latter. Slavoj Zizek stated in numerous places that pace Francis Fukayama, events such as the Arab Spring show evidence of what Fukayama called the “End of History”.

I’m by no means an expert on the philosophy of history, but the idea of a universal narrative seems to gain currency in the current social and economic affairs of the world. To posit theories of universal history through narratives of progress, peace, or dialectics was seen as metaphysical speculation. Such a programme was presumptious of a notion of a universal history or, depending who you read presuming certain facts about human nature. However, a Globalised economy, news media and globally connected spheres of locality (glocal) seems to make social science and Hegelian thought uncomfortable bedfellows.

Why am I thinking about this? Usually because I read about all kinds of philosophy on a casual basis, alongside more careful readings of Kant and Adorno (and at present, essays by Hitchens). The notion of history, or progress was strongly on my mind because I visited on four occaisions the Occupy St. Paul’s camp in the City of London, which, strangely enough, is an area based, in the city of London (if you don’t understand that last sentence, don’t worry: the City of London is an immensely complicated thing).

I follow lots of people on my personal Twitter account, and follow lots of stories on numerous RSS feeds. If there’s one thing that is widespread today, it is dissent about the legitimate rule of governmental authorities. Lots of people have tried to characterise this movement, one prevalent meme which is coming across (at least initially) was the phrase ‘we are the 99%’. There have been some extrapolations on the more technical side of analysing the datasets relating to economic and social inequalities in the US from blogs such as Sociological Images, however this grassroots campaign is not really motivated by datasets.

So what is motivating the #occupy movement? (n.b. in the age of social media, hashtag [#] is being used outside of twitter contexts in ways derivative of the social media outlet). If there is one thing that can be said to generalise them, perhaps it is that it cannot be generalised. There are mainstream depictions of these protesters around the world as anticapitalists, perhaps socialists. London Mayor Boris Johnson referred to them as ‘Crusties’ (people [usually white] who have dreadlocks, which has other ideological baggage associated with it) in a talk earlier this week. I’ve heard some of these protesters referred to as ‘career activists’. One of the posters in the St. Pauls’ site said “‘Hippie-crits’ go to Starbucks”.

As someone who likes to take a backseat in observing these things, I find it very hard to make generalisations, and then I was reminded of an insight from Adorno that the problem with philosophies before the 20th Century were their ‘totalising’ element. Theories which tried to explain everything, failed. So, instead of trying to write to you some opinion of what I thought characterised it all, I won’t bother.

The invested interests who have come to occupy and put literature and advertisement (sic) are varied. Off the top of my head, i’ll list a few:

  • The RMT (a union) has put a large poster complaining about cuts in public spending
  • The Socialist Worker set up a stall
  • There are posters about Islam, which do not seem to have direct bearing on the site, but are (I think) put there because it will get lots of attention as people like me walk by.
  • There are posters which have a few words about what is going on, and state that people such as the officials of the Church of England and Parliament are liars or hypocrites, and then go on about something which isn’t really relevant to the cause: such as illuminati conspiracies (David Icke posters have been defaced and seen as highjacking the occupy camp)
  • There are religious and spiritual messages, some of which make Abrahamic allegories between current affairs and the character of Mammon or Jesus
  • There are posters about missing persons or people who are in dire need of fundraising for an operation etc
  • There are posters about related campaigns, events, talks nearby: such as an anarchist book fair, talks on feminism
  • There are posters about the cuts to specific public services
  • There are posters which use a heavy amount of rhetoric and are made for the explicit point of raising emotions among people who agree with them already. Many words like ‘plutocrat’ or ‘democratic’ or ‘neoliberal’ are thrown around the camp. I feel something distasteful about when people of political persuasions do not define these terms, but simply assert them in constructing a case for their views. It violates the fallacy of ‘begging the question’.
  • There is a first aid tent, and a ‘safe space’ tent, which I think, is for female protesters and those with children. There is a tent providing counselling, a tent with a piano (I was so tempted to play some blues!). There is a tent providing provisions of food. There is an information tent and that is linked to the ‘Tent City university’, which is a highly organised set of events, talks and discussions.
  • There are posters distinctly about Marxism, or evocative of the old ‘Communism vs. Capitalism’ which reflects an outdated pre 1989 discourse. It is interesting how Marxism/Communism/Socialism are lumped together as an ideological opposite of capitalism. These kinds of terms and distinctions show the lack of rigour or systematic response of alternative points of views to current affairs. Or to put it in another way: it shows a starvation and desparation of ideas.
  • There is a Banksy art work consisting of a monopoly board, very fitting.
  • On one occaision there was a ‘speakers corner’ style moment with a fellow and a large sound system beside him on a trailer

There are lots of very positive things happening as a result of the St. Paul’s camping campaign. There have been ‘satellite’ movements going on around London, such as Finsbury Square and an occupation of the former UBS building. Participation among many disparate groups. How many punks and anarchists have stood beside pensioners and parents with children before?

There is something almost Christian about what is going on. People are united under all kinds of stripes, all kinds of interests, all representing a universal dissent about the status quo. There are many people who support their cause, but for various reasons have no voice, or an opportunity to camp. There is not much discrimination in the sense that for some of the more refined protesters, they pray too for the bankers. Perhaps the real success of the movement is how it has embarrassed the Anglican church in how Christ-like the movement is.

I noticed another deformed irony in my last visit. There was a sign which said something like ‘we are in solidarity with Greece’, and from my angle, there was the beautiful architecture of Christopher Wren’s Baroque masterpiece, the Cathedral itself. The Baroque is an advancement of the ideals of sculpture established by Classical Greeks, taking the High Classical to its logical extreme, geometries and patterns, columns of marble evoking piety to a higher power. There’s nothing more allied to the Hellenes than a Baroque building except maybe a Roman copy or a Renaissance building, or it seems, a civil disobedience, a tradition that goes back to times of Solon.


The asymmetry of disgust

This week. I’ve pondered a post on the Occupy movement and actually going to one forced a silence for a little while. This post is not about the occupy movement, but I was provoked by the multitudinous number of interests, some of which were more about implying things than actual facts or statement (we are planning to write an extended post on this subject). Implying suggestive terms is the worse kind of rhetoric and it undermines a decent and rational conversation but alludes to fear mongering or already present prejudices, instead of attempting to justify or acknowledge them.

Two of the posters that were put up on a series of columns were relating to wikileaks. One simply said ‘free Bradley Manning’, who is currently alleged to have given a number of the infamous diplomatic cables to wikileaks. But the other one implied that Julian Assange’s trial is a set-up, show trial or distraction technique from the importance of the wikileaks movement. I will grant that commenting on any current legal case is never a good idea to pass a judgment before the officiating body (or in other words: what the hell do I know?), however, there is an aspect of a permanent stain on anyone’s name if there is ever an accusation of sexual assault. For many people, this allegation is the death of a professional career, even an allegation which is later shown to be false has already committed serious damage. It is odd though, how within the critical discourse of the ‘occupy’, there wasn’t enough distancing from a man currently on trial. I suspect that there are many who are willing to turn a blind eye to a ‘hero’s indiscretions if they are still a hero. If I am to be honest, I think I would still consider the likes of Aeneas or Achilleus to be great heroes (even if they are fictional) despite being distinctly flawed, in the case of the former, I wonder whether his flaws are inherent to his character.

I was thinking the other day about a particular celebrity who has seemingly been forgiven for the fact that he was not only convicted guilty of rape, but is almost celebrated for the personality and bravado he has about that instance. I speak of the appearance of famous boxer-rapist Mike Tyson, who appeared notably on the Comedy Central roast of Charlie Sheen (another instance of a celebrity who is complimented for womanising). There are a good number of people who will distance themselves from the work of wikileaks from its cult of personality leader, but the ‘at-least-ambivalence’ response is a dangerous tacit sign of acceptance of a very serious allegation. There is an asymmetry to separate the wrongdoings of a person from the person when it seems convenient to one’s self-concept. To downplay such an allegation is to downplay the seriousness of the act.

I note another asymmetry between disgraced celebrities. When Gary Glitter was convicted of child sexual abuse, it was a virtual death of his career. Many of Glitter’s songs had particular prominence in the US, usually as introduction songs for sports teams before big games, and would almost definately provide some form of royalty fee to the artist. There was a notable disappearance of those songs after he was convicted guilty, definately the case after his second conviction, that his act was so heinous that his fame was retconned (and one should not understate the prominence of some of his songs) as if it were erased from history. Compare this to say, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out which is hardly percieved as coloured by the activities later emerging by the man. It is interesting how some cultural asymmetries occur in our perceptions for essentially similar kinds of phenomena. I suspect there’s a Knobe effect/x-phi analysis waiting to be made here.


A post not really about anything at all

Here’s a personal post, where I talk about nothing in particular [Ed. Isn’t that what I do anyway?]. My saturday is taking the following form: as I am back home from training at the gym (I had to cut things short when I felt an injury coming near), I am dealing with a backlog of emails, and ‘tabbed’ emails that I really should need to reply to. At the same time, I’m listening to some music, which is less of a hobby but more a cultural chore. I have to make a distinct effort to keep in touch with ‘what is cool’ in British popular music these days, save following that talent show.

One of my regular tasks, which I don’t exactly have a systematic approach to, is to catch up on RSS, twitter and other such feeds that give me insight into the world. Since I am aware that my own life isn’t the locus of the world (it’s easy to forget sometimes, and sometimes useful to assume its the case to be more productive), I make an effort to catch up  on various happenings going on in the world, as well as academic trends, if any papers are coming out that are of relevance to me. I don’t think it’s reasonable for a procrastination exercise that this post is, to list all of the things that I subscribe to on my RSS feeds, but they include things from podcasts, blogs I like, press releases from certain charities, interests of mine (from Christian systematic theology to fashion journalism), Librivox releases, black metal gigs going on near me and I’ve even set up RSS feeds of things going on in my local area. I have created a ‘servant’ out of cloud computing and with the constant influx of data and news stories, game releases or developing occurences, I like to find a unified way of trying to deal with it.

So, that’s also why I’m in a bit of a drought of things to say from time to time, because I’m so busy trying to follow what’s going on. I’d like to make a few observations, however:

  • Internet memes are catching up with the ‘occupy’ movement, referencing certain jokes (lord of the rings, batman) in relation to what’s going on now. I can’t tell whether they are disingenuous or just being cynical for a chuckle, or neither.
  • I’m reading a book of essays by Christopher Hitchens, I believe it has been released recently, and I really need to complete it quickly. Some of the articles mostly take the form of essays on contemporary affairs, or book reviews. There is an interesting review on Philip Larkin, for instance; a crude reference about Mark Twain’s risque jokes, and one thing that I found really cutting edge for Hitchens, was a dedication to the individuals who sparked the Arab Spring in the introduction, and an article written in (I think) April 2010 on the terrible status of EU countries. If there was a book that spelled relevance to right now, as well an interesting exercises in how to  be a raconteur, Hitchens’ would be artypical of Very Good Writing. Hitchens states his own sense of urgency about finishing this book due his current pressing health concerns.
  • I’m trying to establish a ‘one post a week’ minimum for this blog, and this post is an attempt to meet a quota.
  • I need to update a lot of features on this blog, and I’m painfully aware of this. I’m working on it.
  • I apologise to that It looks unlikely that I’ll put up a post that Destre submitted to me titled on the topic of subversion. But it will likely form the basis of future posts.

Michael (working in the metaphorical basement)