BOOK REVIEW: The Transcendentalist by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The TranscendentalistThe Transcendentalist by Ralph Waldo Emerson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

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In this short essay (about ten pages,) Emerson lays out an argument for Idealism over Materialism, and then contends that it’s reasonable to excuse oneself from the economic and civic aspects of society in favor of a simple life of introspection. [e.g. As Thoreau did in his years at Walden Pond.]

Emerson opens by suggesting that Transcendentalism is just Idealism by a different name. Idealism being a philosophical stance which puts consciousness at the fore while proposing that there is something beyond [that transcends] our experience of sensory information. The arguments put forth in favor of Idealism include the fact that sensory illusions exist and the Kantian critique of Locke’s view that there’s no more to the intellect than that which is or was sensory experience; Kant argues that there’s intuition. Kant’s influence is considerable, and Emerson explains that even the term “Transcendentalism” is derived from Kant’s use of the term “transcendental.”

The latter part of the essay echoes Emerson’s masterwork, the essay “Self-Reliance.” It proposes that it’s perfectly laudable to take advantage of the greatest gift one has, one’s consciousness, to introspect and indulge one’s need to better understand.

I may have mixed views on Emerson’s ideas, but one can’t say he doesn’t use language and reason and passion to make compelling claims. I found this brief essay to be both thought-provoking and inspirational, and I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Expanding Consciousness by Mario Beauregard

Expanding Reality: The Emergence of Postmaterialist ScienceExpanding Reality: The Emergence of Postmaterialist Science by Mario Beauregard
My rating: 3 of 5 stars Page

Beauregard aims to persuade readers that the materialist view of consciousness is irredeemably irreconcilable with observed reality. In this objective, he fails. (He’s not alone. There are too many unknowns for the rational skeptic to take a firm stance on the nature of consciousness.) What Beauregard succeeds in doing is cataloguing research findings that could be interpreted as suggesting there is more to consciousness than materialists can account for.

Cleverly, Beauregard begins with the most compelling evidence and concludes with the most audacious, controversial, and unvalidated findings. That most compelling evidence is the role of mental attitude and beliefs upon health outcomes. It’s firmly established that mind state has a huge impact on health and health outcomes. From the placebo effect to a health outcome premium to those who pray (and believe there is a god that takes requests,) thought matters. Unfortunately for Beauregard, it’s a huge leap to say this means there is some sort of spirit force that acts on the material world. If one begins from the realization that the human body (and those of other animals) is really good at self-repair within certain limits and given certain conditions (and that among those conditions is the ability to dampen the stress response and trip the rest & digest mode,) then one needn’t call on anything supernormal / supernatural to explain the influence of thoughts on healing.

I don’t have the time or inclination to systematically go through the strengths and weaknesses of all the arguments, but the one I mentioned stands as an example of what is good and bad about the book. On the positive side, I think Beauregard accurately reports on some interesting findings, but then he uses them to bootstrap the position that materialism can’t work ineffectively. I found myself thinking “that does not follow” a great deal. Either there wasn’t enough known to draw a conclusion, or – as in the case of healing – there are competing hypotheses that work as well but without the need to appeal to anything so complicated or unproven as a web of consciousness.

Beyond healing, the book goes through findings that suggest the possibilities of extrasensory perception, telekinesis, and an afterlife for consciousness (e.g. near death experiences [NDE.]) In some cases, this evidence is strong but quite limited (usually limited both in the degree of effect and in understanding of what causes said effect,) but in a few cases the evidence is anecdotal and / or completely unvalidated. The same variation exists when Beauregard takes on competing hypotheses. In a few cases, I found myself thinking his refutations had compelling elements or bases, but in other cases the refutations seemed to be – at best – big stretches. [I expected an extensive refutation of the finding that OBEs (out-of-body-experiences, a common feature in NDEs) have been found to be triggerable at will using physical processes (electrical stimulation) to material (brain tissue,) but did not get it. To my mind, this finding is a challenging – though not damning – counter to postmaterialist arguments.]

If you’re interested in a cataloging of findings that suggest the possibility that there is more to consciousness than materialists propose, this is a fine book to check out. However, don’t expect a persuasive holy grail of persuasion, but rather a mixed bag that ultimately shows no more than the fact that there is a massive amount that we don’t know about how consciousness works.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hipparchus by Plato

HipparchusHipparchus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars


In this Socratic dialogue about “lovers of gain,” Socrates and an unnamed friend debate whether pursuing gains can be wicked. Usually, the title of a dialogue is the name of Socrates’ philosophical sparring partner, but, herein, Hipparchus is a historical figure who Socrates cites as the reason he wouldn’t hornswoggle his friend, quoting “Walk with just intent” and “Deceive not a friend” as credos that he, Socrates, lives by.

The friend tries a number of approaches to argue the loathsomeness of lovers of gain. Recognizing the starting premise will be that a gain is a good, the friend argues that such people (presumably greedy / materialistic types) purse valueless gains. Socrates attacks that as an oxymoron. Next, the friend argues that lovers of gain seek gains that no honorable man would pursue. Again, Socrates argues that a gain is a good and all humans seek good. Since the friend doesn’t want to call the lovers of gain fools (i.e. unable to recognize a gain when they see it,) the friend is stuck. The third approach is to argue that a wicked gain could be considered a loss. This is also swiftly rebutted. The last tack is to argue that some gains are good, while some are evil, which runs afoul of the same argument.

This isn’t one of the best dialogues – in fact, many question whether it was written by Plato. That said, it brings up a few ideas that are worthy of consideration. It felt very much like a conversation I once heard in which a young woman argued, “No one should have that much more than they need.” Which drew the response, “You realize that 90% of the world would say you have tons more than you need?” Which resulted in the instigator walking off in a huff. If you want to engage in debates about the virtue (or vice) of wealth acquisition, this might be a good place to begin your reflection.

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POEM: The Glazed Eyes of Mega-Mart Refugee

800px-barf_soapI’m like a Pyongyang refugee.
Detergent, far as the eye can see.
In some Seoul department store,
on the cleaning products floor.


I reject your bolder and your brighter
like a Smurf-smashing gorilla fighter.
It’s the same stuff, different box.
I’ll go beat my britches on the rocks.

TODAY’S RANT: How’d I Get So Much Stuff?

IMG_5194I don’t  like to use words like “stuff”, “things”, or the vague but picturesque “crap.”  Such words have low information content and are thus semantic lightweights. However, there are few words for the random compilation of tchotchkes, trinkets, baubles, gewgaws, kit, tools, devices, objects, gadgets, contraptions, contrivances, gizmos, widgets, thingamajigs, and doohickeys that line the drawers, shelves, and closets of my house.

You may think I’m some sort of packrat, but the sad fact is– I’m not. I’d say our household buys  less than average for homeowners. For one thing, we have no children. For another thing, both my wife and I might be classified as, for lack of a more eloquent term, cheapskates. (She’s an accountant and I’m trained as an economist, what do you expect?)  Of course, many people, perhaps most people, organize their junk better than I.

I do have one consumption fetish, and that is books. If you live in a very small town (or a large city with many small, local libraries) I may have more volumes in my house than does your local library. However, two things have slowed me down in collecting [physical] books. First, I buy most of my books on my Kindle these days. Second, I’ve come to realize that the reason I’ve bought so many books is the hope that one of them would provide some impetus for me to say something interesting, insightful, and valuable, and the entire English language canon has failed me utterly in this regard.

Still, I have a lot of miscellaneous detritus floating around in my home. You’ve heard of the 500-year flood? I have 500-year tools; that is, tools that are specifically for some task that only comes up once every few lifetimes or so. In a reasonable world, one would rent such tools. However, most tool rental places are also tool sellers. Such businesses have learned that if the tool sells new for $60, they can rent it for $50. Most people will buy it on the principle of the matter, and if they don’t… CHA-Ching. Who would rent a tool that costs almost as much to rent as it does to buy? I’ll tell you who (you thought that was rhetorical, didn’t you?), people who have the good sense to think of every object that comes into their home as an item being warehoused at their expense. People who have garage sales are brilliant. They are getting paid to store their junk in your home.

When I’m doing spring cleaning, as I am now, I frequently find containers that contain nothing. I guess I’ve just kept them around in case some pressing containment needs pop up. I keep all sorts of things because I think one day I’ll need them. However,  I never do need such items again, except the day after I throw them out.  To avoid such a situation, I don’t pitch them. However, if I keep them I won’t need them. If Joseph Heller was still alive, he could write a novel about my life.

Of course, sometimes I do need such items, but–owing to my poor organizational paradigm–I can’t find them. I then face the ultimate dilemma. Do I put the new one that I just bought with the old one that I found after I made the purchase, or do I put it in an entirely different location in the hope that when I need it again I’ll have a better chance of finding it.

No place have I felt the weight of how much “junk”  is swirling through our planet as when I was in Bangkok’s Chinatown last fall. There are miles of cramped alleyways and corridors packed to the gills with little plastic-wrapped junk, much of which seems to serve no purpose other than to satisfy the aesthetic needs of people with really poor taste or as gifts for people to whom you really want to send a statement of loathing. I had to get out of there, owing to a fear that shelving would collapse and I would be buried alive under a pile of knock-off Hello-Kitty coin purses.  I can think of no death that is more embarrassing and yet apropos of life in the modern world than that.

Of course, one of the many downsides of an economics education is the knowledge that our high standard of living is dependent upon people making and buying ever more stuff. If you are saying “what high standard of living?” and you haven’t hand-churned your own butter, darned some socks, and killed a mastodon today, I would encourage you to look into how people lived in the past. People unburdened of an economics education can make statements like, “People shouldn’t be materialistic and everybody should have a job and all jobs should pay a living wage.” However, that is like saying, “I should be able to keep my cake and I should be able to eat it as well and somebody should pay me $100 for it.”

We are still hunter-gatherers. We just hunt for bargains, and gather up geegaws.