Mathematical Platonism: A Comedy

Mathematical Platonism holds that mathematical forms – equations, geometric forms, measurable relationships – are somehow embedded into the fabric of the universe, and are ‘discovered’ rather than invented by human minds.

From my perspective, humans respond to challenges of experience. However, within a given condition of experience, the range of possible responses is limited. In differing cultures, where similar conditions of experience apply, the resulting responses can also be expected to be similar. The precise responses and their precise consequences generate new conditions to be responded to – but again only within a range. So while the developments we find in differing cultures can oft end up being very different, they can also end up being very similar, and the trajectories of these developments can be traced backward, revealing their histories. These histories produce the truths we find in these cultures, and the facts that have been agreed upon within them. As these facts and the truths concerning them prove reliable, they are sustained until they don’t, at which point each culture will generate new responses that prove more reliable.

Since, again, the range of these responses within any given set of conditions is actually limited by the history of their development, we can expect differing cultures with similar sets of conditions to recognize a similar set of facts and truths in each other when they at last make contact. That’s when history really gets interesting, as the cultures attempt to come into concordance, or instead come into conflict – but, interestingly, in either case, partly what follows is that the two cultures begin borrowing from each other facts, truths, and possible responses to given challenges. ‘Universal’ truths, are simply those that all cultures have found equally reliable over time.

This is true about mathematical forms as well, the most resilient truths we develop in response to our experiences.  I don’t mean that maths are reducible to the empirical; our experiences include reading, social interatction, professional demands, etc., many of which will require continued development of previous inventions.  However, there’s no doubt that a great deal of practical mathematics have proven considerably reliable over the years.  Whereas, on the contrary, I find useless Platonic assertions that two-dimensional triangles or the formula ‘A = Π * r * r’   simply float around in space, waiting to be discovered.

So, in considering this issue, I came up with a little dialogue, concerning two friends trying to find – that is, discover – the mathematical rules for chess (since the Platonic position is that these rules, as they involve measurable trajectories, effectively comprise a mathematical form, and hence were discovered rather than invented).

Bob: Tom, I need some help here; I’m trying to find something, but it will require two participants.
Tom: Sure, what are we looking for.
B.: Well, it’s a kind of game. It has pieces named after court positions in a medieval castle.
T.: How do you know this?
B.: I reasoned it through, using the dialectic process as demonstrated in Plato’s dialogues. I asked myself, what is the good to be found in playing a game? And it occurred to me, that the good was best realized in the Middle Ages. Therefore, the game would need to be a miniaturization of Medieval courts and the contests held in them.
T.: Okay, fine, then let’s start with research into the history of the Middle Ages –
B.: No, no, history has nothing to do with this. That would mean that humans brought forth such a game through trial and error. We’re looking for the game as it existed prior to any human involvement.
T.: Well, why would there be anything like a game unless humans were involved in it?
B.: Because its a form; as a form, it is pure and inviolate by human interest.
T.: Then what’s the point in finding this game? Aren’t we interested in playing it?
B.: No, I want to find the form! Playing the game is irrelevant.
T.: I don’t see it, but where do you want to start.
B.: In the Middle Ages, they thought the world was flat; we’ll start with a flat surface.
T.: Fine, how about this skillet.
B.: But it must be such that pieces can move across it in an orderly fashion.
T.: All right, let’s try a highway; but not the 490 at rush hour….
B. But these orderly moves must follow a perpendicular or diagonal pattern; or they can jump part way forward and then to the side.
T.: You’re just making this up as you go along.
B.: No! The eternally true game must have pieces moving in a perpendicular, a diagonal, or a jump forward and laterally.
T.: Why not a circle?
B.: Circles are dangerous; they almost look like vaginas. We’re looking for the morally perfect game to play.
T.: Then maybe it’s some sort of building with an elevator that goes both up and sideways.
B.: No, it’s flat, I tell you… aha! a board is flat!
T.: So is a pancake.
B.: But a rectangular board allows perpendicular moves, straight linear moves, diagonal moves, and even jumping moves –
T.: It also allows circular moves.
B.: Shut your dirty mouth! At least now we know what we’re looking for. Come on, help me find it. (begins rummaging through a trash can.) Here it is, I’ve discovered it!
T.: What, that old box marked “chess?”
B.: It’s inside. It’s always inside, if you look for it.
T.: My kid brother threw that out yesterday. He invented a new game called ‘shmess’ which he says is far more interesting. Pieces can move in circles in that one!.
B,: (Pause.) I don’t want to play this game anymore. Can you help me discover the Higgs Boson?
T.: Is that anywhere near the bathroom? I gotta go….

Bob wants a “Truth” and Tom wants to play a game. Why is there any game unless humans wish to play it?

A mathematical form comes into use in one culture, and then years later again in a completely other culture;  assuming the form true, did it become true twice through invention?  Yes.  This is one of the unfortunate truths about truth: it can be invented multiple times.  That is precisely what history tells us.

So, Bob wants to validate certain ideas from history, while rejecting the history of those ideas. You can’t have it both ways. Either there is a history of ideas, in which humans participated to the extent of invention, or history is irrelevant, and you lose even “discovery.” The Higgs Boson, on the other hand, gets ‘discovered,’ because there is an hypothesis based on theory which is itself based on previous observations and validated theory, experimentation, observation, etc. In other words, a history of adapting thought to experience.  (No one doubts that there is a certain particle that seems to function in a certain way. But there is no Higgs Boson without a history of research in our effort to conceptualize a universe in which such is possible, and to bump into it, so to speak, using our invented instrumentation, and to name it, all to our own purposes.)

Plato was wrong, largely because he had no sense of history. Beyond the poetry of his dialogues (which has undoubted force), what was most interesting in his philosophy had to be corrected and systematized by Aristotle, who understood history; the practical value of education; the differences between cultures; and the weight of differing opinions. Perhaps we should call philosophy “Footnotes to Aristotle.”

But I will leave it to the readers here whether they are willing to grapple with a history of human invention in response to the challenges of experiences, however difficult that may seem; or whether they prefer chasing immaterial objects for which we can find no evidence beyond the ideas we ourselves produce.

Reasoning, evidence, and/or not miracles

This week at Plato’s Footnote, Massimo Piglucci posted a brief discussion on how the use of probability reasoning, especially of the Bayesian variety, can be used to dispel contemporary myths such as anti-vaccination paranoia, trutherism concerning the events of 9/11/01, and bitherism concerning Former President Obama.

https://platofootnote.wordpress.com/2017/01/16/anatomy-of-a-frustrating-conversation/

 

The comments thread became an object lesson in just how difficult it is to discuss such matters with those who hold mythic beliefs – every silly conspiracy theory was given vent on it. I myself felt it useful to briefly engage an apologist for miracle belief, with someone misrepresenting the argument against such belief as put forth by David Hume, referenced in Piglucci’s article. I would like to present and preserve that conversation here, because it is representative of the discussions on the comment thread, but also representative of the kinds of discussions reasonable people generally have with those so committed to their beliefs that they are open to neither reasoning nor evidence against them.

 

Asserting that Hume begins by declaring miracles simply impossible (and thus pursuing a circular argument), a commenter handled jbonnicerenoreg writes:

 

“The possibility of something should be the first step in a n argument, since of something is impossible there is no need to argue about it. For example, Hume says that miracles are impossible so it is not necessary to look at a particular miracle probability. I believe Hume’s argument does more than the reasoning warrants. ”

 

My reply:

That isn’t Hume’s argument at all. Hume argues that since miracles violate the laws of nature, the standard of evidence for claims for their occurrence is considerably higher than claims of even infrequent but natural events (such as someone suddenly dying from seemingly unknown causes – which causes we now know include aneurisms, strokes, heart failure, etc. etc.). Further, the number of people historically who have never experienced a miracle far outweighs the number who claim they have, which suggests questions of motivations to such reports. Finally, Hume remarks that all religions have miracle claims, and there is no justification for accepting the claims of one religion over any other, in which case we would be left with having to accept all religions as equally justified, which would be absurd, given that each religion is embedded with claims against all other religions.

 

Hume doesn’t make a probability argument, but his argument suggests a couple; for instance, given the lack of empirical evidence, and the infrequency of eye-witness accounts (with unknown motivations), the probability of miracles occurring would seem to be low. At any rate, I don’t remember Hume disputing the logical possibility of miracles, but does demand that claims made for them conform to reason and empirical experience.

 

jbonnicerenoreg,: “If you witness Lazurus rise from the dead, and if you know he was correctly entombed, then your evidence is sense experience–the same as seeing a live person. Hume’s standard of evidence is always about historical occurrences.”

 

My reply:

If such an experience were to occur, it might be considered ’empirical’ to the one who has the experience; but the report of such an experience is not empirical evidence of the occurrence, it is mere hearsay.

 

Unless you want to claim that you were there at the supposed raising of Mr. Lazarus, I’m afraid all we have of it is a verbal report in a document lacking further evidentiary justification, for a possible occurrence that supposedly happened 2000 years ago – which I think makes it an historical occurrence.

 

And no, Hume’s standard of evidence is clearly not simply about historical occurrences, although these did concern him, since his bread-and-butter publications were in history. But if miracles are claimed in the present day, then they must be documented in such a way that a reasonable skeptic can be persuaded to consider them. And it would help even more if they were repeatable by anyone who followed the appropriate ritual of supplication. Otherwise, I feel I have a right to ask, why do these never happen when I’m around?

 

7+ billion people on the planet right now, and I can’t think of a single credible report, with supporting evidence, of anyone seeing someone raised from the dead. Apparently the art of it has been lost?

 

Look, I have a friend whose mother died much too young, in a car crash, 25 years ago. Could you send someone over to raise her from the dead? I suppose bodily decomposition may make it a little difficult, but surely, if the dead can be raised they should be raised whole. Zombies with their skin falling off are difficult to appreciate, aesthetically.

 

jbonnicerenoreg,: “I suggest that if you can get over yourself, please read Hume carefully and comment with quotes. I will be glad to answer any questions you may have about the logic of the argument.”

 

My reply:

Well, that you’ve lowered yourself to cheap ad hominem once your argument falls apart does not speak much for your faith in your position.

 

However, I will give you one quote from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, “On Miracles”:

 

A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

( http://www.bartleby.com/37/3/14.html )

 

I think Massimo and I are reading such a remark rather fairly, whereas you preferred to bull in with something you may have found on some Apologists web-site, or made up whole cloth. It was you who needed to provide quotes and reasoning, BTW, since your counter-claim is opposed to the experience of those of us who actually have read Hume.

 

By the way, I admit I did make a mistake in my memory of Hume – He actually is making a probability argument, quite overtly.

 

jbonnicerenoreg,: “A beautiful quote and one which I hope we all take seriously put into practise.

Hume is arguing against those who at that time would say something like “miracles prove Christianity is true”. You can see that his argument is very strong against that POV. However, he never takes up the case of a person witnessing a miracle. Of course, that is because “observations and experiments” are impossible in history since the past is gone and all we have is symbolic reports which you call “hearsay”. My congratlations for taking the high road and only complaining that I never read Hume!”

 

My reply:

Thank you for the congratulations, I’m glad we could part on a high note after reaching mutual understanding.

 

Notice that jbonnicerenoreg really begins with a confusion between the possible and the probable.  One aspect of a belief in myths is the odd presumption that all things possible are equally probable, and hence ‘reasonable.’  I suppose one reason I had forgotten Hume’s directly probabilistic argument was because probabilistic reasoning now seems to me a wholly necessary part of reasoning, to the point that it doesn’t need remarking.  Bu, alas, it does need remarking, time and again, because those who cling to myth always also cling to the hope – nay, insistence – that if there is something possible about their precious myth, then it ought to be given equal consideration along with what is probable. given the nature and weight of available evidence.  Notice also that jbonnicerenoreg tries to sneak, sub-rosa, as it were, the implicit claim that eye-witnesses to miracles – such as the supposed authors of the Bible – ought to be given credence as reporting an experience, rather than simply reporting a hallucination, or a fabricating an experience for rhetorical or other purposes.  Finally, notice that when I play on and against this implicit claim, jbonnicerenoreg tries an interesting tactic – he surrenders the problem of historical reportage, while continue to insist that witnessing miracles is still possible (which if verified would mean we would need to give greater weight to those historic reports after all!).  But there again, we see the confusion – the possible must be probable, if one believes the myth strongly enough.

 

And if we believe in fairies strong enough, Tinkerbelle will be saved from Captain Hook.

 

This won’t do at all.  The bare possibility means nothing.  Anything is possible as long as it doesn’t violate the principle of non-contradiction.  A squared circle is impossible; but given the nature of the space-time continuum posited by Einstein, a spherical cube may not only be possible but probable, presuming a finite universe.  But the probability of my constructing or finding an object I can grasp in my hand, that is both a sphere and a cube is not very high, given that we exist in a very small fragment of Einstein’s universe, and Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry suit it better than applied Relativity on a universal scale.  All things in their proper measure, in their proper time and place. 

 

But the problem with miracles is that they are never in their proper time and place, to the extent that one wonders what their proper time and place might be, other than in works of fiction.  Why raise Lazarus from the dead if he’s just going to die all over again?  Why raise Lazarus instead of the guy in the grave next to his?  Why do this in an era and in a place lacking in any sophisticated means of documentary recording?  And why would a divine being need to make such a show of power?    Wouldn’t raw faith be enough for him, must he have eye-witnesses as well? 

 

And of course that’s the real problem for jbonnicerenoreg.  For miracles to achieve anything that looks like a probability, one first has to believe in god (or in whatever supernatural forces capable of producing such miracles).  There’s no other way for it.  Without that belief, a miracle is bare possibility and hardly any probability at all.   And I do not share that belief.

 

A problem with eugenics

According to Wikipedia, “Eugenics (/juːˈdʒɛnɪks/; from Greek εὐγενής eugenes “well-born” from εὖ eu, “good, well” and γένος genos, “race, stock, kin”) is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of the human population.” *

 

Here’s the problem with eugenics: it is built on an assumption that is grounded a presumption, concerning the values of the researchers involved.

The assumption is that the human species needs to be improved genetically; but this is grounded on the presumption that such improvement can be determined according to values upon which we should all agree. In fact of course, all such values are culturally bound – completely and inextricably. Thus the ‘improvment’ offered will always imply hopes and prejudices of a given group within a given culture. There is no way to realize eugenics that is not inherently ethno-centric or ethno-phobic.

I’m sure some here hope that eugenics can be used to discover and eliminate genetic predispositions to religious belief; but surely, a religious eugenicist has every right to hope that such can be done to eliminate predispositions toward atheism. After all, technology plays no favorites.

Further, the very assumption that the human species needs to be improved in this matter is itself highly questionable, since it implies the de-valuation of the species just as it is – it implies that there is something wrong about being human, that humans are inherently flawed – a residue of Abrahamic ‘fallen man’ mythology.

As an illuminating side-topic, consider: practioners of ‘bio-criminology’ (which I would argue is a pseudo-science) target genetic study of criminal populations that are overwhelmingly African in descent. They seem to hope that genetics will reveal genetic disposition to ‘violent’ behavior, such as, say, mugging. And the argument for targeting more African Americans than European Americans would be, that there just are more African Americans incarcerated for such behavior. The argument is clearly flawed since it completely disregards sociological knowledge about the conditions with which African Americans must deal in various communities in which crime rates are fairly high.

But consider: The practices of vulture capitalists playing the stock market, or collapsing viable companies into bankruptcy have clearly devasted far more lives than all the muggers in America. Yet there is never any suggestion from ‘bio-criminologists’ that geneticists should find the genes responsible for predispostions toward greed and callousness, dishonesty on the stock exchange or ruthless exploitation of employees. And there never will be, because white collar criminals contribute to college funds, establish foundations that offer grants, hire bio-criminologists into right-wing think tanks, etc.

Personally, I won’t consider any arguments for eugenics until I get a promise that we will target the behaviors of the real criminals in this society – like the ones who work on Wall Street.

—–

* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics

As we read through the Wiki article, we find that there is a recent trend among some geneticists to use the term ‘eugenics’ to apply to any effort to use genetics to address ertain health conditions, such as inheritable diseases like Huntingtons, or to provide parents with the opportunity to decide whether to abort a fetus with such diseases. This is just a mistake. First, no one opposed to classical eugenics has ever argued that we shouldn’t use genetics to address ill health conditions or diseases – because we can do this without attempting to improve the species genetically, which is the ultimate goal of eugenics. Secondly, ressurrecting the term eugenics for what is pretty standard genetics, seems to bury history, or at least confuse our understanding of it. Third, the choice of whether to have a child or not given potential for heritable diseases, has long been available through understanding family histories – and it has not dissuaded a large number of people from having children despite family histories of such illnesses, because the choice to have a child or not is rarely restricted by purely rational consideration. Perhaps it should be, but it’s not. For such restrictions to have a large enough impact on the population to affect genetic improvement of it, they would have to be impelled from outside the family, perhaps by law, and then we would find ourselves directly in the arguments concerning classical eugenics, like the one I make above.

Finally, there’s the question of whther we really want to use genetics to improve the species at all, since it’s quite possible that naturally occuring reproduction actually contributes to the survival of the species, since we don’t know what environmental challenges the species will face in the future, and what may appear to be a weakness now, may prove to be a strength in another era.

I would say, let’s stop calling any serious genetics a form of eugenics, and let’s stop pretending that we are wise enouve to direct the course of human evolution.

The phenomenology of whose mind? THREE

Notes on reading Hegel:  The Dialectic

Before we get into it, first understand a couple things.

First a couple of value terms get reversed in Hegel in a way important to remember (but fairly easy once we get into the swing of it):  When most people refer to what is “abstract” in philosophy, they are referring to ideas, or concepts, as ‘abstracted’ from experience, the experience itself held to be ‘concrete.’     For Hegel, this can’t be true, because there is no articulable knowledge in experience just as such, but only in the concepts we derive from it.  Therefore, the experience (just as such) is an abstraction – from the senses, from the immediate events, from the raw context of things we see and bump into – which then has to be made concrete into a meaningful concept through the application of reason.

Secondly, I remind my reader that for Hegel, the Dialectic is both a process of reasoning and a structure of human behavior over time.  That’s because Hegel assumes reasoning determines human action, not only locally, but collectively throughout a culture.  Thus politics, religion, law, art – all manifest moments of the Dialectic as expression of reasoning in history.

To see this reasoning in something like actual practice, let’s tell a little story here – compared to the epic Hegel narrates of it, a mere episode in the life of Consciousness:

… so, one day a Consciousness came to a university to ask a question, “what does it mean to be ‘Human?’”

The first person he encountered was an anatomist, who said, “Oh, I’m dissecting the corpse of one of those in the surgery theater, come along.”  And during the dissection, the Consciousness saw the bones and the meat, and the skin, and sinews and nerves, etc.  “So this is human?”  “Well,” says the anatomist, it’s the corpse of one.  It’s the body when not alive.”

So the body, just as body, negates the living of the human as a concept of an entity that, to be fully human, must be alive.

So the anatomist sends our Consciousness to consult another expert, in the university hospital, a physiologist, who, using as example a brain-dead patient kept on life-support, demonstrates how the body actually functions when alive – the interactions of the nerves, the collection and dispersion of oxygen by the blood, the digestion of nutrition and separation from waste, and so on.  “So, now I know the human!”  “Well, no,” the physiologist admits, this is the body, but what was most human about it has fled.”  “So, this body is mere abstraction of the human as organism.  Where can I find the concrete ‘human’?”  The physiologist opens the door, and our Consciousness finds itself on the street outside, surrounded by living entities much like the brain-dead body in the ward of the university hospital.  Except that as immediately living organisms, they negate any expectation learned from study of the living body alone: As they approach, they respond to Consciousness’ inquires, concerning the human; but they each respond in a different way.  Frequently these differences are quite small, but occasionally, they are telling.  And what they are telling is that The Human, taken as mere collection of representatives, amounts to another kind of abstraction, the abstraction of a catalogue of data that doesn’t yet amount to a concrete idea of what it means to be human.

But in among this data, our Consciousness discovers a couple of interesting facts and reports, specifically concerning how humans control release of urine.  Now, the physiology of urinating is already known; but what the physiologist had not explained was the way certain humans urinate standing up, and others do so squatting.    This turns out to be a rather empty detail, having largely to do with physiognomic difference between the sexes.  But in reviewing this detail, Consciousness finds two rather troublesome reports from his subject humans.  In one, a young woman reports having “wet herself” slightly when shocked by the news that the school her children attended had been the scene of an explosion and a massive fire.  Her further response was to contact her family and friends and rush to school to see if they could help put out the fire and search for survivors.

In other, a young man reported having “wet the bed” in his sleep while dreaming of a waterfall.

Now, in the first report, what Consciousness recognizes is that humans can function collectively; they form a community, which in certain moments will respond as one.  They do so by sharing a language, apparently finding value in similar hopes, worries, and concerns.  From this Consciousness extracts the principle of the Social, the necessary attribute that brings together representatives of the human into a communal whole.  This seems to be satisfactory completion of the idea of The Human, given objective observation of their behavior, in a manner complimentary to our understanding of the human body.

But in the second report, Consciousness discovers a completely other principle:  What the young man is reporting is events in a private mental life; events that only happened to and for himself.  Obviously, his body responds as any human body would.  But it now responds to an experience only he can know and which he must learn to articulate – not only to communicate with others, but to understand himself qua individual.  This thus asserts his importance as individual identifiable separate from the community around him.

Through comparing both these reports, Consciousness also learns something new about any meaningful knowledge about The Human – namely that it must incorporate not only the immediately observable, but also, the concepts that emerge from the reports and articulations by humans themselves.  And what Consciousness discovers is that such reports and articulations are frequently in conflict.  Almost, one would say, in contradiction.

After all, take the two principles learned from analyzing the reports from the young woman and the young man.    To be human is to exist as Social, as part of greater whole, influenced by and acting with, a community of peers.  So the human only realizes him/herself by blending into the collective.

But:  To be human is to be as Individual, to be the unique focus of a certain series of experiences and thoughts.  Thus, surely the human can only realize himself or herself by separation from the community and assertion of self.

Can these two seemingly contradictory principles be somehow brought together in one Absolute Idea of what it truly means to be human, the Truth of The Human, the Idea as absolutely true?  The Knowledge, that is the complete knowledge, of The Human?

The answer is yes; what one will have to do is account for all possibly essential (that is, truly important and distinctive) differences of particularities of the human experience, and of their blending into a totality, wherein perceived conflicts stand revealed as moments of the Whole – but a Whole that validates, rather than obliterates, the Particulars as necessary moments of this blending.

This manifest working through of these conflicts into the realization of the proper relations between the Whole and its particulars, as objectively observable human behavior, is called: history.

But the understanding of this resolution can only be accomplished intellectually by a Subject as knower, but only in a manner completely articulable with any other Subject-Consciousness.  Thus the Absolute Knowledge will be what the Individual Consciousness knows, that every Consciousness knows, of the Idea as Whole, derived dialectically from its particulars.

The truth of this Knowledge will be determined through logic (as Hegel discusses in the Science of Logic).  The narrative of the process for acquiring it is described in: The Phenomenology of Mind.

Human sciences as probabilistic explanation

The thrust of this article is very simple: the explanations we find in the human sciences are nothing like the claims of causal certainty we frequently find in the natural sciences.

‘Sue hit Joe,’ the story goes, ‘because he insulted her.’

If the audience to this sentence knows both Sue and Joe, that may be the end of it, since their personalities are presumed to be understood. Yet greater explanation may be desirable, especially if there are aspects to the personalities of Sue or Joe of which those who know them are unaware.

Let’s enrich our narrative, with different scenarios.

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her an ugly bitch.’ (Two variations in background: the general consensus is that Sue’s not attractive, or the general consensus is that she is.)

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her a feminist dyke’ (including evident variations in background).

‘Sue hit Joe, because he called her a cockteaser.’ Let’s pause here, because the background variations to this rely less on general consensus or social fact concerning the two, and more on their internal motivations and personal boundaries. Joe might have said what he did because he’s contemptuous of Sue; or because he’s sexually frustrated in his longings for her. But Sue may be lashing out because she has unadmitted desires for Joe. She may also have personal gestures that are not flirtational, but may be seen as such by others, and strong personal boundaries; and she is motivated in lashing out to protect those boundaries.

But let’s go back to the ‘feminist dyke’ example. Joe’s insult hinges on the pejorative nature of the word ‘dyke;’ but there are social and personal facts the insult references: either Sue is a feminist or she is not; either she is a lesbian, or she is not. That seems cut and dried. But now the context demands to be opened up. In what situation did Joe insult Sue? Are they students at the prom? Are they in a barroom after a few drinks? Are they at a feminist political rally? Are they at a gay-lesbian rights rally? If so, are there camera’s recording them (enlarging their audience and providing them with a public stage)? Now they need not be presumed to know each other. They might be engaged in differing political signifying practices – Sue isn’t simply lashing out, she is making a statement.

A court would determine whether Joe’s provocative speech warranted physical assault in response. However, possible explanations of the event are now beginning to multiply, possibly beyond our powers to merge them into a single narrative. Was Joe drunk when he decided to attend a rally concerning a cause he was hostile to? Was Sue? did either of them recently break up with a loved one? Had either suffered a death in the family; the loss of a job? What if one or both of them happen to be in the military?

Remember: if we’re talking about a political rally, especially one attended by the media, we’re talking about a possibly national social context, getting interpreted by millions of people with differing political, social, cultural motivations. (Perhaps even economic: Newspaper editor: ‘Did Joe bleed?’ Reporter: ‘No.’ Editor: ‘Then it goes to page 2.’)

But let’s stretch out the time-line of our narrative and see how the explanations fares. One act does not follow immediately after another. that gives the participants time to think over their responses; time enough to doubt the impulse of those responses:

‘Joe said something about feminist lesbians; later, Sue hit him.’

Now we have the narrative, but it’s explanatory force is considerably weakened – it all depends on how we interpret ‘later.’ If ‘moment later,’ then Sue’s response is almost immediate; if four day’s later, then Sue has probably been simmering in her anger and might be expected to have reconsidered her response; if four days later, perhaps Sue’s thinking has become pathological, since she hasn’t used any of that time to reconsider different possible responses.

But let’s go back to the original narrative, and change its presuppositions:

‘Sue hit Joe, because she was drunk.’ Now we no longer bother with Joe’s behavior, but decide to explain Sue’s in the light of her possible drinking habits (and if the court sends her to rehab, that’s exactly the explanation the therapist will be concerned with).

I start here because it’s important to recognize that the way a social science discusses any behavior has to do with the focus of attention the science presumes. Psychologists researching alcoholic behaviors, or sociologists studying the increasing likelihood of violence from people who are inebriated, aren’t really going to be that interested in any presumed provocation for the behavior – which is not to say that they will be uninterested: for instance assume, for the moment, that Sue and Joe are related, in a family with a history of alcoholism and/or abuse. Then the provocation will take on increased importance – especially when brought before the legal system.

We should consider, then, that different social sciences having differently focused interests will develop different explanations for the same behavior. A researcher in political science may note whether at a rally, either Joe or Sue had been drinking, but only as an aside. The study will concern the volatile nature of personal confrontations over political issues, and the implications of the media broadcast of these conflicts for the coming election. A sociologist might be more concerned with the ways in which Sue and Joe identify with their different social groups, and why these groups come into conflict. And so on.

This ‘same behavior, different explanations’ phenomenon we find in the social sciences actually enriches the value these sciences have for us. Human behavior is extraordinarily complex, and understanding it cannot be reduced to ‘unified theory of everything,’ without doing injustice to the individuals and groups involved.

But therein lies the weakness of the social sciences, because, as sciences, they need to come up with generalized explanations, even within their specialized focus. Usually this takes the form of statistical analysis and probability predictions derived from these: ‘60% of women named Sue will behave violently, when a man named Joe utters words perceived as insulting, under conditions X, Y, Z.’ The problem with this is, what about the other 40% of women named Sue? Are they now to be held under suspicion, that meetings with any Joe might lead to violence? (The danger of any human science, as predictive of behavior – injustice to the individual. We are not all of a stamp. Otherwise there would have been no change throughout history.)

Unlike the natural sciences – where, at least at macro-levels, event B follows event A with complete regularity, as long as all subjects remain of the exact same class under exactly the same conditions – the social sciences can, at best, give us ‘rules of thumb.’ But these have importance, insofar as such ‘rules of thumb’ inform the intuitions that guide our judgments, and can provide us with a picture of ourselves -almost as broad, as deep, as variable and complex, as we humans actually are.

The meaninglessness of “race”

It occurs to me, that if one were to grant ‘race’ status to all the genetic differences that pass down through generations within given populations, expressing themselves in physical differences, we would have a multitude of ‘races,’ maybe hundreds; maybe even thousands. Pygmies, Bush People, Zulus, Swahili – these are all so phenotypically different, that we must reject any notion that there is a ‘race’ we can call “Negroid.” Similarly with the Irish, the Swedish, Hungarians, Southern and Northern Italians – etc., and the out-dated classification “Caucasian.” (And I admit I have enough Irish in me – part Pict, part Celt, part Moor, part Norse – that I would hate to be classified with the British! Up the Republic!)

The effort to define ‘races’ biologically is really an effort to find some meaningful way to categorize according to skin color. And you can’t get there from here.

I also wonder about the willingness to argue for what is neither scientifically supported nor anymore ethically acceptable. If we’re talking about a political ‘mess,’ well, politics is messy, especially given long established traditions and biases. But if we’re talking about a possible scientific “mess,” the whole notion of biological-realism ‘race’ seems to be about as messy – and as a-historical – as one could get.

If the word “race,” applied to those of differing genetic and ethnic backgrounds, is in anyway ambiguous and open to differing interpretations (if it is in anyway vague and unspecific) as is obvious, as really anyone with a decent education must admit – then of course the supposed categorization “race” can have no scientific value whatsoever.

Noteably, it appears that the only scientists continuing to use it in a meaningful way are those with open social agendas, such as ‘bio-criminologists,’ who hope that certain behaviors can be tagged to certain populations for better monitoring and therapeutic interventions. The problem is, these social agendas engender as many political problems as they seek to resolve. (‘So, ok, what do we do with these black people, anyway’ – I dunno; maybe treat them like human beings, providing education and jobs, perhaps? And it might help to keep white cops shooting them outright because they look different.)
Let’s face it:  ‘Race’ is an anachronism, a word and an understanding entirely social, with no scientific basis whatsoever. Mere excuse for political, economic, social and cultural biases – used to control the population drift in voting blocks, labor, intermarriage, and cultural enjoyment. Scientifically speaking, it is pure fiction – the remnant of fairy tales that we should have stop telling at least a century ago.

There is nothing scientific about it; it is pure pablum for immature minds unwilling to live in the present of our multi-cultural post-modern world.

Let’s view this matter in an historical perspective.

Historically, the term ‘stars’ once referred to any object seen in the night sky.

The term ‘star’ was made scientifically useful only by re-definition, exclusively encompassing those objects that could be interpreted as suns within given planetary systems.

The question then is whether ‘race’ can also be salvaged by redefinition. The answer would appear, no; because it carries far too much weight politically, socially, culturally, historically, none which can be adequately stripped from it.

One reason I mentioned tribal and ‘national’ phenotype differences, is because in the past, and in some regions still today, these have been taken as establishing “racial” identities – which has led (and still leads, in some places) to useless wars and genocidal ‘ethnic cleansing.’

Why hold on to a term that has been used for highly questionable purposes, when it lacks the precision needed to be useful in biologic categorization?

Those desperate to cling to ‘racial’ differences between us will seek out the slightest nuance, in genetics, in biological texts – in reports in popular media. Anything that will re-affirm their own preposterous sense of superiority.

I’m reminded here of the earnest young person, studying a billboard seen for the first time, insisting, ‘there must be some reason that things go better with Coke.’ Yeah, it’s called a sales pitch.

But here’s the biological fact of the matter: If I have a (non-contraceptively-inhibited) sexual encounter with a a member of the opposite sex of any supposed ‘race’ – black, yellow, ‘Chinese,’ Australian Aboriginal – a child will be produced. That’s because our genes are fundamentally the same, the differences being superficially phenotypically different. Because we belong to the same species.

Some will here interject discussion of ‘breeds’ as we see in other animals, but here’s the problem – ‘breeds’ are the result of externally controlled reproduction. But humans procreate uncontrollably – really, if he/she has two legs, we’ll copulate. And that difference makes all the difference. There is no external, internal, or genetic means of tracking the reproductive history of any particular human lineage. Thus, while the phenotypical differences are obvious, there is no grounding genotypical difference between the ‘races’ – the ethnically different from different locales.*

The phenotypical differences generate the beautiful kaleidoscope of human experience. But they don’t make us fundamentally different – on the contrary, they assure us that we are fundamentally the same. They could not have arisen were we in any way genetically different as racists want of us.
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* Just by the way, it should be note that mixed heritage off-spring (so-called ‘mongrels’) of controlled breeding produce young hardier and more likely to survive than their pure bred parents – almost inevitably (apparently inheriting the most adaptive genes from both parental lineages). Can we not learn from this? Genetic purity is a fundamental flaw in the scheme of evolution. The greater the difference, the greater chance for survival.

Our potential for violence: same as it ever was.

It’s a profound mistake to think that human nature has undergone gross improvement over the centuries. Biological evolution doesn’t work that way – why should we think social evolution (whatever that might be) does?

No one denies that progress occurs – in some fields within certain cultures, in given historical periods; but not without continuing potential for regress. When I was young, capital punishment seemed on its way to becoming a thing of the past; now the arguments against it are barely heard in public. Sometimes it is 2 steps forward, 1 step back; unfortunately, it can just as well prove the other way around.

I want to discuss an article by experimental psychologist Steven Pinker, which I found alternately amusing and irritating: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/11/news-isis-syria-headlines-violence-steven-pinker

Pinker’s claim is that statistical evidence of declining incidence of wars and violent crimes, indicates that human nature has been changing for the better, that we are becoming more tolerant, and less likely to resort to violence in our relationships, both personal and political. “As modernity widens our circle of cooperation, we come to recognise the futility of violence and apply our collective ingenuity to reducing it.”

Pinker’s article is the most ridiculously skewed, narrowly focused argument I’ve read in a long time. But it’s quite in keeping with the painfully artificial optimism of academic progressivists – from Marxists still prophesying a global revolution to robotics experts promising ever greater ‘leisure’ for humanity (read: unemployment and poverty). Undoubtedly, the worst delusion fostered by Modernity is that social evolution (technological, cultural, psychological) can somehow hasten biological evolution – if we can’t somehow realize the full potential of our species, why, transhumanists will create another species that will inherit that potential and improve upon it.

Pinker only picks the ripest cherries for his argument. No talk at all about state surveillance and other oppressive measures used to keep the masses in line in many countries. No discussion of the exigencies of global capitalism, which has produced some pressure to avoid military confrontation, but which has also generated cultures of vicious competition and inhumane disinterest in the spread of poverty. Further, Pinker is pretending to offer an argument concerning statistics over history – but surely this is a profoundly truncated history we are given!

“From a high in the second world war of almost 300 battle deaths per 100,000 people per year, the rate rollercoasted downward, cresting at 22 during the Korean war, nine during Vietnam and five during the Iran-Iraq war before bobbing along the floor at fewer than 0.5 between 2001 and 2011.”

The Second World War was only 70 years ago; the potential for another such war remains problematic. One dirty bomb in the wrong city would shift these numbers somewhat, I should think.

But this is an odd way to count the dead, anyway. We’re not looking at some bugs under a microscope. The victims of ISIS would hardly breathe relief reading this article, ‘ah, well, but over all the species is doing better!’ Nor can this reckoning account for how WWII happened to begin with. The 19th century had its fair share of pacifist savants and progressivists promising the dawn of new eras of enlightenment and camaraderie. Yet WWII saw the violent death of more than 100 million globally in less than 10 years (if we see Spain, Manchuria, and Ethiopia as part of that war, as i think we should). What happened to all that pacifism, how did the new era of enlightenment meet such a bloody finale?

Pinker can’t even consider such a question, yet it’s the question that can’t be avoided when trying to make sense of his argument. The fact remains that neither political movements nor statistical trends can fully explain, or prophecy, what current social configurations will produce tomorrow or exactly how. How could the tragedy of 9/11 really lead to America launching an aggressive war of conquest against an uninvolved nation, leading to the chaos in the mid-east with which we deal today? Pinker reads this as just a spike on a graph – how impoverished an ‘explanation’ is that?

Do we really want to suppose that human nature leaves us less prone to violence now because the Soviet Union lost 10% in WWII but the US only lost less than .2% of its population in Vietnam – and even a smaller percentage in the current Mid-East entanglements? Outside of the weird statistical parameters needed to make that suggestion, the kind of argument going on, if we carry that suggestion to term, not only begs the question of what ‘more or less violence’ would actually mean (supposedly indicative of evolving empathy, charity, and tolerance, as we might define ‘niceness), but would actually beggar it by reducing it to a matter of the most obvious instances of egregious transgression.

Now, I don’t question the statistics Pinker is using, but the narrow selection of categories measured, and the kind of argument Pinker seems to be making, which, IMO, is facile and specious.

I’m reminded of the efficiency expert who needed to account for the contentment of the workers in a given factory, and whose sole criteria for this were the number of complaints workers made (in a company where any complaint would lead to immediate termination). Statistic: 0 complaints; conclusion: happy workers.

The measure is true; but there is something wrong with the choice of what’s to be measured. And the structure and style of the argument seems divorced from actual experience, because lacking any depth or breadth of consideration of context.

One long standing argument for capital punishment has been that it cannot be inhumane (which would violate the Constitutional interdict against inhumane punishment), because there are humane means of killing the sentenced person. So presumably, if one kills another ‘humanely,’ with legal authority, then no violence is involved, and everyone remains ‘nice’ and innocent? There is a line of reasoning that goes down that path, and it shows up whenever the SCOTUS has to decide cases involving methodology of execution. But the stronger, more basic argument for capital punishment is that the state reserves the right to violence against individuals and groups that threaten the interests of government or of the people as a whole.

That reservation (and I know of no national government that has foresworn it) tells us that, although global capitalism has for now largely re-channeled violence into forms of financial competition, the future of warfare has not been settled.

And that is what rebels, terrorists, fanatics and the occasional war-mongering dictator (and police and military responses to these) remind us – not that we are more violent than we have been in the past, but that potential for great violence remains within us pretty much the same as it ever was.

 

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From comments made at the Electric Agora.