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.

Writer’s block

…so I haven’t been writing much at all lately.  I haven’t been reading much, either.  Mostly I just watch episodes of old TV shows or listen to old songs, or putter around the home, attempting not to clean anything – every layer of dust marks its era.

 

We had a shake-up at work recently, but while it didn’t lose me any money, it did lose me some prestige, and the job’s taking more time than it has, while yet being ever more boring….

 

Then of course, there’s politics.  Trump is worthy of satire – and I’ll post some of my own soon – but the very fact that he could be the candidate of a major party in the US is shameful.  I suppose one can fear him as a kind of Mussolini of the digital media age; or laugh at him as reality TV clown pretending to be a politician; or gloat over his demolition of the Republican Party; or hate him for his tastelessly open bigotry.   But his very presence on the national stage reminds me of how dumbed down, uninformed, anti-intellectual, bigoted, unreasonable and unreasoning people there are in this country – not just among the voters, but among the politicians who managed to generate the conditions that have allowed this walking stink bomb onto center stage, but also among the media that has pandered to this fool.   This country has been working its way down into a ditch out of which it can never dig out, for quite some time, but this is the lowest Its gotten by far.

 

But it’s ben a downer couple of months, for sure.  A friend of mine, suffering from psychological difficulties has also recently developed physical issues.  My dog is going blind.  The shake-up at work has left the future uncertain.  I don’t like the used car I recently bought, but am stuck with it now.  (“It seemed like a good idea at the time” – oh, that fatal judgment on our supposed powers of judgment.  And on some of the websites I read, I seem to be seeing the same discussions with the same arguments ad nauseum.   Can’t we find something new to say?  Can’t I?

 

I should also mention my last two major writing efforts, my posts on Hegel here, and the essay I wrote about Heidegger on http://heideggerpolitics.wordpress.com.  The Heidegger essay was a bit of a downer because it concerned Germany in the 1930s, and that’s always a downer.  But the Hegel essay had an odd lingering depressive effect – partly because I was unable to complete the series, but also because as I posted it, I grew saddened, and somewhat frustrated, because I know that Hegel was one of the great writers in philosophy of Modernity, even when largely wrong, and he has certainly been one of the most important.   But the fact is that almost nobody in America reads him anymore, not only his texts but his influence have largely been forgotten, the kinds of lively discussions one could have about him are all quieted, and while some of this is just the general movement of history in one direction rather than another, what is especially upsetting about it is that this is not really a result in the trends of the history of philosophy, so much as it is the result of the trending toward a post-literate culture.  People have lost interest in reading difficult texts.  As far as the texts of the past are concerned, we’re essentially a ‘Cliff’s Notes’ culture – that is, a culture of interminable redactions, simplifications, and half-baked generalizations about what someone said about what someone else said, about some book written by someone or other sometime when.

 

Yes, it is true that I am somewhat waxing nostalgic for the age 0f the book.  But it is also true that the post-literate culture has allowed the anti-literate, the anti-intellectual, the proudly ‘know-nothing’ to thrive – indeed, become the presidential candidate of the Republican Party.

 

At times like this, I wonder – what good is writing?  What good in speaking?  why even think?

 

So anyway, as must be clear here, I am suffering a relapse into chronic depression.  And that makes sitting down to write very difficult.  It’s simpler to sit and stare at a blank piece of paper.  Eventually, you know, the mind projects patterns where none can be found.  I have found great entertainment staring at blank monitor screens and letting the pixels cause my optic nerves to generate illusions.   Perhaps one of these illusions will prove to be that I have written something interesting.  We’ll see.

 

 

Philosophy for itself

One major mistake that we can be misled into, by thinking philosophy ought to be the hand-maiden to the sciences, is believing all knowledge is somehow of a piece, that it all fits neatly together because of methodology or subject matter. This is simply not true.

Admittedly, this has been a dream of philosophers since at least Aristotle, perhaps Plato. Pursuit of this dream has led to construction of those magnificent cathedrals of logic and language known as ‘systematic philosophy:’ everything could be brought together, everything would be explained. From the cycles of the stars in the sky, to the boils on one’s buttocks, all would be known.

I can’t remember who said it, but it has been said, that Hegel’s dialectic ended with the burning of the Reichstag. In fact the past hundred or so years has seen the complete collapse of every project of a ‘systematic philosophy,’ in the face of social, political, cultural changes undreamt of in Hegel’s day. We now know that we simply can’t account for all possible human experience, and human experience remains the core of any possible knowledge.

While the Positivists confined themselves to the details of language, their privileging scientific theory above all other language uses tells us that they hoped that a ‘systematic philosophy’ would at last be possible – only not within the practice of philosophy, but in science. Science would eventually tell us all we needed to know – about the world, and, eventually, about ourselves – and discourse outside of science would be recognized as mere opinion: perhaps deeply felt, but ultimately unreliable. And many scientists and some philosophers still seem to believe this.

But it is becoming more clear that the methodologies of the various sciences are actually rather varied; and that there is sometime little or no connection between differing sciences, either in the kind of knowledge they provide, or the structures of knowledge implicit in their modelings. Right now, computer simulations seem to be the one practice that all sciences share; yet the fact remains that these simulations are very different in structure, from one science to another, and implicate differing degrees (perhaps, in a sense, different kinds) of probability and predictability.

And no computer simulation or algorithm is going to get me a better tasting beer, for the simple reason that my taste in beer varies from day to day, and brewing recipes depend on the brewer’s own taste and attention to details, some of which must be measured strictly, others more reliant on the brewer’s intuition. And should I drink beer before driving a motor vehicle? Obviously not, it’s against the law; but such laws have been arrived at after years of communities suffering the consequence of poor choices on the part of drivers.

 

But why should I drive any motor vehicle at all? That’s a question science cannot answer, because the question depends on the social world, its history, and my place in it. Indeed, it seems a curious question; yet our collective failure to ask it has contributed to a damaged biosphere and the consequences of that.

‘Well, wait; doesn’t the damage caused by vehicular pollution – which is a scientific fact – answer my question?’ It certainly informs it, and informs some of my political choices. It won’t pay my bills should I decide to quit my job because it involves a long commute.

What are my obligations in such matters, and from whence do they arrive? One can reduce such a question to matters of consequence – ‘if you don’t want to go to jail, don’t break the law!’ But concerning matters not determined by law, surely simple reference to positive or negative consequences just won’t do. I don’t have a family anymore; but when I did, I certainly felt obligated toward them, despite the fact that they were wholly dysfunctional, both individually and collectively, and unpleasant to be with. (In “The Marx Bros. Go West,” when Groucho asks Chico, concerning Harpo, “You love your brother, don’t you?” Chico shrugs. “Naw, but I’m used to him.”)

Should we not expect philosophy to provide answers to questions such as these? Here, I agree wholeheartedly with those who prefer a critical thinking, rather than ascertaining all the ‘right’ answers: No; what philosophy ought to do is what it’s always done best, even before the coming of ‘systematic philosophy’ – pose the questions in a way that causes us to think deeply about them.

And the devil of it is that people expecting science to answer all these questions fail to understand that such answers are not what we want of science, they’re not what any science has been set up to get us. One effort after another to reduce the human experience to the lowest common denominators for statistical probability and ‘scientific’ intervention has failed. (As late as 1980, Skinnerian Behaviorists were trying to ‘train’ homosexuals to be heterosexuals. Now most of us no longer view homosexuality as an aberration; simply yet another possibility in the wide range of what it might mean to be human.)

We need to stop thinking that the human experience is filled with all sorts of diseases or pathologies that somebody needs to diagnose and cure. Just as, after years of tortuous logic chopping in America, and equally tortuous inflated tropology among certain Europeans, that good plain speech is something we must suspect, dissect, correct. Humans make a lot of mistakes, and think and do a lot of stupid things. But we must remember that the human is the source of all value, and must be respected for that.

 

“I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here (Auschwitz) , to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.” – J. Bronowski, “The Ascent of Man”

 


Originally submitted as comments to Dan Kaufman’s “On Philosophy and Its Progress,” https://theelectricagora.com/2016/06/02/on-philosophy-and-its-progress-a-response-of-sorts-to-massimo-pigliucci/

The dead end of moral relativism

I confess that I would find it very difficult to go to the families of the victims in Orlando, and explain that ethical prohibitions against murder are simply a question of taste; that their suffering is a matter of complete indifference, philosophically; and that the deaths of their loved ones are of little importance because these were somehow predestined by random physical acts at the Big Bang; or because, being gay, they weren’t expected to pass on their genes.

If evolution has gotten us to that point – it wasn’t worth it.

There are certainly those suggesting such a perspective – by logical implication and extension – that there is no ‘wrong’ to it. Don’t we even have those proudly declaiming that they are happy making no judgment concerning Hitler?

Come on – let’s get real. Ethics is not about theory (and certainly not about meta-theory), it’s about behavior – those behaviors we enact, and those of others we live with.

I find the denial of ethics to be inhumane, arrogant, and egotistical. It’s really a way of saying, ‘ethical standards do not apply to me (or only when I want them to).’

The squirrelly, weaseled language defending such a vacuous, self-centered, anti-social antipathy toward all the social bindings that make living human difficult, painful, and sometimes joyous is *at best* evidence of a lack of tact and rhetorical skill; at worst… well, something far worse.

How can people who claim that ethics is entirely a matter of feelings, be so insensitive to the feelings of others, so as not to recognize that our discussions of ethics, both in the Academy and in the wider community, are part of the process that brings people together, that forms the community, that generates our laws and our sense of decency.

I should note that conventionalism, ala Hume and Darwin, is in itself an ethic (not a meta-ethic) that the Logical Positivists relied on in their effort to curtail discussion of ethics in philosophy. This is almost never discussed as such in philosophy, because its faults are plain: projected out from a given society, it spirals down the rabbit hole of relativism. (‘We don’t like murder of girl infants in Europe; but if they practice that in the backwoods of China, who are we to say it’s wrong?’) Consequently it is usually defended as a consequentialism. But consequentialism, just as such, is fundamentally simplistic, and blurs into psychological anxieties involving such issues as peer pressure and legal sanction. Someone who’s gay can still be fired for this some states. The self-loathing bisexual in Orlando, no longer able to tolerate the multiple threats to his own sense of identity, produced a consequence he apparently hoped would meet approval from at least one group of self-serving religious fanatics – and he accomplished this consequence. He wanted to die doing that – and he did.

Ethics must be complex, complicated, sociologically rich and psychologically layered, in addressing human needs, fears, hopes, because it is about maintaining a stable society with as little potential for harming others as possible.

We all behave according to ‘oughts;’ whether derived from utility, or religion, or deontologically; virtue, or convention or consequence. The question is *how we share these with others*. Because when we don’t, the only ‘oughts’ an individual may comply with are psychological drives, some of which lead to destruction or self-destruction.

Again, this iss the logical implication of what is said, extended into the practicalities of real life – and not empty and undisciplined ‘theorizing.’

Ideas have consequences. We live with them. That is why study, sharing, caution and care, are so important.

I didn’t lose anybody in Orlando. But I did on 9/11/01. Gesticulations about ‘utilizations’ for maximum ‘good/bad’ in some empty theory insult me in times like this.

I don’t care to discuss such matters with those who even won’t pass judgment on Hitler; half the family of my first girlfriend (whose memory I still cherish) was wiped out in Dachau.

Such people keep saying its all about emotions, likes and dislikes; but they don’t care about any of this, any of the real feelings of the people they address – even on their own terms, why the hell should we care about them?

I’m sorry; I won’t talk to any of them about such matters anymore – they don’t have anything to say that I would find interesting in any way. If I found myself on a bus with them, I would get off and hitch-hike. Then maybe I’d get a ride from someone with something interesting to say about politics and ethics. It might not be ‘philosophical,’ in the professional sense (and certainly not ‘theoretical’) – but at least it would be the meat and potatoes of real people talking about real things.

The moral relativists should explain how their positions properly ground condemnation of the Orlando murders. All of them, really. Or let them keep their disgusting egoism to themselves, because I won’t be paying attention anymore… .


Note added next day:

I’ve realized that I need to clarify to what or whom I am referring to as “moral relativists” –  especially since I am to some extent a relativist of a kind, in that I think weighing the differing behaviors of peoples from different cultures must always be undertaken carefully and with charitable tolerance for behaviors that may be useful and conducive to greater well-being within the given culture.  No, what I am referring to here are those who gleefully proclaim their independence from ethics all together, who would even argue that we should have no discussion of ethics, particularly in philosophy or politics.  This makes no sense at all. We do not have any guidance of behavior that is somehow free of the necessity for public articulation or public argument; and as long as this is the case, there must also be a corresponding philosophic discussion of the general principles of such articulation and argument.  And the inevitable response to this seems to be, that we don’t need any guidance of behavior at all, and this is clearly false, for reasons I suggested above.  We will have such guidance; the question is whether it will be reasonable and social, or whether it will be egocentric or psychologically driven.  I believe the former is more conducive to the possibility of stability and greater flourishing.  The latter creates monsters and generates violence.  And we just don’t need that anymore- we ought not to have it anymore – we cannot survive together like that anymore.

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.

Philosophy, history, neuroscience, evolution, and politics – in a possible universe

After working hard on my criticism of Hitler’s rhetoric, I’m in the process of shifting gears here. I hope to be posting something about the German philosopher Georg Hegel soon.  Also, I plan to start a separate web blog that would really be single protracted essay reading Martin Heidegger’s metaphysics in relation to the politics of his time (always a hot topic, but needing to be confronted).  These twin projects may lose me some readers, but they will personally satisfy me, since I spent so much time and effort with these two philosophers, and it would be silly to toss all that away and say “I should have spent my time collecting stamps.”

 

This past week, while trying to come up with something new and original to say, I was tempted more than once to defer to one my favorite British theorists, Mr. Python; and since I am weak willed, and give into temptation easily, I’m indulging myself by providing a platform for this theorist to expound incisive insights into all important topics of the day.

 

So – now for something completely different.:

 

The theory of evolution has been widely debated among the intelligentsia (and the not so intelligentsia) since even before Darwin; the different theories proposed can get so complicated, that we forget what really matters – namely, how big is it?

 

 

Evolution is history, in the broadest sense; but it is history in the narrow sense that usually concerns us most – the history of the human species, i.e., ourselves. That history , as Hegel once remarked, is a slaughterhouse. Or perhaps a laugher’s blouse…. Well, never mind. Lotsa big bang battles! Long before the Marvel Comics Universe brought the explosive ruin of whole cities to the cinematic screen, kings, generals, and idiots were hammering at each other for the greater glory of something or other, as we are reminded here:

 

 

As time marches on, so do armies (although how they do that on their bellies, as Napoleon claimed, I’ve never figured out; wouldn’t that rather be crawling?). Anyway, as the species moved into the 20th century after something or other, modern science provided the tools necessary to realize historically bloody battles, and in this re-enactment of one, we are reminded of the true cost of warfare:

 

 

Yes, the terrible wars of the twentieth century have produced monsters – but they have also brought us out of the darkness of tyranny, into the light of democracy where we can elect the monsters of our choosing (or not) – as we see in this recent Republican campaign video:

 

 

But we mustn’t forget that the sciences of the current era have re-written our expectations of what it means to be happy; to live a fulfilling life; even what it means to be human – AI and the neurosciences are soon to redefine the kind, the quality, the very amount of intelligence we can expect from our fellow humans:

 

 

Science will also help our empirically informed philosophers to at last solve the riddles of the universe – even that greatest of all mysteries: what follows life (if anything other than unpaid bills):

 

 

It’s a brave new world we’re living in, my friends. (But I’m not sorry I’m nearing the last decades of my life expectancy. The future doesn’t look bleak – it doesn’t look at all –

 

 

)

The world as will or metaphor

In the “World as Will and Idea,” Arthur Schopenhauer unleashes the Will. That is, he elaborates a narrative and analysis of what the universe must look like if we set aside rationalist and moralistic preconditions for our understanding of it, and simply let it be what it is and do what it does. But it turns out this ‘doing’ is its being’ – that is, the universe is nothing at all but the actions and events that happen in it. It thus can be conceived as the movement itself, and among living beings, motivation itself, which then can be referred to as “Will” – the compelling force underlying all action. But is this really the case? Or are we witnessing an intended mythic ‘AS IF,’ a thought experiment carried to its furthest extent?

Schopenhauer is the first Western thinker to understand Eastern philosophies of Hinduism and Buddhism, and the first to think they had insights to offer the West. Will, and our possible responses to it, is the chief of these.

It should be noted that prior to Schopenhauer, Will has a special two-fold function in German philosophy. It is the articulation of the deepest motivation of all human action – desire – and the instrument of action that needs rational clarification and training for moral purposes. This leads to an odd formula we first find in Kant, that the Will, in order to be free (without which moral responsibility cannot be assumed), must be constrained by rationally derived moral principles (the foundation of de-ontological ethics). The Will is thus trapped in its freedom.

Schopenhauer is basically saying that this formula is metaphysically ungrounded. It assumes, for instance, that morals can be determined prior to any action, which makes no sense, since we are engaged in action long before we think through the morality of it. Since action precedes thought, it follows that Will functions without constraint – rationality thus is always in service of the Will, not the other way around. However, in yet another paradox, we can through reason quiet the Will and observe its cause and effects without engagement. As Heidegger (who didn’t like Schopenhauer, but who was led to much the same conclusions in his post-War thought), we can learn to ‘will not to will.’ (In Buddhism this leads to the Eightfold Path, and meditations directed toward release from the self.)

The reason we might want to do this is that if we see individual beings as mere incidence of the ontological imperative of Will, then these individuals are basically thrust around as puppets, causing themselves all kinds of suffering while deluding them into believing that they are actually doing something. (This is a fundamental principle of certain Hindu sects and of traditional Buddhism – desire itself creates the sense of ‘self’ which then believes ‘I am satisfying my own desires,’ when it’s only desire satisfying itself.)

For Schopenhauer, this indicates that Will itself can be conceived as a metaphysical agency, but only as a blind force – it originates as the tendency toward motion and the coming together and dissolution that are the recurrent processes of the universe, and finally realizes itself in living entities capable of consciously enacting its imperatives. One can see it in this way: There is a tendency of atoms to come together in molecules, and then to break away to join with other atoms in differing combinations. But of course they have no sense of this. Once life comes to be, we effectively have molecules seeking other molecules by sense, intentionally to achieve union, breaking up other molecules intentionally to destroy and consume. (This ‘intentionality’ is not the will of the organism, but of Will per se.) Schopenhauer sees the the metaphysical Will as a motivating principle rather than a conscious entity. It is to some extent the principle of causation itself as an active force, rather than mechanism dependent on inertial changes.

One of the problems with “World as Will and Idea” is that it’s not at all clear how much of this Schopenhauer holds to be literally true, and how much he is working as a trope – a model in competition with the agent-‘Consciousness’ of the “Phenomenology of Spirit” by Hegel (whom he absolutely hated). Schopenhauer’s favored predecessors were Hume and Kant; and his other writings are very clear and precise, yet he allows himself considerable flourish in “Will and Idea.” The benefit of such an extended trope is that it re-configures the frame through which we interpret experience. What happens has no design to it, no purpose; it is simply the causative forces of the universe enacting their inevitable processes; and this is true of lived experience as much as what we observe in the sciences.

Generally then, “World as Will and Idea” is best used as an epistemological tool. We actually don’t need to assume that there is any such entity or force as the metaphysical Will external to us, but rather adopt t as metaphor to guide how we interpret our experience, and as caution against assuming that all that we know through reason can be trusted as detached and unmotivated. The Will is always at work, even in the driest bits of data and any uses we might make of them.

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This was written as reply to a post by Makagutu at: https://maasaiboys.wordpress.com/2016/03/06/my-philosopher-friends/

I should admit that I have not read Schopenhauer for quite some time, so my discussion is certainly open to correction.

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.