Friday, October 19, 2018
Plato’s Gorgias begins with a scene that could borrow the soundtrack from Westside Story. Gorgias, a famous orator, has just demonstrated his talents before an audience at the house of a wealthy and powerful Athenian politician named Callicles. The two are standing with a third trained orator, Polus, as people do after the show is over, when Socrates and his entourage approach. You can easily imagine Socrates’ student Chaerephon and whoever else is with them‑Plato? Xenophon?‑snapping their fingers in rhythm with the swing of the orchestra. The first word of the dialogue is Πολέμου, the Greek word for war.
Socrates engages in three dialogues, with Gorgias, Polus, and then Callicles. A lot of the next two thousand years of the history of philosophy play out before your eyes. I concentrate here on his conversation with Polus.
Polus has been trained in the art of persuasion. He believes that this art can empower him to convince anyone of anything. That means that he can convince a jury of his or anyone else’s innocence regardless of the evidence. He has a get out of jail free card.
Why is such a power valuable? To Polus, it is obvious: you can abuse, rob, or kill anyone you want to. He thinks everyone would want such a power and is charmed by the thought that he, unlike almost everyone else, possesses it. The power to kill without regard to justice is his treasure.
Socrates destroys Polus with a simple disjunctive syllogism. He asks Polus which is better: to do injustice without paying a penalty or to do injustice and suffer the penalty? Polus insist that the first is obviously better than the second. So far, so good. Then Socrates asks which is more disgusting? Polus admits the obvious. To do injustice and get away with it is disgusting.
It seems that Polus could hardly deny it. His name is pronounced almost the same as polis, the Greek word for the political community. How do we, the people of this polis‑Athens, the United States of America‑see it when we think that someone has done a terrible thing and gotten away with it? We are disgusted.
The Greek word for disgusting is αἴσχιον. It indicates both moral and physical ugliness. It is frequently translated as “shameful” or “foul.” Socrates points out that if something is αἴσχιον it is either unpleasant or bad for you or both.
I offer my own illustrations. Spoiled meat is unpleasant and bad for you. Reattaching a severed finger by the application of leaches is disgusting enough, but good for you if it works. Shooting heroin is the very opposite of unpleasant; it is, however, disgusting because it is very bad for you.
Since killing with impunity is not unpleasant to the murderer at least, it must be bad for you. You shouldn’t do it, if you know what you are doing.
Here is the disjunctive syllogism. If killing without penalty is disgusting, then either it is unpleasant or it is bad for you. It isn’t unpleasant to kill without penalty (it’s exquisite! Polus insists). Therefore; it is bad for you.
1. (D É (U Ú B))
3. (U Ú B)
5. \ B
If you don’t follow the symbolic logic, take my word for it. This is a logically valid proof. If the premises are true, the conclusion is inescapable.
At this point I can introduce a little biosocial science. The same part of the brain that is engaged when we sense something physically disgusting‑running sores or spoiled meat‑is engaged when we view something morally disgusting‑someone abusing a child or cheating a friend. If the one clearly functions to help us avoid what is bad for us, it is likely that the latter functions the same way.
Today I read a study by Tom R. Kupfer and Roger Giner-Sorolla: Communicating Moral Motives: The Social Signaling Function of Disgust, from the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science. The results of the study indicate that when someone expresses disgust in reaction to some moral violation such as cheating a friend, she is signaling to others that she cares about moral principles and is prepared to join others in enforcing them. That is good for her because it attracts other similar partners. It is good for us, because it makes it possible for us to trust one another and so cooperate more effectively.
At some point in our evolutionary history, our biological capacity for disgust was harnessed by our evolved psychological mechanisms for cooperation. Doing injustice without paying a price may be good for the individual in the short run but it is bad for the political community and therefore bad for its members in the long run.
Socrates didn’t know about evolution. He understood the truth about justice and injustice perfectly. Only now is modern science catching up to him.
Friday, August 24, 2018
I have been reading a very interesting article tonight, in the Atlantic: The Nastiest Feud in Science. It is a feud that I have been interested in for decades. The issue concerns what killed off the dinosaurs, and it has divided scientists concerned with this question into two hostile factions.
The majority faction holds that the dinosaurs went extinct due to a sudden event: an asteroid, “larger than Mount Everest is tall, slammed into our planet with the force of 10 billion atomic bombs.” This is the “bad weekend” thesis. By Monday, the dinosaurs were history.
The minority faction holds that the major extinction event that included the dinosaurs but also almost all the rest of the creatures on earth was a much more gradual process. The culprit here was a series of eruptions in East Central India, the Deccan Traps, that went on for 350,000 years.
Both sides have strong evidence to bring to the table. Deposits of iridium are found all over the world that seem to have been deposited at the same time as the mass extinction and that must have come from the asteroid collision. On the other hand, “at the same time” is ambiguous in geological terms. The big boom may have come 200,000 years before the mass extinction. That’s a long weekend.
What is clear is that the two sides do not merely disagree. They despise one another and have long been at war with one another. They accuse each other of any number of scientific sins in the most bitter of terms. The asteroidsheviks have gone to great lengths to torpedo the careers of any scholar who dares challenge their thesis.
I am a student of Plato and so I know very well that philosophical and scientific quarrels almost always become political quarrels. Socrates relentlessly embarrassed the sophists and orators of ancient Athens and they responded by using the machinery of the Athenian court to kill him. This conflict became political in a more direct sense because Socrates’ enemies included politically powerful men. See The Enemies of Socrates.
The quarrel between the worshipers of asteroid and those of the volcanoes is much the same. A key to the larger political question implicated by this quarrel about ancient geological history lies in this passage in Bianca Bosker’s Atlantic piece.
Understanding the cause of the mass extinction is not an esoteric academic endeavor. Dinosaurs are what paleontologists call “charismatic megafauna”: sexy, sympathetic beasts whose obliteration transfixes pretty much anyone with a pulse. The nature of their downfall, after 135 million years of good living, might offer clues for how we can prevent, or at least delay, our own end.
When someone who is not an idiot writes a passage like that, you can be sure that there is something else going on. Let’s consider: if the one side is right, all we have to do is figure out how to shoot down asteroids. If the other side is right, all we have to do is figure out how to plug volcanoes. Allow me to humbly suggest that neither can “offer clues for how we can prevent, or at least delay, our own end.”
I suspect, though, that the tide may soon turn in favor of the volcano side. Greenhouse gasses produced by human industry look a lot more like volcanoes than like asteroids. Of course, this is only a metaphor. Comparing the human activity over the last century to a range of volcanoes pumping out clouds of gases for hundreds of thousands of years is like comparing a Florida sink hole to the Grand Canyon. The volcano thesis tells us nothing useful about the climate change question. In politics, however, that is not what matters. What matters is the emotional impact.
I am a climate lukewarmer. I don’t doubt that the world warmed significantly over the last century and I think the evidence supports the claim that human activity had something to do with this. I am not at all certain that this bodes ill for human beings and most other creatures. I am certain that we are not going to do anything significant in the short run to control global emissions. I am very certain that the dinosaurs aren’t going to teach us what to do.
The Bosker piece is, I suspect, largely intended to support the alarmist agenda on climate change. Read reasonably, it does the opposite. The same politics that infects the dinosaur controversy infects the climate change controversies. Anyone who doubts the alarmist agenda is vilified. Bosker’s piece suggests that we should be suspicious of everyone on both sides of such questions.
Science is the best guide we have to the nature of the world. Scientists, however, are just as human as anyone else. Man, as Aristotle boldly claimed, is the political animal.
Friday, July 6, 2018
I may be one of the only scholars to escape Claremont without being or becoming obsessed with the Progressives. As a result, I have never paid much attention to John Dewey or Woodrow Wilson or the rest of that lot. The general idea, if I get it, is that the Progressives wanted to empower the people and get rid of silly constitutional limitations on the popular will‑guided, of course, by experts in the sciences of politics and economics.
I have just finished reading a paper about the use of “Darwinism” by the Progressives. I can’t site the paper, because it is a draft of what will be presented at the panel I am chairing at the meeting of the International Political Science Association in Brisbane, Australia. By the way, that’s Brisbin to those in the know. It is a wonderful introduction to Progressive thought, so now I know more than I really want to know.
This is my summary of the paper, for which the unnamed author bears no responsibility. The Progressives believed that modern science could produce much more efficient societies, free from the old evils of factionalism, greed, etc., if only it could get complete command of the powers of government. Standing in the way of that complete command were the constitutional devices—separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism, etc.
To fully empower government to do what the Progressives thought it could do, they had to get rid of those obstacles. To do that, they had to discredit the philosophical principles on which the constitutional order was based. The Founders believed that they understood human nature. The believe that human tendencies toward corruption and self-destruction could not be eradicated, they could only be ameliorated. That is what limited government was designed to achieve.
The Progressives attempted to undermine the Founding principles by attacking the idea of a fixed human nature. The Founder’s work made sense by the light of late 18th century science, they argued, but science has moved on. We now know that human nature changes just like everything else does. We can mold ourselves into new and better beings, free from the moral infirmities of our predecessors, if only be can break free of the shackles they put in place.
This is where Darwin comes in. At the very least, Darwinian evolution allowed the Progressives to argue that human nature was not something fixed; therefore, a political doctrine based on the idea of natural rights was untenable. However, Darwin didn’t give the Progressives what they really needed. They needed the idea that history had a direction from the primitive and bad toward the advanced and good. They got that, more or less consciously, from Hegel and Marx. Without the latter, the idea of a changing human nature provides no comforts, let alone a promise of liberation.
If I get all this right, Darwinism was little more than a gloss—if a very useful gloss—on Progressive doctrine. It allowed them to dismiss the idea of human nature without much serious thought. They didn’t have to understand it; they just needed to employ it as a slogan.
To put it charitably, the Progressives’ view of Darwin was a little more sophisticated than Adolph Hitler’s understanding of genetics. In Mein Kampf, which I haven’t read and neither have you, Hitler apparently argued that if someone from a superior race mates with someone of an inferior race, you get children who are mediocre. The problem, of course, is that genetics doesn’t work that way at all. Breeding a tall animal with a short one might get you middle sized offspring, but it also might give you some tall offspring and some short ones. Genetics is digital rather than analogical.
The problem with the Progressives’ view of Darwinian theory is threefold. The most important problem is that evolution by natural selection is not fundamentally progressive. It shapes organisms for their respective ecological niches, but that can mean simpler, dumber creatures as often as more complex and smarter creatures.
It is true that there is a progressive dimension in the history of evolution. All organisms are autonomous in the sense that they resist the influence of environmental forces. That is what it means to be alive. The increases in organic complexity over time map onto increases in autonomy: warm blooded animals segregate their organs from one another and maintain their body temperature in order to (adaptationist language here) be more independent from the local environment.
The second problem with the Progressive view of Darwinism is that it completely ignores the relevant time frames. Yes, the human species has changed over time; however, it matters how much change and how much time we are talking about. According to most current accounts, human beings have been pretty much the same animals for at least fifty-thousand years. Have we changed enough since Romulus and Remus, let alone Jefferson and Madison, to make a practical difference for political theory? No. If the Founder’s theory was good enough for human beings two hundred and forty-two years ago, no contemporary evolutionary theory will undermine it.
The final and most important problem is that species do not change in all parts of their organic structure at the same rates and some parts of them do not change much at all. While the simplistic model of the triune brain—reptilian, mammalian, and neomammalian—may be discarded, the basic idea is sound: evolution doesn’t work transforming existing organisms into brand new ones, but by reorganizing what it has already got and keeping what works.
Human beings may be more than animals (I think we are) but we are at least animals. Almost all of what our ancestor was before she split into Pan and Homo lines is still in both of us. Most of the earliest mammal is still in our neocortex. The reptile was not purged; he was reassigned.
Human beings are such interesting and promising creatures precisely because we carry within us the history of our organic predecessors, back to the Ur organism and yet have achieved a human world. The organic burdens are part and parcel of the organic promise. We still come into this world, eat and defecate, and go out of it the same way our dogs do.
The political principles of the Founding recognized both sides of the coin. We are capable of living beautiful lives; yet to do this, we have to manage our animal nature. The Founders were wise and mature in their thought. The Progressives were naïve and simple minded.
Wednesday, June 20, 2018
I seemed to have misplaced my copy of Natural Right and History, one of the three books that most shaped the beginning of my career as a scholar. In case you are wondering, the other two were Aristotle’s Politics and Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided. I encountered all three in a course I took with Jeff Wallin at Arkansas State University, many moons ago. At any rate, I am going from memory here and, dare I say, deploying my own examples. No one should blame Strauss, Wallin, Jaffa, or Aristotle for my reflections.
According to Leo Strauss, philosophy begins with the discovery of nature. Prior to that discovery, human beings were well aware that different things had different ways. Menstruation was the way of women and peeing on posts was the way of dogs, just as a life of military training was the way of Spartans and a life of wine was the way of Athenians.
Nature was discovered when someone in ancient Asia Minor realized that there was a difference between the fact that some people burn their dead and some people don’t and the fact that fire always goes up whether you are among the one people or the other. The ways of peoples are partly determined by convention. We do it this way because we agree that this is the way it should be done. Other peoples do it differently.
On the other hand, no one dishes up grains of sand or puts their latrines in their kitchens. These ways are determined not by convention but by nature. The philosophers tried to understand nature‑the things that did not change from one political community to another and that were, apparently, the same everywhere and always. When philosophy turned to examine politics, with Socrates, the task was to determine how the various regimes emerged from one common human nature.
Strauss came back to me yesterday when I encountered the following passage from the great philosopher of biology: Ernst Mayr. The passage is addressed to a certain position in the philosophy of biology concerning the concept of the species. Darwin himself seemed to accept this position in his Origin of the Species. It is called nominalism, the view that species concepts like horse or housefly are entirely conventional, arbitrary groupings that we make up as we go. Mayr would have none of that. From Towards a New Philosophy of Biology:
I have always thought that there is no more devastating refutation of the nominalistic claims than the fact that primitive natives in New Guinea, with a Stone Age culture, recognize as species exactly the same entities of nature as western taxonomists. If species were something purely arbitrary, it would be totally improbable for representatives of two drastically different cultures to arrive at the identical species delimitations. Although a few nominalists still survive, it is now almost unanimously agreed that there are real discontinuities in nature, delimiting different species.
It’s pretty obvious to common sense that a house cat and a housefly belong to different species; but what about a dog and a wolf? Some of the former look very much like the latter and they can breed together. What about a horse and a donkey? They can have a mule as a child but cannot have grandchildren. Things get much messier when you look at plants, let alone microorganisms. Is it possible that our species concepts are merely convenient?
Mayr offers us a reason to reject that idea. If a stone age culture marks out the same species distinctions as modern western taxonomists, then those distinction are probably not cultural artifacts.
What strikes me about Mayr’s proof is that it makes precisely the distinction that Strauss points out. Species are ontologically real because they do not change from one set of conventions to another. The various species that we all recognize are not conventional categories but natural categories.
I have been writing a paper for the meeting of the International Political Science Association in Brisbane, Australia, next month. My topic is Darwin and the Declaration of Independence. One common criticism of Darwinian biology is that it is incompatible with the Declaration’s account of natural rights. The latter states that “all men are created equal.” The critics claim that Darwinian biology destroys the concept of species as natural kinds and so precludes the argument in the Declaration. How can all me be created equal if there aren’t really any human beings, if the human species is a mere convenience, imposed on a smear of organisms differing from on another only in degree?
I think I have shown, in the current draft of my paper, that Darwinian biology allows for species distinctions that are more than robust enough for the purposes of the Declaration. What Mayr’s proof shows is that the species concept in modern biology can be defended on grounds that go back to the very origins of philosophy in ancient Greece. I am content with that.
Friday, April 27, 2018
Which comes first: the political community or the family? This strike me as a theoretically interesting question. I am sure that it is a politically interesting one. I suppose that most conservatives would be offended by the suggestion that the political community is in any way prior to the family. To suggest as much might seem to authorize the examples of heavy-handed government intervention into parental decisions that we have recently seen in Britain. That, after all, is why we sent the British government packing not quite so recently.
As often happens, first glance is not the penetrating glance. To argue that the family is fundamental (either because it is natural or because it is private) and government merely artificial in fact liberates government. Political institutions can represent a leap into freedom from the individual and the biological foundations of life.
That is a good deal of what left-wing social science wants to say. I recently looked at a sociology text on the family. It presented the family as an institution akin to slavery, with the mother and daughter in bondage. In good Marxist fashion, the state can liberate the bond servants because it represents a Hegelian antithesis to the primitive familial institution.
Unfortunately for this position, it works both ways. If the political association is altogether new and unencumbered by the familial association, then the latter is also independent of the political association. For that reason, as long as families continue to exist, they serve as a core or resistance to progressive government. If familial bonding cannot be wiped out, and all evidence is that it cannot be wiped out, neither the final state nor even a genuine republic is possible. The liberation of the political from the familial makes the problems of nepotism and tribalism unsolvable.
Here, a theoretical approach may be helpful. There are two senses in which one thing can be prior to another. One is temporal priority. The baby is temporally prior to the child and the latter to the adolescent. The other is logical priority. The door is logically prior to the doorknob because the former makes sense without the latter but not vice versa.
In recent biosocial research, there has been a shift in thinking about the temporal priority of the family and the polis. The older hypothesis held for a long time. In Aristotle’s account (see the Politics Book 1) the first human association is the union of male and female, i.e., the family. A union of families leads to the clan, of clans to the village, and the union of families leads to the polis.
Aristotle was not making natural history here. He is only trying to understand the polis by breaking it down into its constituent associations. He does suggest that this might be the basis for a natural history when he says that men suppose the gods to be ruled by kings since that is how their more primitive societies were ruled. At any rate, to make this into an evolutionary account, one need only suppose that men and women once mated as solitary animals as do bears. We can then present this hypothesis as follows:
1. Solitary animals
2. Nuclear families
3. Extended families
This progression plays out over time. I am using Robin Dunbar’s numbers here. He has evidence that the steps from 2 to 5 scale up by threes: 5, 15, 50, 150. I note that Dunbar, like Aristotle, is analyzing existing social orders and not presenting a history. It makes sense, however, that more complex communities emerge out of simpler ones in a step by step fashion. It just didn’t happen that way.
The new hypothesis that is emerging goes like this. Human beings left the trees (or the trees left them) as solitary foragers. It was every man and women for his and herself. They coalesced into groups because the group was the only protection they had against predators. Travelling together, they foraged together and quickly became dependent on one another. A group can forage much more effectively, especially if they are hunting and willing to share.
The first step in the evolution of human cooperation was obligate collaborative foraging, according to Michael Tomasello. It was collaborative because we did it all at the same time, even though we were only doing what we would do if alone. It was obligate because we had come to depend on the collaboration to get enough to eat.
Tomasello’s second step was the emergence of group mindedness. We began to think of our fellow hunter-gatherers as “us” as opposed to “them”. At that point, I would argue, we are already talking about a political community. There is a high degree of collaboration and a common interest.
To get further, one must include the hypothesis of Christopher Boehm. He brought to light the “egalitarian syndrome”. All known hunter-gather communities display an egalitarian ethos. Meat is shared. Bullies, who want to push their weight around and take more than their share of the spoils, are ruthlessly suppressed. Free riders, who want to share in the spoils without investing effort, are dealt with in the same way.
The egalitarian ethos protects each individual against any bully in the group. What needs protecting? The bully can’t boss you around or go up side of your head without group sanction. He can’t take your stuff. Neither can he take your mate. This, I submit, was the origin of the human familial association. The group recognized this mate as your mate and gave you some reason to believe that these offspring were your offspring. The investment of the father in his offspring can now be selected for. If the father knows his children, so also the brothers know one another. Familial instincts can be selected for.
If this is correct, then the human family is a product of the primitive political community. It is group recognition that makes a family. It didn’t stop there. If the group could recognize kinship by blood it could also recognize kinship by marriage. The group recognizes this woman as my wife and these children as my children. It can also recognize my wife’s brother as my brother-in-law.
Affinal kinship extends the recognized relations beyond the bounds of blood ties. This allows the unions that extend Aristotle’s clans into villages and then into the polis fully realized. So now we get this history:
1. Solitary animals
2. Simple political animals
3. Nuclear families
4. The polis
With the simplest political community, you would have no families. Without families, you would have no more that the simplest political community. No political philosophy that ignores the dynamic by prioritizing one over is sustainable.
Friday, October 13, 2017
I have always loved horror. When I was a wee lad, my favorite television show was Fantastic Features, which presented horror movies each Friday and Saturday night. The host wore a vampire costume with cape and medal included. He announced himself this way: “I am Sivad, your Monster of Ceremonies!” You can see the lead clip at the link above.
I mentioned my theory of genres in a previous post. I repeat it here.
I have a theory about genres. Each is centered on some essential idea, usually attached to certain special signs. Westerns, for example, are essentially about the frontier: the grey land between civilization and the utter lawlessness of the uncivilized territories, coupled with the signs of horses, hats, and handguns. The samurai movie genre is very similar, if you trade swords for guns and modify the architecture. Horror is about the idea that evil can be a real force in the world, like gravity or electricity. Science fiction rests on the idea of a constantly expanding scientific view of the Kosmos and the surprises that such a view might hold.
Horror fiction is very popular. Scan the Apple Movie Trailers site and you will always see a few horror offerings, even when Halloween is not approaching. But it is approaching, as so my mind turns toward the October side of life. It is a good time to think about the dead. Summer is sinking as fast as the sun in the west, and much of what makes life rich is sinking with it. Death, I read somewhere, is always behind us; but sometimes it turns off its lights. In October, its lights are one and glowing with an orange titled just a bit to the side of crimson.
Horror, as I say above, is about the idea that evil is a real force in the world. It is frequently personified, as in all the vampires and devils that populate the genre. Occasionally, it gets biologized. In a very good film, The Creeping Flesh, starring two horror superstars Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, evil is a microorganism with a nucleus and tentacles. That same idea animates almost all zombie films, including a recent superb offering: The Girl with All the Gifts.
The above are examples of the cross-pollinization of horror and science fiction. A lot of science fiction falls into this category overlap. Consider “Who Goes There?”, the novella that was filmed as The Thing from Another World and John Carpenter’s brilliant remake, The Thing. In the novella, a scientist and a military officer are looking at the frozen corpse of the monster. The scientist can see only a hopeful possibility. Perhaps the scary look on its face is only scary to us. Maybe on its world that was a look of compassion. The soldier is not fooled. He recognizes it as malevolent, and unfortunately, he is right.
More often, horror depends on premodern notions of good and evil. In Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, the vampire and his henchman worship the Devil. “I bring you spoiled flesh…” Even then, modernity presses in. In Salem’s Lot as in almost all horror rooted in ancient mythology, evil is very vivid and personal. The vampire has a name and speaks. Good is perhaps more powerful, but it is anonymous and silent. When the hero finally faces the vampire, he pours holy water over his axe. The water glows with eerie green light but we are told that it is older than any mythology we still have.
Why do we like this sort of thing? I have an idea. It’s the same reason I like English beer. It’s bitter. Our response to bitter is an evolved psychological mechanism. It alerts us to a possible poison in what we are tempted to eat, just as the smell of spoiled meat alerts us to the same. Pregnant women are especially sensitive to both, so much so that they sometimes faint after exposure to the latter.
And yet, most of us can adjust to the taste of bitter, if we consume it without ill effects. This is another of our great gifts: the ability to adapt to new items on the smorgasbord. Genuine fear is hardly pleasant; however, fear in small doses, in a context where we feel safe, stimulates us. More exactly, it engages us. We sit around the fire and listen the story. By scaring us, the evil binds us together. All of us are threatened. We get behind the hero as we listen and so invested, we enjoy his triumph.
That is an interpretation of our horror genre as an adaptation. A lot of our pleasures are not adaptations but by-products of such adaptations. The hero does not always triumph. We enjoy tragedy as much as triumph. That is a consequence of our extraordinary capacity for adaptation to new environments. We can put together our emotional responses and assemble tales and tastes that have no adaptive value; they merely please us.
We are fond of stories that end well and of stories that end badly. The latter may teach us something and that may be one reason we tell them. It is not why we enjoy them. We enjoy them because they speak to parts of our souls that add up to the beautiful. This is what makes it possible for us to appreciate being human. Horror fiction composes its tapestries from such materials as I have described. It is occasionally edifying. It is always entertaining.
Horror fiction may be edifying in so far as it teaches us to stand together against evil. It is also edifying in so far as it teaches us that evil is real. Most of the bad things that people do they do for reasons that all of us can easily understand. The thief wants money. The jilted husband wants revenge. It is easy to dismiss such things as just human nature. Someone firing down on a crowd, someone neither insane nor motivated by a murderous ideology or religion, that is something else.
Evil is real. It is best to remember that. Happy Halloween.
Friday, October 6, 2017
I do not like guns. Frankly, I am afraid of them. Neither, however, am I offended by them. I have many friends who are hunters and I wish them luck; though, in the case of two of my colleagues, when I know they are at large with rifles I am tempted to stay home and clean up the basement. In the interests of full disclosure, I will confess that I once accepted money from the National Rifle Association to travel to New Orleans for a small conference on gun laws.
As a political scientist, I find the gun control vs. gun rights controversy very interesting for two reasons. One is the simple policy question. What kind of policies, if any, would make a significant dent in the rate of gun fatalities in the United States? The other is the controversy itself. What moves each side to defend its positions (or go on offense) so tenaciously?
As to the first question, I am very doubtful that there are any such policies. The argument for gun control (as opposed to the emotional case for it) rests on the large fact that gun violence is much more common in the United States than in similar nations. Measured by gun deaths per 100,000 in population, Australia, Austria, and Sweden have rates of 0.2. The U.S. has a rate of 3.6. These are 2010 numbers. Assuming that these numbers are correct, the US rate is 18 times the rate of the other countries.
It is not unreasonable to view this as a public health problem, analogous to, say, the supposed opioid epidemic. Here is where my skepticism is aroused. It is also true that deaths in traffic accidents are much higher in the U.S. than in similar nations. The rate per 100,000 here is 10.6. In Sweden, the rate is 2.8. In Austria and Australia, it is 5.4. Is this a public health problem? To be sure. That doesn’t mean that we have any idea what to do about it. If we did, wouldn’t we be doing it? There is no National Reckless Driving Association, with its claws in the Republican Party, preventing reform.
Interestingly, but probably not revealingly, the number of Americans who died last year by gun fire is about the same as the number who died on the roads: 33,000. Of the gun fatalities, two-thirds were suicides. That is certainly a health care problem. Do we know what policies would bring the numbers down? No, and it’s not because the National Suicide Association is lobbying Congress. We just don’t know how to fix the problem.
If we can’t solve the highway fatality health crisis and we can’t solve the suicide crisis problem, what makes us think that we can solve the gun violence problem? The answer is obvious. We can’t or don’t want to take away automobiles and we can’t take away all the means of suicide but we can take away guns.
Except that we can’t. There are about as many guns in circulation as there are people in the United States. Confiscation of those guns is both politically impossible (here you can blame the NRA but also the voters in South Dakota) and practically impossible. The same neighborhoods that are awash with guns, frequently barking, are also awash with heroin and meth. Do you really believe it would be easier to get the one than the other?
I am not saying that we should not attempt any reform. I am saying that no reform anyone is proposing will make a significant difference. I wish it were otherwise. It is not.
The answer to the second question posed above is that human beings are political animals and politics is always about friends and enemies. Those who are in favor of gun control do not like guns. Those who are in favor of gun rights do like guns, for the most part. What really puts the powder in each of their shells is that they do not like each other. This leads each side to read any event or information in whatever way gratifies themselves and annoys their opponents.
Gun control, like abortion and gay marriage, is a cultural marker. If you are in favor of all three, then you are on one side. If you oppose all three or any one of the three, you are outside the fold. A friend and colleague of mine responded to such reflections above in this way:
The tax code, licensing, and insurance requirements provide all the tools necessary. Just look at the effects of pricing on tobacco use, which (God help us) I assume you're not going to make some libertarian argument that people have the 'right' to kill themselves (ignoring second-hand smoke). All that's needed is licensing fees proportional to fire-power (just like automobiles, where in sane states, high-performance vehicles cost more to plate), rigorous training requirements, insurance rates commensurate with the risks, safer guns (owner ID grips, etc.) taxes on guns commensurate to offset the costs inflicted on society, stricter control of getting a gun so that perpetrators of domestic violence, people convicted on a felony, and people who are nuts. It's what we do with drivers' licenses, pilot's licenses, and many other things. Why is this a problem?
None of this is unreasonable and much of it I could endorse. None of it would have prevented Stephen Paddock from getting all the guns he needed.
Spinoza was right. At least about this. Most of us most of the time and all of us some of the time are governed by passion. We read atypical events as though they meant something important, which they don’t. When something like this happens, each side always knows what it means. That is interesting, at least to a political scientist.
Friday, September 29, 2017
According to legend, Galileo proved that heavier objects do not fall faster than light objects by dropping two led balls off the Tower of Pisa. One weighed ten times more than the other, yet they reached the ground at about the same time.
It is uncertain whether Galileo actually did this or merely proposed doing it. It doesn’t matter for two reasons. One is that the experiment has been repeated (on the moon, if I remember right) and the results were the same. The other is that Galileo already knew that heavy objects could not fall faster than lighter ones. He knew this not by observation but by reason alone.
Suppose that heavier objects do fall faster than lighter ones. Bind a ten-pound weight and a one-pound weight with duct tape. Now drop them off the top of the tower. We can make two predictions.
One, that the object should fall at a speed between the natural speed of the two; for the heavier one will speed up the lighter one by a bit and the lighter one will retard the heavier one by a bit.
Okay. So far so good.
Two, that the two objects conjoined will be heavier together than the heavier one alone. If so, then the two objects should fall faster than either would alone.
The two predictions both seem to follow logically from the premise, yet they are contradictory. When contradictory conclusions follow from the same premise, the premise is refuted.
Galileo’s thought experiment is strong evidence for the position in epistemology known as rationalism. Rationalist, like yours truly, agree with empiricists that we learn a lot of what we know from observation. We insist, however, that we can know a lot of important things by reason alone.
For example: how do I know that there is no highest number? I can’t know that by observation, for I cannot observe an infinite series of numbers. I know it because I can reason that for any number specified, I can always add one.
Plato stands as the greatest defender of rationalism in the history of philosophy. He thought that we know almost everything we know about the world by means of intelligence rather than observation. See my previous post for an explanation of his view.
I have been reading a wonderful book by Peter Godfrey-Smith, Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness. You won’t find Plato in the index, but I submit that you will find an account of the octopus that is pregnant with Platonic reasoning.
Platonic reasoning in evolutionary biology is most clearly expressed in Daniel Dennett’s account of design space. According to Dennett, design space is the realm of all possible organic forms. Design space is not infinite. You can’t really have the giant spiders that crawl around in sci-fi movies. You can, however, have a lot more organisms than those that have actually emerged. Evolution is the process whereby lineages of organisms explore the library of forms that are potentially available.
To get a handle on the idea of design space, consider some very simple geometry. Start with a single geometric point. This is an altogether dimensionless position in space. Now push the point a short distance in one direction. You get a line segment. Now push the line segment in a direction perpendicular to itself. You get a square and define a plane. Now push the square in a direction perpendicular to the plane. You get a cube. That is the design space available for objects in a three-dimensional world. Everything that we observe with our sensory apparatus is confined to that design space. Fortunately for us, it is very broad.
Godfrey-Smith, an academic philosopher, is intrigued by octopuses. He gives us an account, early in the book, of the evolution of animals. His account is pointed not toward us, but toward our very distant, eight-limbed relatives. What caught my attention is that this account mirrors the geometry that I describe above.
We begin, in this account, with relatively flat creatures crawling on the ocean floor. How do we know they could crawl, rather than swim? They are always found in the fossil record right side up. If they were swimming, some of them would have face-planted. These creatures were almost two dimensional.
Next they began to rise, probably by means of producing gas in their bodies. Eventually you get something like a jellyfish. It has a top and a bottom, but no left or right or front or back.
It is said to have radial symmetry
By contrast, we are bilaterians. We have a front and a back and so a left and a right. The evolution of animals in the beginning was a push into geometric as well as biological design space. It followed the contours of Euclidian geometry.
Of course, it was much more complicated than that. For a long period in the evolution of animals, the lion laid down with the lamb. There was peace. The earliest animals had neither claws nor armor. Some of them, however, found rich sources of nutrients in the decaying bodies of their brethren.
The efficient scavengers developed better and better devices to exploit the dead and then some of them discovered that such device could be used against living organisms. The age of peace was over forever.
I humbly submit that the evolution of animals follows lines that are geometrically coherent. That is very important. All philosophy and science proceed on an assumption: that the principles by which human reasoning works are the same principles by which the external world works. That is the basis of Plato’s theory of ideas. So far, evolutionary biology supports Plato.
Friday, September 15, 2017
Today in my logic class we discussed probability calculations as a way of illustrating inductive arguments. I amused my students and myself by discussing the infinite monkey theorem and, better yet, actually calculating the odds. It occurs to me tonight that this has some bearing on one of the big questions in biology.
The IMT is a famous thought problem in philosophy. If you had a number of monkeys randomly typing on keyboards, could they eventually produce a copy of one of Shakespeare’s plays? The IMT is a good test of rationality. Some students simply refuse to agree that it would be possible, even given infinite numbers of monkeys and time. That suggests a mental block. Given those assumptions, the outcome is not only possible but inevitable. It is also a good illustration of the difference between logical possibility (which the IMT demonstrates) and causal possibility (which the IMT demonstrably fails).
The monkeys in the theorem are, of course, metaphors for random signal generators. They are also cute. To explain my test, I’ll employ metaphorical chimpanzees (they’re easier to train). I stipulate the following:
a constant team of 100 chimps;
each has a keyboard with twenty-six letters (no other symbols or spaces);
each chimpanzee has an equal chance of hitting any of the twenty-six keys on each keystroke;
each chimpanzee types exactly twenty-six characters per minute;
a full team of 100 primates is working at the stipulated speed twenty-four hours a day;
all the keystrokes are entered in a single line that we test for results;
there is no time limit on how long I can keep the experiment going.
If you think that these stipulations are unrealistic, you think correctly; it’s a thought problem.
Now: forget about a whole play; let’s just ask our simian team to produce
Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this son of York.
One of my favorite lines, opening Richard III if memory serves. That doesn’t look so hard. If my apes are following the above stated rules, each will produce an “n” about once every minute. To get the first and second letters in the right order, we have to multiply the probability of each: 26 x 26. So, each 676 keystrokes will produce “no” and our team will produce about four examples every minute. That’s pretty good. We’ll be done by lunch. Bananas all around!
The team will produce the first word in the line about every seven minutes. Unfortunately, the wonders of geometrical progressions slow us down precipitously. To get the first two words will require three full days. Better alert the[KB1] caterer.
It gets worse fast. Given our stipulations, the first three words “nowisthe” are going to appear in order, somewhere in our line, about once every 153 years. Just to get the next three letters of the fourth word in order will require our team to work for about three million years.
So how long will it take to get the first four words out? Forty-seven billion, two hundred and six million, one hundred and four thousand, eight hundred and ninety-four years. We are going to need a lot of chimpanzees and a lot of bananas. Unfortunately, the Kosmos is only fourteen billion years old.
I submit that our thought problem demonstrates two things. One is that it is logically possible for our chimpanzees to produce Richard III. Given enough animals, bananas, and time, they could produce the entire corpus. The other is that it is causally impossible. Vast stretches of time beyond calculation are necessary even to get going.
There have been two recent attempts to play out the scenario. One involved a number of macaque monkeys. After two months, they failed to produce a single English word (they did have an inexplicable fondness for “s”); they broke the computer and pissed on the keyboard.
The other was actually interesting. Someone created a very large number of virtual monkeys, using the cloud to borrow computer time. He claims to have produced almost the entire Shakespearean corpus by this method. However…he cheated. Whenever his virtual monkeys produced nine letters that appeared consecutively anywhere in the corpus, the program took them out and put them in their place. The monkeys would not have to produce that string again.
That is cheating because it means that our monkeys can produce Shakespeare only if they begin with Shakespeare as a forced sorting device, even with vast resources. One might argue that it is analogous to divine intervention.
It occurs to me that this is analogous to natural selection. Instead of monkeys we have random changes in DNA. Very large numbers of organisms constantly reproducing result in very large strings of genetic characters. Natural selection saves the ones that code for viable traits. That is how natural selection eventually builds a Shakespeare.
But what about the UR organism, the first genuine replicator? Is the simplest such organism that science can yet imagine more or less complex than the Bard’s Dickey Three? Allow me to suggest that the answer is “more”. How do you get from inorganic processes to even the simplest organic processes without some kind of preordained sorting?
I don’t know and neither do you. No one knows. I have previously blogged on one attempt to answer that question. Andreas Wagner argues that evolution worked because nature had a preexisting library of Platonic forms. As a Platonist, I like that idea and I am pretty sure he is right. I am just wondering who, precisely, was the librarian?