Saturday, December 16, 2017

Tools for Not Being a Tool

The more I think about the colloquial catchphrase, “Don’t be a tool,” the deeper it seems. The most troubling and comprehensive critique I’ve heard of modern technology is that it less makes us masters than masters us. Humans are, bit by bit, becoming slaves to their machines, and that this would occur has been foreseen for at least a century and a half:

“Man has mounted science, and is now run away with. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of men. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control.
— Henry Brooks Adams, 1862

Likewise, the most concise and thorough critique of the modern state is that it does not foster self-sufficiency but rather makes us more and more dependent on it. Similarly with the rise of corporations and corporate jobs, and the whole modern economy. Power has been removed from the individual family and their homestead, the individual pastor, the individual thinker, and been placed in Global Markets, Mega Churches, and Big Science.

The modern world is making us ever more tool-like.

There are ways to prevent this. There are tools for not being a tool. And they are all very ancient.  Passed on generation-to-generation, these tools have been propagated in books and kept alive in pockets where the corrupting influence of civilization has had less sway. Today, it is very hard to find such pockets, but they are there, and fortunately we have better access to classic books than ever before. In this post I’d like to take a brief survey of these anti-tool tools:

1.      Logic
“And if, on the other hand, wisdom and folly are really distinguishable, you will allow, I think, that the assertion of Protagoras can hardly be correct. For if ‘what appears to each man is true to him,’ one man cannot in reality be wiser than another.”
                —Socrates (in Plato’s Cratylus)

The death of reason is the great unsung catastrophe of modern life. I describe this in detail in my previous posts on logic (Part I, Part II). In essence, our very conception of what reason is has degenerated. Now, we think of it as “science”: a mixture of mathematics and experimentation done primarily by experts. Where we want to be logical, rather than thinking it through for ourselves we find a “study” so we can give numbers and statistics: “data.” While all of this has something of logic in it, it is degenerate because it lacks the independent and self-sufficient criticality that makes logic logic. It is worth quoting Aristotle again on this point:

"[T]he science which knows to what end each thing must be done is the most authoritative of the sciences, and more authoritative than any ancillary science; and this end is the good of that thing, and in general the supreme good in the whole of nature." (Metaphysics 2, 982b, W.D. Ross trans.)

Far from having or respecting any notion of supreme good, we now rely on a hodge-podge of specialty sciences, each referring to another or to a set of special experiments, none of them capable of binding our vast knowledge into any cohesive system of rationality. Even if the writings of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle contain many outdated facts, they each constitute an example of something we have forgotten: a worldview bound together into a relevant and self-sufficient whole by use of logic – logic as the tool, not the master.

To remember this art again would be to free ourselves from our intellectual dependence on aimless, bureaucratic science on the one hand, and pure unstructured relativism on the other, and give us back Logic as a form of individual strength, and not subservience.

2.      Knowledge
“We suppose first, then, that the wise man knows all things, as far as possible, although he has not knowledge of each of them in detail …”
—Aristotle (Metaphysics 2, 982a)

Closely related to logic is the class of mental tools that are facts, known as knowledge or science. Notice the ambiguity  in the term “science” – which can mean either methodology or knowledge. As science also carries bureaucratic connotations, we should generally prefer the term knowledge.

The biggest blow to modern knowledge has come from the Internet. Where before we relied on our memories, or on books that could be possessed by individuals, now we rely primarily on distributed data in the form of websites which we visit but do not possess. As such knowledge is passing out of individuals’ hands and becoming a property of our infrastructure. But for our knowledge to be integrated in any deep way with our logical faculties, for this synthesis to become a true science in the ancient meaning of the term, knowledge must be carried primarily in the mind. It is one thing for books to have replaced memorization as a means of passing knowledge. The death of memorization may mean that we will never be as fully whole as the Greeks were. But it is another thing entirely to allow our machines to index and recall information for us, and we must do everything we can to preserve the information-integrating processes of our own minds, if we are to continue to have minds at all.

3.      Craft
“Self-sufficiency is not attained by riches.”

The entire modern myth of Progress rests on the exact reverse of Boethius’s aphorism, the false notion that, as Harvard economist Amartya Sen puts it “Development is freedom.” He uses this notion to argue that all we need to do to improve life in the third world is to make them more prosperous like us. We can see the falsity of this idea simply by following Boethius’s 1600-year-old reasoning concerning wealth and happiness: “If riches cannot eliminate need [which they never do] but on the contrary create new demands [which they always do] what makes you suppose that they can provide satisfaction?” This is just as true when stated in terms of “development.” A developed country has more needs. It uses generally 5 or 6 times more resources than an “undeveloped” country. The United States has one of the least efficient agricultures in the world, not in spite of its technology but because of it.

What we have lost, as many organic farmers have argued, is craft. We have replaced individual knowledge with mechanical processes. This hardly needs to be pointed out. Food production and consumption has become mechanized as never before. Not long ago, just a couple of generations back, it would be considered strange for a country-dweller not to know how to churn butter, slaughter a pig, or harvest wheat. Today it is less and less common, even for a country-dweller, to butcher their own animals, make their own bread, or even cook their own food.

We may have gained a vast amount of knowledge on a societal level, but what we have lost on an individual level is even vaster. Candle-making, soap-making, carpentry, metal-working, and basically all other country crafts are now kept alive only by a few isolated communities and craftsman.

And with the decline of these arts has come the decline of all fine art as well. Vegetables are mass produced; so are stories. Television has done as much to destroy craft as factory farming. We would rather buy food than grow food. We would also now rather buy music than play music. “Who has time?” All arts and crafts are inefficient. In both the decline of country crafts and the decline of fine art, there is a common culprit—our new love for science, mass production, and efficiency.

The decline of poetry and the fine arts is obvious from several different perspectives. Today, the ideal of the intellectual life is the scientist, who is completely objective and nothing to do with art. But the old ideal was the “man of letters,” a writer of poetry, essays, books, and letters who was equally expected to be able to write verse or music as mathematical equations. When ideals contract and are weakened in this way, the whole system of education follows suit. For decades now at the universities, the humanities and fine arts have declined as much as the agricultural arts. Everything is giving way to specialized, vocational, and industrial sciences.

We need to bring back poetry, art, and all other crafts. We need to bring back the ecosystem, the wild garden of the mind.

Assert your freedom. Value time over money. Learn crafts. Practice crafts. Create.

4.      Homesteading
“He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment.”
                —Proverbs 12:11

Given that Progress is a fantasy, and that urbanity is given to chase it, pursuing a rural way of life is the most prudent way to prepare yourself and your descendants to prosper come what may. To throw your lot in with perpetual economic growth, and let yourself be entirely dependent on both your corporate job and far-away factory farms for sustenance, is a poor bet. Better to at least learn the basics—gardening, poultry, a few staple crops such as potatoes—and then even if you don’t yet have the time to entirely support yourself, when hard times come you will be much readier than average.

A homestead is an ideal place to raise a family. Children learn the value of work, and how to work. There is a great variety of work to be done and crafts to be learned. They will learn where food comes from. More food can be fresh and unprocessed. You get more fresh air and “probiotics,” because there is less reason to be confined indoors consuming mass media. You can live closer to nature, and learn about it by interacting with it. Tradition and traditional values are more in demand. Money, popularity, and consumer goods are less in demand. Even if you lack the land or skills to achieve this ideal fully, any step in this direction will only bring that much more psychological and bodily health.

Don’t be a corporate tool: be self-sufficient.

5.      The Classics
“He who cannot draw on 3000 years of history is living merely from hand to mouth.”

You almost never encounter a great person who does not have their list of classics that helped make them who they are. Any book that has helped form great people, and has done so consistently over several generations, may safely be called a classic. It’s a book worth knowing. Reading a classic will help raise your quality of life and the quality of your thinking. A book worth knowing will help make you a person worth knowing.

The deeper you go into the classics, the deeper you will become as a person. Contrast this with academic learning. The deeper you go into any subject and the longer you spend studying, the more specialized and the less relevant to most people you will become. Applying academic philosophy to the world, and sharing it with people, is very difficult to do the more you read it. Applying Plato to the world, and sharing him with people, is very difficult to avoid doing the more you read him.

The world’s best education costs almost nothing. On the other hand, university educations are becoming more expensive, and we are going further into debt paying for degrees that are becoming less valuable. And the notions taught at universities are becoming more and more progressive (as if this were progress) and more politically so. The classics themselves are read less than ever, for the paltry reason that most were written by white men with very conservative views relative to today, as if being white, male, or traditional were an automatic refutation. On the contrary, we live in an extremely liberal society, relative to other times and places. So it is unavoidable that reading literature from other times and places will expose us to the special weaknesses of our liberal worldview. Again, once we’ve disposed of the idea of perpetual progress, we can come to understand that the future is likely to be very like the past, that this flowering of liberal civilization we’re experiencing has a great deal in common with the liberal civilizations of Athens, Rome, the Mayan Empire, Babylon, and countless others that have all grown decadent and declined. The notion that Western civilization alone is immortal is nothing more than a pretty piece of propaganda for making us its tool.

Free yourself from the chains of partisan politics and progress-worship. Read the classics and learn to think outside the matrix of our surprisingly provincial self-worshipping modern culture.

6.      Friendship
“Companions the creator seeks and not corpses, nor herds or believers either. Fellow creators the creator seeks …”

“The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.”

“Emerson with his essays has been a good friend and cheers me up even in black periods: he contains so much skepsis, so many ‘possibilities’ that even virtue achieves esprit in his writings.”

“Communion and friendship and orderliness and temperance and justice bind together heaven and earth and gods and men …”

During my years in academia I taught courses and attended conferences, I had seminar discussions about papers and wrote responses, I critiqued and published. But none of this ever reached the depth that my conversations have had over email, or over beer, or on a long walk with a friend.

In the institution, where the context is professionalism, the politics of the institution reigns. In informal settings, where the context is friendship, truth reigns.

7.      Fallowness
“The mind I love must have wild places, a tangled orchard where dark damsons drop in the heavy grass, an overgrown little wood, the chance of a snake or two, a pool that nobody fathomed the depth of, and paths threaded with flowers planted by the mind.”
—Katherine Mansfield

“The wisdom of a learned man is the fruit of leisure; he must starve himself of doing if he is to come by it.”
— Sirach 38:25

The ecology of the soil is surprisingly like the ecology of the soul. Overwork either one, and you kill it.

Amish and organic farmers alike understand the principle that the cheapest and most efficient way to build soil is to do nothing and let nature take over. It is called leaving a field fallow. In traditional Mayan culture, it was understood that when you cleared an acre of forest, you could plant crops profitably for two years, but you would have to leave it fallow again for 5-20 years before it could be used again. In the Old Testament, Leviticus requires that you leave your fields fallow for 1 year out of 7, and this is called the Sabbath Year, in analogy to the weekly Sabbath, the day of rest, contemplation, and leisure.

If you leave the land free and unused (not a tool), it will pursue an equilibrium state, every species proliferating as fast as it can until a maximally stable diversity is achieved. Nutrients are transported from high-density areas to lower-density areas. Coalitions of species are formed that can successful repel invasive organisms. Everything happens according to God’s law alone, and a perfect state of primal wilderness is approached, though this process can take centuries or more to reach completion.

The human mind is the same. Forces seeking to usurp it and make it a tool are manifold in modern society. Political parties seek to limit its opinions to those that will let it vote correctly. Propaganda by major news outlets is their preferred tool for plowing and planting your brain, but also increasingly blogs, social media, universities, and even public schools as well. We should distrust anything with a political bent. Media corporations also use propaganda (euphemistically called “advertisements” or “television shows”) to put you in the correct frame of mind to buy their products. Increasingly, the media’s complex of tools have merged with the political complex, because they share the goals of making people (1) less stuck on traditional ideals so that their minds will be (2) more pliable and (3) more dependent on the media for validation.

Some media is okay, in limited doses. Our identity as a culture is now crucially dependent on it, and unless you have a basic knowledge of popular culture, you lack Western culture period. But it would be much better to give up all television watching and news reading, and only read classics and letters from friends, than to do the reverse.

If they are not to be mere tools, but to aspire to the wholeness of wilderness, both our minds and our fields need fallow time. Do not overwork the land, do not overwork the spirit. Leave plots fallow; leave hours contemplative.

8.      Provincialism
“… a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth.”

We see provincials as “backwards” for good reason. They are good at preserving their way of life. And contrary to modern urban bias, this is a good thing.

Typically we use doublethink here. On the one hand we lament the loss of cultural diversity, the disappearance of the Native Americans, and the Westernization that is imperialistically destroying old cultures elsewhere around the world. Yet we do not even let ourselves pass down our own cultural diversity, let alone generate new diversity.

It is easy to forget that every society, every tribe and nation and ethnic minority around the world, all came from the same primeval tribe. We are all cousins. And all this diversity didn’t spring from nothing. It sprang from local adaptation--from a closeness to nature and the land and God—that is being lost.

Ecosystems are generated by diversification. Creativity is impossible as a tool of empires. Flourishing freedom only occurs outside Babylon, where the waters run free, the trees may grow to full height, and you know your neighbors well enough to love them as yourself.

In the modern Western world, village life is almost extinct. Most has been forgotten. There is not much community to join. But we should try to remember, because the time will come, when the ends of the earth are stripped of their treasures, when the empires have fallen and their chains rusted away, that we will again recognize the kind farmer next door as the greatest treasure of all.

9.      Liberal Education
“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.”
                —C.S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man)

“For we are not speaking of education in a narrow sense, but of that other education in virtue from youth upwards, which makes a man eagerly pursue the ideal perfection of citizenship, and teaches him how to rightly rule and how to obey. This is the only education which, upon our view, deserves the name; that other sort of training, which aims at the acquisition of wealth or bodily strength, or mere cleverness apart from intelligence and justice, is mean and illiberal, and is not worthy to be called education.”
                —Plato (Laws I)

I’ve mentioned that public schools are increasingly used as platforms for political propaganda. I’ve also mentioned that they neglect the classics. To round out my critique it only needs to be pointed out that the logic of public education only makes sense where the parents lack any education themselves. The average public school student, if they’re lucky, will receive maybe 20 minutes of one-on-one instruction with the teacher per day. And the amount of time actually spent learning, by any means, is somewhere in the 10-30% range. You have a single teacher for 30 students. For a six-hour day, that’s 12 minutes per student. And where these students are spread across a spectrum of levels and abilities, you are lucky if more than 1/4 of the content of instruction is relevant to what you need to learn. And what about this remainder of the day spent in school, the majority where there is no content of interest and no teacher guidance? Rest assured the student is being taught by peers no wiser than themselves.

Teachers deserve our admiration. They do a great deal for our children with very little. I owe a lot to the teachers I’ve had over the years, from elementary through graduate school. The weakness of our public education system lies not in our teachers, but in the design of the system itself, in the daunting mathematics of the task we are giving them.

The mathematics of homeschool is much more encouraging. Spend just an hour with your child each day and you’re already giving them three times more attention than even the best of their teachers could. Teach them self-study and help them find books and resources, and you will be sure that close to 100% of their study time is spent actually learning. The ratio of adult influence to peer influence will be, even for a family of six, five times better. And with a mixture of ages, the older children can learn by teaching, and the younger have that many more teachers.

But do homeschool children enculturate and socialize properly? I think they do. Studies confirm that they are generally better adjusted. (See my full critique of public school and the university system.)

For two thousand years in the west, the most admired form of education was a “liberal” one. That means, rather than being trained for a vocation, you’ve read the classics of western literature and surveyed every field of knowledge from a philosophical, value-based point of view, with the aim of gaining a coherent world-picture. Recall that this aim is also the ultimate goal of Logic, properly characterized. So now we have come full-circle, and we see that the aim of becoming a free, open, and rational mind is best achieved by the intellectual independence given by a liberal education, rooted in the classics, sheltered from corporate and political propaganda, and given the leisure and fallowness to grow into wholeness and self-sufficiency.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Logic vs. Logical Fundamentalism (Part 2)

Logical Mastery

A master of logic knows both its power and its limits. As we saw in the last part, to assume that logic alone is sufficient for forming all our beliefs is absurd, because then we would need no other techniques.  On the contrary, it is manifest that a true master of logic would have many diverse forms of knowledge, in order to use the techniques and premises most useful for the question at hand. And since no human has the time to learn all disciplines, a true master of logic must be acquainted with the most general and important disciplines.

In other words, the best logicians are more than logicians. The domain of logic itself is rather narrow. It consists of simple-yet-thorny problems, which would confuse if they were not laid out explicitly. Some of these problems are more central than others. What is 12 times 15? Most of us don't know this immediately. Even people who can do it quickly in their heads reason something like this: 4 times 15 is 60. Since 12 divided by 4 is 3, this is the same as 3 times 60, which is 180. This is how I personally do the problem, and in most cases I can do it in about 3 or 4 seconds. But I haven't been entirely logical yet, and perhaps you didn't follow. To clarify, let me use arithmetic which is essentially the logical formalism of numbers:

12 x 15 = A
(3 x 4) x 15 = A           factorization of 12
3 x (4 x 15) = A           associativity
3 x 60 = A                   4 x 15 = 60
180 = A

It's probably taken you more time to understand my reasoning here than it would have to simply use a calculator, or to use long-multiplication as you learned in school. In fact, you might wonder why I chose to do it this way when I could have used the usual way of writing multiplication problems. I was attempting to explain a mental trick I use in multiplying numbers. In most cases it helps me calculate much quicker, and I've been using it for so many years it often happens largely beneath my consciousness. Where did I get the trick? Why is it faster? You should also wonder: why is it important?

This example has shown several uses of logic, as well as weaknesses. Logic is useful for well-defined problems. It is useful for explaining our thoughts more clearly. It is also useful for analyzing and teaching methods of thought that can speed up thinking. Logic is not useful for vaguely-defined problems. The question of how to find good tricks for doing math in your head is not a question of logic, but of experimentation and play. Logic can clarify, but only at the cost of using more words and symbols to explain. I could have stopped with "12 times 15 is obviously the same as 3 times 60, which is 180," because that's normally how I think about it. But it is not a fully logical argument because it might not be obvious to you why it is the case.

Humans only rarely use pure logic. When a lot of pure logic must be done, we give it to computers, which are much faster at it. Among scientists and philosophers, sometimes the use of logic is considered to bestow a greater deal of certainty and authority. This is often unwarranted – even professional papers in physics usually contain more verbal passages than they do mathematical equations. Putting more equations in a paper does not necessarily make the paper as a whole more certain. Logical or mathematical reasoning is always based on assumptions, and these assumptions, along with the fidelity of the reasoning, will generally determine the soundness of the conclusion. Rather than comparing the number of mathematical symbols being used, it is best to treat each written argument on its own terms. The practice of judging a subject based on how logical it appears is a major source of our bias against the humanities and in favor of physics and mathematics.

Logic is fidelity. By making our reasoning explicit, we make sure that nothing is lost or misunderstood. Mathematical knowledge is precise, so it requires a precise symbolism. Learning to use this symbolism carefully and with fidelity helps us to express ourselves clearly. Fidelity is also important when using the English language. The vast majority of our reasoning is in our native tongue. There is no master mathematics that can encompass everything we must say, therefore it is a special challenge to express logical arguments in words. How do you explain your logic fully when you are bound to use words that do not have perfectly precise meanings? In the universities, this is known as "informal logic," but it is taught so narrowly as to be inadequate to what we need it for.

Logic itself is easy. If it is raining, there are clouds. It is raining. Therefore, there are clouds. When you have rules and you know how to apply them, there is no problem. When you're given a set of math problems and all you have to do is follow a mechanical set of rules, it quickly becomes tedious. What is hard is expressing complex logic informally, in words. It is difficult to take a tough new problem and express it logically when you have no formalism. And this is the way it is with most real-life logical problems we run into. Is abortion right or wrong? Two novices can easily spend hours debating whether this question can even be parsed into logic.

Logic is a tool. That something is a logical question does not automatically make it important. The question of how to multiply 12 and 15 was merely an example, and we did not go as deeply into it as we might have. A true master of logic does not get caught up in less relevant details. On the contrary, a master of logic knows what is relevant and develops tools for thinking about the most relevant details.

Aristotle, the ancient Greek philosopher, is perhaps the most all-round capable logician who has ever written a book. Everything he wrote was in Greek, not in equations (as modern logicians strive to do), yet it is so clearly and carefully thought-out and argued, that even where he is mistaken you can tell exactly where his error crept in. Ultimately, this is why logic is important. If we can lay out our ideas clearly and explicitly, then we have done something useful for future generations even if it is wrong. Let's take a look at his discussion of it means to be wise:

[W]e must inquire of what kind are the causes and the principles, the knowledge of which is Wisdom. If one were to take the notions we have about the wise man, this might perhaps make the answer more evident. We suppose first, then, that the wise man knows all things, as far as possible, although he has not knowledge of each of them in detail; secondly, that he who can learn things that are difficult, and not easy for a man to know, is wise (sense-perception is common to all, and therefore easy and no mark of Wisdom); again, that he who is more exact and more capable of teaching the causes is wiser, in every branch of knowledge; and that of the sciences, also, that which is desirable on its own account and for the sake of knowing it is more of the nature of Wisdom than that which is desirable on account of its results, and the superior science in more of the nature of Wisdom than the ancillary; for the wise man must not obey another, but the less wise must obey him. (Aristotle, Metaphysics 2, 982a, W.D. Ross translation).

The context for Aristotle's discussion is an introduction to the principles of metaphysics, which for him are the first principles of what exists, applicable in all fields of knowledge. He equates knowledge of metaphysics with Wisdom itself, which is the broadest and most divine science. As he does at the beginning of all his books, Aristotle clearly and succinctly lays out the goal of his work and his method of approach. The first task, then, is to determine what "causes and principles" the wise man must understand to be wise. This passage is only preliminary, but it begins with "what notions we have about the wise man," including (1) that he has general (if not detailed) knowledge about every field, (2) that he has knowledge about difficult subjects, (3) he is a capable teacher, (4) he knows subjects which are more theoretical and primary.

Just in stating these aspects of wisdom, which are generally taken for granted and left as unconscious assumptions, even today, Aristotle has given an explicit, logical definition of philosophy that is as perfect as can be desired. (Incidentally, the art of making definitions is an essential branch of logic that is nevertheless neglected in most modern courses on the subject.) The relevance of his definition today can be seen simply by asking who we moderns consider wise and determine whether they satisfy it. Scientists are usually called the wisests among us, and among scientists, physicists, such as Albert Einstein, are held in the highest esteem. Other people, who oppose putting mathematics on a pedestal, most commonly name novelists like James Joyce or perhaps analytic philosophers, like Wittgenstein, or postmodern philosophers, like Derrida, as the wisest. So let's consider these four categories of modern thinkers – physicists, novelists, analytic philosophers, and postmodern philosophers – in terms of Aristotle's criteria.

Physicists fail, in general, to satisfy criterion (1). They do not have knowledge of every field, but are relatively untrained in philosophy, the humanities, and "soft sciences" such as the humanities. Most modern physicists are encouraged to specialize even further in a particular field, such as astrophysics, solid state physics, quantum field theory, etc. They are far indeed from being trained in politics, ethics, or mysticism. Physicists do, however, often satisfy criterion (2). Their subject involves extremely difficult mathematics, so difficult that professional physicists tend to score better on mathematical aptitude tests than mathematicians themselves. Some physicists do satisfy criterion (3), being good teachers. My experience as an undergrad at Caltech was that most physicists, however, prefer to focus on research. Physicists are rarely excited about teaching their theories to those outside their field, and when they are good at making their ideas accessible, the way Stephen Hawking or Brian Greene are, their books fail to address the broadest range of human concerns, however excellent they are in other respects. Theoretical physicists satisfy criterion (4), knowledge of what is theoretical and primary, but experimental and applied physicists do not. Therefore, even theoretical physicists only satisfy 2 out 4 of Aristotle's criteria, and are thus not Wise under his definition. This conclusion holds up when compared to the role physics plays in practice – physics is indeed too specialized and too insular to provide people with what you would call wisdom, and is usually more useful in technical engineering contexts.

Novelists often do satisfy criterion (1). Science fiction authors, especially, often display an impressive range of knowledge, including moral, aesthetic, social, and scientific aspects of human life. Writing good, publishable fiction is indeed difficult, so we can give them criterion (2) as well. Are novelists capable teachers? In a few ways they are, because they can inspire people to think and question. But on a person-to-person basis, you wouldn't generally go to novel or novelist to learn a particular subject. Aristotle's criterion, more specifically, is that "he who is more exact and more capable of teaching the causes is wiser." Novelists can't be exact in novel writing, because their stories become boring. Nor do they focus on causes, but on human drama. So they do not sastisfy criterion (3). Do they know subjects which are more theoretical? Often they do, but this is not essential to being a novelist, so we cannot say they satisfy criterion (4) either. Once again, we have a class of thinkers that satisfy only 2 out of 4 criteria.

Postmodern philosophy does not stress ability in mathematics or science, though it does encourage its students to investigate a broad range of fields. At their best, postmodern philosophers do have broad-enough knowledge to satisfy (1). Being a successful postmodern writer is certainly not easy (any kind of writing career is difficult), so we can say that they have knowledge of difficult subjects (2). When it comes to causes and exactness, postmodern philosophers are not trained to teach clearly (3). It is unclear whether postmodern philosophy is properly theoretical, or simply claims to be, but even if we give it the benefit of the doubt on (4), it still only scores 3/4.

Postmodern Philosophy
Analytic Philosophy
1) Broad?
2) Difficult?
3) Teach causes well?
4) Primary?

Analytic philosophers generally do not satisfy condition (1). They are often untrained in literature, religion, and aesthetics, though most respected ones have at least some knowledge in these fields. They do satisfy condition (2), since analytic philosophy is a very difficult subject, in terms of the complexity of the language and logical reasoning used. They generally score even higher than English professors on language aptitude tests. The best analytic philosophers are good teachers and mentors, and write clear popular accounts of their philosophy. They treat causation and reason as exactly as can be expected, so they satisfy (3). Analytic philosophy is also entirely theoretical, which means they satisfy (4) and score 3/4 on Aristotle's test.

In other blog posts (for example this series) I have argued that analytic philosophy is too narrow to be considered the heir to classical Western philosophy. Aristotle would have agreed that analytic philosophers are not philosophers in the truest sense. Let's take a look at the passage almost immediately following his definition of wisdom:

"[T]he science which knows to what end each thing must be done is the most authoritative of the sciences, and more authoritative than any ancillary science; and this end is the good of that thing, and in general the supreme good in the whole of nature. Judged by all the tests we have mentioned, then, the name in question falls to the same science [metaphysics]; this must be a science that investigates the first principles and causes; for the good, i.e. the end, is one of the causes." (Metaphysics 2, 982b)

Why is the study of the supreme good or end necessarily the most authoritative science, according to Aristotle? He states the reason at the end of his definition of Wisdom: "for the wise man must not obey another, but the less wise must obey him." Whatever knowledge deals with the supreme good, or the ultimate goal, is necessarily the one that determines how the rest of our knowledge is organized or applied. Whatever project one works on, the first question is always, "to what end?" If a project does not have a goal it is not a project at all but mere play. Modern analytic philosophy is mere play because it does not have a supreme goal or aim, which is Aristotle's first requirement for a science to be central. So let us augment Aristotle's definition of Wisdom to take into account the other assumptions that he originally left implicit. (Making them explicit is, once again, a practice in verbal logic):

1.      A wise person has general knowledge of all major fields and their ends.
2.      A wise person can learn difficult and important subjects.
3.      A wise person is more exact and capable of teaching causes and purposes in every major branch of knowledge.
4.      A wise person is more knowledgeable about fields that are primary in the sense of being more theoretical and which concern central or superior ends or purposes.

According to this more exact definition, which is closer to what Aristotle really meant, analytic philosophy fails to satisfy any of these criteria because the ends or purposes of its abstract linguistic systems are rarely made explicit, nor are they stressed in university courses. It is generally assumed – usually implicitly – that because science drives societal progress, and analytic philosophy is the study of science, analytic philosophy is directed toward the ultimate goal of civilization. However, as I argue in my recent book, it is far from obvious that progress is occurring at all, nor does it appear that the so-called "advances" of Western civilization are sustainable. At the very least, these bedrock assumptions warrant investigation. No field of study can be called "wise" which ignores the open question of the ultimate goal of civilization.

Aristotle is the master of logic, and it is thanks to his fidelity – which, again, is the essence of logic – that the modern world is acquainted with the views of his opponents. Even Plato's system of metaphysics is made clearer in Aristotle's writings than they are in Plato's own dialogues. The strength of a philosophical tradition lies in the fidelity of its logic. Without clear explanation, the basic ideas of a system of thought cannot be transmitted faithfully to future generations. Nor can the weaknesses of a way of thought be uncovered, analyzed, or overcome. 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Review of "Ultrasociety" by Peter Turchin

For a brief pop science book, Ultrasociety goes very deep, and its rich in historical and theoretical insight. Like Guns, Germs, and Steel, its a good introduction to the history of civilization, and will have plenty for even an expert to chew on. But like most popularizations, Ultrasociety tends to overstate the success and generality of its theories, and to gloss over any aspects of history that fall outside its scope.

To his credit, Turchin dismantles a number of popular misconceptions about cultural evolution. For example, he challenges the (already absurd) idea that complex civilization is the accidental result of selfish genes that dispose us to kindness toward relatives. Rather, he points out that group selection on culture is a more plausible explanation and better supported by the evidence. He also disputes the idea that religion is a memetic virus that does little more than cause violence. The evidence again shows the oppositemore religious cultures tend to show less internal violence and more cooperation and prosperity. He has many insights like this scattered throughout, and they make the book well worth reading.

Nevertheless, Ultrasociety falls short of its stated aim, to explain the evolution of enormously complex and large societies like our own. It focuses on the time period between 5000 BC and 1500 AD, and only occassionally discusses cultural evolution following the advent of gunpowder and the printing press. In fact he admits the gap and promises a more thorough analysis of modern civilization in his next book. But the blind spot here is huge. Between 0 AD and 1500 AD, you saw the collapse of the Roman Empire and arguably no significant decrease of violence in Europe. So his main thesis, that cultural selection tends to create larger and more cooperative civilizations through war, is left without convincing support for the last 2000 years of history. Not only has the trend toward larger civilizations not been uniform, but the last 500 years has involved powerful forces aside from war. Turchin admits the shift from violent to nonviolent means of conquest over the last century, but seems to see it as a victory for his view. True, this would seem to be a positive development, but he does little to show how his theory can account for it.

The problem is that the scope of his explanation is too vast. Nobody can ever explain in complete detail why and how human civilization evolved. When tackling any question so large, oversimplification is inevitable. Sure, war was essential to the evolution of modern society. He makes an excellent case that you cannot explain the development of large empires and nation-states without war. He is correct that agricultural advances, urbanization, and far-flung trade networks can all happen in the absence of a state, and that a states main purpose, at least until modern times, has always been the waging of war. But the fact that war has proven essential does not imply that it is sufficient. He discusses the importance of religion, too, but seems to assume that unless it helps a nation wage war it serves no function. He makes the same sort of assumption about every element of culture he discusses: horses, wheels, farming, and even cooperation itself. The ultimate utility of all these innovations is in waging war, he claims. But it does not follow that just because the primary function of states is warfare, that the primary function of all the rest of culture is warfare. Life is more complex than that. There have always been plenty of selective forces aside from war.

Finally, Turchin falls into the trap of projecting recent “progress” indefinitely into the future. In an early chapter, he is quick to criticize the progressive view of human history, correctly pointing out that evolution need not lead to improvement. Bafflingly, the rest of his book seems to assume the opposite. States will continue to get larger, encompassing the entire world. Cooperation will become more and more prevalent, he claims. He seconds Pinkers prediction that violence will continue to decrease.

But modern civilization is very far from sustainable. None of our advances can be counted on to last, not while 90% of our energy comes from nonrenewable resources, not while inequalities continue to rise, and especially not when every major civilization before ours has eventually declined and collapsed due the same kinds of unsustainability.

Im sure Turchin would admit all of this. But like Jared Diamond and other popularizers, he knows what people want to hear. So he is careful to provide a happy ending, one that leaves all our progressive illusions intact, and enthrones science as our savior. Near the end of the book he writes, What we need to do now is develop the science of cooperation to the point where we can use it to improve peoples lives. (After all these decades its still not at that point?) And elsewhere: This, then, is the great hope for humanity: that war can finally fade away, displaced by more obviously constructive contests. (Good luck.)


Turchin, Peter. Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Beresta Books. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Logic vs. Logical Fundamentalism (Part 1)

Modern Confusion about Logic

My first day as a college-level logic instructor for gifted 7th-10th graders (read the story here), I gave my new students a questionnaire. One of the questions was the usual “What do you hope to learn from this course?” A surprising number of students wrote something like, “I want to learn logic so I can apply it to big decisions, like what career to choose.” The first time a student volunteered such an answer, I stammered something about how logic might be slightly useful for such things, but is normally used in subjects like science and law. By the end of the course, I had trained myself to respond to such hopes with a carefully intoned “maybe.” But the idea stuck with me, especially as I dipped back into the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Wasn’t that where philosophy had begun, with the determination of Socrates to apply reasoning to the most important questions in life? What had happened to that original philosophical spirit? Had we lost faith in it for any good reason? Or was it just me that had lost faith in logic?

In one sense, modern professors, intellectuals, skeptics, and atheists have become too fanatical about the importance of logic. Skeptics and atheists claim that it is the only viable source of truth, and that we should give no quarter to intuition, emotion, faith, or anything unscientific. Professors and intellectuals credit logic with giving rise to modern technology, science, industry, and progress. This reverence for logic, and mathematics in particular, has made scientists and mathematicians perhaps overly revered, and overly arrogant. Scientists are now expected to be experts even in fields where the relevance of mathematics is slight, such as human psychology, sociology, and political science. A pre-occupation with statistics – which is virtually the only branch of mathematics that is widely applicable in these fields – has plagued us with countless quantitative studies that rarely give us a deeper or broader view of human nature.

Philosophy itself, once a fertile discipline that connected art, science, practical living, ethics, and religion, has become divided into two camps: those who believe that we should use logic to resolve all philosophical disagreements (positivists and philosophers of science), and those who shun logic as a mechanical, soul-deadening, culture-destroying practice (postmodern and continental philosophers).

Those philosophers who still believe in logic can, for the most part, be subdivided into two main groups, positivists and pragmatists. Positivists see logic as a set of mathematical rules that can provide an unshakable foundation for thought, and they believe that some day all human thinking will become mathematical. Pragmatists admit that not all thought can be made mathematical, but claim that the rest of thinking is based on heuristics. But heuristics are simply imprecise logical rules. Ultimately pragmatism amounts to a form of positivism that simply grants logic more room for imprecision. The over-emphasis on logic remains.

Such views, which have dominated Western philosophy for 100 years, have obscured our understanding of what logic ideally should be.

Logic, as understood prior to positivism, is clear, careful thinking. When you need to figure something out, and you spend time determining all the details, that is logic. If you are being rushed, or if the problem is too complex to be explained in all its detail, then we are no longer talking about logic. Logic is the practice of bringing all of your thoughts on a problem to consciousness. You can do this using math, words, or images. If anything is left to subconscious intuition, you are not being entirely logical.

Bringing your thoughts to consciousness is the essential nature of logic that has been lost amidst the pure mathematics championed by modern professors. It is the kind of logic that you can and should apply to your major life decisions. Logic is no specific set of rules, as taught in a university logic class. There are an infinite number of rules you might choose, and none of them are correct by default. What rules you use depends on what you are thinking about. “Logic” is simply making things clear, whether by means of rules, calculations, pictures, or any other form of expression. When you tell someone they are being illogical or need to use logic, all you mean is that you want them to clarify what they are thinking so they can see what is wrong with it.

We all use logic every day. When we draw up a schedule or written plan, that’s logic. Any sort of in-depth discussion, where you hammer out contradictions or disagreements, is logic. Counting is a kind of logic. All mathematics is logic. Any time you consciously use a rule, whether moral or scientific, it is logic.

Just as you can train your bodily movements in fine motor skills and precise hand-eye-coordination, you can train your mind to reason clearly and precisely. Practicing mathematics is a great way to do this. However, mathematics alone does not give one a broader view of how logic fits in to the rest of human thought and living.

Logical Fundamentalism

Postmodern philosophers often criticize scientific philosophers for “logo-centrism,” arguing that the imperial drive to order all knowledge logically is a mirror of, and contributor to, the imperial dominance of the West over other cultures. It is difficult to argue with postmoderns, however, when their more lucid prose looks like this:

The annals of official philosophy are populated by “bureaucrats of pure reason” who speak in “the shadow of the despot” and are in historical complicity with the State. They invent a “properly spiritual . . . absolute State that . . . effectively functions in the mind.” (Brian Massumi, “Translator’s Foreword” to Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus.”)

It seems best to follow Ludwig Wittgenstein’s advice and pass over such claims in silence.

Nevertheless, there appear to be a few reasons to worry that perhaps we are becoming too logic-centric in certain ways. Arts and humanities departments are being cut across the country, while the government continues to pour additional funds into math, science, and economics departments. The supposed justification for this is that literature and art are ‘just for pleasure,’ and that the true measure of a nation’s worth is its economic strength and expertise in science. In a time when we need less industry and more sustainability, less wealth and more self-sufficiency, these values should be reversed. People should be taught to treasure what is beautiful and natural again, and to devalue the industry-building that has done so much damage to the environment. Yet our bureaucrats and top scientists continue to champion scientific logic above all else. As a result of our logic-centered focus, most schools and universities have taken on a more mechanical, almost factory-system-like character. Opposed to these trends, a diverse and fertile home-schooling movement has sprung up (see Homeschooling for Excellence, by David and Micki Colfax; and A Thomas Jefferson Education, by Oliver DeMille).

The term “science” is often used to refer to logic. This is imprecise. Science traditionally means the same as knowledge. Today, it more specifically means specialized knowledge. The “scientific method” is a modern term for the logic of science, but positivism, which holds that we can pin down a single method to be used in all sciences, has created a great deal of confusion, and few philosophers of science agree on what, exactly, is meant by the scientific method. If it were acknowledged that no single method is useful in all cases, much of this confusion could be dispelled.

The terms “reason” and “rationality” can rightly be used as synonyms for logic. Etymologically they come from the Latin word rationem, which meant “reckoning.” However, as with logic, these terms have increasingly been forced into specialized meanings. This is especially true of rationality. Scientists now frequently discuss “rational agents” or “rational decision theory” as if we all agreed to precise and universal definitions of these terms. But there is no universal theory of rationality.

For instance, an online community called LessWrong defines rationality as a two-fold art: (1) “the art of obtaining beliefs that correspond to reality,” and (2) “the art of steering the future toward outcomes [you prefer].” Notice that it is impossible to give a definition of any more universal art. Everything we believe, we believe to be real. Everything we do, we do to achieve outcomes we prefer. If we could master this kind of “rationality,” of gaining all knowledge and reaching all aims, no other art would be necessary to human life, which is absurd.

If we acknowledge, on the other hand, that logic is simply the art of bringing our assumptions to awareness for inspection and discussion, an art that is sometimes useful and sometimes not useful or possible, then the absurdity vanishes.

Logical fundamentalism is ultimately illogical. There are no grounds for certainty that all thought must or should be made logical. The brain is too complex to make all thinking completely explicit. The modern Skeptic movement is another popular example of logical fundamentalism that tends to be over-critical of any idea that does not wear the quantitative trappings of science.

Let’s take a look at the article on, “Motorcycle Maintenance Without the Zen,” by Chris Edwards. He claims to be criticizing Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on logical grounds, which is already a questionable exercise given that the book is a novel. In particular, Edwards criticizes this passage from Zen:

Phaedrus felt that […] scientific materialism was by far the easiest to cut to ribbons. [...] He went after it […] using the reductio ad absurdum. [...] Let’s examine, he said, what follows from the premise that anything not composed of mass-energy is unreal or unimportant.
He showed the absurdity of trying to derive zero from any form of mass-energy, and then asked, rhetorically, if that meant the number zero was “unscientific.” If so, did that mean that digital computers, which function exclusively in terms of ones and zeros, should be limited to just ones for scientific work?

Edwards responds in this way:

Modern mathematics, far from being a hard objective “thing” is instead a mish-mash of concepts that arose from a process of cultural synthesis (almost entirely in Eurasia, where cultures were easily able to intermesh because of war and trade). The Greeks contributed geometry, the Gupta Indians the numbers 0–9 and the decimal system, the Muslims gave us Al-Jabr, the English gave us physics, calculus, and the Germans contributed the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Each time, a culture’s language was adopted and added not because they were “right” but because they were more descriptive of objective phenomena and therefore a “better” language.

This response – which is supposed to uphold logic – in fact commits the logical fallacy of missing the point. Pirsig’s argument was supposed to show that scientific materialism isn’t adequate to determine what concepts are useful, or even what concepts belong in science. Pirsig’s definition of scientific materialism is the belief that every concept must correspond to something material. He challenged this view in order to defend his interest in “Quality” a concept that can neither be seen nor touched. Edwards actually appears to be agreeing with Pirsig’s conclusion, when he denies that mathematics is a “hard objective ‘thing.’” If numbers are concepts that are neither right nor wrong, but are merely a more useful language, doesn’t that support Pirsig’s stance that Quality may be useful despite having no material correlate? Indeed, Plato himself used mathematics as an example of something which might be useful to think about despite being immaterial, and in this way defended his belief in the idea of a higher Good.

In modern times we tend to forget three things about logic:

1.      A will or desire to be logical does not suffice for logic. Pirsig was attempting to show the limitations of logic, yet his argument was more logical than that of Edwards, which champions logic as the only way to think. The LessWrong community seeks “systematic methods for obtaining truth and winning,” yet this very definition suffers from a logically absurd over-generality.
2.      Logic has its limitations. Because many mathematical concepts like “zero” have no material correlate, they cannot be derived logically. That does not prevent us from using them in a logical way once they are established, but it does prevent us from developing a single logical system that can encompass all truths. In fact, as Edwards admits, zero was unknown to the Greeks despite the fact that they invented formal mathematics.
3.      These two points together show that logic is not the secret to truth. Sometimes people who believe they are being logical are in fact mistaken. It is always possible that we do not possess the right conceptual tools for the problem at hand, or that the problem is simply too complex to be grasped in the conscious mind. For these reasons, logical fanaticism is unwarranted and harmful to healthy thinking.

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