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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