Friday, December 20, 2019

"Truth" - The Movie

Charles Justice, Truth Investigator.  I’m a PA, a Philosophical Anthropologist and I study Truth full time so the rest of you don’t have to.  “Truth” -  What is it?  How does it work? Where did it come from?  - Lately I’ve been particularly motivated to answer these questions because of the events and circumstances surrounding the  2016 U.S. Presidential election.

  Exhibit A:
 Kovitch and Rosenstiel, 2014, The Elements of Journalism, third edition:

 "The desire that information be truthful is elemental…. the evidence suggests its innate...Out of necessity, citizens and societies depend on accurate and reliable accounts of events.  They develop procedures and processes to arrive at what might be called  “functional truth”.   Police track down and arrest suspects based on facts.  Judges hold trials.  Juries render verdicts.  Industries are regulated, taxes are collected, and laws are made.  We teach our children rules, history, physics, and biology.  All of these truths - even the laws of science - are subject to revision, but we operate by them in the meantime because they are necessary and they work."

Exhibit B:  November 21, 2019: Fiona Hill, Russian expert, formerly working for the NSC, (National Security Council), Congressional Trump Ukraine Impeachment Inquiry.    “The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today, our nation is being torn apart.  Truth is being questioned.

Exhibit C:  November 21, 2019,  Washington Post op-ed column by Dana Millbank - “Republicans have a new enemy:  Truth itself.”
“President Trump’s defense in the impeachment proceedings… is a bid to discredit the truth itself

Exhibit D:  November 14, 2019, New York Times  op-ed column by Charles Blow,  “This is not a game.”

"Trump from the very beginning, has been overwhelming the public with lies and dissembling, while at the same time attacking society’s truth-seekers — journalists, investigators and jurists. Republicans in Washington, instead of pushing back and standing on principle, have simply followed suit."

And Blow concludes by saying:

 "People choosing to live in a Trump/Fox/Limbaugh world are unlikely to be altered by the truth because they are less likely to be exposed to the truth, the fullness of it, the unassailability of it.
 In the end, this is not a game. This is a tragedy. This is a mourning. This is an awakening. This is the moment where truth has to matter more than all else. That is the bar America has to clear."

Apparently good journalists care deeply about the truth, and have a good sense of why it’s needed in society.  I wish I could say the same for my colleagues in philosophy, but unfortunately I cannot.  And, speaking in the light of Trump’s coming Impeachment trial, I must say I am deeply troubled.

In the famous TV comedy series “Seinfeld”, Jerry and his friend George   propose the idea of a comedy show, apparently - “about “nothing” - to a bored TV executive.  It quickly becomes obvious that this is a wink and a nod to the Seinfeld show itself, a “show about nothing.”  I sometimes think that contemporary and twentieth century Anglo-American analytic philosophy is “Seinfeld Philosophy” - basically philosophy about nothing.  The reason I make this harsh judgement is that all too often analytic philosophy takes what should be a serious philosophical subject and trivializes it by essentially assuming away its existential significance.  We are left with problems of logic and meaning instead of problems of living.  The concept of “truth” is, sadly, a good example of this.

  It is a famous characteristic of Canadians that we say “sorry” a lot.  I’m simply continuing this tradition in saying that as a Canadian Philosopher,  I am exceedingly sorry about what Philosophy has done to the concept of “truth”.  In effect Contemporary Philosophy, following in the footsteps of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein, has succeeded in emasculating itself and depriving itself of the means to explain what “truth” is and how it functions.   This did not have to be.

Exhibit E:
Derek Jarman’s 1993 film “Wittgenstein”,    the scene is a small seminar room in Cambridge sometime in the 1930’s.  Wittgenstein, in response to Bertrand Russell’s question is shouting: “Philosophical problems are a byproduct of misunderstanding language.”  Russell calls him out in response:  “Wittgenstein, you are trivializing philosophy.”

 In fact, I maintain that  it was Bertrand Russell who first began the  trivializing process, by spearheading philosophy’s turn to linguistics at the beginning of the last century.

As a PA, I’ve done a little sleuthing and come up with a plausible story that explains philosophy’s getting sidetracked about truth from the very beginning, and how “truth” ended up getting miniaturized and trivialized by modern philosophers. In the mean- time I think I’ve also uncovered the real nature of truth, the truth about “truth”. The incapacity of philosophy to come up with a serious explanation for truth goes deep, right to the very beginnings of philosophy, for what we get instead of any explanation of truth’s nature, is nothing more than  one  definition after another.

 Every philosophical question effectively starts with Plato and there is a good reason for this - Plato is the first philosopher to cover all the ground.  Every problem dealt with in contemporary philosophy has its start in Plato’s dialogues, and “truth” is no exception.  What is significant though, is that, Plato treats the concept of “truth”  like a hot potato.  He briefly defines “truth” in the dialogues Cratylus and The Sophist,  but he comes to admit that we  cannot figure out how we actually distinguish truths from falsehoods.  But that’s not to worry, because no other philosopher since has managed either.  However Plato, being the literary genius he was, presented something less rational but far more effective -  an account that has really set the whole tone for our understanding of “Truth”, with a capital “T”, for all time -  Plato tells a parable,  and boy, is it a doozy!

 Plato, truly a giant in Philosophy, couldn’t really figure out a rational explanation for how we come to the  truth.   In the single most famous image in philosophical history, Plato imagines a dark smokey cave full of ignorant prisoners. He asks us to imagine,  if one day, one of the prisoners is dragged out of the cave into the light of day.  The escaped prisoner, would at first be blinded by the light, because he would have been habituated to the darkness of the cave.  But then it would slowly “dawn” on him that what he sees now, in the light of day, is reality, and what he previously saw, in the cave, were only “images” and “shadows”. This powerful vision of Plato’s has pervaded the entire corpus of Western Philosophy, and planted an unconscious bias towards authoritarianism.   The Truth flows one way, from the inexhaustible  illumination of the Sun to the escaped prisoner - from the divine to the profane.  The transmission of truth is top down, just as it would be in a cult:   observations that support the theories are praised as “clear and distinct ideas”, whereas  the  facts that contradict the leader’s conspiracy theories become “shadows” and false “images”.

In case you can’t understand what all the fuss is about Plato’s parable, you might consider the pedigree of saying “that’s brilliant!”  or “He finally saw the light.”  or “the doors of perception were opened”, because they all allude to that same parable.

Plato’s “brilliant” student Aristotle came up with a very pedantic definition of truth, which he cribbed from Plato’s dialogues, but which appears to be a proto-version of every modern definition of the correspondence theory:

“To say of what is that it is not, or of what is not that it is, is false, while to say of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not, is true”  - Metaphysics 1011b25

I don't know about you, but I get a distinct sense of dissatisfaction from Aristotle's definition, and it is the same bad taste that I get from reading  modern deflationist and minimalist accounts as well. 

In my opinion, the fact that Plato tells a parable, rather than giving a rational explanation for the nature of truth has big ramifications for the history of philosophy: more than a thousand years of Christian theology based on the theories of Plato and his student Aristotle, and absolutely no progress uncovering the nature of truth in that same time period.  Yes there have been many accounts of the “definition” of “truth”, different definitions of “truth bearers” and types of correspondence, but no theory of how truth works,  because, other than Nietzsche, no other philosopher has gone beyond defining what truth “means”.

Cut to the year 1873,  one year after Bertrand Russell’s birth, when the German Philosopher, Frederick Nietzsche published an essay called “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”.  Kind of a strange title for an essay on truth and lies, but we’ll get to that later.  The essay seems to start out as an adolescent rant, mocking the entire human race for making up the idea of “truth” and then for  having the impudence to actually believe that it exists out there, independently of us.

Nietzsche, in spite of his childishness, is very perceptive,  perhaps the most perceptive philosopher ever.  What is  so fascinating  for me, is how well he grasps the normative aspect of truth, and also anticipates deflationism’s emphasis on truth as a form of expression.

Neitzsche defines truth as:  “A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and, anthropomorphisms…. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions - they are metaphors….”

"From the sense that one is obliged to designate one thing as  “red,” another as “cold,” and a third as “mute,” there arises a moral impulse in regard to truth.  The venerability, reliability, and utility of truth is something which a person demonstrates for himself from the contrast with the liar, whom no one trusts and everyone excludes."

Here he is suggesting  that we get our obligation for truthfulness from the fact that using language obliges us to use words to refer to universal properties.  But, he points out, these “universal properties” don’t exist in reality.

 "A uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things, and this legislation of language likewise establishes the first laws of truth.  For the contrast between truth and lie arises there for the first time.  The liar…(uses words) order to make something which is unreal appear real."

Nietzsche was a philosophical genius ahead of his time.  But he shared the view of so many twentieth century philosophers that the normativity of truth comes from the normativity of language.  I’m going to argue that the root of philosophy’s trivialization comes from this assumption, that is here summarized by Nietzsche’s observation: “A uniformly valid and binding designation is invented for things, and this legislation of language likewise establishes the first laws of truth”.  I’d like to suggest, instead, that philosophy can regain its potency by coming around to the idea that language both originates from and gets its normativity from the moral system, which I understand to be the basis for all normativity.)

"We shall not yet know where the drive for truth comes from, for so far we have heard only of the duty which society imposes in order to exist: to be truthful means to employ the usual metaphors.  Thus, to express it morally, this is the duty to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie with the herd, and in a manner binding on everyone.  Precisely by means of this unconsciousness and forgetfulness he arrives at his sense of truth."

Nietzsche is here, in the above quote, showing his perceptiveness about how truth is a form of self-imposed  behavioural regulation, but also, unfortunately, his cynicism, eg.  “the duty to lie according to a fixed convention” and his Platonic rejection of “common”  morality for some supposedly higher individualistic standard.  In Plato’s parable, the sun represents divine truth and the prisoner has to be dragged out of the cave and given some time to, in effect,  jettison the fake  human “truths”  and embrace the divine “Truth” that transcends all human activity and knowledge. Then he, i.e. Socrates,  Plato, etc. has the unenviable job of going back into the cave and persuading its denizens that there is a better world awaiting them up above.  Nietzsche rejects the descent back into the cave in favour of idolizing the creative genius on the mountain top.  Cut to Ayn Rand, Donald Trump and the Republican party.

 Unlike Russell and Wittgenstein, but like Plato, Nietzsche is bewitching in a much more dangerous way.  He sees through the lies and artifice of bourgeoisie society but thinks that we could do better by abandoning morality altogether and embracing the leadership of strong and creative individuals.  Worshipping power and despising weakness, in other words - fascism -  seems to be where Nietzsche was heading.  It is no coincidence that his American posthumous disciple, Ayn Rand, bestselling author of “Atlas Shrugged”, a book which glorifies unchecked power and ridicules helping the weak and disadvantaged, would be so influential in today’s Republican party.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Post-Modernist philosophy of Derrida, Deleuze and Foucault gets some of its worst traits from Nietzsche’s influence, namely adopting the twin beliefs that truth is relative, and that social reality can be reduced to accounts of dominance.  Even Freud, with his crude hydraulic model of the unconscious and his over-emphasis on sex, has a better grasp of human nature than that.

With Plato’s mythological starting point and Nietzsche’s mocking fin de siecle deconstruction, things are not looking good for “truth”.  And the plight of “truth” only worsens as the twentieth century gets underway, because two of the  century’s greatest philosophers were about to make it even harder to understand truth by permanently  consigning it to the philosophy of language.  We get, as a result a  Tower of Babel of  truth "theories":  correspondence, coherence, redundancy, disquotationalism, and deflationism - all making truth less and less significant, and  hence the reigning term - “deflationism”.

Here is a quick guide to philosophical "theories" of Truth:

 Correspondence - what we say  is true if it corresponds to what happened, and false if not.
Coherence -  truth is the end result of exhaustive inquiry.
Disquotationalism -  Assume two kinds of formal language:  an object language that does not contain self-referential sentences, and a meta-language that contains the predicate “true,” that refers to sentences in the object language. Then “Snow is white” is true if, and only if, snow is white, and so on for all other similar sentences.
Deflationism, etc.  -  truth in ordinary language, is simply a way of endorsing an assertion.  Truth in logic is a way of generalizing over blind assertions.

Disquotationalism, is based on Alfred Tarski’s theory of truth, a logically sound theory based on the idea of formalized, (not real) languages.  What it does that other theories of truth do not do, is avoid the paradoxes of truth.  Lots of philosophers do not like the “liar paradox” because it subjects ordinary language to self-contradiction.  Example: “This sentence is not true.”  That sentence is false if it is true, and true if it is false;  and we can’t have that.  But the price of adopting Tarski’s theory is to avoid using ordinary language in favour of using set theory and logic when speaking of truth, and this leads to the ultimate in  trivia.  I can’t tell you how many books and articles I have read and reread the phrase “Snow is white” is true if and only if snow is white.”

The twentieth century is notable for the sheer volume of books and articles on philosophical "theories" of truth.  These philosophical theories are not really theories at all.  The correspondence “theory”  is really a metaphor, mind you, an extremely powerful and convincing one.  Truth corresponds to reality analogous to the way that our perception of what is in front of us corresponds to what is in front of us.  That’s it. For true utterances there is no reality to this correspondence because it is nothing more than a metaphor based on perception.

  The coherence "theory" of truth  is a metaphor for the way we idealize inquiry.  “They’ll get to the bottom of it, won’t they?”  “We will soon find the answers, of course.”   “Eventually all the pieces will fit together to make a complete picture of what really happened.”  That last sentence combines features of both coherence and correspondence.  As Nietzsche, so perceptively points out - these are all metaphors.

Of course correspondence and coherence are metaphors, they correspond to what we ordinarily mean when we use the word “truth”.   But a real theory of truth needs to go beyond what we ordinarily mean by “truth”, and see what the concept is actually doing in social life; and as long as you are focussing on language use, rather than the more general field of human behaviour,  you cannot do that.  As a PA, I will always insist that truth is central to human existence, and I will continue to point out the scandal that contemporary philosophy of language simply ties its own hands, so that it seems incapable of understanding this.

Deflationism?  Another metaphor.  But this time the metaphor is reduction.  Just as physics reduces to the motions of particles,  truth, depending on whether you are referring to logic or ordinary language, reduces to logical operations or to feelings.  Why this reduction?  What motivated this turn to minimizing the importance of truth?   At the beginning of the last century  Bertrand Russell and Alfred Whitehead attempted to reduce all of mathematics to logic with the publication of the unreadable “Principia Mathematica”.  But the larger project of reduction was halted in its tracks by Russell’s uncovering of paradoxes in set theory, and then given the final coup de grace by Godel’s definitive proof of the incompleteness of arithmetic and by extension all of mathematics.

Russell, who got it exactly right about the insanity of World War I, and was arrested for saying so in 1916,  got it wrong on truth.  We can see why if we peruse  his mercifully short chapter on truth,  in his admirably written “The Problems of Philosophy”, first published in 1912.  Russell writes:

"Since erroneous beliefs are often held just as strongly as true beliefs it becomes a difficult question how they are to be distinguished from true beliefs.  How are we to know, in a given case, that our belief is erroneous?  This is a question of the greatest difficulty.  There is however, a preliminary question which is rather less difficult and that is:  what do we mean by truth and falsehood?

That quote from “The Problems of Philosophy”  is notable for two reasons:  firstly, the point about it being “of the greatest difficulty” to distinguish between truth and falsehood, is a deliberate allusion to the discussion of knowledge in Plato’s dialogue “Theaetetus”.  Second, the question of “meaning” is exactly what leads to Wittgenstein’s trivialization of philosophy; so, I’m afraid, Russell was in on it too!

The linguistic turn towards “meaning” was a true philosophical error that led to philosophical impotence.  And this has real consequences, as we see today. I think a more productive question  Russell could have asked would have been: “What sort of work is truth doing in society?

Philosophy has come to  trivialize truth by treating it solely as a “predicate”, i.e. a grammatical device. But truth is an ideal, it is obviously more than a grammatical device.  Our commitment to the goal of truth is part of a self-organized system of behavioural regulation.  And, this is completely overlooked if we insist, with Wittgenstein, that philosophical problems concerning truth are problems of misunderstanding language.

To put it in the simplest terms, as long as you are examining the meaning of concepts such as “truth” you are forced to use common metaphors.  If you want to know the nature of truth you need to look at what work truth is doing in human society, and that means looking at all of our behaviour, rather than only what we think we mean by using the word.  Journalists understand this, but philosophers don’t.  Contemporary philosophers have been bewitched, not by language, but by Russell and Wittgenstein and their myriad followers.

It’s not a surprise.  Remember how philosophy was lulled and deceived by the Father of philosophy - Plato - precisely on the question of truth.  Like father, like sons!   And Wittgenstein who promises to “free the fly from the bottle” and clear up all philosophical problems, succeeds only in collecting more flies, by expanding “necessary and sufficient conditions” into the broader, less confining notions - “family resemblances”  and “language games” - admittedly fascinating concepts,  but, in reality, simply more labyrinthian ways to get lost in a maze of “meanings” and definitions.

Philosophical problems are in our language, not in our world!  This idea of Wittgenstein is at the root of the mindless triviality of most modern philosophy.    That is how truth has been deflated and minimized in modern philosophy.  Apparently "Truth" doesn't add anything to the world, it doesn't do any work, except in logic. Deflationists are blandly making the absurd claim that there is nothing much to "truth",  that it doesn't add anything or do any work,  unless we are blindly generalizing about multiple statements, as in "Everything that Mueller said was true."

Now the problem becomes how can philosophy explain the discrepancy between our common view, shared by journalists, that truth is centrally important, and the deflationists’ view that there is no “there” there.

According to the current reigning philosopher on “truth”, Horwich, truth is not susceptible to conceptual or scientific analysis.  All this time, though, we see that contemporary analytic philosophy, (with the notable exception of Paul Grice), has been taking for granted that people are expected to tell the truth in ordinary conversation.  Contra Horwich, this is the fact that needs to be explained.  And if we can explain this, then we can get a substantial theory of truth, rather than just definitions, i.e., rather than “the usual metaphors” as Nietzsche so perceptively puts it.

As a PA I want to emphasize that it is important to realize  that calling the various definitions of truths “metaphors” is not a rejection of the importance or centrality of truth.  Once we leave the philosophy of language (PL) behind, it becomes easier to understand the nature of truth.  PL, by focussing on language, effectively prevents any substantive understanding.

Humans are responsible animals.  We hold each other to account.   It is our collective commitment to truth that helps make morality work in the face of lying and fraud.  Lying is an action, it is a direct way of evading responsibility.  Truth is an ideal that we always understand indirectly, that is,  through metaphors.  We commit to being truthful, which entails telling the truth, avoiding lying, and not tolerating lying in others.  These are things we learn to do growing up in a society.  Truth is an ideal that we commit to as part of a system of behavioural regulation - a normative system.  In this way, truth has a very powerful effect, recognized in common, as holding up society.

 Truth is not an actual thing or a relation, although we often imagine it this way; and there is nothing wrong with imagining truth as real, in fact we ought to, because it is an ideal that we commit to, and the form that commitment takes is our collective honouring what we take to be the truth and  rejection of what we take to be lying.  Collectively, we can be wrong about what we take to be the truth or falsehood, and this may have been what Nietzsche was objecting to;  but our collective commitment to truth, though fallible, in general, works to make society possible.   The work done, is in the regulation of human behaviour - this is what our commitment to truth is doing.  We punish and sometimes even shun liars because lying is a way of evading responsibility for committing wrongs, and if too many people are allowed to get away with wrongs, then society stops working.  The discovery of scientific “truths” comes a hundred thousand years after that initial collective creation, it is ultimately derived from the moral system,  but scientific discovery is not  essential to the original moral necessity for truth.

 Remember journalist Charles Blow:  “This is the moment where truth has to matter more than all else.” If Trump and his henchmen can lie their way out of any oversight by the other branches of American government,  democracy and the rule of law may fail permanently in the United States.  When “truth is questioned”  and all you have is competing conspiracy theories, democracy is in serious trouble - it may, in fact, be on life-support. And, that is why the truth matters.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Language, Truth, and The Just Society

The philosophical problem common to both Plato and Rawls was how to form a just society.  Plato’s solution was to institute a sustainable authoritarian state with the help of a  “philosopher king”. John Rawls’ more modern idea was to build a social consensus around the form of the just society, by imagining  an initial bargaining position, where, each participant, under a “veil of ignorance”,  has  “forgotten”  their own socio-economic status.  The idea being, that by abstracting out socio-economic status, the participants in this imaginary constitutional convention are more likely to agree to principles of equality and justice for all, that, just by coincidence, would resemble the modern welfare state.

As a thought experiment, I suppose that is a fine thing to do, but I think the key to understanding what makes a just society is understanding the difference between humans and all other animals; and, (spoiler alert!) that difference has to do with our ability to create and maintain normative systems like morality, language, and truth.

 We can think of human society as a kind of kluge - a contraption built in a haphazard way by using whatever bits and pieces of things are immediately at hand; over the long haul the environment often intervenes, creating inequalities, and we come up with further modifications in order to continually deal with the centrifugal pressures threatening to pull us apart. Looking back, we can see that the development of all human institutions - kinship, moral systems, language, myths, religion, government, money, legal systems, and educational systems - all show  this gradual and haphazard growth process.

  What frames it all is that every element of human culture comes from our primal ability to agree to form and follow rules of behaviour, where we also expect others to do the same. We can call this framing, “normativity”

 In our closest animal cousins, the primates, there is no evidence for a shared system of rules and meanings that can override dominance.    In the Darwinian state of nature, individuals have no incentive to share information with others unless it strictly benefits them to do so.  Without a normative system in place already, language  would probably never have developed.   A normative system overrides self-interest and encourages altruism by successfully punishing cheaters. It is much more likely that a communication system such as language, with shared meanings, rules, and detachable units, arose after we first established an initial normative system.  I describe this initial normative system here .  In this essay I want to demonstrate how language depends on the additional  normativity of truth to get off the ground.

 In a fascinating book called The Handicap Principle, Israeli zoologist Amotz Zahavi, points out that unlike animal vocalization, which is tightly linked to an animal’s abilities and physical state, “human language has no component that guarantees its reliability and prevents cheating.”  Language is a cheap egalitarian way to get messages across, unlike animal vocalization, where, as Zahavi puts it, reliability is hard to fake. (The smaller the lion, the more feeble the roar; the bigger the lion, the louder the roar.)

In animal communication, the signal is closely tied to the animal’s physical state because the more effective the signal is in  establishing and maintaining  dominance, the more likely that animal will be reproductively successful. That is why truth is not needed in animal communication.  “All these signals amplify the ability of the observer to spot superiority or defects in the animals that carry them.”   Weaker or inferior animals are not able to fake these signals because they are somehow deficient in the physical characteristics that are needed to produce the reliable signal.

  Thus, I argue, the need for truth comes into the picture with the first appearance of language. Because we share, we  humans need truth,  whereas non-human animals don’t. Language is fundamentally based on sharing.  It  involves shared meanings, shared rules, and detachable and manipulable symbols that can be combined in numerous ways to construct novel sentences with unanticipated meanings. But unlike animal vocalization, the ease of communication with language makes it correspondingly easy to deceive others.  By inventing language we opened a Pandora’s box of deception and misconception, and, in order to preserve reliability our ancestors had to add on an new regulatory system;  today we are all still intimately involved in this  system - we call it  - "truth".

 When we communicate we also share a universal commitment to tell the truth and counter lies and misinformation.  With the development of language, humans took over the task of ensuring reliability from a largely unconscious nature.

 Imagine a universal team sport, a game that everyone in human society is part of, a game where once you learn how to play it,  you are in for life - that is what truth is.  Truth isn't a thing, a property, or a relation. Truth is a system of regulating behaviour - a normative system.

In one sense truth isn’t a game, because we can’t opt out of playing without opting out of society.  The way truth works is as if it were a  referee that everybody, together, unconsciously imagines -  a shared understanding of an idealized correspondence between our beliefs or utterances  and an imagined, mind-independent, objective reality.   Those who defy the "referee"deliberately, are called liars;  they receive warnings and can be penalized for continuing to lie.  Those who have no allegiance to the game, and who only  pretend to follow the  "referee” when it's convenient, are called psychopaths, and, once discovered by the rest of us, they need to be kicked out. This is an essential part of maintaining any human society, because when we don’t recognize or do anything about psychopaths, the pool of trust  is in danger of being emptied, and it becomes “game-over” for all of us.

 Truth works because we believe in it and respect it as an impartial referee.  It’s a beautiful thing just like a well-played game is a beautiful thing.  Even though it’s a fallible system that somewhat  belies  our faith in it, the fact that it takes all the participants, their dedication, and their commitment to the truth to make it possible, also makes it work better.

We can adhere to telling the truth and come to value and defend it when we all expect everyone else to do the same.  Furthermore, we can have strongly felt judgements about liars which will serve as motivation to help each one of us to be part of the collective enforcement of moral and epistemological norms.  Every culture has collective ways of punishing lying and immorality, from shaming, inducing guilt, and ridiculing, to more serious sanctions like shunning, and expulsion. In many cases, moral emotions are the indispensable motivators for detection and enforcement of cheating.

    I’m going to argue that games, normative systems, and language all share some of the non-Darwinian qualities of a Common Pool Resource, and if we can understand what a common pool resource is, then we can understand the basics of what human behaviour is.  I put it to you, dear reader, that the concept of a  common pool resource,  or CPR  for short, developed by  the  Nobel Prize Winning American Institutional Economist, Elinor Ostrom, is a key concept for understanding normative systems. I maintain that it is the basic underlying substructure of all human behaviour and what really distinguishes us from the rest of the animals.

Where common property is on a small-community-scale,  everyone needs to be the eyes, ears, and bodies on the ground, in order to detect and prevent overfishing, hogging water from a reservoir,  overgrazing, or any other overuse of communal resources; and, in a common pool resource, each and every member  both follows the rules and enforces the rules.   Being on the same “team”, in effect is a group identity that goes with being a part-owner of a communal resource. The double function of adherence/enforcement exists in all CPR’s and normative systems.  As Ostrom reports, the most stable and workable CPR’s are the ones where commitment to follow the rules is at the same time a commitment to enforce the rules.   It’s when this double commitment is absent that you get the so-called “tragedy of the commons”,  a situation where the commons is degraded by over-use.

Ostrom also found that common pool resources that survived over generations all demonstrated a powerful sense of collective identity amongst the CPR owners. We can see how this works by thinking about how introducing teams to a sport energizes the game.  “Team identity” - identifying with team players,wearing the same colours, sharing similar tasks and objectives, feeling strong emotional bonds with teammates - is a powerful motivator that makes each player give  their all.

A game is played through when the players respect the rules and abide by the referees calls.  In the same way a common pool resource is maintained because its common owners believe in and abide by its rules, individually and collectively enforcing the rules at all times.

Truth works in the same way as do norms and common pool resources.  It works because everyone believes in it, everyone commits to it, and everyone judges that those who don’t  are morally deficient. This explains why lying is more complex than telling the truth. Truthfulness is presupposed in almost all conversations;  if truth is part of the background, then it is lying that requires the extra effort.  Sure enough, lying can be detected by a  machine, because it takes extra psychic and physical energy to pull off a lie, whereas telling the truth is simply our default mode of communication.

There is a philosophical “theory” of truth called “Deflationism”, which gets its appeal by presupposing this point, claiming that “truth”  is nothing more than a logical device, when it takes for granted the fact that it is already assumed to be the default mode of communication before we even utter a word.  A real theory of truth should explain this fact, not take it for granted.

 In a team sport such as hockey, when a player breaks a rule, he or she  is called out and penalized by the referee.  All the players know the rules and abide by the referee’s calls, or they don’t get to play.     In contrast, and this is an extremely important point,  there is no real physical referee in normative systems, yet we seem to  function pretty well most of the time by internalizing the rules and checking ourselves against everyone else.  All humans have the amazing ability to “internalize” rules - to impartially follow and enforce rules by unconsciously imagining some proxy for a referee, like an “impartial observer”  or the “rules of grammar”.

Humans are different from all other animals because we have normative systems like morality and truth.  These systems run on shared understandings and common expectations.  When trust fails, when expectations fail, normative systems fail.  Like a common pool of resources, they must be maintained by frequent checking for rule-breakers, and by procedures for punishing or ultimately, expelling them. And, normative systems share  both with self-organized systems and common pool resources, the reality of universal participation and the absence of top down coordination.  The crucial difference between normative and non-normative systems like human conventions, is that normative systems like morality don’t support self-interest with positive reinforcement;  normative systems work to yoke self-interest to  the collective interest.  Normative systems, like truth, are fallible, improvable, and they are not based on Darwinian self-interest.  And that, in a nutshell, is what creates the basic foundation of a just society.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Monogamy and the Genesis of Human Nature

There is no institution of marriage in nature.  Marriage is a human institution, but it is not simply an agreement between two people, it is a collective agreement between everyone in society.  The presence of others as witnesses to the marriage demonstrates this. It’s the social agreement that makes it real, that creates real effects.  If this were not so, then there would be no point in a marriage ceremony.

Swans and geese can live monogamously, but they are not in a state of marriage, because their relationship is based on biology, not on acceptance by  feathered friends and relatives.

 Chimpanzees, our closest living primate relatives, are promiscuous and ruled by an alpha male and his coalition.  There is almost no ‘sexual dimorphism’ - no size difference - between male and female chimps.

Sexual dimorphism is quite pronounced in gorillas, where the huge silverback alpha male rules a harem of much smaller females.  Polygyny  (polygamy) in animals seems to be associated with more striking sexual dimorphism.

By examining archaeological evidence, we can surmise that some of our ancient ancestors were not monogamous and some were.  Australopithecus, the first ancestor to walk on two feet had less sexual dimorphism than gorillas, but much more than humans and chimps.  But, homo erectus, who evolved millions of years after australopithecus, had much less dimorphism.  In fact, homo erectus had very similar sexual dimorphism to humans:  more size difference between the sexes than chimpanzees, but less difference than gorillas or australopithecus.

Bernard Chapais, Anthropologist at University of Montreal, in his book, Primeval Kinship,  speculates that approximately two and a half million years ago polygyny became an unstable system when homo habilis, the ancestor of homo erectus, invented stone knives and tools .  Stone-age technology enabled the more nerdish homo erectus the easy means of bypassing superior muscle power by developing superior knife and spear tactics.  For the first time,  physical strength could be defeated by technology and brain power.  This made a polygynous system, where physically stronger males monopolized females, an unstable arrangement.

 Homo erectus was the first primate to walk out of Africa and the first to control fire.  I believe that the collective agreement to institute monogamy is the key to these social advances perhaps the key to understanding human nature.

Monogamy in many animal species is associated with greater male participation in rearing the young, and for this and for  other important reasons,  I believe that becoming monogamous was the defining turning point for the human species. First, male participation helped make longer human childhoods more viable;  second, monogamy greatly facilitated the sexual division of labour by making it possible for each male to  provision nutritionally vital animal fat and protein for his pregnant mate and their growing offspring - something that would have been far less likely in a polygynous system; and, third, monogamy encouraged bigger and more successful human cooperative groups, by improving reliability of paternity and incorporating inlaws.

 If, indeed, monogamy led to human culture, the change to monogamy did not occur because humans wanted to have culture, or because they somehow anticipated  the unseen benefits of a monogamous system.  Humans agreed to monogamy in order to facilitate pair-bonding.  That stuff about ‘fatherhood’,  ‘in-laws’, prolonged childhood, bigger brains, and language did not even exist in people’s imaginations at the time.  It was all about dealing with jealousy and sexual possession.  It was about desire.  It was not desire to rise above nature, it was just natural desire.

Nevertheless, the effects of monogamy were revolutionary.  The two million years that humans were monogamous hunter-gatherers were the crucible for human evolution.  This is the time period when hominid brains grew significantly larger, and jaws and teeth grew smaller.  As brains got bigger, female humans needed to give birth to babies with bigger heads, but there was only so much exit room; something had to give; that something was head size, and as a consequence, developmental readiness in human infants was significantly delayed.

  Human babies are totally helpless, and their nervous systems are undeveloped compared to other animals at birth.  Our period of infancy and childhood, where we require much attention and provisioning, and are incapable of surviving on our own, is significantly longer than any other animal.   It was made possible by the sexual division of labour.  Females gather and prepare meals.  Males hunt and fight. That’s what makes a longer childhood and bigger brains possible.

But note that the division of labour, in turn, is made possible by monogamy.  You can’t have a division of labour in a household  if you don’t share.  One of the things that monogamy does is to increase the amount shared between male and female partners.  Bernard Chapais and others have pointed out how many benefits come from monogamy.  Recognition of paternity becomes more plausible.  An adult male has more incentive to provision his mate and offspring.  I believe that monogamy set off a multiplier effect that ultimately led to human language and culture.

Here’s how it would have worked.  I might want to be monogamous, but as long as someone else in the group can kill me or take my partner, I can’t realize my preferences.  Suppose everyone was sick and tired of fighting and killing over females; we decided that from now on everyone gets to be paired up and anyone who tries to take more than their share is punished; for this to work, we not only need to detect cheating, we need to publicize and vigorously punish it; any group that neglects detection and punishment soon ends up with more violence and instability;  whereas groups that pay attention to detecting and punishing cheaters are able to maintain a monogamous system and reap the benefits.  From this it follows that every element of human culture comes from our primal ability to agree to form and follow rules of behaviour, where we expect others to do the same. To put it in general terms: the path to differentiation between humans and animals came from our ability to create and sustain a social reality by collectively regulating our behaviour, rather than solely depending on dominance.

Monogamy means the collective recognition of pair-bonding, which is, in important ways, analogous to our common notions of reciprocity and fairness, and the principle of the golden rule -  “do unto others as you would have them do unto yourself.”  Furthermore it requires the institution of rough equality and it unlocks the possibility of equality between the sexes.

A question the reader may be asking at this point is: if what I am saying is valid, how come we have so much "polygamy" in the world?  Note that polygyny in humans is not universal, but it exists mostly in traditional agricultural societies, where landowners  or animal herders are sometimes able to amass surplus wealth.

 In hunting and gathering societies, which are largely nomadic, people can only keep as many possessions as they can carry on their bodies.  Therefore surplus wealth is unlikely, and thus polygyny in hunter-gatherers is  practiced, if at all, by a small minority.

Indeed, because polygyny means that  women are monopolized by a single male, where polygyny is widespread there are going to be men who lack a mate and who may be willing to fight in order to get one.  This would weaken any hunting and gathering band, making them more vulnerable to social disruption.  It would make sense that groups that enforced monogamy would be more likely to survive, because they  would share equitably and be more effective cooperators.

With humans, it has always been the case that individuals, and even nuclear families, cannot survive without being part of a larger group.  Most hunter-gatherer bands comprise groups of thirty to ninety people.  Too few and they can’t survive over generations, too many and dissension and violence split the group up.

It cannot be a coincidence that today’s hunter and gatherers all have a similar egalitarian ideology that encourages sharing and discourages boasting, inequality, greediness, selfishness, public aggression and bullying, as documented by anthropologists  Boehm, Lee, and others.    It is not likely that this ideology just happened to develop, since it is common to nomadic hunter gatherers no matter what part of the world they are from.  It is more likely that this suppression of these public male dominance behaviours developed universally, because it was necessary for group survival.

One thing that is unique about monogamy is how effective it is as a way to channel male behaviour outside the immediate family.  As the primatologist, Frans De Waal has argued, by separating sexual competition from other forms of competition, monogamy allowed a greater proportion of males to flourish and to benefit their families and societies.

Of course, we may be aware of how monogamy breaks down through divorce, abandonment, affairs, etc.  The point is that it exists in all human societies, even though our natural feelings may influence us to violate it.

  Every element of human culture comes from our primal ability to agree to form and follow rules of behaviour, especially when we expect others to do the same.

The anchor for human society is monogamy, because it is the first sustainable institution that incorporates collective agreement to regulate behaviour and to honour those limits through a rough equality.  By deciding on monogamy, our ancestors made equality possible, and by developing social methods of control:  shaming, ridicule, shunning, and banning, our ancestors created a method of maintaining monogamy in the face of centrifugal natural desires.

  While some would argue that human language is the ‘ur’ institution, I believe I can make a plausible case that monogamy preceded language and actually makes language possible.  If all human institutions arise from collective agreement to regulate social behaviour, then it makes perfect sense that it was the agreement to institute monogamy that formed the basic template for all succeeding human institutions, including language.

 In language we have developed representations of reality called ‘words’.  These representations can be created and assembled by individuals and then shared.  This sharing implies a rough equality, in that in order to understand what is said, it is agreed by everyone that specific words refer to specific things or classes of things.  Grammar and syntax - the structure of languages - could have developed from step by step collective agreements about how words can be combined to  refer to various aspects of the world.

Before monogamy was instituted, dominance hierarchies precluded equality and equal sharing.  There would have been less incentive to share information, so  less incentive  for  a group to agree to common meanings, and, to follow rules of grammar in combining words and phrases.

On a deep level, speaking and listening to others speak requires trust.  The moment I detect that someone is trying to take advantage of me is the moment that I stop trusting them.  I share information with others as long as I believe that they are not going to harm me.  This trust is made possible when we believe that everyone else is following rules and not taking advantage.

To sum up: two million years of human evolution equals two million years of human monogamy.  Part of our evidence for this thesis is the diminished sexual dimorphism in humans and homo erectus, suggesting that erectus and sapiens eschewed chimpanzee type promiscuity and gorilla type polygyny.  Then there is the fact  that monogamy is prevalent in all nomadic hunter-gatherer societies and in almost all modern ones.

 Monogamy is not a human instinct, nor is it a default behaviour that we can fall back on; it is a system of behaviour that requires high maintenance in order to be sustainable, and yet we have managed to make it the prevalent mode of conduct over the vast span of human existence.

 By stripping away the effects of wealth and surplus on behaviour, we get, in nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples, a minimalist set of conditions, the bare bones required to sustain human society.  These behaviours involve collective social controls on male domination outside the family, owing partly to the fact that our survival depends on living together in groups that include more than a single family.  By maintaining a rough equality,  hunter-gatherer monogamy made greater trust and social cooperation possible, and led to all the advantages of human culture, including and especially the gift of language.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The "Yard" of Theseus

We have a yard that gently slopes down from our little yellow house. The yard is about thirty by thirty feet.  It is surrounded on three sides by a six foot tall cedar board fence.   Near one corner, is a pathetic vertically-challenged compost heap.  In the other corner there is a scruffy spruce that we had topped off a couple of years ago.  Beside the spruce, at the very back of the yard stands a tall, slender aspen,  and elsewhere in the yard there is a plum tree, and a siberian pear tree.  In the middle is a shaggy uneven lawn with a couple of piles of dead brush.  Multiple types of berry bush form most of the  perimeter.

 Is our yard a system?  If we define “system”  as, “a way of doing things”,  then it is.  We have a way of doing things in our yard, which could be summarized as professional-level procrastination.   (Sorry for the big words here.)  The yard is bounded by a wood house and a wood fence.  Our way of doing things in our yard doesn’t spill out into the neighbouring yards, unless you count the time I asked the neighbour if she would throw her lawn clippings over the fence and into my compost.

Birds visit our yard.  They like the fact that we have bushes to hide in and tree branches to hang out in, and an uneven lawn just full of fat worms.   Cats silently sneak into our yard - they like the birds and the little fish pond.

Prince Rupert is a small town set smack in the middle of a far-flung wilderness coastline.  Deer roam the town virtually undisturbed.   Those deer used to get into our yard before we put up the fence.  For years now, we have had a way of doing things in our yard which does not involve deer.  This has changed the system.

Our yard changed when deer and dogs could no longer get in.  Some plants that had been over browsed got a second chance, but I have to admit that the  lawn misses the deer manure.  Our yard is a system, a way of doing things that exists, because we exist, our house exists, the fence around the yard exists, and the town of Prince Rupert exists. Take away any of these inner, outer, or perimeter things, and the yard would change, perhaps even disappear.

 Systems are ways of doing things.  They matter because they make it possible for us to exist.  The solar system, for instance.  If something significant were to happen to the solar system it might cause us to cease to exist.  We really need to be part of that system!

Earth has the only life systems that we know of.  Good thing we’re part of it;  and I’d really like it if we could stay part of it;  I know I’m going to die someday, but I mean that it would be good for humans to continue to exist, and it would be good for all the rest of living things to continue to exist.

If we see the universe as just made up of matter and energy,  we are not really getting what’s significant.  It is what things do that’s important.   Living systems do two more things than non-living physical systems.  Living systems maintain themselves and alter their environment.  If life had not existed over billions of years, then the Earth’s atmosphere of oxygen and nitrogen would not be there.  Earth would be like Mars, with no water and a thin atmosphere of carbon dioxide.

Think about it - nature needed billions of years to create humans because we could not have existed without oxygen and the ability to walk on two feet.  Unlike all other forms of life, we alone are continually inquiring - to understand what’s out there, as well as what’s in there - that is, what makes us human.

 Like humans, the social insects create “artificial systems”.  They are called hives, nests, and mounds.  But human systems are unique in living systems because they are rule-based ways of doing things.  Plants, insects, and animals act more from instincts, or hormones or pheromones.  They don’t follow, share, or teach rules.  Animals don’t enforce rules, or punish rule-breakers.  Only humans have normative systems that are based on following and enforcing rules.

When we talk about “Laws of Nature”   and “Natural Law”  we are actually projecting our way of doing things onto the rest of nature.  Law, legal systems,  systems of rules, are what differentiates us from the rest of nature,  and suggesting that non-human nature is somehow law-abiding, is nothing more than an attempt to sneak us back into the garden.  There’s a reason that the Biblical God kicked us out of there, and it was because we figured out how to be different from the rest of creation by creating our own rules.

In University I took a course in Metaphysics, and on the final exam, and after a night spent studying rather than sleeping I thought I was a goner.  But then, out of the fog of fatigue and half-consciousness,  “The Ship of Theseus” suddenly loomed into view as one of the exam questions.  In my dreary dream-like state I somehow managed to dash off an instant interpretation that, seen in retrospect, seemed to have made a lot of sense.  Thinking back on my answer, which I presently have no access to, other than in my memory, I realize  that “The Ship of Theseus” is the perfect opportunity for elaborating a systems view of metaphysics.

“The Ship of Theseus” is a metaphysical problem concerning change and identity that was created and worked over by the ancient Greeks, but ever since has been a perennial philosophy favourite.  I know the word “metaphysics”  can scare off the reader, but take note, because you, the reader, have already been hoodwinked.  That’s right, I’ve already sketched an outline of this very metaphysical problem when I described our yard.

The problem of identity is particularly important in both metaphysics and in systems theory. There are three reasons for this.  Things change,  systems change the way they function, and  the identity of the system depends on our perspective.  Once we get a grip on all three of these we have all the elements we need to construct a metaphysics of systems theory.

 All systems have parts.  A system can continue to be the same system, even if the parts change, as long as none of the new parts change the way the system functions.  Or to put it another way - if things are still done the same way, then it is the same system.

When the ancient Greeks wrote about the ship of Theseus  it was already a very old ship.  So the question was,  was the old ship the same ship as the original ship?  Suppose one plank had become rotten and had to be replaced.  We can easily see that it is still the same ship.  And presumably it’s the same ship if some more planks were replaced. But what if all of the planks were replaced so that there is not one single bit of wood remaining from the original ship?  Is it still the same ship?  Or, what if someone had organized a multi-generational project for the massive job of collection, storage, and rebuilding, by saving every single discarded plank from the old ship, and rebuilding the ship with the exact original planking?   Would that be the same ship?

 Think of that ship, and everything else as systems.  A system is a way of doing things.  We each have our own systems, our own ways of doing things.    If you can change the parts of a system without changing how it does things, it's still the same system.  Replacing the planks in the ship doesn't change it into a different ship unless it changes its functioning.  If the ship functions differently, if it can't carry as much cargo, if it can no longer sail quickly, if it founders and sinks, or if it is moored and converted into a seafood restaurant, then it is a different system.

  Some systems work the way they do, entirely independently of humans.  How, then, can one claim that  identity is relative to perspective?  What  something is depends, in part, on what view we are taking of it.   Looking at the yard again, we can see that the yard as a system is affected by bigger systems:  town, country, climate system, biosystem, solar system. What is significant to our yard is when and how these other systems change what the yard can do.  It won’t be the same yard if we die or move away.  It won’t be the same yard if the town radically expanded or contracted.  What makes a change significant is if it forces us to change what we do.

     It's what a system does that is important.  A change is not significant if it doesn't change what a system does. That is my solution to the problem of “The Ship of Theseus”. If we alter our physical environment too radically we might undermine our own ability to survive.   It's important to know what the systems out there can do, as well as what  the systems inside us can do.  It is important to know what we are doing that can affect them.  It is important to know the limits of all of our systems so that we avoid self-destruction.  That is what's important about identity.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Here Comes the Sun: Plato's marriage of mythos and logos

What we know as Western Philosophy started about twenty-six centuries ago, right at the  boundary between the two rival ancient empires of Greece and Persia. The first philosophers came from the Greek colony of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor. The originality of their philosophy came from seeking to understand the world, strictly via natural explanations. What is a “natural explanation”? Miletus, was situated on the border between two empires for a natural reason. The Greek Empire was a maritime Empire, like the Phoenicians, so its colonies were situated on Islands or near rivers on the Mediterranean coast, whereas the Persian Empire was a land based Empire, so the Mediterranean coast formed a natural boundary between the two.

Perhaps it was also the invention of writing, which creates a public record, and encourages objectivity, that led the Milesian philosophers to eschew the old form of explanation which up till then, had been religious mythology. Before philosophy, impressive natural phenomena such as our planetary system and the weather, were solely understood as coming from, and explained by, the gods and their supernatural powers.

But the funny thing is, the Philosophers and their natural explanations would probably have been forgotten in the mists of time if it wasn’t for a particular Athenian philosopher who, two hundred years afterwards, re-introduced myth back into philosophy. The Greek philosopher Plato is justifiably known as the greatest Western philosopher. Unlike virtually every other ancient philosopher, we have every one of Plato’s works in full. That makes him also, the world’s most successful philosopher. I believe that a big reason for Plato’s success was his construction of a powerful image that unconsciously  suggests the superiority of both monarchy and monotheism. Through his particular combination of dialogue and story, Plato gave monotheism a new lease on life, when, except for an obscure desert tribe, it had lain moribund since its origins in Egypt; and it was that, together with his simple didactic writing style, that helped encourage philosophy to grow and flourish in, what would have otherwise been a hostile world.

Plato’s dialogues, a form of argument that goes back and forth between discussants, are justly famous as didactic devices. Ideally a dialogue teaches both sides of an argument, and indeed, many of Plato’s dialogues end in an impasse between the sides, called an aporia. The form of writing called “dialogues” has no greater exponent than Plato. Countless philosophy and theology students over the last two millennia have read, enjoyed, and learned from them. But they have also been fooled by the excellence of his philosophy to ignore the unconscious power of the little stories that just seem to innocently crop up here and there within the main dialogues.

Philosophy is best known for its use of rational explanations - the Greeks called this logos. Religions are based around stories about God and the gods, which the Greeks called mythos. It was two hundred years after the Milesians invented philosophy, that the Greek philosopher Plato managed to re-introduce myth back into philosophy, with a stunning effect that still has reverberations today.

Other than brief definitions of the meaning of "truth",  Plato never gives an explanation of the nature of truth, admittedly, something which is also missing from the vast majority of subsequent philosophical accounts.  Nonetheless, truth is a very important concept for  Plato,  as can be seen in the fact that almost every dialogue he wrote is about his teacher Socrates’ pursuit of truth.

It is  in Plato's most famous dialogue, The Republic,  that he created a powerful image to symbolize the life of Socrates and his pursuit of truth  - The Parable of the Cave. When you hear talk of “The Truth”, as if truth is one answer to one question, and somehow the “enlightened one,” has received “The Truth”, ultimately, from a singular source, Aka - “The Light”- this goes straight back to Plato’s Parable of the Cave, written twenty-four centuries ago. Here it is, in a nutshell:

Imagine a group of prisoners kept in a cave their entire lives, chained to a wall, so that they can only see shadows cast by the fire. Now imagine one of the prisoners  escaping the chains and the cave,  ascending to an opening in the ground. The first thing that happens when he gets out is that he is temporarily blinded by the sun. Slowly it "dawns" on him that, what, in the cave, he took for real things, are just shadows compared to what he can see in the light of day.  Now the prisoner realizes that the sun is the real inexhaustible source of illumination and life. Suppose further, that the former prisoner is inspired to go back down into the cave and tell the other prisoners the truth about what’s really out there. When he first descends he can’t see in the dark. He ends up blindly fumbling around, and has a difficult time convincing the rest of the prisoners, who can see better than he in the dark, that there is a brilliant reality outside.

Consider this: someone discovers an amazing “truth”. He tries to tell others of his great discovery but no one will listen. Would that have sounded familiar, even if you’ve never heard of Plato or his parable? The Parable of the Cave is one of the founding myths of western civilization. It appears to be buried deep in our collective consciousness.The power and longevity of that myth is what is behind saying: “I’ve seen the light”; behind calling an idea or a person “brilliant”; behind the famous prologue of the fourth New Testament gospel, John I, 5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it;” behind Jesus’s declaration in John: “I am the way, the truth, and the life;” and behind Blake’s famous image of the “doors of perception”.

I can imagine being challenged here: "Where is your evidence?” It just seems obvious to me that the author of the Gospel of John was familiar with Plato’s Parable, because he is using the imagery of light, darkness, and ascent in the same way. The New Testament Gospels were originally written in Greek, four hundred years after Plato wrote The Republic. There was, at the time of the written gospels, a large group of early Christians called  “gnostics” who seemed to have been directly influenced by Plato’s mythological writings, in this case, not just the Parable of the Cave, but also the “Myth of Er”, that comes right at the end of The Republic, and the myth of “the Demiurge” in the dialogue - Timaeus.

Note that the Parable of the Cave is not Plato’s theory of truth, because it is not an argument - there is no logos here. This is the type of story Plato himself, in the same book, The Republic, calls a “Noble Lie”; and, as a myth it does its work, not by reasoned argument, but via the unconscious.  This myth powerfully equates truth with light and darkness with ignorance. It suggests that "The Truth" comes from a single source -the sun - a source which seemed immutable, infinite, and the origin of all life and knowledge.  Without even thinking we come to associate the idea of hierarchy and authority with the sun, and this image provides the perfect blank canvas for many future justifications of monotheism and political elitism. Here you have monotheistic theology and monotheistic epistemology all in one package, and basically burned into our collective consciousness by the sheer power of Plato’s imagery.

You may be thinking, how could The Parable of the Cave be so powerful an influence, it's just a dumb little story? One could say, it was just the right idea, at the right time. You see, over time it becomes harder and harder to believe in the literal truth of supernatural explanations. According to the account in Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, God creates humans from dust, and sometime later gets angry because they are having sex with giants, and decides to drown the lot of them (except for one particularly pious patriarch and his family); and sometime later curses the surviving humans with mutually unintelligible languages, so that they can’t finish building a tower that seems, to God, to be too high;  and it’s not much better in any other myth of origin. Surely, one wants a more mature, a more ideal picture of God - a God who is Perfect, The All Knowing Source of all Illumination and Knowledge, Infinite in Power, Immutable, etc., etc...

If religion is going to get big and institutional, it needs a system of ultimate justification that can impress larger groups of people, groups that may be large enough to include people from different cultures. If forms of government are to be stable, it stands to reason that you need some kind of ultimate justification for the government’s authority. Something like the divine right of kings, that connects a human institution - monarchy - to a theology - an understanding of divinity. And Plato obliges by supplying all the basic ingredients, partly out of foresight, but mainly because he wanted to construct a Mighty Bulwark against the pluralism and relativism of his Greek opponents, the Sophists and the Poets.

And what is Plato’s famous “divided line” from The Republic, but a schema of the shamanic world tree? The one with its roots in the underworld, it’s middle in this world, and it’s upper reaches piercing the heavens. The shaman is said to perform his rituals in a darkened yurt, with a fire in the middle, and a smoke-hole in the top-center. A pole, used to symbolize the world tree,  runs from the ground through the smoke-hole, and up above the yurt, and the shaman, after a drum induced, or drug induced trance, is said to ascend the world tree and visit all of the three, or five, or seven “worlds” that the inscribed divisions on the pole might correspond to. Eventually the shaman emerges from trance and speaks of his adventures to his audience in the darkened yurt, recounting the knowledge he’s gained in the other worlds.

Is it a coincidence that both the “the cave” and the “divided line” have parallels to ancient shamanism? Plato was obviously aware of the Greek Oracles, as well as the mystery religions, both of which probably had elements in common with shamanism.

It’s notable too, that Plato’s Parable has a lot of vertical action going on, namely, going up out of the cave into the bright sunshine, then going back down into the darkness of the cave. This is also a reverse schematic of Resurrection, going from death to life, then back to death again. Note how it mirrors the path of the sun, which is born in the morning and dies at night. It is no coincidence that Socrates death and Plato’s resurrection of Socrates status as the great philosopher, are there in the background of this myth, four hundred years before Jesus. Socrates was not a popular philosopher in Athens. Plato, through his dialogues has made his teacher famous for all time. In doing so with such imagination and vigor, I believe he rescued philosophy itself from oblivion.

Remember, all of Plato’s works survive today, twenty-four centuries later; some of the works of Aristotle have survived; but, very little of the works of any other ancient philosophers have survived. Plato obviously did something right, and we can all learn from him.

What Plato did, by inserting mythological stories into his dialogues, was to attract maximum attention to his philosophy, making it more memorable, and above all, with his parable of the cave, making monotheism and monarchy seem more natural and attractive. After Plato’s death, a long line of religious and secular authorities recognized his superiority over other philosophers and used his ideas to advantage: Plotinus, "John", the anonymous writer of the fourth gospel, Augustine,  and others. For all we know, all the rest of philosophy, and the very idea of universal natural explanations, which eventually became what we know today as science, may only have survived because it first rode on Plato’s coattails.

Friday, November 23, 2018


According to Wikipedia, propaganda is:
"...information that is not objective and is used primarily to influence an audience and further an agenda, often by presenting facts selectively to produce an emotional rather than a rational response..."

This may sound like a good definition, but it casts a pretty wide net.  Firstly, objectivity is a worthy ideal, but it comes largely in degrees, and is never more than approximated in our day to day communication.  In point of fact, all communication is used to influence, to further agendas, and all types of communication present facts selectively.  This is true, not for nefarious reasons, but because we always have purposes in communicating, and in the act of fulfilling these purposes we are intentionally influencing people,  presenting facts selectively, and furthering some agenda. Where this is a bad thing is when someone sets out deliberately to deceive people in order to get them to accept a version of reality that benefits a particular group of people, in opposition to the wider, public good. 

However, propaganda can be used for good effect, it can be used by democratic governments to increase civic involvement, to make their citizens feel good about being citizens, leading to greater overall cooperation. “Uncle Sam Needs You!”   That sort of thing.   So, where did  the word “propaganda” originate from?   It came from seventeenth century Catholicism,  which had an organization called “the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith”  which was charged with spreading the faith to heathen countries.

To early seventeenth century Europeans, “propaganda”  meant propagating the faith; that was seen as an unquestionably good thing .  Since then, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge and now the common point of view is that propaganda is something dark and negative.  To simplify:   with Martin Luther, the Catholics had a serious competitor and his propaganda was not welcome in Catholic countries, nor, it may be said, was Roman Catholic propaganda welcome in Protestant countries.  After a few hundred years of religious wars the dilemma of propaganda has seemed to reach a kind of impasse - what one says is the truth the other calls propaganda.

 Let us now see if we can get any further looking at the concept of propaganda as it is used in secular politics.  Today, in Canada and the United States, we live in  countries with  democratic political systems.  We like to think of democracies as stable well-managed political systems that represent the public interest in a fair process of deliberation.  But what if the democratic deliberative process itself is hijacked by a particular group?  This possibility is the dilemma of propaganda in modern democratic systems.

It seems to me, and I’m following the lead of philosopher Jason Stanley, in his book How Propaganda Works,  that the way out of this dilemma is to accept that the most important moral dividing line to observe is between propaganda that supports democracy and propaganda that undermines democracy.

 In speaking about propaganda there is a theme that we cannot evade talking about -  the problem of rising inequality.  It’s important to understand why it is important.   Democracy is about representation.  When one person or group dominates a political system, there is only narrow representation.  The interests of the majority can be ignored and dismissed while the institutions of the state are corrupted to serve the interests of the few.  That is why inequality erodes democratic institutions.

Thus, it is no surprise that propaganda has become more demagogic and deceptive as inequality has increased in North America and other places around the world.  The bigger the difference between rich and poor, the more likely the rich will try to seize power in order to prevent the rest of the population from threatening their wealth and status.  And since the wealthy cannot seize power in a democratic system by being honest about wanting to protect their status, they will be inexorably tempted to use deception and demagoguery.

Note, that entrenched inequality is not a threat to authoritarian or political systems because their very reason for existing is to further inequality.   In fact, it is a major way that authoritarian political systems prop themselves up and keep themselves going.  Authoritarian systems are set up to favour one group over all other groups in society.  Propaganda that serves to conceal this fact is the default mode of communication for authoritarian states; it is the everyday means by which any authoritarian regime communicates with its populace.

   As Stanley argues, propaganda is more of an issue in democratic systems because the bad kind is a direct threat to democracy.  He points out that the  bad propaganda or “demagoguery”, was first described by Plato, in his book, The Republic, written twenty-four hundred years ago, it is a message that on the surface appears to be supporting democracy but the real intention is to subvert the democratic system.

 For instance vote suppression, widespread in Southern states, is deceptively claimed to be protecting the voting system against “voter fraud” in the absence of evidence of any widespread voter fraud.  It is marketed as a way of protecting democracy when it’s real intended effect is to disenfranchise ethnic or low income groups from exercising their right to vote.

 The current Trump Presidency is in a class all by itself when it comes to examples of demagoguery.   For instance Trump’s focus on immigration and the immigrant caravans from Central America, weeks before the 2018 midterm election, was intended to heighten passions and inflame tensions in order to motivate his followers to get out and vote. The result was that more Republicans got out to vote in the midterms than might have otherwise if Trump had not stoked racial fears.  Getting more people to vote seems to support democracy doesn’t it?

 As Stanley emphasizes, using racial prejudice to motivate voters in elections harms the deliberative process in democracies, because it makes it more difficult to have rational discussions about immigration, social welfare and other important issues when certain groups are targeted as less worthy of consideration.  We only have to look at  the amount of child poverty, poor educational results, poor access to medicine for low income groups, diminished life expectancies, and poor post-partum survival statistics to realize that America is an outlier on major measures of public health, given its per capita GNP.  To stoke fears about immigrants is really about playing to people’s prejudice, and what it does is make it far harder for anyone to deal constructively with issues like immigration, public health, and social welfare.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s the Nazis also pushed immigration as a hot-button issue and stoked racial prejudice against Jews, Eastern Europeans and Gypsies  But notice, if you look at what historians view as the major problems hounding the German Weimar Republic:  for instance, hyperinflation, widespread poverty after WWI, crippling reparation payments, The Great Depression -  the so-called problem of immigration is notable by its absence. In effect, fears about immigrants appears to have been a delusive fear not based on reality.    In hindsight we can see that Hitler used racial fears about “outsiders” to manipulate the electorate and keep them oblivious to the dangers of his totalitarian rule.

Since the invention and widespread use of the internet and social networks on the internet we are seeing the rise of a new danger.  We saw it first come to prominence in the U.S. Presidential election of 2016, when Vladimir Putin outsourced computer hacking and trolling to shadowy individuals and organizations dedicated to one of  Putin’s prime goals - that of weakening the Western Alliance.    It is also a homegrown phenomenon in the U.S. perfected by Steve Bannon and Breitbart News, where propaganda is effectively outsourced to private individuals and groups om social media to sow hatred and prejudice.

Something just as alarming is the mushrooming of conspiracy theories on youtube and on the internet,  also specialised in by the Kremlin via it’s T.V. mouthpiece: Russia Today.  Trump himself is no stranger to this form of propaganda; during the Obama Presidency  he actively promoted a discredited conspiracy theory that President Obama was born in Kenya. Conspiracy theories like Birtherism and the 9/11 “Truther” conspiracy are like hidden corrosives to the  democratic system.  The more people believe them the less they trust the government and the media, and the safer they feel inside of a bubble of fellow “truthers”.  This makes them all the more susceptible to the next conspiracy theory or, and this is more dangerous, it makes them susceptible to trusting someone like Trump who seemingly creates his own reality and “alternative facts” whenever he likes.

Thursday, October 25, 2018


 Civility is a common pool resource. A common pool resource is a resource that is shared in common by a group of people.   It is protected and preserved through an agreement with easy to follow rules that everyone agrees to follow and to enforce together. Everyone both practices and benefits from civility,  but there is no one person or group in charge of enforcing it, because everyone already participates in enforcement.

 Suppose that some one in a  group starts taking more from a common resource than is allowed.  What does this do to the resource?  If the rule-breaker is not stopped by the rest of the group he or she will inspire imitators, and soon people will cheat and undermine the agreement;  then people can see that a minority is taking more for themselves, so more people abandon the agreement; soon the common resource is depleted and becomes less available, or it goes extinct. This process is often called the tragedy of the commons.  But commons have some history of being wisely regulated by group agreements, as the Nobel Prize economist Elinor Ostrom has shown.

Civility is a common pool resource.  Civility allows the people of any group to get along with each other.  It makes civilization possible.  Civility allows us to have  all these interactions between strangers, between coworkers, between different levels of hierarchies, between employees and members of the public at large, all in ways that avoid intimidation and violence.

 When civility breaks down, it destroys cooperation;  and it needs to be quickly repaired or else it can corrode society from the inside  because it creates a poisonous atmosphere where no one appears trustworthy, more people become hostile, and the level of violence increases.  Needless to say, the absence of civility hurts productivity in many different ways.

When our leaders display incivility it is one of the worst kinds of erosion of a public good.  The leader sets an example.  If he or she is allowed to get away with incivility, many others will be inspired to do the same, radically lowering the level of civility in all of society.

What about protest movements? Aren't these a form of incivility?  In the sixties, the civil rights movement was protesting against institutional discrimination and the absence of civil rights for blacks. A movement like Civil Rights can seem disruptive to a significant number of people because they themselves may have benefited from the discrimination in the first place.  If the rules as they are enforced are  manifestly unfair, the apparent  civility may be a  sham, existing only by virtue of physical force and intimidation.

In contrast, attacks on political correctness, although seemingly legitimate complaints, are not objections to unfair rules, they can often be attempts to restigmatize and remarginalize previously disadvantaged groups.  These attacks are contributions to a larger agenda of strengthening formerly dominant groups by attacking the weak and formerly oppressed groups -  the modus operandi of Fascism.

 Civility is a common pool resource.   it makes it possible for the participants of every human group to share information,  to arbitrate disputes, to have fair exchange, and to facilitate mutual help in times of need.  We are in trouble when we start to lose civility.  Remember, it is a common pool resource.  What that means in practice is that the pool of civility can be depleted if enough people trample on the rules.  When civility is gone it then becomes far more difficult for a group to regain it than it would have been to maintain it in the first place, and that is because it is a common pool resource.