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 and 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 sometimes break these rules deliberately, can be called liars;  they receive warnings and can be penalized for continuing to lie.  Those who do not share this collective understanding of truth telling as the default mode of communication,  and, always have to consciously  pretend to follow the  “truth referee”, are called psychopaths, and, once discovered by the rest of us, they are kicked out of the game. 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.

Plato didn’t have a theory of truth, although his most famous student, Aristotle, did. But in many dialogues written by Plato, he told the story of his teacher Socrates’ pursuit of truth; and in one particular dialogue - The Republic - created a powerful image to symbolize the life of Socrates and his pursuit of truth  in 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 somehow escaping the chains and the cave by 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 reality, is but shadows, because he realizes that the sun is the real source of illumination and of 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. The first thing that happens to him when he goes back into the cave is that 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 up above.

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.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

George Soros, Davos 2018  on IT Monopolies:

"I want to spend the bulk of my remaining time on another global problem: the rise and monopolistic behavior of the giant IT platform companies. These companies have often played an innovative and liberating role. But as Facebook and Google have grown into ever more powerful monopolies, they have become obstacles to innovation, and they have caused a variety of problems of which we are only now beginning to become aware.

Companies earn their profits by exploiting their environment. Mining and oil companies exploit the physical environment; social media companies exploit the social environment. This is particularly nefarious because social media companies influence how people think and behave without them even being aware of it. This has far-reaching adverse consequences on the functioning of democracy, particularly on the integrity of elections.

The distinguishing feature of internet platform companies is that they are networks and they enjoy rising marginal returns; that accounts for their phenomenal growth. The network effect is truly unprecedented and transformative, but it is also unsustainable. It took Facebook eight and a half years to reach a billion users and half that time to reach the second billion. At this rate, Facebook will run out of people to convert in less than 3 years.

Facebook and Google effectively control over half of all internet advertising revenue. To maintain their dominance, they need to expand their networks and increase their share of users’ attention. Currently they do this by providing users with a convenient platform. The more time users spend on the platform, the more valuable they become to the companies.

Content providers also contribute to the profitability of social media companies because they cannot avoid using the platforms and they have to accept whatever terms they are offered.

The exceptional profitability of these companies is largely a function of their avoiding responsibility for-- and avoiding paying for-- the content on their platforms.

They claim they are merely distributing information. But the fact that they are near- monopoly distributors makes them public utilities and should subject them to more stringent regulations, aimed at preserving competition, innovation, and fair and open universal access.

The business model of social media companies is based on advertising. Their true customers are the advertisers. But gradually a new business model is emerging, based not only on advertising but on selling products and services directly to users. They exploit the data they control, bundle the services they offer and use discriminatory pricing to keep for themselves more of the benefits that otherwise they would have to share with consumers. This enhances their profitability even further – but the bundling of services and discriminatory pricing undermine the efficiency of the market economy.

Social media companies deceive their users by manipulating their attention and directing it towards their own commercial purposes. They deliberately engineer addiction to the services they provide. This can be very harmful, particularly for adolescents. There is a similarity between internet platforms and gambling companies. Casinos have developed techniques to hook gamblers to the point where they gamble away all their money, even money they don’t have.

Something very harmful and maybe irreversible is happening to human attention in our digital age. Not just distraction or addiction; social media companies are inducing people to give up their autonomy. The power to shape people’s attention is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few companies. It takes a real effort to assert and defend what John Stuart Mill called “the freedom of mind.” There is a possibility that once lost, people who grow up in the digital age will have difficulty in regaining it. This may have far-reaching political consequences. People without the freedom of mind can be easily manipulated. This danger does not loom only in the future; it already played an important role in the 2016 US presidential elections.

But there is an even more alarming prospect on the horizon. There could be an alliance between authoritarian states and these large, data-rich IT monopolies that would bring together nascent systems of corporate surveillance with an already developed system of state-sponsored surveillance. This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined.

The countries in which such unholy marriages are likely to occur first are Russia and China. The Chinese IT companies in particular are fully equal to the American ones. They also enjoy the full support and protection of the Xi Jingping regime. The government of China is strong enough to protect its national champions, at least within its borders. 

US-based IT monopolies are already tempted to compromise themselves in order to gain entrance to these vast and fast growing markets. The dictatorial leaders in these countries may be only too happy to collaborate with them since they want to improve their methods of control over their own populations and expand their power and influence in the United States and the rest of the world."