Saturday, July 15, 2017

In Memoriam: Liu Xiaobo 1955 -2017

The following translation was retrieved from the New York Review of Books Web site  I. Foreword
A hundred years have passed since the writing of China's first constitution. 2008 also marks the sixtieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the thirtieth anniversary of the appearance of Democracy Wall in Beijing, and the tenth of China's signing of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. We are approaching the twentieth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy student protesters. The Chinese people, who have endured human rights disasters and uncountable struggles across these same years, now include many who see clearly that freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind and that democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.
By departing from these values, the Chinese government's approach to "modernization" has proven disastrous. It has stripped people of their rights, destroyed their dignity, and corrupted normal human intercourse. So we ask: Where is China headed in the twenty-first century? Will it continue with "modernization" under authoritarian rule, or will it embrace universal human values, join the mainstream of civilized nations, and build a democratic system? There can be no avoiding these questions.
The shock of the Western impact upon China in the nineteenth century laid bare a decadent authoritarian system and marked the beginning of what is often called "the greatest changes in thousands of years" for China. A "self-strengthening movement" followed, but this aimed simply at appropriating the technology to build gunboats and other Western material objects. China's humiliating naval defeat at the hands of Japan in 1895 only confirmed the obsolescence of China's system of government. The first attempts at modern political change came with the ill-fated summer of reforms in 1898, but these were cruelly crushed by ultraconservatives at China's imperial court. With the revolution of 1911, which inaugurated Asia's first republic, the authoritarian imperial system that had lasted for centuries was finally supposed to have been laid to rest. But social conflict inside our country and external pressures were to prevent it; China fell into a patchwork of warlord fiefdoms and the new republic became a fleeting dream.
The failure of both "self-strengthening" and political renovation caused many of our forebears to reflect deeply on whether a "cultural illness" was afflicting our country. This mood gave rise, during the May Fourth Movement of the late 1910s, to the championing of "science and democracy." Yet that effort, too, foundered as warlord chaos persisted and the Japanese invasion [beginning in Manchuria in 1931] brought national crisis.
Victory over Japan in 1945 offered one more chance for China to move toward modern government, but the Communist defeat of the Nationalists in the civil war thrust the nation into the abyss of totalitarianism. The "new China" that emerged in 1949 proclaimed that "the people are sovereign" but in fact set up a system in which "the Party is all-powerful." The Communist Party of China seized control of all organs of the state and all political, economic, and social resources, and, using these, has produced a long trail of human rights disasters, including, among many others, the Anti-Rightist Campaign (1957), the Great Leap Forward (1958–1960), the Cultural Revolution (1966–1969), the June Fourth [Tiananmen Square] Massacre (1989), and the current repression of all unauthorized religions and the suppression of the weiquan rights movement [a movement that aims to defend citizens’ rights promulgated in the Chinese Constitution and to fight for human rights recognized by international conventions that the Chinese government has signed]. During all this, the Chinese people have paid a gargantuan price. Tens of millions have lost their lives, and several generations have seen their freedom, their happiness, and their human dignity cruelly trampled.
During the last two decades of the twentieth century the government policy of “Reform and Opening” gave the Chinese people relief from the pervasive poverty and totalitarianism of the Mao Zedong era, and brought substantial increases in the wealth and living standards of many Chinese as well as a partial restoration of economic freedom and economic rights. Civil society began to grow, and popular calls for more rights and more political freedom have grown apace. As the ruling elite itself moved toward private ownership and the market economy, it began to shift from an outright rejection of “rights” to a partial acknowledgment of them.
In 1998 the Chinese government signed two important international human rights conventions; in 2004 it amended its constitution to include the phrase “respect and protect human rights”; and this year, 2008, it has promised to promote a “national human rights action plan.” Unfortunately most of this political progress has extended no further than the paper on which it is written. The political reality, which is plain for anyone to see, is that China has many laws but no rule of law; it has a constitution but no constitutional government. The ruling elite continues to cling to its authoritarian power and fights off any move toward political change.
The stultifying results are endemic official corruption, an undermining of the rule of law, weak human rights, decay in public ethics, crony capitalism, growing inequality between the wealthy and the poor, pillage of the natural environment as well as of the human and historical environments, and the exacerbation of a long list of social conflicts, especially, in recent times, a sharpening animosity between officials and ordinary people.
As these conflicts and crises grow ever more intense, and as the ruling elite continues with impunity to crush and to strip away the rights of citizens to freedom, to property, and to the pursuit of happiness, we see the powerless in our society—the vulnerable groups, the people who have been suppressed and monitored, who have suffered cruelty and even torture, and who have had no adequate avenues for their protests, no courts to hear their pleas—becoming more militant and raising the possibility of a violent conflict of disastrous proportions. The decline of the current system has reached the point where change is no longer optional.

II. Our Fundamental Principles

This is a historic moment for China, and our future hangs in the balance. In reviewing the political modernization process of the past hundred years or more, we reiterate and endorse basic universal values as follows:
Freedom. Freedom is at the core of universal human values. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association, freedom in where to live, and the freedoms to strike, to demonstrate, and to protest, among others, are the forms that freedom takes. Without freedom, China will always remain far from civilized ideals.
Human rights. Human rights are not bestowed by a state. Every person is born with inherent rights to dignity and freedom. The government exists for the protection of the human rights of its citizens. The exercise of state power must be authorized by the people. The succession of political disasters in China’s recent history is a direct consequence of the ruling regime’s disregard for human rights.
Equality. The integrity, dignity, and freedom of every person—regardless of social station, occupation, sex, economic condition, ethnicity, skin color, religion, or political belief—are the same as those of any other. Principles of equality before the law and equality of social, economic, cultural, civil, and political rights must be upheld.
Republicanism. Republicanism, which holds that power should be balanced among different branches of government and competing interests should be served, resembles the traditional Chinese political ideal of “fairness in all under heaven.” It allows different interest groups and social assemblies, and people with a variety of cultures and beliefs, to exercise democratic self-government and to deliberate in order to reach peaceful resolution of public questions on a basis of equal access to government and free and fair competition.
Democracy. The most fundamental principles of democracy are that the people are sovereign and the people select their government. Democracy has these characteristics: (1) Political power begins with the people and the legitimacy of a regime derives from the people. (2) Political power is exercised through choices that the people make. (3) The holders of major official posts in government at all levels are determined through periodic competitive elections. (4) While honoring the will of the majority, the fundamental dignity, freedom, and human rights of minorities are protected. In short, democracy is a modern means for achieving government truly “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Constitutional rule. Constitutional rule is rule through a legal system and legal regulations to implement principles that are spelled out in a constitution. It means protecting the freedom and the rights of citizens, limiting and defining the scope of legitimate government power, and providing the administrative apparatus necessary to serve these ends.

III. What We Advocate

Authoritarianism is in general decline throughout the world; in China, too, the era of emperors and overlords is on the way out. The time is arriving everywhere for citizens to be masters of states. For China the path that leads out of our current predicament is to divest ourselves of the authoritarian notion of reliance on an “enlightened overlord” or an “honest official” and to turn instead toward a system of liberties, democracy, and the rule of law, and toward fostering the consciousness of modern citizens who see rights as fundamental and participation as a duty. Accordingly, and in a spirit of this duty as responsible and constructive citizens, we offer the following recommendations on national governance, citizens’ rights, and social development:
1. A New Constitution. We should recast our present constitution, rescinding its provisions that contradict the principle that sovereignty resides with the people and turning it into a document that genuinely guarantees human rights, authorizes the exercise of public power, and serves as the legal underpinning of China’s democratization. The constitution must be the highest law in the land, beyond violation by any individual, group, or political party.
2. Separation of Powers. We should construct a modern government in which the separation of legislative, judicial, and executive power is guaranteed. We need an Administrative Law that defines the scope of government responsibility and prevents abuse of administrative power. Government should be responsible to taxpayers. Division of power between provincial governments and the central government should adhere to the principle that central powers are only those specifically granted by the constitution and all other powers belong to the local governments.
3. Legislative Democracy. Members of legislative bodies at all levels should be chosen by direct election, and legislative democracy should observe just and impartial principles.
4. An Independent Judiciary. The rule of law must be above the interests of any particular political party and judges must be independent. We need to establish a constitutional supreme court and institute procedures for constitutional review. As soon as possible, we should abolish all of the Committees on Political and Legal Affairs that now allow Communist Party officials at every level to decide politically sensitive cases in advance and out of court. We should strictly forbid the use of public offices for private purposes.
5. Public Control of Public Servants. The military should be made answerable to the national government, not to a political party, and should be made more professional. Military personnel should swear allegiance to the constitution and remain nonpartisan. Political party organizations must be prohibited in the military. All public officials including police should serve as nonpartisans, and the current practice of favoring one political party in the hiring of public servants must end.
6. Guarantee of Human Rights. There must be strict guarantees of human rights and respect for human dignity. There should be a Human Rights Committee, responsible to the highest legislative body, that will prevent the government from abusing public power in violation of human rights. A democratic and constitutional China especially must guarantee the personal freedom of citizens. No one should suffer illegal arrest, detention, arraignment, interrogation, or punishment. The system of “Reeducation through Labor” must be abolished.
7. Election of Public Officials. There should be a comprehensive system of democratic elections based on “one person, one vote.” The direct election of administrative heads at the levels of county, city, province, and nation should be systematically implemented. The rights to hold periodic free elections and to participate in them as a citizen are inalienable.
8. Rural–Urban Equality. The two-tier household registry system must be abolished. This system favors urban residents and harms rural residents. We should establish instead a system that gives every citizen the same constitutional rights and the same freedom to choose where to live.
9. Freedom to Form Groups. The right of citizens to form groups must be guaranteed. The current system for registering nongovernment groups, which requires a group to be “approved,” should be replaced by a system in which a group simply registers itself. The formation of political parties should be governed by the constitution and the laws, which means that we must abolish the special privilege of one party to monopolize power and must guarantee principles of free and fair competition among political parties.
10. Freedom to Assemble. The constitution provides that peaceful assembly, demonstration, protest, and freedom of expression are fundamental rights of a citizen. The ruling party and the government must not be permitted to subject these to illegal interference or unconstitutional obstruction.
11. Freedom of Expression. We should make freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and academic freedom universal, thereby guaranteeing that citizens can be informed and can exercise their right of political supervision. These freedoms should be upheld by a Press Law that abolishes political restrictions on the press. The provision in the current Criminal Law that refers to “the crime of incitement to subvert state power” must be abolished. We should end the practice of viewing words as crimes.
12. Freedom of Religion. We must guarantee freedom of religion and belief, and institute a separation of religion and state. There must be no governmental interference in peaceful religious activities. We should abolish any laws, regulations, or local rules that limit or suppress the religious freedom of citizens. We should abolish the current system that requires religious groups (and their places of worship) to get official approval in advance and substitute for it a system in which registry is optional and, for those who choose to register, automatic.
13. Civic Education. In our schools we should abolish political curriculums and examinations that are designed to indoctrinate students in state ideology and to instill support for the rule of one party. We should replace them with civic education that advances universal values and citizens’ rights, fosters civic consciousness, and promotes civic virtues that serve society.
14. Protection of Private Property. We should establish and protect the right to private property and promote an economic system of free and fair markets. We should do away with government monopolies in commerce and industry and guarantee the freedom to start new enterprises. We should establish a Committee on State-Owned Property, reporting to the national legislature, that will monitor the transfer of state-owned enterprises to private ownership in a fair, competitive, and orderly manner. We should institute a land reform that promotes private ownership of land, guarantees the right to buy and sell land, and allows the true value of private property to be adequately reflected in the market.
15. Financial and Tax Reform. We should establish a democratically regulated and accountable system of public finance that ensures the protection of taxpayer rights and that operates through legal procedures. We need a system by which public revenues that belong to a certain level of government—central, provincial, county or local—are controlled at that level. We need major tax reform that will abolish any unfair taxes, simplify the tax system, and spread the tax burden fairly. Government officials should not be able to raise taxes, or institute new ones, without public deliberation and the approval of a democratic assembly. We should reform the ownership system in order to encourage competition among a wider variety of market participants.
16. Social Security. We should establish a fair and adequate social security system that covers all citizens and ensures basic access to education, health care, retirement security, and employment.
17. Protection of the Environment. We need to protect the natural environment and to promote development in a way that is sustainable and responsible to our descendants and to the rest of humanity. This means insisting that the state and its officials at all levels not only do what they must do to achieve these goals, but also accept the supervision and participation of nongovernmental organizations.
18. A Federated Republic. A democratic China should seek to act as a responsible major power contributing toward peace and development in the Asian Pacific region by approaching others in a spirit of equality and fairness. In Hong Kong and Macao, we should support the freedoms that already exist. With respect to Taiwan, we should declare our commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy and then, negotiating as equals and ready to compromise, seek a formula for peaceful unification. We should approach disputes in the national-minority areas of China with an open mind, seeking ways to find a workable framework within which all ethnic and religious groups can flourish. We should aim ultimately at a federation of democratic communities of China.
19. Truth in Reconciliation. We should restore the reputations of all people, including their family members, who suffered political stigma in the political campaigns of the past or who have been labeled as criminals because of their thought, speech, or faith. The state should pay reparations to these people. All political prisoners and prisoners of conscience must be released. There should be a Truth Investigation Commission charged with finding the facts about past injustices and atrocities, determining responsibility for them, upholding justice, and, on these bases, seeking social reconciliation.
China, as a major nation of the world, as one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and as a member of the UN Council on Human Rights, should be contributing to peace for humankind and progress toward human rights. Unfortunately, we stand today as the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics. Our political system continues to produce human rights disasters and social crises, thereby not only constricting China’s own development but also limiting the progress of all of human civilization. This must change, truly it must. The democratization of Chinese politics can be put off no longer.
Accordingly, we dare to put civic spirit into practice by announcing Charter 08. We hope that our fellow citizens who feel a similar sense of crisis, responsibility, and mission, whether they are inside the government or not, and regardless of their social status, will set aside small differences to embrace the broad goals of this citizens’ movement. Together we can work for major changes in Chinese society and for the rapid establishment of a free, democratic, and constitutional country. We can bring to reality the goals and ideals that our people have incessantly been seeking for more than a hundred years, and can bring a brilliant new chapter to Chinese civilization.
Translated from the Chinese by Perry Link

Monday, June 19, 2017

Drumming and Normativity

Perhaps the first sound we ever hear is our mother's heartbeat, and the last thing we hear may be our own.  The heartbeat's tempo, regularity, and  its steady repetition is what sets the pace for all of the many things that we do in our lives.  That beat becomes slow and steady when we fall asleep, but in times of stress the heart beats faster to facilitate the incredible bursts of energy that may be required to get us out of danger.

Analogous to  the way that the heart pumps blood to the muscles and makes action possible, we can say that the drum beat drives the music forward.  The softer, the quieter the drums, the more laid back the music.  The louder and more insistent the drums the higher the energy  becomes.   The drums and percussion are the instruments most felt by the entire body.  We instinctively move to the beat of a drum, we can't help it.     

But the heart, together with all the other organs in the body, is a team player.  So too, the drums.  In drumming, control is everything.  As a drummer I have the power to command and overwhelm the entire band, but, if I exercise that power and drown them out I become persona non grata.

If I were a chimpanzee like Jane Goodall’s “Mike”,  who became the alpha dominant by capitalizing on the noise and confusion caused by his clanging and banging empty fifty gallon oil drums together, then I could dominate all the apes around me with my awesome drum set.  But humans usually don’t tolerate that kind of domination.  I would get absolutely nowhere with any band I can think of, unless I exercised restraint.

There is something about percussion that mirrors normativity itself.  The huge Silverback Gorilla who beats his chest, the alpha male chimpanzee who slams a tree branch against the ground - these close relatives of ours maintain their absolute dominance by bluffing with loud percussive sounds that signal their power and ambition without the necessity of having to fight it out.

We can reproduce a similar kind of compulsion and power with percussion instruments.  The thunder of Tympanies, the deep and explosive sound of  Gongs, the clarity and sustaining sound of a huge Bell - they all have the power to break us out of our trajectories, to refocus our attention, to summon us.

Humans, unlike the apes and other animals, work together through agreement and cooperation and resist overt domination.  This is reflected in music, especially in the relation between the percussion section and the rest of the band.  The drummer sets the pace, but he’s got to be in sync with the other players.  The drumbeat drives the music forward, but the drummer has to fit-in with everybody else, constraining his volume, keeping the tempo steady, but continually facilitating and reflecting the energy level of the other musicians at the same time.  

Birds have beautiful, but mostly solitary songs, wolves howl together, elephants trumpet, but animals never achieve a cumulative  body of knowledge and culture the way humans do.  I believe that the key to this difference is in normativity,  our collective adherence to  rules.

 Music is a collective human phenomenon. It’s possible to play music by yourself, but it really requires a collectivity to get it off the ground - to compose music, to build up a repertoire of songs, to form styles and traditions,  to produce musical instruments, to train musicians, to build  audiences and to make  musical performance possible.

Music itself, like all other human pursuits, is rule-governed.  It is the rules of music, the scales, harmonies, time signatures, tempos, and controlled dynamics that allow for such creativity and cooperation.  But wait, there’s more!   There is another way that music reflects human life, and is the reason why music is so emotionally appealing.  

Music reflects the ceaseless changing activity that comprises life. Think of what a Beethoven Symphony and ongoing life have in common.   Things happen, events unfold, sometimes slowly, other times quickly;  there are different themes that are introduced by different individuals;  some of these themes drop out, but some get stronger as more people join in.  Things happen, and different things coalesce;  they can change dramatically, they can evolve in expected or unexpected ways;  themes that had dropped out previously can reappear and join in with the chorus. The music can build and build, creating a tension and then release as the musical phrasing reaches a climax and frames an ending.

Not all music is as complex as a Beethoven symphony, but it is easy to see how tempos, patterns,  changes, progressions, transformations, and repetitions in music can evoke our experience of everyday life.  Music may be rule-governed, but it’s largely the way that music moves our bodies and interacts with and mirrors our feelings that forms the basis of its appeal.

Getting back to drumming, there’s a strong connection between certain time signatures such as 2/4 and walking.  Left right, left right, maps onto one two, one two,  which is why drumming is so prominent in marches.  When two people walk together they  often walk in unison.  It’s often done unconsciously, in fact it is a neurological phenomenon called “entrainment”.   This can be seen in a more deliberate fashion, in military marches, and it is definitely facilitated by drumming. Entrainment can have a powerful emotional effect on us, partly because when it is happening we perceive the group acting as a single organism.  

Drumming can also induce trance, sometimes because of the monotony of some repetitive beats and sometimes because, when one hears two complex beats simultaneously, one can either hear the two beats in combination, which is the usual way, or, more interestingly,  one’s focus can be suspended between the two beats, unable to choose one over the other -  at which point one enters a trance. How do I know this?  Because I have inadvertantly put myself into a trance practicing drumming exercises.

Note the paradoxical consequence that drumming can either induce entrainment and a powerful sense of unity or, alternately, the disassociation of trance.  My sense is that both these phenomena have to do with the connection of drumming with normativity.  To begin with, the stark simplicity of drumming is a lot like the binary opposition in normative concepts such as good/bad and right/wrong.  

The simplicity of drumming, it’s sharp definition and repetitiveness, frames the music into a regular series of parts which we call “the beat”, each with a brief rise in tension, then a climax and dissipation.  This framework repeats itself over and over throughout many songs.

I want to say that normativity frames all human social activity, in the sense that in any common activity we feel compelled to act in certain ways, independently of our particular desires.  The Contemporary Philosopher John Searle refers to this as the fact that only humans have “desire-independent reasons.”   

We keep our promises, fulfill our obligations, and do our duty, basically because we live in society and we want to keep living in society. There is something compelling when we feel an “ought”, that we feel we ought to do something, or when we see a wrong, and feel strongly that it should be publicized and  punished. Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of the enlightenment brought out the specifically universal quality of morality in his concept of “the categorical imperative,”  that is, that moral rules apply to everyone,  that we cannot absent ourselves from this kind of rule without being excluded from society.  This also shows that contrary to Utilitarianism, morality is irreducibly  social and cannot consist of simply adding up individual people’s needs and preferences.

   Because Kant wanted to make human reason autonomous and base everything on this autonomy he excluded emotion from his system.  That was an unfortunate mistake, because it reflects a basic misunderstanding of the nature of normativity.

Kant’s autonomy turns out to be a mirage because reason by itself has no compulsion whatsoever.  It needs emotion to supply a sense of direction, an ought.  But, of course, any emotion is caught up in some immediate and particular circumstance.  We are angry or sad about a particular situation.  How can morality make a claim to being universal if it has to involve emotions that are about particular situations?  The answer lies in the way that collective commitment is necessary for morality to get off the ground.

One thing that is absent from both Kant and the Utilitarians is the importance of enforcement.  But, the 17 Century British philosopher Hobbes saw it.  In his great work Leviathan, Hobbes stated:  “Covenants, without the Sword, are but Words, and of no strength to secure a man at all.”

Part of normativity, the part which Kant emphasized,  is its universal inclusion - everybody commits to moral rules and no-one is excluded unless everyone agrees that they should be. That universality is important, but it is only half the story.  Besides our collective commitment to follow the moral rules the moral force also resides in our collective commitment to enforce the rules, with the  possibility of different degrees of exclusion, with the ultimate degree being execution.


The categorical imperative is really a social commitment to hold to and enforce  universal standards of conduct.  By this commitment we have replaced sheer animal dominance with morality and the rule of law.  I am reminded of this every time I play the drums in a band.  Each band member, by committing  to play in this particular band, constrains his or her playing to be in sync with the rest of the band.  This is  how music is kept alive, how it is created and re-created.  If any other group of animals could collectively recreate a piece of music, it would be strong evidence of rule-governance - of normativity in another species.  

Monday, April 24, 2017

Prologue to "The Normative System"

The Universe is the first and oldest system.  All other systems are contained within it and subject to its  universal framework, bound by the forces of gravity and electromagnetic energy.


What are Systems?  Let’s call them: “ways of doing things.”


 At the end of the seventeenth Century Isaac Newton showed, in his derivation of the laws of motion, that gravitational force impacts the motion of all physical objects.

At the beginning of the twentieth Century Albert Einstein, in his theories of Special and General Relativity, showed how the dual forces of electromagnetic energy and gravity determine the very geometry of space and time.


The force of gravity defines the boundary of the Universe.    Outside that boundary there is no matter, there are no lines of force, no geometrical space, no locations, no energy, no movement, and no development.  There is no outside. Everything is inside. Everything is either a system or a part of a system.


All systems do things.  Doing things takes energy, so all systems use energy.  There is a fixed amount of energy in the Universe.  According to the first law of thermodynamics, energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  


All systems use energy to do things and in so doing they make that energy less available to other systems.  This is the second law of thermodynamics.  Once energy has been utilized it cannot be re-utilized to the same degree.  Each time it is used it becomes degraded.  For example, in a living-system plants extract energy from the sun, and animals extract the chemical energy from eating plants, or from eating other animals.  Animals have to work physically harder to get the same amount of energy that plants can get just by staying in one place and soaking up the sun. That is the second law of thermodynamics at work.


All systems develop and change over time.  All systems are born, they do things, and then they die, and stop doing things.  This is obviously true of living organisms, but it is also true of  our solar system and the Universe, but on vastly larger time-scales.  


Systems form a natural hierarchy.  All systems are physical;  living systems are purposive physical systems;  Human systems are normative purposive physical systems.


I have divided systems into three nested categories:  All systems are physical systems, subject to the fundamental forces of the Universe.  Living systems are purposive physical systems.  Human systems are normative, purposive physical systems.


All systems are physical, that is, they exist within the Universe.  There is no outside.  What we refer to as “spiritual” is a human system of perception that relies on our culture and imagination and is therefore based on physical occurrences.


Living systems are purposive physical systems - they maintain and replicate themselves.  A flame resembles a living system because it gives off heat and changes it shape. A flame just goes out when it runs out of fuel. The flame is a partially self-maintaining physical system but it does not act from purpose.  In contrast,  a  living system will go look for more food before it runs out of energy.


What makes human systems different from other living systems?  Humans have rules that they collectively agree to.  These rules create a social reality that only exists because of collective human acceptance.  I call this creation of social reality Normativity.


The fundamental fact about normativity is that it is an artificial creation of a boundary.  One between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and ignorance, beauty and ugliness, and, between meeting or not meeting countless standards of behaviour.   The boundary is not there in reality like the shoreline.  It is one that is created by the agreement of a group of human beings. In order to create this boundary humans must be able to agree on a difference, and actively maintain that difference by including some behaviours and excluding others.

Normativity is a system that frames all human social activity.   The first humans began the human experiment when they agreed to live under a moral system.   Just as the Universe creates the structure of physical reality through its own gravitational and electromagnetic forces, by drawing a line between good and evil our Homo Erectus ancestors created the basis for all succeeding human systems, systems that eventually led to language and the myriad of cultural forms that we participate in today.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Human System

I have an ongoing joke with my wife Candace about my “system”.  It’s the way I like to heat the rooms of our little  house in the winter, and it involves turning in-room heaters on or off and opening or closing certain doors at various strategic times. Candace smiles at the arcaneness of my “system”.  Here, where I am  referring to my “system,”  I mean “a way of doing things” that I repeat each day when the outside environment calls for it.  


We can call the local weather a "system" in another way.  It is certainly a regular way of doing things, but, unlike my opening and closing doors,  it is not a goal-directed process.  It is a natural, self-organized, physical process that begins in the Pacific Ocean and sweeps across parts of North America, eventually dissipating over the Atlantic.  


There are many other regional weather systems around the Earth, and these together make up an evolving Global Climate System that is presently warming, but that  last wrapped most of the Northern Hemisphere in ice sixty thousand years ago and then melted away over tens of thousands of years. The global Climate System has profound effects on Earth’s surface geology, and on the evolution of living ecosystems.


Here’s how I see things:  The Universe is a system, and it’s  a hierarchy of systems all the way down to the finest detail.  Here on Earth we are a part of the Solar System, which is, of course, a ridiculously tiny part of the Universe.  But we are in an orbit around the Sun that has afforded the Earth a temperature range that has kept most of its water in a liquid state for four billion years, and this is what has made the continued existence of life possible.


We humans are part of the Earth’s biosphere, or Life-system.  
Living systems are different from non-living physical systems because living systems purposely maintain themselves and reproduce, spreading until they reach every corner of our planet.  Since life took over it has been the determining factor in furnishing Earth’s global atmosphere of oxygen, carbon-dioxide, and nitrogen, it has, through preserving the oceans, kept the Earth itself alive and volcanically active over billions of years.  How is this possible?


Living things are so coupled to the Earth that ecosystems have changed both the atmosphere and the climate over aeons.  Indeed, the presence of life itself is also part of the reason that life has had almost four billion years to evolve from bacteria to humans.  Our very oceans have existed for this long time because photosynthetic bacteria and green algae have produced enough oxygen that it has, in the form of high-altitude ozone,  shielded the oceans from too much of the Sun’s ultraviolet light.  Without ozone, over billions of years, the excess ultraviolet would have split enough water molecules to empty the Earth’s oceans.


If you find this hard to believe, consider Mars:  Mars does not have a Life System, and so far, we see no evidence of there ever being one.  There is no water there now, not even a puddle, and very little atmosphere, but they say, that there used to be water there...  Life cannot maintain itself without water;  Water cannot maintain itself without life.  


The Universe is systems all the way down.  Life is a planet-wide system.  Humans are biological organisms, which means that each individual human is a single biological system made of skin, bones, muscles, specialized organs and consciousness.  All biological organisms, including humans, are systems entirely made of cells, and each cell is a tiny system of molecules, membranes, and organelles, containing a genetic blueprint that can direct the building of any cell in the body from scratch.    
The very long, from our perspective, timeline of natural systems, such as the Earth’s global climate, demonstrates this rule of thumb:  the bigger the system,  the longer the time frame that’s involved in that system.  Human systems occupy a middle ground, between microscopic systems that grow and die in minutes or days, and planetary, star, and galaxy systems that grow and die in the space of billions of years.


But here's an exception to my rule - hydrogen atoms. In relation to humans they are submicroscopic systems. And as for age they are the oldest of all, the same age as the Universe. Our bodies are made up of molecular systems that contain a significant proportion of hydrogen atoms in relation to other elements. And wait - there's more! Just about every atom in the Universe is either Hydrogen or it was made from Hydrogen by nuclear reactions deep inside of countless stars. They make up the most plentiful thing in the Universe and they just happen to be the oldest systems around.

Each one of those tiny systems is the basic building block for all other systems. Each hydrogen atom is directly connected by origin to the birth of the Universe. This is what it means, in systems theory, to say that everything is connected.

Let's go back to my rule of thumb: The bigger the system the longer the time-frame. I keep saying that humans occupy the middle ground. The reason is because it took the universe seventeen billion years to produce us. We are young, we are infants compared to almost everything else but our own artefacts.  Some say humans evolved one half million years ago.  I mark the dividing line at two million years, with the first evidence of Homo Erectus.  


Homo Erectus is more than just an ape man.  Hominins - that’s our evolutionary precursors - start to look more like modern humans with Homo Erectus.  And in the time space of one and a half million years after Erectus appears in the fossil record, humans evolved bigger brains, longer childhoods - thus greater potential for learning - and at first the ability to shape and fashion specialized stone tools, then to control fire, to cook food, and to migrate over the rest of the Earth.


Should we claim for human systems the possibilities inherent in billions of years when we have only been around for scarce two million? Can we grow as big or bigger than the Earth’s life-system? I believe that these two  questions are really  the same question.


The fact that the human race is only two million years old, and it took  four billion years for the Earth’s Life-system to  reach that point, indicates nothing robust about humans.  We are delicate, precarious beings.  We couldn’t have evolved eight million years ago, let alone four billion years ago.  Imagine a world without flowers, which evolved 160 million years ago, or mammals, who celebrate their 250 millionth birthday today.   We are contained in the Earth’s biosphere and cannot escape it because we utterly depend on it for our survival.  


What is the human system, that we believe that it could surpass the Earth’s Life-system?  Is it our technological systems that would make this possible?  The evidence of the last three hundred years decisively contradicts this hope.  We are now in the midst of an Extinction -Event, something that happens about once every hundred million years.  Scientists call this latest event The Anthropocene age, for the unmistakable fact that humans are causing this latest collapse in biodiversity.  And we are causing it because our advanced technologies give us access to fossil fuels.


When it comes to systems, size matters.  Large systems can  utilize more energy and have more powerful effects.  The Pacific Ocean has a greater effect on the Earth’s weather patterns than the Atlantic Ocean.  The Earth’s plate tectonic system has an even  greater effect through its access to the tremendous heat in Earth’s Core and Mantle, changing the shape of the continents and the seas over a time frame of hundreds of millions of years.


The human system cannot grow beyond the bounds of Earth’s Life-system.  We cannot grow bigger than a system that we totally depend on  without fatally undermining ourselves in the process. In point of  fact, one could ask, how is it even possible to do this?  How can humans, who must derive their nourishment from the biosphere, surpass the biosphere?


The human system has tapped into The Earth’s tectonic system to extract energy from fossilised carbon.  We have grown in numbers and power as a result.  We are using up the energy that was stored in the Earth for hundreds of millions of years in the space of only three hundred years.


It is because we have tapped into an ancient form of accumulated energy from the Earth that we humans have been able to build  global systems in the past three hundred years: systems of transportation, economic systems, communication systems,  legal systems, administrative systems.    When we start decreasing our use of fossil fuels our systems will have to get smaller too.  With less access to energy what the system can do will be less.


The best scenario I see is to gradually stop the extraction of fossil carbon and replace it with a more decentralized system of renewables.  Society will then have to run on a smaller scale because we will lack the concentrated energy of fossil fuels.


Or we can opt out of a future for humanity altogether.   We can continue to burn more and more fossil fuels and allow our systems to grow bigger and bigger, until the entire  human system, in all its power and glory, smashes into the wall and breaks apart into countless shards.
  Global Warming is a sign that we have already grown too big and gone too far, but why not push the envelope that much further, and risk our very future for the sake of greater financial rewards and bigger and faster cars?  


Size matters.  The Earth cannot sustain a population size of seven billion humans or larger.  We have reached this size by using fossil fuels.  This increased usage of energy  is changing the Earth’s Climate System.  Remember, this system usually works on a time scale of tens of thousands of years or more.  Human civilization is less than ten thousand years old.  The use and extraction of fossil fuels only started in earnest about three hundred years ago.  The Climate is warming in the space of one hundred years. Each new year brings  more and bigger  Floods, Forest Fires, Droughts, Hurricanes;  it is like something out of the Bible.


With energy comes power, and power allows us to do more things. Having more power means having a bigger effect on other systems.  Eventually the effect of this power will alter the behaviour of the larger system in a way that undermines our survival as a species, because we cannot escape being dependent on the larger system.  When the Global Climate System works against us our human systems can quickly become overwhelmed.  When we have grown big enough to effect this system, we cannot escape the effects of altering it.  These effects will not be benign.  


Humans have been living in ignorance of these larger systems for  two million  years, with differing consequences.  When the Climate cooled, as it did a hundred thousand years ago, human systems shrunk dramatically.  When the Climate has been favorable, as it has been for the last ten thousand years, humans have prospered and human systems have grown exponentially.


Each system has an optimum size.  Too small and it loses too much access to energy.  Too large, and it undermines its own existence.  A star that grows too large destroys itself in a massive supernova.  A Galaxy that is too large becomes full of black holes.   A living population of organisms that grows too large, runs out of food and drowns in its own waste.


Our Solar system is four and a half billion years old, roughly a quarter of the age of the Universe.  The Earth’s Life-system is somewhat younger, at roughly four billion years old.   


At approximately two million years old humans are a young species.  Many species have been around longer than us - most species of birds and insects, for instance. The human system is young.  But it has the distinction of being  the first system that can identify and understand  all  or almost all other systems.


 Some human systems are very young. Language as a general system of communication could be anywhere from one hundred thousand years to five hundred thousand years old.  Writing, as a communication system is about three thousand years old.  Printing, in the West, is about five hundred years old. The internet is less than half a century old.


On a smaller scale,  human systems, such as particular languages, nations,  and cities, have lasted for hundreds to close to thousands of years, families last from several to thousands of generations.  Economic systems grow and die over the space of hundreds of years.  Some  institutions  like marriage, have lasted thousands of years.   All these human systems grow and die, change and evolve, competing and sharing with other human systems.
 
Most non-human systems that we can observe are far older than any human system.  The geographic features that we live in can be anywhere from tens of thousands to tens of millions of years old or more.  


In the area that I live in, Northwestern BC, the geography was mostly the result of an ice-cap that covered the northern half of North America for most of the last hundred thousand years.  And for the first eighty-five thousand of those years, there were no human footprints here.  


The scale of many natural systems dwarfs the scale of human systems.  The only place that this is not true is in our imaginative systems.  We imagine that we are important because that’s how imagination works.  It always starts with our own experiences and generalizes from that.  


Our imaginations are self-contained.  They have their own rules, they run by their own logic.  But most natural and human systems are open to the influence of the environment.

One knows a system by observing its behaviour and its boundaries. In order to better understand the Human System, we ought to know as much as possible about when it began and how it began.  Then we can better distinguish it from other  kinds of living systems.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Meaning of Hobbes's Sword - Part I

What makes human systems different from other living systems?  Humans alone have rules that are collectively agreed to.  These rules create a social reality that  can only be maintained by collective  human acceptance.  I call this social reality - Normativity.  


My passion is to seek to understand the nature and origin of normativity.  My intuition is that all forms of normativity, including language, originate from its most basic form - morality.


 The fundamental fact about normativity is that it is a drawing  of a boundary.  A line between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsity, or beauty and ugliness.  This boundary is not already there in reality like the boundary between water and land;  It is one that is created by the agreement of a group of human beings. In order to sustain this boundary humans must be able to agree on a difference, and actively maintain that difference by including some behaviours and excluding others.


We accept certain behaviours, so  we include them. We reject other behaviours and so we exclude them.  We can look at every incidence of normativity in this way.  All uses of rules follow this pattern.  Some behaviours are included and other behaviours are excluded.  And those who keep doing excluded things become excluded themselves.


You can’t be a Scientist unless you follow the rules and methods of Science. You can’t do math if you don’t learn the rules.   You can’t play a game if you keep breaking the rules.  You can’t speak a language if you don’t use its rules.  You can’t be a member of society if you persist in wrongdoing.  


When we observe  wrongdoing we normally want to tell  others. And when we do, it helps us to maintain the distinction and continue to follow the rules ourselves.


On the other hand, if we see many people breaking the rules, we are much more likely to break the rules ourselves.  We lose the motivation to maintain the distinction because it is not being maintained by the rest of the group.


I anticipate that some who read this will disagree with me. Some may argue that morality is objective and does not depend on how many people in a group follow the rules.  Others may ask what do I mean, everyone commits to morality, and everyone participates in monitoring and sanctioning others?  Morality is imposed by tradition, or absolute authority, or - it’s just a pure fabrication, etc.  My argument, that it is a social contract, may not seem self-evident.  


But consider this example:  language is like morality because it is also a kind of normativity.  When we learn a language as infants, we commit to speaking the language.  When we make mistakes we are corrected by others.  When others make errors in grammar or pronunciation we correct them.  If I misspell “conscuusness” you will be irritated by my error and want to correct me.  I myself am having a hard time right now not going back and correcting that error.


I’m not about to go back and correct that error because I’m trying to make a point here.  Normativity is about commitment.  The reason that this is not self-evident is because we’ve already made the commitment a long time ago when we were growing up. Each one of us committed to speaking a language.  Each one of us committed to living in a moral system.  And if we didn’t do the latter, we are probably in jail now or headed for jail.  


Here’s the thing: language is a self-organized human system.  There is no one in charge of language.   There is no authority out there dictating grammatical rules and rules of pronunciation.


 There are seven billion speakers, who all follow rules of grammar and pronunciation, and our world is divided into many  groups of speakers  speaking variations on these rules,  due to variations in geography, cultures, and unique histories.   The rules of language change over time and location.  This change happens slowly, but it is inexorable, it cannot be stopped by any human authority.  


Now consider morality as a human system.  If morality  is a system like language, then it is a self-organized system also.  There is no one  in charge.  There is no guy with a sword outside making sure that we don’t do anything wrong.


We all  must commit to living in a moral system - we have a name for this commitment process:  it’s called,  “growing up.”  We think of ourselves and most others we know, as “good”.  We think of wrongdoers as “bad”.   We are all motivated to look for and correct wrongdoing and if it’s really serious wrongdoing,  to call in the cavalry.


This motivation is a kind of “force,”  the force that’s captured in the concept of “ought”, that is, what we ought or ought not to do.  We look out for wrongdoing because that’s what everyone ought to do.  It’s a more basic and powerful form of  the way that we look out for mistakes in grammar and pronunciation and insist on pointing them out to the people who commit them.


We can communicate because we all commit to following grammatical rules;  we can live together peacefully because we all commit to following moral rules;  but if enough people refused to commit to moral rules society would break down;  it’s as simple as that.


In the Seventeenth Century, in his great work, Leviathan,  The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes  concerns himself with the question: how come humans follow the rules?  People can make agreements, but how can these agreements hold together?  Hobbes reasoned, correctly, that rules are ultimately  backed by force.    “Covenants without a sword are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.”  he writes in Leviathan,  demonstrating that he recognized that rule following cannot simply exist by reason alone.  


Hobbes also brought up an idea that had been thought of and then discarded by the ancient Greeks:  To be without rules would be as if humans were in a “state of nature”;  so humans, if they were able to,  would naturally come to some agreement about the rules in order to get themselves out of the “state of nature.”


But, and here’s the thing, the very key to the problem of origins - how would  people who don’t have any rules agree to having rules?  Hobbes's theory was that such a “covenant,” an agreement we call  a “social contract,”  was only possible with a “sword,”  i.e. someone with a monopoly of power to back the agreement.  In other words, Hobbes tries to solve the problem of how morality originated  by imagining that a  social contract would have to impose a political solution;  and because of the times of civil war that Hobbes lived in, he thought that the political solution should be an absolute monarchy.


Here’s where Hobbes got it right.   He realized that no social contract could  arise out of a state of nature without a realistic  threat of force.  You cannot depend on people’s good will unless you have morality in place already. In order to get around this dilemma  Hobbes argued, in effect,  that there needed to be a political solution to a moral problem.  


 But following the rules is a moral problem and it needs a moral solution.  Politics is a way of establishing authority, but morality is about establishing commitment. Morality comes from collective commitment.  Collective moral commitment, or, in other words - normativity - is ultimately  what makes human beings possible.


Living, as he did, in seventeenth century England,  Hobbes had only the sketchiest knowledge about the kinds of groups that the first humans lived in.    From what we observe of  nomadic hunting and gathering groups they are small, making up from thirty to one hundred people, they are usually made up of both related and unrelated nuclear families, they have very little in the way of political or social institutions other than the family and ethnicity.


We are told by anthropologists that nomadic hunting and gathering groups all share in common a collective intolerance of excessive egotism, boasting,  authoritarianism, and bullying.  And it would seem that  everyone within the group shares the same moral system.


 Why do we have feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment?   For one thing, all of these feelings help to temper our egotism.    These feelings also indicate our recognition and discomfort at our own faux pas.  Some people don’t have enough of these “social” feelings. They are  called psychopaths.  These people act without any  internal checks to wrongdoing, except fear of getting caught.


A good example of a psychopath is the present leader of the Philippines,  Dutarte.  You can watch him speak on   youtube videos.  Notice the sheer absence of guilt, shame, and embarrassment in this man’s speaking style, especially when he is talking about absolutely horrifying actions.  What some people mistakenly take to be rock solid confidence is actually pure psychopathy.  This man does not have a conscience.  


 Morality is necessarily  collective both in how  it involves shared perception and  shared obligations.   In the beginning morality must have been enforced by the group as a whole.  Does not morality give the group the power to punish and exclude any individual in the group?


From a “management design” perspective moral systems are designed to get rid of psychopaths, and discourage people from crossing the line into unconstrained egotism.  The theory that psychopaths have been mostly selected out the human gene pool, was first argued by Anthropologist, Christopher Boehm, in his book, Moral Origins.  


Morality is something that we share with everyone in our group, and it is something that we each internalize.  The perception of right and wrong is shared.  We commit ourselves to perceiving actions as either right or wrong just as  everyone else does, and we expect everyone else to feel the same way,  and that they too will avoid doing wrong. The group is collectively committed to detecting and punishing wrongdoing, and the worse the crime, the more people in the group are involved together in its detection and punishment.
 
By involving the commitment of the entire group, morality formed a system that, in part,  protected the group from outsiders, but more importantly, from wrongdoers within the group.   “Peace and Order” were the collective goals;  actions to detect and sanction wrongdoing were part of everyone’s responsibility.  The moral system worked to further these goals because everyone committed to following the rules and enforcing sanctions.  The collective commitment of the whole group to detect and punish any wrongdoing was, in effect, Hobbes’s sword.  It was the threat of physical violence, exclusion or assassination made good by the collective membership of the group.   In a group of thirty to one hundred people that was realizable and effective.  


We may not recognize this, or we may take this for granted today because we now live in huge and complex societies, where membership in groups is often porous and overlapping.  In the more complex industrial societies there is an intricate division of labour:  there are professional lawmakers, judges, policemen, gaolers, teachers, lawyers, religious leaders, opinion leaders, philosophers, and countless more specialized professions.

We no longer collectively  throw stones at wrongdoers.  But that doesn’t seem to stop any, or all of us, from continuing to perceive, judge, and share our judgements about right and wrong behaviour with those around us. These impulses to get involved in perceiving, judging, and sanctioning actions morally, hark back to our very origins.