Sunday, March 8, 2020

What was the Original Rule?

If I were to posit one question that sums up my philosophical inquiry it would be this:  “What makes humans different from animals?” For me, it is the single most important question to ask.   Philosophy in its Western form comprises three main parts, which are conveyed to us by the three Greek words:  Metaphysics, Epistemology, and Ethics. In my opinion, (and it’s probably a minority opinion), Ethics is the most important of these three, precisely because it is at the heart of what makes humans distinct from animals.  But the subject of ethics is most troublesome to grapple with.  Where does ethics or morality come from?  This was never an easy question, but nowadays it seems so much more complicated to answer, because our society has so many overlapping jurisdictions.  This is why it is hard to know whether a particular rule is a moral rule, an obligation, or merely a convention. For instance, the Mosaic rule against making images of a deity - considered a moral rule by many Jews, Christians, and Muslims, is obviously not so for a Hindu or other polytheistic adherent.   Some extremist adherents of monotheism would like to see this rule become universal by force.  Blowing up religious statues and destroying places of worship full of worshippers becomes their chosen way.  This too raises the question of morality, and perhaps the question of the origin of morality can shed light here as well.

My thought is that a lot of petty philosophical squabbling over the existence and universality of morality has to do with disputes over these multiple overlapping jurisdictions among:  legal systems, educational systems, civic institutions, religions, ethnic systems, language, and philosophical systems. Where does morality begin and all these other systems end?  I propose an informal division between morality and ethics, mainly to help simplify the question of origins.  I realize that many philosophers legitimately see “morality” and “ethics” as synonyms for each other, in the same way as I indicated at the beginning of this piece.  I’m not arguing that we should always define ethics and morality as two separate things .  I’m saying that we can simplify the question of origins by delegating the more complicated job of navigating those overlapping jurisdictions to the subject of ethics. It is more of a methodological way of clearing out some of the unnecessary modern baggage, in order to better  pursue the questions of origins unencumbered.

Similar to what Bernard Gert has argued, let’s call the moral rules, simple, explicit, publicly known rules that forbid certain specific behaviours.  These rules can easily be summarized:  don’t lie, steal, cheat, break your promises,  commit adultery, or cause harm to self or others.  The beauty of this, as Gert pointed out, is that it refers us to a small subset of easy to recognize behaviours that we are not to do.   These rules say nothing at all about the innumerable behaviours that are permitted, and this is their strength. The moral rules are distinct because they are publically known, easy to remember, and easier to follow than a set of “to do’s” - (which  are invariably more ambiguous and harder to follow.)

Simple, easy to understand, and easy to follow - but it is also important to realize that morality seems to mean more than just a set of rules about what not to do.  Morality also seems to be about “doing the right thing.”   This, though, is the bigger, more difficult part. Let’s call the bigger, more sophisticated part of morality that covers “what to do” - Ethics.

The moral rules are a short set of rules that are easy to understand and follow; whereas,principles of good living and the acquisition of virtuous habits and dispositions are not so easy to understand or to follow.  Ethical rules of living are essentially summaries, principles, and ideals that serve as general guidelines rather than rigid requirements. They correspond to ways of living and acting that we want to encourage in general for the good of our community. Ethics, then, corresponds to general ethical theories about what constitutes the good life and the public good.

I like Bernard Gert’s simplification of the moral system, you can find it described in the most detail in his last book, Morality: Its Nature and Justification.  But I find that in philosophy as a whole, the understanding of the state of nature has regressed, rather than progressed. It seems obvious to me that presently, we have a sufficient scientific understanding of our non-human precursors to construct a more realistic theory of  our distinct human nature, a job which ought to be delegated to a philosophical anthropology.  This was not done in the most influential moral theory of the twentieth century, that of John Rawls, especially in,  A Theory of Justice. For Rawls, it seems, the justification of an ethical system is more important than understanding the nature and origins of ethics.  This, I think, comes from the modern tendency to try and incorporate all of the competing jurisdictions into a single system.  By embracing complexity too soon, one loses sight of what is essential.

  It is plain to me that morality must have started with something simple, and what I call the ethical part, and the overlapping jurisdictions came much later, and can be dealt with separately from the question of origins.  This is not to say that they can always be kept separate, and thus the need for overarching ethical theories.

My reasoning for thinking that the origins of morality have got to be simple, is that it had to be simple in order for it to stick.  In our human beginnings,  anything complicated would not have survived; something basic, something simple, easy to remember and publically understood.  My guess is that it would be a single rule, and that rule would be a “do not”;  there would have been little or no thought or deliberation involved; once this one rule caught on and showed it’s promise, other rules would follow;  so the important thing is to get this one rule right; forget the competing jurisdictions, the subtleties, the complications and the differing social contexts for now - they come much later and they don’t further our understanding of origins.

To get a better idea of what that rule said, we need to do some groundwork.  This groundwork requires a lot of digging around and excavating, but fortunately most of that has already been taken care of by paleontologists, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and primatologists.  For a hundred years or more, the paleontologists have dug up the stones and bones of our ancestors, while the ethologists have spent countless hours in the wild observing the behaviour of our closest primate relatives.

   In order to figure out why that one rule would have made such an important difference for human evolution, let’s start with a better understanding of biology, and in particular with Ethology, the study of animal behavour. Really, it’s not that difficult, for there are some basic differences between humans and all other animals that stand out distinctly, once you know what to look for.

I would start with a real stand-out.  Humans are one of the few types of mammals that are biparental.  Most mammals are female uniparental.  There is something  defining about mammals and mothering, isn’t there?  None of our closest primate relatives are biparental.  No ape males participate in caring for the little ones, and except for gorillas and gibbons, ape “fathers” do not recognize their children.  How are we related to the apes?   Our closest ape relatives are chimpanzees, and our last common ancestor with chimps lived six million years ago.  The common ancestors to chimps, humans and gorillas lived about ten million years ago, so gorillas are more distant relations.  Closer to us than chimpanzees were Australopithecus, a species that became extinct about half a million years ago.

If we go far back enough in human prehistory, say, to about two million years, probably about the time that our species evolved from australopithecus,  the fossil record shows  the start of a quickening trend:  from this point on stone tools become more and more evident. Over hundreds of thousands of years  fossilized hominid skulls begin to show larger brain size and smaller jaw size.   Larger brains mean the need for more energy, and smaller jaws means the smaller likelihood that that energy was coming from plant material.  You see, brains are big energy users, kind of like the banks of servers needed for cloud computing.  Smaller jaws and molars mean a diet with more meat, which could supply the needed energy in the form of animal fat and protein.  Stone tools mean better ways to hunt and prepare food, especially cutting meat from carcasses.  Wooden and stone tools make both hunting and gathering more efficient.

So why are humans biparental, when except for gibbons, most apes are not?  I’ve been leading up to this second stand-out -  human brains are much larger than the brains of any other primate.  Yep, we are way way smarter, but that isn’t the point.  The point is that the larger brain is a problem for human females.  They’re the ones that have to give birth to babies with  comparatively gigantic heads,  they’re the ones that have to get enough nourishment to nurse for two years, and they’re the ones that have to feed, and carry around largely helpless infants for a ridiculously long time compared to any other primate.

Yes, the larger brain gives humans an advantage, and also the longer childhood period of neuroplasticity and dependency allows humans to be smarter and learn more things.  But all of these advantages impose an impossible burden on human females.  So, way back then something had to give -  male humans had to start sharing some of that burden - kind of like the way male birds share the burden of protecting and feeding their nestlings. But we are trying to keep this explanation simple, so we will not assume that human biparenting started because some nice guys decided that they wanted to be fair to women, and then it went viral!  That could be the premise of a bad joke, but it does not make for a good explanation.

 How did humans become biparental?  Let’s look at the single ape exception to uniparenting - the gibbons.  Gibbons are small apes, more distantly related to humans than gorillas and chimps;  They live in the jungles of southeast asia.  Even more so than orangutans, they keep to the trees; they live and move strictly  in the mid to upper story of the rainforest. With their powerful long arms and shoulders they are nature’s greatest acrobats, swinging from branch to branch and tree to tree.  They have few predators, so they live in nuclear families, a pair-bonded adult male and female with offspring.  The key is that, in that paradisical arboreal environment, the problem of predation has been minimized.  Without pressure from predators, like big cats, gibbons don’t need to live in multi-family groups.

 During the day African apes use the ground to move from one patch of trees to another.  This trend can be seen most clearly in the Gorilla, whose larger size isn’t suited for living and moving in the upper stories of trees, like the gibbons.   Gorillas live in large multi-female groups with a single adult male “silverback” who fathers all the children, and the huge size and power of the alpha male protects against predators and keeps all other male competitors at bay.

Chimpanzees, our closest animal relatives, (we share about 98% of their DNA)  live in groups of roughly thirty multi-adult mixed male, female with offspring, where there is no pair bonding between adults.  The chimpanzees and the bonobos, their look-alike relatives, are some of the most sexually promiscuous animals on earth.  With chimps, a single alpha male will try, but not always succeed,  to monopolize all the fertile females, and it helps that they come into estrus at different times.  With Bonobos it is, literally, anything goes, excepting incest.

My point here is that the multi-male and female group life of the African apes does not encourage pair-bonding. The basic fact on the ground is that ground dwelling mammals need to live in large multi-family groups because of predation, and because of the constant mixing, the proximity of adult males and females, pair bonding is discouraged and male dominance hierarchies are the rule.

 When we look at what’s next in the line of human ancestors - the australopithecus - we see a furtherance of the trend of ground dwelling.  Australopithecus, as far as we know, were the first primate to have consistently walked upright, on two feet like humans, rather than using their hind legs and knuckles to move on the ground, as do the gorillas and chimps.  Australopithecus brain size and shoulder physiognomy is more like apes than humans, whereas their legs are more like humans, so they probably slept in the trees, but spent a lot of time moving on the ground during the day.  Like the apes, but probably more like gorillas, they had a large difference in body and canine tooth size between male and female, (called sexual dimorphism and correlated with male sexual competition) so we can surmise that they lived in groups of females and offspring with a single adult male.

The first known  member of the human species, called Homo Habilis, appears in the fossil record about two million years ago.  The brain of homo habilis is small and only a bit larger than chimpanzees and australopithecus.  But for the first time in the record, stone tools are found associated with the remains of this extinct species of hominin.

The bones and skull of Homo Erectus, which appear in the fossil record during the period from one and a half million years to about fifty thousand years ago, are more recognizably human-like than homo habilis.   Some variants have our height, and all homo erectus have more human-type  shoulders.  These early humans did not sleep in trees, in fact, they appear to be the first species to control fire, and to do a whole lot more walking than previously, because they became the first hominin to  migrate out of Africa and into the rest of the world.

In the fossil record, the trend in our species was an acceleration in the evolution of brain size, together with a long, lagging trend in the evolution and sophistication of stone tools.  What I make of this is that the original invention of stone knives had a more immediate and powerful effect on human physical evolution and increasing brain size, than increasing brain size had on tool evolution, at least for most of the first two million years of our specie’s existence.  We can talk till the cows come home about which causes which, but it seems obvious that there are feedback loops in biological and cultural evolution that can work both ways.  As it seems, eventually our brains caught up, and when that happened, the evolution of technology overtook our physical evolution. You are reading this today because in a very short period of time -ten thousand years -  technological change has surpassed physical change.

Way back in the Paleolithic, the invention of stone knives may have been the most significant change in human history.  This stone age technology was a twofer -  it  gave humans both greater access to meat and it radically changed the sexual and social dynamics by destabilizing the previous polygynous systems.  Knives could be used for both food preparation and as  weapons.  This ultimately made brains and the evolution of brain power more important than brawn.  As a result sexual dimorphism diminished with homo erectus, setting the pattern for subsequent human evolution.

It appears to be all about food more than anything else.  In the animal kingdom, polygynous males almost never care for infants, or share food with nursing females. There is no need to, because the period of infant dependence for most animals is short, and body to brain ratio does not compare to humans. If you think about the elements that went into human biparentalism, the importance of maintaining a reliable supply of fat and protein stands out.  Humans are omnivorous, and the size of their brains and the longer period of dependency means the importance of meat as a source of nutrition for nursing mothers.  Gorillas are vegetarians and they spend a huge amount of time eating and digesting their food. They can afford to be female uniparental because nursing and infant dependency has a shorter duration, largely because  they are not feeding the growth of bigger brains in their offspring, as are humans.

The comparative loss of body hair in humans, the human practice of pair-bonding (non-existent in ground dwelling apes), the absence of estrus and the year-round sexual receptivity of human females, all suggest Monogamy.  Oxytocin release which is triggered by skin to skin contact would have increased feelings of love and loyalty, leading to pair-bonding.  Females could have, in exchange for their loyalty, gained a regular supply of meat that was otherwise unavailable to them due to their reduced mobility when nursing and pregnant. Males in a pair-bonded relationship could have greater certainty that offspring were theirs and could also spend much less energy competing against other males.

We can think of it all coming together this way:  one thing - monogamy - is the key to a better diet for pregnant and nursing human females, enhanced cooperation between male and female humans, bigger human groups, unique, human forms of sharing, and the well-being and flourishing of children.  Monogamy, in effect, sets the stage for ethical living, by diminishing and equalizing male sexual competition, and by making it possible for a male human to consistently help to support and maintain his family.

Monogamy then becomes the key to kinship, to the enhanced cooperation between families related by marriage, and to the practice of alloparenting, where nursing mothers are assisted in care by help from grandmothers and others.  Monogamy sets the stage for the sexual division of labour, as nursing and pregnant females have diminished mobility, whereas the male has greater mobility, and with the help of weapons and knives, is better able to hunt collectively and share meat with his female partner.

 Human multi-family groups could get bigger through kin alliances based on monogamous marriage, in effect, neutralizing the otherwise, divisive fissionary reality of a larger group, thereby gaining the superiority of size in intergroup competition.

Most probably the physical part came before the social part.  The pair-bonding and sharing of meat came before the social institutions of marriage and kinship.  The physical created the conditions for the social.   The pair-bonding created the motivation to share food and ensure paternity. The invention of stone knives created both the means to share meat and the means to undermine the ape dominance hierarchy.

With the invention of stone knives we have the first inklings of what I like to call “Hobbes' Sword”.  The 16 century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his great work “Leviathan”, famously complained that agreements are good for nothing if they aren’t backed by a “sword”. Unfortunately Hobbes lacked the twentieth century scientific knowledge to see that monogamy, not monarchy was the basis for morality.  For as much as the drier ice-age environment was  pushing ancient humans towards an omnivorous diet and towards alloparenting, to make monogamy the rule rather than the exception required much more than a big environmental change  and the invention of stone knives - it required a unique and deliberate form of collective action, which Hobbes alludes to in his idea of the “Social Contract”.

 As a rule, in polygynous animal systems, the alpha male does not share in parenting. Evidence from contemporary hunter gatherers shows that monogamy is well suited for hunter gatherer societies when these societies are nomadic and cannot count on abundance or surplus.  Monogamy, as opposed to polygyny, increases sharing, both within and between families, and this sharing between families increases the ability of  multi-family groups to survive over time. We can safely assume that nomadic hunter gathering was the only human lifestyle for more than a million years, whereas agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals is only about twelve thousand years old.  That means that for the vast majority of human life, monogamous systems have prevailed.

But we still haven’t completely answered the question of what led to human bi-parentalism, and it gets to the essence of what makes humans unique. We humans are not alone in being biparental. A majority of bird species are biparental, wolves and gibbons are biparental.   But, amongst the animals, we are unique  in having marriage and kinship relations; we are unique in the quantity and quality of our mutual cooperation;  we are unique in the degree to which we share; and, most importantly, we are unique in our collective ability to follow and enforce rules, because none of the former distinctions are possible without this collective ability.

 Because of natural selection, life is diverse and adapted to different kinds of environments on earth.  As earth’s climate, and continents changed over billions of years, life became more diverse and living eco-systems grew larger and more complex. Thus, throughout this vast span of time many life forms became extinct and  many new life-forms developed.

We can think of human moral systems as, in effect, an artificial human made alternative to biological natural selection. For their short span of existence (2 million years) the human species has uniquely succeeded in partially replacing natural selection with Normative Systems. Normative systems are systems based on rules that we share in common. Gradually, at first our normative systems improved our chances of survival, and human population expanded.  Up until today, our rule-bound systems have been wildly successful, enabling humans to spread and prosper world-wide.

This is why I disagree with other thinkers who say language is the system that differentiates humans from animals.  Language is a system of sharing words, meaning, and grammar among a group of people.  This kind of sharing would not have originated from a polygynous mating system.  Human society had to be monogamous first, for the development of language to be possible. Language is a form of equitable sharing that originated from the reproductive equity of a monogamous system.

  But, in order for this to be true, the first rule that I posited could not have existed as a sentence in a language.  My thought is that at first it could have been non-verbal, corresponding to gestures, feelings, and vocalizations.  It is in fact possible to be in love with another human being without using a word.  One can show a lot about one’s feelings and determination without using words.  It is possible to agree with others without using words.  We can know that something is wrong and that something needs to be done without words.  And in fact, there is an actual case of a primate, other than human, that successfully controls male domination by threats and vocalizations, without the use of words. Female bonobos, one of our closest animal relatives, collectively control male dominant behaviours in this unique way.

Monogamy is the key to the human good life, the flourishing and well-being of children. When monogamy prevails, more males get a chance to mate than in a polygynous system.  Pregnant and nursing females are better fed, and children are more likely to survive and be capable of reproducing in adulthood.  However, this more egalitarian system cannot survive in nature, because it would be sabotaged by bigger, stronger dominant males. That’s how things always get settled in the animal kingdom, except in our case, technology intervened.  With easily accessible razor sharp knives, the struggle for dominance became inherently unstable.  At some point our ancestors discovered that this instability could only be solved by the collective acceptance of a rule.  I’m suggesting that that rule was: “Do not commit adultery.”  Groups that committed to this rule suffered less violence and sexual competition.  With this rule men and women could turn their efforts to supporting larger families and more productive activities. But, in order for the rule to work originally, it had to be followed and enforced by everyone, and there needed to be constant monitoring and enforcement;  and there needed to be a way that consistent rule-breakers could be banished or executed; otherwise those who got away without being stopped, eventually got away with murder, as they escalated their power grab in order to enforce an alpha male dominance hierarchy. Let’s call this powerful system of collective behavioral control - The Moral System.

Darwin’s theory of evolution posits that adaptive hereditary traits that increase an organism’s reproductive success are what drive the evolution of biological species.  By creating that one moral rule about adultery, humans got a better handle on reproductive success.  By following and enforcing monogamy, hunter gatherers were better ensuring the  survival of the multi-family group as a whole as well as increasing the potential of every family in the group to have more children.

We should consider a monogamous social system as the egalitarian distribution of shared reproductive possibilities in human groups, as, in effect, a proto-version of the golden rule.  By regulating human sexual behaviour - first by prohibiting  adultery as well as incest,  these moral rules probably  formed the basis for kinship networks. These networks, in turn, led to greater group survival, larger group size, and better cooperation amongst groups.

The moral system is the first and most fundamental of normative systems.  The moral rules of a moral system are simple but seem to those inside the moral system to be “written in stone” and unchangeable.  By looking at moral systems from the “outside” we can see evidence that over generations, or centuries, these rules do change.  Nowadays we no longer stone people for committing adultery, for instance.  However, we can also see evidence that these rules “stay with us”  in the form of biased perception, intuitive judgements, and gut feelings.

Consider the account of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible.  The story of Adam and Eve specifically points to sex as the first example of moral knowledge.  Becoming morally knowledgeable entails Adam and Eve knowing that they need to cover their genitals in public.  This rule, in a general sense, can plausibly be viewed as an extension of the rule against adultery.  And, as if to corroborate this connection, in the New Testament, Jesus is quoted as extending the rule against adultery even further to a prohibition of daydreaming about it!

Obviously adultery is not considered as serious today as it once was. In modern society physical punishment for adultery is frowned on. These days, it’s more about our need for keeping a good reputation - avoiding being in a position where we are  looked down on as the subject of others' disapproval.  Or, maybe not even that, for, in France, adultery is so widespread it seems to be the norm rather than what is considered forbidden. Modern America, however, testifies to the moral power of this ancient prohibition, in the strong widespread emotional reaction to the public revelations  of adulterous behaviour on the part of both Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.  Thus, there remains a strong residual feeling about the phenomenon.

Nowadays people often wonder  why morality seems to be so hung up on sex.  But, in every society, we have rules about covering the human body, prohibitions of rape, sexual abuse, child-pornography, homosexuality - let’s face it, it is impossible for anyone to remain neutral and non-judgemental when it comes to alleged  sexual misconduct.  Note how we universally expect legitimate human sex to occur in private.  In the animal kingdom it is the opposite.  In the state of nature it’s done out in the open, except when it is surreptitiously practised by sub-dominants out of the prying eyes of the dominant male.

Our human need for privacy, the powerful negative emotions we experience in the face of sexual misconduct, the universality of sexual behaviour as an object of moral rules, and most importantly, the necessity of sexual reproduction for the ongoing survival of humans - all these conditions point to the origin of morality in a rule about sexual conduct.  Sexual reproduction is central to much of ongoing life.  What makes us different from all other animals, is that we have used rules that maximize sexual reproduction at the same time as they radically diminish male sexual competition.  Today we can see the evidence, in the absence of armaments in male humans.  Men don’t have horns, claws, or larger canines because they don’t need to fight for a female.  Getting a mate is often an agreement between families, or in modern industrial society, an agreement between the couple themselves.  That is unheard of in most social animals.

According to Steven Pinker, we now have a much less violent society than our ancient ancestors did.  An interesting fact is that murder, per capita,  is much more prevalent in contemporary hunter-gatherer societies, and in those societies the main object of disputes that lead to murder were reported to be a man killing another over a woman.  These hunter-gatherer groups don’t have a lot of overlapping jurisdictions, so they are left with the bare moral system. The fact is, that a certain underlying amount of violence is probably necessary in order for the simplest type of moral system to work.

All along I have been saying that the reasons for humans to develop moral systems were based on  physical reality:  the human female’s need for a consistently better quality of nutrition, as well as the need for the collective regulation of sex in the face of social instability brought on by a new technology.    Without collective regulation, the default sexual behaviour reverts to polygyny, which makes nomadic hunter gathering unviable, both because females and their offspring are not adequately fed or protected, and because group size diminishes too much in times of famine, due to the absence of sharing between families in polygynous systems, leading to extinction.    Moreover, polygyny in humans is inherently unstable, because it greatly increases the stakes in sexual competition, in a situation where any adult male can  use a knife or other weapon in order to dispatch the alpha male.  The solution was a collectively operated moral system where males who wouldn't stop cheating and trying to take more than their share were long ago taken out of the gene pool by the collective.  Modern counter-evidence, such as Mormon polygamy, does not negate this theory for two main reasons.  First, most cases of contemporary and historical polygamy date to the origins of agriculture, domestication, and sedentary human life, so it could very well have been largely absent for the much longer span of human development that occurred before agriculture.  Second, in human society, polygamy is always parasitic on a greater society that is largely monogamous. These clusters of polygamy are kept stable by the surrounding monogamous society’s capacity to absorb the hordes of superfluous adult males that would otherwise become potential rivals in the polygamous system.

I come back to my main point that the reasons for developing morality had to do with food and sex, certainly not in ethical deliberation about “the good life”.  In Rawls’ “original position”  we are to imagine the highly artificial situation of people getting together to decide on a system of justice.  It becomes even more artificial when he asks us to imagine ourselves forgetting our status and position in society in order to facilitate that agreement.

In the beginning people were not deciding on a new system.  People were trying to survive and reproduce.  Monogamy was a huge step in the right direction, but to get there humans had to cross the fitness valley of polygyny.  The easiest way to cross this valley was collective agreement.  Agree to follow a rule, and agree to enforce the rule.  Without the agreement, or without the enforcement, and the situation becomes unstable which leads to extinction.  With the agreement, a good life of human flourishing becomes possible.  Hence ethics follows on the heels of morality.  Ethics, the moral principles of living a good life and outlining what is good and what is bad - was there at the beginning, not as a philosophy, or a set of principles, but as a way of life that was only made possible by following and enforcing that one original moral rule.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Two Kinds of Fundamentalists

      You can't hide from God. That's what the Bible says. God sees everything and knows everything. We humans lack that perspective. It isn't possible for anyone of us to see everything and know everything. But that doesn't stop us from feeling certain that what we know is true. Indeed, it's probable that if we didn't feel that way we would never commit ourselves to anything.

     In order to engage in an argument I have to respect my opponent. I have to be willing to listen to their side in order to answer or question their claims. But by participating in an argument I am taking the risk that I could be shown to be wrong. It's only by risking being wrong that we can be open to discovering the truth. Unless each party to an argument is willing to be convinced by the other it's just people talking past each other or one person attempting to bully  the other.

     Recent history is full of examples of people who believed that they, like God, couldn't possibly be wrong. When these people gained power they always destroy open society. Communism and fascism were political systems that imposed their perspective on everyone by force. The communists believed that they had a monopoly on truth and so they forbade political and moral dissent. They knew they were right and they refused to risk being wrong. Every professional and “elected” representative had to be a member of the communist party. The representatives didn't debate the proposals of the communist leaders, they simply rubber stamped them. The legal system always ruled in favour of the communist state because it was always right.

 People who now take the “God's eye” perspective are called Fundamentalists. And like the communists and fascists, they try to stack the deck in their favour whenever they gain power. I agree with George Soros that there are two kinds of modern Fundamentalists. Religious Fundamentalists and Market Fundamentalists. Most people believe that they themselves are right, but what distinguishes Fundamentalists is their refusal to risk being wrong in a fair argument.

     For instance, there is no evidence that would convince a Christian Fundamentalist of the truth of Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Fundamentalists pretend to engage in argument with evolutionary biologists but behind the scenes they try to stack the deck by taking over school boards, by getting state governments to ban the teaching of evolution  and by intimidating publishers from including the subject of evolution in high school biology textbooks.

     Market Fundamentalists believe that free markets are always more beneficial than government regulated markets. There is no evidence that would ever convince them that they are wrong - not the rising income gap between the rich and poor, not the demise of the middle class, not the “dirty thirties”, not the recent sub-prime mortgage meltdown, and especially not the spectre of global warming.  

Market Fundamentalists have managed to stack the deck by perverting the legal and political system.  In fact, a  good portion of U.S. Republicans still believe that global warming is a hoax. The U.S. Supreme Court has, in “Citizens United”, allowed Corporate power to stack the deck in all future elections.  These two kinds of fundamentalism are what is fuelling and maintaining Trump’s unwavering support in the face of overwhelming evidence of his malfeasance. 

See a pattern here? Fundamentalists and extremists can never allow themselves to be wrong.  They are always the most motivated to seize power because they want to prevent the facts, the evidence, and the people from having their say.  It’s not wrong to believe in God or in Capitalism, but it is wrong to refuse to hear evidence or prevent those you disagree with from having a say.  We can let God be perfect, but humans remain fallible no matter how certain they are that they have the truth

Friday, December 20, 2019

"Truth" - The Movie

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

And Blow concludes by saying:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Language, Truth, and The Just Society


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Monogamy and the Genesis of Human Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The "Yard" of Theseus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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