Polanyi’s Great Transformation, pt 1

(Note: I’m reading this work in preparation for reading Patrick Deenen’s Why Liberalism Failed simply because, over dinner, a friend casually mentioned that it figures into Deenan’s argument somehow. Let’s see how this goes. Kinda busy writing these days, (huzzah!) so may be a while before I get to read and report on the rest.)

A third of the way through Karl Polanyi”s the Great Transformation (That’s a .pdf. If you want other formats, here.)

The unambiguously good part: Polanyi makes near constant references to events, developments, tribes, people and so on about which I know next to nothing: 19th century English history, enclosure, the Trobriand Islanders, kula, various politicians and thinkers and on and on. I’ve spent nearly as much time on the web reading up on these topics as I’ve spent reading the book itself. As usual, I’m left shaking my head at the holes in what I know more each time I learn something new. But it’s still a good thing, and I plan to continue this practice as I go on.

Polanyi sets out to show that free markets and the thinking behind them are myths and frauds. There is no such thing as a natural and near-universal practice of truck & barter among primitive and not so primitive peoples. Such trading as did occur was generally ritualized and often symbolic. Free markets as we now understand them were a creation of the late 18th and 19th centuries, complete with a counterfactual mythology about how markets arose naturally and dated back to the earliest times when tribes traded with tribes or among themselves.

The next step – and here, I’m mixing in what the authors of the prefaces say about Polanyi with what he says himself, on the assumption that he’ll get around to it later – is to show how any economy prior to our current free markets was embedded in and a function of society in general, and then show how central management of economic activity was and remains the true ‘natural’ development, one we’ve discarded at great cost and continued peril.

Before we get into details, two asides. Can’t find the source at the moment, but Polanyi is described as having a ‘complicated’ relationship to Marxism. In my experience, that generally means he is a Marxist who picks a few nits with Marx and would like to distance himself from the atrocities of Lenin, Stalin, et al. And, sure enough, his intellectual companions are, with few exceptions, Marxists. He was ‘attracted’ to Fabianism, whatever ‘attracted’ might mean. I’m thinking, based on what the Fabian Society says about itself and its goals, that he was a Communist and a liar. But I’m harsh that way, taking what people say their motives and practices are at face value.

Be that as it may, one thing clearly evident in this book so far is what I would call a Marxist approach to history: regardless of what has happened, there are only a few acceptable explanations available, each having as its chief characteristic the dismissal of individual human actions in favor of gigantic faceless Forces. He’s gone light on Oppression so far, but big on Progress and Capitalism. I assume he’ll catch up later.

Another characteristic of the Marxist approach is to torture facts to meet the needs of theory. We’ll get to that in a minute. Suffice it to say that reading Polanyi so far reminds me of my youth when I read a couple Erich von Däniken books claiming that space aliens were responsible for much of human progress. (Hey, I was a kid, they were lying around) He had a recurring and annoying habit of employing the rhetorical flourish of concluding arguments with variations of ‘what other explanation could there be?’ Even in my youth, I’d start in with ‘I dunno, how about X, Y, and Z?’ Polanyi’s accounts of ‘primitive’ peoples are more sophisticated, but amount to the same claim: that the facts only support his conclusions. I dunno, how about X, Y and Z?

Second, and this may be that I’m just ignorant, I do not recognize what exact argument in favor of global, self-regulating markets Polanyi is refuting. Unlike the Scholastics, he does not provide a description of his opponents views that they would accept as accurate, but simply assumes his audience knows what he’s talking about. Now, I’m only lightly read in economics – dismal science, indeed – but I’ve never heard an argument that states that free markets should be the be all and end all of all economic activity under all circumstances. In fact, what I like about the idea of free markets is that they exist among free people – and that freedom of the people is logically and practically prior to the freedom of the market. Therefore, if and when markets might act in such a way as to impinge upon the freedom of the people, for example, in creating monopolies or in the selling of uranium reserves to an at least potentially hostile party, political action could be taken to block such a sale for the common good. More fundamentally, in a free society, individual action could be taken. Don’t spend money on people who hate you, for example.

Polanyi argues instead that the logic of the free market demands that not only the market be free in some absolute sense, but that society be made to conform to the needs of the market. This is among several conclusions he leaps to so far that basically come out of left field. Then again, Marx, following Hegel, believes that truth doesn’t have to make sense. You either get it or you don’t. Law of non-contradiction be damned.

A ‘believer’ in free markets could hold many things, say God, family, country, to be more primary and important than free markets. Heck, they could even believe that free markets, in the sense of letting people keep what they work for and sell and buy what they want – subject, of course, to God, family and country, to stick with the example – falls out of the same basic understanding of human nature and reality that lead them to elevate God, family and country in the first place.

But Marxists believe that lived experience falls out from whatever huge forces History has unleashed on us at the moment. It’s the system, man. Instead of families forming communities that form governments that reflect more or less imperfectly the interests of the people in those families, History dictates Oppression of one sort or another in the form of Capitalism or Feudalism or whatever. But salvation is at hand! A Mighty Fortress is Our Socialism! For reasons neither Marx nor his sycophants have ever explained,  this time History will inflict happiness on us all by means of Socialism, if only we are sincere enough and keep watch in the pumpkin patch or something. Having learned from Hegel, they write fat books, coin lots of neologisms and throw down the big words and use other words in ways no one else ever does to cover up the fact that their ideas, when stated plainly in words everybody understands, are infantile.

By the end of the first third of the book, Polanyi makes his strongest and most important point, the one upon which he hangs the idea that free markets of necessity destroy people and nature: that the logic of free markets demands that all the components of economic activities be treated as commodities. Free markets demand that anything that can be bought and sold on the market is free to be bought and sold on the market, and that such a market be free from outside (governmental) interference. In modern free markets, this includes money, land and people. Free markets inescapably demand that labor is just another commodity, to be regulated by the dead hand, and so people having their livelihoods and lives destroyed is a logical and even desirable outcome if that’s what the markets determine should happen. Similarly, the planet will be raped, since whoever can get the most out of it with the least investment wins. He assumes that this means simple, direct and immediate destruction of the planet as a result of consuming resources.

Money, land and people do not exist to be traded on an open market. Yet they are treated as commodities. Polanyi calls them fictitious commodities.

A quibble, yet one that calls into question Polanyi’s fundamental grasp of economics: he’s wrong about money. He asserts that, just as land and people are fictitious commodities, since they were not created to be traded, money was not created to be traded. But that’s exactly what money is created for, even and especially in the sense of money markets. As discussed here, most money in free market systems is created not by government fiat, but by private lending. Because of the fractional reserve system, banks create money by lending far more of it out than they hold in reserves. Yet, the money lent is as real and valuable as money created by government fiat, and is the vast bulk of the money that’s traded on money markets.

Perhaps a distinction could be made between modern money creation via lending under a fractional reserve system and money such as wampum or gold coins or big carved rocks. Polanyi does not do this, for a very good reason from his point of view: the bulk of his examples so far would fall apart if one were allowed to question what, for example, Trobriand Islanders kula trade has to do with any analysis of modern markets (spoiler: nothing whatsoever), or how come Europeans as a whole are much better off  now even after the disaster and injustice of the Enclosure program, if the safeguards that fought and delayed enclosure were banished from the earth by free markets? In other words, making distinctions that logic and simple honesty require is not in the cards, so long as those distinctions do not support the desired conclusions. As I said, Marxist.

The first chapters concern themselves with Enclosure and the so-called Tragedy of the Commons. Here Polanyi follows the well-worn track of every Marxist I’ve ever read: start by describing a tragedy caused by Capitalism or greed, in order to position yourself as the defender of the oppressed and all opponents as heartless reactionaries. Those of us who are not proponents of a flat moral universe might point out that, yes, people can be greedy, heartless and petty, and that such lamentable characteristic exist prior to any economic or political system. We might even point out that not only does Socialism in the real world fail to mitigate these behaviors, their grandest flowerings have taken place under socialist regimes.  Those who take other people’s stuff are thieves, after all – unless they are socialists, in which case they are merely the instruments of History’s inexorable march of Progress. The more equal need their dachas to keep their revolutionary edge, I suppose.

Next, we hear about the Trobriand Islanders and their kula trade. Here Polanyi insists that the ritualized exchange of ritual gifts used to reinforce social relationships among  8,000 isolated islanders with nothing else to trade must be accepted as an example of – what, exactly? Had fun reading up these folks, how pretty much the only resources they have are yams, fish and palm fronds. Anybody can clear a little jungle and grow yams with minimal effort. They developed a system by which the village chief causes a yam house to be built and the villagers hand over their yams to be handed out as the chief decides.  Also, if a man wants sex and/or marriage, he need to show the object of his desire some nice yams, to demonstrate that he’s the kind of guy who can really grow them yams! (The Margaret Mead flavored claim that the islanders don’t think sex and babies are necessarily connected is more easily and believably explained as people pulling gullible Europeans’ legs with a cabbage-patch story. But we’d reveal ourselves as rubes were we to laugh at the people in lab coats.)

In other words, these are subsistence farmers who do a little fishing. They have nothing to trade in the economic sense, and nothing to gain from putting in extra hours working. Instead, their biggest problem – hope you’re sitting down – is acting out the occasional urge to kill each other. War, in other words. The Europeans forbade war, leading to the development of a unique and highly ritualized from of cricket, where they islanders can act out their aggression without (usually) killing each other.

The kula trade is how the islanders confirm their kinship and peaceful relationships with the nearby villages. Ritual objects are given is such a way that, in a decade or so, each object makes its way around the loop of the islands back to the original village.

This, Polanyi assures us, is an example of trade, of a market. We are to learn from this example that markets aren’t free, but are embedded in the culture in which the trading takes place. This lesson will come in very handy next time I’m required to give a ritual object to my neighbors to reinforce our mutual agreement that we won’t kill each other.

The next section is about commodities fictitious or otherwise discussed above.

The writers of the introduction and preface try mightily to show how recent history has proven Polanyi prophetic. Despite a precipitous drop in poverty along with a more than tripling of the world’s population, we are to believe the capital markets are so evil that we need to go back to swapping trinkets and growing yams, to save the planet and ourselves. Seriously, Polanyi and his followers points and arguments dissolve like so much flushable kitty litter when exposed to the least bit of analysis. Once you’re convinced that you’re on the Right Side of History, the only explanations left in your toolbox are systemic oppression of some sort. Just as we’ll get those new soviet men, free from greed and violence, from whom the endless supply of virtuous bureaucrats needed to run all our lives will come, if we only will close and wish real hard, we’ll get the new reality we need, one that, instead of putting all our pet theories to the lie, confirm them!

Very busy these days. Will try to finish this up soon.

 

Advertisements

AI-yai-yai.

Henry Kissinger (yes, he’s still alive – 95 yrs old. His dad made it to 95 and his mom to 98, I think, so he may be with us even longer.) has opined that we’ve got to do something about AI:

Henry Kissinger: Will artificial intelligence mean the end of the Enlightenment?

Two thoughts: Like Hank himself, it seems the Enlightenment is, surprisingly, still kicking. Also: End the Enlightenment? Where’s the parade and party being held? Oh wait – Hank thinks that would be a bad thing. Hmmm.

Onward: Dr. K opines:

“What would be the impact on history of self-learning machines —machines that acquired knowledge by processes particular to themselves, and applied that knowledge to ends for which there may be no category of human understanding? Would these machines learn to communicate with one another? [quick hint: apparently, they do] How would choices be made among emerging options? Was it possible that human history might go the way of the Incas, faced with a Spanish culture incomprehensible and even awe-inspiring to them?”

Note: this moment of introspection was brought about by the development of a program that can play Go way better than people. Little background: Anybody can write a program to play tic-tac-toe, as the rules are clear, simple and very, very limiting: there are only 9 squares, so there will never be more than 9 options for any one move, and no more than 9+8+7+6+5+4+3+2+1 possible moves. A simple program can exhaust all possible moves, dictate the next move in all possible scenarios, and thus guarantee whatever outcome the game allows and the programmer wants – win or draw, in practice.

Chess, on the other hand, is much harder game, with an effectively inexhaustible number of possible moves and configurations. People have been writing chess playing programs for decades, and, a few decades ago, managed to come up with programs sophisticated enough to beat any human chess player. Grossly put, they work by a combination of heuristics used to whittle choices down to more plausible moves (any chess game contains the possibility of any number of seemingly nonsensical moves), simply brute-force playing out of possible good choices for some number of moves ahead, and refinement of algorithms based on outcomes to improve the heuristics. Since you can set two machines to play each other, or one machine to play itself, for as long or as many games as you like, the possibility arises – and seems to have taken place – that, by playing millions more games than any human could ever play, measuring the outcomes, and refining their rules for picking ‘good’ moves, computers can program themselves – can learn, as enthusiasts enthusiastically anthropomorphize – to become better chess players than any human being.

Go presents yet another level of difficulty, and it was theorized not too many years ago to not be susceptible to such brute-force solutions. A Go master can study a board mid-game, and tell you which side has the stronger position, but, legendarily, cannot provide any sort of coherent reason why that side holds an advantage. The next master, examining the same board, would, it was said, reach the same conclusion, but be able to offer no better reasons why.

At least, that was the story. Because of the even greater number of possible moves and the difficulty mid-game of assessing which side held the stronger position, it was thought that Go would not fall to machines any time soon, at least, if they used the same sort of logic used to create the chess playing programs.

Evidently, this was incorrect. So now Go has suffered the same fate as chess: the best players are not players, but machines with programs that have run through millions and millions of possible games, measured the results, programmed themselves to follow paths that generate the desired results, and so now cannot be defeated by mere mortals. (1)

But of course, the claim isn’t that AI is mastering games where the rules clearly define both all possible moves and outcomes, but rather is being applied to other fields as well.

After hearing this speech, Mr. Kissinger started to study the subject more thoroughly and learned that artificial intelligence goes far beyond automation. AI programs don’t deal only with the rationalization and improvement of means, they are also capable of establishing their own objectives, making judgments about the future and of improving themselves on the basis of their analysis of the data they acquire. This realization only caused Mr. Kissinger’s concerns to grow:

“How is consciousness to be defined in a world of machines that reduce human experience to mathematical data, interpreted by their own memories? Who is responsible for the actions of AI? How should liability be determined for their mistakes? Can a legal system designed by humans keep pace with activities produced by an AI capable of outthinking and potentially outmaneuvering them?”

“Capable of establishing their own objectives” Um, what? They are programs, run on computers, according to the rules of computers. It happens all the time that following the rule set, which is understood to be necessarily imperfect in accordance with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, computer programs will do unexpected things (although I’d bet user error, especially on the part of the people who wrote the programming languages involved, is a much bigger player in such unexpected results than Godel).

I can easily imagine that a sophisticated (read: too large to be understood by anyone and thus likely to be full of errors invisible to anyone) program might, following one set of instructions, create another set of instructions to comply with some pre existing limitation or goal that may or may not be completely defined in itself. But I’d like to see the case where a manufacturing analysis AI, for example, sets an objective such as ‘become a tulip farmer’ and starts ordering overalls and gardening spades off Amazon. Which is exactly the kind of thing a person would do, but not the kind of thing one would expect a machine to do.

On to the Enlightenment, and Hank’s concerns:

“The Enlightenment started with essentially philosophical insights spread by a new technology. Our period is moving in the opposite direction. It has generated a potentially dominating technology in search of a guiding philosophy. AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology, should ask themselves some of the questions I have raised here in order to build answers into their engineering efforts. This much is certain: If we do not start this effort soon, before long we shall discover that we started too late.”

Anyway, go watch the videos at the bottom of the article linked above. What you see are exactly the problem Dr. K is worried about – “AI developers, as inexperienced in politics and philosophy as I am in technology” – although in a more basic and relevant context. The engineer in the videos keeps saying that they wrote a program that, without any human intervention and without any priming of the pump using existing human-played games of Go, *programmed itself* from this tabla rasa point to become the (machine) Master of (human) Masters!

When, philosophically and logically, that’s not what happened at all! The rules of the game, made up by humans and vetted over centuries by humans, contain within themselves everything which could be called the game of Go in its logical form. Thus, by playing out games under those rules, the machine is not learning something new and even less creating ex nihilo – it is much more like a clock keeping time than a human exploring the possibilities of a game.

The key point is that the rules are something, and something essential. They are the formal cause of the game. The game does not exist without them. No physical manifestation of the game is the game without being a manifestation of the rules. This is exactly the kind of sophomore-level philosophy the developers behind this program can almost be guaranteed to be lacking.

(Aside: this is also what is lacking in the supposed ‘universe simply arose from nothing at the Big Bang’ argument made by New Atheists. The marvelous and vast array of rules governing even the most basic particles and their interactions must be considered ‘nothing’ for this argument to make sense. The further difficulty arises from mistaking cause for temporal cause rather than logical cause, where the lack of a ‘before’ is claimed to invalidate all claims of causality – but that’s another topic.)

The starry-eyes developers now hope to apply the algorithms written for their Go program to other areas, since they are not dependent on Go, but were written as a general solution. A general solution, I hasten (and they do not hasten) to add: with rules, procedures and outcomes as clearly and completely defined as those governing the game of Go.

Unlike Dr. Kissinger, I am not one bit sorry to see the Enlightenment, a vicious and destructive myth with a high body count and even higher level of propaganda to this day, die ASAP. I also differ in what I fear, and I think my reality-based fears are in fact connected with why I’d be happy to see the Enlightenment in the dustbin of History (hey, that’s catchy!): What’s more likely to happen is that men, enamoured of their new toy, will proceed to insist that life really is whatever they can reduce to a set of rules a machine can follow. That’s the dystopian nightmare, in which the machines merely act out the delusions of the likes of Zuckerberg.  It’s the delusions we should fear, more than the tools this generation of rootless, self-righteous zealots dream of using to enforce them.

  1. There was a period, in the 1980s if I’m remembering correctly, where the best chess playing programs could be defeated if the human opponent merely pursued a strategy of irrational but nonfatal moves: the programs, presented repeatedly with moves that defied the programs’ heuristics, would break. But that was a brief Star Trek moment in the otherwise inexorable march forward of machines conquering all tasks that can be fully defined by rules, or at least getting better at them than any human can.

Currently Reading:

Polanyi, The Great Transformation. According to a friend, this book figures into Deenan’s Why Liberalism Failed, and, since it is available free online, I started there. Will get to Deenan later, I hope.

50 pages of 375 in snapshot: after reading the forward by Joseph Stiglitz and the introduction by Fred Block, and the first chapter or so, had to google who this Karl Polanyi and these dudes were. Stiglitz is a New Keynesian economist with all the awards and sheepskins; Block is a prominent sociologist.

Keynes was the official economist of the Fabian movement – he was General-Secretary and later president of the Royal Economic Society, which was founded by Fabians to promote their communist views. As a New Keynesian, Stiglitz is one of a long line of Fabian economists, and part of the effort to salvage Keynes from the unfortunate (in the eyes of Marxists) success of the modern world in reducing violence and poverty to previously unimaginable levels. More people live safer, more secure and affluent lives now than ever before in history, and the trends are all good – so, who needs socialism, let alone communism? So New Keynesians focus on what, in the big picture, are blips in the overall trends, and ignore the overall story of success. (1)

Reminder: this is the original Fabian Society coat of arm: a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Fabians are nothing other than Communists, except even more devoted to lies and deception, if that’s possible.

Keep in mind that while Marx was infatuated with economics and legendarily whiled away several years doing research in the British Museum Reading Room, he’s also notorious for his extraordinarily weak grasp of the actual economic activity of the world he lived in, as well as for his use of nonsensical footnotes and references. (2) He established a tradition, in other words.

Block is a Critical Theorist, as are all prominent Sociologists, although it is customary to portray their devotion to Marx as merely one influence among others and a prompt to acting as gadflies against other, more ossified and less Progressive theories. (See: my theory of filters – once the heirs of the Fabians get control of a university department, they can then filter out the non pliable, let alone any outright opponents. After a couple generations, harmony is achieved. This harmony is achieved at the cost of honesty and academic freedom, which, following Gobels and Alansky, is what those enforcing that harmony claim their opponents are attacking. This would be amusing if it weren’t true.) Critical Theory is Marxism as manifested in academia. Take a gander at the home page of the American Sociological Association, and judge for yourself what they’re up to.

Stiglitz and Block are of course effusive in their praise of Polanyi.

Polanyi was also a Fabian, but is said to have a ‘complex’ relationship with Marxism, which, translated into English, means he did not find it expedient to tout his Marxism always and everywhere. His wife Ilona Duczynska worked in the propaganda department of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs and she was a member of the Budapest Central Revolutionary Worker and Soldier Council. So I think we can assume Polanyi had a high degree of sympathy, at least, with revolutionary ideas.

Anticipating a completely predictable read in at least this sense: anything bad or less than perfect that happens where free markets reign will be presented as proof of the conceptual failure of Capitalism; any failures under socialism, up to and including mass murder, will, if acknowledged at all, be attributed to human failings of one sort of another. Further, ‘democratic’ will be used to mean ‘rule by the enlightened few who, as communists, believe they have the right and duty to do whatever they want to the demos in the name of achieving the glorious future.’ This is the sense in which Stalin and Che were men of the people, not despite, but especially when murdering unarmed men, women and children. (3)  History proves socialism correct provided you assume your conclusion as the sole acceptable lens through which history may be viewed.

In the first 50 pages, that’s what I got. Also, there’s the heartfelt sympathy for those poor little people who suffer under the vagaries of free markets that is somehow not present at all for those who suffer under socialism. The theory is pure and correct, after all, so such suffering under socialism cannot be caused by it, while free markets are evil, so that any suffering, no matter how temporal or complicated it causes, no matter how much a blip on an otherwise very hopeful trend, proves that free markets must be snuffed out (along with, as history has shown, any *people* who do not sufficiently hate them. But that’s the small ‘h’ history where people do and suffer things, not the capital ‘H’ History that drives Progress.)

Will review when completed.

 

  1. Marx is said to have been revolutionary in his insistence on viewing economic activity as a whole, taking, one might say, a macro view of microeconomics. History is marching forward – what the little people actually do can only be understood as results or even side effects of this march of Progress. New Keynesians are, according to Wikipedia, involved in using microeconomics to prop up Keynes against the persistent claim that his analysis and policies make no sense, and, specifically, that history over the last 50 years or so has shown doesn’t, you know, work. The irony amuses me.
  2. I’ve heard this ‘Marx’s footnote and references are nonsense’ comment from a couple of sources that I now cannot of course find; I myself will never live long enough to actually look up the copious footnotes in Capital. I long for someone to write a book on Marx’s footnotes – that, I’d try to read.
  3. It’s no accident Fabians were huge proponents of eugenics. especially via the sterilization of the less fit (and one guess who would be defined as ‘less fit’ if they ever gained power).

AGAINST GREAT BOOKS

An essay with the title above by Patrick Deenan came out a few years back, I saw it earlier this year and wanted to comment, but that abortive attempt became draft #103 moldering in my drafts folder. So, let’s do this now.

Deenan begins by restating arguments that Great Books are the core of any liberal education worthy of the name, but then casts doubts on that claim:

I have long sympathized with these arguments, but in recent years I have come to suspect that the very source of the decline of the study of the great books comes not in spite of the lessons of the great books, but is to be found in the very arguments within a number of the great books. The broader assault on the liberal arts derives much of its intellectual fuel from a number of the great books themselves.

Thus, those who insist upon an education in the great books end up recommending texts and arguments that undermine their own beliefs in the central importance of liberal arts education.

Certainly, from Descartes on, the philosophy in the Great Books consciously and actively discounts and dismisses everything that came before. The Reformers believed – correctly, in my view – that Aristotle, through the mediation of St. Thomas, was irretrievably tainted by Catholicism. Since the medieval world against which they were rebelling was intellectually formed and sustained by Aristotle more than any other writer, he became the enemy, and any who could trace their intellectual heritage and methods to him had to be destroyed.

As Deenan shows below, one philosopher after another proposed philosophies that might be classified as Anything Other Than Aristotle. Since the medieval idea of education was largely applied Aristotelianism as baptised by Thomas, it had to go.

Arguments against this form of education became common among elite thinkers in the early modern period, who sought to justify a new kind of science that had as its aim the expansion of human control over nature. Arguing strenuously against the content of books by authors such as Aristotle, Francis Bacon castigated previous thinkers for their “despair” and tendency to “think things impossible.” Asserting that “knowledge is power,” he rejected the idea that knowledge consists first in acknowledging human limits and claimed that it was necessary to wipe clear “waxen tablets” inscribed with older writing in order to inscribe new lessons upon them. Books were more often than not one manifestation of the “idols of the cave,” or illusions that obscured true enlightenment, and in the schools “men’s studies? . . . [were] confined and imprisoned in the writings of certain authors.” His book Novum Organum is devoted to arguing against the flawed inheritance of the past, including the arguments found in the great books of his age.

One charming aspect of Aristotle, especially when viewed after having read the early modern Enlightenment writers, is his willingness to identify limits. Was the world created or eternal? Who knows? the Philosopher answers. All knowledge of contingent things is contingent – such is life in this world of change, a necessarily humble life of uncertainty. With Thomas, we get invigorated to pursue even imperfect knowledge of Creation, because the Heavens proclaim the glory of God. In our imperfect and humble understanding of created things we experience the ineffable Divine.

But limits have gone from realities any sane man recognizes and tries to understand, which he might rationally embrace or challenge on a case by case basis, to something that is evil and to be overcome in all cases. A classic man, a victim, one might say, of the philosophy in those pre-Enlightenment Great Books, would first want to know himself and come to grips with his passions and his fixed days. If he were a Christian, he’d recall that all is grass and grace, his days are numbered, and it profits a man nothing if he gains the whole world but loses his soul. Yet God loves him into being nonetheless, and blesses him such that his life need not be in vain.

The post Enlightenment man has increasingly rejected any ‘despair’ or what the pre-Enlightenment man would consider proper humility, and chaffs at all limits. What began as a not entirely unsympathetic rejection of the limits imposed by a Church ends with the entirely insane rejection of reality. The very idea of human nature became nonsensical under Hegel and an affront under Marx. Whatever you found yourself to be at the moment could become something else entirely under the influence of the Spirit unfolding or History progressing. Limits oppress; to believe in any limits is to be an oppressor, even and especially when those limits exist by nature.

Novum Organum is now one of our great books—a great book that recommends against the lessons of previous great books. His work inaugurated a long line of great books that argued against an education in books. Another in this genre is René Descartes’ Discourse on Method, which begins with a similar condemnation of book learning as an obstacle to true understanding. “As soon as my age permitted me to pass from under the control of my instructors,” he wrote, “I entirely abandoned the study of letters, and resolved no longer to seek any other science than the knowledge of myself, or of the great book of the world.” Books are the repository of foolishness: “When I look with the eye of a philosopher at the varied courses and pursuits of mankind at large, I find scarcely one which does not appear in vain and useless.”

Descartes’ view is shared, it seems, by scientists and students of science as much as by various ‘studies’ professors and their acolytes. The first group believes above all else that their study of nature is the only road to knowledge, doesn’t want to hear otherwise, and at any rate knows ‘philosophy’ only as delivered by the academic philosophers who infest their campuses. The student of science correctly concludes that Analytic Philosophy is at best useless, an overly-intellectual tail trying to wag the productive scientific dog.

The second group sees any philosophy that embraces limits as oppressive; they mistake the untethered emoting and manipulation of Critical Theory as the only necessary and pure philosophy. They rank themselves by how oppressed they are, and start in trying to kill each other at the first opportunity, according to the nature of a philosophy without limits.

Centuries later, this line of argumentation would be employed in the United States in defense of disassembling existing curricula oriented to the study of the great books. Widely regarded as America’s most influential educational reformer, John Dewey, in books that continue to exert great influence in schools of education, argued that learning should be accomplished “experientially” rather than through an encounter with books. In his short work Experience and Education, he argues strenuously that an education based in books transmitted “static” knowledge to a citizenry that needed to be better enabled to face a world of rapid change. Learning through books is “to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.” Accordingly, he founded an institution in Chicago called the Lab School. Laboratory was to replace library, experiment would substitute for knowledge gleaned from the past.

Dewey was also a Communist apologist, who rejected categorically the concept of objective morality.  Think killing a few 10s of millions of Kulaks will speed the dawn of the Worker’s Paradise? The only moral question is: did it work? (And if it didn’t, it’s likely not enough Kulaks were murdered. But I digress.) “Static” knowledge is nonsensical under Marx – all is Becoming, nothing Is. What is needed, as spelled out by Freire, are children educated to be revolutionaries. Math? Reading? History? Pointless and dangerous!

Dewey makes this case in pointed terms in his book Democracy and Education, asking, “Why does a savage group perpetuate savagery, and a civilized group civilization?” He answers that “in a sense the mind of savage peoples is an effect, rather than a cause, of their backward institutions. Their social activities are such as to restrict their objects of attention and interest, and hence to limit the stimuli to mental development.”

Even as regards the objects that come within the scope of attention, primitive social customs tend to arrest observation and imagination upon qualities which do not fructify in the mind. Lack of control of natural forces means that a scant number of natural objects enter into associated behavior. Only a small number of natural resources are utilized and they are not worked for what they are worth. The advance of civilization means that a larger number of natural forces and objects have been transformed into instrumentalities of action, into means for securing ends.

There is and cannot be any human nature – that would limit what people can become, and limits are evil in themselves. Instead, “their social activities as such” limit what we can become. (Dewey here deigns to consider civilized people as somehow more progressed than savages – he needed to get way, way more woke!) If one were to ask where these social activities come from, the answer is: History! The term ‘History’ as used by Marxists means the non-god god and unconscious consciousness that drives us forward, and on whose wrong side one must not get. That whole what happened in the past stuff is called history only insofar as it captures the non-active activity of the non-god god in causing Progress. They rarely put it this way, because it’s as stupid as it sounds.

Thus, two distinct and contradictory conceptions of liberty have been advanced in a long succession of great books. The first of these commends the study of great books for an education in virtue in light of a recognition of human membership in a created order to which we must conform and that we do not ultimately govern. The other argues against the study of great books and asserts a form of human greatness that seeks the human mastery of nature, particularly by the emphasis of modern science. This latter conception of liberty does not seek merely to coexist alongside an older conception, but requires the active dismantling of this idea of liberty and hence the transformation of education away from the study of great books and toward the study of “the great book of nature” with the end of its mastery.

One of the contradictions yet to be subsumed and suspended in the dialectic is the hard or real science versus soft or fake science: everyone want to dress their claims in the sacred Lab Coat of Science, even and especially when there is no science, properly understood in the modern sense, involved. Mean people who believe in reality are going to challenge claims that sociology, psychology and modern education theory, for starters, are in any functional sense science. They do not measure the properties of measurable bodies; they do not follow well-established protocols such as using clear methods and publishing all data and subjecting all claims to skeptical replication. As Groucho Marx – the good Marx – said: the key to success in this business is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.

Since those older Great Books contradict all this, and the newer Great Books are irrelevant by their own admissions, they must be destroyed.

The older conception of liberty held that liberty was ultimately a form of self-government. In a constrained world, the human propensity to desire and consume without limit and end inclined people toward a condition of slavery, understood to be enslavement to the base desires. This older conception of liberty was displaced by our regnant conception of liberty, the liberty to pursue our desires ceaselessly with growing prospects of ongoing fulfillment through the conquest of nature, accompanied by the constant generation of new desires that demand ever greater expansion of the human project of mastery. The decline of the role of great books in our universities today is not due merely to financial constraints, or to the requirement of federal funding for scientific inquiry, or even to science itself. Preceding all of this was an argument that the study of great books should be displaced from the heart of education.

The concept of limits includes both possibilities and consequences. I cannot flap my arms and fly to the moon, no matter how woke I am, and neither can anybody else. Why we can’t is a unaddressed problem for the Enlightened. I cannot eat everything in sight or have sex round the clock without the piper eventually demanding his due.

So we must learn to accept fat people as not fat, as beautiful and perfect right up until they drop dead of a heart attack or stroke or diabetes around age 40. In fact, what’s with this whole death thing? It’s so unfair! Thus the cult of Transhumanism offers the false hope that we can, ultimately escape all limits and their consequences. Somehow. And treatments and prevention of venereal diseases and babies must be assumed, free, and supported by all. Broken hearts are an illusion.

So, yes, the Great Books are not a solution to societal collapse and the perpetual ignorance of the certifiably educated when applied in our current state.

My only push back against Dr. Deenan is this: that read fearlessly and with a desire for Truth that will not bow to fad and peer pressure, the glory of the pre-Enlightenment Great Books will reveal the latter books to be superficial, dishonest and inferior. This does happen: someone, even someone not forewarned by Christianity, may read the Great Books and conclude that some – Plato, Aristotle, Thomas, the wisdom of the poets, and others – are much greater than the others. Some are worthy of a serious person. Many are not.

Alas, this sort of self-enlightenment and devotion to the Truth is not likely to be found among conventionally educated 18 year olds.

Actual versus Potential: Aristotle and Quantum Probability

I only understand maybe 50% (and that may be optimistic) of the esteemed William Briggs’ latest post, but must share: Quantum Potency & Probability.

Here’s my take on the issue: I’ve heard most of my life about how, at a quantum level, reality is probabilistic. What this seems to mean to people propounding it is that reality, viewed on a fine enough level, is not governed by the laws of cause and effect, nor even by the law of noncontradiction. Things can come into being and pass out of being for no reason; and some things can truly be said to both be and not be at the same time in the same way.

To be fair, it’s not often put exactly like that, but it sometimes seems to be. ( As is almost always the case, the better the scientist, the more careful they are about how they express themselves. Heisenberg was a great scientist, and so he was generally careful. His acolytes, and especially those who use him as a club with which to beat their enemies, not so much.) And to honest, as mentioned above, it’s not like I understand the math or even the finer points of the experimentation that is claimed to lead to these assertions. What I do understand is that math is not reality, however useful and even indispensable math may be to our understanding and using of the world.

In his book on the philosophy of statistical analysis Uncertainty: the Soul of Modeling, Probability and Statistics (which I still need to reread and review here! Time eats life, as some French dude once said) Dr. Briggs takes great care to distinguish between epistemology – how we understand things – and ontology – how things are. Applied mathematics belongs to the world of epistemology. I am reminded of a section of the Feynman lectures where he pauses after having filled a couple large blackboards with equations to note that it sure took a lot of math to describe what was, essentially, a simple motion, and that nature in doing what it does certainly isn’t doing all that math.

Related imageAnd, for me, that is the point. Just because quanta are nigh impossible to see and measure and appear to behave in incomprehensible ways doesn’t mean that their states are not caused, nor that they are anything other than what they are regardless of what we are able to deduce about what they are. It is a radical and unnecessary step, and contradicts the minimalist approach embodied in Occam’s Razor, to assume a new principle: that there are classes of uncaused phenomena, not just phenomena the causes of which we don’t yet understand.

The discussion on Dr. Briggs’ blog is far more nuanced and deep than my feeble understanding. One part I do understand, and which is commonly discussed on this blog: Insofar as science actually advances, they are following Aristotle and not any of the post 1630 philosophers. (1) Hylomorphism – the understanding that any object in the real world that we can consider is made up of form and matter – is, of course, how science routinely understands the world, even if the terminology has been beaten out of it. Modern science desperately wants there to be material and efficient causes only, and so does its best to pretend that there are no formal or final causes. This results in the absurdity of saying, for example, that a bird’s wings are not *for* flying, that it is not possible to describe them in terms of how they are to be used.

Of course, nobody talks this way except when pushed to the wall. But our analytic philosopher comrades, living on the cutting edge of the early Enlightenment, must insist that we don’t know and can’t meaningfully talk about formal and final causes lest we fall into the trap of *gasp* metaphysics. Can’t have that. Can’t live without it, either, but that just makes them mad.

Anyway, the most fascinating idea:

Additionally, hylomorphism entails a gradual spectrum of material beings with greater degrees of potentiality to greater degrees of actuality. Something has greater actuality if it has more determinate form (or qualities) and something has higher potency if it is more indeterminate with respect to being more receptacle to various forms. For example, a piece of clay has higher potency insofar as it is more malleable than a rock and thus more receptacle to various forms. A rock can likewise be modified to receive various forms, but it requires a physical entity with greater actuality or power to do so because it has more more determinate form as a solid object… [H]ylormophism predicts that you will find higher levels of potency because you are getting closer to prime matter. This is precisely what we find in QM. The macroscopic world has more actuality, which is why we experience it as more definite or determinate, whereas the microscopic world has far less actuality, thereby creating far less determinate behavioral patterns.

Briggs quoting Gil Sanders “An Aristotelian Approach to Quantum Mechanics” (which I haven’t read yet, but will). My paraphrase: the higher up a thing is on the scale of being – the more ensouled, the more natural in the sense of having a fuller nature – the more primary is form. The lower one goes, the less primary is form. Thus I am a human animal, among the most natural objects in the universe, one where over my 60 years has had pretty much all the matter in my body swapped out one or more times. Yet no one sane doubts that my form – human animal – has persisted through all those changes. Once we get down to barely perceptible objects, we barely are able to perceive their form at all – all we can see are the mysterious undulations of prime matter as various forms subsume it. And this is what an Aristotelian would expect: less or lower forms, less nature, less definition.

Mind blown. I’m going to need to think this over a lot.

  1. 1630, more or less, is the year Descartes retreated to his room, drew the curtains, contemplated his navel and started producing the anti-Thomist philosophy that spawned all the crap since. I wouldn’t object to using 1517 as the real start date, but it’s Easter Week! We’re playing nice!

Critical Theory: How it “Works”

Not so much what it is – in brief: Marxism taylored for the academic world – but just how it works in practice.

Brief recap: starting with the Greeks, philosophers began to view Nature and reality as a whole as something that could be understood. Not completely or perfectly, but certainly to some extent. This is the beginning of what we call Western Philosophy, and is a big piece of what make the West the West – fundamentally different from everywhere else in the world.

Fitfully at first, but settling in to the extreme rigor of Aristotle by the 4th century B.C., the approach was logical: try to find the most fundamental premises you could, the most general statements of reality, and reason according to strict logic from there. This approach requires (or results in – there’s a bit of a chicken/egg question, at least in my mind) a three-fold epistemology: there must be Required Truths, that without which nothing can be known or even discussed; Conditional Truths that depend on the truth of premises and the rigor of logic, where the conclusions may be ontologically ‘wrong’ even if logically correct because the premises may not be true; and opinion, which may be more or less informed, but is neither required nor explicitly conditioned on premises and logic.

Initially, these efforts to understand the world were a purely theoretical exercise. Nobody did philosophy to make a buck or for any practical gain. Indeed, as a hobby of the at least semi-leisured, philosophy as a means to anything other than self-improvement was considered gauche. Archimedes, famous for his inventions, legendarily did not think it worthy to write anything down about them. So we get fantastical reports – and physical evidence such as the Antikythera Mechanism – but no follow up or disciples. Philosophy was to produce the examined life worth living.

Christian shared with the Greeks (and Jews) the radical idea that the world was comprehensible by the human mind – and that it was worthy for a Christian to make the effort to understand it. ‘The Heavens proclaim the Glory of God’ after all, and we live to give Him glory. By the 11th century, Christians began to apply the rigors of Aristotle’s logic and method to pretty much everything. Albert the Great, a 13th century Dominican philosopher, was into everything and used to draw very careful and detailed pictures of plants – because, why not? God is in the details of a leaf as much as in the stars and seas.

Image result for hubble pictures
The Heavens proclaiming the Glory of God.

The effort of traditional Western philosophy – the Perennial Philosophy – stands on 4 legs. Along with the faith that the world can and should be understood, the three-tiered epistemology of required truths, conditional truths, and opinion, and logical rigor, one other thing is required to make any headway in understanding the world: the idea of Primacy of Being. This is so basic that it is rarely laid out separately in my experience. Instead, it is assumed, most commonly as part of the Law of Non-contradiction: a thing cannot both be and not be in the same respect at the same time.

Like so much of Aristotle, he’s saying something so simple and obvious that it’s easy to miss how profound it is. At least, it was easy to miss it until Hegel and Marx came along.

The Perennial Philosophy and its daughter Modern Science work by investigating and describing what something IS. When defining something – saying what something is – one must say what it is not. If you cannot say what something is not, communication is impossible. If my yes could be no, or over here could be over there, or my cat could be my dog, meaningful discussion grinds instantly to a halt. Science could get nowhere. Math would be meaningless. Communication through language would be impossible.

Everybody got this. The Law of Non-contradiction is not some arcane point of logic. It is the very heart of experience, understanding, and communication. So of course Hegel attacks it, and Marx buries it.

Instead, we are told that we live in a world of becoming. Talk of being reveals one to be among the little people, incapable of real philosophy. Real philosophers understand that you can only speak truthfully about being when all reality is abstracted from it – because reality is always becoming. The Law of Non-contradiction cannot apply to the real world of becoming, because in the real world nothing ever holds still long enough to be anything, and, even if it did so, real understanding of it would require understanding where it has been and where it is going.

This is a paraphrase of the Hegelian dialectic: the idea that a thesis – a statement (of being?) – is contradicted by a antithesis – another statement (of being?) – which contradiction is never resolved, but is instead held in suspense in the synthesis. That synthesis becomes the new thesis, subject to unfolding into a new dialectic.

Hegel humbly acknowledged that, given that we don’t know the future, we cannot predict the next synthesis. We must wait for the Spirit to unfold Itself in History. We cannot use logic or reason our way to the next unfolding, both because logic and reason are invalid and because it is the nature of the Unfolding of the Spirit in History to, let’s say, raise consciousness – to reveal new, unanticipated truths.

Marx, a more practical (and intellectually limited) man, will not accept this: he KNOWS how it comes out, he’s worked it out! A bit – well, a lot – fuzzy on the details, but he, as the chosen prophet of the not-at-all-Godlike History, will lay it down for us: History is unfolding into a Worker’s Paradise, where all nations and governments shall wither away, and all men will live in peace and plenty.

He makes the mistake common to most End Time prophets, in that while he’s really, really vague on most things, he nonetheless lays out too many detailed that can be proven wrong. Among the details he didn’t get right: Workers of the world are to unite to lose their chains, not Russian and Chinese serfs; Communism is to arrise from among the rebels, not be imposed by sociopathic criminals like Lenin, Mao and Che. Capitalism (his swear word for free markets) is to run itself into the ground enslaving everybody, not bring many millions of people into a far better life than even the richest Capitalist enjoyed in Marx’s day; The revolution was to be organic and inevitable, not something brought about by the lies and machinations of Fabian Socialists and Gramsciite Critical Theorists.

The Critical Theorists took on the job of polluting Academia and culture with Marx’s lies and distortions. Here’s how applying Marx to academic fields works:

  • We already know how it comes out, we don’t need to prove anything;
  • We’re much smarter and more enlightened than any other people anywhere ever.
  • Everything – everything – is explicable by a oppressor/oppressed dynamic;
  • Offering any other explanations, any other predicted outcomes simply prove you are an oppressor or a tool of oppression, and are in either case on the wrong side of History;
  • We don’t have to make sense. Demanding we do is oppression;

The results are as predictable as they are sad. First off, every traditional explanation for ANYTHING that cannot be made into an effect of an oppressor/oppressed dynamic is WRONG. History, for example, whenever it shows cultures developing peacefully, or religious beliefs having a positive affect, or wars being fought for anything other than the right to oppress people – IS WRONG.

In another context, was disputing a critical theorist’s assertion that, not only is the West not a product of Greek culture, but there really isn’t a ‘West’ to begin with. As another person quipped: sure, Eritrea and America – exactly the same. For now, it is enough to note that for over a thousand years people in the West have recognized a difference between themselves and all other cultures, and that the trajectory of the West has been far different than that of any other culture. Therefore, a critical theorist must deny this, evidence in front of their eyes notwithstanding.

History has sides. Those who accept and promote the inevitability of a Worker’s Paradise populated by New Soviet Men magically freed from all human faults are on the Right Side of History. Those who insist that people have natures – human nature – and so are not infinitely reformable, or in any other way deny the inevitability or desirability of the Worker’s Paradise, are on the Wrong Side of History. Note: those on the wrong side of History are scheduled for culling.

Scholarship is reduced to identifying the oppressor/oppressed dynamic that is making people unhappy. If people aren’t unhappy, it’s your job to fix it. Thus, the endless stream of before/after pictures of kids going to college, where cheery, normal-looking 18 year olds become bitter, frowning 20 year olds with shaved heads and Che t-shirts. They thought, you see, that they were suburban kids going off on a great college adventure, only to discover that they are miserable oppressors, victims of oppression, or both, and need to promote the Revolution.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s OK. Any dogma divorced from reality will soon tangle itself into knots of nonsense. Critical theory teaches us to *embrace* that nonsense!  Intersectionality, for example, or simultaneous claims that Science Has Shown and that science is a social construct, or using tools created almost entirely by men – computers, the internet, electrical systems, heck, indoor plumbing – to popularize the idea that men are always oppressors. Except that ‘men’ are likewise a social construct.

The nonsense never ends.

Gramsci laid out the targets to be destroyed: Family, village, church. These are where normal people find happiness. Happiness leads to not wanting to kill your oppressors and put the likes of Pol Pot in charge, and therefore is the enemy.

Yes, happiness is no less the enemy of critical theory than reality itself. It works by trying to destroy happiness.

I imagine most critical theorists are useful idiots. This is more generous than to imagine they all understand it and keep doing it anyway. Some do, for sure, but not most – I’d like to think. Doesn’t really matter, except that the useful idiots are likely to follow to wherever the cool kids are sitting, so that if the true believers are shown to be uncool, the battle is largely won.

Meanwhile, the fruits of the Philosophy of Being are being harvested every day: science and technology cannot discover or build anything using a philosophy that denies logic and dismisses definition and communication, so scientists and technologists stick to Aristotle and the Scholastics, even if they’ve been taught that it isn’t so. To their credit, scientists tend strongly to hold philosophers in contempt – because the philosophers with which they are familiar hold contemptible ideas. Among them: critical theory.

All good men have a duty to be reasonable, happy and lovers of family, village and Church. It’s a duty – and it makes critical theorist heads explode. Win-win.

 

 

Evolution & Society

Speaking of getting more circumspect the more I learn, treading more carefully on evolutionary topics these days than I used to. Thanks to those who have brought more depth to my understanding here and at other blogs and such, especially Mike Flynn. Of course, my continuing lack of understanding is nobody’s fault by mine. Onward:

There are here both a basic idea and a basic problem that war, or at least are made to war, with each other. First is the grand idea, not quite so grand as many imagine but grand nonetheless, of species arising under the pressure of natural selection. Darwin spends the first part of the Origin of Species (note: origin of species) discussing how farmers have always, more or less consciously, artificially selected the most desirable plants and animals for breeding and thus perpetuation. That’s the model to be kept in mind always when considering Darwin: natural selection is to be understood as analogous to what a farmer does.  Continue reading “Evolution & Society”