Pragmatic Limitations of Language

Heather at https://hermeneutrix.com/ commented briefly on the recent Political Spectrum post. Visting her site, she is all about words. Check it out. But even before visiting, I had the idea to visualise my reaction to her response.

To be fair, this is a response I get from my Pragmatist colleagues: don’t get your knickers in a twist arguing semantics. But in my noggin, I envision this Venn diagamme. (Well, not exactly. I just made this up, but you get the point.) Since the topic happened to be on the definition of Conservative, I’ll retain the context, but this is arbitrary.

Before I get to this, I want to set the stage with a more common and arguably more agreeable term: tree. If we ask a large number of people on the street to provide attributes of a tree, we might get something like this image abstraction below.

Tree

Venn: Tree

Although people may have different ideas, there will be some key core elements—trunks, branches, and roots. Of course, within the taxonomy of trees, there are types—pine, oak, willow, redwood, birch, and so on—each sharing these key attributes. These trees have some distinct attributes—coniferous versus deciduous, green versus red, flowering versus non versus, fruit-bearing, nut-bearing, height, and age. I think I can stop.

In general, I think it’s safe to say that if you point to a tree, and ask what it is to a person with sight and language, they will either respond ‘It’s a tree’ or ‘It’s an elm’. Even the elm response can be quickly qualified with a follow-up question, “What is an Elm?”

I understand that a botanist or an arborist may have a more nuanced definition. In fact, when I lived in a rental property outside of Chicago, my wife at the time defended the life of a tree that looked rather like a berry-bearing ficus, but that the village elders said was a weed and not allowed to remain. Here, we get into whether a tomato is a fruit or a vegetable or a squash is a berry or a fruit, or is corn a vegetable or a grain—or are we discussing maize? I get it. Even here, we can quickly come to terms. I said chips; I meant fries.

I could even get into the political conversation where the US justice system tried to redefine person to strip the rights away from those they didn’t want to have them. Of course, the United States has a history of not considering people to be people, though some were given 3/5ths and 4/5ths of personhood. Mighty white of them.

Back to trees. There are natural and artificial trees, but these are just simulations—hullo, Baudrillard. In the English language, there are non-arboreal trees, some not even rendered from fibres. We’ve got shoe trees—for which I fail to see the relationship to trees—and bell trees. We even have tree structures, like a taxonomy or a family tree, leveraging the branching metaphor. Some of these things escape the main bubble, but the connexion is never lost and is easy to navigate to a core understanding.

Conservative

I think we are amicably on the same page here and ready to move on from tree to conservative. Here, the circles are much more varied and divergent. Although there is common ground, as well there are points where there is no intersection in meaning.

Venn: Conservative

I’ve discussed a simpler abstract term before: fairness. To recapitulate, most people will tell you they want situations in the world to be fair. Only fair means entirely different things to different people. I’ve written about this in several places, so I’ll continue on our conservative journey.

Venn: Fair (oversimplified for effect)

Not only has the term conservative morphed over the years, it has different meanings—though to be fair, probably fewer than ‘liberal’. As I’ve discussed here before prior to the recent post, liberals are conservatives, but no one is really defending this position because the goal is identity, and identity involved separation to be distinguished.

Like fair, conservative has some common ground. The challenge is to understand which flavour is being used. Are you communicating by using the same term, or are you talking across each other? In some cases, this can lead to what I’ll call false positives (borrowing the language of statistical errors) where you think you are in agreement, except you aren’t. The other side of this coin is the false negative, where you think you are in disagreement when in fact you are talking about two different things.

This happened to me. A mate asked me to meet her at a certain time and place —I’ll just use McDonald’s because it is so ubiquitous. I went to the McDonald’s and waited. After a while, she called.

“Are you close?”

I scan the car park.

“I don’t see you. Maybe I missed you. I’m parked on the side near Taco Bell, not the oil change place.”

“There’s no Taco Bell at McDonald’s. What McDonald’s did you go to?”

It turns out that she was a distance away and wanted me to meet her halfway—like two-thirds to be honest. I assumed she meant the one we’d commonly visit.

This is a false positive. Communication was presumed to occur. It did. It just wasn’t useful. And since the reason for the rendezvous in the first place is to save time—one might say to ‘conserve’ time, but even I wouldn’t stoop to such a low target.

Wrapping up, the challenge is that trees are objects in the world. We can quickly recalibrate ourselves by reference. This is not possible for abstract concepts. I tend to refer to these are weasel words. Some use these words unknowingly. Whenever I hear some yahoo wintering on about freedom or justice, my first impression is that this bloke is tripping on a Kool-Aid propaganda overdose. Most common people falsely believe that people can understand what’s in their heads.

And to be fair—the left sort, not the one on the right—, when these yahoos utter the term, they are probably using it like their neighbour. But walk a few blocks or miles, and that bet is off. Sure, if the people have a common connexion, this might moderate the differences. But if one attempts to triangulate across worldviews, all bets are off. You may or may not be singing from the same hymnal.

No Agent, No Agency

There is no spoon” is a classic line from The Matrix. Reality is a construct. I agree, but I’m not sure I believe that we can get under this reality to experience it differently. And this might hinge on a distinction between experience and perception.

Losing Ourselves is a book just published in the US and forthcoming (July 2022) in the UK promoting the Buddhist notion of no-self or selflessness. I’ve been partial to Buddhism since, when I lived outside of Tokyo, I was exposed to it in 1980.

Book Cover: Losing Ourselves

For me, this intersects with my anti-Agency endeavour. If the Self is a construct, there is no Agent, and without an agent, there is no Agency. I realise that this is a meta-position and not uncontroversial, but I do like to collect ideas and perspectives in my quiver.

Obviously, there seems to be a strong drive (at least in the West) to construct selves, not the least of which serves the purpose of an object to confer praise or blame. Interestingly, I’ve heard much about objectification, but not many seem to care about this form. It’s more about sub-objectification.

It’s OK to parse the person from the fabric of the universe, but don’t further disintegrate that person.

Self-Creation

The self is a construction. Although we can form memories at an early age, this is possibly why we can’t remember our earliest years, as our sense of self had yet to be constructed and realised. Not all people construct or even define ‘self’ in the same way, per Strawson’s ‘selves’ and other notions of selflessness.

I understand when Strawson (and others) says he does not feel the same sense of continuity as others with strong senses of self believe. I don’t know what a person, who truly believes in selflessness or the total denial of the self, feels—a person who totally embodies the Buddhist concept that everything is one and any division is an illusion.

In the West, there are entire industries fleecing the public of billions upon billions of dollars on the notion of the self, strengthening the self and how others perceive one’s self from an outside-in perspective—psychology and its progeny of self-help reaping the lion’s share.

For the record, although I agree with both Strawson’s and the Buddhist perspective, I am still under the illusion (as I am with agency) that I have a self and agency. Unlike the Neo character in The Matrix, I haven’t discovered how to break the illusion to find the man behind the curtain, but I do feel a sense of discontinuity or lack of contiguity.

Time Reborn

Einstein was wrong. Time is not the relative factor in space-time. Space is. Time is constant. Here’s a lecture on the topic of the book.

Lee Smolin Public Lecture: Time Reborn

As a result of a discussion with a colleague, on the possibility of variability or mutability of so-called physical laws, he recommended Lee Smolin’s book Time Reborn: From the Crisis in Physics to the Future of the Universe. He mentioned that it would be suitable as an audiobook. Since I had a credit on Audible, I decided to use it so I could listen to this without deep scrutiny and a need for taking notes.

There is a nice review in the Guardian from 2013. I suppose I am a bit behind the times.

Whilst running errands, I listened to the Preface and Introduction. I stopped at the start of the first chapter, and am debating whether to continue. Given his setup, I don’t believe I am Smolin’s target audience. Many of the beliefs he is attempting to dispel, I already don’t hold. Yet I don’t feel that I need to hold time as a constant to hold them. He seems to feel otherwise.

Preface

For the record, Lee Smolin is a theoretical physicist, who has written several books in this space. Quickly, recapping some of his points:

He provides examples of various illusions humans tend to be swayed by:

  • Matter appears to be smooth but turns out to be made of atoms
  • Atoms seem indivisible but turn out to be built of protons, neutrons, and electrons
  • Protons and neutrons are further made of still more elementary particles called quarks
  • The sun appears to go around the Earth, but it’s the other way around

Smolin relates that the prevailing perspective today is that time is an illusion—name-dropping Plato and Einstein, who hold this view. He conveys that he used to share this belief, but now he disagrees—whence the book. He tells us:

Not only is time real, but nothing we know or experience gets closer to the heart of nature than the reality of time.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

Next, he posits that some people believe in timeless events—events outside of time, eternal and not a function of time. Here’s where he goes off the rails in my book.

“We perceive ourselves as living in time, yet we often imagine that the better aspects of our world and ourselves transcend it. What makes something really true, we believe, is not that it is true now but that it always was and always will be true.”

Evidently, he feels or felt this way. I am sure many others. I am not among them.

“What makes a principle of morality absolute is that it holds in every time and every circumstance.”

My position is that all morality is a social construct, so this doesn’t resonate with me.

“We seem to have an ingrained idea that if something is valuable, it exists outside time.”

Again, I am not in his intended audience.

“We yearn for “eternal love.” We speak of “truth” and “justice” as timeless.”

Love, truth, and justice are all human constructs—weasel words.

“Whatever we most admire and look up to — God, the truths of mathematics, the laws of nature — is endowed with an existence that transcends time. We act inside time but judge our actions by timeless standards.”

Yet again, I am unburdened by these beliefs.

Nothing transcends time, not even the laws of nature. Laws are not timeless. Like everything else, they are features of the present, and they can evolve over time.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

I think that this quote is a reason this book was recommended to me. I do believe that the properties that comprise laws can evolve over time. I’m not sure if this is by a probabilistic process or something else. There are a few possible implications. One is that the laws at the onset of the universe may have been different, making the understanding of that time more challenging if not impossible. I don’t know if I believe in multiverses, and I doubt I may ever live long enough to discover. However, even if there is only one universe, per the name, perhaps universes can exist sequentially and when one dies another appears with a different set of initial conditions and properties. Borrowing from evolution, perhaps these survive or perish based on the viability of this combination.

Smolin goes on to posit that, ‘thinking in time is not relativism but a form of relationalism‘.

He continues,

“Truth can be both time-bound and objective when it’s about objects that exist once they’ve been invented, either by evolution or human thought.”

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

I’m not sure he is going to define truth, but I believe he conflates moral truths with axiomatic or tautological truths. Perhaps it doesn’t matter because both are constructed.

Smolin makes it clear that he is not a determinist, but unless you take the view he is proposing, as a physicist, you almost have to be. As he says regarding Determinism, theoretically. a person could suss out a mathematical equation to predict every future event. He also considers this belief to be a metaphysical vestige of religion.

Introduction

According to [the] dominant view, everything that happens in the universe is determined by a law, which dictates precisely how the future evolves out of the present. The law is absolute and, once present conditions are specified, there is no freedom or uncertainty in how the future will evolve.

— Lee Smolin, Time Reborn

He continues to describe a deterministic system without mentioning indeterminism, which may be a more prominent belief given what we understand about quantum mechanics. He claims that this perspective diminishes time for several reasons. Inflating or at least elevating time is important for his thesis, and I am thinking that this is more an act of wishful thinking.

He takes a stab at the inherent reductionism of physics—it reduces everything to parts until there are no longer subparts, at which point the process fails—and explains that by adopting this approach, one needs to get outside of the universe to make some evaluations, but this is impossible. And this might be a true statement, but so what? The answer is not to make up a story that creates an environment where that’s no longer necessary.

Smolin reiterates over and again about timeless laws in a time-bound universe, but I question his notion of timelessness. He admits that he has no grand theory—just an idea he hopes others can pursue and build upon. Emergent properties appear to be an emerging theme.

Leibniz is next up, in particular his principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz’ vision is a relational universe composed of a network of relationships—the space is simply the absence of things. He contrasts this with Newton’s view that space is absolute and serves as the container for things. He sets up a future chapter that he says establishes that Leibniz’ vantage precludes the possibility of absolute time, but I don’t see this as a challenge for those of us who believe that time is constructed in the first place.

The Newtonian view prevailed until Einstein resurrected Leibnitz with his general relativity theory of space and time. The trending vogue is about relationalism, whether biology or information science.

He cites the challenges of maintaining Locke’s views on autonomy and personal liberties in a deterministic world (again leaving indeterminism unmentioned).

And he’s back on the emergence of emergence. (I was in the midst of writing a post on emergence when this interrupted my flow. I suspect it should be forthcoming in time.)

Falling

As it turned out, I ran another errand and listened to the first chapter of part 1. It is about gravity and parabolas, but I shan’t recount it here, save to note that he seems to be of the opinion that many people have the desire to transcend the bounds of human life. He may be right. I am not one of these people.

I don’t feel that I am in his target market.

Happiness is for Opportunists

Happiness was never important.
The problem is that we don’t know what we really want.
What makes us happy is not to get what we want.
But to dream about it.
Happiness is for opportunists.
So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself.
We all remember Gordon Gekko, the role played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street.
What he says, breakfast is for wimps, or if you need a friend buy yourself a dog.
I think we should say something similar about happiness.
If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid.
Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.

— Slavoj Žižek (Guardian Web Chat, 6 October 2014 (revised 8 October 2014))

I agree with most of Žižek’s sentiment here. I dissect it into four elemental blocks, three of which I care about.

Žižek talks Happiness

Element One

Happiness was never important. The problem is that we don’t know what we really want. What makes us happy is not to get what we want. But to dream about it. Happiness is for opportunists.

Seeking happiness is similar to the enterprise seeking growth. Like growth, happiness is an outcome or a side effect. There is no sense in pursuing it for its own sake.

Herbert Simon noted in the mid-1950s that people satisfice—a portmanteau of satisfying and sufficing—rather than optimise. Behavioural economics has run with this in the past few decades.

The challenge is that people don’t know what they want, so they are easy prey for marketers hoping to attract their interest. These are the opportunists.

Most people tend to behave like they are on rudderless ships easily buffeted this way and that. Easily lured by the call of the sirens, the call of marketers and other hucksters peddling happiness. There is the occasional Odysseus cum Ulysses, the metaphor for restraint—but not of self-control because even Homer realised how ridiculous of a notion that is.

Self-help and fashion industries extract billions from not-quite happy consumers who buy into the false promises and hype. Social media is toxic with these same promises, like the life coach earning some 30K a year dispensing advice.

You need to dream. Dream big. Such and such and so and so had dreams, and look at them. If they didn’t have a dream, they wouldn’t have attained whatever it was they had dreamed. These other losers? They don’t have the right dreams or they aren’t big enough. The universe isn’t going to pay attention to small dreams. You need to attract its attention. Perhaps, these other people just don’t know how to dream. They aren’t doing it right. But I can teach you how to dream for a few shekels.

The problem is that research shows that happiness—by whatever measure—is fleeting. And it fleets fast—usually a matter of weeks. Some people have dispositions that facilitate their happiness. It just takes less for these people to be content. Perhaps they define happiness subjectively as being content. Maybe your threshold is too high. Maybe they are kidding themselves. Does it matter? Perhaps they are not comparing themselves with others, the root of unhappiness.

John Lennon penned a lyric, dream, dream away. What more can I say?

Element Two

So I think that the only life of deep satisfaction is a life of eternal struggle, especially struggle with oneself.

I disagree with Žižek here, but perhaps I am deluding myself. I don’t subscribe to the notions of self or of identity. These are fictions. Finding oneself is just as much a distraction as anything else. You might do this, read books, write blogs, play piano, play cricket, learn Tai Chi, or drink chai tea.

This is where I find myself at odds with Existentialist—the philosophers who admit that there is no meaning to life but who insist people must make it, e.g., Sartre with politics, Camus with Art, or Kierkegaard with his personal religious experience.

Element Three

We all remember Gordon Gekko, the role played by Michael Douglas in Wall Street. What he says, breakfast is for wimps, or if you need a friend buy yourself a dog. I think we should say something similar about happiness.

I’ve got nothing to write here, which is why I left it out of the graphic. Go buy yourself a dog.

Element Four

If you want to remain happy, just remain stupid. Authentic masters are never happy; happiness is a category of slaves.

This is an obvious nod to Nietzsche and his master and her aesthetic. Masters have their own ethics and outlook, but the pursuit or maintenance and appearance of power are more important than happiness. The herd, which is to say most people, seek the elusive goal of happiness.

Houston, we have a problem

EDIT: Since I first posted this, I’ve discovered that computer algorithms and maths are not playing well together in the sandbox. Those naughty computer geeks are running rogue from the maths geeks.

In grade school, we typically learn a form of PEMDAS as a mnemonic heuristic for mathematical order of operations. It’s a stand-in for Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, and Subtraction. This may be interpreted in different ways, but I’ve got bigger fish to fry. It turns out that many (if not most) programming languages don’t implement around a PEMDAS schema. Instead, they opt for BODMAS, where the B and O represent Brackets and Orders—analogous to Parentheses and Exponents. The important thing to note is the inversion of MD to DM, as this creates discrepancies.

And it doesn’t end here. HP calculators interject a new factor, multiplication by juxtaposition, that mathematician and YouTuber, Jenni Gorham, notates as J resulting in PEJMDAS. This juxtaposition represents the implied multiplication as exemplified by another challenge;

1 ÷ 2✓3 =

In this instance, multiplication by juxtaposition instructs us to resolve 2✓3 before performing the division. Absent the J, the calculation results in ½✓3 rather than the intended 1/(2✓3). As with this next example, simply adding parentheses fixes the problem. Here’s a link to her video:

And now we return to our originally scheduled programming…

Simplifying concepts has its place. The question is where and when. This social media war brings this back to my attention.

As depicted in the meme, there is a difference of opinion as to what the answer is to this maths problem.

6 ÷ 2 ( 1 + 2 ) =

In grade school, children are taught some variation of PEMDAS, BOMDAS, BEDMAS, BIDMAS, or whatever. What they are not taught is that this is a regimented shortcut, but it doesn’t necessarily apply to real-world applications. The ones defending PEMDAS are those who have not taken maths beyond primary school and don’t use maths beyond some basic addition and subtraction. Luckily, the engineers and physicists who need to understand the difference, generally, do.

Mathematicians, scientists, and engineers have learned to transform the equation into the form on the left, yielding an answer of 1. If your answer is 9, you’ve been left behind.

Why is this such a big deal?

When I taught undergraduate economics, I, too, had to present simplifications of models. In practice, the approach was to tell the students that the simplification was like that in physics. At first, you assume factors like gravity and friction don’t exist—fewer variables, fewer complexities. The problem, as I discovered in my advanced studies, is that in economics you can’t actually relax the assumptions. And when you do, the models fail to function. So they only work under assumptions that cannot exist in the real world—things like infinite suppliers and demanders. Even moving from infinite to a lot, breaks the model. Economists know this, and yet they teach it anyway.

When I transitioned from undergrad to grad school, I was taken aback by the number of stated assumptions that were flat out wrong.

When I transitioned from undergrad to grad school, I was taken aback by the number of stated assumptions that were flat out wrong. Not only were these simplifications flat out wrong, but they also led to the wrong conclusion—the conclusion that aligned with the prevailing narratives.

This led me to wonder about a couple of things

Firstly, if I had graduated with an English degree and then became a PhD candidate in English, would I have also learnt it had mostly been a lie for the purpose of indoctrination?

Secondly, what other disciplines would have taught so much disinformation?

Thirdly, how many executives with degrees and finance and management only got the fake version?

Fourthly, how many executives hadn’t even gotten that? Perhaps they’d have had taken a class or two in each of finance and economics and nothing more. How many finance and economics courses does one need to take to get an MBA? This worries me greatly.

To be honest, I wonder how many other disciplines have this challenge. I’d almost expect it from so-called soft sciences, but from maths? Get outta here.

Half-life of knowledge

This also reminds me of the notion of the half-life of knowledge. What you knew as true may eventually no longer be. In this case, you were just taught a lie because it was easier to digest than the truth. In other cases, an Einstein comes along to change Newtonian physics into Oldtonian physics, or some wisenheimer like Copernicus determines that the cosmic model is heliocentric and not geocentric.

If you’ve been keeping up with my latest endeavour, you may be surprised that free will, human agency, identity, and the self are all human social constructs in need of remediation. Get ready to get out of your comfort zone or to entrench yourself in a fortress of escalating commitment.

The Straw that Broke the Camel’s Back

La goutte d’eau qui fait déborder le vase.

In grappling with anti-agency or non-agency, I am still trying to find apt metaphors. My latest find is the straw that broke the camel’s back. That, or death by a thousand papercuts.

My contention is that because humans have no material agency, they still have no responsibility—even if I were to agree that the world did allow for free will, is determined, semi-determined, or determined.

All of our genetics, epigenetics, and heredity along with our socio-environmental programming, any agency we might have to exert is essentially the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This story is meant to teach that the final straw cannot be seen in isolation. This straw is not responsible for breaking the camel’s back. It’s just one of a thousand papercuts, to switch metaphors for effect. We don’t get to claim that the last straw has some magical powers. If we have agency, it’s homoeopathic and hardly enough to attribute responsibility.

My point is that even if humans are effectively free to choose in the moment as people have proposed, is this sufficient to grant agency cum responsibility? I am reading John Martin Fischer’s Compatibilism chapter in Four Views on Free Will, where he gives an example of not deliberating about whether to jump to the moon because (in part at least) [he] would not successfully jump to the moon, even if [he] were to
choose to jump to the moon. I feel the same goes for other non-choices.

If I have only ever watched action movies my entire life or only even drunk Coca Cola, given the choice of an action movie or a romance movie or a Coke or a Pepsi, what choice am I making? It can be said that I can ‘choose’ to watch an adventure movie and a Coke, but in fact, I am habituated to these ‘choices’.

I recall a book by Thomas Moore titled Care for the Soul. In chapter 2, he conveys the story of a man with an alcoholic father, who can either become an alcoholic like his father or abstain. Presumably, he can also moderate a middle path. My contention is that his apparent choice will be pathological. Following is the easiest narrative—monkey-see, monkey-do. If he resists, it’s a reaction, not a choice. Even if he ‘chooses’ a middle path, it’s only reactionary.

An example from my own life experience played out like this. My grandfather was an MIT engineer, but (according to the family narrative), he was a weak man controlled by his wife, who capitalised on real estate purchases during the Great Depression of the 1930s. My dad’s response was to determine that higher education was pointless. He got a high school diploma and became a successful real estate developerõall the while keeping a chip on his shoulder. Whilst my high school classmates were prepping for college with family support, I was told that I would not be supported and that I would have to pay for it myself. (I didn’t qualify for standard loans because my family had too much money. The institutions didn’t care that I had no access to my parents’ money.)

At this point, I just wanted to attend university to acquire knowledge and figure things out. I didn’t even have a major in mind. I just wanted more input because there was nothing I was interested in.

According to Sartre, we always at least have the choice to persist or perish, yet even this isn’t true.

To be honest, I feel like I have choices and have made choices, but I also know I have been fooled by magicians’ illusions. I don’t know the mechanics of these tricks either, but I know that they work because of cognitive flaws or gaps. It’s not much of a leap to accept that free will and agency can operate in the same gaps.

EDIT: As I continue to digest Fischer’s position, I am thinking he is talking about gross motor skills whilst I am trying to focus on fine motor skills, and there’s a disconnect. Free will is gross motor, but agency is fine.

Life Debt

Abortion rights and a woman’s right to choose are on quick repeat in the latest news cycles as the SCOTUS has signalled that it wished to remove a woman’s right to choose. For most of us, it’s plainly obvious that this is codifying religious moral doctrine into law—Judeo-Christian beliefs to be more precise. This Christian belief is predicated on the notion that life is sacred.

In the West or at least in the United States citizens are inundated with this religious tripe, literally from infancy. It’s presented as sacrosanct, but this is not a universal belief.

One of my favourite stories in David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years was the recounting of French philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl’s anecdotal observation that a man saved from drowning proceeded to ask his rescuer for remuneration for having saved his life.

As Graeber puts it, a man saved from drowning who proceeded to ask his rescuer to give him some nice clothes to wear, or another who, on being nursed back to health after having been savaged by a tiger, demanded a knife. One French missionary working in Central Africa insisted that such things happened to him on a regular basis:

You save a person’s life, and you must expect to receive a visit from him before long; you are now under an obligation to him, and you will not get rid of him except by giving him presents.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the French philosopher Lucien Levy-Bruhl, in an attempt to prove that “natives” operated with an entirely different form of logic, compiled a list of similar stories: for instance, of a man saved from drowning who proceeded to ask his rescuer to give him some nice clothes to wear, or another who, on being nursed back to health after having been savaged by a tiger, demanded a knife. 

The interesting thing for me is the way this flips the sanctity of life narrative on its head. As Westerners, it is not only beat into our heads—whether secular or sectarian—, and this sanctity becomes the crux of the pro-life [sic] anti-abortion argument. But this sanctity is just another human construct. Part of the ‘be fruitful, go forth and multiply’ logic. This is arguably just more human hubris.

Of course, this is a slippery slope. Start undermining this narrative, and you start to see eugenic apologists coming out of the woodwork. In fact, we aren’t really that far removed from this notion. Whenever we encounter common enemies, one of the first tactics is to vilify and dehumanise them, so as to soothe the psyche, making it justify killing these subhuman species. In the end, the human mind is very facile.

Subjectification of Foucault

My love affair with Foucault goes way back. Joseph Campbell is said to have spent five years (1929–1934) living in a shack, engaged in intensive and rigorous independent study. In my dreams, I’d spend five years with Foucault, Galen Strawson, and David Guignion.

Michel Foucault is likely the most well-known of these three, and I’ve written a few Galen Strawson-related posts lately, but who the hell is David Guignion? I’ll tell you. David is a PhD philosophy student studying conspiracy theories if his bio is up to date and otherwise relevant. I’ve shared some of his content and insights over the years.

The reason I love David is that he introduces me to contemporary philosophers I had not been aware of as well as material or perspectives on classical philosophers to broaden my horizons. I think it’s safe to say that David and I are both Foucault fanboys. Hell, I don’t even have a tee shirt with Foucault’s likeness, so he’s even ahead of me in that game.

So, where’s this all leading, you ask. And I’m glad you did. A couple of days ago David posted a clip on YouTube called Michel Foucault’s “The Subject and Power”. I was drawn to the mention of Foucault, but I decided not to visit. I get so many distractions on my anti-agency endeavour—and that’s not even accounting for the sheer quantity of research—, and I didn’t need yet another. But the synchronicity was determined.

Last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I decided that I’d just let the video play as I fell into slumber. Spoiler Alert: That never happened. Topic after topic caught my ear, and it took all of my will to not get out of bed and start reading and writing. But it was almost 4 am, so that worked in favour of remaining supine—though alternately prostrate.

Kumi Yamashita, Building Blocks (2014)

My thesis is that the free will versus determinism or indeterminism debate is not inherently critical to the agency versus structure debate. My position is that agency has little breathing room and no material degrees of freedom to matter. Foucault’s subjectification or subjectivation makes the same argument. In effect, this is an argument about structure over agency. It’s about conscious and unconscious forces to conform. Full disclosure, I identify most as an indeterminist, but in the end, I don’t think it much matters. I disclose this being it may provide a clue as to how I ended up here—of my own free will, it goes without saying.

I’m not going to summarise David’s summary because you can just watch his clip for yourself. But the gist of it is that we are all subjectivised or moulded. Foucault tries to convince us that this is the crux of his decades of teaching, but to me, it still comes down to power—to the pressure that creates these diamonds. Diamonds have no free will; they just become diamonds. And so it goes for humans cum subjects.

Not to come across like Rousseau, but I am still interested in understanding what happens to those outside of this sphere of influence.


Cover Image Credit

Kumi Yamashita

BUILDING BLOCKS  2014
H200, W300, D10 cm
Carved wood, single light source, shadow
Permanent Collection Otsuma Women’s University, Tokyo, Japan

Evolution of Free Will

The more I read about free will the more I feel that it is a modern invention. I don’t mean to claim that this is cut and dry, but as the image accompanying this post suggests, Sophocles’ story of Œdipus Rex is precisely about a man attempting to escape his fate. Without getting mired in a discussion about the distinction between fate and determinism, we understand that the plight of Œdipus is set in stone.

As I said, I am simplifying as I know there are authors debating free will before this, but it is also known that many people simply believed that their lives were governed. I suspect that in certain slave societies this might be a source of comfort. If Buddhist thought that life is suffering holds true, what better consolation than it was just meant to be, I might as well just make the best of it.

Enter Christianity and Aquinus. Their god may have set things up, but there can be no notion of growth or responsibility without free will, so we’d better create a narrative around this. How an omniscient creator can not know every possible plotline and twist remains a question, though rationale akin to retrograde motion has been suggested to accommodate it. Now, it seems that we’ve got a little less determined and a little freer if I think of it as a zero-sum game.

Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer

Voltaire, Épître à l’Auteur du Livre des Trois Imposteurs (1769)

By the time Kant enters the picture, he rather spills the beans on the whole narrative. Perhaps riffing on Voltaire’s quip, ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him‘. Kant tells us that if we need to blame people and presume responsibility, then we need to assume free will. And so we did.

In this day and age, most people have been marinated in this worldview, so it’s difficult to see outside of this frame. The rhetoric of free will has been particularly effective. Though we have evidence of free will not being dominant in some cultural conversations, we have little idea in preliterate societies. I’d be interested to gain additional perspective from historians or anthropologists. Some may have already been published. I’ve already been so overwhelmed with the deluge of information and opinions to date. I’ve learned much and have been introduced to many new scholars. As I wrote the other day, this is somewhat daunting. I wish I were a grad student and could justify spending so much time trying to justify my position.

The Appointment in Samarra*

There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning? That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

I was astonished to see him in Bagdad,
for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.

Death

I love this story of fatalism. Originally from the Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a, it’s a story about one attempting to alter their determined fate. An interesting side-comment on the original version. The last line attributes fate to the servant’s feet.

A man’s feet are responsible for him; they lead him to the place where he is wanted

Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 53a

This interpretation would allow for the feet to be determined but in conflict with the intellect and reason of the head, much as is said about the conflict between the head and the heart. It could be argued that the only fate this accounts for is that of death, but that’s well beyond my scope of inquiry.

Final Note

Some people seem to not quite grasp the distinction between constructed and unreal. Many things are human social constructs, from money to states and countries, to nations, to governments, to ethnicities, and to gender. Even sex. All of my favourite weasel words are constructs.

But there’s a difference between money and unicorns. No amount of money can buy you a unicorn. This is the difference between fiction and figment. We can say that money is ‘real’ insomuch as it affects our everyday lives. We transact. We buy things. We sell things. It’s an agreed-upon medium of exchange. Without going into details, long before cryptocurrency, most money is in the form of computer bits and bytes—rather it has no form. The currency and coins we can touch are a small fraction of the money that exists. The money behind your credit card or debit card is not banknotes—and it’s not gold. When a central bank wants to create money, it simply has to type a number in a computer register and press enter, and it exists.

So whilst each of these is pretend, some things are manifest in our ‘real’ world and have real-world implications. Not so much for unicorns and fairies.


* The Appointment in Samarra as retold by W Somerset Maugham (1933)