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November 02, 2004

Means & ends and the net of logic & evidence

Being busy, I've not had time to post anything long or "weighty" in a while. So here are really three posts, only vaguely thematically related, that I have decided to roll into one so as to get them "out of my system," so to speak. As many of you no doubt know, I am curious at how people come to their values, their ideas and concepts, and how they interrelate to each other outside the bounds of explicit A -> B -> C inferences (that is, how is it that things that don't necessarily follow seem to correlate). For example, how many times do people of political convinction X agree to positions 1, 2, 3, 4.... only because they have a strong affinity to position 2 and don't really care much about 1 , 3, 4.... though others of the same label, X, have convinctions about 1, 3, 4.... Or how do people persuade each other in complex disciplines about the validity of propositions where evidence and logic do not suffice to convince? How often do people explicitly parse means from ends, or circumscribe their opinions based on logic, often related to axioms framed by their values, or ends, or their assertions drawn from evidence, often influenced by the means that they wish to go by to attain ends.

I began thinking about this when I saw that a week ago Kevin MacDonald wrote positively of Frank Salter's idea of an ethno-state. What took be me aback was that Kevin was using ideas that have a Hamiltonian pedigree, and derive from inclusive fitness (see Jason's ethnic nepotism post for more oon this topic). Now, Kevin has worked within the group selection paradigm, championed by David Sloan Wilson, to formulate his ideas about Jewish evolutionary psychology. Though I know that proponents of group selection would slot inclusive fitness as part of group selection, many adherents of Hamilton would beg to differ, and Hamilton himself did not look positively upon group selection (though he did not dismiss Kevin MacDonald's work and was familiar with it, he was not convinced about it on scientific grounds). Now, this seems like methodological quibbling, and it is, but it still struck me reading the VDARE essay that Kevin seemed perfectly fine espousing a Salterian inclusive fitness thesis to promote the idea of an ethno-state, something he has come to as his position, through from a more explicit group selection angle.

In the preface to Culture of Critique Kevin documents his transformation from a scholar working within a group selection paradigm to one who, as he says himself, "started to realize that my interests are quite different from prototypical Jewish interests." The science preceded Kevin's values, and now that his values have been established, and his ethnic consciousness has been raised, he of course has no problem in bringing to bear theories outside his own intellectual tradition, but it seems (to me) that scholarship is now a means to an end. This certainly happens more than scholars would like to acknowledge, as the minutiae of their work becomes marginal to the crystal clarity of their convictions.

Start tangent I

When you read Kevin's essay it is clear there are background assumptions. One of the assumptions I believe can be encapsulated in the following assertion: All multicultural states collapse. Let's ignore the reality that all polities tend to collapse, you know what is implied. Here are some problems though.

1) In the pre-modern era multicultural states tended to be empires.
2) Empires tend to collapse for other reasons, they tend to be large, created by a powerful personality, etc..
3) So, it is hard to extract the magnitude of the various components.

But, nevertheless, the general accuracy of this statement (that mulicultural states/polities fail) in the modern context is probably easy to validate. The problem though happens when a certain group will assert that this is a temporally universal phenomena, to the point where it becomes a universal law. On the other hand, one could view it as a function of various parameters peculiar to the modern world (democracy, large polities, tight information networks).

Testing these assertions are difficult. But let me offer an example of a society that was long lived, multicultural, but maintained its core character for nearly 3,000 years. That society is ancient Mesopatamia.

Standard histories divide Mesopatamian history into various epochs, often characterized by a ruling ethnicity. For example:

1) 3000-2000 Sumerian.
2) 2000-1500 Amorite.
3) 1500-1000 Kassite.
4) Between 1000-500 there are foreign rulers and a "native" Neobabylonian dynasty derived from the Chaldaean peoples of the south.

The real story is more complex. During the period between 3000-2000 Sumerian was the dominant written language. The basic character of Mesopatamian character is often said to be "Sumerian" during this period. But, there is strong evidence that a Semitic speaking element was present at all levels of society. Though the commanding heights were more Sumerian than not, the most prominent imperium, that of Sargon of Akkad, was headed by a Semitic dynasty, and the most powerful city-state, Kish, was usually ruled by a Semitic dynasty. In the period after 2000 the Sumerian element seems to disappear, and the language becomes one of ritual, and Akkadian becomes the lingua franca of this period (the correspondence between various Near Eastern potentates is in Akkadian). The dominant peoples were "Amorites," Semitic barbarians who were nomadic transients who were employed as mercenaries, but took over the reins of power and produced men like Hammarubi. Nevertheless, the native stock remained culturally dominant, and the various cities under Hammarubi had their own imprint, from the Assyrians in the north, to the state of Mari on the Upper Euphrates. Later on, the even more alien Kassites ruled Babylonia for 500 years, but the native cultural substrate remained dominant.

The pattern of the congealing of various "ethnicities" seems to reccur for 3,000 years, but the basic character of Mesopatamian civilization remained that which is depicted in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king of Uruk who likely lived around 2500 BCE. Earlier historians attempted to slot the Semites into a servile role in the Sumerian civilization, and had a difficult time reconciling the reality that many of the names on the Kings List were Semitic, indicating a quite high status. The idea was that only one group could be dominant at any given time, and an ideology of nationalism must have been promoted by the Sumerians, as their city-states had clear distinct identities. It seems the reality was fuzzier and more fluid. Ancient peoples were basically similar to moderns in many of their attitudes, but they did not have the thousands of years of backhistory that moderns do, and constellation of implications associated with identifying with any particular ethnicity (as opposed to tribe1) had not taken root, yet.

My point is that positing universal historical/social laws should be taken with a grain of salt when they are at a high order of complexity that would be difficult to imagine existing in the EEA. I suppose I could tell you to go read The Poverty of Historicism, but you get the gist.

Tanget II: A few weeks ago, Jim Nutley said to me:


Razib, why do you even look at stuff like that? A pastor of some church decides to reasure his congregation that they believe the right story and puts together some soothing words. The folks in the pews don't know from "science" but they've heard that them scientists don't believe in God and so they're uncomfortable.

The context was my post where I mention the work of a writer who claims that the Bible is in tight concordance with science.

So why do I "waste" my time with this? Unlike many atheists, I've read a lot of apologetic literature, waded through the details of various theologies & histories of churches, keep myself updated on the latest tactics of Creationists and quasi-Creationists. Induction should tell me that they aren't going to convince after all this time, and I'll find their arguments wanting, to be riddled with logical holes, or, more often, not in good faith when viewed through the lens of a skeptic. Why do I waste my time?

To Jim, I responded that it is important for me to know what the majority of my co-citizens believe. I am interested in human culture and history, and religion is a substantial element of the modal definition of a "human." That is part of it. But there is something else: it is to Witness effectively. What do I mean by that? This is what I mean: a few years ago I was half asleep, and a local talk show host, a liberal New Agey guy of Jewish background decided to talk about the "controversy" about evolution. What resulted that a parade of callers offered the host with all sorts of "disproofs" of evolution. One of the most common things mentioned was that The Second Law of Thermodynamics shows that evolution can't happen.

How did the talk show host respond to this? All he said was "very interesting." Why? Well, how many people have taken a college level course where they encountered thermodynamics? Terms like "enthalpy" aren't in common circulation. Entropy is nothing more than a catch-phrase, and most people couldn't connect it explicitly to thermodynamics. I talked to a friend of mine who is a lawyer, and he told me he wouldn't know what to say to someone who asserted that The Second Law of Thermodynamics means evolution can't occur, because he didn't know what it was. These are just buzzwords to disorient those outside of the know. They add a patina of scientific respectibility to a certain subset of religious fundamentalist beliefs.

I called in, and simply asserted that the law in question only matters in the context of a closed system, blah, blah, blah. These were canned answers you can find at talk.origins, and I really didn't believe that most listenders knew or cared what I was talking about. But the calls about The Second Law of Thermodynamics ceased. I have talked to friends who were Creationists who tried to bullshit me with their talkings points from their Church. I know all the tactics and buzzwords, and respond pretty unthinkingly with the responses you can find on the internet or from books. Does this mean that my friends are no longer Creationists? No, of course not, the ground of their faith is not in the various quasi-scientific jargon they parrot, it is just a tool, a means, to convince others.

So why respond to these people? Because there are third parties witnessing these exchanges. Many people who know little science can be easily impressed by the jargon that some Creationists throw out there, and this can be a wedge for future attempts at conversion and persuasion. The science-talk is secondary, and most of the time those parroting it don't know much about the science itself. Nevertheless, neutralizing them is pretty trivial. You simply trot out the responses that are in existence out there. This generally stops the Creationists in their tracks. If they persist I just flood them with data and theory and try and humiliate them. This doesn't change their own belief systems, and since they don't know much about the science (one Creationist had switched microevolution and macroevolution in his head to hilarious effect, clearly he was memorizing by rote rather than drawing from a genuine interest in biology). It does impact those who observe the exchange. The third parties don't need to understand the science, they just need to know that there are challenges to the "accepted view" that the other individual is espousing.

This applies to nonscientific issues. A friend of mine in college told me he was "questioning his beliefs" and was being drawn to the obvious truths of the Bible. I told him to try and reconcile the two versions of Genesis. He was confused, because he hadn't read the Bible closely enough to notice that (he hadn't really read the Bible much, he was just hanging out with a few people who were evangelical). When he asked his Christian friends about this issue, they seemed confused. I knew very well that conservative Christians have canned responses to this particular issue, but those individuals tend to be very knowledgeable about their scripture, and I knew these individuals wouldn't be able to give a slick answer. This totally disoriented my friend's drift toward the obvious reality of the inerrant Bible (he was a computer science major and so took issues of logic seriously).

So why do I pay attention? I believe that a pluralism of ideas is good. I don't care if people believe in Creationism as long as they remain one point of view, and don't subborn the hard won consensus and method of science. But, I understand that the majority of the public probably has a cognitive bias against science and its quibbling methods, and that the truths of religion always have a competitive advantage, and any ideas which can leverage this (like "Scientific" Creationism) can gain traction (point out that St. Augustine made comments that can be interpreted to be favorable toward the old earth and evolution scores many more points that appealing to Darwin). Obviously most espousers of evolution don't have time to pay attention to quasi-scientific arguments against the established order, so some of us have to play that role. It is in a way part of the ESS of ideas. There have been those of us who act as neutralizers against the constant, and likely eternal, march of irrationality against the special method that the West has pioneered within the last 500 years and resulted in modernity. It is a metastable state, always in flux.

Conclusion: As I said, the thematic connections are tenuous, nevertheless, I think I have reiterated the trivial observation that the human mind is not a linear proposition generating machine. Rather, our minds are a tangled web that mimics the reality of our brain, with the myriad connections between neurons generating an electrical mesh. When we dialogue with people we have simplified models of their mental mesh, because there are so many things going on "under the hood," often even without the conscious knowledge of the individual in question, the "Cartesian Theater" gets all the glamor and publicity, but the reality is that hard working mental modules in the basement are doing much of the heavy lifting. "Simple" fields like mathematics can work in the bright airy realm of pure logic, supplemented by intuitional insights, but the murky workings in other fields of "scholarship" are under the control of forces that we don't acknowledge.

So, should we give up on an objective reality? No, the failings of our own mental capacities do not mean that those frail faculties demand that the world "out there" is an illusion. We need to strive onward and upward, refine our mental models, make explicit those with whom we disagree, clarify the various feedback loops and segregate our norms from our data.

1 - Doesn't ethnicity exist as a higher level tribe? Not always, the ancient "Belgae" seemed to be a confederation of tribes with both Celtic and Germanic elements.

Posted by razib at 10:34 AM