The Truth is that history is not evolving toward Truth

My friend Walter Olson pointed me to this from John Locke:

To love truth for truth’s sake is the principal part of human perfection in this world, and the seed-plot of all other virtues.

This is great and inspirational quote, but in most interpretive sieves I believe it is wrong. Hume’s assertion that “reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions” is closer to the truth in terms of describing the typical human in terms of how they think, and what they value.

One of the insights of modern cognitive science is that the “rational” and “reflective” component of our mind tends to promote some delusions about its role in our decision-making process. Rather than being the conductor, it’s more often the rationalizer. That is, we make a decision, and then we concoct rationales after the fact. One can think of conscious rationality as a public relations outfit, as opposed to the client.

None of this is deep wisdom, and the latest research is all outlined in The Enigma of Reason. But, another issue which I think is important to note is that the propaganda over the generations by the very small proportion of the population for whom reason and truth are prioritized as the summum bonum of human existence, as implied by Locke’s assertion, have biased our understanding of history. The reason being that they are the ones disproportionately writing the history! Our species’ collective memory lies to us because cultural organs of memory have their own agendas (albeit, unconsciously!).

In Near Eastern antiquity the scribal caste was very much a group of literate wizards. No doubt some elements of literacy percolated to the general public, as is evident by graffito hieroglyphics by workers in ancient Egypt, but habitual engagement with the written word was the purview of a small group of professionals. These individuals dealt in abstraction in their day to day, and by the middle of the first millennium B.C. out of the culture of scribes developed the group we would term intellectuals. The philosophers, prophets, and sages of antiquity. A period when religion, magic, and science, were all one.

Of course, many of these intellectuals were not from the scribal caste as such. Many were aristocrats and gentry (e.g., Siddhartha and Plato). But by this time literacy had spread out beyond the scribal castes, and a civilian elite culture had emerged which valued intellectual pursuits in some fashion. Elite male leadership training in some societies began to include intellectual arts as part of their education. But we should be cautious about inferring from this that these elite males valued rhetoric and philosophy as ends in and of themselves. Rather, rhetoric and philosophy exhibited some instrumental (in politics for the former) and signaling value (abstruse philosophical abstraction could only be mastered by those with leisure and means, so it suggested one’s class origin and cultivation).

Across the centuries, and even millennia, the minority of intellectuals who notionally chased the truth, Plato, Sima Qian, and Ibn Khaldun, remain in our memories because their ideas were powerful, attractive, and their intellectual coherency and brilliance impressed future generations of thinkers. But we need not infer from this that in their own time they were of such inordinate fame or glory in relation to others of similar note though intellectual mediocrity. To give a concrete example, for a few shining decades phlogiston and Lysenkoism were bright and influential, even though the latter, and possibly the former, were both fraudulent enterprises.

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Two thousand years of philosophy on the margin

A little less than two years ago I began to read Anthony Kenny’s A New History of Western Philosophy. It’s a big book, on the order of ~1000 pages. But that’s not the reason I’m just now finishing it. The book is divided by chronologically and thematically. I read about the ancients in about a week, but struggled to get past the medieval section. I’ve mentioned this before.

And yet in my self-pity I did wonder: is this partly just a function of the fact that ancient philosophy provided most of the answers (or non-answers) in what we think of as philosophy over a few centuries? As they say, perhaps the rest is simply commentary and extension.

If society collapsed and we reverted to barbarism it seems it would be a loss if we didn’t have the Principia. But if we had philosophy up to Seneca, would we miss what came after?

Reason is but a slave of passions as it always has been

David Hume stated that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” I don’t know about the ought part, that’s up for debate. But the is part seems empirically true. The reasons people give for this or that is often just a post hoc rationalization. To give a different twist to this contention, others have argued that reason exists to win arguments, not converge upon truth. Or more precisely in my opinion to give the patina of erudition or abstraction to sentiments which are fundamentally derived from emotion or manners enforced through group norms (ergo, the common practice of ‘educated’ people citing scholars whose work we can’t evaluate to buttress our own preconceptions; we all do it).

One of the reasons I recommend In Gods We Trust, and cognitive anthropology more generally, to atheists and religious skeptics is that it gives a better empirical window into the mental processes that are really at work, as opposed to those which people say are at work (or, more unfortunately, those they think are at work). In In Gods We Trust the author reports on research conducted where religious believers are given a set of factual assertions purportedly from scholarship (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls). These assertions on the face of it flatly contradict their religious beliefs in some deep fundamental way. But when confronted with facts which seem to logically refute the coherency of their beliefs, they often still accept the validity of the scholarship before them. When asked about the impact on their beliefs? Respondents generally asserted that the new facts strengthened their beliefs.

This is one reason that cognitive anthropologists term religious ‘reasoning’ quasi-propositional. It takes the general form of analysis from axioms, but ultimately the rationality is besides the point, it is simply a quiver in the arrow of a broader and deeper cognitive phenomenon.

To give a personal example which illustrates this. Many many years ago I knew a Jewish girl of Modern Orthodox girl background passingly. She once asserted to me that the event of the Holocaust strengthened her belief in her God. I didn’t follow through on this discussion, as it was too disturbing to me. But it brought home to me that in some way the “reasoning” of many religious people leaves me totally befuddled (and no doubt vice versa).

As it happens, while in the course of writing this post, I found out that Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, the authors of the above argument in relation to reason and argumentation, published a book last month, The Enigma of Reason. I encourage readers to get it. I just bought a Kindle copy. Dan Sperber, who I interviewed 12 years ago, is a very deep thinker on the level of Daniel Kahneman. He’s French, and his prose can be somewhat difficult, so I wonder if that’s one reason he’s not nearly as well known).

Ultimately the point of this post actually goes back to genomics and history. Anne Gibbons has an excellent piece in Science, There’s no such thing as a ‘pure’ European—or anyone else. In it she draws on the most recent research in human population genomics to refute antiquated ideas about the purity of any given population. If you have read this blog for the past few years you already know most human populations are complex admixtures; that is, it isn’t a human family tree, but a human family graph.

Gibbons’ piece attacks directly some standard racialist talking points which have been refuted on a factual basis by genetic science:

When the first busloads of migrants from Syria and Iraq rolled into Germany 2 years ago, some small towns were overwhelmed. The village of Sumte, population 102, had to take in 750 asylum seekers. Most villagers swung into action, in keeping with Germany’s strong Willkommenskultur, or “welcome culture.” But one self-described neo-Nazi on the district council told The New York Times that by allowing the influx, the German people faced “the destruction of our genetic heritage” and risked becoming “a gray mishmash.”

In fact, the German people have no unique genetic heritage to protect. They—and all other Europeans—are already a mishmash, the children of repeated ancient migrations, according to scientists who study ancient human origins. New studies show that almost all indigenous Europeans descend from at least three major migrations in the past 15,000 years, including two from the Middle East. Those migrants swept across Europe, mingled with previous immigrants, and then remixed to create the peoples of today.

First, let’s set aside the political question of welcoming on the order of one million refugees to Germany. I will not post comments discussing that.

As a point of fact the truth genetically in relation to Germans is even more complex than what Gibbons’ asserts. When I worked with FamilyTree DNA I had access to their database and presented at their year conference some interesting results from people whose four grandparents were from Germany. In short, Germans tended to fall into three main clusters, one that was strongly skewed toward people from some parts of France, another which was shifted toward Scandinavians, and a third which was very similar to Slavs.

The historical and cultural reasons for this are easy to guess at or make conjectures. The takeaway here is that unlike Finns, or Irish, and to a great extent Scandinavians and Britons, Germany exhibits a lot of population substructure within it because of assimilation or migration in the last ~1,000 years. This is why genetically saying someone is “German” is very difficult when compared to saying someone is Polish or Swedish. By dint of their cultural expansiveness Germans are everyone and no one set next to other Northern Europeans* (with the exception perhaps of the French…I’m sure Germans will appreciate this comparison!).

The conceit of these sort of pieces is that racists will confront refutations which will shatter their racist axioms. But since most of the people who are writing these pieces and read Science are not racists, they won’t have a good intuition on the cognitive processes at work for genuine racists.

This causes problems. As a comparison, many atheists seem to think that refutation of the Athanasian creed will blow Christians away and make them forsake their God (or showing them contradictions in the Bible, admit that you’ve gone through that phase!). Though the Church Father Tertullian’s assertion that he “believed because it is absurd” is more subtle than I often make it out to be, on the face of it it does reflect how outsiders view a normative social group like Christianity.

The emphasis here is on normative. Social or religious movements and sentiments are often about norms, which emerge at the intersection of history, intuition, instinct, and facts. I place facts last in the list, because I think it is a defensible stance to take that facts are the least important variable!

The field of cultural evolution has shown that group cohesion and communal norms have been major drivers of human evolution. Likely there has been gene-cultural coevolution so that group conformity has been selected for as a way to make social units operate more smoothly. Social cognition is a thing; people believe what they believe because other people in their social groups believe something, not because they’ve reasoned to it themselves. Originally reasoning is hard. Letting others derive for you, and plugging and chugging is easy. As Muhammad stated, the Ummah will not agree upon error! The smarter people are, the better they are are reasoning…but the better they are at motivated reasoning, ignorance, and rationalization.

When faced with disconfirming evidence some people can dig in and deny the plain facts. Creationists are a straightforward case of this. Then there are evaders.  From what I have seen on the political Left in the United States at least over the last 15 years (when I’ve been engaging actively with people on the internet) there has been a consistent pattern of obfuscation and dodging the likely reality of sex differences in many quarters. When pinned down on the fundamentals few deny the principle or the possibility, but they almost always impose an extremely high level of skepticism that is not found in other domains, where their epistemology is far less stringent.

But then there is a third case, where facts that seem to refute on first blush to you  only strengthen the beliefs of someone with whom you already disagree. I am generally of the view that the rise of naturalistic science has probably undermined the case for classical supernaturalist theism, which emerged in the pre-modern era. Reasonable people can disagree, as I have smart religious friends who are also scientists. Some of these people, like Francis Collins, will even assert that modern findings which boggle the mind and shock our intuitions confirm and strengthen their belief in pre-modern religious systems!

My point is not to take a strong stance on science and religion. Rather, it is to say that when you present evidence and declare “I refute you thus!”, they may simply respond “Aha! You have proven my point!”

In relation to the Gibbons’ article the writing has been on the wall for at least three years, and probably longer. In Towards a new history and geography of human genes informed by ancient DNA Pickrell and Reich content:

…Implicit in this research is the assumption that the geographic locations of people today are informative about the geographic locations of their ancestors in the distant past. However, it is now clear that long-range migration, admixture and population replacement have been the rule rather than the exception in human history. In light of this, we argue that it is time to critically re-evaluate current views of the peopling of the globe and the importance of natural selection in determining the geographic distribution of phenotypes. We specifically highlight the transformative potential of ancient DNA. By accessing the genetic make-up of populations living at archaeologically-known times and places, ancient DNA makes it possible to directly track migrations and responses to natural selection.

Since this was published in spring of 2014 the evidence has gotten stronger and stronger. That is, the distribution of outcomes is getting more consistent and converging to a high confidence truth.

From this, are we to conclude that white nationalism would decline from marginal to non-existent in the past three years? A review of the empirical data does not seem to support that proposition. Therefore, a naive model that white nationalism is predicated on facts about racial purity may be wrong.

The responses that I have seen (often in the form of comments I don’t publish on this weblog) are denial/rejection, confusion, reinterpretation and vindication (along with standard issue racial insults directed toward me, their colored cognitive inferior). As with the religious case I have a difficult time “putting myself” in the shoes of a racialist of any sort, so I don’t totally understand how they’re getting from A to B, but in their own minds they are.

Let’s reaffirm what’s going on here: white racial consciousness in the United States has exploded on the public scene over the past three years, just as scientists have come to the very strong conclusion that the “white European race” as we understand it is an artifact of the last ~5,000 years or so.**

We need to go back to Hume, and the anthropological understanding of what reason is. Reason is a tool to confirm what you already hold to be true and good. If reason falsifies in some way what you hold to be true and good, that does not mean for most people that reason is where they will stand. Likely there will be some subtle reinterpretation, but magically reason will support their presuppositions. Ask the descendants of the followers of William Miller about falsification.

The fact is that very few people in the world know about David Reich and his research. I know this personally because I’m a voluble evangelist, and many geneticists, even human geneticists, are not aware of the revolution in historical population genetics that ancient DNA has wrought. I do not know any Nazis personally, I suspect that perhaps their knowledge of human phylogenomics is not at the same level as a typical geneticist.

Of course this sort of logic about logic cuts both ways. Before 2010 I actually assumed, as did most human geneticists who took an interest in these topics, that human populations had long been resident in their region of current occupation for tens of thousands of years. When I read Reconstructing Indian Population History by David Reich I was shocked out of my prior model, because the inferences were so ingenious and plausible, and, the updated story of how South Asians came to be actually made a lot of anomalies make a lot more sense. When Lazaridis et al. posted Ancient human genomes suggest three ancestral populations for present-day Europeans on biorxiv in the December of 2013 I was far more surprised, because I had always assumed that the thesis that most European ancestry dated to the Pleistocene in any given region was a robust one. Both the phylogeography from mtDNA and Y pointed to a Pleistocene origin.

But the data were compelling. It’s one thing to make inferences on present day genetic distribution, it’s another to actually genotype ancient individuals (remember, I can reanalyze the data myself, and have done so numerous times). Lazaridis et al. and Priya Moorjani’s Genetic Evidence for Recent Population Mixture in India totally changed my personal life. All of a sudden my wife and I were far closer emotionally and spiritually because we understood that the TMRCA of many segments in our autosomal genome was about 5-fold closer than I had assumed!!!***

Actually, the last sentence is a total fiction. The history which changed how I understood my wife and I to be related on a historical population genetic sense had zero impact on our relationship. That’s because we’re not racists, and race doesn’t really impact our relationship too much (the fact that my parents are Muslim, well, that’s a different issue….). Sorry Everyday Feminism. This is not an uncommon view, though perhaps not as common as we’d assumed of late (actually, as someone who has looked at the fascinating interracial dating research, I pretty much understood that what people say is quite different than what they do; anti-racism is the conformist thing to do, so people will play that tune for a while longer).

Just because the state of the world is one particular way, it does not naturally follow that it should be that way, or that it always will be that way. Most ethical religions saw in slavery an aspect of injustice; rational arguments aside, on some level extension of empathy and sympathy makes its injustice self-evident. But they accepted that it was an aspect of the world that was naturally baked into the structure of reality. The de jure abolition of slavery today does not mean it has truly gone away, but its practice has certainly been curtailed, and much of the cruelty diminished. Theories of human nature or necessities of economic production at the end of the day gave way changing mores and values. Facts about the world became less persuasive when we decided to let them no longer dictate tolerance of slavery.

All that I say above in relation to how humans use reason does not leave scientists or journalists untouched. All humans have their own goals, and even though they see through the glass darkly, they see in the visions beyond what they want to see. The cultural and theoretical structure of modern science is such that some of these impulses are dampened and human intuitions are channeled in a manner so that theories and models of the world seem to correspond to reality. But I believe this is deeply unnatural, and also deeply fragile. When moving outside of their domain of specialty scientists can be quite blind and irrational. Even when one steps away at a mild remove in terms of domain knowledge this becomes clear, such as when Linus Pauling promoted Vitamin C. And motivated reasoning can creep into the actions of even the greatest of scientists, such as when R. A. Fisher rejected the causal connection between tobacco and cancer.****

I will end on a frank and depressing note: I believe that the era of public reason and fealty to empirical standards in at least official capacities is fading. Social cognition, tribal logic, is on the rise. But we have to remember that in the historical perspective social cognition and tribal logic ruled the day. They are the norm. This is age when he abide by public reason is the peculiarity in the sea of polemic. Ultimately it may be the fool who fixates on being right or wrong, as opposed to being on the winning team. I hope I’m wrong on this.

Addendum: I have written a form of this post many times.

* The current chancellor of Germany has a Polish paternal grandfather.

** If Middle Easterners are included as white we can extended the time horizon much further back, but that seems to defeat the purpose of white nationalism in the United States….

*** I had assumed that the western affinity in South Asians had diverged from Europeans during the Last Glacial Maximum. In turns out some of it may be as recent as ~4,500 years ago or so.

**** This may have been unconsciously as opposed to malicious, as Fisher was keen on tobacco personally.