Obscurantism in the service of transformation

The paper, Ancient Admixture in Human History, was peculiar as far as genetics publications go in that it foregrounds particular abstruse statistical methods developed due to the stimulus of genome-wide variation data. The surfeit of genomic data has resulted in the emergence of many subtle and almost impenetrable works laced with formalisms which daunt most biologists. But given time and effort, these newer methods relying upon greater analytic sophistication are decipherable.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, consider Mathematical Models of Social Evolution. This is a book with a fair amount of formality, but the topic, culture, social change, are often considerations which we ruminate upon verbally.

I open up to page 238 (I literally opened a random page).

…According to this approximation, the altruistic gene will increase whenever

    \[ \frac{g}{c} > \frac{2n}{\Omega} \]

In intrademic models in which groups are formed at random, \Omega = 1. In contrast, if groups were made up of full-sibs, \Omega = 2n. This provides a natural scale on which to judge the effectiveness of interdemic selection. If \Omega is near one, interdemic group selection is no more effective than intrademic group selection with random group formation, which is to say, it cannot lead to the evolution of strong altruism. If \Omega is large, then itnerdemic group selection is effective.

On first blush, the passage can seem impenetrable. But most of the people reading this are probably not intimidated by mathematical formalism. Many of you will know what intrademic and interdemic selection are. Some of you who are more numerically oriented may test some values to develop an intuition. The point is that the formalism is not there to intimidate. It is meant to illuminate. It is there so individuals thinking on the same problem can have a crisp currency with which they can exchange ideas.

Another major reason that this sort of formalism exists is that it’s clear when you think someone is wrong. A problem with many verbal arguments is that they are unspecified or vague in such a way that you’re not even sure if you disagree or agree with your interlocutor. The point is to get somewhere. Coherency. Contingency. And cumulativeness.

Applying a mathematical theory derived from evolutionary biology to cultural and social change strikes many people as strange. But there’s a method to this madness. Theory with data can give birth to a better understanding of the processes which define our world. A description of reality.

In contrast, let me quote Noam Chomsky:

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Plato, St. Ambrose, Marcuse: heralds for our age

It galls me to agree with the proposition that Western philosophy consists of footnotes to Plato, but it is at least fair to admit that Western intellectual thought exists in dialogue with him and his thinking. But the spare and arrogant idealism which Plato and his followers promoted is not entirely alien to the landscape of human cognition. It is not purely invention, but has a basis in intuition. A tendency to abstract, and confuse the abstract with reality, seems hard-wired into our mental architecture. As Paul Bloom would say, we are natural born essentialists (and dualists).

One implication of Platonic idealism seems to be that striving for the perfect form of truth bleeds over into a conceited belief that one’s understanding of the truth is Truth itself. I do not believe that Christianity is necessarily understood only in the light of the mental universe which Plato and his detractors created, but it is hard to deny the Platonic tincture of much of early Christian thought as it diffused throughout the ancient world and began to make converts among the elites. Christian thinking may hinge upon divine revelation, but its theistic illuminations gained rigor and steel via philosophical certitudes.

St. Ambrose was a man of such steel. A scion of the West Roman elite he matured in an era when the heights of society were still religiously pluralistic, with the most eminent and ancient families and men of renown, such as Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, exhibiting clear pagan sympathies. Or perhaps they might characterize it as a fondness for the customary gods of Rome.

In 382 there was a dispute in Rome over the removal of the Altar of Victory from the Roman Senate. Symmachus entered into the record an apologia for the restoration of the statue. He makes a plea:

We ask, then, for peace for the gods of our fathers and of our country. It is just that all worship should be considered as one. We look on the same stars, the sky is common, the same world surrounds us. What difference does it make by what pains each seeks the truth? We cannot attain to so great a secret by one road; but this discussion is rather for persons at ease, we offer now prayers, not conflict.

St. Ambrose, whose faith was on the march, and the future, did not mince words:

But if you deny Christ to be God, because you believe not that He died (for you are ignorant that death was of the body not of the Godhead, which has brought it to pass that now no one of those who believe dies), what is more thoughtless than you who honour with insult, and disparage with honour, for you consider a piece of wood to be your god. O worship full of insult! You believe not that Christ could die, O perversity founded on respect!

Symmachus asked for tolerance, because that was all his kind could ask for. St. Ambrose and the other militants saw no gain to such tolerance, because they had truth before them, and denying the truth was an insult to all. Tolerance of idolatry and superstition was no tolerance.

In 1965 Herbert Marcuse wrote Repressive Tolerance. He begins:

THIS essay examines the idea of tolerance in our advanced industrial society. The conclusion reached is that the realization of the objective of tolerance would call for intolerance toward prevailing policies, attitudes, opinions, and the extension of tolerance to policies, attitudes, and opinions which are outlawed or suppressed. In other words, today tolerance appears again as what it was in its origins, at the beginning of the modern period–a partisan goal, a subversive liberating notion and practice. Conversely, what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today, is in many of its most effective manifestations serving the cause of oppression.

These ideas find relevance today, where one descendent of Critical Theory has transformed dissent and offense into violence, and so justifies suppression of disagreeable thought. St. Ambrose would have used different logic because of a differing metaphysical basis, but I believe the psychological impulses are not so different. Tolerance of error is problematic when that error leads to injustice, impiety, and diminishes the “good society,” however it is imagined.

There are those who believe that they know the Truth. Plato and his acolytes had their conceit as philosopher kings. St. Ambrose and his fellow believers had divine revelation, and were seeking to bring all those in the darkness who disagreed with their views to the light. Following St. Augustine the pre-modern Catholic Church asserted that “error has no rights”.

The latest flare up of this sentiment among particular cultural elites, sometimes termed the “regressive Left” (somewhat of a contradiction clearly), is but latest incarnation of this viewpoint. They believe that the time for tolerance is over, as tolerance gives sanction and space to error and impiety (these are called “oppression” now). The liberal “end of history” seems to be evading us, the old battles reoccur with a regularity that hints at an eternal recurrence.  Every few generations the battle with Tiamat must be joined, as monsters issue from the darkness of our cultural Id.

As a descriptive matter it strikes me that some have now denied that words as a tool of discussion, dialogue, and dispute, have utility to discover truth. Those who object with words are engaged in a likely futile exercise, just as pleas for the tolerance of the old religion were futile. A new world was upon them, they simply lacked our hindsight to see the dawning of the age of the One True God. Perhaps in a different universe history took a different course. In those universes I doubt the old gods survived through persuading the believers of the new Lord with words.

The age of words is over. If words become violence, then violence becomes the tool of ultimate persuasion, compulsion. If truth is all about power, then power is all there is. In a Whiggish telling we as a species came out of the blood and darkness, the struggle for power and zero-sum contests for collective domination. But perhaps we are destined to become what we were, creatures forged in blood and power, unable to resist the temptations of coercion and compulsion.