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14 March 2006

Blowing Quantum Foam Bubbles...

Or: "How Not Thinking Hierarchically About Nature Will Get You In Trouble: Part n In A Seemingly Infinite Series."

Part n, as reported in our nation's greatest journal of fiction, The New York Times. (They do sometimes get things factually correct.)

Quantum indeterminancy at the ultramicroscopic level does not necessarily say jack squat about the existence (or not) of free will in one recently evolved species of primate -- let alone anything about the ability of that species' contingently evolved self-consciousness (an apparently unique event, at least in degree) to somehow reconstitute the universe at the quantum level, as this article righteously points out. Not that effects across levels of complexity are ruled out a priori, but they are often assumed a priori.

Reductionism is well-known; but its opposite (there must be a technical name for it) -- the a priori belief that the levels of greater (or greatest -- usually, the human mind) complexity somehow dominate the behavior of the less complex levels -- is equally silly, IMHO.

Re: the subject of this article. Just another escape from reality, IMHO. When are we going to just grow up as a species? Nobody's tending the universe, including ourselves. We can't even tend our own little planet! So, let's just get on with life and all things life-enhancing, already! Grrr. :)

Meanwhile, while upper-middle-class Americans search endlessly for "meaning" in God, the quantum flux, Madonnakabbala, shopping, et al, etc., &c., 3 billion people go hungry for no good reason whatsoever, to name only one gigantic issue among many.

Call me a crazy Marxist (I'm not -- a Marxist, that is ;)) but Engels was dead on when he wrote of the need to view nature hierarchically (other non-Marxists have done so, too, of course -- in case you're all worried now). Classic example: wetness does not exist at the subatomic level. Or atomic. Or molecular. Only when you've got a whole lot of H2Os hanging around do you get "wetness." Is that some kind of fuzzy mysticism? Nope. No natural selection occurs with one individual -- you must have a population ("individual" doesn't necessarily mean "organism," btw). Does that mean natural selection is fuzzy mysticism? Nope. A matter of which level of complexity of matter matters. Or: it's a good bet (not a sure bet) that proximate causation for a phenomenon will be found, well, at the level most proximate to that in which the phenomenon occurs. Especially after 400 years of quite successful reductionism in the sciences, I hasten to add. Might be a good idea to think a little more broadly, without falling into some fuzzy mysticism. I guess Goethe might have had a point, scientifically, after all? (See his Theory of Colors -- can't find a link to an English version online...)

This admittedly rushed version of what I'm trying to get across applies to time as well as space, I think: what does it matter what happened to a few thousand primates on the savanna 10 million years ago (unknowable, anyway) when you're concerned with, say, why 3 billion people go hungry every day, 2001 notwithstanding. Might the answer be found in, oh, I don't know, economic and social systems, and in the recent history thereof? This is coming from an evolutionist, remember -- just not a reductionist evolutionist. Evolution throws down the frame, but 1. we can't know exactly what that frame was, or even is; 2. we do know that the frame of possible actions is quite large, as we have a hugely flexible brain; 3. therefore, the "reasons" must exist within the frame. I wouldn't blame poverty on, say, gravity, but that doesn't mean I don't accept Einsteinian spacetime.

Get yer levels right; look for interdependencies, but don't assume that any level of complexity in nature (or mind) has priority or dominance in any phenomenon, a priori. Also, and it goes against the American ideology to consider the following, but there may actually be things we cannot know, let alone control. In fact, it seems outrageously hubristic to expect, as many seem to, at least subconsciously, that we, a recently evolved primate species on one tiny planet in one corner of a gigantic universe, will "figure it all out" ("Theories of Everything," whether in physics, religion, politics, biology, [sub in field of thought here]). Let alone that the universe exists for us. I don't see the difference between that notion and the one that noses were created to hold up eyeglasses, the sun to warm our faces, and so forth.

Re: reductionism, or, "figuring it all out.":

Having just finished creating hundreds of test items for an ethics course, and having had to review a lot of ethical philosophy (as well as read plenty I never had before), I can say the following. I have yet to find a better ethical rule than the one Confucius (not Jesus) was the first to state: "Do not impose on others what you yourself do not desire." (see here, too; he said it twice -- or at least, whoever recorded him in the Analects between the 5th and 2nd centuries BC did). And of course, there will be case-based exceptions to this rule, too, but the burden is on those who would flout the rule.

It's a heck of lot closer than Bentham's felicific calculus (a ridiculous notion: one must go around literally calculating the pain and pleasure each and every moral action will cause before acting) or Kant's equally ridiculous insistence on categorical imperatives, which he actually extended to the point of saying that truth telling applies even in a situation in which you are asked by a murderer where his next victim is. I mean it; Kant defended this position. Now, don't get me wrong: Kant was brilliant, more so, I may say, than anyone reading (or writing) this post. That's what's scary about his dogmatism. The modern defender of the sanctity of personal autonomy was led to privilege truth telling over a human life in order to defend a non-consequentialist ethical system. If murder doesn't remove human autonomy unfairly, I don't know what does.

As Mark Twain once wrote, in "The Diaries of Adam and Eve":

In fact I was not sorry she came, for there are but meagre pickings here, and she brought some of those apples. I was obliged to eat them, I was so hungry. It was against my principles, but I find that principles have no real force except when one is well fed.
Exactly. So, let's make sure everyone's well fed; then we can all discuss categorical imperatives and suchlike.


  1. Read here John Stuart Mill justify England's occupation of India. One need not be anti-intellectual to note that intellect has often been bent to justification of power and racism, even by one as enlightened (for his time) as Mill. Instructive for us all.

  2. um doug-we need to discuss this:

    noses were created to hold up eyeglasses

    Perfume man, its all about the perfume. Ask me, I have ALL the answers :-)

  3. p.s. interesting post.

    As a species, people really are so pretentious, aren't we?

  4. Doug - I think I see things a little differently than "intellect has often been bent to justify power", rather, intellect is one of the tools available to power; thought and expression are means by which people obtain and maintain power. Its difficult to imagine how to escape this unfortunate reality, but as always I'm open to suggestions.

    Whether your goals are to feed the world or dominate it, neither end is obtainable without amassing and maintaining power - whether its as an individual or among a heirarchized social group devoted to the "good" the "evil", the "moral" or the "amoral".

  5. That power is needed in order to accomplish any goal is unquestionable. It all depends on what "amassing power" means. If it is amassed in a "top-down" and undemocratic fashion, I'd say that's not only unfair but also more than likely not to take any interests other than those at the top into account. If it's amassed in a "bottom-up" and democratic fashion, I'd say first that that would be a nice thing to try, finally. Furthermore, that would most likely distribute goods and resources (and Goods) more equitably, if not perfectly.

    Flattening out hierarchies, which would be eased by some sane population control, would go a long way toward moving human effort ("power") toward long-term, sustainable ends.

    But this post was more about the dangers of dogma than of power, per se. It is worth contemplating that Kant defended telling a murderer the truth of where his intended victim is, and that Mill defended Britain's colonial domination over "savages."

    Two brilliant men who spent the bulk of their time thinking about ethics. Scary, no?

  6. Scary, yes. Very. But as in all cases of fear, the "how" of your project is made no clearer by their example.

    And not only would "Amassing power in a bottom-up and democratic fashion" be thing to try, it has been tried, repeatedly throughout history, with mixed results. In any political group, leaders are a requirement - leaders who attract and guide the actions of those around them. Now you can have "good" leaders and "evil" leaders, based on your definitions thereof, but you can't do without the leader part. If you believe otherwise, good luck to ya - as for me, I'll believe it when I see it.

    Here's my definition of a "good" leader - one who does two things - 1. Provides for people, and 2. Maintains their power so they can continue to do so.

    My definition of an "evil" leader - one who does two things - 1. Maintains their power so they can 2. provide for people.

  7. When has bottom-up democracy been tried? With no restrictions? How about, never? I say we try. In such a system, leadership would be both shared and earned.

  8. Social experiementation of the sort has been happening since Rousseau - communal living, anarchist compounds, Students for a Democratic Society. In all cases the situation proved so complicated and unwieldy that leaders would emerge and direct policy for the group.

    But not to be pessimistic, what do you have in mind? How do you envision this "leadership shared and earned" thing working on a practical level?

  9. Those anarcho-syndacilist-ish examples actually can work, when allowed to. The South End Press has been operating that way for decades. Zmag, too. All of Znet, actually.

    Leaders are chosen from a collective, and rotate; they don't get millions of dollars to figure out what people think they want, appeal to that, and buy the votes. Which is our current "democracy."

  10. Perhaps your examples are correct, but running a small, ideologically coherent media outlet is a far cry from running a society that must manage social order, crime and punishment, taxation, civil law, and self-defense. "Leaders are chosen from a collective and rotate". And who gets to "choose"? If there's some meritocratic system, on what basis are some people weighted more than others for the purposes of selection? IQ? Ethics? Or are we going to rotate the Avg. Joe Schmo to be President every 2 weeks so everyone gets a chance to fuck up equally?

    OK, I'll admit my last question was rhetorically snarky, but think about it, these are the questions that will need to be addressed BEFORE the revolution gets underway so that people don't panic and start defending their property and lives with barbed wire and 12-gauges.

    Believe me, I'm open to anything - I realize the status quo is not working. But - I guess I need more beef (apologies to vegetarians).

  11. The IWW did a pretty good job providing food and (unfortunately necessary) weapons during the first three decades of the last century. "Wobblies," they were called, and that kind of anarcho-syndicalist notion avoids the silliness of authoritarian socialism without devolving into an endless meeting, as is the usual stereotype.

    "Anarchism" is a misnomer, and I suppose they're responsible for it (though I don't know), but what it really ought to be called is "participatory democracy," or "participatory economics," which is a recent development. Or, "libertarian socialism" -- but they'll argue for hours about the difference.

    It seems to me that democracy, self-rule (choosing rotating leaders, obviously), and true representation in both politics and in corporations would be a nice idea to try. In other words, do what we preach, at least in politics, and apply what we believe to economics.

    Seems better than a Wall-Street-oligarchy-run faux republic. The key is not the total absence of leaders, but the very conservative notion that no one can be trusted with power for very long. I also don't buy the technocrat argument.

    Of course, a different education system -- one that doesn't create consumers but critical thinkers -- would be needed...

    But all I'm suggesting is the achievement of actual eighteenth-century Enlightenment notions -- left-Enlightenment, but still, protection of rights and self-rule.

    That's all.

  12. "Reason" is a nice idea, don't get me wrong. Brings lots of benefits in tow. And I wish it were the whole picture, believe me. I certainly want it to be. But Enlightenment Liberalism has major problems hard-coded in it.

    On the one hand, the State is seen as an obstacle to freedom - the individual has an inherent right to pursue his or her goals, and as such, is always prioritized over the will of the State. Your "self-rule".

    On the other hand, the State is responsible for quelling social disorder by nurturing and providing for those who don't thrive in an environment of individual liberty. Your "protection of rights".

    In short, this is a prescription for class war and resentment, because... here it comes... people naturally tend to use their liberty to seek power, via persuasion or violence. Its not a question of Hobbes vs. Rousseau - are people "naturally good" or "naturally evil". The fact is we are born without either, we are literally "beneath good and evil" altogether. What we have is a collection of emotional circuits that we have evolved to compete in an environment very different from the one we find ourselves in. Is this prescriptive? No, but it does mean that the will-to-power is a real thing. And it will always be with us, until we naturally or artifically select a humanity that's very different than the one we see before us today. Brave New World is a more ethical place, I agree with you. But establishing a Liberal State that will protect us from our own impulses is like putting wild tigers in a cage without bars and expecting them to not eat the tourists.

    Nature vs. Culture, which is subordinate? I know we differ on this point. I wish I could give in and agree with you, it would make things so much easier. But I maintain based on observation that culture is limited in its abilities to contain and script human behavior because the nature within us has a nasty habit of erupting when it is repressed by rationality. Culture is always fighting a losing battle with nature.

    Because of this reality, for me, its not entirely fair to use outside forces as scapegoats for liberalism's inherent difficulties.

  13. I don't think anyone ever claimed Reason was the whole picture. Not Plato, not any of the Enlightenment philosophers I'm familiar with, not Marx, not Freud, not anyone. The notion is to maximize reason and rationality, set up systems that disincentivize irrationality (and don't play on it or feed it), including educational and political, and to try to improve our fortunes here on Earth.

    As for the conflict between individual rights and social justice (or state power), that's exactly what the Federalist, to pick one text, is all about. As well as every other liberal text up to Rawls' A Theory of Justice. In fact, reconciling those two lies, I suspect behind Kant's categorical imperatives.

    So, yes, liberal -- and leftwing -- thought in general has struggled with this balance.

    But I don't agree with your presentation of the dichotomy. Even an extreme liberal (today, "paleo-conservative") like J. S. Mill felt that one's liberty ended when it infringed upon another's, and that the state should act in such a way as to make the minimal impact on liberty possible (what Isaiah Berlin called "negative liberty"). Questions of distributive justice were handled by a kind of rule-utilitarianism.

    The State is not responsible for quelling social disorder but encouraging social peace and justice. Nor is it only a "nurturer" for those who can't hack it in a situation of individual liberty -- that sounds more like neoliberal/neoconservative propaganda than anything else! Let's have a situation of radical liberty and see what shakes out. It'd be a nice move, finally.

    The entire point of social-contract theory, from Hobbes to Rawls (including Rousseau) is not what the state of nature was but rather the fact that individuals make a compact with each other to hand sovereignty over to the state. Hobbes leaned toward a monarchy; Locke, we know about; Freud, even, saw a kind of contract theory in the discontent civilization requires.

    The precise point is for the will to power to be channelled in socially constructive ways -- be it through a rugged-individualist, Ayn-Rand-like manner, with social benefits accruing according to Smith's invisible hand (or not) or through mutual aid. Kropotkin, whom I'm reading, was an anarchist. Yet he wrote about mutual aid, communitarianism, etc. It's not so surprising when you read him, or think about it outside the incredbly small amount of the political spectrum that is visible in this country.

    Even the visible part of the spectrum, if you go back to the founders, who set that spectrum up, is that the separation of powers, religious tolerance, separation of church and state is there precisely to encage a violent animal called man. That's exactly the point. One thing TJ & Co. understood descriptively was human nature.

    Anyway, what makes you so sure that all the hard-wiring is competitive, in the intra-specific sense? Darwin spent a ton of time in Origin and Descent discussing the struggle of creatures against the environment, which could and does selectively favors intra-specific (and sometimes even inter-specific) cooperation.

    Funny how Anglo-American Social Darwinists saw only intraspecific and interspecific war (in the midst of the Gilded Age and colonialism), whereas Russian (pre-revolutionary) biologists tended to see the battle of life against inanimate nature (spend some time in Siberia, and you'll see why, I guess). Both aspects -- and more besides -- are important.

    So, once again, make sure you're not reifying the cultural and contingent.

    I don't know how you could know that nature is "stronger" than culture. I never said that culture is "stronger" than nature -- the dichotomy is a bit artificial to begin with, and one can't possibly answer decisively in so general or global a sense. Furthermore, unless we do breeding experiments on humans, we won't ever know, twins studies notwithstanding. So, the nature/nurture issue is a bit of a red herring, but it has a lot of legs, ideologically.

    But that asise: anyway, how do you know that "nature" is stronger than "culture"? What's your evidence? It's got to be based on a clear view of what evolution is, what culture is, and so on -- and I'd start with Lewontin and proceed immediately to Clifford Geertz (The Interpretation of Cultures), a great anthropologist who neither denies biology nor bows before it, epistemologically.

    I guess there must be some gene for simple answers! ;)

    In any event, these comments bring us back to the point of this post -- one must be ever-conscious of levels of complexity when making potential causal arguments. You have run to the, I guess, genome, to find "truth." I think you may have found truth only by framing the question in so simplified a fashion as to rule in your answer.

    Kant and Mill did it. So do you. So do we all, which is why a little doubt goes a long way. What is beyond even a little doubt is that if I think it's OK to be free and do interesting work and have healthcare, then every other person on the planet should have the same.

    This has never really been tried, but now we have to try, or the species is in serious trouble.

  14. Oh, one thing: my question of how do you know that nature overpowers nurture is not just one of "give me the evidence." It's also, and more importantly, one of epistemology: "how do you know you know"? That will get at the key point: if you think you've used standards of rational discourse to become aware of something, then you realize that education works, people have some rationality, etc. If you claim that you're hard-wired to think that way or to see that, well, it's a bit of a self-defeating argument, akin to the one that destroys much of postmodernism -- the "boomerang" effect.

    As long as you allow for reason and rationality, the argument (pun intended) becomes not one of power only, but of reality, too; not one of positioning and emotional appeals, but of reality, too. And then the interesting question becomes, how best to maximze rationality?

    Why one wouldn't want to maximize rationality is another story...

  15. Good stuff, dude. Can I just say I miss your ass over at Cyberpols? At least surf by today and read my latest - its in some ways, a response to your comments here.

  16. Thanks, Paul!

    I always like blogging/talking with you, even when we disagree. It's good to have smart folks who disagree with you deeply. Keeps you on your toes, and makes you think deeply about your own positions and their potential sources, as well as the other person's.

  17. kyahgirl -- bad choice!

    Of course noses were created for perfumes! :)

    (Everyone: kyahgirl is a perfumista!)