Archive for the ‘epistemology’ Category

Nihil ex Nihilo

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

In his foundational work on probability,[1] Bernard Osgood Koopman would write something of form α /κ for a suggested observation α in the context of a presumption κ. That's not how I proceed, but I don't actively object to his having done so, and he had a reason for it. Though Koopman well understood that real-life rarely offered a basis for completely ordering such things by likelihood, let alone associating them with quantities, he was concerned to explore the cases in which quantification were possible, and he wanted his readers to see something rather like division there. Indeed, he would call the left-hand element α a numerator, and the right-hand element κ the denominator.

He would further use 0 to represent that which were impossible. This notation is usable, but I think that he got a bit lost because of it. In his presentation of axiomata, Osgood verbally imposes a tacit assumption that no denominator were 0. This attempt at assumption disturbs me, not because I think that a denominator could be 0, but because it doesn't bear assuming. And, as Koopman believed that probability theory were essentially a generalization of logic (as do I), I think that he should have seen that the proposition didn't bear assuming. Since Koopman was a logicist, the only thing that he should associate with a denominator of 0 would be a system of assumptions that entailed a self-contradiction; anything else is more plausible than that.

In formal logic, it is normally accepted that anything can follow if one allows a self-contradiction into a system, so that any conclusion as such is uninteresting. If faced by something such as X ∨ (Y ∧ ¬Y) (ie X or both Y and not-Y), one throws away the (Y ∧ ¬Y), leaving just the X; if faced with a conclusion Y ∧ ¬Y then one throws away whatever forced that awful thing upon one.[2] Thus, the formalist approach wouldn't so much forbid a denominator of 0 as declare everything that followed from it to be uninteresting, of no worth. A formal expression that no contradiction is entailed by the presumption κ would have the form ¬(κ ⇒ [(Y ∧ ¬Y)∃Y]) but this just dissolves uselessly ¬(¬κ ∨ [(Y ∧ ¬Y)∃Y])
¬¬κ ∧ ¬[(Y ∧ ¬Y)∃Y]
κ ∧ [¬(Y ∧ ¬Y)∀Y]
κ ∧ [(¬Y ∨ ¬¬Y)∀Y]
κ ∧ [(¬YY)∀Y]
κ
(because (X ⇔ [X ∧ (Y ∨ ¬Y)∀Y])∀X).

In classical logic, the principle of non-contradiction is seen as the bedrock principle, not an assumption (tacit or otherwise), because no alternative can actually be assumed instead.[3]. From that perspective, one should call the absence of 0-valued denominators simply a principle.


[1] Koopman, Bernard Osgood; The Axioms and Algebra of Intuitive Probability, The Annals of Mathematics, Series 2 Vol 41 #2, pp 269-292; and The Bases of Probability, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, Vol 46 #10, pp 763-774.

[2] Indeed, that principle of rejection is the basis of proof by contradiction, which method baffles so many people!

[3] Aristoteles, The Metaphysics, Bk 4, Ch 3, 1005b15-22.

Delusions of Scientific Literacy

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Science is reasoned analysis of — and theorizing about — empirical data. A scientific conclusion cannot be recognized as such unless one understands the science.

It might be imagined that one can recognize a conclusion as scientific without understanding the science, by recognizing the scientists as such. But the popular formula that science is what scientists do is vacuous when taken literally, and wrong in its usual interpretation. Someone can can have an institutional certification as having been trained to be a scientist, and have a paid position ostensibly as a scientist, and yet not be a scientist; for those who actually understand some scientific area, it is fairly easy to find historical examples or perhaps present cases.[1] To recognize a scientist as such one must recognize what he or she does as science, not the other way around.

Even if it is in some contexts reasonable to accept conclusions from such persons on the basis of their social standing, it is not scientific literacy to accept conclusions on that basis; it is simply trust in the social order.

The full understanding of a scientific expert isn't always necessary to have a scientific understanding of the reasoning behind some of the broad conclusions of a scientific discipline. But in some cases of present controversy with significant policy implications, the dispute over the relevant conclusions turns upon issues of applied mathematics, and perhaps other things such as thermodynamics. No one can be scientifically literate in the areas of controversy without understanding that mathematics and so forth.

In many of the disputations amongst lay-persons over these issues, I observe people in at least one group who assert themselves to be scientifically literate, when they are no such thing, and to accept science, when they are not positioned to know whether what they are accepting is science. These are actually people who simply trust some part of the social order — typically, those state-funded institutions that declare themselves to engage in scientific research.


[1] It is certainly easy to find what lay-persons will acknowledge as examples. However, some of these ostensible examples are actually spurious.

Location and Identity; of Angels and Pins and Important Things

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Most or all of us have heard or read of the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. This question was introduced to satirize and to dismiss a problem that challenged scholastic philosophers, namely Given that there are things that do not have body but do have location, can two or more of these things occupy the same location at the same time? Now, we might labor the idea of body; but suffice it to say that it were presumed that things with body could not simultaneously occupy the exact same location, but that there were things of another class that could occupy the exact same location as could a thing with body. The question then was whether they could occupy the same location as other things of their own class.

One of the ways in which this puzzle had bearing was on attempts to understand the nature of devils (fallen angels) and how they might interact with ordinary people. The question thus actually had bearing on the witchcraft mania.

But another way in which this question had bearing was in consideration of how we distinguish one thing from another, perceptually and conceptually. In theory, two things might be identical except for location, but the distinct locations perhaps permit us to discern that there are two things, rather than one. And, if the location of an object at any one time is unique to that object, one can combine a description that might fit many other things with that location to identify a singular object, and thus to have an intrinsically singular corresponding concept, as opposed to a concept that might fit more than one thing.

That perhaps seems perfectly sound, but I don't understand space as other than a structure of relationships. For example, when a physicist asserts that objects of mass warp space increasingly with that mass, I take this to be no more or less than a claim that objects of larger or smaller mass have different spatial relationships with things, and cause other things to have different spatial relationships each with others. (The latter implies that a spatial relationship involving the object of mass underlies the spatial relationships amongst the things other than that object.) When we attempt to distinguish objects based upon location, which is a matter of relationships amongst objects, remarkable considerations arise.

First imagine a very small universe, having just one body in it. A universe is not small by virtue of one hitting a wall after travelling some distance; it is small by virtue of having a non-Euclidean geometry, such that after a relatively short amount of travel one finds oneself back where one started. As light travelled from the object, it would eventually find its way back to the object. If one could somehow see, as if within this universe, and looked in various directions, with sufficiently strong vision, one might see the object, seemingly off in the distance, even if the view began as if one were standing right at or on the object. Seemingly beyond the object, one might see the object yet again, and so forth. That's the experience in one sort of universe. Now imagine an infinitely large universe, as if built by tiling duplicate sectors, in which there were infinitely many objects, positioned to given the same experience as in the first universe.

I declared that a universe had just one object; I declared that a universe had infinitely many objects. I don't actually believe that the apparently second universe is intrinsically distinct from the first. I think that we may conceptualize the first universe as the second, and vice versa, and that the count of objects is an artefact of our conceptualization. Of course, if there were no more than indiscernible differences amongst what seemed to be infinitely many objects, then I might claim that there were no practical differences from a universe of one object; but I here make the stronger claim that, if there are no differences beyond perhaps whatever is captured by the two given descriptions of location, then these descriptions are each of the same universe. It would simply beg the question to insist that one universe is different from the other in that one were finite but configured so that it seemed infinitely repeating, while the other truly were infinite and repeating. Granted that viewing as if within the universe seems to locate a means of viewing close to one object. (One might even imagine oneself invisibly located as an additional object in the universe.) But how is the location of that means near one object distinct from its location near all of them? (How is oneself's being located in the universe near one object distinct from the location of a perfect duplicate of oneself being near each of them?)

In a universe more like our own, if we had what seemed to be two otherwise indistinguishable objects at different locations, there would be other discernible objects that seemed to support a distinction. What we might regard as one object would be near to various other objects, and far from still others. Likewise for what we might regard as a different object, with a distinct set of things.

Let's mentally step away from that scenario for a bit, and return to the scholastic problem of things that do not have body but do have location. If two of these things are otherwise indistinguishable, and if they can occupy the same location at the same time, then ex hypothesi there is no way to distinguish one from another when they do occupy the same location. (The space occupied might be different when both moved into it — for example, it might become less translucent — but that doesn't mean that we can distinguish one of two things from another. And if the properties of these things are not in some sense additive or subtractive, but combine according to inclusive disjunction — that is to say that the attribute is either there or not, but has no further possible ordering to it — then we cannot tell how just many of these things are there by discernment of these properties.)

But, when they occupy the same location, I ask whether there are in fact two things. What would be the difference of two such things coming to occupy one location from two otherwise identical things coming to be one thing at one location? Perhaps what seemed one thing might again become two, but that wouldn't prove that they had remained distinct at the one location. Perhaps one thing might have become three, each just like the two from which the one had been formed. My experience (and, as I believe, yours) is that this has never happened. But I know of no logic that prevents it from happening; it merely violates my present best guess of the physical laws (which entail principles of conservation). If what seemd to be two things came together and seemed to be one, and then that one thing seemed to become three, some person might guess that what had earlier seemed to be two things were atually three things, two already in combination. But if all the attributes combined in conformance with inclusive disjunction, then in what sense would that be different from just what had seemed to happen?

If we accept that two otherwise indistinguishable things become one thing when they occupy one location, does that thing continue to exist should it become two things? Is it one of the two things? both of the two things? each of the two things? Is the proper answer different when the two things are indistinguishable except for location from what was one thing?

(If we are transporting some very great criminal by paddy wagon and, upon arrival, find three persons, each indistiguishable from the person whom we tossed into the wagon, and each insisting that he is just that person, do we treat each of them as that person, or charge each with no more than abetting an escape, on the theory that it is most likely of any given one of them that he is not that person? This problem might be primarily epistemological — so that one of the three suspects is our original perpetrator even if we shall never know whom — but that's bad enough; and we can make it still more fundamental if we allow for teleportation and for matter duplication.)

Let's mentally step back to the scenario of two otherwise indistinguishable objects at different locations in a universe rather like our own. Are these actually two objects, or one object that is bi-located, or one object in one location that appears as two locations because of a strangeness of space? Do these three descriptions actually distinguish different realities? If we mark one of these apparently two objects and see an identical mark appear on the other, do we regard it as the same object, or as two objects such that one is some sort of sympathy with the other? If we mark what seems one object and a mark does not appear on the other, do we regard this as proof that there were never one bilocated object nor a weirdness of space, or do we interpret this case as of one object becoming two distinct objects (with an end to the bilocation or with an adjustment of space), perhaps exactly as a a result of our action? (The classic formulation of Ockham's Razor is entia non sunt multiplicanda præter necessitatem. If we posit that there were always two objects, are we conforming to that prescription?)

Because space need not be as Euclid had insightfully assumed and as Platon and Kant had thoughtlessly presumed, we can interpret any case where we have what otherwise must be a single thing simulatenously occupying multiple locations as in fact that single thing in one location. The practical cost, however, is that we are compelled to identify locations by the things occupying them (and not merely by the things about them); but we had set-out to identify things by the locations that they occupied!

Let's say that we have an object in a strange space, so that it is effectively bilocated, and we point to it and say this. Assuming that we don't also say not that, pointing to the other apparent location, is there any problem? It is one thing to incorporate mistaking of one thing for two into an assertion; another simply not to recognize some of the characteristics of that one thing. (There is a problem if Selina Kyle cries I am in love with Bruce Wayne, not with the Batman! but there would have been no such problem had she simply declared I am in love with Bruce Wayne!)

But if the case of two otherwise identical but differently located objects (perhaps each in perfect sympathy with the other) and the case of one apparently bilocated object are really just different descriptions of the same situation, then the applicability of not that — and number more generally — seems in some cases to be an artefact of the descriptive framework. Especially in the context of such implications, some people will insist that one of these descriptions must surely be mistaken, even if as a practical matter we cannot tell which. (Some people will further insist that the description that conforms to simpler spatial relations (that of two objects in perfect sympathy) is the one that is more likely correct; other people will insist that the description that requires fewer objects (that of a bilocated object) is more likely correct.) However, the apparent contradiction isn't internal to either description, and each description may be translated into the other. That one of them is right doesn't make the other wrong.

If I cannot point to something and say this and thereby distinguish it not merely from everything not there but from everything not it, then how can I have an intrinsically singular concept? To baldly incorporate singularity into a concept is just question-begging. (One ought not to say that two spheres are exactly alike except just in-so-far as one is unique, or is uniquely unique.)

Where, then, is singularity to be found? I think that it is to be found in experience, literally. The raw stuff of experience is sensation and sense-perception, not conception. (We may have concepts of sensations, but sensations are not themselves concepts; we may have concepts of sense-perceptions, but sense-perceptions are not themselves concepts.) Percepts and concepts are constructed to explain sensation and sense-perception. Those percepts and concepts may be perfectly accurate, but they are not intrinsically singular except to the extent that we associate them with sensation or with sense-perception. That is to say, for example, that we have a cluster of sensation or of sense-perception, and we have or build a concept of something by which to explain it, which concept is not singular except in-so-far as we implicitly or explicitly add to it the attribute of causing that particular cluster. And, if we do that, then we must in such case commit to a concept that does not allow co-location of otherwise identical things. That is not to say that we forbid co-location in general; but that singular concepts cannot be fitted to such co-located things. (It is probably a very bad idea to construct an explanatory model that employs co-location of otherwise identical things all of whose attributes combine in accordance with inclusive disjunction.)

In any case, the alternatives to exploring such considerations are dogmatism and nihilism. There is nothing intrinsically practical about dogmatism nor about nihilism, which stand in the way of our understanding the universe as deeply as we might and of our helping those who lose (or never find) their ways in their own attempts to understand the world. The scholastics who worried about the relationship of location to identity during what have come to be dismissed as the Dark Ages were concerned with foundational questions of what we ought to practice. It is fine to jest about their efforts only if the joke does not hide the truth.

Hard Case

Saturday, 28 May 2016

I have lots of keys. Most of those that are not on the key-ring that I routinely carry with me are tagged, so that I know to what they go. But, as I was going through the drawer in which those keys are kept, I found one that was labelled HARD KEY. I confess that this label was not and is not now very helpful.

There is such a thing as is called a soft key; it's a passcode of some sort. What would one call a hard key? A key that is not a soft key? That would make every key in that drawer a hard key; there'd be no use in labelling a key of that sort simply as a key of that sort.

My best guess is that this key were a key that were badly cut or worn, so that it were hard to use. But to use where?

Well, I couldn't and cannot remember; but that's okay, because I found that it matches another key that I have on a ring labelled Orphans, and nothing goes on that ring unless I know that it's no longer possible or no longer permissible for me to use the key in its lock. (There is separate ring for keys that are merely probable orphans.) Some of the orphans also have further tags; some, as in the case of the brother of the HARD KEY do not; but when that brother was put on the ring, I knew to what it went, and knew that I couldn't or shouldn't access that lock.

I didn't save the orphans thinking that I might someday match one with an unidentified key. A few of them I saved for their sentimental values. Most I saved simply to have keys with which to do other things; for example, they could be filed into bump keys or given to children or used as props; the intention in identifying them as orphans was that most of these keys be distinguished as expendible. Of course now, in the case of a key with no twin on that ring, I will be a bit more reluctant to alter or part with it, as it might someday be matched with another mysterious key. I am enslaved by my keys.

On the Concept of Ownership

Monday, 23 May 2016

I have long and often encountered discussion that implicitly or explicitly involves notions of property or of ownership, which discussion is rendered incoherent from a failure to consider what it means for something to be property, what it means to own something.

Some confusion arises because we have come often to use the word property casually to mean an object (physical or more abstract) to which some sort of ownership may apply, without our considering whether the object is well conceptualized for purposes of considering property rights,[1] and without considering that actual ownership associated with that object might be distributed in some complicated ways amongst multiple parties.

One might, for some reason, associate a plot of land with an object imagined as beginning at the center of the Earth and extending to some sort of limits of the atmosphere (or beyond); from such an association, and then from a presumption that the whole object were property, farmers were once known to shoot at airplanes as trespassing vehicles. Yet other folk would assert that owning a plot of land as such only entitled one to control things to lesser depths and heights, in which case the rights could be associated with a smaller object, representing a sub-object as it were. One person might be thought to have the right to farm the aforementioned land, and another to extract its mineral resources so long as he didn't thereby interfere with the farming. Possibly others would claim peculiar easements, allowing them to travel through some or all of the object without thereby trespassing. There might be purported rights entitling still others to flows of resources such water, air, and electromagnetic radiation travelling through the object. In the case of sunlight (an electromagnetic radiation), the rights would typically be presumed to involve only some space above the soil, and the farmer might both have claims against her neighbors doing things that reduced her sunlight and be constrained by similar claims for her neighbors.

If we are thinking in terms of one object, and then change to thinking of an object within it, previously relevant rights of ownership may become irrelevant. If we instead think in terms of an object of which our original object is but a part, then new claims may become relevant. Two objects, neither of which is completely contained in the other, may share some third object as a part; so that any thorough consideration of ownership involving these two objects containing the third may involve rights that are literally identical and rights that are different. The minimal object relevant to describe some asserted set of property rights might not be sufficient to describe other rights none-the-less associated with that object. The minimal object in each of the previously mentioned cases (of farming, of easement, of mineral extraction, and of unobstructed resource flow) is somewhat different from the minimal object in the other cases.

A farmer who somehow forfeits her right not to have sunlight artificially obstructed may still be imagined to own the plot of land on which she grew her crops, yet she doesn't own what once she owned. Likewise, a house-holder who somehow surrenders his right to come and go from the plot on which the house sits doesn't own what once he owned. And, though it would perhaps seem very unsual, one might imagine these rights not transformed into claims for those who have prior rights to surrounding spaces, but instead coming into possession of third parties. For example, perhaps I speculate that I can buy whatever rights I need to build a skyscraper, on the assumption that I can buy a right to block the sunlight to a neighboring farm; I could purchase that latter right first, then discover that I am thwarted as to other purchases. This might work nicely for the farmer, but she no longer has a right that she once had; she no longer owns something that she once owned.

We can still express what things are owned as if they are objects, but we must then select our objects to match our rights of use. And our discourse can become strained and unnatural if we insist on always treating the thing owned as a distinct object rather than as a right of use. For example, if Timo is exclusively entitled to inhabit a cabin in the Winter and james is likewise entitled to inhabit it in the Summer, and we must express them as owning distinct objects, then we must treat the cabin in Winter as one object and the cabin in Summer as another. Indeed, we will surely have to be far more contrived in our construction of objects to account for what the two jointly do not own of the cabin! On the other hand, we can say that each has a right to use the cabin in some way without necessarily specifying how other rights of use are distributed; the concept of the cabin is available without first settling questions of ownership.

I don't propose that we generally stop using the word property as in the ordinary sense of a piece of property, merely that we understand that this everyday use may be misleading. Nor would I suggest that we should somehow stop thinking in terms of objects when we carefully consider ownership. But we must be alert to the fact that our choice of objects with which to think is largely taxonomic and to some degree arbitrary, and we should not take results that are no more than artefacts of that taxonomy as anything more profound.

In fact, the right of use may be recognized as itself an object of an abstract sort, but the right to use a right of use is not distinct from simply that right of use, and thus cannot be dissociated from it.[1.5]


My laboring of the relationship of ownership to objects and their uses isn't quibbling nor pirouetting. People who imagine an object as such to be owned tend all too often to imagine it somehow being owned beyond any of its various possible uses. They thus imagine that it can remain the property of one person or group even as another party — most often those in control of the state — appropriate its use, and even as this second party seizes every right of use. It then also becomes absurdly thinkable that one person might retain every right of use that she had, associated with an object, yet transfer ownership to some other party. Ownership would be reduced to absolutely nothing more than something such as a formal title.

When the state regulates property, it is taking rights of use and hence ownership. This transfer is relevant to questions of compensation (as in the case of the guarantees of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution[2]), and of whether state regulation of the means of production is a form of socialism.


[1] The word object comes from the Latin ob-iacere, meaning throw-before, and referred originally to that thrown before the mind. What we now call objects are, however, mental organizations of what is thrown before us. Thus, to use a classic example, we can talk about my hand as an object, and my fist as an object; they seem to be the same object, yet only sometimes. (We may still, in good conscience, use the word objective for perceptible external reality. And extending it to include unperceived and imperceptible external reality shouldn't cause more than mild discomfort; the rightful demands of etymology are not unlimited.)

[1.5] This paragraph was added on 24 May.

[2] That Amendment (with an underscore by me) reads

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Common Sense about Names and about Descriptions

Monday, 1 February 2016

The entry in Sibley's Birds for Common Raven begins Uncommon.

This case illustrates the important distinction between names and descriptions. Common raven is a name; it was surely intended to be a name that worked as a description, but it presently fails as the latter while continuing to be the former.

A description can be usefully analyzed. It has components, each of which has independent meaning, and considering those meanings allows one better to understand the thing described.

A name as such is not analyzed; sometimes it might usefully be analyzed; sometimes it cannot be analyzed; sometimes analysis is misleading (as in common raven).

Often, what we call description is no more than naming. For example, if someone points to something and asks What is that?, and I say an urn, then all that I have really done is to provide a name, perhaps trusting the other person to know what urn means. On the other hand, if I say an ancient urn or a ceramic urn or an empty urn, then I have described it (though surely not as thoroughly as it might be described).

Notice that all description is constructed of names. The audience might subsequently ask for descriptions corresponding to names used, but eventually one reaches a point at which the names are of things that cannot be described (though alternative names might be offered).

Occasionally, I read something mocking someone for not understanding a description, such that a more perspicacious observer would recognize that the someone being mocked was treating the description as a name. This error may be no more foolish than wondering whether the common raven is a common bird.

Class Time

Thursday, 3 December 2015

At a site whose content seems intended to entertain, I read of a teacher who is said to have challenged his or her students to explain time and to define time. The words explain and define are treated in the narrative as if referring to the same task, which suggests something about the sort of answer sought. None of the students succeeded in doing what the teacher asked.

While we might perhaps have different conceptions of time, the essential concept of time is not one that we assemble from and with other concepts. Time is fundamental in our experience. Thus, when we seek to define time, the best that we can do is to find synonyms that might seem to put us into loops. For example, The Oxford Shorter English Dictionary defines time with duration, and duration with time. But to define a term is to coördinate it with a concept; so either definition actually works just fine as a definition, on the assumption that we have a concept for the complementary term.

Definitions often involve conveying a concept by showing how to assemble it from and with other concepts; that is perhaps what one expects when asked to explain a concept or a word. But disassemblies that somehow never reached an end would never reach a concept. We must at some stage somehow point to a concept without further use of definition. In the case of time, we have reached a concept that we cannot disassemble; in the case of time, we have found a word for which we can find only either simple synonyms or assemblies in which its concept lurks undisintegrated, even if unrecognized.

I Still Don't Know Why He Ever Liked that Guy

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Years ago, a friend and I were talking about something, and he mentioned Hitler. I declared

I don't know why you ever liked that guy!

in reply to which he barked

Oh! That is a lie![1]

Well, no, it wasn't a lie. I escalated by betting him dinner on the matter. Then I explained to him that, since the truth of a proposition is a precondition for it to be known, one of the ways that I could not know why he'd ever liked Hitler would be if he'd never liked Hitler. Another way would be if I'd never believed that he'd liked Hitler, regardless of how my friend really felt about Hitler.

Indeed, the contradiction of I don't know why you ever liked that guy! is I know why you at some time liked that guy! Formally,[2] [formal logical expression] So,

I don't know why you ever liked that guy!

was a truth (though perhaps not a simple truth, as he'd had trouble seeing it).

Having won the wager, I waived the prize; my objectives in betting had all been met. Now, had he won the wager, then I'm sure that he'd have collected; but had I claimed, as he'd thought, that he'd once liked Hitler, then he'd have been quite justified in extracting the dinner; it would have disincentivized my insulting him in such a way, and off-set the felt sting of the calumny.


[1] That was how he spoke. He often began with Oh!, and when learning English in Hong Kong he had been taught to avoid contractions.

[2] (2015:09/24): I have edited the formal expression, seeking to have it capture more completely the structure of the natural-language expression.

Let that be a lesson t'ye!

Monday, 31 August 2015

Yester-day after-noon, I misread a rumpled sign in the distance. It was an advertisement for guitar lessons, but I thought that it offered GUILT LESSONS

Of course, I wouldn't expect guilt lessons to be seriously and openly advertised (though some college courses seem indeed to be guilt lessons). Rather, I had thought that the advertisement were a joke or a work of art. I suppose now that this were a matter of illusory found art.

The Instituted Unconscious

Monday, 22 June 2015

An institution is a constructed,[0] persistent organizing practice or relationship within a culture. When most people hear or read the word institution, they think first of a sort of an organization, somewhat like a firm though typically for some purpose other than pursuit of pecuniary profit. But, really, the scope is much wider, which is how one may, for example, speak or write of the institution of marriage.

Economists and other social thinkers recognize as institutions a great many practices and relationships that most people don't conceptualize as such. For example, languages are institutions; markets are institutions, and monies are institutions within those institutions; professional codes of ethics are institutions; and so forth.

Any given society is exactly a society, rather than merely some selection of people, to the extent that it is characterized by institutions.

Institutions can be hard to see as institutions; they can be hard to see at all. That which pervasively informs our thinking can be invisible for lack of contrast. The fact that a competent social thinker will recognize institutions that most people over-look does not mean that any given social thinker will recognize all the institutions of the society that he or she observes, or in which he or she participates. Rather, I do not think that any social thinker manages to attain such a profound awareness. If there is a meaning to most here, then I think that none of us sees most of the institutions. We participate in them, we use them, but we are unconscious of them.

Although one might imagine some outside agency acting to preserve an institution, more typically a practice or relationship will be persistent to the extent that it is self-perpetuating. It might be self-perpetuating in some fairly direct manner, or it might be thus simply by conferring some advantage on those who adopt it. Something that behaves in a self-perpetuating manner can seem to be purposeful. There are, in fact, some who would insist that a thing that behaves in a self-perpetuating manner truly is purposeful, but I don't want to enter into that debate here. Whether it be purpose or something that merely seems like purpose, there may not be any person to whom one could point and properly say that the purpose were his or were hers. Perhaps no individual wants the institution perpetuated — in some cases[1] participants may actually want an end to the institution — but acting through people the institution perpetuates itself.

So my claim is that we live and act within a rich frame-work of practices and relationships, largely unrecognized, that affect and effect events as if with purposes distinct from our own.

This concept may be related to various things.

In Jungian theory, there is postulated a collective unconscious, which is a set of structures of the unconscious mind, shared amongst animals to the extent that they are biologically related. In general, these structures include instincts; in humans, they also include symbols (called archetypes). Jung believed that the collective unconscious was dormant in the zygote; so that a person whose biological parents were of one ethnic group but who were raised from birth by members of another would have the collective unconscious of the biological parents, rather than of the family in which he or she were raised. I assert that this collective unconscious does not exist; but that something rather like it does, with the very important difference that it is transmitted experientially. The actual collective unconscious is the aforementioned unrecognized institutional frame-work.

Evolutionary psychology, also known as sociobiology, has sought to explain behavior (including human behavior) in terms of some habits leading to more reproductive success than do others. That much is surely part of a proper explanation of human behavior, but these theorists have had a propensity to insist or to presume that the mechanism of transmission is in the DNA of the chromosomes or of the mitochondria. (In this commitment, they have been rather like the Jungians.) After entirely too much delay, some of them acknowledged that cultures as such could be affected by evolutionary pressures. They developed the notion that Richard Dawkins called the meme,[2] and that EO Wilson grotesquely called the culgen (or something like that),[3] which was that of a culturally transmitted, self-perpetuating pattern, somewhat analogous to the chromosomal and mitochondrial genes. These patterns are institutions, viewed individually. We would be consciously aware of some of these patterns, but by no means of all.

Some people are convinced that all events are effected to some purpose, a thought typically expressed as Everything happens for a reason. This claim surely goes too far, but one could see how observing many events that seemed to happen towards a purpose, which purpose was not that of any one of us, could suggest a theory that all reälized outcomes were in some sense intended.

Others do not necessarily think that all events are effected to some purpose; but, perceiving in some events apparent purposefulness that cannot plausibly be imputed to any ordinary person, take this apparent purposefulness as evidence that events have been or are being guided an extraordinary person — G_d. As a metaphor, this works rather well, though the impersonal G_d of Spinoza would be a better fit for the institutional framework; but, in any case, the apparent purposefulness is not good evidence for the involvement of a literal G_d.

Where many believers have been too quick to see the work of G_d, many non-believers have been too quick to see mere chance-coïncidence. But teasing-out the difference between that which is mere accident from that which works to the purposes or quasi-purposes of a frame-work of unrecognized parts is at best extremely difficult, if not impossible. A pattern can be found in any data set, and from it the number of super-patterns that may potentially be extrapolated are infinite. Additionally, most of us want to find significance in our lives, which biases us to see not only purposes but purposes of particular sorts behind events.


[0 (2017:07/07)] A discussion of rather different matters impelled me to recognize that I needed to distinguish institutions from unconstructed, persistent organizing practices or relationships within a culture.

[1] For example, sub-optimal Cournot-Nash equilibria.

[2] Largely due to laziness and misunderstanding, this word came thereafter to have its popular meaning of any sort of widely spread expression.

[3] It's appalling how little philological sense is now had by otherwise educated people.