Posts Tagged ‘definitions’

Social Consequences of Speciation

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Sometimes, I don't know how to write about important matters. Please bear with me, because this subject is far more important than it might initially seem.

When most people encounter the word species, it is either in the context of a biological discussion, or the word is used as a metaphorical borrowing from discussion of that sort. It actually has more general meanings, the broadest simply being class of things of shared characteristics. But what concerns me here is indeed its biological sense.

Most people who have any notion at all of the word derive their understanding of the biological signification from a combination of observed use and whatever was told to them by middle- and high-school texts of alleged science. Many of them know that organisms are categorized hierarchically, and that species is a finer category than genus. But, if asked to describe the classification of animals as different, say, as are cats and dogs, far more people would descibe them as of different species than as of different family or as of different genus. There is an inferred sense that difference in species is rather fundamental.

The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary gives the biological sense thus:

A taxonomic grouping ranking next below genus and subgenus, which contains organisms that are uniquely distinguished from others by certain shared characteristics and usu. by an inability to interbreed with members of other such groupings; such a grouping as denoted by a Latin binomial, and freq. subdivided into subspecies, races, varieties, etc.; the organisms of such a grouping.

That bit about inability to interbreed is a bit loose; for example, most biologists would classify horses and donkeys as of different species, though they can produce offspring. However, a striking characteristic of those offspring is that they cannot themselves produce further offspring. The infertility of those offspring is usually cited towards explaining the speciation.

In any case, The SOED hedged with that usu. because some biologists categorize animals as of different species though they can interbreed down through indefinitely many generations, as in the case of coyotes (C. latrans) with wolves (C. lupus).

Over some decades, anthropologists disagreed over whether to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, H. neanderthalensis, or as a sub-species of H. sapiens. As there was no way to observe potential interbreeding, early disagreement turned on issues of overt morphology — the shapes of skulls, dentition, &c. But then interbreeding became, in a sense, potentially observable as it became possible to extract and analyze DNA from remains of Neanderthalers. Initial results (quite surprising to me) suggested no interbreeding, and it became more commonly accepted that they should be considered a distinct species. However, when later genetic evidence began to show the presence of Neanderthaler genes in some modern populations of H. sapiens, the practice of treating them as a distinct species was not universally abandoned. It is still common to classify Neanderthalers as a distinct species, though this implicitly means that species is not being used with the usu. signification. And when, far more recently, a similar archaïc population, the Denisovans, were distinguished, it became fairly common also to categorize them as a distinct species, though their genes are likewise found in some modern populations of H. sapiens.

But, again, when most lay-people hear or read the word species, they are imagining a quite significant distinction. And when they hear and read of Neanderthalers or of Denisovans as distinct species, they infer that these people were not human. Here are three example articles that I quickly found of journalists doing just that in the case of Neanderthalers or in that of Denisovans:

As these archaïc populations are extinct, there may not seem to be any more of a social issue here than there typically is with misunderstood science. But a problem is coming right at us. And it's associated with the point that the genes of archaïc populations are found in modern populations — in different distributions. Take, for example, this article:

The author or authors blithely refer to the Neanderthalers, to the Denisovans, and to an additional, hypothesized archaïc population as distinct species without explaining whatever is there meant by the term. A large share of readers will regard the archaïc populations as not fully human, and infer that different ethnic groups have more or less genetic material that is not fully human. It will be inappropriately inferred that some ethnic groups are thus less human or more human than are others.

Anthropologists and biologists who talk with lay-persons, and especially with journalists and with other informal educators, need to emphasize the arbitrariness in use of the word species, and these scientists need to impress upon their audiences that the word should be avoided or explained in all popular-science journalism that touches upon our relationships with archaïc populations.

On the Meaning of Racism

Monday, 3 October 2016

The original definition of racism, and the one still found in standard dictionaries, is a theory or an adherence to a theory that merit is in part intrinsically a function of race

However, a few decades ago, some social theorists began insisting upon a new definition of racism, under which one could not be called a racist unless one not only were prejudiced against some racial group, but had social power. Devotees of this new definition variously baldly restate it, as if the restatement makes it so, or cite the theorists, as if such citation makes it so.

Those who make a special study of a subject sometimes take a term in popular use, and give it a peculiar, somewhat new definition. (For examp!e, we see that in physics, with the uses of energy, force, and work; and we see that in economics, with the definition of unemployment.) But what usually characterizes these redefinitions is that somewhat loose notions are replaced with more explicit, more precise, and otherwise more workable definitions. (For example, when an economist uses unemployment, she usually excludes people who have quit one job for another, but have not yet started that next job, because joblessness of this transitory sort is not typically considered to be a social ill.)

Alarms really ought to go-off about the redefinition of racism. The original concept was quite coherent and useful; if it were not coherent, then the redefinition (which essentially adds a condition) would inherit the incoherence. Racism on the part of people with little social power still has significant social consequences; any legitimate use of the new concept is far more sharply limited than that of the original concept.

Let's imagine that someone prejudiced against those outside his own major racial group makes a solo walking tour of Los Angeles. As he travels from one neighborhood to another, he gains or loses social power as the ethnic compositions of those neighborhoods vary. His beliefs about the relation between race and merit needn't change (and should not be expected to do so much if at all). Yet by the mere act of travel through a large city in which ethnic groups are not uniformly distributed, under the redefinition he would repeatedly go from being a racist, to not being a racist, to again being a racist. It would be extraordinary and dangerous to make a solo walking tour of all of Los Angeles, but a great many people regularly move across communities of different ethnic composition. Application of the proposed redefinition of racism would routinely become unworkable, under circumstance in which the standard definition remains quite workable.

There are certainly legitimate applications of the concept of socially empowered racism, but in those applications we can call it socially empowered racism or something similar.

When a concept loses its associated symbol, it becomes harder to discuss or even to think about that concept. Further, the response to symbols is largely emotive. Whether people learn by reason that something is good or that it is bad, or they are simply led to accept some valuation by imitation of those in their society, people come to associate positive or negative feelings with the words used for those things. Old concepts given new words don't provoke the same response; old symbols given new meanings carry with them some or all of the old feelings. Those who have adopted a new redefinition of racism can thus escape the recognition of racism, and the felt need to condemn some instances of racism, by allowing themselves to believe that some people simply cannot be racists, by virtue of their social standing.

We are simply dealing with an attempted hijacking of language, for purposes of subverting clear thought and discussion. That is most plain when the word racism has been introduced into some discourse with its standard definition, and in response it is insisted that something conforming to that original definition is not racism because it does not conform to the proposed redefinition. But any non-standard use that is not flagged as such is still a subversion of rationality. Those who have participated in the attempted hijacking are knaves or fools or both.

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.

Slavery, Slavery, and the Political Left

Monday, 2 November 2015

While the word slavery gets used in many ways, its core meaning is that of a personal condition of being property of another person or of a group of persons

However, there are recurring attempts to redefine slavery, insisting that a person who reaped only subsistence from his or her labor were by definition a slave. Now, this proposed definition is really orthogonal to any proper definition.

  • On the one hand, a person only reaps subsistence when living with a minimal technological infrastructure in a world of markèd scarcity. Much of humankind for most of history lived with little or no production above subsistence, regardless of whether someone else were making ownership claims against them.
  • In some cases, people have had lives of relative material comfort, and yet would have been tortured or killed by their masters had they sought different employment.

(Compounding the problem with the redefinition, people who are consuming commodities far in excess of their needs for survival like to redefine subsist to include various comforts, such as electronic entertainment.)

Perhaps most of the people who abuse the world slave in this manner do so thoughtlessly; but it ties-together with an aspect of left-wing thought to afford them a significant evasion, deceiving others and deceiving themselves. That aspect is a resistence to acknowledging a relationship between wage-rates and the amount of labor employed in an economy.

One sees this failure in present support for an increase in statutory minimum wages. What these laws really say, to put things quite simply — yet perfectly truthfully — is that if an employer or would-be employer is unwilling or unable to employ a worker at or above the statutory minimum, then the employer must fire the worker, or not hire the worker in the first place. Most advocates presume that the employer will neither fire nor refrain from hiring, as if demand for labor were perfectly inflexible.

A rather pure expression of this dissociation of wage-rates from labor employment is found in the economic model of Piero Sraffa.[1] Sraffa's work is utterly unknown to most lay-people, and unfamiliar to most economists, but to economists on the far left it is an important benchmark, exactly because it claims so much of what they want to claim. However, its persuasive success is largely a matter of subscribers failing to note or to acknowledge a great deal implicit in the model. Perhaps most remarkably, in his model, the very same amount of labor is produced and consumed with absolute disregard for the wage-rate. That is to say that workers deliver the same labor (imagined as a scalar quantity) whether they are offered literally nothing in return (not even subsistence), or all of production is given to them as wages (with the same wage-rate for each worker).

When I look at the Sraffan model, I see workers behaving as if they are slaves. When their wages provide them no more than sustenance, they are as miserable slaves; when their wages provide them less than sustenance, they are as dying slaves; when their wages provide them far more than sustenance, they are as materially comfortable slaves. What makes them seem to be slaves is that they never exercise, and thus appear not to have, any freedom of choice in where they work nor in how hard they work.

(In those states of the United States that allowed private ownership of slaves, slaves were expected to deliver some fixed quota to their owners. They were not typically offered rewards for exceeding these quotas; they were punished, sometimes horrifically, for failing to meet them. I know of no other way, in the real word, to get the sort of labor production that Sraffa describes.)

In Sraffa's model, whatever production does not go to workers, goes to the owners of the other productive resources — essentially to the capitalists.[2] If one embraces Sraffa's model or something very much like it, and if one waves-away the proper meaning of slavery and instead uses it to mean one who is paid no more than sustenance, then it is easy to insist that, in a system that most favors a distinct class of capitalists, workers would be slaves, whereäs alternatives decreasingly favorable to such capitalists move workers ever further away from slavery. And if one imagines the workers getting an ever greater share exactly as production is administrated on behalf of the worker, then the movement away from slavery is a movement towards socialism.

However, if one continues to accept a model along the lines of Sraffa, yet restores the proper meaning of slavery, then one begins to see one why it had been doubly convenient to redefine the term. Because, in imagining a world in which workers never, one way or another, exercise freedom of choice in labor regardless of how production is distributed, the left has come perilously close to suggesting that workers, under socialism, would be slaves.

The underlying truth is that labor is one of the means of production. If an economy is fully socialized, then the potential worker must be employed however and wherever the best interests of the community as a whole are served, and his or her interests count no more in this decision than do those of anyone else.

This grim principle has repeatedly been illustrated in communities that have attempted a very high degree of socialism. Sometimes the attempt has been hijacked by leaders with less that sincere interest in communal well-being, but these leaders were able to make the populace their slaves because socialism required slavery of the populace. Trotsky's observation that

The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.[3]

was true under Stalin because it or something like it would, as a practical matter, have been true under any fully realized socialism.

Meanwhile, as much as many people living in more market-oriented economies like to imagine themselves as slaves to their employers, they're fully aware that these employers cannot send agents to recapture them should they quit their jobs. To the extent that any group of persons other than ourselves exercises such ownership over us, that group is the state — the very institution usually entrusted to effect socialistic measures.

A movement towards socialism is a movement towards slavery, rather than away from it, and if one is going to bring the subject of slavery into an honest defense of socialism against all alternatives, then it is necessary somehow to make a case for slavery.

[1] The Production of Commodities by Commodities; Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory (1960).

[2] Note how advocates of higher statutory minimum wages point with outrage at those who amass great wealth while paying workers less that some proposed statutory minimum wage, as if there were a zero-sum game being played between employer and employee.

[3] The Revolution Betrayed, ch 11 Whither the Soviet Union? § 2 The Struggle of the Bureaucracy with the Class Enemy.

On the Meaning of Entrepreneur

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

There has been and is a lot of confusion over the English word entrepreneur. Now, I say English word advisedly, because, though entrepreneur was derived from a French word spelled exactly the same way, a word is not merely a sequence of symbols, but such a sequence in association with a concept or set of concepts, and the English word entrepreneur doesn't have quite the same meaning as the French word.

The French word means contractor or, more generally, one who undertakes.

We didn't need a new word for contractor; it would be contemptible affectation of one sort or of another to introduce a longer French word for such purpose. In fact, there was some attempt to engage in that sort of affectation in the 19th Century, first in the entertainment industry.

But the sequence entrepreneur was reïntroduced to English in the mid-20th Century with the intention of identifying a narrower concept that meritted a word of its own. That concept was of a person who attempts to create a market where one does not exist — offering a new sort of product, or offering a sort of product to those who have not been purchasers of such things.

The entrepreneur is not merely a small business person, nor an active business person, nor an independent contractor, nor some combination of the three. The entrepreneur is an economic explorer, seeking to cultivate new territory — typically with pecuniary profit in mind, but sometimes just for the satisfaction of having brought a market into existence.

Whatever the motivation, it is in the rôle of attempting to create markets that the entrepreneur is the great hero and the entrepreneuse the great heroine of the market economy. And some unconscious sense of that heroism has passed through our society, causing business people aren't such explorers to want to label themselves entrepreneur. The word has become diluted in general use, and many people are using it as if, well, it meant no more than the French word from which it were derived. Economists with a fair understanding of the market process shake their heads in dismay. We need a word for those heroes.

On the Definition of Economics

Friday, 10 May 2013

Occasionally, I am confronted with the question of the nature of economics.

A great many people believe that they know what economics is. Many of these people have inferred a definition for economics from references in the popular media and from politicians to the economy, and from popular media presentations of or about various people labelled economist. Some people have taken one or two courses in high school or in college about something called economics, and have presumed that whatever definitions were given in their textbooks were uncontroversial.

Well, the fact is that the popular media do no better job in representing economics than they do in representing those subjects with which you (my reader) have a real familiarity. High school economics textbooks are often disasters written by people who aren't economists. First-year college textbooks often over-simplify things. And when a respected economist attempts to define economics, while his definition may be embraced by a great many other respected economists, it will be challenged by still other respected economists! (I'll define what I here mean by economist below. If you must have a definition right now, then take it to mean one who has received a degree or appointment by which he or she has been so labelled!)

Tromping where angels fear to tread, I am going to tell you how I define economics.

Economics is a cluster of studies. The studies that I have in mind concern these questions:

How do individuals allocate the resources at their disposal?How are prices formed?How are resources allocated within a community?
How should individuals allocate the resources at their disposal?How should prices be formed?How should resources be allocated within a community?
They are clustered because significant theories (propositional structures) hold that these studies have important inter-relationships.

(And now I'll define economist to mean someone who engages in more than casual study of any one or more of these areas.)

Someone may come along and show some serious flaw in my definition. But, on the expectation that it works, I'm going to discuss it.

There's a whole bunch of things not explicitly mentioned in my definition that lay-people associate with economics. That's because those things are particular cases of more general concepts. For example, households, firms, industries, bourses, and nations are each sorts of communities. There are economists whose studies concern social orders in which all of these communities exist, but the presumption of such a social order is not intrinsic to economics. Business administrators may find economics useful, but they also may find mathematics useful. Neither is simply a hand-maiden of business studies.

Not everyone who has attempted or attempts scientific or scholarly consideration of these questions accepts the existence of the inter-relationships described by the aforementioned theories. In some cases, they may subscribe to theories which accept significant inter-relationship, but on some very different theoretical basis. In some cases, researchers may claim that, where other theories see a bilateral causality, there is just a one-way causality. For example, these economists may insist that, while prices inform individual decisions, those prices are formed without regard to individual decisions.

Further, even economists who accept that these studies are all importantly inter-related don't necessarily spend much-if-any effort studying in all areas. Indeed, some may confine themselves to just one area. For example, every one of the living economists who is widely known to lay-people is a macroeconomist, which is to say that he or she is concerned with the behavior of aggregates such as prices levels, employment rates, and GDP. But, as a share of economists more generally, macroeconomists are a tiny minority. Most economists don't like macroeconomics. It is signally ignorant to ask a typical economist what the stock-market is going to do most days, because that's outside of his or her area of concern.

You surely noticed that the first row of question were non-normative, while the second row were corresponding normative questions. Some economists would insist that there is very little to be said normatively. On the other hand, often a sort of normative theory is used to approximate non-normative theory, as when it is assumed that individuals have complete, transitive, and acyclical preferences.

For what it's worth, the words economy and economics comes to us from the Greek stems ὀικ-, referring to the household, and νομ-, referring to the law or to custom (with the -ic- from the adjectival suffix -ικ-). Greek ὀικονομ[ικ]- referred to management of the household and of its resources.

Transliterated into Latin, ὀικονομ[ικ]- became oeconom[ic]- and entered English thus. Somewhere along the line, the initial o fell silent.

In English, œconomy referred to resource management, typically at the the level of the household, that was wise, frugal, or perhaps tight-fisted, or to a savings realized by such management (a definition that still has some currency to-day); and œconomist to a manager who was wise, frugal, or tight-fisted. Conceptualizing a political community as household, the term political œconomy began to be used in reference to the sorts of management in which political authorities might engage. (German has a very similar term, Nationalökonomie.)

The initial o began to fall away from œconom-; and, in part because of the currency of political [o]economy, [o]economist became increasingly dissociated from thoughts of households or of other work-a-day management, and more concerned with a sort of philosophical or scientific study (though not, as it happens, before The Economist got its name).

Eventually, peculiar association of economics with the literal household was so forgotten that, when a term was wanted with the original sense, the philologically redundant home economics was adopted, with only quiet laughter off in the distance.

A few people now-a-days call themselves oeconomist, spelled in that archaic manner, as a way of asserting that they are or seek to be wise practical managers of resources. That's not, however, why I label myself thus.

Although my published work doesn't look simply modernistic but in fact hyper-modernistic, I'm sympathetic to much of the criticism of modernism in economics; I think that we need to reconsider some of the work done before the era of modernism. My œ is a way of saying that there's something deliberately old-fashioned to my thinking.

On the Meaning of Socialism

Monday, 7 March 2011

In a previous entry, I discussed the meaning — or lack of meaning — of the word capitalism. With an eye towards future entries, I want to write now about the word socialism.

The OED (and the New SOED) provide the original definition of socialism:

A theory or policy of social organization which aims at or advocates the ownership and control of the means of production, capital, land, property, etc., by the community as a whole, and their administration or distribution in the interests of all.

It's pretty straight-forward: collective, communal ownership of the means of production, and administration for the collective benefit. But there's at least three points to be raised here. First, and most important, is that different conceptions of the community are possible. The community in question might be the whole world; it might be every human being within a particular jurisdiction; it might be a particular religious community; or it might be members of an ethnic group of some sort. Second, the definition here does not intrinsically entail comprehensive communal ownership; that is to say that it doesn't declare that all means of production must be communally owned for a system to be socialistic. Third, those who indeed advocate a comprehensive communal ownership of the means of production often fail to note that labor is an important means of production, so that such ownership would mean that an individual must work when, where, and how the community or its representatives told him or her to work.

Merriam-Webster gives us set of definitions, each somewhat different from that original definition:

1: any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods
2 a: a system of society or group living in which there is no private property b: a system or condition of society in which the means of production are owned and controlled by the state
3: a stage of society in Marxist theory transitional between capitalism and communism and distinguished by unequal distribution of goods and pay according to work done

The first three M-W definitions here (1, 2a, and 2b) all ignore the issue of for whose benefit the means of production are employed. Definition 1 is additionally broader than the original, in that it includes state ownership as possiby different from collective ownership. Definitions 2a and 2b are each otherwise narrower, as one precludes any private property, and the other insists upon state ownership. The final definition is introduced because Marxism, an important school of thought, made peculiar use of the term. Jointly, this set of definitions illustrate how a word can lose usefulness when popular use is uncritically accepted.

My 1975 copy of the AHD defines socialism as

1. A social system in which the producers possess both political power and the means of producing and distributing goods. 2. The theory or practice of those who support such a social system. 3. In Marxist-Leninist theory, the building, under dictatorship of the proletariat, of the material base for communism.

In the case of the first definition, one might begin by asking why the system should be called socialism; there is no mention of society or of community here, except in-so-far as this is a social order (as would be many in which producers would not have ownership or political power). Even if we regard the relevant community as that of the producers, the definition says nothing of them owning qua community; all property could be private, so long as the producers had means of production and distribution! Frankly, the author was so swept-up in his or her theory of socialism (recall the definition of capitalism that appears in the same edition) that he or she lost sight of its essential structure. (And perhaps the author was too enraptured to note that different folk would have different ideas about whom one should take to be a producer.) The second definition is purely derivative of the first. The third definition pushes-aside Marxism more generally in favor of Marxist-Leninism in particular, but is roughly a reïteration of the same notion, for about the same reason.

The 1993 version of the AHD defines it thus

1.a. A social system in which the means of producing and distributing goods are owned collectively and political power is exercised by the whole community. b. The theory or practice of those who support such a social system. 2. The building of the material base for communism under the dictatorship of the proletariat in Marxist-Leninist theory.

The first definition here has nearly restored the original sense: collective, communal ownership of the means of production, and administration for the collective benefit. (The three points that I raised in response remain germane.) But now there's an insistence that political power is exercised by the whole community. This is a response to the great embarrassment of decidedly undemocratic regimes claiming to represent the community in the administration of the means of production. (The reference to political power in the earlier edition was probably an ineffectual attempt to deal with that embarrassment.) The second definition is again purely derivative of the first. The third that from the earlier edition, with a non-substantive reördering of words.

All right now. When someone else has introduced the word socialism into the discourse, I've tried to respond to it based upon how that someone else is or at least seems to be using it, Or I've explicitly asked what he or she means by it; but when I've introduced or will introduce the word socialism into the discourse, what I've meant is

collective, communal ownership of the means of production and administration for the collective benefit

And I do plan to be writing again about socialism, very soon.

A Capitalist Manifesto

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

In a foot-note to a previous entry, I mentioned that, when people use the word capitalism, I want a definition.

The word capitalism, when first introduced, meant a condition of possessing capital, and the coördinate term capitalist identified one who possesses capital.

At some point, a new definition for the former was introduced. The word capitalism was used derogatorially, for a system that favors capitalists. The reason that this definition doesn't much work except for disparagement is that, under any system that has capital, there are capitalists (possessors of capital). For example, a system that declares a present or former proletariat to be the rightful owners (collectively or otherwise) of the means of production has declared them to be the rightful capitalists, and would favor their interests.

(At some further point, capitalist acquired the additional meaning of one who favors capitalism. But, if we replace the definition of capitalist within capitalism to use this later meaning, then we just have an idiotic loop-de-loop, within which capitalism is defined as a system that favors the interests of those who favor the system, which definition wouldn't do much to exclude all sorts of systems.)

In the OED, one finds basically the original two definitions of capitalism:

The condition of possessing capital; the position of a capitalist; a system which favours the existence of capitalists.
But my copy of the New SOED (1993) instead defines the term thus:
The possession of capital or wealth; a system in which private capital or wealth is used in the production or distribution of goods; the dominance of private owners of capital and of production for profit.
It's a bit troublesome to find the historically second definition seemingly shoved-down a memory hole;[1] but, in any case, one now finds two new definitions, one in terms of how capital is used, the second in terms of some sort of dominance by private capitalists, and of production for profit.[2] (That definition in terms of dominance might actually be an attempt to capture the sense of the historically second definition.)

Meanwhile, though, Merriam-Webster had its own thoughts on the subject. They define capitalism as

an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market
Well, it's probably worth noting that free market is a bit of a redundancy, in that, to the extent that prices or quantities are bounded by law, one isn't really talking about a market. But, in any case, the main thing to note is that this definition differs markèdly from the previous definitions, as corporate as well as private[3] ownership is allowed, and as a reliance upon markets has been introduced into the definition.

My 1975 copy of the AHD gives a remarkable definition:

1. An economic system characterized by freedom of the market with increasing concentration of private and corporate ownership of production and distribution means, proportionate to increasing accumulation and reinvestment of profits. 2. A political or social system regarded as being based on this.
That's kind-of like the Merriam-Webster definition, but with a theory of increasing concentration grafted onto it; and, not only increasing concentration, but proportionate increase. Huh. So, in other words, capitalism, at least under the definition labelled 1., refers to a system that not only has never existed, but couldn't ever exist; 'cause, as I guarantee you, economic processes don't typically follow nice lineär laws (nor simple arithmetic functions more generally). And one wonders what one is supposed to call a system in which there is a market, but not increasing concentration of wealth, or at least one in which wealth is not increased proportionately. Really, of course, what's going on with this definition is some attempt to impose a theory and to advance a social prescription.

But wait! My 1993 copy of the AHD tells us something else! It defines capitalism thus:

An economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.
Uhh… it's more of that proportionality stuff; another system that never has and never could exist. But, now, instead of investment increasing concentration of ownership, it's producing growth. Another attempt to grind an ideological axe, just a different axe. (I guess that versions of the AHD are kind-of like versions of Wikipedia, except that the changes are effected more slowly.)

Okay, so that's — what? three? five? — very standard sources, and how many definitions? And what is one to think when someone uses the term state capitalism, and defines it to mean an economy controlled by the state in a capitalist manner?

I once responded to an essay by asking the author what he meant by capitalism. His reply was that he'd used it with the standard definition. Well, there is no standard definition.[4] As far as I'm concerned, the word capitalism is practically useless, unless what one wants to practice is confusion, or unless one defines it before or immediately after first using it.

[1] The SOED is supposed to be complete for terms and definitions found after 1700.

[2] An unclarified notion of profit appears here; there's no point in doing anything under any system, unless it actually improves things somehow; one suspects that the author has some narrower notion in mind.

[3] Some people loosely use the term corporation to refer simply to an association of some sort, but that would be just another sort of private ownership; legal corporations, on the other hand, are creatures of the state. They can be formed by license to a single person, rather than to an association. Corporations are treated by law largely as themselves persons. And they insulate those to whom they are licensed from liability, not merely to those with whom they contract (to whom liability could anyway have been limited by overt contractual terms) but to third parties who may be injured by the actions of the corporation.

[4] I cited some of these dictionary entries to make that point to him, and reïterated my question; he lapsed into silence.

Randomness and Time

Sunday, 20 February 2011

When someone uses the word random, part of me immediately wants a definition.[1]

One notion of randomness is essentially that of lawlessness. For example, I was recently slogging through a book that rejects the proposition that quantum-level events are determined by hidden variables, and insists that the universe is instead irreducibly random. The problem that I have with such a claim is that it seems incoherent.

There is no being without being something; the idea of existence is no more or less than that of properties in the extreme abstract. And a property is no more or less than a law of behavior.

Our ordinary discourse does not distinguish between claims about a thing and claims about the idea of a thing. Thus, we can seem to talk about unicorns when we are really talking about the idea of unicorns. When we say that unicorns do not exist, we are really talking about the idea of unicorns, which is how unicorns can be this-or-that without unicorns really being anything.

When it is claimed that a behavior is random in the sense of being without law, it seems to me that the behavior and the idea of the behavior have been confused; that, supposedly, there's no property in some dimension, yet it's going to express itself in that dimension.

Another idea of randomness is one of complexity, especially of hopeless complexity. In this case, there's no denial of underlying lawfulness; there's just a throwing-up of the hands at the difficulty in finding a law or in applying a law once found.

This complexity notion makes awfully good sense to me, but it's not quite the notion that I want to present here. What unites the notion of lawlessness with that of complexity is that of practical unpredictability. But I think that we can usefully look at things from a different perspective.

After the recognition that space could be usefully conceptualized within a framework of three orthogonal, arithmetic dimensions, there came a recognition that time could be considered as a fourth arithmetic dimension, orthogonal to the other three. But, as an analogy was sensed amongst these four dimensions, a puzzle presented itself. That puzzle is the arrow of time. If time were just like the other dimensions, why cannot we reverse ourselves along that dimension just as along the other three. I don't propose to offer a solution to that puzzle, but I propose to take a critical look at a class of ostensible solutions, reject them, and then pull something from the ashes.

Some authors propose to find the arrow of time in disorder; as they would have it, for a system to move into the future is no more or less than for it to become more disorderly.

One of the implications of this proposition is that time would be macroscopic; in sufficiently small systems, there is no increase nor decrease in order, so time would be said neither to more forward nor backward. And, as some of these authors note, because the propensity of macroscopic systems to become more disorderly is statistical, rather than specifically absolute, it would be possible for time to be reversed, if a macroscopic system happened to become more orderly.

But I immediately want to ask what it would even mean to be reversed here. Reversal is always relative. The universe cannot be pointed in a different direction, unless by universe one means something other than everything. Perhaps we could have a local system become more orderly, and thus be reversed in time relative to some other, except, then, that the local system doesn't seem to be closed. And, since the propensity to disorder is statistical, it's possible for it to be reversed for the universe as a whole, even if the odds are not only against that but astronomically against it. What are we to make of a distinction between a universe flying into reverse and a universe just coming to an end? And what are we to make of a universe in which over-all order increases for some time less than the universe has already existed? Couldn't this be, and yet how could it be if the arrow of time were a consequence of disorder?

But I also have a big problem with notions of disorder. In fact, this heads us back in the direction of notions of randomness.

If I take a deck of cards that has been shuffled, hand it to someone, and ask him or her to put it in order, there are multiple ways that he or she might do so. Numbers could be ascending or descending within suits, suits could be separated or interleaved, &c. There are as many possible orderings as there are possible rules for ordering, and for any sequence, there is some rule to fit it. In a very important sense, the cards are always ordered. To describe anything is to fit a rule to it, to find an order for it. That someone whom I asked to put the cards in order would be perfectly correct to just hand them right back to me, unless I'd specified some order other than that in which they already were.

Time's arrow is not found in real disorder generally, because there is always order. One could focus on specific classes of order, but, for reasons noted earlier, I don't see the explanation of time in, say, thermodynamic entropy.

But, return to decks of cards. I could present two decks of card, with the individual cards still seeming to be in mint state, with one deck ordered familiarly and with the other in unfamiliar order. Most people would classify the deck in familiar order as ordered and the other as random; and most people would think the ordered deck as more likely straight from the pack than the random deck. Unfamiliar orderings of some things are often the same thing as complex orderings, but the familiar orderings of decks of cards are actually conventional. It's only if we use a mapping from a familiar ordering to an unfamiliar ordering that the unfamiliar ordering seems complex. Yet even people who know this are going to think of the deck in less familiar order as likely having gone through something more than the deck with more familiar order. Perhaps it is less fundamentally complexity than experience of the evolution of orderings that causes us to see the unfamiliar orderings as random. (Note that, in fact, many people insist that unfamiliar things are complicated even when they're quite simple, or that familiar things are simple even when they're quite complex.)

Even if we do not explain the arrow of time with disorder, we associate randomness with the effects of physical processes, which processes take time. Perhaps we could invert the explanation. Perhaps we could operationalize our conception of randomness in terms of what we expect from a class of processes (specifically, those not guided by intelligence) over time.

(Someone might now object that I'm begging the question of the arrow of time, but I didn't propose to explain it, and my readers all have the experience of that arrow; it's not a rabbit pulled from a hat.)

[1] Other words that cause the same reäction are probability and capitalism.