Modern conservative and progressive thought–mainly progressive thought as it controls the academy–reminds me of a biased algorithm trying to estimate a model with tons of parameters. You need an algorithm that keeps trying parameter numbers, evaluating how well the model fits, and trying new ones. When I did economic research to estimate these models I would watch the four series, which were filtered from the parameters, as they would drastically change depending on the numbers chosen. In 100 dimensional space there are many areas in the parameter space your model can’t explore.
You’re never sure if you have converged on a true estimate, or your model took a wrong turn on one parameter a few thousand iterations ago. If your algorithm gets stuck at a local maxima, it needs to take a huge guess in the right direction to escape. Our modern political thought–unlike all previous times and countries–might not be at a local maxima but is in fact progressing to the global maxima of a utopian society. If so, I hope to help prove that claim by exploring the most unfashionable arguments for you in order to help you build your confidence that we are approaching that global maximum.
We live in a world of more than 100 parameters. If the number of parameters that govern our interactions with the world can even be quantified in a meaningful sense. All the same, whether it’s a true comparison or an analogy–no way to tell–it’s a useful way of envisioning the world. After all, our best scientific discoveries tend to arise from mathematical and logical models with parameters, so it’s safe to assume the same logic applies to reality as a whole.
Let’s make some assumptions and impose structure on what we want to call our model of reality, and state that each parameter represents a clear factor that makes sense to the human brain. We recently had a mass shooting (I’m sure this sentence will still hold true even if you read this post a year from when I posted it).
In this case the primary parameters would be gun legislation, Islam, immigration, homophobia, and so forth. You’ll notice this is a little shaky, since homophobia and Islam might have a distinct relationship, but let’s just stick with it for now. What if we are missing parameters, and that these parameters have high-dimensional nonlinear interactions? If these are emergent properties from complex interactions every nice little argument would be dead wrong. Shorter arguments can be perceived as more persuasive. And the memetics of nice arguments can interact with the structures of our government.
In the social sciences our goal is to explore the parameter space. Sure we do this with math and models, but it all starts with our brain’s learning algorithms. We try to filter out areas worthy of study in our n-dimensional reality. Political systems tend to be useful areas to study, as they explain how humans interact. The Mariana trench is not useful in explaining how humans interact.
This is obvious, but it’s also not obvious. When you try to teach a computer the difference between obvious things, it often ends up being way way harder than you might expect. What, exactly, is our form of government? It’s a classification issue. There is no such thing, literally, as a Democracy (despite what the tombs of old political theorists tied to prove). It’s a word we assign when an extraordinary amount of attributes are satisfied falling into some boundaries. The definition changes over time, the attributes we consider change over time. A measure of the electoral connection seems to be one of the most salient features filtered out by political scientists. When we pretend we have firm definitions we are lying to ourselves. Our Democratic experiment continues, perhaps the defining attributes are yet to arise.
On Democracy, what exactly is a political centrist? As Soviet historian Martin Malia surveys academic thought in the introduction to his book, he writes that “The Soviet Union portrayed by Western social science represented a variant of ‘modernity,’ rough-hewn no doubt, yet in significant measure a success. Most specialists agreed, further, that the system was ‘stable.’” Malia continues to point out popular academic thought that the rise of Bolshevism was “Democratic” and tolerated “diverse views.”
But those are boring examples. Let’s try some more fashionable conservative click-bait. If you’re not aware of this strain of communist apologists you might be a little shocked. More likely you have an idea that there are some of these people that exist, and take it for granted. Anyway, the red scare is so 1964. What we should really be concerned about is too many white men in our curriculum. That’s a topical link for me since I’m from Seattle, but it is commonplace.
There are enough blogs that highlight the absurd standards on what issues academics are (or aren’t) morally judged on. The question that interests me is how many times has this fight been lost already? We have entire departments devoted to all forms (except white) of ethnic nationalism, gender identity, and activism. The goals of these departments are to build a cohesive worldview that will build a better society, and proposes the core assumptions and worldviews that we must hold and enact to approach this optimal society.
Does this work as intended? Not whether it sounds nice, because of course it sounds nice. Plus, who doesn’t want to battle evil in pursuit of justice? Battle is fun. Unfortunately for the battle ready, Karl Popper, the most famous Philosopher of Science of the 20th century, doesn’t seem to think these battles should exist. In The Poverty of Historicism from 1957 he notes:
“i) Unintended consequences: the implementation of Historicist programs such as Marxism often means a fundamental change to society. Due to the complexity of social interaction this results in lots of unintended consequences (i.e. it tends not to work properly). Equally it becomes impossible to tease out the cause of any given effect so nothing is learnt from the experiment / revolution.
ii) Lack of information: large scale social experiments cannot increase our knowledge of the social process because as power is centralised to enable theories to put into practice, dissent must be repressed, and so it is harder and harder to find out what people really think, and so whether the utopian experiment is working properly. This assumes that a dictator in such a position could be benevolent and not corrupted by the accumulation of power, which may be doubted.”
Do you think Karl Popper is assigned in many modern activist departments? I might be getting ahead of myself – a few quotes on soviet era scholarship, a link to some radical student activists, and a claim that Popper isn’t assigned shouldn’t be enough to convince anyone that activist departments do exist, much less that they are more about gaining power than scientific discovery.
Still, there are reasons to be concerned. Certain questions are off-limits and cannot be discussed by any professor at an elite institution with a dream of tenure, power, or influence. They are left to a few brave academics and smart bloggers. The problem isn’t that these guys are right (those two links are on human biodiversity). It’s that they cannot be spoken. Try it, next time you meet up with your most fashionable friends bring up the arguments in The 10,000 Year explosion. Don’t assert that they could be right, or hint to it. Actually, don’t, because you’ll make everyone uncomfortable and might upset a few people.
Our philosophy of science works very well for the STEM fields, it’s rapidly improving for laboratory and medical experiments, and it’s making progress in some areas of the social sciences. Yet in a world where our supercomputers cannot simulate complex molecular interactions in any amount of reasonable time, with what hope do we have of constructing a story of history that has filtered out the true causal drivers of history, with all pesky interactions controlled. What if some of the views of history are dangerous?
If humans are tribal, than evidence supporting a tribe–even if it’s true–might lead to war, genocide, slavery, and a number of horrific outcomes. Would we then need to be shielded from these views? Conspiratorial logic is awful though, there is no conspiracy. No group of academics gathered in a musky view to suppress thought. It makes for good movies, but it’s unrealistic. It would come about from emergent properties.
I remember vividly I was forced to take a course in African American Political Thought. I say forced because I had no choice in the curriculum in the honors program. We read James Baldwin and Frederick Douglas exclusively. Growing a little bored of literature, I once asked my professor in a seminar what his view on Thomas Sowell’s argument was in his book White Rednecks Black Liberals.
Maybe Sowell was right, maybe he wasn’t, I didn’t know, I was a student. I was told we weren’t to discuss him because my professor didn’t respect Sowell’s authority. That seemed a little strange. Plus, in what sense is literature science? I don’t think it’s obvious one way or another how to incorporate literature into scientific thought. It is a valid question, but not obvious. There was no conspiracy here, was this just one of those emergent properties in action?
How do we incorporate old books, stories, or the news into our conception of government? We must though, as we all have opinions on these that are a direct result of more than just some textbooks and courses.When I think of the success of capitalism, what goes on in my head? It’s a cacophony of sources, models, and stores that I have read. They fire through the neural network of my synapses and I filter out a reason why capitalism is probably good.
All this conditional on there being an already filtered set of attributes that we can consistently classify as capitalism. My experience of the world seems that trying to derive complex systems from first principles doesn’t work. No matter how reasonable the axioms appear. What actually seems to happen is that we filter out key components from empirical observations. If that’s true though, teaching the field from assumptions, as I learned it, doesn’t really make sense.
The rest of my courses focused on a standard liberal education. I was lucky enough to have a professor that introduced me to the great libertarian thinkers of the 20th century. That was independent study, of course. It’s incredibly rare for Hayek or Milton Friedman to be taught in class. Other than the libertarian perspective, there aren’t many academics who disagree with modern progressive thought. Some Economists will have a conservative bend, typically due to economic policy, and there are some unfashionable religious schools that disagree with abortion and perceived debauchery of the left.
At the time the libertarian thinkers seemed to be the dark side. I was never willing to fully commit, in the back of my mind gay marriage, universal healthcare, and legalized marijuana were the defining fights of my generation.
I remember vividly the feeling of outrage and hate when I saw the religious right fight against gay marriage. Who do these people think they are? I saw myself as an underdog fighting against an oppressive power. Sure we had the entire academic system, most policy makers, the presidency, the NYtimes, and everyone under age 25 on our side.
Of course, that’s not to say some of the points aren’t legitimate. While tough on crime policy can’t be obviously attributed to one evil side, it’s no secret that modern public opinion has the right favoring the death penalty and tough on crime approaches. Plus, depriving women of reproductive health care and preventing gays from marrying is needless and petty.
The reason I’m not worried is because the religious right is boring because they are losing. Every time progressives beat them on an issue they push the line forward and start the next battle while lamenting that war never ends. The difference seems to be that progressives will actually define the 21st century. Does anyone really think the American right will?
The problem is that as you obsess over your in-group and fighting the out-group, you slowly form a contorted and twisted version of the world. You’re presented with a picture of reality that states some set of issues are the issues. Your opponents take their stance on the issues. What are the issues? They tend to be the specific policy questions that best split the population into two and can be incorporated into one of two parties.
The question we have to ask yourselves is does this group vs. group battle over the issues portray an accurate picture of reality? Or do we get so caught up in our side, our battle, our righteousness, that we completely lose sight of just how complex our world is? And if we do lose sight, who is going to tell us? Where is the guy, detached from any group mentality, reading primary sources from the past and present, that will tap you on the shoulder and say “I think you’ve given in to the hot blooded excitement of tribalism, and have gone slightly off course.”
I’m not convinced what I learned accurately represents reality, or a meaningful history of thought. The academy handed me a set of base assumptions. I started out with half my worldview assumed to be true, without realizing I was at all learning on assumptions. It’s not that what I was taught was necessarily wrong, but after seeing the world of high-fashion in the academy and corruption of scientific thought, I have no reason to trust anything I was taught as an unbiased picture.
Curtis Yarvin started the neoreactionary movement online, which really just amounted to him breathing life into a once renowned, now less popular philosopher, Thomas Carlyle. Is he right? Well, his combined evidence and criticism of modern progressive thought is overwhelming. Is his solution the right one–that Democracy is a broken system? They are interesting questions.
Why aren’t they asked in the academy? One reason is that because they are so obviously wrong, like anti-vaccination or numerology, that they serve no purpose. They aren’t obviously wrong to me and at least a few other smart people I know. Maybe we aren’t that bright and everyone else has it figured out, honestly though, I don’t think that’s it.
In our developed countries the inertia required to exercise political violence is large, as it rarely promises rewards. This is due to centuries of institutional architecture. In other countries and times it hasn’t worked as well. Looking back these revolutions, insane political experiments, massacres, famines, and wars, seem wrong. They were brainwashed people, probably evil. Except they didn’t view themselves as evil, they truly believed what they were doing was right and would save their country. Malcolm Muggeridge was a British journalist stationed in the USSR. He met with many of the British liberals who had come to visit the grand Soviet experiment with optimism:
You would be amazed at the gullibility that’s expressed. We foreign journalists in Moscow used to amuse ourselves, as a matter of fact, by competing with one another as to who could wish upon one of these intelligentsia visitors to the USSR the most outrageous fantasy. We would tell them, for instance, that the shortage of milk in Moscow was entirely due to the fact that all milk was given nursing mothers – things like that. If they put it in the articles they subsequently wrote, then you’d score a point. One story I floated myself, for which I received considerable acclaim, was that the huge queues outside food shops came about because the Soviet workers were so ardent in building Socialism that they just wouldn’t rest, and the only way the government could get them to rest for even two or three hours was organizing a queue for them to stand in. I laugh at it all now, but at the time you can imagine what a shock it was to someone like myself, who had been brought up to regard liberal intellectuals as the samurai, the absolute elite, of the human race, to find that they could be taken in by deceptions which a half-witted boy would see through in an instant.
At the time if you were an intellectual liberal in Britain it was expected that you would fawn over the USSR and the great promises of communism. How can we be confident we aren’t falling into the same traps?
None of us want to be made fun of in 100 years for being misguided. If you took an incredibly unfashionable argument, something well thought out and not base, and presented it on Facebook how many friends would revel in their disgust for you? Sharing fashionable posts is a great way to signal how smart you are, and historically they have been misguided (as newsletters and pamphlets before Facebook). They aren’t always wrong, but what would it take to instill a seed of doubt in your mind?
On the other hand, the neo-reactionary view stating that progressivism and Democracy is completely broken is outrageous. So there might be a simpler explanation for why we don’t consider these seemingly radical ideas: They are stupid. If we assume a sort of efficient market hypothesis ideas it makes sense that the intellectuals of our past would have already vetted and discarded the areas of parameter space that make no sense.
Unfortunately, the existence today of academics who take seriously the mysticism of philosophers like Hegel and the unfalsifiability of Marx doesn’t support that argument. As Stove points out, wherein he quotes Hegel:
“His book is, naturally, full of quotations from Hegel’s early writings. In subject-matter these passages range from the astronomical to the zoological. For the examples which I promised earlier in this essay, I have chosen two of the astronomical ones. First:
In the indifferences of light, the aether has scattered its absolute indifference into a multiplicity; in the blooms of the solar system it has borne its inner Reason and totality out into expansion. But the individualizations of light are dispersed in multiplicity [i.e. the fixed stars], while those which form the orbiting petals of the solar system must behave towards them with rigid individuality [i.e. they have their fixed orbits]. And so the unity of the stars lacks the form of universality, while that of the solar system lacks pure unity, and neither carries in itself the absolute Concept as such.
In the spirit the absolutely simple aether has returned to itself by way of the infinity of the Earth; in the Earth as such this union of the absolute simplicity of aether and infinity exists; it spreads into the universal fluidity, but its spreading fixates itself as singular things; and the numerical unit of singularity, which is the essential characteristic (Bestimmtheit) for the brute becomes itself an ideal factor, a moment. The concept of Spirit, as thus determined, is Consciousness, the concept of the union of the simple with infinity;
Do you know any example of the corruption of thought which is more extreme than these two? Did you even know, until now, that human thought was capable of this degree of corruption?
Yet Hegel grew out of Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, as naturally as Green, Bradley, and all the other later idealists, grew out of him. I mention these historical commonplaces, in case anyone should entertain the groundless hope of writing Hegel off as an isolated freak. But now, remembering those historical facts, while also keeping our eyes firmly on the two passages I have just given, will someone please tell me again that the Logical Positivists were on the wrong track, and that we ought to revere the ‘great thinkers’, and that the human race is not mad?
We’ve been handed a set of great thinkers, philosophers, scientists, and lessons from our historical past. Combined together they tell a story of how the world unfolded, the best form of government, and the most refined ideas. If we could look backwards and pull out a different set of thought that has been forgotten, but that is equally robust and suggests our current conclusions are completely incorrect, what would that look like?