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Wednesday, October 24, 2007 -- 7:10 pm

I wonder if there's any systemic connection between the person (we all know one) whose self-conception is radically out of alignment with their actual behavior, and the larger society whose values and self-conception conflict with its actual behavior and, in fact, its options for survival. Both categories seem well-accounted for. Existentialists and others of the continental school, as well as some breeds of psychologist, have described the individual case. Diamond, in his long-winded way, has identified examples of societal bad faith in Collapse, other scholars for specific societies (I think of Stuart in Anasazi America, and I'm also reminded of an anthropologist whose name escapes me describing a society of farmers who really think of themselves as pastoralists.

Analogy, of course, is hardly sufficient to show a uniform underlying cause. And it seems to me that there are plenty of reasons to think the two don't stem from the same cause. A given individual (even if, as I generally maintain, an individual human mind is in fact a chorus and/or cacophony of competing voices, each with differing interests, jurisdictions, and specialties) may suffer from lack of insight, or have their judgment or perception clouded by neurological, perceptual, or medical causes; addiction seems a straightforward example of such a cause, for one or another reason. I have a hard time seeing these explanations applying on a social scale, and I suspect that it's harder for a society to suppress its dissident voices (though notably not impossible) than it is for an individual. Other explanations, however, may be more applicable: causes attributable to political motives ("We are a nation persecuted", says the genocidal demagogue), or to cynicism ("We need to study the phenomenon of acid rain/ global warming further to be able to assess its validity", says the petrocarbon tycoon), or to some other cultural conceit ("Men are so weak, and so easily tempted, that the sight of a woman's nose or ankle may inflame them with aggressive and adulterous passions").

Most of the latter examples, though, don't involve assertions about one's identity, which draw upon one's individual temperament (I would never identify myself as a partier) and on the range of options offered by society, which might well be imposed in a top-down fashion over any scale. But different people will react to peer pressure or insults to their pride in different ways, including contrarianism, so I don't know that even that would prove to be a sensible unifying explanation.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007 -- 7:13 pm

I have to wonder to what extent human nature, and human behavior, will ever become an exact science. It seems that there are a number of disciplines plodding toward this goal: economists, artists, management consultants, advertisers, cognitive scientists, anthropologists, primatologists, evolutionary psychologists, geneticists, neurologists, historians, political scientists, philosophers, computer scientists, and the like. My library teems with volumes on most of these subjects, which I struggle to absorb before their findings are deemed obsolete. At the moment, only maturity, experience, self-knowledge, and keen sensitivity help us to tease apart the delicately knotted strands of perception and motivation, and even so it remains entirely guesswork.

We being a perverse species, would acquaintance with a systematic knowledge of human nature move the goal posts? I doubt it, for a number of reasons. One is the sophomoric response that a reasonably intelligent theory of human nature would take into account its own effects on behavior. Another is that a large slice of the population, in its arrogance, will already consider itself knowledgeable on such matters and so see no point in studying the theory, or consider the whole theory a fraud perpetuated by the Dark Lord, or otherwise fail to interest themselves in the subject matter. A third is that if human nature really is a discipine and field of expertise, it will attract experts, who in the inevitable pressure to specialize will cultivate their own profession (let's call them "Diplomats"), and these Diplomats will doubtless end up spending most of their time talking to each other like any of the other technocratic priesthoods of modern times, with very little of their art ultimately trickling down into popular culture. (How many people really have any idea what Einstein achieved, over a century later? Freud's theories gained more traction, but mainly, it seems, because his circular reasoning was particularly palatable to the masses. And computer experts have elevated themselves into the sneering priestly castes with remarkable alacrity.)

So are people working on this unified theory? I've heard of very little (i.e., nothing) in the way of systematic synthesis, let alone hypotheses. Part of the problem is that we live in a quantified age, where intangibles and unmeasurables are frequently dismissed without further reflection as nothing more than the vestiges of sloppy thinking, or the realm of politics. But I, for one, am eager for people to set aside their conceptual hangups and get to work. Another part of the problem is that in this anti-intellectual age, people resist more and more the possibility of exposure to new ideas, and tend to stick within their own field. So I'll almost certainly be disappointed unless I tackle the project myself.

Monday, October 22, 2007 -- 7:11 pm

It is, perhaps, not the most prudent of strategies to turn to Wittgenstein in times of crisis; but it made sense at the time to pick up his On Certainty when agonizing my way through a period of doubt and self-criticism. Read in a day, it was both helpful and not. The short answer seems to be that, in his view, contrasting certainty with mere belief is nothing more than adopting a tone of voice, or resorting to some rhetorical flourish. (I am certain being no more an self-fulfilling declaration than I persuade or I seduce.) There may be symptoms of our confidence, such as a meaningless assertion that the opposite position is absurd, or that everyone agrees with us, and there may be ways of corroborating our confidence such as checking for evidence for our position or our position's logical consistency with other beliefs we hold. And W seems to make much, as well, of the interesting proposition that a child simply receives orthodox instruction which it cannot question, but as we mature we build up a frame of reference within which we evaluate new propositions, and develop attitudes of one sort or another. But while there are techniques that we can use to express our certainty, or to attempt to impose it on others, it is abundantly clear that there is no independent means of evaluating which beliefs are worthy of certainty, and which are not.

There were some remarkable omissions from Wittgenstein's discussion, however. He says nothing of moral or aesthetic certainty; perhaps he denied the existence of such a thing. He also makes no reference to the funhouse mirrors of introspection, where closer scrutiny seems to call almost everything into question; at most, he explains how doubt is meaningless except as a foil to established preconceptions, and we cannot doubt everything all at once. But he discusses not at all the peculiar hazards of reflection, where gnawing on a memory can mangle it, and where pride and interest can undermine the accuracy of our recollection and our confidence in our values. Nor does he weigh in on the types of uncertainty that plague decision-makers, who never have enough time, enough information, or enough wisdom to be sure of their choice.

In all, I think Wittgenstein's remarks were correct as far as they went. But they provide only modest practical guide to one locked in a battle of wills with a pushy adversary. It is nice to remember that, pace Lewis Carroll, simply repeating one's position does not make it any more correct. And it stands to reason that even the most confidently stated position may be nothing more than a bad-faith, cynical, self-serving, revisionist, obfuscatory assertion designed (consciously or not) to distract you from the speaker's real areas of vulnerability. Wittgenstein's comments, imaginatively construed, will not help you pierce the fog of language so much as encourage you to try, by reminding you that your adversary's certainty stems not from knowledge, but from nerve.

In fact, it's probably not amiss to suggest that in many cases of disagreement, the actual words spoken (and the force of reason) are sadly less significant than the group dynamics of dominance and submission. I strongly suspect that some agreements have more to do with one party resenting a challenge to his self-designated dominion by one he regards as subordinate than by an actual dispute of principles. You would hope adults could see past that, but actual chest-thumping is, even today, not unheard of in our own urbanized species.

But upon further reflection, perhaps Wittgenstein's analysis is enough to counter such belligerence. Perhaps at some point philosophers, before their field is co-opted by technology and formulae, will plumb the nature of hope, which like certainty appears to be as much a logical fiction as it is a human fact. It will be found that the two share a common ancestry. And it is left as an exercise for the reader to compare and contrast the subjective epistemic notion of certainty with the apparently objective epistemic notion of necessity.