Thursday, September 17, 2009

On the Use and Abuse of History

Even scientists making "scientific" observations know that what they see will be affected by their position.
It's a minor excerpt from Howard Zinn's book Declarations of Independence that I am currently reading (extending the political theme--sorry), which questions the content and purpose of American ideology. Now, this is an opinion I support in principle, but since he's an influential academic, and treading this close to my own thoughts, I'm going to hold his words to a higher standard than, say, rock lyrics. I've been getting stuck on the details of his argument a lot. The reading of Heisenberg wasn't relevant to very much, but it's symptomatic of Zinn's early discussion--something is askew with the presentation of how ideology works.

Here is part of the Richard Feynman passage I mentioned before, concerning measurement and cheap philosophy. (It's long, even chopped up):
So the fact that "things depend upon your frame of reference" is supposed to have had a profound effect on modern thought. One might well wonder why, because, after all, that certainly cannot have been necessary to go to all the trouble of the physical relativity theory in order to discover it…. [C]ertainly there must be deeper things in the theory of relativity that just this simple remark that "A person looks different from the front than from the back." Of course relativity is deeper than this, because we can make definite predictions with it. It certainly would be rather remarkable if we could predict the behavior of nature from such a simple observation alone.

There is another school of philosophers who feel very uncomfortable about the theory of relativity, which asserts that we cannot determine our absolute velocity without looking at something outside, and who would say, "It is obvious that one cannot measure his velocity without looking outside. It is self-evident that it is meaningless to talk about the velocity of a thing without looking outside; the physicists are rather stupid for having thought otherwise, but it has just dawned on them that this is the case. If only we philosophers had realized what the problems were that the physicists had, we could have decided immediately by brainwork that it is impossible to to tell how fast one is moving without looking outside, and we could have made an enormous contribution to physics." These philosophers are always with us, struggling in the periphery to try to tell us something, but they never really understand the subtleties and depths of the problem.

Our inability to detect absolute motion is a result of experiment and not a result of plain thought….Now is it absolutely, definitely, philosophically necessary that one should not be able to tell how fast he is moving without looking outside? One of the consequences of the relativity was the development of a philosophy which said, "You can only define what you can measure! Since it is self-evident that one cannot measure a velocity without seeing what he is measuring it relative to, therefore it is clear that there is no meaning to absolute velocity. The physicists should have realized that they can talk only about what they can measure." But that is the whole problem: whether or not one can define absolute velocity is the same as the problem of whether or not one can detect in an experiment, without looking outside, whether he is moving. In other words, whether or not a thing is measurable is not something to be decided a priori by thought alone, but something that can be decided only by experiment….

[I]f we have a set of "strange ideas," such as that time goes slower when one moves, and so forth, whether we like them or do not like them is an irrelevant question. The only relevant question is whether the ideas are consistent with what is found experimentally.
This, incidentally, is exactly the point where what seemed a fine idea for a post just wanders off somewhere, digressing itself down the precipitous road of closely-related philosophical terminology. Modern versions of empiricism or realism did struggle to work Einstein in there, but the summary that "of course you can only define what you can measure" is certainly older than that. (It's hard for me to believe that, whatever interesting reducionist attempts were made in the field over the years, that any practical person thought that rationalism or empiricism had to be an either/or proposition.) I'll echo Feynman's view that measurement is really the trump card in all this (even if we can reason beyond measurement and observe things we haven't yet deduced) and that at some level, it's synonymous with composing a question. Certainly without measurements and their consequences no one would have ever got to relativity. I'd love to believe, like Feynman, that the underlying philosophy isn't especially relevant, except here I am, treading ignorantly up against it once more. If it comes down to admitting stuff, I accept a physical reality that is independent from our mind and only somewhat like our perceptions (even though mind circumscribes our understanding of reality), and I believe that mathematics (and scientific theory) is merely descriptive, that it exists only in a medium, and is not otherwise a reality itself, even though the deductive power is amazingly rich, and speculation on where they diverge can be interesting as hell. Is there a school of philosophy that fits that in? Is it worth it to find out the history of my viewpoint? I am not sure what debt Feynman's essential modern "scientific realism" owed to the shoulders of earlier philosophers either.

I do like mashing up unrelated disciplines to see how the analogies hold--I'd better, given what I'm doing here--but like I said, the quick aside into physics didn't strengthen Howard Zinn's point very much here, and it constitutes the kind of thinking that could get the physicist into the posthumous whirligig dealie.

Everything humans undertake can be described as having a basis in some underlying idea, even when we don't care to spend a lot of time acknowledging them. (Even the notion that we don't behave as if governed by philosophical constructs is a philosophical construct, if you know what I mean.) Zinn clearly intends "ideology" as an external set of ideas, some governing set of philosophical principle that pushes society along (and I agree that the ideas can be sicker than they first look). The vernacular usually sets the ideologue in the realm of pure and simplified thought, well apart from the realist (and Zinn follows this too, a bit haphazardly), with the difference that, while realism is technically an ideology, it requires evidence to validate itself. Declarations of Independence is observational, but it calls for a new prescription, a new ideology.

Human behavior is different than physics, in that what they believe can influence the outcome, or, at least, that's the hypothesis. It's also different in that models of human behavior--even the phenomenological ones--are only accurate in the broad-brush and general-trends sense, as any of the generations of economists can tell you. History, by definition, is the data, even if we tend to be selective in what pieces of it we choose to measure. (The difference between the overview and the lives people must live is important, but it has a lot to do with why tend to ignore the little guy in historical contexts. Zinn's genius is to measure history based on the lives that more people have experienced.) On skimming the historical evidence, I'd say that actual human behavior suggests that the effects of ideology are actually fairly limited, and people tend to revert to some level of short-range decency among those with whom we identify, and a threshold for opportunism that drops as we migrate from the inner circle. I lean to a more anthropological explanation of human behavior, I guess.

Zinn spends more than a chapter complaining about Niccolò Machiavelli's ideology, and his take is infuriating. Mac didn't say that "the ends justifies the means," he said that leaders are only judged by the ends, which is important if you're trying to dissect his philosophy. Zinn could have emphasized that he thought Machiavelli was wrong, or that his advice was amoral, or that he was a woeful product of his times, or that his advice was so obviously self-serving. (I'd add that it may well have been a little subversive too.) There's a world of difference between following his advice (there, the discussion is good), and following his practice. Machiavelli may or may not have been a monster, but he was a scientist, not an ideologue. He was basing his views on measurement.

Take it away, Dr. F.:
What, then, are the philosophic influence of the theory of relativity? If we limit ourselves to influences in the sense of what kind of new ideas and suggestions are made to the physicist by the principle of relativity, we could describe some of them as follows. The first discovery is, essentially, that even those ideas which have been held for a very long time and which have been very accurately verified might be wrong. It was a shocking discover, of course, that Newton's laws are wrong, after all the years in which they seemed to be accurate. Of course it is clear, not that the experiments were wrong, but that they were done over only a limited range of velocities, so small that the relativistic effects would not have been evident. But nevertheless, we now have a much more humble point of view of our physical laws--everything can be wrong.
And here's the thing. History has shown a large diversity of human behavior, including drastic changes in how we behave, sometimes, amazingly, within a just a couple generations (agriculture, travel, communication). The aggregate behavior seems to be a response to environment, of which the pervading ideas and knowledge--not sure if we call that ideology--are only only a part. (I mean, I may seem like a reasonable guy, but you should see me when I run out of beer.) While history might exhibit observable large-scale patterns, and while our nature can't be too distinct from what it was 30000 years ago, we've messed with the environment significantly. Some of the effects of this we can predict (and it ain't looking too rosy), but as we move at new velocities, let's keep measuring.

9 comments:

artandsoul said...

Speaking of using and abusing History, have you seen this?

http://fray.slate.com/discuss/forums/thread/3239206.aspx

I especially "liked" that the guy referred to himself "As a serious student of history..." and then went on to equate Obama with Hitler.

Yeah. A serious student of history.

Keifus said...

Wow, you deserve some kind of award--that particular nonsense was like ten paragraphs down. Weren't you just mentioning my ability to read long, boring baloney. I think you just beat me in two examples!

(I have been mostly ignoring that guy for years. He doesn't angle, he chums.)

switters said...

Loved this post, and not just because Hegel was a crossword puzzle answer. (I know, only semi-related.)

In fact, I loved it so much, it deserves a total hijack.

Re: mandolin playing

Pretty much agree with all you said. I believe there is some truth with regard to Page's knowledge of the mandolin and Evermore. And Ricky Skaggs in on All Things Considered this afternoon.

"Change". One of my favorite songs of all time, and Blind Melon is one of my favorite bands of all time. The song is perfect, and it only has 3 count'em 3 chords. But it's got what all perfect songs must have: melancholy, and joyfulness. I'd easily put it up there with "Pink Moon" any day of the week and twice on Sundays.

There. I'll stop now. You sure do read a lot. Must be why you're just an engaging writer. I might finally start The Road, but a friend of mine says I should be in a really good mood when I do, so, yeah, maybe not.

Keifus said...

I guess I could have made it shorter--three centuries where every ideology turned up the same problems probably doesn't suggest a new ideology is needed--but then how would I quote Feynman at length? (I haven't seen Dr. Stuffe in a while, but I picture him wandering by this post and shaking his head sadly.) I finished it and thought I should probably start drinking again.

I read slowly, but there's usually a book around. Stay away from The Road. It's as bleak as bleak gets. It's like an exercise in how little hope can be used to tolerate how much sterile deadness.

3 chords, not counting the suspiciously ornamental-looking suspended dealies. Good description of the tune--if I get a chance tonight I'll pull out the cd, if I can find it, and enjoy it a bit before I remind myself that I'm not even a little bit ept.

(I was typing and a cut of Jerry Garcia playing banjo came up on the shuffle. I understand the banjo is what Jerry actually learned on, before he realized that playing a guitar will get you laid. I'm not a huge fan of either the instrument or the musician, to be honest, but looking for a clip of it, I came across this, a banjo tribute version of my favorite Dead song. The intro's a little iffy, but it's nice when it gets going. Melancholy and joyful? Yes.)

artandsoul said...

Keifus - you know switters better than I do, and switters your friend knows you better than I do as well.

That said, I read The Road this summer. I am not a fan of apocalyptic literature nor do I find myself especially drawn to dark novels. However, I inhaled this book. I could not, absolutely could not stop reading....

and while it was, during the book from page one til about the last three paragraphs the darkest book I may have ever read, I finished it with a sense of hope for the characters and the world around me seemed incredibly richer, more beautiful and oh so wet and alive.

That's just me.

I also really liked this what you said, Keifus: "Human behavior is different than physics, in that what they believe can influence the outcome, or, at least, that's the hypothesis." but doesn't some of the new quantum stuff deal in this belief stuff. I mean, don't we have to reorient our understanding of outcomes and effects?

I'm not a scientist, but I believe there are some studies out and about (many in Canada) that deal with (or try to deal with) the phenomenon of image and it's translation into chemistry by its impact (effect) on the body.

And switters, my husband offered me $5000 to name our first daughter Amanda Lynn. Sometimes when we want to talk about her without her knowing we call her that. He has offered the girls the same amount of money if they choose "Thunder and Blazes" for their processional march at their (someday) wedding.

Such humor. :)

Keifus said...

Art, you might be thinking of how in quantum mechanics, measurement appears to collapse various probabilities, that without the measurement are considered equally "real", like in the cat-in-the-box thing (here's wiki). Some people have tried to work that strangeness into the similarly strange magic of consciousness (two other digressing paths you can lose yourself on--I've already linked to myself to criminal excess in the post, but you can check out the review of the Roger Penrose book), but I don't really believe that. It seems more likely that those phenomena, much like relativity, are just at uncomfortable odds with our inadequate perceptions.

I don't think that thinking is something outside of chemistry and physics, but that's a fundamental statement. For any practical purposes, for trying to understand what people do, and when, our behavior might as well be it's own, uh, animal, and only sort of predictable. And while I think that beliefs do guide how we behave, it's probably not to the extent we all like to pretend.

artandsoul said...

I was actually thinking more about some of the psychoneuroimmunology stuff -- like this link http://www.springerlink.com/content/m314r2177m6p245l/

It is a kind of thing that seems rather pedestrian. Except that it is taking a relationship (mine to some image out there) and measuring it's impact through chemical reactions... so that, at least in psychology, you now have a connection between two separate physical entities.

And there are some pretty amazing possibilities that arise. So far, we have dealt with things like Panic and Anxiety and Depression by measuring chemical compositions in the body and then injecting (through a pill or a shot) more chemicals to stabilize or balance. But, the body can be induced to produce chemicals through its immune system by stimulating certain areas of the brain through imagery.

I think you can pretty easily see the positive and the horrific impact of this kind of thing.

It also seems that one's belief is what makes the image able to produce the chemical changes. Not just someone else saying "this is a good image" .... I just find it kind of fascinating.

And, it is probably not at ALL related to what you were talking about! LOL!

So, how's that for a hijack!

artandsoul said...

This comes up and you can read a PDF for free.

And I realize now, of course, that I'm talking about Biology rather than Physics which is the main problem when you let non-scientists into your blog they conflate all the sciences into "Science" and muddy the waters beyond recognition.

http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&hs=R69&q=author:%22Kosslyn%22+intitle:%22Bridging+psychology+and+biology%22+&um=1&ie=UTF-8&oi=scholarr

Keifus said...

(1) It's all physics underneath. (2) I'm happy anyone reads at all, and thrilled if there's any point of connection (or digression!). (3) Neurochemistry is damn interesting all by itself (and far outside of my field of expertise).