“We are the Borg”

On the anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s historic ascent, Ross Anderson asks, “Have we been disappointed by space exploration?”

[I]f these fifty years are to be but a brief whimsy in the story of our species, then history should judge us cruelly; man in the first fresh days of modernity, chased by a great war into the firmament before scurrying back to the muck.

We do seem to have been drained of inspiration about that final frontier. The other day I finally realized why the Star Trek reboot disappointed me. Gene Roddenberry created an optimistic utopia to suggest that if we matured at home, we might travel the galaxy to teach and learn from others—space exploration as a never-ending seminar, punctuated with perilous conflicts that illustrated the problems of being. “Have we learned anything?” the close of each episode seemed to say. And, of course, those perilous conflicts were really just the problems of the 1960s re-set in an unfamiliar environment. But the other species had the human problems. That way, the Enterprise crew could represent a detached perspective within the Star Trek universe, so we could imagine a day when we might rise above our own problems and see the universe with clearer eyes.

The reboot was different, but it followed the unfortunate trend of the franchise. Instead of imagining a more enlightened future, the protagonists in the reboot are part of the problem, inextricable from the conflict. There is no more detached perspective. Space exploration is not something we do after we have conquered our problems at home; it’s just a bigger canvas for the same old stuff. And where’s the excitement or inspiration in that?

And about that unfortunate trend of Star Trek—the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that things turned decisively for the worse when they introduced the Borg. This was the first alien species that was essentially us. And then the Starfleet protagonists were caught in a battle with distilled humanity, which the writers, being human, naturally could not overcome. Back in the ’60s, the writers could sort of pretend what might happen if all the good things about humanity were able to triumph over the bad. But the Borg were a pretty good distillation of humanity into its essence; set them in the original Star Trek and the detached, observant crew of the Enterprise looks like a load of idealistic saps. The writers, having no way to actually transcend the true humanity of the Borg, had to descend from the realm of idealism. Before long, everything was dragged down into panting militarism and the United Federation of Planets became a security state. To remain aspirational, Star Trek has been coasting on the appealing elements of fantastical high technology ever since.

All of this reminds me of Stanislaw Lem, who might have been predicting the path of the Star Trek franchise and popular interest in space when he famously wrote in Solaris:

We take off into the cosmos, ready for anything: for solitude, for hardship, for exhaustion, death. Modesty forbids us to say so, but there are times when we think pretty well of ourselves. And yet, if we examine it more closely, our enthusiasm turns out to be all sham. We don’t want to conquer the cosmos, we simply want to extend the boundaries of Earth to the frontiers of the cosmos. For us, such and such a planet is as arid as the Sahara, another as frozen as the North Pole, yet another as lush as the Amazon basin. We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange. We think of ourselves as the Knights of the Holy Contact. This is another lie. We are seeking only Man. We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors. We don’t know what to do with other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, of a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past. At the same time, there is something inside us which we don’t like to face up to, from which we try to protect ourselves, but which nevertheless remains, since we don’t leave Earth in a state of primal innocence. We arrive here as we are in reality, and when the page is turned and that reality is revealed to us—that part of our reality which we would prefer to pass over in silence—then we don’t like it any more.

That Lem, he was a smart guy.

With Star Trek, Roddenberry captured a little slice of optimism about space exploration: maybe this new frontier of outer space will teach us that we have reached the limits of what we can do until we conquer our uncooperative, destructive tendencies—if we want to visit the stars, then we’ll have to clean our own house first. But it doesn’t have to be defensive. There’s no “Pearl Harbor moment” that launches humanity into space for Star Trek. We’re not banding together to defend ourselves against a common threat. We go just because we’re curious! We’re not trying to enrich ourselves, we’re not trying to make money, and we’re not trying to conquer anyone. We just want to know what’s out there.

But the pessimistic Lem was more prescient. Here we are, fifty years after Yuri Gagarin shot into the sky, saw the earth from space, and lived to tell about it. But nobody seems excited anymore. Exploration just for the sake of learning? No, we’d rather stay home and watch “reality” television, thank you very much. Mirrors.

Maybe now more than ever we could use an optimistic, idealistic, aspirational, inspirational story like Star Trek. But what do we have? A proliferation of societal destruction fantasies and “reboots” (which are just the destruction and rebuilding of fictional worlds). It’s as though we’re whispering to ourselves, “We are the Borg. Resistance is futile.” Scurrying back into the muck.

To What End?

Michael De Dora on liberalism, conservatism, and tradition:

The conservative mindset tends to value traditional institutions and values because they are traditional. If people believe institutions and values are wrong or outdated, conservatives tend to think the problem is not with the institutions and values, but with the people who have gravitated away from them for some unfathomable reason. The liberal approach is that institutions and values are only worth following if they are correct or serve a worthwhile purpose. If they are false or outdated, they deserve to be thrown into the scrap heap and replaced with better and more worthwhile ways of doing things. Liberals, in other words, are not seeking to alter tradition for the mere sake of change. They are doing so because they genuinely believe something needs changing. They find institutions and values significant only if they serve a particular purpose well.

He continues with a historical example—the competing ideas of Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine in the late 18th century, when Europeans began to confront their monarchies with revolution. Burke (the “conservative”) favored monarchy because he believed continuity with the past would provide the most stability; Paine (the “liberal”) favored revolution because he believed that monarchy was no longer the best mechanism to serve the needs of citizens.

The real conflict between those views may be more effectively exposed with a question: What is the purpose of government? If your answer is something like “to maintain stability and continuity,” then you’re going to find yourself on the conservative end. But if your answer is something like “to manage the collective needs of a population effectively,” then you’re probably going to find yourself on the liberal end.

Which is not to say there may not be a decent argument from the conservative end that the primary collective need of a population is stability and continuity in government; there may be. But what if you have credible information suggesting that stability and continuity in government is not the most important collective need of your population? There is the main difference between Left and Right in the United States of the 21st century (so far). On the Right, you deny or ignore that credible information; on the Left, you fail to mobilize and act on it. Welcome to ignoramitocracy.

To Kill a Mockingbird

This morning I finished rereading To Kill a Mockingbird, which I had not read since my sophomore year in high school. Here is the review I just posted on LibraryThing:

To Kill a Mockingbird persists as classic literature not because Atticus Finch incarnates modern values in 1930s Alabama—he doesn’t—but because Harper Lee wrote into her story the complex problem of cultural change, the resistance of adults, the malleability of children, and the danger of acculturating into rigidity by coming of age. Scout is a naïve narrator; she does not comment on the problem of overcoming racism and its resulting iniquities, but describes its manifestations in service of her own story, which might be styled, “How Jem Broke His Arm and Atticus Lost Tom Robinson.” The truer story hides in the details: “How a Culture Resisted Good, without its People being Evil.”

Modern readers have criticized To Kill a Mockingbird, and Atticus Finch, for failing to be angry enough about the injustice of racism, and have read the book as very nearly a defense of systemic racism. Atticus, the apparent moral center of the story refuses to hate Bob Ewell and Adolf Hitler; he allows cultures and mob mentalities to excuse the acts of evildoers. But the final pages of the book reveal his flaw: his accommodation of Bob Ewell was surely mistaken—the man attacked his children! When Heck Tate insists that Jem will not be accused or exonerated in the murder of Ewell, that Atticus shall not allow his son to stand trial, Atticus’ moral code disintegrates. He is no longer the lawyer who had to defend Tom Robinson, or forfeit the right to tell his children what to do; he becomes a father who, instead of laying bare the truth for his children, obscures it by complicity with Tate, and leaves Scout’s naïveté intact—Bob Ewell fell on his knife. There is no simple, smooth transition from old ways to new. The torch is passed from Atticus to Jem and Scout, who stand to advance the cause of justice even further than Atticus was able to take it.

Throughout the book, Scout sees and experiences the changes in outlook that come with age, embracing the new ways, even as she feels the pull of acculturation into the old ways. She is puzzled that Aunt Alexandra refuses to let her associate with the blacks or the poor white trash, but, even as she is unable to articulate her reasons, she resists the old ways of the Southern Woman. There are hints that Jem is more susceptible to acculturation, until the conviction of Tom Robinson, contradicting the evidence he weighed in court himself, breaks his faith in the populace. Jem will surely grow into the angry idealist prized by the critical modern readers; but Scout, who seems to believe in democracy, will probably be a more innocently color-blind adult.

And the old ways are troublesome. Families, and “old” families, are socially constructed from nothing but gossip and endowed with “streaks” to favor certain vices. Only Atticus and the children perceive individuals where everyone else sees Ewells and Cunninghams and Finches. And even as the other children, toward the end of the book, recognize the problem with Hitler rounding up the Jews, Cecil Jacobs reveals how hard the old ways die: “They’re white, ain’t they?” he says of the Jews, demonstrating both his capacity for charity when applied to circumstances abroad and his abject failure to recognize the circumstances of his own community.

To Kill a Mockingbird is not a tragedy of racism, but a tragedy of the human failure to overcome its homegrown evils. Culture constrains progress, perhaps even by definition, and makes its participants and creators, apparent free will and all, blind to the alternatives that might be clear to outsiders. And we, the readers, are obviously outsiders; we see clearly the shortcomings of everyone in the story, including Atticus Finch, who is not the apex of justice, but only an earlier step in the long march to the future.

The ladies’ meeting toward the close of the book, to discuss the “sin and squalor” of foreign lands, is a blast of irony, coming just as Scout, the unwitting anthropologist, is completing her own record of the sin and squalor of Maycomb County. To Kill a Mockingbird is not about the evil of the old ways, but about how difficult it is for the new ways to take hold, even when they are obviously better.

Naturalism as Contiguity

Richard Carrier defines “naturalism” as opposed to “supernaturalism”:

If naturalism is true, everything mental is caused by the nonmental, whereas if supernaturalism is true, at least one thing is not.

It’s a clever definition, but seems more confusing than it needs to be. I would rather say that “naturalism” is the view that everything is contiguous, while “supernaturalism” requires discontinuity. My definition is really not much different than Carrier’s, except that I am trying to avoid his dichotomy of “mental” and “nonmental,” which feels clumsy to me.

And I think supernaturalism-as-discontinuity has a strong, everyday ring. When people invoke “supernatural” explanations, they are really just saying that causation has been interrupted by a force that transcends causation itself—that the chain of events is discontinuous. That’s why they use phrases like “divine intervention.” But a “naturalist” would say that everything is contiguous, or connected by uninterrupted lines of causation. So when nature wreaks havoc on a human community, the “naturalist” looks to the observed causes of the event, and their observed causes, and their observed causes, and so on, to establish a narrative explanation of what happened. But the “supernaturalist” breaks the chain and posits an unobserved cause, like the action of a deity or some other unobserved narrative device.

Note, too, that I did not say anything about “observable” causes or “unobservable” causes. I agree with Carrier:

[A]ll too often . . . naturalists confuse efforts to make Christian (and other) supernaturalisms untestable with the assumption that they are always untestable by definition. That’s a mistake.

It is a mistake. If “supernatural” means “untestable” or “unobservable,” and the untestable or unobservable is defined as “supernatural,” the definition is circular. So when I say “everything is contiguous,” I mean everything actually experienced or observed is connected to everything else. (When I say “experienced or observed,” it’s probably the same thing Carrier means by “mental,” and when I say “connected to,” it’s probably the same thing he means when he says “caused by.”) Or, if you experience it—whether you observe it, feel it, or whatever—then it counts as part of everything and it is contiguous with everything else, connected by an unbroken chain of causes. Your feeling or experience is contiguous, or the thing you feel or experience is contiguous, or both of them are.

My view is actually pretty old, by my reckoning. Three of the Milesian philosophers—Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes—suggested that everything we experience is connected in a fundamental unity. Thales said the fundamental unity was water, Anaximander said it was air, and Anaximenes called it apeiron, which is Greek for unlimited, infinite, or indefinite. (The roots are a-, which means “without,” and peiras, which means “end or limit.”) They recognized that everything we experience is connected, that there are unbroken chains of causes, and wondered about the nature of that connection, which is mysterious. Even today, if we ask physicists about the fundamental nature of reality, they don’t have a definitive answer. But seeing that everything is contiguous is different than knowing how everything comes to have the quality of contiguity.

I agree that most people operate with terrible definitions of “naturalist” and “supernaturalist.” It makes no sense to say that a “naturalist” is someone who believes only that what is “observable” is “real.” There are no decent criteria for what is “observable” or “unobservable”; how can we say “X is unobservable” without already knowing something about X in order to define it? It makes far more sense to define “naturalism” and “supernaturalism” by how they construct explanations than by where they get the raw materials for those explanations. And a naturalist constructs explanations by operating as though everything is contiguous and therefore causally connected, while a supernaturalist constructs explanations by operating as though our experiences include discontinuity, like “divine intervention.”

Finally, Carrier’s definition derives power from the “mental and “nonmental” categories, even though I think they are clumsy. What do we do with “revelation” or “spiritual” experiences? Nothing in a “naturalist” perspective says that what we experience necessarily corresponds with what actually exists. People have divergent views of the same events all the time. (Trust me, as a lawyer, I know!) But the fact that they have experienced something remains part of our experience: it is contiguous. If you experience “revelation,” that does not necessarily mean that you have obtained true information that comes from outside your own mind, but you have had an experience, which the rest of us observe and explain as contiguous with everything else. Your mental experience can be causally derived from what is nonmental, which is what the rest of us can confirm by our own observation and experience.

Against the Socratic Method

After leaping into an online forum yesterday and unwittingly short-circuiting  someone else’s Socratic dialogue, I mentioned in the aftermath on Twitter that law school soured me on the Socratic method. Mark, the unfortunate victim of my zeal, said he would be interested in hearing more about that. So I promised a blog post. Here it is.

For those unfamiliar with the art of Socratic dialogue, I’ll not go into the detailed background here (try the excellent Wikipedia article instead). But conversing like Socrates usually means that one party to the conversation uses a series of questions to force the other into clarity (the better to attack their views), contradiction (in which case their views crumble under their own weight), or illumination (after which no further persuasion is necessary). After suffering through Socratic interlocution by several law school professors, I developed five objections to the Socratic method.

People who use the Socratic method, including Socrates himself, often seem disingenuous. Socrates famously observed that he was wise because he knew that he knew nothing. So he asked questions. That’s great, Socrates; I think you’re lying. And I think questioners who pattern themselves after Socrates are employing the device of feigned ignorance to drive their questioning. People who use the Socratic method, whether law professors or otherwise, are rarely just looking for general illumination by way of dialectic; they are not really using ignorance as a springboard to knowledge. Instead they often have a particular outcome in mind and they are using a series of questions to push the other person toward it. Law students would say they are “hiding the ball.” Instead, let’s play ball.

Especially when they are disingenuous, Socratic interlocutors seem arrogant. Not all people who use the Socratic method are disingenuous, but I think most of them are. And it strikes me as rather arrogant. While pretending to ask innocent questions, the subtext of the interlocutor is something like this: “I understand this concept, but you do not and cannot yet, until you jump through all the hoops I set before you, leading you step by step to my position, where you will finally know what I know.” Really? Why not just tell me what you’re thinking and then see if I need further clarification? Why assume that I’m a fool? Or, if you know that I am a fool, why not just lay it bare immediately, instead of letting me believe otherwise and talking down to me in the meantime?

The didactic value of the Socratic method is questionable. What do people at the receiving end of the Socratic method really learn? Taking them by the nose through a series of questions, especially when the questioner is not extremely skilled at using the method, only reinforces a particular way of reaching a given conclusion. Any tendency to take another route, think creatively, or beat a path to a better conclusion, will be headed off by the questioner. Some Socratic questioners allow creative thinking, so that the conclusion is something other than what they desired, but in my experience, they are in a tiny minority. So the Socratic method is usually only good for reinforcing the views of the questioner.

Going round and round with the Socratic method can be a waste of time. Sometimes people launch into the Socratic method when they perceive that someone else has a problematic view, and sometimes that perception is wrong. After many, many questions, the Socratic interlocutor may discover that the victim was illuminated all along, but believed the questioner was talking about something else. This is especially likely when the person using the Socratic method is not very skilled at using it. There are other, quicker methods for rooting out real disagreements and bringing them to the forefront of the discussion. For example, restating the other party’s position in your own words and ensuring that you have agreed-upon definitions for key terms.

The Socratic method works better as a literary device than as a practical tool. We learned the Socratic method by reading Plato, who wrote the Socratic dialogues to illustrate the teachings of Socrates. And those dialogues make excellent reading because they present tricky ideas in an engaging way: by putting them into the mouths of two people who are arguing. And everybody loves a good argument. Maybe Socrates’ real-life victims learned something, too, but the dialogues are not transcripts. They convey that Socrates asked questions and they illustrate his famous observation that true wisdom means knowing the limits of your own knowledge, but ultimately, as they appear in the written dialogues, they are a literary device. They present opposing ideas without resorting to the conceit of pretending to know others’ minds. But for the reasons articulated above, I am doubtful about the practical value of the Socratic method for participants in Socratic dialogues.

When people want to discuss controversial topics, explain their ideas to those who may disagree, or persuade others to adopt a different view, I much prefer a direct path to the controversy. Lay it out. Be honest, be polite, say what you are thinking, and focus on the substance of the conversation. Don’t waste time. Be frank about your ignorance, recognize, as Socrates did, that you do not know everything, but don’t make conspicuously curious ignorance into your modus operandi when you really do know something. Concede the points that ought to be conceded, hold the points that ought to be held, and get to the points that ought to be gotten to.