What A Piece Of Work Is Man

So, what are we humans, as creatures?

I ask, because it bears a great weight on how we answer “how should we be governed”?

A lot of people since the enlightenment (but not the Founding Fathers) have assumed that humans are creatures of reason and that once you get them to a certain state of government that answers certain needs, they’ll stay there.

They’ve assumed this for good and ill.  As I’ve been known to say before 1984 and Brave New World would last about ten seconds under the impact of a Heinlein character.  But so would any of the utopias we can think of.

So, the question is this – are we humans (or can we be) – creatures of pure reason?  Is that even desirable?

Heinlein notably – sometimes being a man of his time, and his education and of course a writer, worked at cross purposes with his horse sense – thought by now we’d have a science of the human mind and a science of crowd behavior.  Of course, at the same time he expounded this, his societies gave it the lie, so maybe he was being tricky and that’s what he meant.

We’re hearing a lot of this too, right now from the progr–  vile progs.  About how they had everyone pegged with consumer info and knew where to concentrate their efforts for getting out the vote.  Brother.  They managed to be more unorganized than the other campaign and I had to forget I was a lady several times over the phone to them before they stopped bothering us.  (And now they’ve resumed.)

Communism, of course, assumes this.  It assumes the only reason man isn’t perfectly rational is the chains of medievalism, the dank influence of capitalism, and that good old villain “greed” which is an excuse for communists envy.

(Sorry, I have in mind an old Reader’s Digest joke.  My father had piles of old Reader’s Digest from his dad lying around, and it comprised a lot of my reading as a kid.  One of the jokes went “I went to my politics test, and they asked for ten ways to combat communism.  The only thing I could think of was the Ten Commandments.  I had an A.”  To an extent, quite right, of course.  Where would communism be with “Though shalt not covet” foremost in people’s minds?)

Then there’s Ayn Rand who also assumed humans could be rational if they got rid of “slave mentality.”

Are humans rational?  Well, most of the time and within limitations.  But thinking reason is the only thing that guides us is as blinkered as thinking emotions or culture or history are the only things that guide us.

If humans were perfectly rational… we’d live in hell on Earth. From the purely “reason” point of view there is no logical motive that the very rich shouldn’t be like the vampires in the vampire-parallel-world of buffy “we rode people like ponies.”

But if you’re going to say that type of behavior is a thing of instinct and emotion, perhaps – but using people for dog food or fertilizer, isn’t.  It’s not our reason that recoils from this.  It’s other parts of us.

Even at its mildest, a human society run MOSTLY by reason would be a crazy society given to all kinds of lurches.  Look at me and my colleagues, and the things we play with in our minds… yeah.

The new and hip thing – and I’ve read a lot of books on this recently – is that we’re purely creatures of instincts, that we react according to instinct and then make up stories to cover it up.  (Groans.)  As someone who took psychology, let me tell you this is a load of pure hokum.  First because – WHY would we make stories to rationalize it, if all we had were instincts and everyone was jumping around when someone said frog?  In fact, if this were the case, we’d never have got off square one of civilization.

But the main reason I KNOW it’s hokum – and you guys might not be as sensitive to it, as I doubt most of you have humanities degrees and/or moved extensively in New Age circles at one time (one of our friends worked in a New Age bookstore for years.  He started a science fiction section.) – is that it’s a non-falsifiable theory.

No?  Well, if I tell you “Of course people aren’t just creatures of instincts.  My instinct was to do x not y and I overcame it with my reason.”  You can always tell me, “No, your instinct was always y, you just made up a story afterwards to rationalize it.  How do I answer that?  How do I prove you’re wrong?  Absent recording my thought process, I can’t.

This theory is close kin to another, also in vogue right now, that “there are no coincidences” and “no one does anything unless at some level they meant it.”  Say I’m late for an appointment and don’t get in.  I meant to do that because I didn’t want to go to the dentist, or whatever.  Even if what made me late was the car breaking down.  You get “subconsciously, you knew there was something wrong with the car.”  Poppycock.  A new incarnation of the “fate” doctrine, only it’s all on you and your subconscious.

And a close descendant of the New Age doctrine that I heard twenty years ago, which insisted if you caught a cold you meant to.  So, you know, you could get mad at your friends for getting sick.

The thing is – watch that ball move – while these theories seem completely different, they’re like the two sides of global cooling/warming, the idea is always the same.  If you can contumaciously get sick when you wish to, it’s a failure of the will, and you need a guru to guide you.  And if you can’t control yourself and are just acting by instincts, you need to quote the song “Someone to watch over” you.  All of you.  At all times.

The vile progs love both of these theories – in their new incarnation.  While they contradict the idea that man is perfectly rational and is born tabula rasa, they have the same solution: if properly trained by the people in power, you’ll be all right.  If not, you’re a quivering mass of contradictory instincts.  And they never let a little contradiction bother them.

Are you a quivering mass of contradictory instincts?  Well, of course you are.  You’re also a rational human being.  But wait, that’s not all!

To all this I’d add that you’re a product of your culture.  The people who think that you have, inborn in you, all the characteristics of your culture at birth have taken over the schools.  This is why you hear people who say things like “you should speak English in America” accused of racism.  Because language is culture and culture is innate, don’t you know?

Forget the fact that we’re not speaking whatever they spoke before recorded language in the fertile crescent, and that we’re not living like them – proof enough that culture changes and is not in the genes.  But before someone says “but genes change, too, gradually.”  Yes, okay.  But what mutation was involved in Italians crossing the ocean and settling in America?  Because my second generation Italian host parents in Ohio were middle America and my mom spoke no Italian.  (My host dad spoke Italian to his mother only.)

Do traces of the culture linger?  Well, of course.  There’s the way things are done in any given family which even in melted pot America are not the same as any other family.  And some of them are very old indeed.  I’ve mentioned before that in my region “pila” was the slang term for a part of the human male – probably the result of a slew of bad jokes by legionaires.

And the ways of life in Portugal, to an extent, including the patronage system to advance, are clearly descended from Rome.  The part the vile progs are right about is that I’m likely to feel transported to childhood (not always in a good way) when confronted with many parts of Hispanic/Latin culture.  My host-parents best friends were immigrants from Cuba.  I loved going to their home, because at a basic “how things are done” level they were a lot like my own family, so when I was homesick, it helped.  It even smelled right.  OTOH …

OTOH when I’m at the Embassy Suites in Denver that is now mostly staffed with Latin immigrants, and they start closing the breakfast buffet half an hour early so they’re done on the dot at nine thirty – as opposed to starting to close at nine thirty, so customers can find breakfast till that time – I’m reminded why that is a bad thing, and why I left.

And that’s ultimately the thing – immigrants CAN leave, and they can make the decision to acculturate and to port the best parts of another culture.

None of which would be possible if humans were merely reactive, or purely reason.  If they were purely reason, culture would not exist or have no influence.  If they were merely reactive, then they would be caught in something like animal behavior – and human civilization wouldn’t really exist, nor could people move between cultures.  (This last is what the vile progs currently believe, so assimilation is a bad word.)

HOWEVER when you are raised in a culture, never go out of it, and/or have to live in it, culture is a heavy determinant of how you’ll react to things, often with no rational thought.

So, humans are creatures of reason, and physical body (which implies instincts, but also other things.  Trust me, it’s possible for me to be hormonally insane and not know it) AND culture.  (To these, because I’m a believer, I’d add a fourth, what Giovanni Guareschi (Great theological philosopher.  What?  You thought theology had to be boring?  Seriously, if you haven’t read his Don Camilo short stories and the other stories about the village in the valley of Po, you’re missing a treat)  called “The something else” which grabs the priest of mind and the priest of body and throws it into the ring to help the communist mayor win a bout against an “outsider, who kept hitting low.”  To this the Christ (the Christ over the altar talks to Don Camilo.  Deal.  Their relationship makes me wonder if Guareschi read Nero Wolfe stories) says “I suppose you mean the priest of spirit?”  And Don Camilo says “I didn’t say that, Lord, I wouldn’t presume to lecture you.”)

The result…

My older son who is about to finish a bachelors in biology says the weird thing is not “how well man is constructed” but that we don’t al fall dead after a few minutes because of how BADLY systems interact together, and everything that can go wrong.

This is because we have in us the remnants of our evolution, like that “pila” embedded in Portuguese slang.  (The first man to make a joke on this gets a carp upside the head.)

Psychologically we’re about the same.  Reason and sentience might have given us an edge over the other animals, but they haven’t exactly taken over completely.  In the end, we might be “in reasoning so like the angels” but what this angelic creature reasons with is an ape’s skull and ape’s instincts, including the desire to belong and to make the band as uniform as possible (because this worked, for the apes.)

All of which means – so how do humans tick?  And how should we govern them and by what principles?

Well – fortunately I don’t have to answer that question all at once and all on my own.  I’d say the normal, default governance of mankind is the strong man system.  This is what governed us in the pre-human bands.

It can be an okay form of governance, too – sort of – if you have an okay strong man.

Take Salazar, in Portugal.  I’ve said before that there were serious troubles with his governance (ruling, really.)  Partly because of where he came from and what he concentrated on.  He was an accountant, and he’d been – I think – a charity inmate at a Jesuit orphanage.

Even his worst enemies never accused him of being lavish in his private arrangements.  He was, in fact, said to live “like a monk.”  And he was probably a decent enough human being, to begin with.

It is a very bad thing to put a decent enough human being in charge of a large group of people and a vast territory (even when these are Portuguese scale.)  There are compromises that have to be made with reality.  You assume other people work the way you do.  Your understanding of economics propagates itself to the economy, and you end up in a mercantilist backwater.  People talk back and give you guff, and you end up with a secret police and an apparatus of repression – for people’s good, of course.  And the bureaucracy festers under you, because no matter how much of a type A personality you are, you can’t do everything.

Was the Portugal I grew up in hell on Earth?  Well… no.  In some minor ways it was much better than it is now: there was virtually no violent crime – there was a lot of theft, mostly of clothes from the lines, and that’s telling – and the police was far less bribable.  (Look, it’s a Latin country, they were still bribable.  But people were NOT afraid to call the (civil) police to the site of accidents.)

But the reason clothes were stolen from the lines because we were all desperately poor.  Because his understanding of economics was the opposite of free trade.  And even though he stabilized it after the disastrous “republic” – life didn’t get much better. That said, we were far less poor than the communist portions of Europe, so if you’re going to have a strong man government, take it without serious ideological sauce. (Salazar had the beliefs of his time including in National superiority or unity or whatever, but he governed mostly with an eye to the purse.  And because he’d come from a very poor background his idea of a road to prosperity was to save.)

And before the Straw Kung Foo Fighters come in – no, this doesn’t mean I approved of Salazar’s government.  I also didn’t approve of the mostly crypto-communists who followed after the revolution and as much of a bumble broth as the current mess is, it’s better than either of those… unless you have to live there with the crime rate and the corrupt institutions. But I do think there are better ways to solve that than strong-man government.

The strong-man form is so prevalent that it’s what communism, fascism and all the other hip “isms” of the twentieth century devolve into.  And, again, it can be okay — depending on the strong man – or hell on Earth.  Names like Castro and Stalin come to mind.  Also, let’s not forget that sociopaths MIGHT be particularly well adapted to get to the top in this form of government.

But it might – given the right kind of education/training – provide countries with stable governments where the least people get hurt and things are “okay”.

What it rarely provides is innovation, a decent life standard for the individual or… well squid farms on Mars – that is, the things we don’t even know never came into being because the system wouldn’t allow them.

The systems under which more innovation happens and the standard of life increases are those that put the most emphasis on the individual.

Universal suffrage is an insane idea, of course, based on the premise that more voices are saner than one voice.  But sometimes insane ideas work.  If nothing else, universal suffrage makes the government not quite so cavalier about what they’re doing “to the least of these little ones.”

But a collection of fallible human beings are still fallible, which is why the founding fathers (and don’t tell me by our lights they didn’t have universal suffrage.  We don’t either, we have machine politics, in which cats, dogs, made up people, cartoon characters and – mostly – organizations control our vote.) had a system of checks and balances, with different people voting on different things and…

The way to promote human prosperity and innovation is to have as close to universal suffrage as possible (actually restricting it to property owners is the most common and least troublesome – in playing out – arrangement) and as small a government as possible.  This is likely to become corrupted as people find they can vote themselves bread and circus, but it will become corrupted faster if the system is subtly changed to direct democracy and if the checks and balances are destroyed, so leviathan can rise.

(We could discuss ways of suffrage.  I used to think Australia was barmy to have voting be mandatory.  One of the saving graces of the American system when it worked was its low rate of participation.  It kept voting to a small, very interested minority, a majority of which would either take the trouble to inform themselves, or vote with the RIGHT instincts – right instincts? – well, yes, a tendency not to go overboard on new new things was one of those.  However, Australia by keeping track as it does keeps the vote of pets, imaginary people and cartoon characters to a minimum and it would be really obvious if thousands of votes were found in the trunk of a car and put the voting at well above the population.  It has merits.)

It actually doesn’t matter much how universal the suffrage is, provided representatives are hampered in their attempts to exert their power and kept in fear of the population.

No system of government lasts forever.  So… how do we judge what we should do?

A wise man said: by their fruits ye shall know them.

Strong man government (and the ancillary feudalism and fiefdoms in any society over 20) is the default system that everything falls to, when out of control and when humans are left to their instincts.  It’s not hell on Earth, unless the strong man is hell on Earth.  But at its best it’s stagnant and it imbues the personality of the person in charge.

Communism STARTS as hell on Earth, because it tries to make humans into gadgets, which can’t be done. And then it becomes strong man government.

A democratic republic seems to work for a time at least – maybe we should give it a try again – but it too decays into direct democracy, which decays into strong man government.

The good of a system that protects life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness might not be self evident, but it is nonetheless real over time and squinted at.

It will never be perfect – humans aren’t perfect.  We’re a barely cobbled together mess held with spit and glue.  It just happens to be the best we can do – even when it’s honored more in the breach.

Humans are cobbled together creatures.  Because we’re social apes, some form of government is inherently “desired” or we default to strong man.  Keeping the government small might be the best we can do — and allowing more importance to individuals, to minimize the chances of mass-killings.

Can we get there from here?  Who knows?  Possibly not without centuries passing.  Probably not without wading through rivers of blood.  Certainly not without an education that’s not mass indoctrination.  (It is worth considering that while state schools serve the interests of a strong man — there are nauseating panegyrics to the great leader, and some of them stick — they serve very badly a system that’s supposed to de-emphasize government.)

It is the only cause worth fighting for.  Even if the brief periods of freedom and innovation and individual prosperity and dignity don’t last – their memory warms the centuries ahead, and passes on the torch, so that the light might be kindled again.

It’s worth a try.


143 thoughts on “What A Piece Of Work Is Man

  1. Mankind is indeed rational…when times and people around him are the same way. However irrationality is contagious and most people are easily susceptible.

      1. But Sarah, I’m *completely* rational, it’s the rest of you who’re irrational. [Wink]

        If you believe the above, I have some swampland in Florida for you. [Evil Grin]

        1. As I said, I have experience of being hormonally insane. It was a very gentle madness. I was just terminally depressed and didn’t want to do anything. Also, I couldn’t remember anything for more than a few minutes.

          BUT it was an enlightening experience.

      2. Man is surprisingly rational, but to understand the reasoning you have to dig deep and determine the person’s values. A statistically meaningful majority of women accord safety of themselves and their brood an extremely high value. A statistically meaningful majority of men accord novelty (adrenaline boost) their highest value. One group will be more willing to restrict freedom/liberty in favor of safety — as they understand it. Those who believe government reliable will more readily limit gun ownership, f’rinstance.

        Col. Kratman recently referred to the explorations of Jonathan Haidt and his observation that humanity balances values in six dimensions — half of which Liberals (Vile Progs) are indifferent to. Given what computer programmers can achieve merely by toggling a single dimension, how much more complexity is available in six?

          1. One factor occluding analysis is we are very adept at denying our values and motivations. Because Greed (for example) carries socially unattractive aspects, we typically clothe it in other principles, such as just wanting our “fair” share.

            This is also a reason so many deny G-d’s existence; we are incapable of hiding our motives from Him and unwilling to face them ourselves.

              1. I never let sloth have any scope, and yet I think it keeps growing. Does that make sense.

                Apropos nothing, I think next book in the witchfinder series will be Rogue Magic. (Yes, I know it’s been done before. Titles are not copyrightable.)

                1. Probably beats Magical Rogue as a title, although I think the latter title would probably sell better at supermarkets, IYKWIMAITYD. “He spoke softly but waved a big wand.”

                  I sense a potential genre in paranormal libertarian historical romance. “He had liberated her economy and now she was free to do whatever he wanted.”

                  Sorry. Gonna go shower now. Won’t be using much hot water.

                    1. You are an evil man. Now I want to do an Anthology of free market/Austrian School romances. Make them utterly cheesy and double entendry and see how far we can make them fly.

                      Stories between 4k and 10 k words, say five or more of them. Who’s in? TXred? Mike Weatherford? Tjic? Cyn Bagley? (rubs lamp) Kim Du Toit? We can use pen names…

                    2. No – they’re still making payments on the interest on the debts. “He dug her a hole she’d never get out of.”

                    3. Let me talk to my current project and see if I can get a leave of absence. Free market romance, 4-10k words. Hmmmm. Oh, carp, I have a character who would do just that sort of thing! *looks over shoulder, sees petite True-dragon bearing down on her, a determined look on her muzzle, whiskers straight out, ears back* Um, I think my muse is about to kick in. ‘Scuze me. Ow, let go of my braid! Let go, I’m coming, I’m coming, let go!

        1. What one tends to forget is that “rational” isn’t an end-state…it’s a tool. Two people can come to completely incompatible conclusions while both employing perfect logic, if their implicit axioms are different (which, given that we’re talking about humans, they usually are).

          Ultimately, though, what is quickly discovered during any serious study of history is that government by humans is just a bad idea all ’round. 🙂

          (Some folks forget the critical fact that we lack alternatives, imagining themselves and sometimes their cohort to be somehow superhuman. Thus begins the trail of logic that leads to all the coolest mass graveyards.)

          1. McCoy is far more logical than Spock. His deductions (usually in Practical Reason, to be sure) are always derived nicely from his premises.

      3. I can be completely rational…when I’m sitting at home, with food in my belly, heat in my house, and few worries. It’s the rest of the time I’m worried about. 😉

      4. Man, as a species, is completely rational as long as you remember the rational is that man will always do what is in his interest is not to be confused with best interest because while man can be rational he can also be stupid.

  2. My older son who is about to finish a bachelors in biology says the weird thing is not “how well man is constructed” but that we don’t al fall dead after a few minutes because of how BADLY systems interact together, and everything that can go wrong.

    G-d is a kludger? That explains a lot.

    Given that He has to work with animate meat machines, I guess it is no more than we can expect. One of the strongest design elements is Man’s ability to deny the obvious.

    1. Not only a Kludger, but you know all that “trash” DNA? That’s actually documentation:

      “decreased size of index finger to fit CDs”
      “increased hip width to accomodate upgraded brain manufacturing”

      1. Anybody with a memory exceeding a few years realizes how often science reverses course. Junk DNA, vestigial organs, orbital models of atomic structure, all these things have been proven codswallop. The science is rarely ever settled.

        I recommend Bill Bryson’s history of the Scientific Method (A Short History of Nearly Everything) for anybody desiring an entertaining retrospective of mankind’s drunken stumble down the hallway of knowledge. (It is a good audiobook.) I came away convinced that, as a rule of thumb, over any given fifty year period about half of everything science thought it “knew” will have been proven wrong and about half the rest will be found inadequate.

        1. Well, to be seroius about it, I would call evolution to be more like a a thrifty housewife, never tossing anything out that might be useful until it is provably a detriment.
          I’ve wondered if the undecoded DNA acts like special keys in decription to verfy transcription to avoid errors in protein formation, or if the sequences act as a form of “foreshadowing” to sensitize or prep enzymes for protein handling.

          The problem with evolutions is not that systems are poorly put together by human understanding, but because all the bits were not intended to be used in that manner or together for that purpose. since my biochem is shaky, I use the example of the evolution of the reptilian jaw into the mammal’s jaw and inner-ear bones. It wasn’t planned from the beginning, it just growed that way. I bet there are better solutions than the one we have.

          1. I also gather a large amount of the junk DNA was actually self replicating DNA strings that cloned themselves all over our DNA.

              1. Well, to haul a metaphore up another hill, if evolution is like a thrifty house-wife keeping everything that might be useful unitl it is provably a detriment, a neoplasm is a hoarder.

      2. College friend and I had the idea that all that extra stuff is an error-correcting code we don’t understand.

        1. That’s actually a key point in a novel I hope to have out next spring. That little bit of “junk” that got shaved off in order to rewrite and improve some DNA? Yeah, it was kinda important. As in “lost 80% of the fourth generation after adjustment” important.

  3. A democratic republic seems to work for a time at least – maybe we should give it a try again – but it too decays into direct democracy, which decays into strong man government.

    One, EVERYTHING decays into strong man government. That is the default mode.

    Two: it begs the question: does a democratic government decay or is it subject to infiltration and undermining? Maybe it simply requires a more active maintenance schedule?

    1. Strong man government is the default because it’s usually more efficient at decision-making – and because non-control-freaks tend to be lazy about governance, hoping others won’t make things so bad we have to take time out to fix it. Democratic government decays because humans mostly don’t have much staying power: once our current values (e.g. fixing broken governance) are satisfied, they lose priority and we elevate other values (e.g. comfort, status,…) Active maintenance can be done, but requires robust mechanisms for mutual encouragement… and the mechanisms themselves require active maintenance as new generations reject old traditions.

    2. Three: If strong-man government is the human society normal, we should be researching what the preconditions for a liberty based government are.

  4. Rational but given to snap judgments when snap judgments are not necessary. Thus inclined to weight first and recent impression way too heavily and ignore as background noise quite important decision factors. An interesting book on the general subject is Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman – at least read the New York Times review of the book – but again my point is that too many rational decisions are made as snap judgments by minds that can balance only a few bits of data – the slide rule was long useful to remind us that our data was limited to about three places but humanity operates like a 64 color view of the world is a good enough map to make the map the territory. Thus the example supra of either safety or variety with a lack of vision as to what is safe – no dirt no immune system soo….. We see this much of today’s political debates where some say we must do this or that because with so little data it’s appalling and all that data contaminated by a confirmation bias. This time for sure followed by Sooprise.

  5. Bastiat stated that the reason universal sufferage becomes desireable is when the government (any government) becomes capable of taking away from one person (class or type) and awarding it to another people have a need to become involved. When the power of the goverment to do this is low, people are able to ignore it and have no real reason to get involved. When the government is powerful, some people see the money and power and desire to have the power over it or get a larger money, and other people have to be in a position to protect what they have from the government taking it.

    Bastiat was writing in the 1850’s. He held up the United States as a government that (then) had low ability to take and give, and suggested that that was why the US had low participation in government and the citizens could afford to not be involved: there was no need and there was little incentive.
    He did point out an issue that the Excise on imports and exports was a very serious issue since it affected the different states differently, and said that it and slavery would cause a great crisis.

        1. Yes, Gutenberg has a number of his works in both English and French.

          the work on Gutenberg that includes The Law is:
          _Essays on Political Economy._

          This also has “The Broken Window” fallacy and discussions on property.

          There used to be a adaptation of the book in Smashwords called _Fred’s Law_ but I just checked and it is no longer available. It was a little more basic than Bastiat’s rather intricate writing style.

          1. If you haven’t read Bastiat you should do so. A significant contributor to the developments of economics and law, perhaps second only to Adam Smith and Blackstone in those fields.

            1. There is a Bastiat.org that has a number of his works online in English, Spanish and French for those that like to read on line.
              The English translation appears to be a little more modern.

          1. French was actually my second-learned language. English Third, German Fourth, Swedish fifth and Italian sixth. Spanish I kind of get written.

            For reasons known only to G-d himself (and he ain’t talking) I retain more French than Portuguese. It makes no sense at all, at all.

    1. The problem is that giving a million people ten dollars each is more expensive than giving one man a million dollars, and large chunks of the population will vote for goodies if they can.

      And there is no way to get the children to vote — especially not children yet unborn — so you can always take from them.

      1. You know: If I were an evil class warrior with the technology for time travel, I bet an interesting division over which to cause a war would be to convince the future to attack the past, and the past the future. Mwahahaha! 😛

        Take that grandpa!
        Oh yeah? See this? It’s your inheritance, on fire!

      2. Mary — Voice from the ceiling sounds testy — WHY do you go and give me story ideas? (Scribbles on pad of paper — story. Future children vote. what happens when vote goes wrong and the children are not actually born.)

        1. It all begins (but of course, in a time travel plot, you have elliptical causal dependence, so there is never really a place where it all begins) with the assassination of John DeLorean.

          Where is your sweet ride now, Doc Brown?

          1. John Brunner, IIRC, posited that any universe in which Time Travel was attained was inherently unstable and would always collapse into a universe in which Time Travel was never developed.

            1. I think that was Larry Niven’s idea. [Smile]

              Larry Niven also had a story based on the idea that time travel was possible in *theory* but in practice, “interesting” things happened to a civilization that attempted time travel.

              1. Yeah, it was based on the notion that if you gain Time Travel, someone will go back and change the timeline, which will change the circumstances that give rise to the development of Time Travel, and eventually there will be a universe where it is not developed.

                However, I can see a scenario where that would not be true, though it would be very disappointing to people: Time Travel that involves setting a “Reset Point”, where it’s basically a requirement that in order to MAKE time Travel possible, you have to fundamentally alter some factor of the Universe, which means that you can never go back past the time when that is done.

        2. My muse likes hitting me with random ideas at 3AM apparently:

          Heinlein: You can never really pay it back, so pay it forward.
          Marty: Come on Doc, think! you have a time machine!
          Doc Brown: No Marty! It’s too banal!

          Oh well, my imagination is pretty random.

  6. Human beings are the only animal that can deceive themselves.

    I try to make rational judgments — at least, rational to me. But I know that I’m a mass of contradictions, so I frequently run my decisions by my wife, who has an alarming capability of punching holes in both the decisions and the process. That USUALLY keeps me from going totally off the track.

    1. I dunno. I live with four cats. I’m pretty sure they deceive themselves regularly – first as play like “ambush” which is only fun if they cooperate, and things like that the food in the cannister is better than the food in the bowl or that urge my big tom has that he _must_ get through any closed door because…and he hasn’t expalained himself any clearer on that point.

      Is it lack of rationality or blindness to anything other than pre-determined goals and predetermined methods to reach predetermined results?
      I know the reason I have to get input is because I don’t see the holes in my own thinking, but that is generally because I focus on what I want, and not what is.

    2. “Human beings are the only animal that can deceive themselves. ”

      A dubious proposition. You might be able to get away saying that about primates, but even there I suspect you’re on shaky ground. Watch a cat fall on its ass some time and watch it get up and walk away. Who does it think it’s fooling with that “I meant to do that.” dodge?

      I mean… REALLY!


      1. Or our cat’s belief that if he comes in and then goes back out, the rain (or wind, or whatever weather he doesn’t like) will have changed to something he does like

            1. Pete got his name — our first cat — partly because he was Dan’s cat (Impeccable reasoning from the Mathematician “I’m Dan, he’s Petronius. He was too. Personality and all.) Partly because he kept looking for the door into summer. I still miss the little bastard.

              1. The Door Into Summer by RAH … my first cat as a kid was Petronius the Arbiter too. I even trained him to ride in a bag with little complaint. I miss the little guy.

  7. Sarah,

    Did you ever read Ameritopia? It shows the fallacy of the Utopian Model. (e.g. “The Good Men

    1. In that vein, fans of Red Dwarf might appreciate

      Incompetence is a dystopian comedy novel by Red Dwarf co-creator Rob Grant, first published in 2003 with the tag line “Bad is the new Good”

      which depicts a Europe where All persons’ rights are protected against discrimination, especially discrimination on the grounds of competence.

  8. I think the point that is being missed is that humans are both rational and irrational. While some of us are rational most of the time, the majority are never rational, though they would crucify you if you told them that. Some people are driven strictly by their emotions, which is why bread and circuses occur. The majority in fact feel this way. The people that are rational all the time are never quite able to internalize this, which is why you get a movie or book occasionally like A Beautiful Mind. The majority of those of us who are rational have irrational lagoons in our psyches. For example, I am rational and don’t care about someone’s sexual preferences. I am irrational in the fact that I cannot abide a subset of people that shove their differences in our collective faces. I think we are only capable of being rational about things that do not strongly affect us emotionally. The man who holds the pass so that his friends can escape is not a rational being, this does nothing to insure his future or his descendents.The man who risks his life in space exploration may be entirely rational, the stars better be our future, we will eventually use this solar system up, if we survive that long

  9. A thought provoking essay.
    One criticism of your criticism of reason. It depends on the powerful person assuming that they will never be holding the other end of the stick, which I regard as an irrational belief. If the people in power assume that one day they will be out of power, it makes rational sense not to abuse those out of power and to support institutions that prevent the abuse of those out of power.

    1. That would be why the Democrats so staunchly defend the Filibuster when they control the reins of the Senate?

  10. What is interesting is that many of the Left’s arguments seem to be about a religious, ignorant and unenlightened mindset versus their modern, scientific, rational and enlightened viewpoint except what they are really doing is using oppressive techniques to drown out age old questions in order to make economic society work to their own perceived benefit.

    There are plenty of atheists who don’t have religious solutions to the issues of the mind and body divide but whose ideas are totally at odds with today’s Progressives. The idea of duality between mind and body and whether or not that mere physical reactions can or can not create a sense of self-awareness and reactions that “feel” and “often feel moral” has been a subject of inquiry since probably prehistory. Stalin sent philosophy professors to the gulag for being too dualist and yet those people should have been the model of the progressive ideal. They were atheist philosophers working in the European ideal of what ideas and enlightened men are about and yet when they prodded the actual individual unit of humanity they got to close to an unpleasant truth (at least for Communists, We wouldn’t see anything dangerous for a moment). Humans are not rational because humans are not understood. Rationality assumes A+B=C but that only assumes A+B are known quantities. We can not predict a person’s aptitudes or desires by studying anatomy and physiology but a so-called rationalist believes that it must be so and it is only a matter of time that science explains it fully (a dedicated Red says Marx already has and reeducation camps will cure all objections).

    Of course when you accept the hypothesis without fact that is not scientific rationalism. That is just forcing a pre-determined conclusion. The irrational is simply a name for the part of human consciousness that cannot be accounted for through known physical means. Artificial intelligence in computers is a perfect example. Computers can not have consciousness. It is one thing to compute but quite another to “know”. Humans don’t seem to have control over their own thoughts. Computers don’t have any volition at all despite the fact they can interpret much of the same data we can.

    The totalitarian says he hates the irrational but what he really hates is the individual. The individual is where his authority breaks down. Somewhere inside is a source of cognition and emotion that can not be altered. It can only be suppressed through an outside agency. The Progressive is not at war with society (like he pretends). He is at war with the competing I.

    In fact we all know the Progressive commenter immediately because it always starts with I appreciate what you think but (insert culled fact of choice as a distraction) and ends with if only you did such and such or thought such and such.

    1. As Mark Twain might have put it: I am rational, you are sentimental, they are stark staring nuts.

      Evidence strongly indicates that the more self-assured about their rationality somebody is, the more likely it is that they are bughouse crazy. The truly rational individual never discounts their own rationality.

  11. The Perfect Rationality theory of man, like the rest of the Utopian Pantheon, doesn’t account for and/or denies that man is flawed.

    “Men are not angels, and angels do not govern men.”

  12. I think people tend to confuse “rational” with “unemotional”, or even “good”.

    The way I think about these things:
    1. Can man be a creature of ‘pure reason’ – i.e. not driven at all by emotions, basic desires and needs, partiality? Well, let’s see – if you remove the amygdala and parts of the brain dealing with fight-or-flight responses, you get someone that you can hold a conversation with who can’t react to risk or danger, or reward for that matter. I imagine if you remove all impulses from the back of the pre-frontal cortex, what you’d end up with is a lump. An intelligent lump that could presumably solve detailed math problems if he could be bothered, but can’t be bothered because all the machinery involved in evaluating his state or the world has been removed. An excellent candidate for the Diogenes club.

    So, sort of, but it wouldn’t be a survivable or sane creature. (Impartiality – I’ve often wondered what business an impartial arbiter has in any conflict, since by definition he doesn’t care about the outcome. 😛 You might as well have a random number generator decide.)

    2. If we could somehow radically improve people’s ability to reason out the consequences of their actions (deductive reasoning pills, Matrix skill pills, something of that sort), would we get hell on Earth? I don’t think so. I don’t think we’d get Utopia either, but I think it *would* be a net improvement in the human condition. If someone came out with something like that (that actually worked, and wasn’t simply some sort of stimulant) – I’d be downing twice the recommended dose with my morning coffee. Who doesn’t want to understand/see the world more clearly?

    The problem with the Perfect Rationality theory of man is that rational doesn’t mean loyal to the utopian’s (usually stupid) vision of The Perfect Society. That’s not what reason does. Reason tells you “if A, then B”. Reason, deductive/inductive/etc lets you see the implications of things, the consequences of situations, how things work.

    It doesn’t tell you what you should want, at the bottom of your motivations, in your heart of hearts. (That’s assuming that ‘should’ even applies at that level. At some point it comes down to what you are.)

    Anyway, the problem with utopia is that it is usually “what the utopian wants” set up as some sort of moral ideal that everyone else falls short of if they don’t submit themselves as raw materials for the scheme. Utopians always claim that if only men were “good” or “rational” they would spend themselves on what the utopian wants instead of their own narrow selfish interests.

    Nope. If men were rational, they would pursue their own goals and lives, rather than letting themselves be manipulated into spending themselves on some third party’s cause. And if men were good (according to one of the more coherent definitions), they would recognize in each other independent lives/goals/desires and conduct themselves in such a way that they could exist at peace with each other. To some extent, they are both.

    These axes are orthogonal though, and neither points towards someones cartoon Utopia. My opinion is that Utopia is hell on earth. 😛

    1. The totalitarian says he hates the irrational but what he really hates is the individual. The individual is where his authority breaks down. Somewhere inside is a source of cognition and emotion that can not be altered. It can only be suppressed through an outside agency. The Progressive is not at war with society (like he pretends). He is at war with the competing I.

      You go on to more or less eloquently state what I was trying to get at.

    2. Rationality isn’t always rational, as expressed in this discussion of Game Theory:

      The volunteer’s dilemma is widespread. … Game theorist Anatol Rapoport noted (1988), “In the U.S. Infantry Manual published during World War II, the soldier was told what to do if a live grenade fell into the trench where he and others were sitting: to wrap himself around the grenade so as to at least save the others. (If no one “volunteered,” all would be killed, and there were only a few seconds to decide who would be the hero.)” Another military example occurs in Joseph Heller’s war novel Catch-22. When Yossarian balks at flying suicide missions, his superiors ask “What if everybody felt that way?” Yossarian responds, “Then I’d certainly be a damned fool to feel any other way. Wouldn’t I?”

      What is rational for the individual and what is rational for the group, like what is beneficial for the individual and the group, are often at odds.

      1. Things like the presumed solution to the Prisoner’s dilemma depend heavily on the real motives of the people stuck in those sort of bad situations.

        Depending on whether the conflict you are stuck in is something that you actually support, what your real preferences are with respect to you dying for the cause, Yossarian might be right.

        If you truly don’t care about the mission (say you’ve been shanghai’ed into a war that doesn’t have anything to do with protecting your family from foreign aggression) or the other people you are stuck with, you really don’t have any preference between dying due to jumping on the grenade or dying due to it blowing up in your foxhole. Why would you jump on the grenade? Your objective is to get out alive so you can go back to your life and family. No one jumps on the grenade, everyone dies, but this was the best accessible outcome according to everyone’s preferences. Wanting someone to be more noble than that is futile if they have no reason to be.

        Usually in situations like that, what makes a difference is that people actually do care about their mission and those around them. The utility function is not as advertised.

        Moral of the story – stay out of Prisoner’s dilemmas. If you find yourself in a Prisoner’s dilemma, life is going to suck regardless.

        1. PS – rational for the group – this is where I don’t see eye-to-eye with Utopians. There is no group, in my mind, only individuals. You can’t engineer a situation where it is rational for the group that *every* individual get’s punished. You can only engineer situations where individual A catches a break if individual B does something he has no reason to do.

        2. PPS – this is something I was sort of thinking about:

          If you want a rational man to sacrifice his life for something, it has to be in exchange for something he values more highly than his life.

          If you can convince him that something like a war, or a mission is necessary to defend his primary mission in life (say, to protect the lives and freedom of his wife/children/family), and if you can convince him that if he should die, the country/his comrades would look after them, ensure his goal is still met, *then* you can expect him to do things like jump on a grenade.

          But a rational man would need a reason to be that loyal. It has to be earned.

    3. The good of a system that protects life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness might not be self evident, but it is nonetheless real over time and squinted at.

      IDK. That’s what I want myself. (life, liberty, freedom to pursue happiness). That’s something I imagine almost anyone would want. Given that, that’s pretty much what “good” means to me wrt a system of government. (Self-evidence?).

      All the utopians offering “if only you give up your life and liberty, we could give you X,Y,Z in return”, besides being liars are giving you a sucker’s deal. What good is X if you don’t have your life to enjoy it with, and wouldn’t choose it of your own accord if left at liberty? Suppose we lived in a universe perverse enough that slavery somehow produced arbitrary amounts of wealth (which somehow ended up in the hands of the slaves), and freedom left you destitute. What is wealth? How can having your will systematically violated, how can having a situation which you *wouldn’t* choose willingly forced upon you, be preferable to what you would choose willingly? Reductio ad absurdum, IMO.

      1. The only issue is that, apparently, some people’s pursuit of happiness implies having power over us. Those people need to be arranged in an infinite loop, where they boss each other, forever…

        1. This is why I prefer the original draft proposal of “life liberty and property” Since the 13th amendment it is less subject to interpretation.
          Otherwise, you have to stand in someone’s face and say, “but my happiness involves ignoring what you tell me to do,” and this seems to create strife everywhere. Even on Usenet.

    4. Man and society are ultimately rational. There are very rarely anything that is dangerous or outright foolish that is not mitigated. We obey traffic lights, make sure we don’t drink poison and the vast majority of us are not addicted to drugs and alcohol although the supply is there and would increase if the demand would. Which is why most atheists are so ridiculous. They assume those following a specific creed are not aware of contradictions, etc. etc. but they refuse to realize that secular life is about muddling through and offers absolutely no insight into inner life. Rational is not perfect. Instead it is making good decisions in the absence of the perfect. We would all be rational in a perfect world.

      I have read some honest atheists and they don’t pretend the end of religion will solve anything. On the contrary they seek to find a way to explain and fill in the holes that religions do. When you do not believe in a Creator the honest answer is what now, not boy oh boy we sure know everything.

      1. Rational = Sharing my prejudices

        My prejudices = rational conclusions based on evidence and science.

        Your prejudices = irrational superstitions, based on invidious motives.

        To see this process in operation, try:

        “The reason that legitimate media outlets routinely cover gays is because it is the civil rights issue of our time. Journalism, at its core, is about justice and fairness, and that’s the ‘view of the world’ that we espouse; therefore, journalists are going to cover the segment of society that is still not treated equally under the law.”

        The reader: “Contrary to what you say, the mission of journalism is not justice. Defining justice is a political matter, not journalistic. Journalism should be about accuracy and fairness.

        “Good journalism also means not demeaning conservatives as ‘haters.’ ”

        The reporter: “As for accuracy, should the media make room for racists, i.e. those people who believe that black people shouldn’t marry white people? Any story on African-Americans wouldn’t be wholly accurate without the opinion of a racist, right?

        “Of course I have a bias. I have a bias toward fairness,” the reporter continued. “The true conservative would have the same bias. The true conservative would want the government out of people’s bedrooms, and religion out of government.”

        1. snort

          One wonders how on earth that reporter copes with the obvious religion in the civil rights movement. In my experience, badly.

  13. I have a simple rule of thumb about humans and their rationality.

    Ah hmm. (Clears throat)

    “Humanity, taken as a whole, is insane.”

    If you think about it, why shouldn’t humanity be insane? There are several billion people each with conflicting, contradictory and mutually exclusive thoughts, desires, hopes, fears, ECT. That is not a mixture to promote calm, collected rational decision making.

    As “K” said in “Men in Black”.

    “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

    An individual can be rational. Large groups tend to not be rational. In fact there appears to be an inverse relationship between the size of groups with their collective intelligence, rationality and emotional maturity. With groups, intelligence tends to be reduced to the lowest common denominator while emotions tend to multiple to have an exaggerated effect.

    See Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mckay.

    Intelligent life forms are tool using life forms.

    Non-intelligent life forms do not use tools.

    Reason is a tool.

    I’m rather broad in my definition of tools. It isn’t limited to just physical tools. Language is a tool. Reason, civilization, self-discipline are tools. They can be taken up and put back down. They don’t have to be used. Some people never use them. Sometimes certain tools are not appropriate for certain problems.

    People can be trained to use a tool or they can muddle around and learn how to use a tool on their own with a greater or lesser degree of success.

    People can be injured by tools.

    With regard to government, another tool, it depends on what you want to achieve.

    Do you want to be free to make you own decisions or do you want to be taken care of? It is an inverse relationship.

    Do you want to rule people? Do you want to rule yourself? Do you want to help people? Do you want other people to help you? Do you want to be left alone?

    Needs may have rational causes. Wants, not so much. (Ever negotiate with a three year old about what they want and why they can’t have it?)

    Unfortunately today, it appears that most of our citizens want to be taken care of, have their needs met by others and so are willing to give up their freedom to achieve that end. They want to be ruled. They are also willing to take other people’s freedom away as a means to achieve that end. They want you to be ruled too.

    (Example: What happens when it is decided that doctors’ salaries are too high and are driving up the cost of healthcare? They don’t need a high capacity assault salary just because they want one. Only the police or responsible members of government need that kind of money. No one wants to ignore the 13 Amendment. It just common sense controls for the good of all.)

    That is the basic problem with government today. All the incentives are for dependency and not independence.

    I believe people should want to be free. But I think many don’t want to be free. How do you persuade them to want to be free?

    Another sci-fi reference.

    ‘A Slave is a Slave’ by H. Beam Piper


    1. “No one wants to ignore the 13 Amendment. It’s just common sense controls for the good of all.”
      Common sense seems to have given us the draft and the income tax among other delights. Somehow my ROTC instructors could never understand the involuntary servitude part of The selective service laws, which as far as I know are still there – just not currently being used.

      1. According to my friend and my wife, I’m a big softie. Which really pisses me off as I’ve cultivated the reputation of being a flaming a****** for many decades.

  14. What I found to be one of the more compelling explanations of human behavior is that we have developed a layer of reprogrammable instincts that sit on top of our hardwired ones. It means that, as a species, we can change out, effective, reflexive responses in less than a generation, without having to give up the speed at which those reflexes operate.

    I sort of think that this is really what culture actually is.

    1. No way. You CAN’T change culture in one generation, unless you move the member away. — maybe you can come close in America but nowhere older where culture hangs heavier, as it were.

      1. We’ve got two parts here. One is the Culture at Large, which, for this context, can be viewed as akin to a computer program on a disk. The other is the set of programmed behaviours that people have installed in them.

        While it may take a considerable amount of time to rewrite a Culture at Large, is it possible to install a different culture, or large segments there of, into oneself within one’s own lifespan.

        I’ll also point out that not all Cultures at Large are of the same level of complexity, and I’m of the opinion, that many of the modern advanced Cultures at Large are fantastically complex systems. I recall reading a note from The Collapse of Complex Societies (I still need to actually read the book) that the Cherokee had around 5k cultural artifacts, while just the Allies landing at Normandy has on the order of 40k.

        Also, I’m not saying that a normal individual can change the entire culture at large in such a short time frame, but I will contend that major shift have happened in very short time frames. Compare the cultures of the 40’s to the cultures of the 60’s.

    2. Scratch Europe’s veneer off and France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, not much has changed since 1900 or before. Unless you have massive programs such as have afflicted Londonistan, and even then the English are relocating instead of changing their own culture and instincts.

      Trofim Lysenko was wrong about genetics and his ideas are still wrong if applied to culture. Yes, individuals and even small groups can be programmed to suppress certain behaviors (self protection, for example), but rewriting instincts? That’s certainly not what the histories I’ve read suggest.

      1. In theory, if you can show that an idea is so horribly bad that everyone winces to think of it ever again being tried, would classify as changing a culture.
        But to counter that, Italy is reported to be flirting with Fascism again. So I have to ask, is it that Mussolini’s economic-, military-, and foreign relations policies (that destroyed the economy, the navy, the army, the airforce, killed a whole generation, laid waste to all manufacturing, and lost Italy its freedom first to the German Reich as a puppet state and then to the allies as a conquered enemy, with il Duce himself beaten to death with his family by a mob) proven to not be bad enough, or is it just that socialism has failed to stand out as a viable alternative?

        1. Changing culture proceeds from different tools. For example, introduce grey goo into the publishing mainstream, reality shows onto the TV channels.

          Refer to prior example displayed by Zelazny’s introduction of Buddhism into a Hindu culture in Lord of Light. The best way to alter a culture is introduction of a viral anti-culture, such as “Socialist Justice.”

  15. If McCoy is so logical why doesn’t he ever send a medic to the planet surface and stay in the sick bay?

    1. Have you ever been stuck on the ship for months at a time, without even a holodeck?

      On Tue, Feb 26, 2013 at 9:33 AM, According To Hoyt wrote:

      > ** > Raymond Jelli commented: “If McCoy is so logical why doesn’t he ever > send a medic to the planet surface and stay in the sick bay?” >

  16. By the way…I’ve got Occupy Innsmouth up at Amazon for free now. I can’t hold it that way forever. Amazon gives only 5 days every 3 months and they have the means to enforce.

      1. No….No….No…I’m just looking for feedback and really meant to reply direclty to Cyn Bagley who already said she’d provide that but I put it in the wrong place. These big comment threads get confusing.

        Please give me your honest assessment and that is a lot of payment. I plan to write something else. Think I can improve and feedback pos or neg will help with the procrastination.

Comments are closed.