Questions on Culture

The conclusion of the last post raises at least three questions, and perhaps others.

First, something still seems wrong or at least incomplete with the picture presented. It is one thing to suppose that things can tend to improve. It is another to suppose that they can get constantly worse. You can count to higher and higher numbers; but you cannot count down forever, because you reach a lower limit. In the same way, insofar as culture seems a necessary part of human life, there seems to be a limit on on how degraded a culture could become. So if there is a constant tendency towards the decline of culture, we should have already reached the lower limit.

Second, if one looks at history over longer time scales, it seems obvious that there are also large cultural improvements, as in the history of art and so on. It is not clear how this can happen if there is a constant tendency towards decline.

Third, we argued earlier that the world overall tends to be successful in the sense defined here. The conclusion of the last past seems to call this into question, at least in the sense that we cannot be sure: if things are improving in some ways, and getting worse in others, then it remains unclear whether things are overall getting better or worse. Or perhaps things are just staying the same overall.

It may be some time before I respond to these questions, so for now I will simply point out that their answers will evidently be related to one another.

 

Technology and Culture

The last two posts have effectively answered the question raised about Scott Alexander’s account of cultural decline. What could be meant by calling some aspects of culture “less compatible with modern society?” Society tends to change over time, and some of those changes are humanly irreversible. It is entirely possible, and in fact common, for some of those irreversible changes to stand in tension with various elements of culture. This will necessarily tend to cause cultural decay at least with respect to those elements, and often with respect to other elements of culture as well, since the various aspects of culture are related.

This happens in a particular way with changes in technology, although technology is not the only driver of such irreversible change.

It would be extremely difficult for individuals to opt out of the use of of various technologies. For example, it would be quite difficult for Americans to give up the use of plumbing and heating, and a serious attempt to do so might lead to illness or death in many cases. And it would be still more difficult to give up the use of clothes, money, and language. Attempting to do so, assuming that one managed to preserve one’s physical life, would likely lead to imprisonment or other forms of institutionalization (which would make it that much more difficult to abandon the use of clothes.)

Someone might well respond here, “Wait, why are you bringing up clothes, money, and language as examples of technology?” Clothes and money seem more like cultural institutions than technology in the first place; and language seems to be natural to humans.

I have already spoken of language as a kind of technology. And with regard to clothes and money, it is even more evident that in the concrete forms in which they exist in our world today they are tightly intertwined with various technologies. The cash used in the United States depends on mints and printing presses, actual mechanical technologies. And if one wishes to buy something without cash, this usually depends on still more complex technology. Similar things are true of the clothes that we wear.

I concede, of course, that the use of these things is different from the use of the machines that make them, or as in the case of credit cards, support their use, although there is less distinction in the latter case. But I deliberately brought up things which look like purely cultural institutions in order to note their relationship with technology, because we are discussing the manner in which technological change can result in cultural change. Technology and culture are tightly intertwined, and can never be wholly separated.

Sarah Perry discusses this (the whole post is worth reading):

Almost every technological advance is a de-condensation: it abstracts a particular function away from an object, a person, or an institution, and allows it to grow separately from all the things it used to be connected to. Writing de-condenses communication: communication can now take place abstracted from face-to-face speech. Automobiles abstract transportation from exercise, and allow further de-condensation of useful locations (sometimes called sprawl). Markets de-condense production and consumption.

Why is technology so often at odds with the sacred? In other words, why does everyone get so mad about technological change? We humans are irrational and fearful creatures, but I don’t think it’s just that. Technological advances, by their nature, tear the world apart. They carve a piece away from the existing order – de-condensing, abstracting, unbundling – and all the previous dependencies collapse. The world must then heal itself around this rupture, to form a new order and wholeness. To fear disruption is completely reasonable.

The more powerful the technology, the more unpredictable its effects will be. A technological advance in the sense of a de-condensation is by its nature something that does not fit in the existing order. The world will need to reshape itself to fit. Technology is a bad carver, not in the sense that it is bad, but in the sense of Socrates:

First, the taking in of scattered particulars under one Idea, so that everyone understands what is being talked about … Second, the separation of the Idea into parts, by dividing it at the joints, as nature directs, not breaking any limb in half as a bad carver might.”

Plato, Phaedrus, 265D, quoted in Notes on the Synthesis of Form, Christopher Alexander.

The most powerful technological advances break limbs in half. They cut up the world in an entirely new way, inconceivable in the previous order.

Now someone, arguing much in Chesterton’s vein, might say that this does not have to happen. If a technology is damaging in this way, then just don’t use it. The problem is that often one does not have a realistic choice not to use it, as in my examples above. And much more can one fail to have a choice not to interact with people who use the new technology, and interacting with those people will itself change the way that life works. And as Robin Hanson noted, there is not some human global power that decides whether or not a technology gets to be introduced into human society or not. This happens rather by the uncoordinated and unplanned decisions of individuals.

And this is sufficient to explain the tendency towards cultural decline. The constant progress of technology results, and results of necessity, in constant cultural decline. And thus we fools understand why the former days were better than these.

Irreversible Change

Many plans for human society may be possible in the way that bringing back last Friday is impossible, and yet not be real human possibilities. It is easy for us to see this in the case of plans that correspond to things that have never existed, as for example the sort of plan proposed by people with socialist tendencies. For example, the Tradinista manifesto states:

8. Livelihood should not depend on the market.

Markets are not unjust in themselves, but they become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive. So, while citizens should be free to engage in market exchange, the polity should ensure that no basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, etc. – go unmet, guaranteeing a livelihood independent of the market.

Consider this as it stands. According to this, markets are “vehicles of exploitation” if I have no way to survive without selling my labor-power, that is, without getting a job. “The polity should ensure” that this does not happen. It must guarantee that if I prefer not to get a job, I do not need to get one, and that there remains a way for me to survive without one.

Let’s suppose we live in such a polity, and I declare that I don’t like jobs, and I have decided that I will not get one. What happens now? How does the polity ensure that I can survive, and that I do not need to get a job?

The tradinista response becomes somewhat confused when confronted directly with this question. They do not clearly state that they favor a Basic Income guarantee, but in fact this would be the only reasonable way to implement their requirement without making people who choose not to work into slaves, which would thereby nullify the idea that people are not obliged to work, as one can see after a little thought. We will look at this more closely below.

The problem with the manifesto is not that it favors a basic income. It might well turn out that the idea is reasonable, and that someday it can be implemented in some society. But there is indeed a problem with the claim that this belongs to the very essence of a just society. There is simply no proof, nor good reasons to believe, that this is workable or conducive to human welfare in the real world and in presently existing societies. Suppose the USA were to adopt the above statement from the tradinista manifesto as a constitutional amendment. If they are right that this belongs to the nature of a just society, such an amendment would be commendable.

First, some people may decide to stop working. I might do so myself, given my preference for the useless. “The polity” would be obliged to support these people. Whether given as money or in other forms, that support would be taken from taxes, which would mean that taxes would rise. This might make working for a living more uncomfortable for some others, and some of these might decide to stop working themselves. And so the process might well repeat until the whole of society is at the level of bare subsistence, and many would die, as a result of their borderline subsistence condition.

Now there is no guarantee that we would get this result. But there is no guarantee that we would not, so the tradinista proposal does not make sense as a condition for a just society, unless they view this consequence as acceptable.

All of this is in fact why St. Paul says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

The tradinista site responds to this use of St. Paul:

“He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” In using this line against the Manifesto Milco puts himself in the tradition of those many who have imagined an apodictic Apostolic anathematization of Left politics; he also demonstrates how little he understands the philosophy embedded in the Manifesto.

Neither the Tradinista Collective nor any other Leftist thinkers imagine that human welfare might be decoupled from human labor. Indeed, in their relentless emphasis on the importance of the common worker, Leftists tend to emphasize just how essential work is to the maintenance and flourishing of society. Leftists do not differ from apologists of capital by devaluing labor – they differ in their view of how labor should be politically governed.

One of the basic insights of the Left, to which the Manifesto is much indebted, is that the absence or near-invisibility of explicit physical coercion does not therefore make the market an arena of authentic human freedom. The Manifesto’s authors take for granted that in labor relations, in debts, and in interactions with the agents of state power, a liberal illusion of free and equal treatment under the law often hides instances of oppression and corruption – instances which liberals can endorse only because their worldview allows them to be overlooked. Once however they are not overlooked, the formal or legal distinction of free and unfree labor becomes only one important distinction among many. To rely solely on that distinction, to “outsource” decisions about the relations of workers to the market, seems to the authors of the Manifesto to be a kind of ethical abdication – a fine illustration of the weakness of moral philosophy in our times.

This is virtually incoherent. Consider again the statement from the manifesto, that markets “become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive.” What is the alternative? In the response above, they say in a roundabout way, although with much confusion, “yes, people will still have to work, or they won’t be able to survive.” But then either they are being paid for their work, and thus they are selling their labor, or they are not being paid. The implication of these alternatives is obvious: either you sell your labor for money, or you sell yourself into slavery. Your choice.

Chesterton’s argument is that the above sort of argument should only apply to things that have never existed, such as socialism. It should not apply to arrangements that have actually existed in the real world. Times are all alike, so if something has existed in the past, it can exist again.

The response to this is found in the last post. In many cases, neither the original arrangements nor the new arrangements came about by human planning. So we should not find it surprising if human planning cannot revert things to the original arrangement. In this sense, many changes in human society are in fact humanly irreversible.

Turning Back the Clock

Let’s look again at the center of Chesterton’s argument about turning back the clock:

There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, “You can’t put the clock back.” The simple and obvious answer is “You can.” A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.

Of course, one can physically turn a clock back. But as Chesterton notes, the idea that “you can’t put the clock back,” is a metaphor, not a literal statement. The metaphor is based off the idea that you can’t time travel to the past, and this is literally true, fortunately or unfortunately. The one who uses the metaphor intends to assert something stronger, however, and it is this stronger thing that Chesterton wishes to refute when he says, “Society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.”

Yes, the human finger can turn back the clock. But what corresponds to “the human finger” in the case of society? Who or what has the power to reconstruct society upon any plan that has ever existed?

As soon as we ask the question, the answer is clear. Society has never been constructed upon any plan whatsoever; so neither can it be reconstructed upon any plan whatsoever. As Robin Hanson puts it, “no one rules the world,” so there is no way to construct society according to a plan in the first place. In particular, Hanson remarks regarding technology:

This seems especially true regarding the consequences of new tech. So far in history tech has mostly appeared whenever someone somewhere has wanted it enough, regardless of what the rest of the world thought. Mostly, no one has been driving the tech train. Sometimes we like the result, and sometimes we don’t. But no one rules the world, so these results mostly just happen either way.

Chesterton is free, as he says, to propose anything he likes, including bringing back the stage coaches. But we are also free to propose that the world would be better off if horses walked on their hind legs. The plans will meet with approximately equal success: getting the world to abandon automobiles and adopt stage coaches will not be much easier than getting horses to follow our suggestions.

Indeed, it is not impossible to bring back the stage coaches in the way that “bringing back last Friday” is impossible. But neither is it impossible for horses to walk on their hind legs in this way. Nonetheless both are impossible in the sense that physically turning back a clock is possible. Namely, no human being can either bring back the stage coaches or convince horses to walk on their hind legs, even though one can turn back a clock. One might have occasional success with either plan, but not overall success.

 

Scott Alexander on the Decline of Culture

From Scott Alexander’s Tumblr:

voximperatoris:

[This post is copied over from Stephen Hicks.]

An instructive series of quotations, collected over the years, on the theme of pessimism about the present in relation to the past:

Plato, 360 BCE: “In that country [Egypt] arithmetical games have been invented for the use of mere children, which they learn as pleasure and amusement. I have late in life heard with amazement of our ignorance in these matters [science in general]; to me we appear to be more like pigs than men, and I am quite ashamed, not only of myself, but of all Greeks.” (Laws, Book VII)

Catullus, c. 60 BCE: “Oh, this age! How tasteless and ill-bred it is!”

Sallust, 86– c. 35 BCE: “to speak of the morals of our country, the nature of my theme seems to suggest that I go farther back and give a brief account of the institutions of our forefathers in peace and in war, how they governed the commonwealth, how great it was when they bequeathed it to us, and how by gradual changes it has ceased to be the noblest and best, and has become the worst and most vicious.” About Rome’s forefathers: “good morals were cultivated at home and in the field; there was the greatest harmony and little or no avarice; justice and probity prevailed among them.” They “adorned the shrines of the gods with piety, their own homes with glory, while from the vanquished they took naught save the power of doing harm.” But Rome now is a moral mess: “The men of to‑day, on the contrary, basest of creatures, with supreme wickedness are robbing our allies of all that those heroes in the hour of victory had left them; they act as though the one and only way to rule were to wrong.” (The Catiline War)

Horace, c. 23-13 BCE: “Our fathers, viler than our grandfathers, begot us who are viler still, and we shall bring forth a progeny more degenerate still.” (Odes 3:6)

Alberti, 1436: Nature is no longer producing great intellects — “or giants which in her youthful and more glorious days she had produced so marvelously and abundantly.” (On Painting)

Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1620: “For what else can our degenerate race do in this age of error. Our lowly disposition keeps us close to the ground, and we have declined from that heroic genius and judgment of the ancients.”

Mary Wollstonecraft, c. 1790: “As from the respect paid to property flow, as from a poisoned fountain, most of the evils and vices which render this world such a dreary scene to the contemplative mind.”

William Wordsworth, 1802:
“Milton! thou should’st be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”
(“London”)

John Stuart Mill, in 1859, speaking of his generation: “the present low state of the human mind.” (On Liberty, Chapter 3)

Friedrich Nietzsche, in 1871: “What else, in the desolate waste of present-day culture, holds any promise of a sound, healthy future? In vain we look for a single powerfully branching root, a spot of earth that is fruitful: we see only dust, sand, dullness, and languor” (Birth of Tragedy, Section 20).

Frederick Taylor, 1911: “We can see our forests vanishing, our water-powers going to waste, our soil being carried by floods into the sea; and the end of our coal and our iron is in sight.” (Scientific Management)

T. S. Eliot, c. 1925: “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.”

So has the world really been in constant decline? Or perhaps, as Gibbon put it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776): “There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.”

Words to keep in mind as we try to assess objectively our own generation’s serious problems.

I hate this argument. It’s the only time I ever see “Every single person from history has always believed that X is true” used as an argument *against* X.

I mean, imagine that I listed Thomas Aquinas as saying “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades,” and then Leonardo da Vinci, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades”. Benjamin Franklin, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades”. Abraham Lincon, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades. Henry Ford, “Technology sure has gotten better the past few decades.”

My conclusion – people who think technology is advancing now are silly, there’s just some human bias toward always believing technology is advancing.

In the same way technology can always be advancing, culture can always be declining, for certain definitions of culture that emphasize the parts less compatible with modern society. Like technology, this isn’t a monotonic process – there will be disruptions every time one civilization collapses and a new one begins, and occasional conscious attempts by whole societies to reverse the trend, but in general, given movement from time t to time t+1, people can correctly notice cultural decline.

I mean, really. If, like Nietszche, your thing is the BRUTE STRENGTH of the valiant warrior, do you think that the modern office worker has exactly as much valiant warrior spirit as the 19th century frontiersman? Do you think the 19th century frontiersman had as much as the medieval crusader? Do you think the medieval crusader had as much as the Spartans? Pinker says the world is going from a state of violence to a state of security, and the flip side of that is people getting, on average, more domesticated and having less of the wild free spirit that Nietszche idealized.

Likewise, when people talk about “virtue”, a lot of the time they’re talking about chastity and willingness to remain faithful in a monogamous marriage for the purpose of procreation. And a lot of the time they don’t even mean actual chastity, they mean vocal public support for chastity and social norms demanding it. Do you really believe our culture has as much of that as previous cultures do? Remember, the sort of sharia law stuff that we find so abhorrent and misogynist was considered progressive during Mohammed’s time, and with good reason.

I would even argue that Alberti is right about genius. There are certain forms of genius that modern society selects for and certain ones it selects against. Remember, before writing became common, the Greek bards would have mostly memorized Homer. I think about the doctors of past ages, who had amazing ability to detect symptoms with the naked eye in a way that almost nobody now can match because we use CT scan instead and there’s no reason to learn this art. (Also, I think modern doctors have much fewer total hours of training than older doctors, because as bad as today’s workplace-protection/no-overtime rules are, theirs were worse)

And really? Using the fact that some guy complained of soil erosion as proof that nobody’s complaints are ever valid? Soil erosion is a real thing, it’s bad, and AFAIK it does indeed keep getting worse.

More controversially, if T.S. Eliot wants to look at a world that over four hundred years, went from the Renaissance masters to modern art, I am totally okay with him calling that a terrible cultural decline.

Scott’s argument is plausible, although he seems somewhat confused insofar as he appears to associate Mohammed with monogamy. And since we are discussing the matter with an interlocutor who maintains that the decline of culture is obvious, we will concede the point immediately. Scott seems a bit ambivalent in regard to whether a declining culture is a bad thing, but we will concede that as well, other things being equal.

However, we do not clearly see an answer here to one of the questions raised in the last post: if culture tends to decline, why does this happen? Scott seems to suggest an answer when he says, “Culture can always be declining, for certain definitions of culture that emphasize the parts less compatible with modern society.” According to this, culture tends to decline because it becomes incompatible with modern society. The problem with this is that it seems to be a “moronic pseudo-reason”: 2017 is just one year among others. So no parts of culture should be less compatible with life in 2017, than with life in 1017, or in any other year. Chesterton makes a similar argument:

We often read nowadays of the valor or audacity with which some rebel attacks a hoary tyranny or an antiquated superstition. There is not really any courage at all in attacking hoary or antiquated things, any more than in offering to fight one’s grandmother. The really courageous man is he who defies tyrannies young as the morning and superstitions fresh as the first flowers. The only true free-thinker is he whose intellect is as much free from the future as from the past. He cares as little for what will be as for what has been; he cares only for what ought to be. And for my present purpose I specially insist on this abstract independence. If I am to discuss what is wrong, one of the first things that are wrong is this: the deep and silent modern assumption that past things have become impossible. There is one metaphor of which the moderns are very fond; they are always saying, “You can’t put the clock back.” The simple and obvious answer is “You can.” A clock, being a piece of human construction, can be restored by the human finger to any figure or hour. In the same way society, being a piece of human construction, can be reconstructed upon any plan that has ever existed.

There is another proverb, “As you have made your bed, so you must lie on it”; which again is simply a lie. If I have made my bed uncomfortable, please God I will make it again. We could restore the Heptarchy or the stage coaches if we chose. It might take some time to do, and it might be very inadvisable to do it; but certainly it is not impossible as bringing back last Friday is impossible. This is, as I say, the first freedom that I claim: the freedom to restore. I claim a right to propose as a solution the old patriarchal system of a Highland clan, if that should seem to eliminate the largest number of evils. It certainly would eliminate some evils; for instance, the unnatural sense of obeying cold and harsh strangers, mere bureaucrats and policemen. I claim the right to propose the complete independence of the small Greek or Italian towns, a sovereign city of Brixton or Brompton, if that seems the best way out of our troubles. It would be a way out of some of our troubles; we could not have in a small state, for instance, those enormous illusions about men or measures which are nourished by the great national or international newspapers. You could not persuade a city state that Mr. Beit was an Englishman, or Mr. Dillon a desperado, any more than you could persuade a Hampshire Village that the village drunkard was a teetotaller or the village idiot a statesman. Nevertheless, I do not as a fact propose that the Browns and the Smiths should be collected under separate tartans. Nor do I even propose that Clapham should declare its independence. I merely declare my independence. I merely claim my choice of all the tools in the universe; and I shall not admit that any of them are blunted merely because they have been used.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
    and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
    by those who come after them.

This view is one that maintains neither progress nor regress. While there is change, the change is cyclical, and thus overall things remain the same. This is much like Aristotle’s view of the eternity of the world, although Qoheleth presumably accepts the account of Genesis 1.

Since change implies becoming better or becoming worse, and not all changes are normally undone, it is very hard in practice to maintain such a view. Thus we saw in the post linked above that Aristotle in practice believed not only in the progress of the sciences, but that they had basically reached their perfection.

As a similar example, consider this post by P. Edmund Waldstein:

In his letter to Pliny the Younger on the proper procedure in the persecution of Christians the Emperor Trajan agrees with Pliny that no note is to be taken of libelli containing anonymous denunciations, for, “Nam et pessimi exempli nec nostri saeculi est.” (“They set a bad precedent and are not in the spirit of our age.”) Not of our age! How disappointing that a Roman emperor would sink to the level of that puppet of the contemporary self-congratulatory liberal establishment, the Prime Minister of Canada, who famously justified his cabinet selection with the moronic pseudo-reason “because it’s 2015.” I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.

If “because it’s 2015” is a “moronic pseudo-reason,” the reason for this would be that time is an accidental feature: 2015 is just one year in history, just like the year 1015, and the year 3015. This suggests a view like that of Qoheleth: times are all alike, not ordered according to better and worse. But like Aristotle, P. Edmund betrays the fact that he does not really accept such a view: “I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.” If times are all alike, all species of idiocy should exist at all times. The instinct to assume that this is not the case results from the implicit belief that things do indeed change, and indeed become better and worse: it is just that P. Edmund implicitly believes that they become worse, not better, and in this case his implicit belief was not borne out by experience.

Qoheleth in fact knows that many people assume that things are becoming worse, and he rejects this view, precisely because of his position that things are circular.  Thus he says,

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

It is not from wisdom to ask this, because the former days were just like these ones. There is nothing new under the sun.

But if this question is not according to wisdom, then just as St. Paul says, “I have been a fool! You forced me to it,” so the present discussion forces us to ask in what way former days were better than these, and why, and in what way worse, and why.

Four Minutes and Thirty-Three Seconds of Regress

Someone might respond to what I have said about progress in the following way:

So how come you talk about progress in technology and progress in truth, but do not talk about the progress of culture? Is it not because as soon as one considers the idea, it constitutes the refutation of your arguments? Consider 4’33”, or much of modern art in general. Or again, consider the liturgical changes after the Second Vatican Council. Nor are these issues limited to artistic matters, since we could mention many matters of morality, or various cultural institutions. It is not even necessary to mention examples, so obvious all of this is, once one even considers the idea of the progress or regress of culture.

There is some truth to this, and it is worthy of serious consideration.